Just take a look around you

Sing it:

I charm you and tell you of the boys I hate
All the girls I hate
All the words I hate
The clothes I hate
How I’ll never be anything I hate…

Bitterness can be a problem, even when you’re out of school uniform. It’s a particular problem for political writers, bloggers very much included. You hate the Other Side, they must be evil and contemptible to do what they do – but, if they genuinely are evil and contemptible, you can’t do anything except hate them, and keep on saying how you hate them. As I wrote back here,

There’s something obsessive, almost paranoid about those posts – See? See? I told you they were a bunch of bastards, and now they’ve as good as admitted it! Look, it says so here! All you really achieve with a post like that is to feed your obsession, making yourself – and anybody who shares it – feel righteously justified. Which is never a good look.

To be more precise, it’s a hateful, joyless look – and if you’re not careful the wind will change, and it’ll stick.

So I almost agree with whoever it was that wrote this. (The opening quote is from Paul Foot’s Why you should be a socialist.)

We socialists are not fanatics or timeservers. We are socialists because we see the prospect which life holds out for all working people. We want the commitment of workers who laugh and love, and want to end the wretchedness and despair which shuts love and laughter out of so many lives.

Well, 1977 is a long, long time ago, but Foot’s words survive beyond his sad decline and premature death to resonate in the present. When you’ve read anything written by any of the assorted dickheads mentioned above, have you ever, even once, got the impression that “love and laughter” matter a damn to any of them

I almost agree with this line of argument (never mind for a moment who the ‘assorted dickheads’ are): too much radical writing is both bitter and twisted, substituting vituperation for reasoning and personal attack for critique. I almost agree, but not quite. Here’s the whole of the sentence:

When you’ve read anything written by any of the assorted dickheads mentioned above, have you ever, even once, got the impression that “love and laughter” matter a damn to any of them, or even mean anything much at all to people so repulsively stuffed to the gills with hatred, resentment and self-regard that any allegation, any misrepresentation, however trivial or ludicrous, will do, as long as it suits their wholly negative purposes?

Elsewhere in the same post we read that the Left represented by these people is “a pandemonium of sectarian infighting, self-righteous posturing, academic wankfests and just plain barking at the Moon”; that they’re liars and fantasists, characterised by “dishonesty, paranoia and mauvaise foi“; and that they’re fascists or Stalinists, or at best the fellow-travellers of fascists or Stalinists.

Enough! or too much. (William Blake said that.) Fortunately there aren’t very many of these people, when you get down to it. There’s Louis Proyect; there are Mike Marqusee, D.D. Guttenplan and Andrew Murray; there’s Chris Bertram, and then there’s

Phil Edwards of Actually Existing, who never uses one plain word where 15 pretentious words will do, thinks it’s mighty clever and original to pretend that there’s nothing to choose between liberal democracy and dictatorship because – in a deeper reality accessible only to the mighty clever and original – they’re both “undemocratic” (what do you mean, he should define his terms? he’s a poet, don’t you know)

I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of both pretentiousness and mauvaise foi before. But it’s true, I write poetry, which clearly implies… Actually it doesn’t imply anything in particular, but it gives people who don’t like what I write something to sneer at. Which is nice for them.

The post they’re talking about, anyway, is here; I think the paragraph in question is reasonably clear, but if it does look as if I’m saying that there’s nothing to choose between liberal democracy and dictatorship – or that it’s unclear what I mean by the word ‘democratic’ – let me know in the comments. But not anonymously: henceforth I’ll only read anonymous and pseudonymous comments on this blog if I already know your real name or can find it out easily. Anything else gets deleted.

It’s a bit funny to see a critique of life-denying sectarianism being advanced by writers who themselves seem so repulsively stuffed to the gills with hatred, resentment and self-regard that any allegation, any misrepresentation, however trivial or ludicrous, will do, as long as it suits their wholly negative purposes. It’s a bit funny to have all this pointing of fingers and naming of names coming from people who appear to have operated under pseudonyms since 1998. (I say ‘people’, but the operative word may be ‘person’; we’ve got no way of knowing that there is more than one person behind P.S. Burton, James Masterson, Ben Illin and the rest of their clever sobriquets.) It’s a bit funny, but I’m not laughing.

Hideous tricks on the brain

Since I started reviewing (eighteen years ago, mind-bogglingly enough) I’ve always wanted to get a review into the LRB. As of the current issue, I’ve finally succeeded. Well, almost.

On the back of the current LRB is a subs ad for the New Left Review. If you subscribe you can get one of two books free. One of the books is Benedict Anderson’s Under three flags; beneath the jacket image you can read:

Under Three Flags is an erudite and beautifully illustrated study of the life and times of José Rizal, the revered founding-father of the Philippines … The book does triumphant justice to the multi-layered complexity of Rizal’s world … the result is magnificent’ – Independent

That’s me, that is. I wrote that. Well, what I actually wrote (time-limited link) was more like this (some edits reinstated in italics)

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson traced the origins of nationalism in Spanish South America. The first nationalists, he argued, spoke for communities that had yet to be built – a formulation that neatly resolves the question of priority between posing political demands and building a collective identity. Moreover, the nationalist vision grew out of shared experience: of restricted career paths, in particular. Consciousness and campaigning, vision and career: Anderson’s model of history is made up of pairings such as these.Under Three Flags is a formidably erudite and beautifully illustrated study of the life and times of José Rizal, the revered founding-father of the Philippines. A constitutional activist who spent much of his life in Europe, Rizal was a hero to the Filipino independence movement. This was largely due to his novels, which offer a bizarre mixture of bejewelled prose, pointed satire, sensationalist plotting and intimations of anarchist revolution.

In exile, Rizal was seen as an extremist for his insistence on Filipino autonomy; returning home, he was outflanked by the radical Katipunan movement, which nevertheless made him its figurehead. He was executed in 1896 for his part in the Katipunan insurrection, which he had disowned; soon afterwards, its leader was killed by a rival, who later served in an American-led government. The Philippines was ceded to the US by Spain in 1898, only achieving lasting independence in 1946.

This is, Anderson stresses, a contribution to the history of “early globalisation”. In Europe, exile communities plugged Rizal into an international network of radicals. The dying Spanish empire linked the Philippines with Cuba, where José Marti’s war of independence began the year before the Katipunan uprising.

Commendably, Anderson doesn’t contrast the Katipunans’ hopes disparagingly with the slow tread of history as usual, or the bomb-throwers of Rizal’s fiction with Rizal’s own professed gradualism. Instead, he demonstrates that French aesthetes and Russian nihilists, organisational slog and utopian dreams, all formed part of the same historical moment. This was the moment which Rizal’s fiction articulated, and one which had lasting after-effects. Anderson’s account opens and closes with the story of Isabelo de los Reyes: a pioneering Filipino folklorist who re-emerged, in American-ruled Manila, as a radical trade unionist. From anarchism to national liberation, to neo-colonialism… to anarchism.

This book does triumphant justice to the multi-layered complexity of Rizal’s world, but at a cost. Even while he appears to be ambling digressively, Anderson sets a stiff pace; there are few concessions to readers wanting assumptions restated or conclusions underlined. The result is magnificent but overwhelming. Many historical works deserve abridgement; this one could benefit from dilution.

There’s a definite art to picking the quote to go in the ad copy; I particularly like the way they closed with “the result is magnificent”.

Anyway, buy, buy, buy, and so forth. (I would have been rubbish at marketing.) It’s an extraordinary book in method and approach, even if its subject matter stops it hitting the every-home-should-have-one heights of Imagined Communities. More importantly, if Verso shift lots of them they might bring out a second edition and put my quote on the flyleaf, or possibly even on the back. There’s glory for you.

We’ve already said goodbye

[Updated and bumped up, 14/4 and 19/4. It's quite a story.]

Like Clive, I’ve seen better comment on the Italian elections in blogs than on newsprint. I think particular credit is due to Alex, the only person I’ve seen suggest that Berlusconi won’t go if he loses. I thought he was being far too melodramatic at the time, but apparently not.

On the 12th of April Prodi and Berlusconi had appointments (separately) with Ciampi, the 85-year-old President of the Republic; Berlusconi spent his time haranguing Ciampi and demanding a recount (“What about you, which side are you on? We know that we’ve been cheated; it’s your duty to check.”) Italian electoral law recognises several types of spoilt ballot paper; at the moment the schede contestate – papers which have been claimed by more than one party – are being recounted and may be admitted as valid. But, although there are 43,000 schede contestate among the votes cast for the Camera – where Prodi’s coalition won by a majority of 24,000 – it’s highly unlikely that they’re all going to come out as votes for Berlusconi; in practice they seem likely to split fairly evenly. With this in mind, Berlusconi is calling for a recount of all spoilt ballot papers – which he estimates at a million – or possibly all ballot papers full stop. This would require a new law; however, Berlusconi is still Prime Minister, and as such he could pass a decreto (a Prime Ministerial decree, which becomes law immediately but lapses after sixty days unless it has been endorsed by Parliament).

It seems – although Berlusconi has denied it – that he put this cunning plan to Ciampi. Ciampi evidently said No – or possibly You want to do what? – so it seems that Alex’s fears won’t be realised. The President can and does refuse to sign laws which he regards as unconstitutional; passing a decreto which he knew would not gain presidential approval would be a constitutional crisis too far, even for Berlusconi. The sound of Berlusconi’s former allies tiptoeing away has also been noticeable over the last few days – leading members of the ex-Christian Democrat UDC, the ex-neofascist AN and even Berlusconi’s own party Forza Italia have all made comments translating roughly as “Leave it, Silvio, they’re not worth it.” The latest word from Prodi: “There’s nothing to worry about, we can be calm.” (Although ‘calm’ doesn’t quite capture it – the word he used is sereni. Prodi does a good ‘serene’.)

Formally, the new government has to be appointed by the President. Ciampi’s term ends on the 18th of May, and he’s said that he wants his successor to do the job. In theory, it could be weeks before anything is decided – but in practice it doesn’t look as if anyone but Berlusconi has the stomach for it. Unless the schede contestate do turn out to give him a majority – or reduce Prodi’s majority to such small proportions that a broader recount becomes inevitable – I can’t see Berlusconi doing anything but concede, perhaps after another few days of sulking and pouting. But don’t count on too much international pressure: Jacques Chirac and Angela Merkel have congratulated Prodi on his victory, but Bush is “awaiting final results” [sic] and Blair’s saying nothing. Prodi thinks he’s won; Lorenzo Cesa of UDC thinks Prodi’s won (“checking contested ballots is a normal procedure, it won’t change the outcome”); and Roberto Maroni of the Lega Nord is certain of it (“the Left has won; not only do they have the right to govern, they have the duty to govern”). But Berlusconi’s still hoping that something will turn up, and Blair thinks it’s worth waiting just a bit longer. Classy.

PS Berlusconi, 11th April: “The result has got to change: there’s been cheating [brogli] all over the place.”

Carlo Giovanardi (UDC), 13th April: “Nobody’s ever mentioned cheating [brogli]; all we’re saying is that there are irregularities in the count.”

Update 14th April

Those contested ballot papers? It’s emerged this morning – three full days after the count – that there never were 43,000 schede contestate. Or rather, there were 43,000 schede contestate, but some of them were dealt with satisfactorily at the time and had thus been included in the count all along. And when I say ‘some’ I mean ‘most’. The number of schede contestate which were there to be recounted has now been revised downward from 43,028 to 2,131 – in an election with a majority of 25,726.

