Not thrones and crowns

A meme from Paulie:

Q1. How would you define “atheism”?

The dogmatic certainty that God does not exist, and that His non-existence really matters. Like Paulie, I prefer ‘agnostic’ as a label.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

Church of England; I described it here. We were quite big on the story about feeding the hungry and freeing the prisoners, and the one about the woman taken in adultery, and the bit with the money-changers in the Temple. We weren’t particularly bothered about what happens when you die – or even, really, about what happened when Jesus died.

Q3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?

Dishonest. (What’s the point of this question? It’d be far more interesting to write a paragraph, or even a sentence.)

Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

Anything to do with history, up to and including palaeontology. But science has a lot to offer our understanding of even quite recent periods. Get a load of this, from a recent LRB:

In 1998, Michael Bennett revealed that a badly burned charter in the Cottonian Collection, just readable under ultraviolet light, was a copy of a previously unknown declaration by Edward III of October 1376, strictly limiting the royal succession to his male heirs and their male descent. This declaration was never made public, and it was quite unclear that a king had any right to regulate the succession in this way. If valid, it made John of Gaunt, and Henry after him, heirs to the throne should Richard, the son of Edward’s eldest son, the Black Prince, die childless, and excluded the March line, whose royal blood came through Edward’s granddaughter. The declaration was probably made at Gaunt’s prompting and must have been known to Henry at an early point, and to Richard too.

New discoveries from fourteenth-century manuscripts – that’s exciting.

(The space programme was fantastic, too.)

Q5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?

What: its arrogant condescension towards the rest of the world. Why: because it’s not a good way to relate to people. Marxists feel quite certain that they (or rather we) have got the key to human history, but we also believe that everyone else needs to get it for themselves. Freudians feel similarly confident that they (or we) have got the psyche down pat – but, again, we don’t go around pouring scorn on the unanalysed masses. Neither group would dream of claiming that our particular brand of enlightenment had dibs on the word ‘bright’. I’d like to see some humility from atheists – some acknowledgment that it’s possible to learn from people whose mental universes strike you as daft.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?

I’d be both disappointed and pleased, which would probably necessitate quite a long conversation. My children are both personally tolerant, politically liberal and intellectually curious; I’ve known clergy who were all three, so let’s assume that, in this scenario, these character traits haven’t changed. But I’d still be disappointed, since I don’t think belief in a personal saviour who forgives sins and guarantees admission to Heaven is particularly healthy. Admittedly, when I was growing up (as I said above) we got along fine in the Church of England without bothering much about that end of things, but I think it’d be hard to pull this off while actually wearing a dogcollar. I’d be pleased, at the same time, because I think that – even taking into account their role in fostering supernaturalist illusions – most clergy do more good than harm. (I’d certainly rather that than they went into advertising.)

Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

If I went in for this sort of thing, it’d be the First Cause. I tried to refute it in a rather simple-minded church youth group once, many years ago, using an insanely complex theory which I’d got from Isaac Asimov – there was a singularity before the Big Bang, and then there was also a singularity of anti-matter, and there was a Big Bang in the anti-matter universe too – only it was more complicated than that because there was another singularity… no, right, there was another pair of singularities, that’s right, only when these two singularities had their Big Bangs they were actually going backwards in time… and the thing is, right, before the Big Bang all these singularities cancelled each other out, right, which meant that actually nothingness could turn into four separate singularities at any moment, so like it could be happening all the time…

A much better answer, I think, is we don’t know. We don’t know, but we – collectively, as a species – are trying to find out. Isn’t that exciting? (History again, you see.)

Q8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

As far as capital-A atheists go, see above, QQ1 and 5, and below, Q9. (We Guardian-reading live-and-let-live agnostics don’t really have the kind of orthodoxy this question implies.)

Q9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

None of the above. Both Dawkins and Dennett would be good on their own territory, if only they’d stick to it. I went off Dawkins when I first read about memes, which is some time ago now. Dennett these days is quite openly an evangelist, and I don’t trust evangelists. Hitchens has very little to offer in this area; I haven’t seen much by Sam Harris, but what I have seen suggests that he’s a twit. The only self-proclaimed atheist writer I’ve got any time for is Philip Pullman; he takes religion seriously as part of real, intellligent people’s lives.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

Ian Paisley, just to see what would happen. But I don’t believe in persuading people to abandon their beliefs – for atheism as for Marx or Freud, people need to see that it works when you use it and then realise that it would work for them. Or not – it’s up to them.

And I tag… you, dear (presumptively atheist) reader. Or not – it’s up to you.


Skates on, mate

Something from the Italian press, following on from Liam. This is taken from a column by Curzio Maltese in today’s Repubblica. ‘Il Caimano’ – ‘the caiman‘ – is a popular and well-deserved nickname for Berlusconi.

It’s a bit naive – no, extremely naive – to profess to be astonished that Berlusconi the statesman has turned back into Berlusconi the Caiman. If there’s anyone who’s true to their own nature, far removed from the human weaknesses of fatigue and self-doubt, it’s Berlusconi. Long before he entered politics, he was what he is now: an authoritarian paternalist, subversive of democracy by nature, fond of the demagogue’s shortcuts and cheerfully contemptuous of any democratic counter-power (from the judiciary to the independent media), and exhibiting the intolerance of constitutional rules that he learned in the school of P2.

The question has never been how much and in what ways Berlusconi could change – he never changes. Rather, it’s how much and in what ways Italy has changed – for it’s changed an awful lot in the last fifteen years, thanks in part to the huge media influence of Berlusconi himself.

Berlusconi has entered government three times now. Each time, he has tried to bend the Italian constitution to his will, starting with violent attacks on the judiciary. He did it in 1994, when the Biondi decree [releasing corruption suspects from bail] was his government’s first act. He did it in 2001, when emergency decrees on the law were put forward even before the government had been inaugurated. And he’s doing it now. The language used is more violent each time – and so is the content of the legislation.

But, while Berlusconi has pushed harder and harder against the democratic system, the reaction by public opinion has been weaker and weaker. In 1994 the revolt against the Biondi “thieves’ charter” weakened the Berlusconi government from day one – and that government only lasted a few months. In 2001 the “girotondi” began a wave of social movement protest, with millions in the streets, which would lead to a series of heavy electoral defeats for the centre-right alliance, even though it had a huge majority in parliament. The third time round, faced with an even more blatant attempt to tear the independent judiciary off its hinges, the reaction is all too weak. The opposition, setting aside the illusion of a dialogue with the government, has announced the beginning of a new wave of struggle – in Autumn, not now. The forces of ‘civil society’ seem to have left the scene.

In the last 25 years, while Berlusconi has not changed, Italy has changed a lot – and for the worse. The fabric of civic and social society has worn away; the common sense of society has been reworked around authoritarian themes. In casual conversation, in offices and bars and on beaches, you can hear opinions voiced which would have been unthinkable in the Italy of 1994 – on immigration or the law, civil rights or religion, Europe or the unions. “Berlusconism” began in the belly of a country where democracy was never fully established, for a thousand different reasons (Left as well as Right reasons); it has now spread to all the organs of the nation, ending up with its brain.

The question is whether public opinion still includes those democratic antibodies which, in 1994 and in 2001, hindered the more or less gentle drift towards the establishment of an authoritarian regime. The signs are contradictory; everything is still to play for. Certainly, in the last two decades the brute strength of Berlusconian populism has only grown, along with its purchase on increasingly large areas of society. This isn’t only a question of the power of TV and publishing: we’re looking at outright cultural hegemony. Among the opposition, it’s surprising that, even after all this time, the former pupils of Gramsci still fail to grasp the mechanics – and the scale – of the strategy that’s being put into action. Sadly, they never change either. They were fooling themselves (still!) that they could turn Berlusconi into a statesman by offering him a seat at their negotiating table. Now, they’re fooling themselves (still!) that they can put up resistance with tired slogans beginning “Hands Off” or by entrenching themselves in their “red regions” – regions which are already pale pink and threatening, sooner or later, to turn grey or black [the colour of Fascism].

They’re waiting for better times – but for the opposition there never will be a better time than this.

We’ve always thought (those of us with any interest in electoral politics under capitalism, which excludes (for instance) this bunch) – we’ve always thought that tactical manoeuvring and upholding socialist principle were opposites, or at least mutually exclusive. What the continuing disaster of the 2008 Italian elections suggests to me is that, when the Right knows what it’s doing, there’s no real contradiction between the two. Hoist the red flag and you’ll be trampled; give away your principles in the name of self-preservation, and you’ll still be trampled – but you’ll cut away the ground you could have built on in the process. The tragedy of Walter Veltroni – shared, let’s not personalise this too much, with the entire centre-Right of the old PCI – is that he seems genuinely to have believed that Berlusconi had excluded the centre-left from political legitimacy because he believed they were Communists. In fact it was, always, the other way round. If Berlusconi called the centre-left Communists, it was because he wanted to exclude them – more precisely, he didn’t want them to get in his way. By splitting the centre-left, destroying its Left component and redefining what remains on, effectively, anti-Communist lines, Veltroni has ensured that they won’t.

In the hot sun

Obsolete has an excellent, if inevitably depressing, analysis of the latest from Louise Casey. I was particularly struck by one line in particular: apparently Casey thinks it’s important

to get the public more engaged in tackling crime and to stop the erosion of community spirit.

Oh-oh – Broken Windows alert. Criminologists have spent years of their lives trying to make sense of this stuff – what ‘community spirit’ is, how you can tell whether it’s eroded or not and what the actual causal connection is between community spirit and the level of crime. By and large, they haven’t had much success. And, if you look at the original article and subsequent papers by the main proponents of this stuff – Bill Bratton as well as Kelling and Wilson in the US, Norman Dennis and Ray Mallon over here – that’s not surprising: the parts about how it’s actually supposed to work are quite insultingly vague. In point of fact, the original article is only incidentally about crime; it’s about policing, but policing in the service of a certain kind of social order. The focus isn’t crime prevention, in other words, so much as the prevention of disorder as an end in itself – an emphasis which I think you can find in a lot of subsequent ‘communitarian’ work on crime prevention, including the much more sophisticated work of people like Martin Innes.

The worst of it is that, at least in its cruder forms, this model is more or less untestable. Which, in turn, makes it more or less impossible to disprove: you can always look around you and see disorder, fear of crime and a lack of community spirit. So it never dies – at least, not for as long as there are journalists and politicians willing to keep it fresh.

I’ll leave detailed comment on Casey’s report to Obsolete, at least until I’ve had a chance to read the thing. For now I’ll just comment on one point from the report, which has been widely publicised: the proposal to make community service more punitive, by calling it ‘Community Payback’ and making the people doing it wear high-visibility jackets. Obsolete points out that, for better or worse, both of these proposals are already in place in some parts of the country, and comments: it doesn’t seem to have altered the impression that it’s a soft option, possibly because that’s what the popular press always refers to it as.

I’d go further: I think being ‘not punitive enough’ is widely seen as part of the definition of community service, essentially by virtue of it not being prison. That being the case, making it more visible is likely to set up a feedback loop which could make matters much worse. If you see a bunch of blokes weeding a verge or picking up litter, and not obviously having a really horrible time of it – they might be chatting among themselves, they might even be stopping for a fag – you’re not going to think I spy Evil Criminals Getting Punished! You might even think I spy Evil Criminals Having A Jolly Nice Time! – obviously ignoring the fact that the chat or the fag break came in the middle of several hours of menial labour, at the end of which they’d have no money and just as many bills to pay. But we can’t have that, think Casey and her ilk, so clearly community service will need to be made ‘tougher’ – keep ’em at it every minute of the day, no breaks, no talking…

But, at least in the last couple of centuries, sentencing has never been about punishment and nothing but. More to the point, custodial and community-based sentences have never been designed on the basis of making the convict’s life a misery every minute of the day. For a set period, your time is forfeit – your life is not your own; that is the punishment. The logic of Casey’s position is to, literally, scapegoat people on community sentences – turn them into a kind of all-purpose scratching-post for people to let out their hatred and fear of ‘criminals’ (which is a big subject in itself, and certainly doesn’t seem to have much to do with the level of crime). Petrol’s up again… more dead in Afghanistan… another stabbing down the road… guy in an orange jumpsuit and a tag cutting the verge, looks really miserable about it, well serve you bloody well right pal! As a way of treating actual flesh-and-blood offenders – and offenders who, by definition, won’t be guilty of anything very serious – it leaves just about everything to be desired.

I know when I’m wrong

I seem to be disagreeing with WorldbyStorm quite a lot lately. Here’s WbS on the Lisbon Treaty:

I’d tend to the view that it is difficult to see how 26 countries won’t move forward. Why shouldn’t they? There’s no advantage to the status quo.

I was once, in a fairly received way, quite wedded to the federal model. Result? Supportive of the EU. But now I’ve shifted much more to an intergovernmental viewpoint. Result? Critically supportive of the EU, and consequently a Yes vote yesterday. The thing is that I’m simply not concerned about issues of ‘democratic’ legitimation that seems to exercise federalists, or the more starry eyed on the No side. … So, while an EU wide vote on a Treaty is a great idea on one level, I simply don’t believe it will happen, that there is any political or popular will for it and therefore have put it out of my mind.

In similar vein, my old Socialist Society comrade John Palmer comments at CLR:

The best way forward would be for the other 26 Member States to complete ratification (18 already have). Then the Irish government should agree to the provision which allows the treaty to come into force if there is at least two thirds in favour. Dublin could volunteer to resile temporarily from involvement in those areas of decision directly affected by the Lisbon Treaty provisions at least while a solution is found within Ireland itself. I acknowledge this will not be simple. But this would be better than an Irish veto (made possible by c100,000 Irish voters) which prevents all the rest of the European Union (250 million people) going ahead. It should be remembered that the peoples of Spain and Luxembourg have already voted in referendums to ratify the original Constitutional Treaty but there votes now count for nothing.

What seems to emerge from these arguments – perhaps more clearly from WbS’s post than John’s comment – is an assumption that the project represented by the Lisbon Treaty is good in and of itself, whatever the actual people of Europe may think about it. Without some such assumption, John’s comment doesn’t make much sense – apart from anything else, it’s not at all obvious to me why the Irish No vote should be seen as any more trifling numerically, or any less valid politically, than the Luxembourg Yes vote. If you do make that assumption, on the other hand, the Irish plebiscite is an embarrassment twice over: you don’t want the Irish to say No, but on the other hand you don’t really want them to think you need them to say Yes. In this sense the EU project isn’t so much undemocratic as anti-democratic. I don’t think ‘inter-governmental’ is the word: the EU’s long gone beyond de Gaullean intergovernmentality to build its own European governing institutions and its own European bureaucracy, which have developed very largely in their own sphere, with their own rules and under their own momentum. Endorsement from below is an optional extra; it’s nice to have, but not getting it shouldn’t slow things down too much. (Consider John’s ‘best way forward’. If the rules under which the project is currently working say that 100% consent is required for ratification, and if 100% consent has become impossible, surely any best way forward has to begin by acknowledging that ratification isn’t going to happen?)

As progressive as EU influence on Britain has sometimes been, I find it very hard to see EU integration in terms of Jacques Delors vs UKIP. Socially progressive it may be in some respects, but economically the EU’s centre of gravity is well over on the Right. (Flash back to an old Communist couple I bumped into in Croydon some time in the 70s. We got talking about the EEC, as it then was, and I mumbled something about how I was concerned that it was better for, er, business interests… than it was for, er, the trade unions… The old bloke cut me off – “Well, it’s a capitalist club, isn’t it?” Yup – capitalist, that’s the word I was looking for. It’s a good word.) More to the point, the main polarisation that seems to be emerging isn’t between Left and Right, but between a pro-EU establishment and a large proportion of the people they purport to represent – and the issue on which it’s emerging is, precisely, representation. On one side, WbS (I’m simply not concerned about issues of ‘democratic’ legitimation that seems to exercise federalists, or the more starry eyed on the No side). On the other, Splintered Sunrise:

The Lisbon Treaty may not be quite definitively sunk – these Euro-treaties have a habit of coming back from the dead – but yes, it’s definitely holed beneath the waterline, thanks to the one EU state where the constitution requires the plebs to have their say, much to the frustration of both the Eurocrats and the Dublin political class. This is all to the good.