In other words, the recount has been a complete waste of time. Still, it bought Berlusconi three more days as Prime Minister.

With the last plausible reason for refusing to admit defeat out of the window, things are starting to get a bit Downfall. Berlusconi is now demanding that Ciampi agrees to a decreto ordering a full recount. If Ciampi doesn’t agree, Berlusconi insists on being able to nominate the next President from the ranks of Forza Italia; if the Left don’t agree to that, he promises stalemate in the Senate, where the two coalitions are evenly matched (“With those numbers, nothing gets through without us.”) The only problem with this doomsday scenario is that ‘those numbers’ don’t only consist of Forza Italia: the UDC are already looking towards what la Repubblica describes as the promised land of a de-Berlusconified centre-right, while the Lega Nord is out for whatever it can get from whoever it can get it from. In the mean time Berlusconi is attempting to bend reality with the force of his mighty chutzpah: this evening he said that he was entirely ready to carry on as Prime Minister, and hoped to do so once the provisional results had been replaced with definitive figures. Setting aside the fact that everyone from Angela Merkel to Roberto Maroni (which is quite a range) believes that these are the definitive figures, Berlusconi’s effectively saying that he’s not moving until after a recount – but for there to be a recount would require a decreto, which would require Ciampi to agree, which isn’t going to happen.

It looks very much as if he’s trying to make so much trouble that the Left buys him off by offering the Presidency to somebody from Forza Italia – or even (a truly ghastly thought) to Berlusconi himself. But he’s got no cards left to play, bluster apart. (The former Tangentopoli magistrate Antonio di Pietro had a nice line today: we should “leave Berlusconi to his howling [ai suoi ululati]”.) Taking the long view, it looks as if the Berlusconi period is drawing to a close; Prodi only needs to remain ‘serene’ and hold his nerve. (And, perhaps, look up some bailiffs.)

Update 16th April

So, OK, the results were solid, there isn’t going to be a recount and the votes of a regionalist party allied to Prodi’s Unione aren’t going to be discounted (a recent invention from Roberto Calderoli of Lega Nord, whose colleague Maroni was an early member of the “let it go, Silvio” camp; my suspicion is that Umberto Bossi, the head of Lega Nord and a close personal ally of Berlusconi in the past, remained loyal to the capo and has since called the troops into line). What we need now is to recognise that nobody’s won – the Left can’t possibly hope to govern Italy against the wishes of half of the country – and form a government of national unity. That, at least, was yesterday’s line, as represented by a letter from Berlusconi published in the Corriere della Sera. I’d say that Berlusconi’s attempts to cling to power are shameless, but I don’t think the word’s strong enough. Certainly he doesn’t seem to register the idea that “his people” can be represented by anyone but him – or that there are any Italians who aren’t “his”, apart from the hated Communists.

There was a ray of hope this morning (appropriately enough), in the form of an extraordinarily petulant and grudging statement from Giulio Tremonti, former Minister for the Economy and a close Berlusconi ally. If they don’t want a government of national unity, Tremonti said in so many words, to hell with them – if they want opposition, we’ll give them opposition. Even Berlusconi (currently sulking in Sardinia) has started talking about a firm and rigorous opposition with no concessions to anyone – which is, of course, dependent on Berlusconi formally acknowledging that he is in the opposition. I’m not holding my breath – I’m afraid this one could drag on for some time yet.

Update 19th April

Berlusconi’s going to concede defeat, tomorrow or possibly even today. I say this because, in private – or in that weird, gossipy, deniable semi-private in which a lot of Italian political conversations seem to take place – he’s already started to spread the blame. It’s Calderoli’s fault – if he hadn’t been a shithead about it the Lombard autonomists who went with Prodi would have stayed with us, and we’d have won. Or else it was Tremaglia (who organised the vote for Italians abroad, on the mistaken understanding that most of them would go to Berlusconi) – there were four separate Forza Italia lists in Antarctica, what was that about? Or maybe it was our fault, Forza Italia’s fault – the kids on our lists, they’re good kids, keen as you like, but at the end of the day they’re still kids. None of it, of course, is Berlusconi’s fault – but if we were waiting for that thought to cross his mind we really would have to be patient. (Forza Italia took 29.7% of the vote in 2001, out of a total of 50% for the right-wing alliance; this time round FI took 23.7%, out of a total of 49.7%.)

Another update, also 19th April

Today the Corte di Cassazione ruled on the election results. ‘Corte di Cassazione’ is not easy to translate – one dictionary I’ve seen suggested ‘Court of Cassation’ – but its position in the Italian legal system is fairly clear: it’s at the top. The Corte is the ultimate judicial authority on matters legal and constitutional. The Italian legal system is very big on appeal courts (which is one reason why Berlusconi’s stayed out of prison all this time), and the Corte is in a sense the ultimate appeal court. Unlike other appeal courts, though, the Corte di Cassazione can only be invoked on matters of constitutional significance. If the Corte di Cassazione is ruling on it, it matters; if the Corte has ruled on it, the ruling stays ruled.

This evening the Corte di Cassazione ruled on the election result. They ruled, specifically, that the Unione had won, with an overall majority of 24,755: the recount of schede contestate had reduced it by a total of 469. They also ruled that it had not been inappropriate to count the Lombard autonomist vote as part of the Unione vote.

Within half an hour of the announcement, Lorenzo Cesa of the UDC acknowledged the result, wished Prodi well in the interests of the Italian people and promised to work hard to offer its supporters an alternative government.

Within forty minutes of the announcement, Giulio Tremonti of Forza Italia stated that his party did not recognise the result. Berlusconi’s first public response took a bit longer in coming; addressing a group of supporters this evening, he said: “We’ll give them a fight – they’ll have to reckon with us.” Forza Italia is promising to use all the instruments at its disposal to show that the Unione hasn’t in fact won. The prospect of forcing a full recount is receding; they’re now talking about appealing to the agencies which conducted the count, either to carry out a kind of alternative low-level recount of their own or simply to find some irregularity – any irregularity – in the conduct of the vote. In this increasingly shabby and desperate pursuit Berlusconi is backed by the Lega Nord (Calderoli: “the reality is that the Casa delle Libertà took more votes”) but not by the UDC; we’ve yet to hear from Alleanza Nazionale.

I confess, I thought a Corte di Cassazione ruling would be the end of it. Perhaps it will; tomorrow we should find out whether Berlusconi has any shame at all. Failing that, the 25th of April is a national holiday, the anniversary of Liberation. I think it’ll be a big one this year.

Update 24th April

Well, it’s over: the leaders of the Unione have gone back to squabbling over who’s going to line up with whom and who’s going to get which job. Berlusconi still hasn’t formally conceded, but everyone else is working round him. To date, Berlusconi’s fullest statement on the election result has been to the effect that Prodi’s government will be against the interests of the country, so he (Berlusconi) cannot be expected to congratulate him; the Right will stop the government getting anything important through, and will be back in power before too long; the election victory will always be overshadowed by the failure to recount all spoiled ballot papers; and, if you put the votes for the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies together, that the Right actually got more votes than the Left, so that he, Berlusconi, actually won a moral victory. Gracious as ever, then. Like Robert, I find this all a bit extreme even for Berlusconi; is he afraid that his shadier friends are going to call in their markers and he won’t be in a position to pay up? Or did somebody bet him ten grand, before the election, that he’d be congratulating Prodi by the end of April?

Nothing in Berlusconi’s record as Prime Minister leaves a worse taste than the manner of his leaving. Above all, there’s the unpleasant feeling that we’ve been had. For people who take politics seriously – which includes most of the Italian Left and at least some of the Right – Berlusconi’s post-election grandstanding was seriously alarming:

Never before [in a Western democracy] has the defeated candidate rejected the verdict of the ballot box even after the highest court in the land has given its ruling. The message from the current Prime Minister to ‘his’ half of the country verges on an invitation to insurrection. Objectively it’s the language of a coup. Let’s try taking it literally. If the electoral result has been overturned with the complicity of the Corte di Cassazione, then centre-right voters are entitled to any and every reaction to such a gigantic abuse of power – including kicking out the government by means other than voting.

But – the same piece continues -

Luckily nobody takes what Silvio Berlusconi says literally, not even his own voters. His civil war is a game, albeit a sinister game; his threat of a coup is out of a comic opera; the ‘stolen victory’ is just the final fable of the Berlusconi era; the shift towards subversion was only the tactic of a day.

The bad news is that Forza Italia’s voters (and the Lega’s) probably understood all this a lot better than we did: Berlusconi’s populism, like Bossi’s before him, is all about making exorbitant gestures and unreasonable demands, holding out for impossible or manifestly unfair objectives and seeing how much you can get away with. The good news is that it looks as if the Italian Left is starting to catch on. Prodi has proposed that tomorrow’s Festa della Liberazione should be dedicated to the Italian Constitution – and against the ‘devolution’ reforms which were proposed by the Lega and approved by the outgoing Berlusconi government. It’s a deeply divisive move, which has the great merit of drawing the dividing line some way to the Right of the Unione.

With this – and with the extraordinary move of backing Bertinotti for the Presidency of the Camera over d’Alema – Prodi is already showing himself to be a bold as well as a shrewd operator. Don’t get me wrong, as a socialist I don’t hold out much hope for a Prodi government – any hope, to be more precise. But after the last five years there’s a sizeable cleaning-up operation needed in the Italian political system, and for that it does begin to look as if Prodi is our man.

Sounds so good in stereo

I probably shouldn’t go to National Trust houses. Visiting one this afternoon I was accosted by an attendant, who wanted me to know that the strip of linen in a glass case on the wall was a garter which had been worn by Charles I. As I walked away, I couldn’t resist giving a quick finger-across-neck gesture, although I felt childish immediately afterwards. At least I didn’t do it to her face.

Fortunately I think I’m reasonably safe with regard to the criminal law. Contrary to some readings, the Terrorism Act 2006 doesn’t actually make it illegal to glorify political activity which involves carrying out or threatening personal violence, violence against property, economic disruption or a denial of service attack (otherwise known as ‘terrorism‘). It makes it illegal to glorify activity of any of these kinds in such a way that members of the public could reasonably be expected to infer that what is being glorified is being glorified as conduct that should be emulated by them in existing circumstances. So I think Garry can relax – as indeed can I, as long as I don’t say anything about the current Royals. (Update – on second thoughts I’m not so sure; see the comments.)

Anyway, there was one genuinely interesting exhibit in among the rich people’s playthings and copies of Old Masters: an early-nineteenth-century broadside ballad dedicated to the theme that British people wanted “King, not Consul” – more specifically, George III and not Napoleon. It seemed that what was particularly objectionable about Napoleon wasn’t the fact that he was a foreign ruler – and thus could only come to power by defeating the British armed forces and overthrowing the British government – but his religious faith, or lack of it. Napoleon was as happy to negotiate (from a position of strength) with Muslims in Egypt as the Pope in Rome: at worst he was a Muslim himself, at best he was a slippery and untrustworthy atheist. From the second verse of the broadside:

No Corsican despot in Britain shall rule,
No avowed devotee of the Mussulman school

Reading these lines I was suddenly reminded of the tone of the Euston Manifesto:

We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently “understand”, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemyWe reject the double standards … [of] finding lesser (though all too real) violations of human rights which are closer to home, or are the responsibility of certain disfavoured governments, more deplorable than other violations that are flagrantly worse.

Terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology is widespread today … like all terrorism, it is a menace that has to be fought, and not excused.

the reaction to the crimes of 9/11, the excuse-making for suicide-terrorism, the disgraceful alliances lately set up inside the “anti-war” movement with illiberal theocrats … Leftists who make common cause with, or excuses for, anti-democratic forces should be criticized in clear and forthright terms.

The difference between the Left that I identify with and the Euston signatories seems less a matter of policy than of perspective. I look at the British government and I see several things that alarm me deeply: for example, the Terrorism Acts (2006 and 2000), the Iraq invasion, control orders, ASBOs, the creeping privatisation of health and education, an excessively friendly relationship with Berlusconi’s Italy, a far too friendly relationship with Sharon’s Israel and a downright subservient relationship with Bush’s USA. The Euston signatories, apparently, look at our government and see a democracy – what’s more, a democracy that’s under threat from enemies of democracy. Which means that, before we get into the details of what a Left project might look like in current conditions, there are hard questions to be asked. One hard question in particular: which side are you on? Do you want to be ruled by a Corsican despot, or don’t you? You don’t? Well then, you’d better stop complaining, and support the only people who are in a position to protect you. God save the King!

Back in Euston (surely not the Head of Steam…) the point is not to support democracy as a principle but to oppose selected opponents of democracy – and support the nations which also oppose them. It’s a retreat from politics into patriotism, essentially, sketchily covered by gestures towards universalism. (Like all terrorism, it is a menace that has to be fought, for example. Unlike the drafters of the Terrorism Act 2000, the authors don’t pause to define terrorism, which is probably just as well: I’m not sure there is a definition which would make that statement valid.) As I wrote earlier, “Taking up the cudgels for one relatively undemocratic status quo against another is a mug’s game”; in practice it may be locally appropriate or even necessary, but it doesn’t follow that we should treat it as a political principle. Unfortunately, the drift from tactical accommodation to statement of principle seems hard to resist.

It is all very well to be ‘advanced’ or ‘enlightened’, to snigger at Colonel Blimp and proclaim your emancipation from all traditional loyalties, but a time comes when the sand of the desert is sodden red and what have I done for thee, England, my England?
- George Orwell, April 1940

It seems the time has come for Norm, Nick and friends. At least they’re in good company.

Small update (18/4)

Over at Crooked Timber, Marc Mulholland has an interesting angle:

The problem, I reckon, is the very vague formulation of the concept of agency. Classic manifestos identify a historic force (class, nation, the free-born or whatever) and pledge allegiance to it. For ‘Euston’, the agency seems to be ‘actually existing’ pluralist democracies as projectors of state power and example. But there is no examination of why governments should be privileged over, say, national communities, market-orientated civil societies or class alliance configurations as carriers of the democratic ethos.

I think this is backwards: I don’t think the concept of agency is vague, or indeed that it isn’t the starting point of the exercise (in the classic manifesto style). What the Eustonistas have done is precisely to identify an actually-existing (ha) historic force and pledge allegiance to it, then dress the whole in statements of liberal principle. That’s why the end result reads so oddly (“straight-forward neo-cons do this kind of thing a lot more effectively”, as Marc says).

Stick my neck out

I used to live down the road from Marc Riley. I turned up at his flat a couple of times to buy In Tape releases, and once interviewed him (and Jim Khambatta) for a fanzine which I was vaguely thinking about putting together. (Somewhere I’ve got the answers Yeah Yeah Noh supplied to a questionnaire I sent them – could be worth a bit now. Or not.)

One of the things we talked about in my ‘interview’ with Marc was the Creepers’ song “Make Joe”. The starting-point was Marc’s observation that skinheads freak people out: not big skinheads or hard skinheads, particularly, just anyone with a shaved scalp – even if there are normal-haired blokes around who are larger, harder or both. Hence:

Why does a head like a boiled egg make Joe shit himself?

Some years later Marc returned to the topic, in the song “Tearjerker” on the Creepers’ last album. It’s a great song, really poised – funny and touching at the same time. From memory:

Let me tell you a story of old
About a skinhead with a heart of gold
Who got chased down Dickenson Road
By some people that he didn’t even knowBecause he had a shiny bonce
Because he had size-ten feet
He was taken for a fascist slob
But a nicer bloke you’d never even meet

The same thing happened to me
I was taken for a racist rat
By a sensitive young journalist girl
Armed with pointed teeth and a cricket bat

But what about my clothes, she said
Visions of me in jackboots in her head
She was in for a terrible fright
In less than a minute I put her right

And serve her right, too.

Skins, though. Even now, there’s something about a head like a boiled egg that sets middle-class alarm bells ringing. They’re not nice, are they? What I’m saying is, they’re not nice people, you know?

One topic that fascinates me, with my academic hat on, is the political management of violence. As a rule one of two things seems to happen: in some cases violent acts are reframed as somehow excusable, not real violence; in others the minority responsible for violent acts is framed as inherently violent, criminal by nature. (And sometimes both tactics are used, side by side.) It’s a discriminatory manoeuvre, and as such it can take the shape of any existing form of discrimination: the irredeemable criminal minority may be an ethnic minority or a delegitimised political group, for example.

Or they may simply be a bit common:

Ablewhite was not the tough, independent type his shaven-headed appearance may have suggested. In fact, like many of those on the extreme fringe of the animal rights movement, he is a well-educated, articulate man from a supportive family background.

The campaign of intimidation and harassment against the Hall family and their employees began in 1999. Protesters threatened death and destruction, damaged property and sent a letter bomb to Sally Ann Hall, the daughter of John Hall, who runs Darley Oaks with his brother, Chris. Then, in October 2004, the remains of 82-year-old Mrs Hammond – Chris Hall’s mother-in-law – were dug up and removed at night from the graveyard of a church in Yoxall, Staffordshire. The remains have never been found. Though the authorities are still not able to prove who was responsible for the desecration of the grave, the police were in no doubt that Ablewhite was at the centre of the campaign of fear.

I do like that second sentence – “In fact”, indeed. I have to say, the guy sounds pretty tough and independent to me – and I can’t see that those qualities are incompatible with being well-educated and articulate. Unless what the Guardian is really trying to say that, despite his scary appearance, he isn’t one of those people. (He can’t be, after all, what with being a teacher and having a vicar as his father and so forth.)

I don’t feel any sympathy for Ablewhite and his mates – they sound like the kind of people who get into animal rights (to paraphrase the old ‘vegetarian’ gag) not because they love animals but because they hate people. But I’m struck by the sense of genuine shock expressed in the Guardian article that Ablewhite was a nice, middle-class boy as well as an animal-rights militant, and by the article’s utter lack of comprehension of what’s actually going on here. Yes, Ablewhite’s educated and articulate. No, he’s not a mindless thug (even if he does have a shaved head). And no, these statements are not at all surprising. Put it another way, is a clergy house in the rural West Midlands the kind of background you would not expect an animal-rights militant to come from?

Do you think you’ve made the right decision this time?

Like Dave, I’ve got a lot of time for some of the signatories to the Euston Manifesto. And, like Dave, there is no way in Hell I’m supporting it.

The problems start in item 1, which yokes together “We are committed to democratic norms, procedures and structures” with “We value the traditions and institutions, the legacy of good governance, of those countries in which liberal, pluralist democracies have taken hold.” In other words, we value democracy as it has been achieved. I have no problem with defending those relics of past practices which offer resources for a better future – I might mention jury trial, I might mention English apples – but this is very different from championing the institutions of actually-existing liberal, pluralist democracies. Democracy, if you’re a socialist (or any other form of radical), is a goal to strive for, not a state already achieved. Taking up the cudgels for one relatively undemocratic status quo against another is a mug’s game.

Item 2 is meaningless. No, really:

We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently “understand”, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy — regimes that oppress their own peoples and movements that aspire to do so. We draw a firm line between ourselves and those left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political forces.

Being democrats, we don’t like undemocratic regimes; however, some other people who purport to be democrats make apologies for them. Well, more fool them; we already know that we‘re democrats, so what does it matter what some other self-styled democrats think? Unless we’re meant to take this together with item 1: we like Actually Existing Democracies (whatever their faults), and we don’t have any truck with Non-Democracies… And what is this about indulgent understanding and apologetic explanation? Are we being asked to “condemn a little more and understand a little less” (John Major said that)? Or are the Eustoners happy for us to attempt to understand and explain, just as long as all our explanations are based on the proposition that the bad men hate us because we’re good?

Item 3 is even worse. Headed ‘Human rights for all’, it reads – at least, the business end of it reads:

We reject the double standards with which much self-proclaimed progressive opinion now operates, finding lesser (though all too real) violations of human rights which are closer to home, or are the responsibility of certain disfavoured governments, more deplorable than other violations that are flagrantly worse. We reject, also, the cultural relativist view according to which these basic human rights are not appropriate for certain nations or peoples.

What on earth is this about? Given two sets of human rights abuses, one perpetrated by a nation state which is denounced as an official enemy and one by a state which is treated with kid gloves, are the Eustonites seriously proposing that the latter should not receive more attention? From the Left? Imperial favour is capricious, God knows – Milosevic and Saddam Hussein were both men we could do business with, in their time – but the idea that it’s not appropriate to draw attention to the crimes of the current favourite is grotesque. There are only so many campaigning hours in the day, and they’re better employed pushing at closed doors than those that are already open. Taken literally, this ‘Item’ would be profoundly demobilising: it would make it impossible to criticise any abuse committed by governments ‘closer to home’ (presumably meaning Britain, the US and, oh, say, for example, Israel) unless and until a particular abuse was demonstrably the worst thing in the world. (Of course, this is not to say that it’s appropriate to excuse or minimise abuses carried out by the current official enemy, either by massaging the figures or by reflexively pairing any abuse with one carried out by our side.)

Item 4 (Equality) is broadly OK, but: “We leave open, as something on which there are differences of viewpoint amongst us, the question of the best economic forms of this broader equality”: why, exactly? What are ‘we’ united on that is more fundamental – or more urgent – than the question of socialism vs capitalism?

Item 5: oh good heavens. “We stand for global economic development-as-freedom and against structural economic oppression and environmental degradation.”; “Globalization must mean global social integration and a commitment to social justice.” Economic development-as-freedom, indeed. (Something to do with Amartya Sen, apparently – see the comments. Did you know that? I didn’t know that.) This all sounds good, but, given the conspicuous absence of escape clauses – conditions under which the Eustonians would not support globalisation – I can’t help feeling that this clause is summed up in the first six words quoted above. (Up to the first hyphen.)

Item 6: we like America. No, really, we like America. Some Americans are really quite nice. And they do make good TV. Have you seen the Sopranos? Because, you see in the current season – no, I won’t spoil it for you. But really, America’s great. They say they’re great, and they’re kind of wrong about that, but you know, in a way they’re kind of right. Because of the whole democratic institutions thing, obviously, but that’s just item 1 again. What’s really special about America – well, you know Curb Your Enthusiasm? It’s great, isn’t it? That one where… never mind. America, anyway. It’s great. And those people who hate America, what’s that about? They’re just wrong, aren’t they? Yeah, that’s what I thought. They’re just wrong.

Item 7: Palestine. Ah yes, but Israel. Palestine: Israel. Israel: Palestine. We can’t have a settlement that the Palestinians don’t like, but that also means that we can’t have a settlement that the Israelis don’t like, because that wouldn’t be fair. Palestine: Israel. Israel: Palestine. You see my point? It’s a tough one, isn’t it?