And my new favourite political blog, Obsolete:

primarily it was a vote against something which only judges, bureaucrats and lawyers can understand and a vote against the politicians who didn’t even attempt to help those voting understand. … If you don’t understand it, vote no. Who could possibly argue with such basic logic, or blame them for doing so?

Something similar seems to be happening around David Davis. My immediate reaction, before I’d seen the next day’s press, was:

Given that it’s a safe Tory seat, it puts Labour in a very difficult position. If they don’t stand a candidate, Davis will win the argument. If they treat it like a normal by-election, they’ll get flattened and Davis will win the argument. If they fight really hard and dirty – painting Davis as soft on Al Qaeda & essentially going for the core Tory authoritarian vote – they’ve got a chance of getting a respectable vote, but they’ll alienate historic Labour voters still more. And shaking up the Labour vote is always a good tactic for the Tories – it’d be nice to think all those people would either stay loyal or wait for a socialist party to come over the horizon, but they’re more likely to drift over to the Tories on the general principle of giving the other lot a chance. (I wonder if Davis would have had this idea if it hadn’t been for Crewe & Nantwich.)

It’s good tactics in support of a sound political principle, and a timely challenge to a tired and arrogant regime propped up by a whipped majority. Just a shame it’s a Tory who’s doing it, really.

So I was a bit shocked by the press reaction (Obsolete again there) – repeatedly shocked, in fact (“I guess the Graun‘s a bit New Labour, but surely they’ll… oh. The Telegraph‘s made it lead story, and they’re Tories, they’re bound to… oh. What about the Indie, they’re pretty sound on civil liberties, surely they’ll… oh.”) Shocked all over again – and dismayed – by the Labour Party’s intention not to stand a candidate, and more particularly by their apparent determination to brazen it out on the grounds that… actually, what were the grounds again, other than not wanting to have the argument? WorldbyStorm puts it well, again – in a post which I’m afraid takes the anti-democratic side of the argument, again:

Well, that it would be – if anyone turned up. But there in lies the rub. No one appears to want to. After all, why try to contest a safe Conservative constituency? What political percentage is there in that. So the Liberal Democrats have announced they’re not in the running, while giving rhetorical support for his stance, and Labour will presumably follow suit – without the support rhetorical or otherwise.

Fight a by-election? What political percentage is there in that? To say I don’t often agree with Bloggers4Labour would be an understatement – I don’t think it’s ever happened before – but I thought this post was excellent:

If initial reactions are anything to go by, Labour’s big guns are going to take a depressingly contemptuous line … Equally tawdry, I feel, would be the decision not to field a Labour candidate at the forthcoming Haltemprice and Howden by-election. That would be a decision bound to salt the earth for the local CLP and the PPC, who might well pay the price at a local level for years to come. Whatever our individual views, Labour, nationally, has made its decision, and so it must stick up for its policy, whether that allows it to hold its vote, or costs it a deposit. The Lib Dems are entitled not to stand if they fully support the Conservatives, but Labour can’t withdraw too, leaving one side of the argument/electorate with no (mainstream) representative.

Labour may not have many supporters in David Davis’s constituency, but there are some. What are they supposed to do, abstain? The Labour Party – a Labour government, as Neil Kinnock might say – advising its supporters not to vote? As with the Lisbon Treaty, what seems to emerge here is an instrumental attitude to democracy – democratic accountability as a means to an end, or rather one of a number of possible means to an end – which is ultimately rather hard to distinguish from simply not believing in democracy. And, as with the Lisbon Treaty, I suspect that the establishment which believes it can substitute assumed consent for democratic endorsement has misjudged the public mood: many of those whose consent is being assumed may feel inclined to withhold it, or at least to be given the option to do so. (A particularly scummy aspect of Labour’s strategy is that it’ll be hard to count a Davis vote as a vote against Labour if Labour don’t stand.) As with Lisbon, finally, we can look to see this by-election producing some strange bedfellows.

It’s true that Davis doesn’t have anything to teach the Left about civil liberties, but that’s not really the point – the lesson isn’t in the importance of civil liberties but in the fact that people value them, and it’s not the Left that needs to learn it. And I suppose it’s true that there’s something backward-looking, even vaguely Norman Yoke-ish, about upholding the common law rights of the freeborn Briton against managerialist incursions, from London or Brussels. But that’s not really the point either: if a bad law is passed, giving the state still more power or still less accountability, thinking we were better off before that law was passed doesn’t make you a reactionary.

Would I vote No to Lisbon? Like a shot – as I wrote somewhere else, “any time those people give us a vote I’d be inclined to vote No – particularly in a case where the vote’s called to ratify decisions that have already been made without any real attempt to explain their implications, let alone to allow input from below”. Would I vote for Davis? That’s a bit harder – I vote Green, I’ve voted Lib Dem in the past (I was young), and I can imagine myself voting Plaid Cymru, but if I’ve kept anything from my Labour upbringing it’s a conviction that you don’t vote Tory. Let’s just say that I believe, with B4L, that we should battle illiberal and conservative ideas and values, with liberal, cooperative, and socialist ones – and that, on that basis, I’d very much welcome the opportunity to vote against Labour.

Update 16/6 The response to the 42 days proposal by the soft-left Compass group caused a bit of a storm: the group campaigned against, but then both Jon Trickett and Jon Cruddas, its parliamentary spokesperson and leading figurehead respectively, voted in favour. Trickett has since resigned his position, albeit with a remarkably bad grace. Emily Thornberry has been cited as a Compass MP who voted against, and as a potential future leader of the parliamentary group. So who’s this

lectur[ing] us that:
• The Irish didn’t really mean resounding ‘no’ (didn’t understand what they were doing, poor loves) delivered to the EU treaty last week and that Europe should find their way round this inconvenient legal fact.

• That it is impossible that an MP might put his career on the line, resign and seek re-election on an issue like civil liberties on principle.

Why, it’s Emily Thornberry.

Back in my Socialist Society days I once suggested to a friend that the Society ought to line up with the soft Left – which back then meant the likes of Robin Cook and Clare Short, ILP, the pre-Twigg LCER and maybe Chartist at a pinch. My friend demurred & said the trouble with the soft Left was that, like other soft things, they were liable to get squashed. OK, it’s not Oscar Wilde, but I think there was a lot of truth in it.

My silly Cuban heels

A bit more oneirography (I don’t intend to make a habit of it). I had a dream last night which reminded me oddly of a dream I made up some years ago. (I wrote it for a short story (unpublished); the story was vaguely, partially autobiographical, but the dream was completely made up.) See if you can tell which is which. (Yes, it’s Am I Unconscious Fantasy Or Not. That old thing…)

I went round to see my grandmother and apologise for something, I forget what. I saw my grandfather through the glass by the front door, but I didn’t see him after my grandmother let me in. She started to make a pot of tea and asked if Earl Grey would be all right. I assumed she’d be using teabags, and was quite surprised to see her spooning loose tea into the pot; it was bright green and looked like grass cuttings. Reacting to something I’d said, she interrupted me indignantly – “Not Russell! Don’t bother with Russell! You want to get rid of Russell!” As she spoke, she furiously shovelled more and more bright green tea into the pot.

My father and I were queuing up together at a cold buffet: potato salad, crisps, poached eggs and a large bowl of pickled onions in a sticky red-brown sauce. My father had just come back from Japan, where he’d been for three weeks. “They have a whole different system out there,” he told me, “a whole system!” Then we reached the head of the queue and he began to help me to potato salad. Seen close up it didn’t look very appetising – there were pieces of yellow celery in it and bluish peas, and the lumps of potato were five or six inches long – and I was annoyed to see my father piling it onto my plate. I said, “I can manage, I can manage!” and tried to push him out of the way, flapping my arms uselessly.

“Families, eh?” (S. Freud)

Update 15/6 – it was the first one. I haven’t thought of my grandmother for years, but she’s clearly still in there somewhere; she still connects in some way with things I know I care about. (I know who Russell is, and it’s not T. Davies.) I guess what’s going on in dreams like these is illuminated by Voyer‘s suggestive formulation (emphasis added):

If, for one reason or another, an individual’s character is dissolved, the phenomenal spectacular form of the totality is dissolved in its pretension to pass for the absence of value. Thus we have established, negatively for the moment, an identity between character and the spectacle effect. Whether the subject sinks into madness, practices theory or participates in an uprising, we have ascertained that the two poles of daily life—contact with a narrow and separate reality on one hand and spectacular contact with the totality on the other—are simultaneously abolished, opening the way for that unity of individual life which Reich unfortunately labels “genitality.” (We prefer ‘individuality’.)

Madness, revolution and the practice of theory (on which more here): all areas where ‘character’ (in what I understood to be Reich’s sense of the word) comes unglued and the spectacle with it. Closely related states, I would argue, include dreaming, psychotherapy and childhood. What’s at issue in childhood isn’t the dissolution of character but its initial formation; infancy, in particular, is truly a character-forming experience. As adults we partition off what matters (who’s in government) from what matters (who’s in bed with us), calling one ‘society’ and the other ‘private life’; but for children – as for psychotics, as for revolutionaries – it’s all in there together. And the place where it’s all there is the family. The place we first learn about authority is the same place we learn about love; we learn to acknowledge reality in the place where we learn to desire.

What this means is that your world was sculpted by love and fear before you ever started to put it together rationally – and, somewhere beneath the rational brickwork, it still is. In dreams, Gordon Brown is your Dad.

And things were clearer

Tagged by Rob:

List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they’re listening to.

(Parenthetically, seven’s rather a lot, isn’t it? One of the reasons I haven’t been blogging much recently is that I can’t seem to get a blog post finished in less than an hour – and the thought that I’m going to be working on a blog post for the next hour doesn’t often lift the spirits. But let’s see how it goes.)

(Five minutes already. Damn!)

(Update 6/6/08 The other thing I dislike about blogging – at least, the way I do it – is the amount of time I end up spending on edits and updates after a post is published. I hate that.)

Shirley Collins, Fare thee well my dearest dear
I’m immersed in Amaranth at the moment; it’s a late-70s album by Shirley Collins which I bought for my mother a long time ago, and it’s quite wonderful. Side one consists of traditional material recorded with the Albion Band; mostly fairly conventional stuff from the folkier end of seventies folk-rock, with a few odd-sounding instruments thrown in. Side two was recorded eight years earlier and features Dolly Collins on pipe organ and what I think is an earlier, or prototype, Albion Band; the instrumentation’s heavy on recorders and sackbuts. Shirley Collins’ voice is thin and wavery, and on this track in particular (which opens side one) she’s battling with a fiddly arrangement over a big lumbering rock 4:4, but still: there’s something utterly unencumbered and direct about the songs themselves, and about the joys and sorrows they describe. It’s unforgettably moving, this music; it’ll give you emotional earworms. Incidentally, this song was collected in 1904 by Vaughan Williams; a very similar song was a popular broadside ballad in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It makes me slightly dizzy thinking about it.

Scott Walker, The old man’s back again
An extraordinary song from Scott Four, which I was introduced to recently by the medium of the Earlies’ “Secret Broadcast” mix series. This song stops time: over a relentless, quietly urgent drumbeat there’s a film-score orchestral backing so sparse it hardly seems to be there, and over it all Scott’s immense voice hangs like banners. I’m not sure what’s more remarkable – that he should have been inspired to write about Brezhnev replacing Khrushchev, or that he should have done it in this bizarre, hyperreal way, outdoing “Blues for Ceausescu” 25 years early: And ‘entrez vie!’ he cries, with eyes that ring like chimes/His anti-worlds go spinning through his head. A strange, still track.

John Kelly, Spencer the Rover
More folk, but this time from a contemporary album. John’s been performing for 40 years and has got quite good at it – as well as singing he plays harmonium, guitar, cittern, whistle and (I’ve been told) fiddle. This album (his first, bizarrely enough) is mainly John with harmonium and guitar. His voice is expressive and flexible enough to carry a traditional song unaccompanied – the words don’t just hang on the tune like washing on a line; on the songs he plays on harmonium, in particular, the accompaniment adds a whole extra dimension. But judge for yourself – you can here this song here.

the Dandy Warhols, Love is the new feel awful
I loved Welcome to the monkey house, but fought shy of Odditorium… when I saw what bad reviews it was getting. I finally got it (reduced) a few weeks back, and I can see why people didn’t like it. Give it time, though, and it gets through to you. The thing to remember about the Dandys is that they are the coolest band in the world – at least, that’s the principle they work on, and it makes it easier to get into their music if you give them the benefit of the doubt. The concept for this album is essentially “the coolest band in the world jam aimlessly in the studio, and it still works!” – and it nearly does. What’s interesting about this song is what happens when a band start playing, and become so convinced they’re doing something amazing that they just keep on at it. What you end up with, among other things, is a lot of feedback – it becomes an instrument in its own right by the end of the track. In other words, it’s not so much rock’n’roll as the noise of rock’n’roll – the sound rock’n’roll makes. It’s actually quite radical stuff – with the right editing it could be on the Faust tapes. Speaking of which…

Faust, J’ai mal aux dents
What can I say, my son was practising his French vocab the other day, I taught him how to say “My teeth ache and so do my feet”, and then I thought I should just check the source… Just wonderful. It’s a driving rock track, only with these words that don’t seem to make any sense and don’t quite seem to be in English and they repeat oddly, and they don’t seem to make any sense and they repeat oddly, and the drummer doesn’t quite sound like a rock drummer and there’s this odd little synthesised bzzzt! on every other third beat, and after seven minutes or so the keyboard player holds the bzzzt until it swamps the entire song, and then, and then… It’s wonderful stuff – deeply experimental and viscerally accessible at the same time. I got this album when I was 12, would you believe. (My son’s into Scouting for Girls. Where’s the young Richard Branson when you need him?)

Nic Jones, the Outlandish Knight
More folk. One man, his guitar and a Child ballad. A strange tune (mostly traditional), that seems to go off somewhere unexpected and loop back on itself, and some very strange lyrics (boy meets girl, boy attempts to kill girl, girl kills boy, girl meets parrot…) The singing’s strong and melodic, although the voicing is rather of its time (early 1970s) – ve-ry ex-press-ive in a bloke-y sort of way – and the guitar playing’s terrific. Nic Jones’s accident was a dreadful blow for music as well as for Nic himself.

Flying Saucer Attack, At night
Update Off with you. Last night I forgot about a much more suitable candidate:
Beth Orton, Heartland truckstop
I loved Beth Orton’s first album, liked the second and was very bored by the third, so it took a record shop sale (see under Dandy Warhols) to get me to buy her fourth, Comfort of Strangers. I’m glad I did, and glad I persisted with it – musically and lyrically it’s easily the best thing she’s done since that first album. For that I think we can thank Jim O’Rourke, who worked with her on the album (at the time of the third album she was working with Ryan Adams). On the other hand, O’Rourke has to take some of the blame for the inconsequential, second-runthrough arrangements – these are short songs, often because they get to the end of the lyrics and then stop – and in particular the awful, murky production. It’s the opposite of a Kieran Hebden production, where you feel like everything’s playing at once about two inches from your head – it sounds like real instruments being played in real time, but in another room. Even the titles seem designed to repel boarders – Beth Orton’s written some terrific lines in these songs, but almost none of them make it into a song title (or a chorus). From this song:

We’re all bridgebuilders’ daughters, with incestuous dreams
Confidentially speaking, things are as they seem

It’s good stuff – murky and refrain-free, but good stuff.

Seven songs, then. (66 minutes – I knew it.) I won’t nominate anyone – tig me in comments if you want to do it next.

Somewhere in the corner

Postdoctoral fellowship application, June 2006
12 months, to write and place two papers developing my doctoral thesis (analysing the Italian protest movements in the 1970s through contemporary press coverage) and submit an application for funding for a follow-up project (looking at British protest movements in the 1990s).
Rejected. Critical feedback.