Item 8: racism. Racism is bad. Which means anti-semitism is bad. Which means that anti-Zionism is bad. Not all anti-Zionism, obviously, but some of it. We’ll let you know.

Item 9: terrorism. Terrorism is bad. We don’t believe anybody on the Left has ever said this before. We’re not very keen on state terror either, by the way. But terrorism is bad. Always. Never mind defining it, you know terrorism when you see it, don’t you? Well then.

Item 10: Humanitarian intervention, when necessary, is not a matter of disregarding sovereignty, but of lodging this properly within the “common life” of all peoples. Sovereignty doesn’t exist when the sovereign state in question is really really bad, m’kay? This isn’t just a matter of saying that, in certain extreme cases, it may be appropriate to violate international law (Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Ratko Mladic) but that international law should be rewritten pre-emptively to legalise all such interventions, and any such interventions that might take place in future. To say this is a dangerous doctrine is putting it mildly. This is the business end of items 1 and 3, and it’s got a nasty smell.

Item 11: Leftists who make common cause with, or excuses for, anti-democratic forces should be criticized in clear and forthright terms. Conversely, we pay attention to liberal and conservative voices and ideas if they contribute to strengthening democratic norms and practices and to the battle for human progress. What’s alarming here is what isn’t said. To the extent that democracy is part of a radical project, all this can be taken for granted: a left-winger who makes common cause with ‘anti-democratic forces’ has ceased to be a left-winger and can be denounced in those terms; liberals and conservatives who favour democracy, perhaps despite themselves, are favouring the Left and can be endorsed, or at least co-opted. But I sense this isn’t quite what the Eustonists mean. ‘Democracy’ here is being used in the right-Hegelian (item 1) sense, not the left-Hegelian (Marxist) sense: you are either for us or against us, and if you’re against us we don’t care whether you’re on the Left or not. (Come to think of it, if you’re for us we don’t care if you’re on the Left or not, either.)

Item 12: Historical truth. Right with you there, chaps. From Johnstone on Srebrenica to Clark on the joys of shopping in Belgrade, there are parts of the Left which have talked a great deal of garbage, in my personal opinion. But I’m not sure how much point there is in taking a stand for ‘truth’ – at least, not without specifying in much more detail who you’re taking a stand against and why. (See also item 3.)

Item 13: Freedom of ideas, including the freedom to criticise religion[s]. Seems fair enough, actually.

Item 14: Open source. Well, yes, but what exactly is this doing here?

Item 15: ‘A precious heritage’. Defies summary.

We reject fear of modernity, fear of freedom, irrationalism, the subordination of women; and we reaffirm the ideas that inspired the great rallying calls of the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century: liberty, equality and solidarity; human rights; the pursuit of happiness. These inspirational ideas were made the inheritance of us all by the social-democratic, egalitarian, feminist and anti-colonial transformations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — by the pursuit of social justice, the provision of welfare, the brotherhood and sisterhood of all men and women. None should be left out, none left behind. We are partisans of these values. But we are not zealots. For we embrace also the values of free enquiry, open dialogue and creative doubt, of care in judgement and a sense of the intractabilities of the world. We stand against all claims to a total — unquestionable or unquestioning — truth.

We’re talking about the E-word, aren’t we? And it’s all fair enough, but I have to ask (again) who they’re defining themselves against – and why they don’t say so.

In summary (if you want commentary on the Elaborations you’ll have to write it yourself) this is essentially a rallying-cry in support of ‘democracy’ as defined by Tony Blair and George W. Bush, ‘humanitarian intervention’ and all. God knows, the Left has some alarmingly wrong-headed elements, and has had for some time – during the Kosovo campaign a friend of mine canvassed the possibility of a new ‘new Left’, breaking with some of the tendencies rejected by the Eusteenies (and some of the people, more than likely). But to build a new Left you have to be on the Left to start with – and the Euston Manifesto isn’t.

Escape routes exist

Let’s get productive!

At least 100,000 NHS employees will lose their jobs if the government carries through the health reforms Tony Blair wants as a lasting monument to his premiership, according to a report today from the pro-market thinktank Reform. Under the reforms, the benefits of a more efficient service, with greater productivity and a more highly skilled workforce, would be accompanied by severe unemployment, says the report by Nick Bosanquet, professor of health policy at Imperial College London.

Professor Bosanquet, who is an adviser to the Commons health committee, blamed Department of Health planners for pushing up staffing costs. Since 1999 the NHS workforce had increased from 1 million to 1.3 million, and was on course to reach 1.6 million by 2010, he said. But the reforms being pursued by the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, would make trusts think harder about productivity; foundation hospitals would negotiate local pay deals, and as more trusts gained foundation status, national pay agreements would become less important.”It is likely that productivity gains will mean that staff numbers are reduced by at least 10%,” Prof Bosanquet said. This would cut the workforce to below 1.2 million.

Professor speak with forked tongue. “Productivity” is one of those words that does a lot more work than it lets on. The measure of “productivity” is, essentially, how much work is done by each person employed. If you sack 10% of your staff while the overall workload remains the same or increases – and, in the NHS, we can reasonably expect that the overall workload is not going to go down – then productivity will go up by 11%; to put it another way, everyone who’s left is going to have to do 11% more work. Note also that if the 10% of staff who are sacked are disproportionately un- or semi-skilled, the result will inevitably be both greater productivity and a more highly skilled workforce – albeit a skilled workforce which has achieved greater productivity by doing the dirty jobs as well. In practice calculating productivity is slightly more complicated than this, as the key metric is money: if the payroll costs of the 90% of staff who remain go up – perhaps because they want more money for doing more work – you won’t see the full 11% increase. But that’s where the local pay deals come in.

“NHS trusts will save money by sacking workers and attacking the pay and conditions of those who remain,” says pro-market thinktank. It doesn’t take much decoding – but putting it in those terms might provoke resistance, and would certainly raise the question why. Productivity, though – who could argue with that? Who wouldn’t want to be more productive? (We feel bad when we’re not productive, says top shrink.) And above all, who wouldn’t want the workers to be more productive, lazy blighters?

Mario Tronti, as ever, is the man:

Capitalist society has its laws of development: they have been formulated by economists, applied by governments and endured by the workers. But who will discover the laws of development of the working class? Capital has its history and its historians to write it. But who will write the history of the working class? … We ourselves have put capitalist development first, workers’ struggles second. This is wrong. We need to reverse the problem, change its sign, begin from first principles: and the first principle is the struggle of the working class.

In 1964, when Tronti wrote these lines (from “Lenin in England”), he was an Autonomist – one of the first – and a communist rather than a socialist. (That’s ‘communist’ with a small C, although Tronti was also a Communist. Long story. Never mind.) Socialism, for the Autonomists, offered no more than collective self-exploitation and the rational redistribution of surplus value. Social democracy, for an Autonomist, would barely be worth defending: it would leave the bosses in place, merely fencing off a few areas which should be run for the common good rather than for profit (sanitation, education, health, that kind of thing). When we look at Tronti’s communism now, it seems like a distant echo of a much more radical era – but, ironically, the long retreat of social democracy has left us few alternatives to a Trontian reversal of perspectives. What is the NHS, after all, or where is it – in a constellation of autonomous groups of managers who cost the human resources required to deliver a service, or in the nurses and the doctors to whom many of us owe our lives?

(And who the hell are the former to talk to the latter about being productive?)

Good news week

Callooh! Callay!

All together now:

Ce n’est qu’un début! Continuons le combat!

Sign here with me

More Italian blogging later. While we’re waiting for what I fervently hope will be good news (apparently Berlusconi’s been running at 3.7 to 1, which is encouraging) there’s a Guardian story which needs a bit of background. This gets a bit dense, but stick with it. Now, watch closely…

David Mills, the estranged husband of the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, is to lay before an Italian court recently found documents which, he said, “totally exploded” the accusation that he took a bribe from Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.A judge is to open a hearing in June to decide whether Mr Berlusconi and his former legal adviser, Mr Mills, should be sent for trial. Prosecutors claim the British lawyer took $600,000 (£345,000) from Italy’s billionaire leader for witholding evidence in two trials involving Mr Berlusconi. Both men have denied the charges. The prosecutors received a letter written by Mr Mills two years ago in which he said he accepted the money after giving testimony that “kept Mr B out of a great deal of trouble”. Mr Mills initially confirmed this in a statement to the prosecutors that he has since retracted.

Court papers show the prosecutors claim the money was wrapped into a bigger payment of $2,050,000 made in 1997 to an account in Mr Mills’s name. However, the payment did not come from Mr Berlusconi, but from a trust of which the beneficiary was another of Mr Mills’s Italian clients, a Neapolitan shipowner, Diego Attanasio. Prosecutors have not produced evidence so far to show the money received by Mr Mills was paid by Mr Berlsuconi and appear to be relying on his retracted statement.

Ever since changing his story in November 2004, Mr Jowell’s husband has argued that Mr Attanasio ordered the transfer and was the sole source of the funds. The latest documents help support that claim. One is a fax sent to Mr Mills last Friday by Mr Attanasio’s former trustees in the Bahamas. The fax states that they had been unable to find any credits to the trust’s accounts “in the amount of or close to $600,000″ – the sum prosecutors said Mr Mills was paid by Mr Berlusconi.

A second document was among those flourished by Mr Berlusconi last week at a press conference in Rome at which he accused the prosecutors of conspiring to bring down his government. It is a letter written on July 17 1997 and signed by Mr Attanasio notifying his trustees in the Bahamas of the imminent arrival of $10m and instructing them to forward $2,050,000 of the money to Mr Mills’s account. Beneath the ship owner’s signature is a written note from Mr Mills: “I confirm that the above is the signature of Mr Diego Attanasio”.

The letter is dated just a few days before Mr Attanasio was jailed as part of an unconnected corruption investigation. A warrant was issued for his arrest on July 18 1997, and executed three or four days later, according to Italian media reports. Mr Mills told the Guardian he had prepared the letter for Mr Attanasio’s signature. He said: “I have no recollection of how or where it was signed, but it is unquestionably his genuine signature.” The new document is at odds with statements given by Mr Attanasio to the prosecutors last December and in February in which he said he ruled out “even indirectly having given orders” for the payment. Mr Attanasio acknowledged he had given Mr Mills a “large sum of money” before his arrest. But he said he had left it to his British lawyer to manage.

The Italian daily La Repubblica reported on Saturday that prosecutors had “serious doubts” about the authenticity of Mr Attanasio’s signed instructions. But Mr Mills told the Guardian he would also be producing notes of the instructions he received from the shipowner. This is the “clinching evidence” he referred to in an interview last week. The undated page of notes, which the Guardian has seen, sets out the flow of money in the way it was made. Mr Mills said it was written down in a book in which previous and subsequent entries were for July 15 and 21.

It’s not in dispute that Attanasio paid Mills two million dollars – or, for that matter, that Attanasio was corrupt. The question is whether Attanasio was previously subbed by Berlusconi, and whether the two million transfer was used so as to get a payment from Berlusconi to Mills indirectly. The signed letter from Attanasio seems like pretty good evidence for Mills’ version of the story. (Mills’ current version, that is: if he’s telling the truth now, it remains a mystery why he lied to both his own accountant and the Italian magistrates two years ago, particularly given that the effect of these lies was to incriminate both himself and Berlusconi.)

Anyway, here’s the background, from the Repubblica story referred to above. The story is describing a press conference at which Berlusconi released documents which purport to put him in the clear.