Research grant application, January 2007
24 months, to analyse press coverage of four episodes of contentious activism (in Italy and Britain) and compare with subsequent legislation.
Rejected. Critical feedback.

Fellowship application, February 2007
24 months, to analyse autobiographical accounts produced by Italian armed struggle veterans, trace processes of desistance and identify the key factors in encouraging and inhibiting cessation of violent activity.
Rejected. No feedback.

Focused research grant application, April 2007
24 months, to analyse autobiographical accounts produced by Italian armed struggle veterans, trace processes of political radicalisation & embrace of violent tactics, and identify the key factors involved.
Rejected. Feedback mostly positive but some scepticism (“It is not clear what the researcher is going to do in the project period other than reading a series of Italian autobiographies.”)

Research grant application, September 2007
12 months, to analyse a selection of autobiographical accounts produced by Italian armed struggle veterans together with accounts produced by non-political career criminals, tracing processes of desistance and identifying the key factors involved, with the goal of producing an analystical model which could be applied to subsequent interview-based research.
Rejected. Feedback positive.

Fellowship application, October 2007
24 months, to analyse autobiographical accounts produced by Italian armed struggle veterans, trace processes of desistance and identify the key factors in encouraging and inhibiting cessation of violent activity.
Rejected. Feedback positive.

Fellowship application, February 2008
24 months, to analyse the impact of the Crime and Disorder Act’s statutory duty on local authorities to minimise ‘disorder’ by examining the regulation of disorderly events in the Manchester City Council area over a three-year period.
Rejected. No feedback.

Typically these rejections take about three months to come back. I’ve only just heard about the last one.

In the same period I’ve applied for lecturing posts at four other universities (one of them twice) as well as my own (three times), not to mention research posts at my own university (four of them). I may have forgotten one or two. I’ve had two interviews (I’m pretty sure that figure’s right).

A week or so ago, before I got the most recent rejection, I had a dream about all this. I was at a social event at work, with a smartly-dressed, slightly nerdy-looking band set up in one corner. They started playing “Don’t worry baby” – complete with harmonies – whereupon a guy from my department seized my hand and started spinning me round, encouraging me to dance. Then he started clapping out a complicated rhythm and encouraged me to join in, but I couldn’t pick it up. He looked a bit crestfallen – “Oh, you can’t get it? Never mind.”

What’s lurking here, I think, is a strangely moving account I once read of Keith Moon’s solo career, and in particular one recording session where he took lead vocals on “Don’t worry, baby” (he was a huge Beach Boys fan) with somebody else on drums. He was a weedy vocalist & the track was decidedly average, but someone who saw the session said that he was obviously loving every moment – this was what it was all about! Except that, of course, it wasn’t, not if your talents were Keith Moon’s.

On top of that, it evokes the funny bit at the end of Sudden Sway’s “Relationships” where a [fictional] percussionist called Kevin persistently fails to get anything like the beat. Groans all round, and the singer wades in and makes matters worse (“OK, so we’re only a support band, so what?”).

I think there’s a bit of Syd in there too – “Have you got it yet?”

So here’s me, trying and failing to get a research grant – and a proper contract with it. And here’s a drummer who really wants to be a lead singer; no one has the heart to tell him that he really can’t sing, so he keeps trying. He thinks he’s getting somewhere, but he never will – he really can’t sing.

And here’s a drummer who can’t even drum properly, who will only ever be a support act – and hey, what’s wrong with that?

And here’s a tune that I try to get, but I can’t get it – I can’t get it, it’s not possible to get it.

It’s taken me a long time and a lot of work to get to where I am; ironically enough, it would also take a lot of work to get back to earning a living the way I did before. So what I do next is clear enough: I go on. I’m working on another research funding application and an application for a teaching post. Vedremo.

After a night’s sleep, curiously, I remembered that I have actually been in the position of being a percussionist who’s berated by the rest of the band for not getting the beat – and a drummer who wants to be a singer. When I was about 16 and half my social life revolved around the local church, some friends of mine were in a drippy acoustic group. They played at church events and sometimes during services; there was a bit of a fuss the week they did “Goodbye Again” during Communion. I longed to join, partly so I’d get to hang out with girls but mainly so I could amaze everyone with my singing; at this point I’d never actually sung in public, but I thought I’d be great when I did. But if you haven’t got the nerve to sing in public, the chances are you haven’t got the nerve to ask to sing in public either. So I talked myself into a rehearsal, but I didn’t dare to suggest singing; I volunteered to improvise on flute or else to play bongos. The flute improvisation didn’t work at all; the bongos worked for about a song and a half, but after that got on everyone’s nerves. Part of the problem was that I hadn’t thought much about patterns, & saw my role essentially as providing a kind of running percussion solo, a la Rebop Kwaku Baah. (Meets John Denver. During a church service. Yup, that’ll work.)

It’s a pretty embarrassing memory. But it’s also a memory of feeling unable to do something – sing in public – which I now do regularly. And something else I longed to do when I was in my teens was to grow up to be a university lecturer – I didn’t know how I was going to get there, either. Around the time this thought crossed my mind, I drifted into a half-sleep and dreamed of performing a song called “Fake detector” – probably the angriest thing I’ve ever written – while stalking up and down in front of a long table, with a row of people sat behind it.

Why do I think I’m suited for this job? You want to know why I think I’m suited for this job?

Maybe not. Still, vedremo. To quote my favourite bit of Gawain,

Of destinés derf and dere
What may mon do bot fonde?

Open up the nicks

An Italian postscript. Here’s a post which originally appeared eighteen months ago (23/11/06) at the recently-revived Sharpener. I think it stands up pretty well: I got the importance of fragmenting the old Christian Democrat bloc, Prodi’s skill in knitting together ex-Christian Democrats and ex-Communists, and the lamentable importance of Clemente Mastella. (Who didn’t even stand in the last election – so it wasn’t all bad news.) What I didn’t anticipate was that the Right might be able to get a majority even after the UDC had moved into the Centre – but then, I didn’t anticipate Veltroni opting for electoral suicide on tactical grounds. These centre-leftists, they’re full of surprises.

The rising prison population isn’t only a British concern; it also makes the news in Italy. However, the comparison with Britain breaks down on at least two counts: firstly, because the size of the prison population is considerably smaller (in both absolute and relative terms); secondly, because the Italian government has taken the novel step of doing something about it. It’s good news for a lot of convicts, or ex-cons as they are now – including some of the crooks who were running Italian politics not that long ago.

In accordance with Catholic social teachings, it’s traditional in Italy for incoming governments to make a gesture of clemency: pardons, amnesties for illegal immigrants, sentence reductions, that kind of thing. The indulto (literally ‘pardon’) passed by the incoming Prodi government, earlier this year, cut sentences across the board. Thousands of prisoners were released as a result, and many more can look forward to an earlier release date. More controversially, several continuing trials have abruptly become rather pointless, as the maximum prison sentence the accused could now face has fallen below the level of the time they have already spent on remand.

As always, the devil is in the details. Should everyone be eligible for a reduced sentence? Sensing a possible outcry, Justice Minister Clemente Mastella stipulated that paedophiles and terrorists would not walk free as a result of his proposals. There was to be no amnesty for folk devils, in other words, only for ordinary decent criminals – like the man who was released midway through a sentence for attempting to kill his wife, and who promptly went home and attacked the poor woman again. (He’s now serving a fresh sentence.) But was that it? Were there no other ’special’ categories of criminal in Italian prisons (or in remand pending re-trial in Italian appeal courts)? What about corrupt politicians, convicted of taking bribes? What about corrupt business leaders, convicted of offering bribes? Shouldn’t those people serve their sentences in full – if only to encourage the others?

Mastella thought not. Di Pietro, on the other hand… but rewind. Think back to 1997, to start with: remember the wave of public revulsion against the extremism, corruption and cluelessness of the Tories; think how any Labour Party promising moderation, competence and integrity could have walked that election. And think of the Blair/Mandelson leadership, and their conviction that Labour would never get elected unless they appealed to the patriotic conservatism of Middle England. There’s a similar tension at work within Romano Prodi’s centre-left coalition. As I wrote back in May, there are three great touchstone issues in contemporary Italian politics. There’s the choice between left/right alternation and the permanent occupation of government by a single party, with a revolving cast of partners. The latter is the old Christian Democrat model, but it’s a model Berlusconi still hopes to revive – and not only Berlusconi. Then there’s the question of Communism, systematically denied political legitimacy for most of the ‘First Republic’ (1948-93). Most actual Italian Communists ended up as ‘Left Democrats’, who are unimpeachably moderate these days – but they’re haunted by the extremist spectres of two minor parties, ‘Italian Communists’ and ‘Communist Refoundation’. Thirdly, and uniquely to Italy (for now), there’s the question of corruption, the question being not “did it happen?” but “does it matter?”. No one seriously denies that the main parties of the First Republic bought and sold seats in Parliament, directorships of state companies and votes by the bagful. On some parts of the Italian political spectrum, this history is regarded as a genuine scandal, which should never happen again and for which more heads should roll. Some parts; not all.

Prodi’s coalition stands for left/right alternation, inclusion of the former Communists and prosecution of political corruption; in these respects it stands in direct opposition to Berlusconi’s coalition. Or rather, parts of Prodi’s coalition stand for left/right alternation, inclusion of the former Communists and prosecution of political corruption. Prodi himself stands for all three policies, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm; most of the parties within his coalition are enthusiasts for one of the three, or two at most. The party with the strongest anti-corruption agenda is ‘Principled Italy’, led by Antonio di Pietro – formerly a magistrate with a leading role in the Tangentopoli investigations which brought down the First Republic. Di Pietro’s role in the current government is Minister for Infrastructure and Transport; the Justice Minister, as we’ve seen, is Clemente Mastella. Mastella is not only a former Christian Democrat but a former ally of Berlusconi; his tiny ‘Union of European Democrats’ has never shown much enthusiasm for any of the three touchstone policies – or for anything much, apart from the career of Clemente Mastella.

Putting Mastella rather than di Pietro in charge of Justice, and thus in a position to frame the indulto proposal, guaranteed a period of open warfare between him and di Pietro (not a Mastella fan at the best of times). At one point di Pietro even announced that he had temporarily resigned from the government, the better to campaign for an anti-corruption amendment; this earned him a rebuke from the Italian President (the highly respectable ex-Communist Giorgio Napolitano), who effectively told him not to be so silly. But it also guaranteed that the indulto would get enough support in Parliament to pass, and that Mastella would stay in the government rather than defecting back to Berlusconi – which, if di Pietro had been given the Justice brief, would have been a real possibility.

And this brings us to the great hidden theme of Second Republic Italian politics: the Christian Democrats. The party ceased to exist over ten years ago, but its forty-year occupation of the ‘centre’ ground lives on in many people’s memories. (The Italian ‘centre’ was oddly named, as it excluded large swathes of uncontroversial left-wing politics but included everyone on the Right who wasn’t actually a neo-Fascist. Nevertheless, many Christian Democrats sincerely believed themselves to be squatting firmly in the centre, stoutly defending Italian democracy against two opposed extremisms – for four solid decades.) Like the Americans and Russians divvying up Nazi rocket scientists, Prodi and Berlusconi each have ‘their’ Christian Democrats: the Right has the optimistically-named ‘Christian Democrats United’, the Left has the bizarrely-named ‘Democracy Is Freedom’ (a.k.a. ‘the Daisy’), plus Mastella.

Prodi and Berlusconi don’t have a great deal in common, to put it mildly. Last summer Prodi was caught by the press driving off on holiday, with his wife in the passenger seat and a few good books and a couple of jars of pasta sauce in the back; it’s hard to imagine Berlusconi replicating a single detail of that picture. What they do share is a pair of nightmares: the nightmare of ‘their’ Christian Democrats defecting to the other side; still worse, the nightmare of both sets of Christian Democrats abandoning their coalitions and rebuilding the ‘centre’. A reunited Christian Democratic party would reverse the Left’s stand on all three touchstone issues. Ironically, it would be no more welcome to Berlusconi, whom it would accept as a junior partner if at all – and without his disreputable right-wing allies.

Both Prodi and Berlusconi talk of forming a single party, welding shut the doors of the coalition and forcing their Christian Democrats to stay in line. Unsurprisingly, neither single-party project is making much progress. The next best outcome (for both leaders) would be for the other side’s Christian Democrats to come over to them; a good third-best would be for the other side’s Christian Democrats to defect and try to rebuild the ‘centre’ unaided, damaging their old partners but doing little harm to their former opponents.

In this game Prodi is faring conspicuously better than Berlusconi. The leftish ex-Christian Democrats of ‘the Daisy’ are resigned, if not positively committed, to an eventual merger with the ‘Left Democrats’; by contrast, Pierferdinando Casini of ‘Christian Democrats United’ periodically makes pointed comments about having his own electorate to represent and not wanting to be a follower of Berlusconi all his life. The dream of rebuilding the centre also seems more likely to damage Berlusconi than Prodi. One ‘centre’ splinter has already flaked off from Casini’s party: Marco Follini, Casini’s predecessor as party leader, now leads a tiny new party called ‘Middle Italy’. The chances are that Follini’s going nowhere, but his defection hasn’t helped Berlusconi.

There’s a certain kind of political operator whose sheer skill compels admiration, even if you aren’t entirely sure whose interests they’re ultimately serving (other than their own). There are an awful lot of operators in Italy – the hothouse factionalism endemic to Italian party politics is a forcing-ground for them. Prodi (who began his political career as a Christian Democrat) is one of the best. His commitment to the anti-corruption touchstone is genuine – he recently named tax evasion as a major problem to be addressed by government, a bold statement for any Italian Prime Minister. But commitments are one thing and strategy is another – and strategy requires the fragmentation of the former Christian Democrats to be maintained (or, if possible, exacerbated). So Mastella needs to be kept inside the tent; so di Pietro’s crusading zeal needs to be left to run into the sand; so bribe-takers and bribe-givers need to be allowed to benefit from the indulto, walking free alongside the ordinary decent thieves and murderers.

It’s frustrating to watch; as with Labour in 1997, you can’t help feeling that there’s so much more the Prodi government could do. But, unlike Labour in 1997, Prodi is walking a tightrope, having been elected by a margin of something like 0.1% of the vote – and it’s worth remembering that unchallenged left/right alternation in government is still little more than a pious aspiration in Italy. The Prodi government needs to be challenged and held to account; the coalition’s priorities are decided through a shifting balance of power and influence among its constituent parts, so there is no shortage of points where external pressure can be applied. But there are reasons for putting at least a critical trust in the Prodi project. Apart from anything else, if it succeeds, Berlusconi will have failed.

All shades of opinion

For the Left, the Italian elections were an avoidable disaster. Unfortunately, they weren’t avoidable by the Left.

Brief history lesson. Western Communist Parties always were contradictory formations, and the Italian Communist Party (PCI) more than most. The official ideology of the party was gradualist: the irreversible socialist transformation of society was to be achieved through a process of incremental reform, implemented by a cross-party alliance of progressive forces, which would be kept on track by pressure from party members and trade unionists. The only problem with this vision was that, in post-war Italy, it was utterly unrealistic. From 1948 on the Christian Democrats were in permanent occupation of the state, and had no interest in allying themselves with ‘extremists’. (Post-war Italy was a textbook case of the relativity of political geography. The Christian Democrats (DC) had allies to the Left and Right of the party (albeit not very far to the Left and Right); the DC were therefore a ‘centre’ party, and any party which they refused to ally with was by definition ‘extreme’. The Communists were routinely described as an ‘anti-system’ party (along with the neo-fascist MSI), essentially on the grounds that the DC didn’t see them as a trustworthy ally.)