Berlusconi complains that on the 6th of March 2006 he requested a rogatoria [an international warrant - PJE] to obtain these documents, and that the ‘infamous’ magistrates refused his request. In fact the ‘unworthy’ magistrates served this rogatoria to the Bahamas a year ago, April 2005, and repeated the request in Decmeber 2005 and February 2006. The government of Perry Gladstone Christie has never replied.Berlusconi says he doesn’t know David Mills. However, on another occasion he admitted, “Perhaps I’ve shaken his hand at Arcore [Berlusconi's residence - PJE]“. The loose-tongued English lawyer for his part admits to having proposed an offshore ‘treasury’ for the use of [Berlusconi's company] Fininvest and having discussed this with Berlusconi “over the telephone”; worse, a statement by a consultant to Mills reveals that the lawyer met Berlusconi and his daughter in London.

Berlusconi swears “on his children’s lives” that he knew nothing of the money paid to Mills. It was Mills himself who confided in his accountant that he’d been given a gift of $600,000 dollars for having kept quiet, through many “tricky corners”, “the whole truth” in his two statements in court in Milan (1997 e 1998). Berlusconi reveals that it was a ship-owner, Diego Attanasio, who gave the money to Mills. This is the same get-out which Mills chose, desperate and short of options after a mysterious trip around the world in thirty days. His subsequent moves have been acrobatic. The English lawyer at first admitted having received “the gift” as a present from “the Doctor” [sadly, this is just another reference to Berlusconi - PJE]. He confirmed this statement, in the presence of his own lawyer, to the ‘infamous’ magistrates. Then he denied it, claiming that the money came from other clients. When they gave him the lie, Mills pulled the name of Attanasio out of the hat: “The $600,000 is part of a sum of $2,050,000, transferred on the account of Attanasio from the Bahamanian MeesPierson Bank on the 23rd of July 1997,” he said. Mills’ improvisations are maladroit. Diego Attanasio went on the attack: “I categorically deny having given any instructions, even indirectly, to the MeesPierson Bank…” He has a good argument: “… in the middle of July 1997 I was arrested on corruption charges and held in prison in Salerno…”. He raises an interesting possibility: “… I recall having given Mills power of attorney, as well as some signed bank drafts, the details left blank.”

The magistrates’ investigation will determine whether the documents distributed by Berlusconi come from this stock of blank bank drafts signed by the shipowner. Equally, sooner or later we will find out how and from whom Berlusconi’s people managed to obtain documents which the magistrates had been requesting for a year. Was it Mills who did Berlusconi a good turn, as he himself maintains? Or the government of the Bahamas? Or even London?

I particularly like those last three words. This isn’t just a matter of Old Labour class-hatred. (Not that I see that as a bad thing in itself. I’d love to hear Tessa Jowell interviewed by Mrs Merton: So, Tessa – may I call you Mrs Jowell? What first attracted you to the millionaire David Mills?) But this is more serious. It’s a story of corrupt finance and attempts to corrupt the judiciary, carried out by leading European politicians. Whatever we hear this afternoon, this one will run and run.

Loss

Prompted by the title of a recent post, the other day I put on the Mull Historical Society’s first album Loss as a background for getting some work done – not so much music to work with as to work against. Colin MacIntyre (who is the MHS) wrote the songs on the album after the death of his father, which a number of them refer to; the album came out in the summer of 2001, shortly after my father died. On a conscious level, at least, I’d forgotten all this; most of all, I’d forgotten that the album ends with a song which is also called “Loss”. You can find Mull Historical Society lyrics all over the Web these days (you can find lyrics by anybody all over the Web these days) but not the lyrics of “Loss”: it was a hidden track on the CD (although not on the vinyl release), and that has apparently rendered it invisible to whoever it is that puts these things up out there. So here it is.

“Loss”
Colin MacIntyre (Mull Historical Society), 2001

I share my loss with you
I share my loss with you

I tried to be afraid
I think that’s what you do
I tried to settle down
Into something new

I tried to wonder why
I need to come to terms
I tried all these things
Hey, all you need is time

I share my loss with you…

I tried to get ahead
I think that’s what I need
But I’m the last to know
I just want to feel

I tried to get away
But all I need is here
I tried to take time
I tried to take time

I wish I could be calm
I wish I could be free
I wish it could be you
Running next to me

I share my loss with you…

I tried to be afraid
I think that’s what you do
I tried to settle down
Into something new

I tried to wonder why
I tried to get away
I tried all these things
I tried all these things

I wish I could be calm
I wish I could be free
I wish it could be you
Running next to me

I share my loss with you
I share my loss with you

Hearing that song unexpectedly had me in pieces. Because that’s it: that’s exactly what it’s been like. Most obviously, the lyrics evoke a restless search for something that would work against loss, together with a sense that nothing does: all those ‘I tried’ lines evoke the numb, baffled sense of still being stuck with it, starting yet again from zero. ‘I tried to be afraid’ seems like an odd line, but I know that I’ve been wading through waves of unfocused anxiety and hypochondria recently; I think it’s because fear of the future is more manageable than grieving over something which has, unavoidably, happened. (You can do something about the future, after all.) Come to that, I remember being convinced I wasn’t long for this world after my father died; I’m with Colin, I think that’s what you do.

But nothing works, in any case. Nothing works except time, and even that’s a false friend: I’ll be feeling OK in a year, right, so by now I should be feeling about 10% better and next month… “Hey, all you need is time” – the glib tone of the line suggests the awful realisation that time doesn’t work either, or not in any way that you can measure. Nothing works, except perhaps to recognise that nothing works and abandon all the restless, anxious pulling away: to give up on trying to get away from the loss, get beyond it, move on.

The song enacts the pulling away it describes: it avoids the subject for as long as possible, and avoids facing the impossible, insoluble problem.

I wish I could be calm
I wish I could be free

To say that is to recognise that I don’t feel those things, which is something in itself. And also, perhaps, to recognise that lacking those feelings, day after day, is hard to bear; and to recognise that, for now, there may be nothing I can do to get them back.

I wish it could be you
Running next to me

And there it is. It took a while to get round to it – it even took me a while to get round to it in this post – but that itself is part of the problem. It’s hard to admit to grief, except as a kind of traumatic response in the immediate aftermath of a loss. There’s something slightly undignified about the sheer excess of it: come on, the world seems to say, the person you’ve lost is always going to be dead from now on, so are you always going to be mourning? Even when nothing like that has actually been said out loud, it’s hard to counter it. It’s difficult, in other words, to say Yes, it’s been nearly a month, and yes, I’m functioning quite normally now but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt any more, actually, because it does actually still hurt like hell,actually. Or words to that effect.

As for why it hurts – or what hurts – look at the second line. Colin MacIntyre is a youngish guy and his Dad died before his time, so maybe he does have memories of them going running together. My parents were both well on in years, and I’m not that young or active myself, so I couldn’t really conjure up anything more active than ‘walking next to me’. But it’s still a beautiful and evocative image: it suggests two lives moving forward side by side, continually present to each other, heading into a shared future. And that’s what’s gone. And that’s what’s hard to bear.

It’s a beautiful song. These are hard times.

How high?

[First posted 29/3; updated and moved to the top 6/4. You'll see why.]

Back here, at the time of the Danish embassy protests, I wrote about ‘high’ and ‘low’ policing:

‘low policing’ [is] the unending and mundane job of maintaining social order and responding to breaches of the criminal law. ‘High policing’, by contrast, is policing with an agenda and a long-term perspective: the use of police methods and resources to achieve coherent political ends.

‘low policing’ is at best framed by, and at worst permeated with, the political calculations of ‘high policing’. ‘Low policing’ arrests drug-dealers and petty thieves; ‘high policing’ turns them into informers and lets them go. ‘Low policing’ lets orderly demonstrations proceed unhindered and breaks up disorderly protests; ‘high policing’ lets protest events continue or not according to their longer-term political significance.

Now this:

The Baybasin Cartel, a notorious Kurdish gang, is estimated by police to have controlled up to 90% of the heroin which entered the country after its leading members settled in the home counties in the mid-1990s. Gang members also became involved in protection rackets and extortion in the UK, and were linked to a series of turf disputes which resulted in up to 25 murders. On one occasion, Baybasin mobsters were involved in a shoot-out across a busy shopping street in north London on a Saturday afternoon.The gang was already notorious among law enforcement agencies across Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia when its members were allowed to move from Turkey to London, allegedly after their leader, Huseyin Baybasin, agreed to tell Customs investigators what he knew about the involvement of senior Turkish politicians and officials in the international heroin trade.

Baybasin was encouraged by Customs to come to the UK and arrived via Gibraltar in either late 1994 or early 1995. He first met Customs officers in a hotel near Tower Bridge, London. … many of Baybasin’s associates were subsequently able to settle in the UK because Customs & Excise accepted that they would be in danger in Turkey once he had been recruited as an informer. They are thought to have entered the country illegally, using forged Dutch passports, and no attempt was made to regularise their immigration status for several years.

Note that there’s no suggestion of corruption: Customs & Excise turned a collective blind eye to our Kurdish Sopranos as a matter of policy, for the sake of longer-term intelligence-gathering. High policing trumps low, in rather a big way.

This is quite a timely case; as from April 1st, drug gangs won’t be the responsibility of Customs & Excise (or HM Revenue and Customs, as it now is). The National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service are merging, together with HMRC’s drug enforcement people and the Home Office’s people-trafficking specialists: they’re all going to be working in a single organisation, the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Under the SOCA regime it will all be different, Charles Clarke has suggested:

A new nationwide police force which begins operations on Monday will be able to prevent international drug traffickers settling in the UK, the home secretary, Charles Clarke, predicted yesterday. He expressed his confidence in the Serious Organised Crime Agency – dubbed Britain’s FBI – after the Guardian disclosed that leading members of a notorious crime gang had settled in the home counties after striking a deal with Customs & Excise.

But ‘suggested’ is the operative word. After all, Customs & Excise was perfectly able to prevent the Baybasin group establishing itself over here; it just chose not to, prioritising ‘high policing’ considerations. There’s no obvious reason why we should expect SOCA to take a different view in a comparable situation. Indeed, considering that the new agency will incorporate HMRC’s existing drug enforcers – and will, if anything, tend to take an even higher-level view of ‘serious organised crime’ than HMRC does now – there are good reasons to expect that SOCA will represent high policing as usual.

Rather than acknowledge this (currently unpalatable) possibility, Clarke relied on his listeners assuming that a bigger and better police agency would mean more and better low policing, relying ultimately on the common-sense view that low policing is what the police are there for. Quoting myself again:

one of the most popular images of police work has it that there is only ‘low policing’: the law is above politics, and it’s the police’s job to maintain social order, not to maintain any particular social order.

Or perhaps I should have said, “one of the most popular myths about police work”.

Update The following story appeared in yesterday’s Guardian, straplined ‘How SOCA will work’.

Crime-busting ideas imported from the USThose behind Soca don’t like being called the British FBI but its creation does mark the introduction of some US-style ideas of justice into the British legal system. For the Serious and Organised Crime Agency isn’t just about bringing together 4,200 police, customs, immigration and MI5 officers into a more sophisticated and integrated body to tackle the £20bn-a-year trade in organised crime. They will also have new powers at their disposal. The most important stems directly from the American experience in tackling the mafia and major drug gangs – the formal introduction of plea bargaining and a system of “supergrasses” into the criminal justice system in England and Wales.