In the 1970s, under the pressure of seemingly permanent exclusion from power, the PCI Right started to think in terms of cashing in the party’s sizeable vote for a place at the political table, even if this meant abandoning the project of socialist transformation. The Left of the party, at this time, included some groups of creative and forward-looking socialists, genuinely responsive to the ferment of the late 1960s, alongside groups whose commitment to socialist revolution was (paradoxically) an aspect of their political conservatism. This current – widely, although inaccurately, called Stalinist – had little or no influence on party policy: its ideological commitment to party unity prevented it from organising independently and mandated support for the party leadership, however right-wing. The party was facing three ways at once, in other words. Its most successful leader, Enrico Berlinguer, owed that success to his ability to move Right while talking Left, giving an inspirational gloss of radicalism to a programme of surrender to DC-dominated political normality. It didn’t work for long, either in delivering political results or in keeping the lid on the contradictions within the party.

In 1990 the PCI right and centre succeeded in dumping the word ‘Communist’ and renaming the party ‘Democratic Left’ (PDS); a new party, Partito di Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), was formed out of the left of the party – or rather the lefts, plural. As well as dividing the party’s membership and its vote, the two new parties split the PCI’s ideological heritage: the PDS took the gradualism and the dream of being accepted as a normal, centre-left political party; PRC took the creativity and the openness to new movements, but also the Soviet nostalgia and the belief in party unity. Consequently PRC was considerably less homogeneous than PDS, and contained several distinct tendencies: ‘Stalinist’ nostalgics, libertarian free-thinkers, believers in the old cross-party alliance project, social movement activists, even a few Trotskyists. (Trotskyism was historically very weak in Italy; Maoists and Autonomist Leninists took up the slack.) What PRC and the PDS shared was a belief in alliances – specifically, alliances with forces to the Right of the party; this was seen not just as a necessity for the party to be able to form a government but as a progressive goal in itself.

Initially the split didn’t do either faction any favours. True, they both believed in forming some kind of alliance which would involve forces to their Right – but what that actually meant was quite different as seen from within PRC (proud to claim the title of Communist) and PDS (Old Labour-ish, tired of getting nowhere, sneaking admiration for Tony Blair). The PDS’s alliance project seemed more realisable; indeed, at one stage it looked as if the PDS were going to take the old polarisation of Italian politics – an immovable centre and two ‘anti-system’ extremes – and shift the whole thing to the Left, with the centre being occupied by an alliance between the PDS and the more left-wing ex-Christian Democrats. The permanently excluded Communist extreme would be taken by PRC, while the DC Right joined the MSI on the ‘anti-system’ Right. This design was scuppered primarily by the emergence of Silvio Berlusconi, who pulled off the double trick of appealing to the old Christian Democrat vote (through his own Forza Italia as well as the centre-right UDC) and bringing the ‘anti-system’ Right in from the cold, in the form of the ex-fascists of MSI (now Alleanza Nazionale) and the proto-fascists of the Lega Nord. If Berlusconi were to be prevented from occupying the state in his own right, something similar would have to be done on the Left – which meant, among other things, that the left and centre-left were going to have to pull together.

There have been two governments led by a Left alliance including both PRC and PDS (or its successor party, the slightly broader-based Left Democrats (DS)). Both, perhaps unsurprisingly, have been led by ex-Christian Democrat Romano Prodi, probably Italian politics’ greatest deal-maker since Aldo Moro. Both lasted about two years (1996-8 and 2006-8); and both collapsed when the government lost its majority after internal dissension. In 1998 PRC refused to endorse Prodi’s economic liberalism, leading to three years of unstable slightly-left-of-centre coalitions followed by Berlusconi’s second government in 2001. In 2006 Prodi led the Unione, a formal coalition uniting almost everything to the left of Berlusconi; they won the election with 49.8% of the popular vote, as against the 49.7% won by Berlusconi, Alleanza Nazionale, the UDC and the Lega combined (campaigning as the Casa delle Libertà, ‘House of Freedoms’). The figures were always dicey, particularly in the Senate. This time round, however, the wedge was pulled out not by PRC but by Clemente Mastella, an opportunistic centre-right ex-Christian Democrat whose presence in the Unione was perhaps the ultimate proof of its breadth. Prodi’s government fell when Mastella defected to Berlusconi in 2008, in reaction to being named as a corruption suspect. PRC were nowhere to be seen, having held their collective nose and swallowed everything.

Or rather, nearly everything. The previous year, PRC had already looked the prospect of another 1998 in the face; perhaps it’d be truer to say that Prodi took them by the collar and forced them to look it in the face. In January 2007, a parliamentary motion to increase the number of Italian troops in Afghanistan and double the size of a US military base met serious opposition from the left, despite being elevated into a vote of confidence by the Prodi government. Facing defeat, Prodi called the left’s bluff and resigned. In the ensuing manoeuvres, the PRC group decided against being seen to hand the next election to Berlusconi and fell into line behind Prodi, who graciously consented to pick up where he left off. Old habits of party discipline die hard: only one PRC parliamentarian – senator Franco Turigliatto of the Trotskyist Sinistra Critica current – held out, and was promptly expelled from the party.

However, this was something of a Pyrrhic victory for Prodi: he had succeeded in making PRC look both irresponsibly extreme and unreliable, but not in doing without them. Even an explicit move to the Right, rejecting PRC and embracing the UDC, wouldn’t have done the job. PRC had more seats than UDC, so a centrist Prodi coalition (assuming this was feasible) would have lost its majority on day one – to say nothing of the inevitable loss of smaller left parties like Comunisti Italiani. Prodi needed PRC, but what he needed them to do was keep quiet; it wasn’t a good situation either for the party or for the government. Given the parliamentary arithmetic, the only way this kind of outcome could have been avoided was by avoiding the original confrontation in the first place. The only way that could have been guaranteed would have been for PRC leader Fausto Bertinotti to have gone into the coalition for the 2006 election with a list of non-negotiable policies – but then, how to decide which among the party’s policies were non-negotiable, and what message would that have sent about the rest of them?

By 2008, Prodi had overseen a merger between DS and the main centre-left survivor of the wreck of the Christian Democrats, a party called variously ‘Democracy is Liberty’ or ‘The Daisy’. The new party, emphatically not committed to socialism, went by the name of the Democratic Party (PD); Walter Veltroni, a Communist in the Berlinguer mould, was elected to lead the party. Meanwhile on the Right, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia merged with the post-Fascist Alleanza Nazionale to form something called the Party of the People of Liberty (PdL). The Lega remained a semi-detached ally, while the centre-right UDC – which had contributed 6.8% to the Right’s 49.7% of the vote in 2006 – was cut loose. Veltroni also decided to be selective about alliances, accepting the anti-corruption crusader Antonio di Pietro as an ally but turning Bertinotti away. Instead, PRC formed the Sinistra Arcobaleno (‘Rainbow Left’), an uneasy coalition with the Greens, Comunisti Italiani and a group of DS dissidents who had baulked at joining the PD – although not Sinistra Critica or the Partita Comunista del Lavoro (an earlier split), both of which ran their own micro-campaigns. In 2006 the parties of the Rainbow Left had got just under four million votes and 61 seats. This time round, the coalition got just over one million votes – and, thanks in part to an electoral system described by its own designer as a mess, no seats at all.

Some commentary on the wipe-out of the Rainbow Left has been openly triumphalist. For example, here are some thoughts from Edmondo Berselli in La Repubblica:

To sum up, Rifondazione are out of the contest; so are the Greens, Comunisti Italiani and the group which left DS rather than merge into the Partito Democratico. This is one of the results of Walter Veltroni’s Copernican revolution, which overthrew the old political framework built by Romano Prodi, convinced as he was that the ‘oppositional’ Left needed to be included within the alliance that needed to be built to beat the Right. Meanwhile, it was left to ministers like Finance Minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa to teach the ‘dismal science’ to the utopians and the extremists, to the No Global groups and the anti-capitalists.

However, helping to make the country governable wasn’t all that the radical left felt it was called to achieve. Consequently, being the handmaiden to a technocratic centre-left government wasn’t satisfactory … it was unbearable owing to the finely-tuned social conscience of many of those on the radical left, to the critical edge that was sharpened by personal political involvement, to pacifism and, all in all, owing to the radical left’s inability to put up with compromises, on the economy or on international politics, for very long.

Veltroni exposed the fragility of this left, forcing it to pose the question of representativeness, and put the quality of its political programme to the test, not on the parliamentary benches or through conscientious objection, but in the cruel sport of the electoral arena. In truth, nobody thought that the total liquidation of a political project like Rifondazione was possible; and everyone thought that the oppositional left would find room for the environmentalist niche programme of the Greens, the post-Communist sclerosis of Comunisti Italiani and the unease of the DS dissidents.

Instead of which, the radical Left walked into a sort of electoral booby-trap … While Veltroni attempted a genuinely hegemonic initiative (one which the radical left has often denounced as such), aiming to define the profile of a Left capable of governing, the Rainbow Left was caught in a dramatic impasse. No longer could minor parties reap the benefit of extremist votes by turning them into “useful” votes for a broad and adaptable alliance. The radical left was placed in an impossible situation, which the voters resolved by abandoning the Rainbow Left: for the PD, for the anti-political Di Pietro, for the radical-sounding populism of the Lega Nord. A few people, nostalgic for the hammer and sickle, may have found refuge with Sinistra Critica and the heretic Turigliatto, but many others opted for abstention.

It should be said that the flight from politics, into an ideal rather than an empirical Left, leaves a diffuse but significant element of society deprived of any institutional representation. Bertinotti is retiring; the other leaders are talking about Year Zero, founding conferences, a new beginning. Any conference is worthwhile if it addresses the problem of engaging with the problem of government. The idea of living in a playground of radicalism has been torn apart by the violence of reality. For those who have always liked to talk of ‘objective’ reasons, the ‘balance of forces’ and ‘structural’ problems, the time has come to face up to reality and turn away from the maze of illusions.

This is dreadful stuff, but it’s worth taking seriously for two reasons. One is that it illustrates a widespread perception of PRC, and by extension demonstrates just how bad a position Prodi’s ultimatum had left the party in. As praiseworthy as their “finely-tuned social conscience” might be, at the end of the day the socialists and Communists of PRC had only one choice: they could face up to reality and engage with the problem of government – by bowing the head to Prodi – or they could show themselves to be irresponsible extremists, indulging in a flight from politics into a playground of radicalism. Any colour you like, as long as it’s mild neo-liberalism; there is no alternative. Prodi didn’t only whip PRC into line by holding the threat of Berlusconi over them; he undermined the party’s claim to political legitimacy, echoing his old party’s eternal exclusion of the ‘anti-system’ PCI.

The second reason is the insight this offers into the real reason for the wipe-out. The blame doesn’t really lie with Prodi for posing his ultimatum or Sinistra Critica for giving him the chance; say what you like about Prodi, he did get PRC into government twice (even appointing Bertinotti as leader of the Chamber of Deputies). Even Bertinotti isn’t really to blame, although his leadership does seem to have laid PRC wide open to this kind of attack. The blame for what happened this year lies with the party that set the electoral booby-trap. From an interview with Walter Veltroni:

The new centre-left has been launched beyond any possibility of going back: we’ve created a great reformist party, which has broken with the old alliances and contested the election on its own. But the new centre-left had to deal with the negative image of the old centre-left. For the lower classes, the lasting contribution of the old majority could be summed up as taxes that were too high and parties whose arguments stopped anything being done.

Prodi paid – and we all paid – for the atmosphere of permanent conflict within the coalition, which was paralysed by the culture of negativity. This is why all the old parties of Prodi’s Unione alliance got such bad results. Or rather, all except one: the PD. This is why I can say now that our decision to make a break with the past was the right one: our courage has been rewarded. If we had gone to the polls in the same lineup as in 2006, we would have been swept away by a tsunami from which the centre-left would never have recovered.

Right. But there has been a tsunami all the same – the Rainbow Left no longer exists. And they’re blaming you.

The Rainbow Left’s exclusion from Parliament was an electoral tragedy; it’s not a good result for our democracy. But they are overlooking two errors – and pretending not to see those errors seems to me almost as bad in itself as blaming the PD for their defeat. The first error was to bombard the Prodi government with demands, right from day one … The second error is summed up in the words of Bertinotti, in the PRC’s paper last December, when he wrote “the government’s project has failed” … The Rainbow Left never understood contemporary society. I’ll give you an example: when I launched my campaign on law and order, which I said was neither a right-wing nor a left-wing issue, the extremism of the PRC’s paper was such that they called me a Fascist. And they suffered for that. They suffered for not understanding that tough decisions needed to be made, and that the culture of negativity would have led us to disaster.

So what now? Will you reopen dialogue with what’s now the extra-parliamentary Left?

We’re always available for dialogue. I’ll go further: in Parliament, as a reformist force, we’ll also try to represent the culture of the groups to our Left. But there’s no going back. We’ll talk to them, but we’ll never be the same as them.

“Our courage has been rewarded”, indeed. This is open to challenge on two levels. First, here are some voting figures for 2001, 2006 and 2008, for the Rainbow Left and the five main parties represented in the Italian Parliament: the PD, Di Pietro’s Italia dei Valori, the UDC, the PdL and the Lega Nord. Where parties have merged or split between elections I’ve estimated a figure on the basis of the votes of their predecessors.

2001 2006 2008
Rainbow Left 8.9% 10.2% 3.1%
PD 33.3% 32.5% 33.2%
Italia dei Valori 3.9% 2.3% 4.4%
UDC 3.2% 6.8% 5.6%
PdL 41.5% 36% 37.4%
Lega Nord 3.9% 4.6% 8.3%

Look at the votes for the two main parties, the PD and Berlusconi’s PdL – and look how little they’ve changed. Veltroni’s great reformist party has been rewarded with a share of the vote almost identical to the figure for the party’s predecessors in 2001 – an election won by Berlusconi. Admittedly there’s a rise of 0.7% as compared with the 2006 election – but when you consider that the DS actually won that election (in alliance with PRC), it’s difficult to see what there is to boast about. Unless, of course, that slump in support for the Rainbow Left – with all that followed – was actually the object of the exercise. As Berselli noted, poll data suggests that some of those Rainbow Left voters opted for the PD (which presumably lost votes to the Right at the same time); some went for Di Pietro, or for the populism of the Lega; and a lot stayed at home. And, if we look at the seats gained by parties as well as the vote, we can see that the result not only penalised the Rainbow Left, but positively benefited PD. Here are the proportions of votes and seats won by the main coalitions in 2006 and 2008:

2006 2008
Votes Seats Votes Seats
PD / Unione 49.8% 54.2% 37.5% 38.7%
PdL / CdL 49.7% 44.8% 46.7% 55%
UDC n/a n/a 5.6% 5.8%

The electoral system has been designed to guarantee a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, so it’s not surprising that the winning coalition in both elections is over-represented. And it’s not a surprise to see that the CdL was under-represented in 2006 – those extra seats have got to come from somewhere. But now look at 2008. The PdL is over-represented, but so is the defeated PD. Even the UDC, which you might expect to be suffering from the classic third-party squeeze, is over-represented relative to its vote. But those extra seats have come from somewhere – effectively, they’ve come from the parties who were under-represented to the point of gaining no seats at all. Micro-parties standing in Italian national elections, essentially for propaganda purposes, are nothing new; in 2006 there were 14 parties who stood but gained no seats, taking 3.3% of the vote between them. This time round, there were 23 parties unrepresented in Parliament, and they took 9.6% of the vote between them, of which the Rainbow Left accounted for 3.1%. As well as encouraging potential Rainbow Left voters to vote PD or stay at home, the PD’s refusal of an alliance thus created the conditions for a million Rainbow Left votes to be completely wasted – and for the PD to reap the benefit. Defeat, demobilisation and delegitimation – nice one, Walter.

The worst of it is, there was never really any chance that the PD’s courage in shafting the Left would genuinely be rewarded – rewarded with something useful, like a defeat for Berlusconi. Here are some more voting figures, from the last few elections contested by the PCI before it split. The ‘DC bloc’ figures include the Christian Democrats and all the small parties which were admitted to DC-led coalitions. The ‘PCI’ figures include votes for the Radical Party, a small middle-class leftish party which has merged into the PD.

1976 1979 1983 1987
Far Left 1.5% 1.4% 1.7% 4.2%
PCI 35.5% 33.8% 32.1% 29.2%
DC bloc 56.1% 56.8% 56.4% 57.4%
Far right 6.1% 5.3% 6.8% 5.9%

For the Left to escape from permanent opposition, that >50% DC bloc needed to be split into left, right and centre components, and as much of it as possible had to be drawn into a centre-left alliance. Moreover, this alliance would have to be built very, very carefully if the end result were not simply to be a shift to the Right by the PCI, losing votes on the Left as fast as it gained them on the Right (PCI, 1983: 32.1%; DS, 2006: 32.5%). The DS needed to make a significant move to the Right so as to appeal to left Christian Democrats, but at the same time they needed to keep the Left on side. This impossible balancing act was what Romano Prodi achieved, with the alliance that narrowly won the 2006 election. I’ve got a soft spot for really good machine politicians, and Prodi has shown himself to be one of the best. It’s just a shame that he’s a committed neo-liberal imperialist as well as a tactical genius: his politics tested his own alliance to destruction.

Veltroni, like Prodi, is not a socialist – but, unlike Prodi, he’s a former Communist rather than a former Christian Democrat. Consequently, his attitude to the Left is not tolerant incomprehension but open hostility: he knows what they are, he’s fought them for years and he wants nothing to do with them now. Hence his apparent determination to profit from one half of Prodi’s tactical approach (shoring up the right-PCI vote by merging it with the old left of the DC) while abandoning the other (achieving a majority by keeping the Left on board). You could call this approach a ‘Copernican revolution’; alternatively, you could look at it in the light of the voting figures for the last 10, 30 or 60 years, in which case you’d probably call it quixotic and wildly irresponsible. (The difference between Veltroni and Copernicus is that the world actually does revolve around the sun.)

This brings us to the second and more serious reason for challenging Veltroni’s complacency: the outcome of the elections. Berlusconi is back in power; he’s got a huge majority in the Chamber of Deputies (thanks in part to that electoral system) and a decent majority in the Senate; unlike last time, the relatively moderate UDC is out of the right-wing alliance and out of government; while the relatively terrifying Lega Nord is as close to Berlusconi as before, and numerically stronger than ever. The Lega and Alleanza Nazionale are already fighting like rats in a sack, which is some consolation; however, in the nature of things they’re unlikely to exert a moderating influence on Berlusconi, as the UDC sometimes did. Berlusconi’s even solved the problem of turning his party into something more than a personal vehicle, by merging Forza Italia with Alleanza Nazionale. In short, these results are a disaster for Italy as well as a historic defeat for the Italian Left. And it’s a disaster that could, surely, have been avoided – by Veltroni.

This is a striking example of the ‘realism’ of the centre-left, if it still deserves that name. (We can expect the PD to shift still further to the Right – after all, the UDC got twice the vote of the Rainbow Left, which suggests where the votes can be found. Marco Follini, a former leader of the UDC who is now in the PD, has already put down a marker: “We need to talk about the identity of the PD. If it’s going to be a party of the Left – even a social-democratic party – well, fine, but you can count me out.”) Writers like Berselli, staunch in their support for the ‘realism’ and ‘maturity’ of Veltroni’s party, have excoriated the irresponsible extremism of PRC. Had Bertinotti voted with Turigliatto in 2007, we can be sure that his party would have got the blame for destroying left unity and letting Berlusconi back in. But apparently left unity is a one-way street: Veltroni can dump PRC at will, even if the result of splitting the centre-left in this way is exactly the same as if the split had been initiated by Bertinotti. And apparently ‘realism’ encompasses pitching for an overall majority at the head of a party which has never been known to get as much as 35% of the vote.

Back in the 1970s, Berlinguer came to power within the PCI on the back of a long wave of industrial militancy and local election victories: it seemed that the time had come to capitalise on the PCI’s successes at the national level. What actually happened was that the DC kept the PCI at arm’s length for years on end, while Berlinguer courted respectability by denouncing the irresponsible radicalism and militancy of the Left and the trade unions. Berlinguer never did persuade the DC to admit the PCI to government, but he did irreparable damage to the party – both its vote and its membership rose until about 1976, then declined almost continuously until the split in 1990. You wouldn’t have thought they’d fall for that again.

Cool machine

One from the book of lost posts:

Here are some of Graham Greene’s judgments on Frederick Rolfe (‘Baron Corvo’), a writer who seems to have had a definite fascination for him:

The greatest saints have been men with more than a natural capacity for evil, and the most vicious men have sometimes narrowly avoided sanctity. … Rolfe’s vice was spiritual more than it was carnal: it might be said that he was a pander and a swindler, because he cared for nothing but his faith. He would be a priest or nothing, so nothing it had to be

The difficulty always is to distinguish between possession by a devil and possession by a holy spirit. Saints have starved like Rolfe, and no saint had a more firm belief in his spiritual vocation. He loathed the flesh (making an unnecessary oath to remain twenty years unmarried that he might demonstrate to unbelieving ecclesiastics his vocation for the priesthood) and he loved the spirit.

[Reviewing Hubert’s Arthur (“on the whole … a dull book of small literary merit”)]
Reading his description of St Hugh, ‘the sweet and inerrable canorous voice of the dead’, one has to believe in the genuineness of his nostalgia – for the Catholic Church, for innocence. But at the same time one cannot fail to notice the homosexual and the sadistic element in the lushness and tenderness of his epithets … when he describes Arthur,

the proud gait of the stainless pure secure in himself, wholly perfect in himself, severe with himself as with all, strong in disgust of ill, utterly careless save to keep high, clean, cold, armed, intact, apart, gleaming with candid candour both of heart and of aspect, like a flower, like a maid, like a star,

one recognises the potential sanctity of the man

There’s something very odd going on here. He would be a priest or nothing; he loathed the flesh; but one cannot fail to notice the homosexual and the sadistic element in his lush, languorous evocations of purity and discipline. And, it has to be said, the oddness in these passages isn’t confined to Rolfe. When I look at that parade of epithets heaped on the figure of Arthur – high, clean, cold, armed, intact, apart … like a flower, like a maid, like a star – sanctity isn’t the first thing I think of, or the second. This isn’t a positive embrace of the good or holy, or of anything; it’s an anxious denial of anything low, dirty or warm, tipping over into yearning for the impossible fantasy of making that denial real.

I wondered, reading these passages, if ‘homosexual’ is the key term here. I was amused, as Greene probably intended, by that reference to Rolfe’s ‘unnecessary’ vow to avoid marriage. It reminded me of the old sketch about the scoutmaster’s funeral (“Funny he never married…”) – or, closer to home, of the (Anglican) priest in my mother’s old parish, who was a heavy clubber and a member of a monastic order, which he eventually left on the grounds that the vow of celibacy wasn’t fair to his partner. At the same time, Greene clearly believes at some level in the idea of rejecting the flesh, and seems genuinely troubled by the thought that some men who do so are only really rejecting the female flesh. So Rolfe’s homosexuality doesn’t undermine his vocation for sanctity – still less, as we might think, explain it; rather, the two run side by side, fleshly weakness alongside all the high, clean, cold stuff. What’s missing is the idea that, for Rolfe, the impossibility of an overt sex life might have fed into a general hatred of the world – and sex, and himself. And cue Robert Hanks in the Indie a bit back, covering a programme about a male army officer who had had a sex change:

at another point, discussing her earlier service in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jan talked of a misery so intense that she had volunteered for dangerous missions in the hope of finding an end to it all. This is, by the way, nothing new. A brief acquaintance with military memoirs will make it clear that the armed forces have always relied on having at least a few soldiers so bloody unhappy that they don’t care whether they live or die. Homosexuality used to be a good motivator: Siegfried Sassoon, for example, earned his nickname “Mad Jack” and his Military Cross after the death of a boy he had been in love with (though in his fictionalised Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, the relationship was glossed as a strong friendship). But in these more liberal times, being gay may not make soldiers feel sufficiently cast out from society: perhaps would-be transsexuals are the VCs of the future.

A certain kind of heroism is hard to distinguish from self-loathing. A certain kind of martial virtue, anyway. Rolfe was a sinner, happily for him, but you’ve got to wonder what do you end up with if you take clean, cold, armed, intact etc seriously, and give all this repression and denial its head: who is this guy who’s secure in himself, wholly perfect in himself, severe with himself as with all, strong in disgust of ill? And what kind of uniform is he wearing? Here’s Michael Wood in the LRB, discussing Bertolucci’s the Conformist:

The question of normality gets cleared up by a resort to an old Italian movie myth, also dear to Rossellini and Visconti: homosexual guilt. … Isn’t or wasn’t Marcello a Fascist? This is where the myth kicks in. He was just trying to be straight, that’s what ‘normal’ meant. The myth isn’t homosexual guilt itself, of course, but the suggestion that without homosexual guilt Fascism in Italy would never really have got off the ground, or at least wouldn’t have been interesting. The attraction of the myth is that it plays in two modes, gay and macho. The problem can be the guilt or the homosexuality, but either way no one ever gets over it, and the effects are disastrous.

One recognises the potential sanctity of the man, indeed. I’m quite glad to say that I don’t; I can’t see how denial of the flesh can have anything to do with religion, if by religion we mean a culture or body of beliefs which has something to say to the rest of the world. At its best, or least harmful, it’s fraudulent and misogynistic; at its awful, heartfelt worst it’s power-worship, self-abasement and disgust at the world.

Deny the flesh and you can deny just about anything – and enjoy it. Let me have priests about me who are married.

(Although not necessarily to Hindus.)

Under the mirror

Counting films on TV & video, the last five films I’ve seen (from most recent) are

The Spiderwick Chronicles
Pride and Prejudice
High School Musical 2
High School Musical
Vantage Point

You may sense a theme emerging. Spiderwick is certainly a film I wouldn’t have seen if I weren’t a parent, but as such it was much better than I’d expected (although by the end of it I had seen enough CGI goblins, trolls and boggarts to last me a good long time). The plotting was a bit odd and baggy in places, probably thanks to the film being based on five separate books, but the construction and pacing were terrific – it gripped and didn’t let go. It was also one of the scariest films I’ve seen in some time, with some well-executed horror-movie ‘house under attack’ sequences; what the eight-year-old of the family made of it I’m not sure. By comparison the High School Musicals are fluff, but they’re enjoyable fluff. HSM2 suffers from diminishing returns – and from the inexplicable decision to cut out the “Humuhumunukunukuapua’a” number, which leaves a big hole in the film – but they’re both worth a look if you like musicals. (I’m a sucker for a well-executed musical, and these are.) Nice liberal anti-conformity message, too. And Pride and Prejudice – the only proper grown-up film we’ve seen lately – is wonderful, but not in a costumey way. It’s true to the novel, which is very far from being a costume-drama novel; the performances have that quality David Lynch used to get on Twin Peaks, of actors going just far enough over the top. I never expect to see a better Darcy than Matthew McFadyean; he’s sulky, awkward, odd-looking and a howling snob, all of which makes him a great improvement on (say) the Colin Firth portrayal. Keira Knightley actually gives one of the poorer performances – she doesn’t quite get the length, and sometimes seems like she’s strolled in from another film – but she’s still very watchable, what with being Keira Knightley.

But this post is about Vantage Point, which was something of a personal milestone – the first film I’ve been to with my son that I wouldn’t have minded seeing on my own, or with another adult. (This post began as a comment on The Cedar Lounge Revolution, some time ago now – cheers, WbS.) It’s a high-concept film: there’s an assassination attempt on the President of the US (POTUS, as he’s called throughout the film); we see the 10-15 minutes either side of the shooting from the viewpoint of a TV news team, then see it again from the standpoint of an eye-witness, then another – and another – and another. As each sequence ends we’re shown a montage of the key events we’ve just seen, speeded up and in reverse: rewind the tape and let’s go again. After four of these sequences, each of which reveals a bit more about what’s happened, we rewind once more and then follow events from the standpoint of the terrorist group responsible for the shooting. Or that’s how it seems to begin with; after a while we realise the film’s reverted to standard omniscient-narrator mode, and the second half is shot very much like a conventional thriller. Very much in the style of the Bourne films, in particular, or at least in a style meant to evoke the Bourne films – the action isn’t nearly as brutal, or the hand-held camerawork as jerky. Where the style of the film does score, intermittently, is in evoking the experience of some fairly extreme events. Most of the gunplay is standard-issue bang-you’re-dead stuff, but there’s one catastrophic event that’s followed by some strikingly unhurried shots of the aftermath: you can see the different protagonists sitting up, looking round and obviously thinking What was that? And what the hell do I do now? If the Bourne films redefine heroism by making it look really difficult and really dangerous, this film was more about heroism and post-traumatic stress.

It’s pretty political, for a mainstream action film; to be more precise, it’s a “this is pretty political for a mainstream action film” film. Very self-conscious, very media-studies – and, ultimately, not very political (we learn next to nothing about the terrorist group at the heart of the action). If there’s an overriding mood to the film it’s less radical than paranoid. The way it puts on display anxieties about recorded images, surveillance and the mass media is typical. The first sequence is set in an outside broadcast newsroom, belonging to a US satellite channel modelled on CNN; at the end, the film returns to the satellite channel, closing with a grainy full-screen image of their newsreader. The first-person sequences that make up the first half of the film include some sequences from the character’s viewpoint, but mostly we’re either looking straight at the character or looking over his shoulder. It’s a curious effect: when the first-person character looks around to take in a whole scene, in particular, the giddy looping of a hand-held camera reproduces his head movements – even though the guy himself is in shot. The grammar of these shots effectively writes in the film-maker, saying we are showing you how it looked to him – a point that’s underlined thuddingly by those pause-and-rewind sequences. (He, he, him – all the four eye-witness characters are male.) There were lots of cameras within the film; at one point or another just about everyone was filming, being filmed or both, and much vital evidence was seen being caught on camera. On the other hand, it was clear that we were being shown the view from inside, and nothing was going to get out without heavy official filtering. Before the main action of the film, a reporter on the ground was seen pointing out that lots of people in Europe weren’t too keen on US foreign policy, and being roundly rebuked for going off the script about unity in the face of terror. The foiling of a real (and fiendishly complex) terrorist plot naturally didn’t change this policy; the last line of the film closed the official book on the story, suggesting that most people would never know what had happened.

The focus on camcorders and cameraphones links into a more general unease – or uneasy fascination – with technology. My son wondered if the film would damage the sales of iPhones, which (or something very like them) are used to great effect by the head bomber. At several points I was strongly reminded of the Italian Job, of all things: the terrorists pull off an impossibly complex plot, forestalling and circumventing anti-terrorist counter-measures through ingenuity, co-ordination and some very advanced technology. However, in this film we’re dealing with a terrorist coup carried out by ruthless fanatics rather than a payroll robbery pulled off by a gang of lovable South London incompetents, which makes for a very different mood: you don’t actually want the terrorists to succeed, to put it bluntly. The terrorists’ indomitable ability to stay one step ahead of the forces of law and order feeds right into the film’s pervasive sense of paranoia and helplessness. Whatever we (meaning, roughly, the US Secret Service) do or think of doing, they will know about it already; nothing we can do but keep on keeping on, shoot the bad guys when the opportunity presents itself, and trust to luck to get us out of this thing (it works in this film, anyway). A very American version of heroism, but with a beleaguered, disenchanted post-Cold War edge – as if to say, we don’t know what’s going on, we don’t really believe we’re fighting the good fight any more – but they’re still out to get us, so we’d better just keep fighting.

This links into the more explicit politics of the film: it is specifically the Americans (including, presumably, the main audience for this film) who don’t know what’s going on, and who are feeding the enemy without realising it. After technology, the terrorists’ main weapon is their ability to recruit: half the characters you see turn out either to be members of the terrorist group or to be temporarily complicit with them for various reasons. At the most basic level, the message is that Europe has a plentiful supply of recruits and sympathisers for an anti-American cause – a point most of the Americans were shown as completely failing to understand (that was the significance of the exchange with the more ‘enlightened’ reporter). But of course this point cuts both ways: if the Americans have good reason to be fearful, that also means they have good reason to keep fighting.