Soca has to persuade the public that not only footsoldiers, such as street dealers, but also middle-ranking organised crime figures involved in people trafficking and heroin smuggling should be free to walk the streets because their evidence has put away more significant crime figures. Harm reduction, as it is called, is at the centre of Soca’s strategy – a fundamental shift in tactics from arresting every drug dealer or seizing every shipment. It is regarded as more important to break up criminal networks than to secure a short-term publicity coup by making quick arrests.

‘Low policing’ arrests drug-dealers and petty thieves; ‘high policing’ turns them into informers and lets them go – and SOCA means more high policing rather than less, making future Baybasin cases more likely rather than less so.

A new nationwide police force which begins operations on Monday will be able to prevent international drug traffickers settling in the UK, the home secretary, Charles Clarke, predicted yesterday.

Pablo Picasso (II)

Silvio Berlusconi has said some strange things in the current election campaign. It’s a sign of the kind of politician he is, a charismatic authoritarian populist. To some extent it’s the equivalent of having Kilroy as the leader of a major political party, or Enoch Powell, or Cyril Smith: to his opponents he’s crude and offensive, but to his followers he’s saying the unsayable, he’s telling it like it is, he’s the man they can’t gag. (Thatcher tapped right into this before she was elected, and coasted on the memory for years afterwards.)

But there’s another level to it, which I don’t think works so well in the British as in the Italian context. Berlusconi’s battute (‘quips’, but literally ‘blows’) are wild, outrageous and often genuinely funny, if only because they’re so absurd: I laughed out loud when I heard that he’d compared himself to both Jesus Christ and Napoleon (“only I’m taller”). This kind of ludicrous exorbitance prompts immediate scepticism, but it also evokes a kind of amused tolerance – go on then, what are you going to come up with this time? In short, it puts you in the mood to judge Berlusconi – and other politicians – primarily on entertainment value: they all talk bollocks anyway, so let’s just see who tells the best story. And Berlusconi, the old crooner, gives good story. (Thanks to Pietro for this point.)

So it’s not entirely surprising that Berlusconi has said some strange things in the course of the current campaign: it’s what he does. What is surprising – well, you know what I was saying about politicians talking bollocks?

Berlusconi, 3rd April:

“Ho troppa stima dell’intelligenza degli italiani per pensare che ci siano in giro così tanti coglioni che possano votare contro i propri interessi”

“I have too much respect for the intelligence of the Italian people to think that there are enough coglioni around here who could vote against their own interests [and elect the Left].”

Where coglioni means… well, what does it mean? If you’re reading this in America the answer’s simple: a coglione is an asshole (shades of Roy Keane…). Which brings us back to the BritEng slang lexicon: ‘prat’ is close, but it doesn’t have the shock value of coglioni – or the implicit malice. ‘Shithead’ is probably closest in meaning, but its relative rarity makes it seem more extreme.

La Repubblica has devoted some attention to the problems of translation. It’s an interesting piece, although less illuminating than it might be – apart from anything else, the Italian-speaking writer doesn’t feel the need to explain to her Italian-speaking readers what coglione means. (There’s probably a name for this problem among translators. I hit it once when I was trying to describe a city district to an American colleague. Brownstones? I don’t know, we don’t use that word in England. Oh – what do you call them?)

The literal meaning of coglioni isn’t too difficult, of course. La Repubblica quotes Reuters:

“Berlusconi labelled centre-left voters as ‘coglioni’. The Italian word is slang for ‘testicles’ but is also commonly used as an insult to describe someone of little intelligence.”

Fair enough. The paper’s survey of the European media is also interesting:

The French commentators do better than the English-speakers, as they have an equivalent word – but any citizen of the République would shudder to think that, even in the heated climate of these last few days, Sarkozy could call his opponents cons … The word is all right in a song by Georges Brassens, but not the political arena; in fact France Presse opted for couillons, no less vulgar but less idiomatic as slang. The agency may have chosen this term because, like the word used by Berlusconi, it refers to male organs; the French term honoured by Brassens, which effectively means ‘idiot’, refers to the female organ.Juan de Lara, director of the Spanish press agency Efe, is still in shock: “We can laugh about how to translate the word used by Berlusconi, but in reality this is a very serious matter.” For Spanish readers, Berlusconi’s epithet will be translated as gilipollas. [No idea - PJE] “But it’s a very vulgar word,” Lara notes; “I can’t even imagine a Spanish politican using it!”. And in this case, too, translation is awkward but delicate: for Efe, our Prime Minister called a good part of the electorate “tonto del culo” ['crazy-arse'].

Carola Frentzen, correspondent for Deutsche Presse Agentur, is stunned by Berlusconi’s language but remains diplomatic. She says, “We have many ugly words corresponding to the one used by the Prime Minister, but I won’t use them in the article. I’ll use the more banal ‘idiots’. The meaning is as clear as in the Italian, and for the German press it’s not really worth the trouble of getting upset about the language used by the Prime Minister. The German people have already used their own words about him on the occasion when they didn’t appreciate his joke about the word ‘Kapo’.” This was the term with which Berlusconi addressed Martin Schultz, head of the German EU delegation, during his inaugural speech [when Italy held the EU Presidency] at Strasbourg.

Update: according to Reuters, Translations of “coglioni” in British and American dictionaries range from “idiot”, “cretin”, “fool” and “moron” to “prick” and “asshole”. However, the English-language service of the Agenzia Giornalistica Italia demurs: English and American vocabularies are wrong. The best translation is, in fact, “sucker”, “dickhead” or just “dick”. The latter is most popular one, with the commonly used phrase “Don’t be a dick”. So now you know.

One final thought from la Repubblica:

At the end of this linguistic journey, we still have room for doubt in the Italian language. Given that the term used by Berlusconi doesn’t have a feminine form, can female centre-left voters regard themselves as excluded from his judgment?

It’s a silly question, but the language is nearly offensive enough to make it significant. However you render it in English (or French, or Spanish), what Berlusconi said was an insult not just to his centre-Left opponents or their committed supporters, but to anyone who might be thinking of voting centre-Left. This wasn’t just another battuta, in other words; grave offence has been taken, and the Italian public has been treated to the unusual sight of Berlusconi squirming. First, he insisted that he was joking (“I said it with a smile on my face”, an assertion apparently contradicted by TV footage). Then he took refuge in the frankly casuistical argument that he’s being attacked for what he didn’t say: “I didn’t state that some of the Italian people would vote against their own interests and so deserve that epithet – I denied it.” Subsequently he’s insisted that ‘coglioni‘ didn’t refer to all potential Left voters, only the ones whose material interests would be damaged by a Left government. The latest – but probably not the final – fallback position is to argue that it’s all a fuss about nothing, and that using the word in question is in fact comune e bonaria (normal and polite). Nice try. Thankyou and goodnight.

Four. More. Days.

Pablo Picasso (I)

Join me now, if you will, for a brief but thorough exploration of the British English lexicon of insult. (You’ll see why we’re doing this in part II.)

Let’s say that you want to insult a friend; you want to use bad language, but you also want to use the mot juste. The reason why you want to insult him is given by the following scenario. You’re in another town on business. On your way back to the station you pass a comic shop; being something of a devotee of the medium, you go in and browse for a while. While there your attention is drawn to something rare and valuable – an Amazing Fantasy 15, a set of all ten Luther Arkwrights, whatever. You’re tempted, but – you tell yourself – you can’t quite justify the expense. But still… It preys on your mind, and after a week or so you think, never mind the expense, I’m buying it, and begin to make plans for a return trip to the town. At this point your friend (remember him?) mentions that he’s going to the town the following weekend. If you give him the money, will he make the purchase and bring it back to you? Of course he will! Nothing would be easier!

Now it’s a week later. Your friend’s let you down. You’re not very pleased with him.

If he got drunk the night before, overslept and never made the trip at all, he’s an arsehole.
If he went but completely forgot what he’d agreed to do and didn’t remember until you reminded him, he’s a prat (dickhead, pillock and wazzock are in the same area).
If he not only forgot what he’d agreed to do but refuses to believe you when you remind him, maintaining that you’d lent him the money for some other reason completely, he’s a wanker (or possibly a dick).
If he forgot what he’d agreed to do, then forgets to bring you back the money, then asks you for a loan, he’s a twat.
If he’s spent some of the money and denies it until you make him count it out, he’s a prick.
If he’s spent some of the money and attempts to justify doing so when you call him on it, he’s a git.
If he’s spent all the money and comes out with a series of plausible reasons why he can’t possibly pay you back straight away, he’s a bastard.
If he’s spent all the money and refuses to talk to you about it or even meet, he’s a shit.
If he’s spent all the money, openly admits it, refuses to admit that he’s done anything wrong and tells you you shouldn’t be so uptight about it, he’s a cunt.

I think that about covers it. (That last term, incidentally, has never been exemplified better than in the second episode of Queer as Folk. Vince: “He’s a cunt, Nathan.” Says it all.)

One peculiarity of the BritEng slang lexicon, as I understand it, is that there’s no real equivalent to the AmEng ‘asshole’. ‘Prat’ and its cognates are close: like ‘prat’, ‘asshole’ is a light enough word to convey banal, everyday contempt and irritation. But there’s a certain fondness about the contempt expressed by ‘prat’; ‘asshole’ has more of a critical edge. An asshole, in other words, is a useless idiot, but he’s not just someone who can’t help being a useless idiot – there’s a suggestion of dogged persistence, even malevolence. I think it’s a concept that doesn’t really exist in Britslang, at least not until you get to the more definitively offensive levels of ‘twat’ and beyond.

It seems that Italian is more like AmEng, although the word in question doesn’t translate as ‘asshole’. But to find out what it is, you’ll have to read part II.

Public service announcement

Ellis:

there is one dissenting voice on the blogger left. He believes he has located “a devastating case against Chomsky, focusing in particular on the Srebrenica massacre.”Yes, I mean you, Phil.

Well, I’m on to it, comrade. And I think we are are about to enter the exhilarating territory of a fraternal disagreement.

More soon.

Personal to ES: let’s not, OK? At least, not just now. After last month’s events I’m still turning down and postponing work assignments, so a fraternal disagreement is the last thing I need. Least of all about Chomsky.

The fault’s mine – I shouldn’t have blogged the damn thing in the first place. I generally avoid the topic of Chomsky because it’s so hard, in two senses, to write about him critically (which has been the only way I can write about the guy for several years now). On one hand, he writes in a style which makes it unusually hard to make anything stick; on the other, he’s got a lot of devotees who will react to any criticism by leaping to his defence as a matter of principle. Oliver Kamm (whom I agree with about practically nothing, except his critique of Chomsky) has evidently got the obsessive dedication and the thick skin which the Chomsky-critic needs. I haven’t, frankly – previous engagements with Chomsky’s defenders have left me drained, mentally and emotionally. And this is, clearly, the last thing I need right now.

So, I’m a libertarian socialist but I’ve got it in for Chomsky. Who knows why? Maybe I was frightened by a generative linguist at an early age. Maybe I just can’t handle Chomsky’s unflinchingly bleak vision of the world. Or maybe I’m not so much a libertarian socialist, more a wet liberal apologist for imperialism – that would explain a lot. Up to you.

But the exhilarating territory of a fraternal disagreement? No thanks, Ellis. Let’s not.

Very Small Update: I feel compelled to note that I own five books authored by Noam Chomsky and one by Francis Wheen (which I haven’t read). I didn’t pay for most of them, mind you.