Unsurprisingly, the terrorists’ cause is almost completely unspecified – although I can reveal, without giving too much away, that the group is genuine. (At the risk of sounding like Nick Cohen, I was genuinely surprised that the terrorists didn’t turn out to be some kind of CIA/Mossad front; that’s a very available storyline on dramatic grounds alone.) They are shown as motivated by hatred both of the US and of the effects of US foreign policy; their anger feeds on the Americans’ naivety and their conviction that they stand for peace and democracy. Having made any kind of democrat/terrorist opposition problematic, the film gestures towards an alternative polarisation, between those who stand for peace and reconciliation (including the noble and far-sighted POTUS) and those who call for war without end (including both the terrorists and the President’s advisors). (The wise POTUS and his scheming advisors – a very old theme, and not a particularly radical one.) However, a gesture is all it is; whether POTUS stands for peace or war, when push comes to shove he still needs to be saved from the terrorists. More to the point, even if their motivation is understandable (and their grasp of technology is impressive) the terrorists are still evil fanatics who must be defeated; they are, after all, terrorists.

I’m not sure what the multiple-point-of-view gimmick adds up to in the end; all the narratives are ultimately consistent with one another, so the film isn’t making a point about subjectivity. I think it’s about the sense that nobody gets a complete picture of what’s going on, so that no first-person account can really be trusted (including your own). On the other hand, the news media – who are well placed to assemble a composite picture from multiple sources – are so dedicated to producing a coherent and sanitised version of events that their account can be trusted least of all. We’re back with the paranoid mood that makes this film at once more interesting than it looks and less radical than it seems to think it is. Scepticism carried to this level is ultimately rather disempowering: we can’t know what’s going on, they‘re probably one jump ahead anyway, let’s just keep on keeping on and hope we get lucky. What’s taken to be the American view of the world gets roundly criticised in this film; this world definitely isn’t a safe place for American good intentions. But, with the exception of the President’s bellicose advisors, those good intentions are never challenged – indeed, American good intentions ultimately save the day – so we’re left with not much more than a sense of omnipresent threat. The politics this feeds into is ultimately rather nasty – dogged, fearful, critical of what the USA does but willing to do anything to defend what America is, as incarnated in the wise and noble POTUS.

I’m afraid the film is right about one thing – that is about as political as a mainstream action film can get these days. It’s a lot more political than The Spiderwick Chronicles, anyway.

Update 1/4/08: we watched The Last King of Scotland this evening. Simon McBurney’s very good in it, Forest Whitaker’s brilliant and the locations are stunning, but that’s about it. The lead character’s an annoying twerp, the plot’s unbelievable and the action of the film bears almost no resemblance to the book it’s supposedly based on. On balance I’d rather have been watching Vantage Point.

Hang up your net, child

It struck me the other day, after seeing Robyn Hitchcock on Later, that I don’t go out much these days. I was never a really frequent gig-goer, but for many years there were a few people I’d invariably see if they came to Manchester. Robyn was the longest resident in that category; I first saw him in 1980, playing with the Soft Boys at the Great Northern in Cambridge. (The runner-up, for what it’s worth, is Julian Cope – although the first time I saw him was only 20 years ago, at the Haçienda (of all places) in 1987.) More recently there were the Beta Band and GYBE!; more recently still, the Earlies and James Yorkston. I’m older than I was and more hard-up than I have been, but I suspect a lot of it’s down to the general anhedonia of the last couple of years, since my mother died.

Whatever the reason, lately I’ve got into a real habit of not going to gigs. Bands whose gigs I haven’t been to recently include the Shins (twice), King Creosote (twice) and the Deaf School reunion – as well as Robyn Hitchcock. In his case I did at least have a reasonably good excuse for not going; at the time I hadn’t got round to getting either his last album or the one before. After not going to the gig, I took the opportunity to catch up on what he’s been recording lately. I bought Spooked and Olé Tarantula together and listened to them one after the other. They’re both pretty good, but… meh. Hearing them close together I became aware of a certain flatness, a diluted quality to a lot of the writing. A lot of Robyn Hitchcock’s songs always did sound a bit dashed-off, but they used to sound as if they’d been dashed off after waking from a dream (“Furry green atom bowl”, “Victorian squid”), or else dashed off by being played straight onto tape in a trance of concentration (“Love poisoning”, “The ghost ship”). Some of these songs just sound, well, dashed-off (“Everybody needs love”) – or even jammed (“Belltown ramble”). There’s something untroubled about his music lately; a lot of the time he doesn’t sound as if he’s waiting for inspiration of unknown origin to strike, he just sounds like he’s having fun writing songs and playing music.

That appearance on Later reminded me of those albums and indirectly confirmed this impression. Robyn did one song (he only ever seems to get to do one); it was “Sounds great when you’re dead”, accompanied (as it is on record) by skittering, tightly-controlled acoustic guitar and a manically lush piano part. A very fine performance it was too; thanks to the piano part, it’s not a song he plays very often live, and it was great to see it done (particularly that last chorus – Baby, let me assure you…) Apart from anything else, I really got a sense of what that song’s about, which I never really had done in the previous embarrassingly large number of years.

Your mother is a journalist, your father is a creep
They make it in your bedroom when they think you are asleep
The scenes that they’re enacting there beside your little bed
Are never in your consciousness but always in your head

Baby, it might sound dodgy now
But it sounds great when you’re dead

It’s about screwed-up artists, I reckon: your upbringing may have left you with raw emotional wounds, but those very wounds are going to make a poet of you – and think how good that‘ll make you look in a hundred years’ time! Dark, very dark.

The curious thing was how Robyn looked, singing it. Enunciating each syllable, catching the eye of the camera, underlining significant phrases with a sideways look or a twitch of the eyebrow, he looked like someone who’s got something to say, knows people are listening and feels entirely at ease with this situation. Positively cheerful about it, in fact – he looked like a man who enjoyed his work. His facial expressions were somewhere between an upbeat Ronan Keating and a downbeat Rolf Harris. When you took into account the lyrics he was singing – which are funny in a twisted-grin sort of way, but not at all reassuring – the overall effect was distinctly creepy.

It was also a huge change from how I remember him looking, back when he had dark hair. When I saw him with the Soft Boys or the Egyptians he always looked like he had something to tell us, but his manner was nervous, almost haunted; it was as if he suspected there was something essentially shameful or ludicrous about what he was doing, but thought he could get away with it as long as he kept impressing us. (And the earlier the more so. The fluency and rapidity of the between-song patter on the Portland Arms live album is like a hallucinatory version of Just a minute, especially after they screw up “Have a heart, Betty” (“the Modal Minor, the Flattened Tenth, the Squirrel and the Apex”).) By contrast, the other night on Later he looked… well, happy, basically. I guess relocating to America’s been good for him: certainly he’s got a bigger, more regular and more appreciative audience out there than he ever had here. The lower creative temperature of his last few albums could be related to this higher level of acceptance: to put it bluntly, someone who’s got a sneaking suspicion that what they’re doing is absurd is likely to hold their work to higher standards.

What’s really interesting is that the themes and concerns of his work haven’t changed that much. If you set aside a few lightweight numbers, he’s still writing about death, sex, the absence of God and the passage of time, in language that falls somewhere between surrealist poetry and nonsense verse. (Take Basingstoke. Noel Malcolm’s The Origins of English Nonsense finds references to Basingstoke in nonsense poems from the 1630s and 1660s; reviewing the book in the LRB in 1997, Michael Dobson recalled the use of Basingstoke in Ruddigore and commented on “an uncanny kinship between the nonsense writing of different periods”. It’s not a bad tradition to be in.) A wholly healthy Hitchcock – someone who’d wiped the slate of whatever shame or fear it was that used to hang around his neck; someone who was ‘clear’, as the Scientologists put it – would presumably sing nothing but inconsequential stuff like “Belltown ramble” or “English girl”. He certainly wouldn’t do “Sounds great when you’re dead”.

I wouldn’t dream of psychoanalysing Robyn Hitchcock, not least because I’ve never met him[1]. But the impression he’s giving at the moment is of someone who knows there’s enough half-chewed weirdness in his head to last a lifetime, but is quite happy about it. To be more precise, someone who isn’t positively happy about the weirdness itself, but is quite happy to get on with writing and playing and living, and leave it be until its moment comes. In the words of “Red locust frenzy”,

Don’t let the dragon come
And make it worse for you
Don’t let the demon come
Until you want him to

It’s a wise and sensitive thought, although with unsettling overtones. But it’s that sort of attitude – keeping the weirdness in the attic but granting yourself visiting rights – that would make it possible to find a song like “Sounds great when you’re dead” interesting and amusing, rather than alarming or threatening. It sounds like a pretty good way to be. True, the last couple of albums don’t include many songs that rank alongside “Sounds great when you’re dead” (or “Acid bird”, “Railway shoes”, “Queen Elvis”…) but I don’t think it’s a question of an overall lack of edge. The image of dilution is probably the right one: all things being equal, a happier writer with a more supportive audience will tend to write more songs, finish more songs and let more songs get out. In short, if Olé Tarantula is half the album Eye or Respect was, this may just be a sign that Robyn Hitchcock’s in a much better place now than he was then. The earlier albums are the ones with the music that will sound great when he’s dead – but he’s having more fun with it now. You can’t really grudge him that.

[1] I always think of him as ‘Robyn’ & have had to remind myself not to – since, after all, I don’t actually know the guy. I have been buying his records for basically as long as he’s been making them; and I did once eavesdrop on a conversation in a record shop between him and the owner (I remember he told the shop-owner he’d get the point of the cover of Near the Soft Boys[2]); and I did once play on the same bill as him, albeit much further down[3]. But I’ve never met him.

[2] I’ve no idea what this means – unless it’s a Professor Branestawm reference, which I suppose is just about possible.

[3] Off the bottom, in fact. Long story. Another time.

Taller than him

Or: my life as a biographer.

Rob asked about my reference to writing a biography of Debord. It goes back to the old bastard’s death in 1994. I marked his passing by sending postcards to several people with his dates and the words “Bernard, Bernard, this bloom of youth will not last forever”. More practically, I also wrote to New Left Review asking if they were planning on running something, and if so whether I could write it. (Verso had published translations of the Comments and Panegyric, thanks very largely to Malcolm Imrie; I’d reviewed one and attended the launch for the other, although I never did get my review published.) My letter found its way to Malcolm, who invited me to lunch to talk about it. I duly went to London (in the 1990s half my weekends seem to have been spent between Piccadilly and Euston) with high hopes. The lunch wasn’t sensational – we went to the cheapest Chinese cafe I’ve ever seen, & I paid for myself – but it was productive; by the time I came home I was committed to writing a full-length biography, for Pluto. (Malcolm couldn’t see it working in the Verso list; besides, Pluto was running a series of ‘Modern Masters’-style introductions to modern European thinkers and could use a snappy introduction to Debord.) I put together a rough outline and pitched it to Anne Beech at Pluto; she liked it and we were away. There was some disagreement over the question of an advance; at one point Pluto even sent me their ‘Why we don’t pay advances’ form letter. I eventually persuaded them to pay me an advance anyway (half up front, half on submission of manuscript). I immediately spent the first half on books – a topic which is worth a note in its own right.


I’ve inset this paragraph so that anyone who’s not familiar with Debord can skip it. Seriously, if you don’t know this stuff it’ll just bore you. See you at the next proper paragraph.

After Debord killed himself, his widow Alice Becker-Ho – who changed her name to Debord after his death – devoted herself to getting his work the recognition it deserved. Her efforts have been extraordinarily successful. A 1000-page Oeuvres is now available, along with facsimiles of both his book-form artworks, DVD copies of all his six films, seven volumes of letters (and counting), and complete reprints of the journals Internationale Situationniste and Potlatch. 1995 seems like a very long time ago. The availability of translations wasn’t too bad; things had improved massively since the late 1980s, when there had been nothing out there but Ken Knabb’s Situationist International Anthology, the Black and Red edition of The Society of the Spectacle and the pioneering pamphlet versions of The Veritable Split and the Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition produced by Michel Prigent and Lucy Forsyth. (Fond memories – it was that translation of the Italian preface that turned me on to Debord and, ultimately, to Autonomia.) By the time Debord died, you could also read English renderings of his film scripts, as well as the Comments and Panegyric.

The stuff that hadn’t been translated was harder to get hold of. I remember my first encounter with It’s now essentially a French Amazon, but it started life as an email-based ordering service: you mailed them the author you were interested in, they mailed back a list of books available, you mailed them back to say which ones you wanted, and at some later stage some francs would change hands (I never got that far). But even that wasn’t around in 1995 – which was, after all, pretty early in the history of e-business. I found Gérard Berréby’s Documents rélatifs à la fondation de l’Internationale Situationniste in a second-hand bookshop in London and decided (correctly, as it turned out) that I absolutely had to have it, even at the £45 they were asking for it. A trip to Paris (on work business) enabled me to pick up some stuff from Éditions Allia and Éditions Ivrea, although much of it was rather tangential to Debord’s work (I’m the proud owner of a facsimile reprint of Les lèvres nues and a video of L’anticoncept). I also got hold of a copy of Mirella Bandini’s L’estetico il politico, which is one of the key sources on the early years of the SI; locating the publisher and placing an order was quite an undertaking, particularly since I couldn’t really read or write Italian at the time. (My Italian was a lot better by the time I finished reading it.) A couple of years later I tried the same trick with a library copy of Roberto Ohrt’s Phantom Avantgarde – the other key source on the early years of the SI – but Ohrt’s German put up much more resistance than Bandini’s Italian, despite my having done German ‘O’ Level.

But a lot of the good stuff was still out of print; the reprint of Internationale Situationniste dates from 1997. Two lifesavers were an old copy of the Internationale Situationniste volume that I’d borrowed from Lucy Forsyth and some samizdat copies of Lettrist and Situationist documents that Michel Prigent was selling through Compendium. And how I miss Compendium – especially that gloomy basement, where I found Michel’s ‘Port-folio Situationniste’ along with much else from the pro-situ area, some of it even more obscure (instalments of the Encyclopédie des Nuisances, pamphlets by Annie Lebrun). I miss radical bookshops generally: where do people go these days to find pamphlets by Jacques Camatte and John Moore, or the latest from the CWO or the ICC? I guess the answer is that they don’t need to go anywhere – but then, where do they go if they don’t know they want to find pamphlets by Jacques Camatte and John Moore, or the latest from the CWO or the ICC?

So there I was in 1995, books borrowed and advance spent (that didn’t take long), writing the first English-language biography of Debord. What sticks in my mind now is how easy it was. Chapter 1 began with Debord’s encounter with Isidore Isou’s Lettrists and ended, slightly to my surprise, with his break with Isou eighteen months later (I’d been planning to get a bit further). Chapter 2 covered the ‘Lettrist International’ period (1952-7) and Debord’s intense collaboration with Gil Wolman. Chapter 3 dealt with the foundation of the SI and its ‘artistic’ period, from the expulsion of the Italian artists through the purge of the German artists to the split with the Swedish artists; this was the period of Debord’s intense collaboration with Asger Jorn, but also of his involvement with Socialisme ou Barbarie and the recruitment of Raoul Vaneigem and Attila Kotanyi to the SI. The next period, up to 1967, still intrigues me: this was the period of the Hamburg Theses, when the SI fell back on its French heartland, gave up on art and basically went slightly mad, and yet it culminated in Strasbourg – De la misère en milieu étudiant, Le retour de la colonne Durutti and all. This was also the period in which Debord wrote La société du spectacle – and my Chapter 5 was devoted to analysing the book. Chapter 6 was going to be about 1968; chapter 7 would concentrate on the disintegration of the SI and Debord’s intense collaboration with Gianfranco Sanguinetti; and there would be another couple of chapters on the less busy remainder of Debord’s life, following him into Spain and back to France.

1995 was a busy year: I left a job as a Unix sysadmin and started working as a journalist, and my first child was born (I’d resisted the temptation to call him Guy, although I was planning to dedicate the book jointly to him and to Gil Wolman). Despite these distractions, I made a good start on the book – I’d made it to Cosio d’Arroscia in 1957 by the end of the year. 1996 (when I got Debord as far as 1967) was a pretty good year. In January I spoke at Andrew Hussey and Gavin Bowd’s ghastly but memorable conference at the Haçienda; I remember the lack of heating, Gavin Bowd reading out a statement from Ralph Rumney denouncing both him and Andrew Hussey, Mark E. Smith sitting at the back and heckling Tony Wilson, and Len Bracken reading a statement attacking Greil Marcus which he’d written in French for the benefit of Michèle Bernstein, who wasn’t there (“Le temps n’est pas réversible!”) I also spoke at two other conferences and two seminars, one of them on Brighton beach (I’d gone along to listen to a speaker on Debord, but since he didn’t turn up I ended up filling in). I phoned Ralph Rumney a few times and got a letter from Donald Nicholson-Smith; thanks to Bill Brown I made email contact with Bengt Ericsson, who’d been briefly recruited by J. V. Martin to the SI’s Scandinavian section. Happy days. In 1997 I completed my MA by writing a dissertation on La société du spectacle, a brutally-edited version of which became Chapter 5 of the book. (All the Ducasse had to go, and most of the Hegel.)

After that I hit problems. Following Debord and the SI through the 1960s to the Strasbourg scandal, and even onto the Nanterre campus where he met Henri Lefebvre, was relatively easy; I could have a reasonable level of confidence that I’d seen most of the sources, and feel quite sure there were only a couple of hundred people out there who knew all that I did and more. As soon as the student movement got going at Nanterre – let alone when it reached the Sorbonne – I was out in the open, revisiting ground that had been trodden a hundred times before. As well as the reports in Internationale Situationniste, I had Riesel and Viénet’s Enragés and Situationists in the Occupations Movement and Perlman and Grégoire’s Worker-Student Action Committees, France May ’68: good sources, but not good enough to substitute for a lack of a broader historiographic grounding. To put it bluntly, all I knew about what had actually happened in May ’68 I’d learnt from the Situationists – and even a source as close to their perspective as Fredy Perlman suggested that there were other stories that could be told. I immersed myself in all the literature on the events of May (and June) ’68 that I could find – including several books borrowed from a professor at Salford University who’s since retired to France, one of which I’ve still got. (Geoff, if you’re reading this, drop me a line and I’ll post it back to you.)

The effect of hitting 1968, in short, was to make me stop writing and concentrate on reading. What was worse, for me, was that I reached 1968 in 1997; by this time Alice Debord and Patrick Mosconi were starting to get the posthumous Debord publishing industry into gear. I read the first volume of Debord’s Correspondance (1952-7) and realised with a sinking feeling that I’d only written a history of the works; I’d gone straight from the end of the first issue of Internationale Situationniste to the beginning of the second one, for example, skipping over six months of Debord’s life. And now, there it was. It would all have to be rewritten, some time. Actual biographies of Debord were starting to pile up, too. I read Anselm Jappe’s, both in the original Italian and in the revised French edition (those books were a lot easier to get hold of by now). I didn’t read Len Bracken’s or Andrew Hussey’s English language biographies; I doubt I’d agree with Hussey’s approach (see our LRB correspondence). I’ve been told that Christophe Bourseiller’s biography is pretty much the best of the bunch, but I didn’t read that either. After a while there was just too much to keep up with, or catch up with.

For several years Pluto got back to me periodically to find out whether the book was ready yet; not yet, I said, maybe next year. One year, in a fit of optimism, they even announced it; as a result you can still, apparently, find it. Eventually I came clean and the contract was cancelled.

Someone once asked me what I’d like to write about after I’d finished the Debord biography. I said I’d like to write a biography of Cornelius Cardew. I’m not sure where that came from; I’d never read Stockhausen serves imperialism, never heard anything he’d recorded with AMM, and basically knew no more about Cardew than the next Wire reader. Still don’t.

Still seems like a good idea, though.

Entire and manifold

Autocomplete blog meme. Simple procedure: type each letter of the alphabet in the address bar (one at a time, obviously) and see which blog comes up first. The result should be a map of your personal blogosphere, or at least those bits of it you’ve visited recently.

I saw this on a blog somewhere years ago – apologies if it was yours. I tried it but didn’t blog the output, because at the time it seemed too obvious; the idea that it might change over time hadn’t occurred to me.

Anyway, here’s my list, excluding any letters for which no blog home pages came up (visits to specific posts don’t count).

A is for Aaronovitch Watch
B is for Blood & Treasure
C is for The Cedar Lounge Revolution
D is for Dave’s Part closely followed by Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived
E is for Eine Kleine Nichtmusik
G is for The Gaping Silence (fortunately)
I is for Idle Words
K is for The Early Days of a Better Nation
L is for Mac Uaid
N is for The Quiet Road
P is for Private Secret Diary
Q is for qwghlm
S is for Socialist Unity, Splintered Sunrise, Stumbling and Mumbling and Smokewriting in that order
V is for The Virtual Stoa
Y is for Alternate Seat of TYR

And I nominate… anyone who wants to put themselves through all that. I have to confess, as an exercise it was rather less interesting than I’d hoped. But it’ll be a good one to revisit in a year or two, if I’m still blogging by then.

Over to you, if you feel like it.

All the peacemakers

Socialist Unity has a notice for what looks like an interesting and important meeting:
Creating the Climate of Fear: Counter-Terrorism and Punishment without Trial

Friday March 14; 6.30-9.00 p.m, London Muslim Centre, 46 Whitechapel Road
Organised by Campaign Against Criminalising Communities, Centre for the Study of Terrorism

It’s a meeting about the proposed Counter-Terrorism Bill (the ’42 days’ bill, although there’s plenty more to object to in there). I’m not familiar with everyone involved, but there are certainly some good speakers on the list and some important issues on the agenda. The first two, for example:

Detention without charge would be extended from 28 days to 42 days
‘Terrorism suspects’ could be detained without charge for six weeks. Before 2000 it was 4 days. Neither government nor police have given any convincing reason why so long is needed. The USA manages with 2 days, even Algeria with 12.

Post-charge questioning of ‘terror suspects’ – presumed guilty?
‘Terror suspects’ could be subjected to further questioning after a criminal charge, even up to the trial date. Saying nothing could count against them at trial. At present, people once charged can refuse to answer till their trial, without this being interpreted as a sign of guilt or deception.

There’s more to this second point than meets the eye; in fact I’d argue that this phrasing (people once charged can refuse to answer) already concedes too much. Traditionally the relationship of the police to the courts has been essentially that of a sorting and delivery service: if there’s not enough evidence for a charge, you let the suspect go; if the evidence is there, then you bring a charge and hand the suspect over to the courts. At this point the police cease to have any interest in that person. There isn’t any question of a suspect once charged ‘refusing to answer’ further questions; by being charged, the suspect has moved on to being a defendant – and defendants are no business of the police. Any delay between the charge being brought and the defendant attending court is just that, a delay – an administrative problem.

Labour counter-terrorist legislation has repeatedly extended the length of time the police are allowed to detain a suspect before releasing him/her or bringing charges; this has been justified on the grounds that the nature of terrorist offences makes it particularly hard to get sufficient evidence. However persuasively this may have been argued by successive Home Secretaries, it is hard to see what makes terrorist offences more intractable than, say, transnational corporate fraud. It’s particularly hard to see why the evidence had become twice as hard to gather in 2006 as it was in 2003, and four times as hard as it was in 2000. (Informative post and alarming graphic here.)

What seems to have happened in practice, behind the ‘evidence-gathering’ justification, is the creation of a new stage in the process, for terrorist suspects: police detention. The introduction of post-charge questioning would entrench and formalise this: if no terrorist charge could be brought after 28 or even 42 days, the police could simply hunt around for evidence of an unrelated offence, charge the suspect with that and then carry on questioning. The scope for abuse – and inadvertent misuse – of this system is only too clear.

Of course, it’s true that powers like this could be a weapon in the war against terrorism – but so could just about any other power, up to and including selective assassination. (Would anyone argue Mossad was not effective in disrupting the PLO?) The point is whether the costs imposed by a power like this would be imposed justly: imposed on the guilty proportionately to their guilt and imposed on the innocent, as far as possible, not at all. To ask this question is to answer it: apart from anything else, it’s not the job of the police to determine guilt or innocence. In practice, we can be sure that some innocent suspects would fall foul of these powers. What’s more of a concern is that, in practice, there would be no way of minimising the proportion of innocents who suffered in this way: to do this would require identifying those who were innocent, which by definition could only be done after they had been passed on to the courts.

The funny thing about these successive increases in the maximum police detention period – in 1974, 2000, 2003 and 2006 – is that they’ve all happened under Labour. Mrs Thatcher wasn’t known for her civil libertarianism or her hostility to the police; all the same, her response to nearly getting killed by the Provisional IRA was to defy the ‘men of violence’ by refusing to implement new counter-terrorist legislation. Somehow that particular brand of defiance seems to have passed Labour by.

To stun an ox

I’ve written a book. The MS has just gone off to the publisher; it’s still got to be checked, copy-edited, re-checked, typeset, proof-read and probably several other stages I’ve forgotten about, and it probably won’t be out much before Christmas. But it’s a book, and it’s been written. By me.

It’s called ‘More work! Less pay!’ Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-1977. The introduction begins like this:

A long wave of direct action spread across Italy between 1972 and 1977. Factory workers went on strike without union approval, walking out or occupying their workplaces; empty buildings were squatted and converted as ‘social centres’; council tenants withheld the rent; groups of women went on ‘can’t pay? won’t pay!’ shoplifting trips. The streets were also busy, with marches and demonstrations running at around two per week throughout the period.

Sidney Tarrow has analysed an earlier wave of contentious activism in terms of a ‘protest cycle’ or ‘cycle of contention’. Tarrow described how, in the early 1970s, a wave of contentious and disorderly movements spread from the universities to the industrial North of Italy before being neutralised by the Partito Comunista Italiano. The PCI’s qualified endorsement of the movement’s tactics led to the demobilisation of the movement and the achievement, in modified form, of its principal goals, by way of an expansion of the political repertoire endorsed by the PCI. The PCI in this period occupied an ambivalent position, as a supposedly ‘anti-system’ party which nevertheless played a significant role in the Italian political system; this put it in a strong position as a political ‘gatekeeper’. The outcome of the cycle was positive: under pressure from the movements, the PCI pushed back the boundaries of acceptable political activity.

In this book, I argue the late-1970s wave should be seen as a second cycle of contention. The movements of this second cycle include the ‘area of Autonomia’, based in factories and working-class neighbourhoods and active between 1972 and 1977; a wave of activism among young people which gave rise to the ‘proletarian youth movement’ of 1975-6 and the ‘movement of 1977’; and the left-wing terrorist or ‘armed struggle’ milieu. I argue that the outcome of the second cycle, like that of the first, was determined by the interaction between contentious social movements and the PCI. I also suggest that the PCI’s hostile or exclusive engagement with the second cycle of contention had lasting effects for the party as well as for the movements of the cycle. The PCI committed itself to a narrower and more explicitly constitutional range of activities and values; the result was a lasting contraction of the party’s ideological repertoire, and consequently of the repertoire of mainstream politics.

The conclusion ends like this:

Between 1966 and 1980, the PCI played the role of ‘gatekeeper’ to a relatively closed political system, admitting certain innovations to the sphere of political legitimacy and barring others. The movements of the second cycle were confronted by a hostile gatekeeper, which persistently framed their activities in terms which excluded them from political legitimacy. A key manoeuvre, as we have seen, was the evocation of violence: the movements were repeatedly denounced for the use of violence, toleration of violence, tardiness in disowning those who used violence… The ultimate result was the repression of a broad area of social, cultural and intellectual ferment, accompanied by dozens of prison terms and a brief flourishing of openly illegal ‘armed struggle’ activity; the PCI itself also suffered, denying itself a source of much-needed ideological renewal.

The disastrous outcome of the second cycle of contention was not inevitable. Given the relatively closed Italian political system, any disorderly social movement would face some type of engagement with some type of gatekeeper; by the 1970s the gatekeeper for any left-wing movement could only be the PCI. However, the exclusiveness of the PCI’s engagement was not a foregone conclusion until Berlinguer committed the party to the ‘historic compromise’ strategy – if then. The engagement was a missed opportunity which could have been taken.

The same choices could face other gatekeepers in other relatively closed systems. In Britain, where the electoral system excludes social movements from the national political system, the Labour Party remains the principal left gatekeeper. Faced with a disorderly and uncontainable rival to its left, Labour would have the same options as the PCI. An inclusive engagement would require the party quietly to appropriate and absorb the demands and tactics of the new movement, while publicly denouncing its leadership as irresponsible extremists. An exclusive engagement, in contrast, would involve denunciations of violence, escalating demands for dissociation and emphatic assertions of the party’s own commitment to democracy and the rule of law. The Italian experience demonstrates that the second of these approaches is not likely to have good results – for the movements or for British society.

The book is dedicated to Nanni Balestrini and the late Primo Moroni, whose work on the period is absolutely indispensable; I mean, by all means start with my book (and Steve Wright’s), but then get some Balestrini – and an Italian dictionary if you need one. The epigraph is from one of Balestrini’s novels:

I said to him I ask myself sometimes now it’s all over I ask myself what did it all mean our whole story all the things we did what did we get from all the things we did he said I don’t believe it matters that it’s all over I believe what matters is that we did what we did and that we think it was the right thing to do that’s the only thing that matters I believe

You won’t see the book for several months, and all things being equal you’re not very likely to see it then: the first print run will be an academic hardback, limiting its potential sales rather severely. But if the hardback run sells out a paperback may be possible – so tell all your friends, especially if they work in a library. It looks like being the first book-length study in English of the autonomist movements of the late 1970s, which should give it a bit of an audience.

Anyway: I’ve written a book. A book, by me, written; written, then edited and re-edited, checked and edited again, and sent off to the publisher today. I’ve celebrated with a bottle of Decadence. Now perhaps I’ll complete that biography of Debord. Or I may just do some of the stuff that’s been piling up while I’ve been working on this book…

Working on the sequel

It is fair to recognize the difficulty and the immensity of the tasks of the revolution that wants to create and maintain a classless society. It can begin easily enough wherever autonomous proletarian assemblies, not recognizing any authority outside themselves or the property of anyone whatsoever, placing their will above all laws and specializations, abolish the separation of individual, the commodity economy and the State. But it will only triumph by imposing itself universally, without leaving a patch of territory to any form of alienated society that still exists. There we will see again an Athens or a Florence that reaches to all the corners of the world, a city from which no one will be rejected and which, having brought down all of its enemies, will at last be able to surrender itself joyously to the true divisions and never-ending confrontations of historical life.

A question about law and communism. (This will be a fairly specialised post, I’ll warn you now.)

The other day I was reading Donald Black’s 1983 paper “Crime as Social Control”. It’s a terrific piece of work, a real complement to the unpacking job done ten or twenty years earlier by writers on the sociology of deviance. Black argues that much of what we see as crime can be understood, ethnographically, as informal means of regulating deviance: many victims of theft, assault and even murder are being punished, in the eyes of the offender, for offences not controlled by the criminal justice system. This doesn’t mean that we should endorse these forms of wild regulation as just; they are quite likely to be unjust in both procedural and distributive (outcome) terms. But to conceive of them as forms of regulation (or ‘social control’ in Black’s preferred terminology) does at least make them more comprehensible – not to mention opening up some interesting questions about legitimate and illegitimate forms of regulation.

So I was nodding along pretty enthusiastically to Black’s paper, but then I was brought up short.

A great deal of the conduct labelled and processed as crime in modern societies resembles the modes of conflict management – described above – that are found in traditional societies which have little or no law (in the sense of governmental social control)

Hold on: “law (in the sense of governmental social control)“? Can that possibly be right?