Absolutely Final Update: Emma Brockes is an ignorant idiot, or at least writes like one; I thought her ‘interview’ with Chomsky was a really dreadful piece of journalism. This doesn’t qualify my own views on Chomsky’s work.

Searching low and high

Update 14th June: it’s fixed. The search I describe below now returns 91 results on both Google and Yahoo!. (And one on MJ12 (thanks Paulie), but it’s early days.)

Help – Google’s broken.

Google’s ‘exact phrase’ search, to be precise. Earlier today I was looking for an English counterpart to the French phrase ‘basse police’ (elsewhere I’ve rendered it as ‘low policing’, following J-P. Brodeur, but the idiomatic content of the phrase gets lost that way). If in doubt, Google – so I googled

“basse police” definition

secure in the knowledge that Google would find the French ‘définition’ as well as the unaccented English word. And it’s true, I didn’t need to worry about that; the word ‘definition’ was present and correct, with and without accent. The only trouble was, only 19 of the pages Google brought back (1-87 of about 67,000) also included the phrase ‘basse police’; in particular, none of the first 66 results displayed included the phrase, although some included the word ‘basse’ and others the word ‘police’.

It gets worse (for Google). I tried the same query on Yahoo and got results 1-64 of about 114 (about 114?). Here are the first few, minus a couple of duplicates:

qu’elle participe de la définition de ses fins et qu’elle n’est pas dénuée … l’ordre semble d’abord relever de la basse police

entre ” haute ” police et ” basse ” police, entre surveillance d’un territoire et surveillance … des services secrets sont, par définition, opaques

Ces méthodes de basse police ont déjà eu lieu à Genève avec les persécutions du Parti Communiste … Ta définition de “stalinien” est fausse

utiliser (pertinemment) les expressions “haute police ” et ” basse police … je veux voir le mot et sa définition

And so it goes on. You see what they’ve done there? Yahoo has brought back pages containing both the word ‘definition’ and the phrase ‘basse police’, and only those pages. Fiendish.

To be fair to Google, this is a problem I’ve only noticed in the last couple of days. To revert to being hard on Google, it’s a major, major, service-vitiating-if-not-actually-disabling problem, and I would like to know what on earth they were thinking of to allow it to happen. (And I’d like it fixed, obviously.)

Until they become part of the view

Armin offers one of those self-advertising questionnaire things – ‘me-mes’, I think they’re called – on the subject of music:

1. A track from your early childhood
2. A track that you associate with your first love
3. A track that reminds you of a holiday trip
4. A track that you like but wouldn’t want to be associated with in public
5. A track that accompanied you when you were lovesick
6. A track that you have probably listened to most often
7. A track that is your favourite instrumental
8. A track that represents one of your favourite bands
9. A track which represents yourself best
10. A track that reminds you of a special occasion (which one?)
11. A track that you can relax to
12. A track that stands for a really good time in your life
13. A track that is currently your favourite
14. A track that you’d dedicate to your best friend
15. A track that you think nobody but you likes
16. A track that you like especially for its lyrics
17. A track that you like that’s neither English nor German
18. A track that lets you release tension best
19. A track that you want to be played on your funeral
20. A track that you’d nominate for the ‘best of all times’ category

I love the idea, but – like Armin – I’ve got mixed feelings about the actual meme. Twenty’s a nice round number, but it’s rather a big number. So this isn’t quite the same questionnaire Armin struggled with, but it does start with

1. A song from my early childhood
I remember Freddie and the Dreamers and Gerry and the Pacemakers, but most of all I remember “Have I the right” by the Honeycombs. It’s a Joe Meek production, and somehow combines a mood of cartoonishly brash exuberance with decorous observance of pop song formalities. It doesn’t sound like a novelty record, in other words (which is more than you can say of most chart singles these days). It sounds like a pop song, but one that’s been beamed back from the future of pop music.

2. Three songs that have been associated with loss
Jethro Tull, “Requiem”
The Verve, “The drugs don’t work”
Nick Drake, “Place to be”

3. A song that reminds me of a holiday trip
On my first trip to Spain, lying slightly ill in a cheap hotel room, I heard the inimitable Euro-disco sound of “Chiquitita” drifting over the rooftops. The lyrics were, of course, in Spanish -
Chiquitita, sabes muy bien
Que las penas vienen y van
Y desaparecen…

and I had a momentary vision of the continent of Europe united in song, oompah-ing in multilingual unison (Chiquitita, je sais trop bien…)

4. Three instrumentals that move me
François Couperin, “Les barricades mystérieuses”
The Tornadoes, “Telstar”
Air, “Mike Mills”

5. A song that reminds me of a special occasion
After our wedding we stayed one night at a hotel called The Pines, before going on to our honeymoon. Ever since then I’ve been particularly fond of the Triffids’ song “In the pines”, both because of the title and because of the lyrics.

6. Three songs that cannot be played too loud
Fatima Mansions, “Blues for Ceausescu”
Flying Saucer Attack, “At night”
Hüsker Dü, “Eight miles high”

7. An unforgettable live performance
I saw 10,000 Maniacs in 1987. “My Mother the War”, which they saved for the last song of the night, was one of the heaviest things I’ve ever heard: Robert Buck’s guitar alternated between piercing seagull screams and walls of power-chord noise. It was different from the album, and much better. The band left the stage while the last chord was fading, except for Natalie, who sang two verses of “He’s 1-A in the Army (But He’s A-1 In My Heart)” unaccompanied. After a couple of lines, people spontaneously started clapping along – on the off-beat. (On 4, 6 and 10 (over two bars of 6:8), to be precise.) Magical.

8. Three political songs
Gang of Four, “Return the gift”
the Jam, “Eton Rifles”
Robert Wyatt, “the British Road”

9. One single that changed my life
I had friends at school who got into punk early – they started with Patti Smith’s Horses in 1975 and went straight on through Richard Hell, the Ramones, the Damned, the Pistols… I was a prog holdout for a long time, mainly for reasons of intellectual snobbery; bands like Chelsea did the loud-guitar thing well enough, but they didn’t seem to have a lot to say.

I don’t even know what tomorrow will bring
Having no future’s a terrible thing

That’s enough of that. The single that did it for me came out in the summer of 1977. “The medium was tedium” was the Desperate Bicycles’ second single. There were no guitars – just organ, bass and drums, all of them played with more enthusiasm than skill. The words were barked out urgently, and there were a lot of them:

Your brain is in a better condition than mine
I heard about your feelings on the old grapevine
You can eat industrial waste
If you can stand the taste

Not so much Richard Hell, more Stackridge. And that was punk too. That was where punk started for me (even the Pistols sounded different after that). What’s more, this was a different side of punk. The song is mostly stream-of-consciousness, but it comes back again and again to the glorious discovery that you can make music: the chorus is one line,

It was easy, it was cheap – go and do it!

After that there were Scritti Politti, who thought deeply about the whole thing (Means of production : production of meaning); then there were labels like Small Wonder and Raw, and bands like the Cigarettes and the Filmcast and the Four Plugs. But it started with the Desperate Bicycles.

10. Three great songs
Peter Blegvad, “Me and Parvati”
Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna”
Robyn Hitchcock, “Queen Elvis”

11. A song that I learned a long time ago
A long, long time ago, in fact, and I can still remember how that music used to make me smile… Ahem. I’ve only been singing (in public, in front of people who are listening) for a couple of years, but I’ve been singing (singing songs all the way through, learning the words and the tune and taking care to get them right) since before my voice broke. It started with “American Pie”, which was number 1 in March 1972, when I was 11; it’s the first song I remember learning from start to end. (“Vincent” was probably the second, but we’ll draw a veil over that.) In the case of “American Pie”, it was a couple of years before I heard the album version, so to begin with I learned the last four verses without being entirely sure how they’d fit the tune. (Three of them are quite straightforward, but “Helter skelter in the summer swelter…” was a poser.) I went on to learn songs by Peter Gabriel Ian Hunter Pete Shelley Julian Cope ect ect, as well as quite a few by Trad – mostly they just kind of stick – but it started with “American Pie”.

And finally…

In my mind’s ear: ten songs and ten albums

the Beach Boys, “Good vibrations”
Captain Beefheart, “Sue Egypt”
David Bowie, “Sound and vision”
the Fall, “Winter”
Faust, “J’ai mal aux dents”
Ed Kuepper, “Messin’ pt II”
Pere Ubu, “Navvy”
Scritti Politti, “The ‘Sweetest Girl’”
Sudden Sway, “Tales from Talking Town”
Wizzard, “See my baby jive”

the Beta Band, the Three EPs
Eno, Taking Tiger Mountain by strategy
Family, Family Entertainment
the Homosexuals, the Homosexuals’ record
Joni Mitchell, Blue
A. More, Flying doesn’t help
Public Image Limited, Metal Box
Soft Machine, Third
Underworld, dubnobasswithmyheadman
Scott Walker, Climate of Hunter

And I’m tagging… no, I wouldn’t be so cruel. But if you want to answer these questions for yourself – or modify them even further, for that matter – feel free.

Snap into position

Here are three scenarios; see if you can spot the differences between them.

More people were found guilty of car theft in the first nine months of 2005 than in the whole of 2004.

One of four things has happened. The police and the courts are functioning as before but there’s more car theft going on; the police are sending more suspects to court, perhaps because of a crackdown on this type of offence; the courts are processing cases faster; or the courts are returning proportionately more guilty verdicts. The first of these obviously isn’t good news. The third (more efficient courts) is good; the second and fourth (more arrests, more convictions) may be good news or may not be. Second scenario:

More people were cautioned by police for suspected car theft in the first nine months of 2005 than in the whole of 2004.

Now we’re down to two possibilities: either there are more car thieves or the police are working harder on nailing them. But this second possibility is not necessarily a good thing, and doesn’t necessarily mean that justice is being done more effectively: remember the case of the 1989 gross indecency figures (misrepresented by Nick Cohen as the product of a passing obsession with public toilets in Slough). Cue the third scenario:

More people were cautioned by police for being “nasty little toerags who we can’t actually pin anything on at this stage” in the first nine months of 2005 than in the whole of 2004.

The point here is that figures for police activity don’t record crime; what they record is police activity, which doesn’t necessarily track anything but itself. Tell the police to arrest more people and arrests will go up. Tell the police to arrest people for looking at them a bit funny, and there will be a dramatic rise in the level of looking-at-police-a-bit-funny offences – although this will be accompanied, encouragingly, by a highly effective police crackdown on the offence.

All right, let’s be serious. Here’s what’s actually happening:

Between January and September last year judges used 2,679 Asbos, compared with 2,660 during the whole of 2004. [This also compares with 1,043 in 2003 and 976 between April 1999, when the ASBO was introduced, and the end of 2002.]Home Office minister Hazel Blears said: “Antisocial behaviour can be a harrowing experience that no one should have to endure. Today’s statistics show that local authorities, the police and the courts are not hesitating to use Asbos to clamp down on the problem. I am extremely encouraged that they continue to be used.”

The first sentence of Blears’ statement is true, of course, although ‘can be’ is the operative phrase: ‘anti-social behaviour’ is defined, in law, as behaving ‘in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household’, which not only gives thin-skinned neighbours a limitless licence to be offended but gives the police a licence to take offence on their behalf (caused or was likely to cause). In practice ‘anti-social behaviour’ is pretty much whatever you want it to be (actual criminal offences apart). As Bev Hughes said in 2003,

It can mean very different things from one place to the next. In one area it’s young people causing problems on the street, in another it’s noisy neighbours or abandoned cars. In one town centre it’s street drinking and begging, in another it’s prostitution.