That’s not the question, although it’s related. The question is: in formal terms, how would communism change the law? Obviously the law would no longer have any call to do certain things; property law would be out of the window for a start, and I imagine that most of the criminal justice system would wither and die in very short order. And no, to the extent that the law represents governmental social control, well, there’d be none of that, for obvious reasons.

But does that dispose of the law? I’m not at all sure that it does.

From this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only) endeavour to destroy or subdue one another. And from hence it comes to pass that where an invader hath no more to fear than another man’s single power, if one plant, sow, build, or possess a convenient seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united to dispossess and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life or liberty. And the invader again is in the like danger of another.

I’m not bringing in Hobbes as a knockdown argument against communism – that would just be a more sophisticated version of “but people aren’t like that“, the eternal stupid Tory argument against teenage utopianism (not that I’m still bitter or anything). I do think it’s possible to envisage a world in which nobody spent their time endeavouring to destroy or subdue one another. But what I think Hobbes does put his finger on, almost in passing, is scarcity: even if nobody owns anything, there will still be a book you’re reading that I want to read, an artwork I’ve been given that you would have liked on your wall. Most of the time we’ll be able to sort everything out amicably – probably through some of those interminable meetings that communism is going to be so good for – but at some point there will be differences of perspective that can’t be resolved; at some point there will be conflict.

And what do you want to deal with conflict? What you want, it seems to me, is a book that reminds us how we deal with certain kinds of conflict, and somebody who’s good at reading that kind of book. Obviously it can all be opened up – the role of book-reader can rotate, or be open to whoever wants it, or be open to recall; the book can be updated, if we can agree on an update (and if we can agree on the conditions under which an update is applied, and for that matter on the conditions under which a discussion like this can be halted before we end up in a game of Nomic). Perhaps you don’t even need a reader. But you’ve still got a book that embodies elements of the experience of a community, in the form of statements that the community now defers to. You’ve still got law.

If I try to imagine a community without law, in this strong sense, I can only imagine a community without a past: a community whose life was made up as it went along. It sounds like a nice place to visit, but could you really live there?

Says there’s none

Jamie picks up on a handy new proposal for making use of all those ex-servicemen the Iraq war is eventually going to leave us with:

Ex-servicemen and women should be retrained as teachers to bring military style discipline to tough inner city schools, a think tank has said. The Centre for Policy Studies says ex-soldiers could have a profound effect on discipline and learning.

“This is not merely because ex-servicemen are sure of their own moral authority. They are not intimidated by adrenaline-fuelled adolescents: they have, unlike most teachers, been there before,” it added. It also argued that the perception that these teachers had been in a “macho profession” would be well-received by inner city children. “Whether we like it or not, children from more deprived neighbourhoods often respond to raw physical power,” it added.

Chief of Defence Staff Lord Guthrie said knife crime, drugs and violence were reported daily in the inner cities. … “This will not, of course, solve all the problems of the inner city. But it will help,” he said. “It will provide youths with role models who understand discipline and self-restraint at the time in their lives when they need it most. And it will be a terrific boost for our Armed Services.”

Three different propositions seem to have got jumbled up here: ex-servicemen will help reform the rowdy kids by providing role models who understand discipline and self-restraint; they’ll cow the rowdy kids into submission with their raw physical power; and they’ll lock the place down with their military-style discipline. Presumably number 3 isn’t going to happen – apart from anything else, you don’t need military-style personnel to have military-style discipline, you just need to put someone in authority and give them a free hand. So what we want is role models and raw power – and since they’re not also talking about recruiting monks or doormen, presumably what we want is role models with raw power.

“Look at me, children. Hear the evenness of my voice, watch the precision and economy STOP THAT RIGHT NOW of my movements. Learn from me and you will STOP THAT NOW OR I WILL PERSONALLY RIP YOUR FACE OFF be like me.”

As it happens, when I was eight I had a primary school teacher who used to cane us and shout a lot, often about discipline!. But he wasn’t a former professional soldier, he was just mad. Being eight years old, I just thought this was one of those things – some teachers are nice, some are strict, and some are loud and violent and tell long and complicated stories – but I found out later that the school inspectors had been quite taken aback. They came to the school while I was there, and after they’d gone Mr Thomas didn’t come to teach us any more.

Self-restraint and raw power; discipline and violence. Or, to put it another way, dominance and submission, enforced through the ever-present threat of superior force. It’s a very old form of social organisation (more on that another time) and obviously has a certain atavistic appeal, but it’s hard to see what it’s really good for, anywhere outside the army – which is obviously a special case in terms of what people sign up for. A couple of comments from that BBC story:

Having taught in an exclusion unit in southern England for a number of years, I can attest that many of the exclusions who attended the unit were boys who had suffered violence at the hands of their military fathers who obviously believed that threatening their offspring was the best way to control them. Indeed, whole military families of children were excluded from school. I visited one family of five boys to give home tuition. All were excluded from school for violent and uncontrollable behaviour. Mother was illiterate and sat in on reading lessons. Father tried to maintain discipline with his fists and complained to me that the more he tried to get the boys to behave, the worse they became

Remembering – with fondness – my instructors from Bassingbourn Barracks, they would make mincemeat of the lot of them. But it has to come from within – the army is voluntary, you expect what you will get. School is compulsory…

I remember Mr Price, the headmaster, telling us merrily how Mr Thomas had been taken away by the men in white coats; a bit rich, really, coming from him. And I remember Mr Cook coming to take the class. He was an improvement: he caned us occasionally, but he didn’t shout very much at all and his stories were funnier and made more sense. He always had this slightly harassed air, as if he was trying to live up to something but he wasn’t quite sure what. It must have been quite a tough gig.

On science alone

Like Splinty, I am not inconsiderably annoyed at Private Eye. Oh yes.

In the recent ruckus between Newsnight and the Decent Right thinktank Policy Exchange, the Eye (or at least the enigmatic ‘Ratbiter’) has unaccountably chosen to side with the latter.

Newsnight alleged that Policy Exchange or its researchers had forged the receipts which showed you could buy book spewing out hatred of women, Jews, Christians and moderate Muslims in mosques. The researchers utterly deny any forgery; but the implications of the alleged exposé are explosive: David Cameron’s favourite think-tank was apparently stirring up racial hatred with fraudulent evidence.

Newsnight‘s killer claim was that its hacks had organised forensic tests which proved that receipts Policy Exchange said it had collected from the Muslim Education Centre in High Wycombe were dubious. When Policy Exchange said that the centre was selling such titles as Women Who Deserve to go to Hell – for complaining about their husbands and going along with feminist ideas promoted by Jews and Christians – it couldn’t be believed. The BBC stuck by the accusation even though the Muslim Education Centre cheerily told reporters that the books were indeed on sale.

Similarly Newsnight said receipts from the Al-Muntada Al-Islami Trust in west London were suspicious … If Newsnight‘s allegations were correct, the al-Muntada centre should be the innocent victim of a disgraceful smear. But the most basic checks show that it wasn’t. At the time the Eye was going to press, the al-Muntada online bookshop was offering [two works cited by Policy Exchange]

There’s a very basic logical fallacy in the argument put forward by Policy Exchange and endorsed by the Eye, which hinges on the unstated proposition that for Muslim bookshops to sell the works of (say) Sayyid Qutb really matters. It’s about working backwards up the chain of causation and treating an intermediate (and perhaps optional) link as if it were the starting point. All sorts of misinterpretations can follow from this error: some gang members grew up listening to gangsta rap, for example, but many people who grew up listening to gangsta rap didn’t go on to join gangs and were never at any risk of doing so. In the case of Qutb, as Splinty says:

What Qutb does do, if you’re a young Muslim alienated from the surrounding society, is provide an intellectual framework for you to understand your alienation. Note that this only works if you’re already an alienated Muslim, and that a Qutbist intellectual framework is not remotely necessary for the alienated Muslim to adopt jihadi ideas.

You can get from A to C via B, but you can also go straight from A to C, or go to B without going on to C. What’s most important is starting at A – and you don’t get there from B.

So there’s a strong argument that Policy Exchange and ‘Ratbiter’ don’t have a case even if we take everything they say at face value. But there’s a more fundamental problem. ‘Ratbiter’ doesn’t go into any detail about the alleged faking of the receipts, resorting to the weaselly adjectives ‘dubious’ and ‘suspicious’ and a reference to sciencey-sounding “forensic tests”. Those scientists, they can prove anything, can’t they? Newsnight will have given those receipts to a bunch of boffins in white coats, they’ll have taken a sample and whizzed it round in a centrifuge or something, and just because some liquid ends up turning red instead of blue…

Actually the tests were a bit more basic – and a bit more conclusive. Here‘s Richard Watson of Newsnight (and this has been up since the 14th of December, which presumably was some time before the Eye went to press):

Al-Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre
the hand-writing on this receipt is very similar – to my eye it looks identical – to the hand-writing on another receipt, said to have been obtained from a mosque in Leyton, 10 miles away [Masjid as-Tawhid]. A registered forensic document examiner concluded that there was “strong evidence” that the two receipts were written by the same person.

Masjid as-Tawhid
The first receipt provided by the researcher was obtained from the bookshop, at 78 Leyton High Road. I did see the carbon copy of this receipt so we know the books were acquired from the bookshop. But both the bookshop manager and the mosque management categorically say they are two separate organisations.

Curiously, we were told that researchers were sent back at a later date to obtain a second receipt on headed paper and that document, printed on an ink-jet printer, introduced the word “mosque” into the receipt for the first time. The address is still given as that of the bookshop. But none of this addresses the worrying fact that the hand-writing on the printed receipt matches that on the receipt from the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, 10 miles away.

[The receipt was] printed on an ink-jet printer. The forensic ESDA tests carried out by the registered document examiner concluded that this receipt was underneath the receipt from the Muslim Education Centre in High Wycombe when this latter one was written out. Once again the mosque management categorically told us that the receipt provided by the researchers was not a genuine document. Even if the books are available online, there are serious questions about the authenticity of this receipt.

You get the idea.

I read quite a lot of research for the purposes of my day job, and I’ve seen results called into question on much weaker grounds than Newsnight had. If you’ve got good reason to believe that the evidence in front of you isn’t genuine – let alone reason to believe that it’s been faked – then you just don’t trust that research, even if it’s telling you that the sky is sometimes dark at night and Monday tends to come after Sunday. If someone else can get similar results by other means, bully for them – let them publish what they’ve got. But that doesn’t somehow retrospectively validate the faked research, as the Eye seems to imagine.

Ultimately it’s a point about the reliability of the researcher as well as the research. If you’ve got evidence that they’re willing to put their thumb on the scales to get the right answer, from that point on you can’t really trust anything they tell you – unless it begins with “I’m sorry I faked those results”, and even then you’ll want to watch them like a hawk. Unfortunately Policy Exchange’s response to Newsnight can be summed up as “we didn’t fake those results, and what does it matter if we did, and besides you’re no better”.

To push the evidence is bad, but it doesn’t make the research completely invalid. To fake the evidence does invalidate the research, but for the researcher it’s survivable. But to fake the evidence and then refuse to admit it, deny that it matters, change the subject and generally try to bluster your way out of it – you’re off the list, I’m afraid.

The fundamental point ‘Ratbiter’ seems to miss is that this applies just as strongly if the results are plausible – and twice as strongly if the results are in line with the audience’s expectations. Picture the scene: they’re telling you what you want to hear, and it seems believable, but you’ve got evidence that they’re willing to lie about it. It’s a setup that rings some very loud alarm bells for me, but apparently it doesn’t at the Eye. Perhaps ‘Ratbiter’ had better stay well away from time-share presentations.

Chemistry class

I think the real problem was that I’d finished the gin a couple of nights before. Obviously gin wouldn’t be a good alternative to vodka, but if it had been there on the shelf it would have reminded me that there were alternatives to vodka, and then I might have thought of using brandy. Which probably wouldn’t have worked as well as vodka, but would certainly have been better than what I did use.

But let’s start at the beginning. I changed schools at the beginning of the third year (year 9 as it is now), with the consequence that I missed a year or eighteen months of Chemistry. By the time I joined, the teacher had got the basics sorted out and was onto the reactivity of the halogens. I remember that because of the way the lessons worked: for the first half of the lesson the teacher would dictate a couple of pages which we would all take down, after which he’d get us to do an experiment demonstrating some aspect of whatever it was. So my first introduction to Chemistry (and for that matter chemistry) consisted of the phrase ‘The Reactivity of the Halogens’. I made sure I spelled it right, if nothing else.

I gave up Chemistry at the end of the third year. By then I’d learnt about Hydrogen having one bond and… er… other elements having more; the building-block aspect of molecules quite appealed to me for a while. But I’d never really found my way around the periodic table – or, more importantly, got any sense of why I might want to. Frankly, I don’t think the reactivity of the halogens was a good place to start.

By the time I left school I was OK on solids and liquids (we’d done them in Physics); I knew about some things being radioactive and most things fortunately not; and I knew that the pH scale measured acidity (or possibly alkalinity) (or is it both?), although this was partly thanks to that Peter Hammill album. Other than that, what I knew about chemical substances was very, very limited. If you were to ask me to name a solvent and a lubricant, for example, and tell you the difference between those types of liquid, I would have been at a loss.

Not now, though; I’ve got it all worked out now. If you’ve got a bit of gunk clogging up a mechanism, a solvent and a lubricant will both get the mechanism working again, but in different ways. The solvent dissolves the bonds that make the dirt stick together and stick to the surface it’s stuck to, so you end up with bits of dirt distributed uncloggily through the solvent. The lubricant leaves the dirt in place, but introduces a low-friction medium between the dirt and the workings, which enables the workings to slide over the dirt without getting stuck. With a solvent, the dirt at worst gets broken down and spread out, at best gets wiped up along with any remaining solvent. With a lubricant, the dirt and the lubricant both stay there, but the mechanism doesn’t care any more.

(Incidentally, I read somewhere that water would be a good lubricant, as long as whatever it was lubricating was cool, water-tight and uncorroding. And water’s obviously a reasonable solvent, as in washing. Is there some sort of scale that goes off either way with water in the middle, like with acids and alkali? Come to think of it, why is it a ‘pH’ scale anyway? It’s not actually something to do with Peter Hammill, is it?)

Anyway, about the brandy. The first time I ever saw someone clean a really dirty LP – at what was then Lashmar’s in Croydon, possibly when I sold them my Saturnalia LP – it was with cotton wool and vodka. I was mightily impressed and started sneaking my parents’ vodka for the purpose. (Not enough for them to notice, unfortunately – it would have made a much better story.) Some time later I discovered that you could buy little red bottles of ethyl alcohol for just this purpose. But if you don’t often play LPs, you don’t often need to clean an LP. So yesterday, when I was mid-way through ripping one of my Talking Heads albums and discovered great patches of encrusted god-knows-what making big crunchy noises, I couldn’t lay hands on my little red bottle.

What to do? We keep vodka in the house, but at the moment it’s quite a nice vodka (it was a present). We’re out of gin (which would be a bit sticky anyway), and for some reason – possibly because of the absence of gin – brandy didn’t occur to me. So I used WD-40.

Much later – after wiping off the excess, wiping off the rest of the excess and wiping off as much of what was left as I could get at, waiting half an hour in the vain hope that it would evaporate, then starting again – I realised that WD-40 is a lubricant rather than a solvent. Consequently it’s been quite happy to sit in the grooves and not go anywhere. It hasn’t even had any effect on the big crunchy patches of encrusted god-knows-what; they are less noticeable, though, as the whole of side 2 now sounds like an archive recording of one of Edison’s earlier cylinders.

Fortunately I was able to get hold of MP3s of the album, so I’ve now got very nearly what I was trying to achieve in the first place (an LP on the shelf and an album on the Mac). And I know – or rather, I’m aware of – slightly more about chemistry than I was aware of knowing before. Or perhaps I should say, I’m slightly more aware of what I don’t know.

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