If you think it’s anti-social, in other words, then it probably is.

The second sentence of Blears’ statement is also true, but only up to the word ‘Asbos’. There is no necessary connection between a rise in the imposition of ASBOs and any consistent or identifiable pattern of behaviour. Certainly the police are not hesitating to request ASBOs, nor are magistrates’ courts hesitating to grant them; beyond that, it’s literally impossible to say what’s going on. More offensive behaviour? A progressive crackdown on existing levels of offensive behaviour? A progressive and expanding crackdown on ever less extreme examples of offensive behaviour? Or a crackdown on whatever and whoever police officers might feel like cracking down on, secure in the knowledge that the Home Office is right behind them? It could be any of these; it’s probably a combination of all of them.

The danger here isn’t just that the government endorses police harassment, as with ‘sus’ under Thatcher. An ASBO is a court order to refrain from certain, lawful, patterns of behaviour – which may include going to certain places or being seen with certain people, as well as behaviours such as wearing gloves or being a passenger in a car. The order may have a fixed term or run indefinitely; while it’s in force, violating the order is a criminal offence. Since obtaining a court order does not require a full trial, courtroom standards of proof do not obtain in an ASBO hearing and hearsay evidence is admissible. In other words, someone who is accused of behaving in ways which might upset somebody – someone who has not been accused of any crime, let alone convicted – can be prevented by law from carrying out an arbitrary range of other non-criminal actions, at any time in future; if they do, they can be jailed. The danger here is that policing turns into long-term social control. Blears again:

“Over the past 12 months we have seen enthusiastic take-up of Asbos, which sends out a clear message to those people who persist in this behaviour that action will be taken against them.”

Bad people! You bad people out there, stop it now! No more badness!

There’s something very New Labour about the lightness of all this. (So, what we need is something that is free, universally popular and that we can roll out instantly…) A consistent authoritarian conservative – a Tory of the old school, say – would know very well what anti-social behaviour was and how you dealt with it: you define it, you make laws against it, you put more bobbies on the beat and you arrest the anti-social yobs and hooligans who are causing the trouble. New Labour have always had the problem that, while they wanted to get the working-class law-and-order vote, it wasn’t really their thing – they didn’t really know those people, and when push came to shove they didn’t much care about them. So how do we define anti-social behaviour? Then the brainwave: We don’t. They’re worried about it, so we let them define it. We give them the tools to combat it, and how they do it is up to them. It’s democratic, it’s decentralised, it’s empowering – and the tabloids will love it!

The trouble with this approach to policy-making is that it’s always liable to grow beyond the government’s control: it’s easier to start a snowball of public outrage than stop it. Having said that, the recent rash of news stories about people getting Fixed Penalty Notices (and that’s another story) for offences such as wearing an offensive shirt, using the word ‘fuck’ in conversation or putting an envelope in a litter bin suggest that this trend may be soon exhaust the available supply of natural outrage and grind to a halt. I wonder what they’ll think of next?

Many many sheep

I dreamed about my father this morning. In the dream, I’d somehow managed to establish contact with him where he is now (he died in 2001). He wasn’t happy: he was bored, he was lonely, he missed us, he missed his home. I didn’t like to explain to him that he couldn’t come back; it seemed unnecessarily hurtful. I told him that they’d built a whole new wing on the place where he was living, but he wasn’t interested.

(I realised afterwards that this last part was a reference to John 14:2.)

I don’t believe in personal survival, not least because I find it hard to believe that anything recognisable as the soul of an identifiable human being would not be dreadfully homesick. (I think it’s Little My, in one of the Moomin books, who asks how you get back down from Heaven and is outraged to hear that you don’t.) I like Robyn Hitchcock‘s lines:

I was free as a penny whistle
And silent as a glove
I wasn’t me to speak of
Just a thousand ancient feelings
That vanished into nothing – into love

Along similar lines, here’s a poem I wrote many years ago. I’m not sure where it came from – falling asleep, possibly.

DyingAfter my last visitor was gone,
I lay and let my eyes close.
The world dwindled away, and I watched
A noise of memories jostling, chattering,
Seeing images snap out of nowhere, shrinking, dilating,
Muttering… Then they too left me.
My eyes held only a deep, clear grey.
My body lay, now, calm and heavy,
My limbs, their weight, spread like scattered rocks,
Rocks tumbled on a shore, slanted from the sea’s waves,
Or rocks old on a hillside scattered, crooked
Huge. A river rose among those rocks:
A river, cold and quiet in the night,
My running slowly out to meet the sea.
Passing, then, down through dark valleys,
All through grey and gravel-bedded lands
And on to cliffs, and cataracts! falling in foam
Into the still air, smashed on rocks and splashing,
Hurrying, trembling, coming at last to the shore,
To the rim of the ocean. Under the stars
Flowing, oh coursing into the sea’s cold basin,
And my diffusion, out to horizon’s depth,
Mingled with the dark, glimmering sea,
And ah! the infinite circles of the stars!

That would do. (Poetrivia: the last line came first, in the best Hunting of the Snark style. I can also reveal that, in the phrase ‘rocks old on a hillside scattered’, ‘old’ is meant to qualify ‘hillside’. I’m sure you were wondering.)

Another way of looking at death is to say that, whatever it is, it’s not life – which is to say, it’s not any of the things that we know in life. Which leads in to these words, which I sang at my mother’s funeral. It’s mostly Shakespeare, with a couple of modern amendments (mine).

Fear no more the heat of the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear no slander or censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan.
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
Follow thee and come to dust.

May no misfortune take thee
Nor remembrance forsake thee.
Unquiet spirit forbear thee,
No ill thing come near thee.
Quiet consummation have
And renowned be thy grave!

A friend commented that our parents have ‘big lives’. It’s an odd phrase, but I think it captures something. My life (or your life, if you insist) is vast: my life contains everything there is, as far as I’m concerned. Other people’s lives are tiny by comparison. Only a few people have lives anywhere near as big as mine: my partner, my children, my very closest friends (perhaps) and, above all and before all, my parents. Big lives, and big absences. But if they’re not here I can’t really see that they’re anywhere – and I’d hate to think of their spirits parked endlessly in a kind of heavenly holiday development, bickering idly and wondering how we were getting on without them. Better to melt into a cosmic background thrum of love – or flow into a dark sea reflecting infinite stars.

We are bored in the city

Et la piscine de la rue des Fillettes. Et le commissariat de police de la rue du Rendez-Vous. La clinique médico-chirurgicale et le bureau de placement gratuit du quai des Orfèvres. Les fleurs artificielles de la rue du Soleil. L’hôtel des Caves du Château, le bar de l’Océan et le café du Va et Vient. L’hôtel de l’Epoque.

Et l’étrange statue du Docteur Philippe Pinel, bienfaiteur des aliénés, dans les derniers soirs de l’été. Explorer Paris.

The early situationists, following Chtcheglov‘s lead, turned urban wandering into a form of political/psychological exploration, a group encounter with the city mediated only by alcohol. At a less exalted level, I’ve long been fascinated by the kind of odd urban poetry evoked here, in Manchester as much as Paris, and by the changing articulation of city space: established cities are a slow-motion example of Marx’s dictum about how we make our lives within conditions we have inherited. So it’s easy to see how well this could work:

Socialight lets you put virtual “sticky” notes called StickyShadows anywhere in the real world. Share pictures, notes and more using your cell phone.

But – for all that the site says about restricting access to Groups and Contacts – it’s also easy to see how very badly it could work.

* I leave a note for all my friends at the mall to let them know where I’m hanging out. All my friends in the area see it.
* A woman shows all her close friends the tree under which she had her first kiss.
* An entire neighborhood gets together and documents all the unwanted litter they find in an effort to share ownership of a community problem.
* A food-lover uses Socialight to share her thoughts on the amazing vanilla milkshakes at a new shop.
* The neighborhood historian creates her own walking tour for others to follow.
* A group of friends create their own scavenger hunt.
* A tourist takes place-based notes about stores in a shopping district, only for himself, for a time when he returns to the same city.
* A small business places StickyShadows that its customers would be interested in finding.
* A band promotes an upcoming show by leaving a StickyShadow outside the venue.

It was all going so well (although I did wonder why that entire neighbourhood couldn’t just pick up the litter) right up to the last two. Advertising – yep, that’s just what we all want more of in our urban lives. Lots of nice intrusive advertising.

Anne:

The worst thing about taking-for-granted that our experiences with the city and each other will be “enriched” by more data, by more information, by making the invisible visible, etc., is that we never have to account for or be accountable to how.

More specifically, there’s a huge difference between enabling conversation and enabling people to be informed – in other words, between talking-with and being-talked-at. Social software is all about conversation – about enabling people to talk together. Moreover, any conversation is defined as much by what it shuts out as what it includes; it’s hard to listen to the people you want to talk with when you’re being talked at. Even setting aside the information-overload potential of all those overlapping groups (do I need to know where so-and-so had her first kiss? do I need to know now?), it’s clear that Socialight is trying to serve two ends which are not only incompatible but opposed – and only one of which pays money. Which is probably why, even though the technology is still in beta, I already feel that using it constructively would be going against the grain.

He once inspired awe

Tonight, we burn the king of straw

I’ve been critical of Chomsky’s political work for some time; his writing on the Balkans, in particular, strikes me as not only obstinately self-deluded but actively poisonous. Francis Wheen, Oliver Kamm and David Aaronovitch (a fairly unlovely troika, I admit) have now published a devastating case against Chomsky, focusing in particular on the Srebrenica massacre. They demonstrate conclusively that Diana Johnstone, a writer commended by Chomsky, systematically minimises and downplays the massacre, using an armoury of devices familiar to any student of Holocaust denial. They also show that Chomsky’s commendation of Johnstone’s work specifically and emphatically endorses its factual content, rather than being based on a ‘free speech defence’.

If you’ve been inclined to give Chomsky the benefit of the doubt – or to dismiss him and Kamm as equal and opposite obsessives who deserve each other – you should read this now.

I’ve been critical of Chomsky’s political work for some time, but I’ve always assumed that his eminence in linguistics was unchallenged; I’ve certainly never felt I had the academic chops to challenge it. Fortunately not everyone is so timid. Thanks to Stuart and Dave, I’ve recently become aware of Chris Knight’s critique of Chomsky the linguist. Knight, who has nothing but respect for Chomsky as a political activist, traces the tangled evolution of Chomsky’s linguistics and finds it wanting. More, he argues that it is shaped by the twin imperatives offered by Chomsky’s institutional background (military-funded computing) and by an anarchist mistrust of social science. The result is that, as a linguist, Chomsky is driven to positions of Cartesian rationalism, biological determinism and psychological individualism: we have language because we are the kind of animal that we are; we are that kind of animal because at some unknowable point we just, mysteriously, became that kind of animal; and nothing about how we interact with one another in society has, or has ever had, any bearing on the question. Needless to say, Knight finds this an extremely unsatisfactory account of human nature. This essay (also published in this expanded version (PDF)) is well worth reading, if only for some extraordinary passages of peevish circular logic from Chomsky on the subject of the social sciences (“I don’t think they’ve ever made any great breakthroughs, so they can’t have done, or I would have heard of them…”).

Smash your idols, kids! (Only not my idols, all right? I’ll deal with them myself. Later.)

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