To live in

Anothere meme (I’ll get back to proper blogging soon, honest) – via. Books this time, and a tie-in of sorts with the BBC’s Big Read (although I can’t find a BBC page with this list on). Viral boilerplate follows:

The Big Read reckons that the average adult has only read 6 of the top 100 books they’ve printed.
1) Look at the list and bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you intend to read.
3) Underline the books you love.
4) Strike out the books you have no intention of ever reading, or were forced to read at school and hated. (I see no reason to restrict ‘books I hated’ to school – there are only a couple of books on the list I really disliked, and neither of them was a school text.)
5) Reprint this list in your own blog so we can try and track down these people who’ve only read 6 and force books upon them.

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 The Harry Potter Series – JK Rowling

5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34 Emma – Jane Austen
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis

37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres

39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert

53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville

71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt

81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Yes, I did an English degree. Which reminds me, number 14. Having read a fair chunk of Shakespeare I’m a bit peeved that the bar for number 14 is set so high – “The Phoenix and the Turtle”? “King John”? “The Comedy of Errors”? One would think that having read all the tragedies (even “Timon of Athens”) and all the late plays and several of the comedies and histories and the Sonnets would count for something, but apparently not – it’s the Works or nothing. Which makes it a bit odd that a single play sneaks in much lower down the list, at number 98 (see also 33 and 36). Does number 14 actually mean “two or more of the Works”?

As for number 6, yes, I have, actually. Blame it on the English degree, and specifically on the reading list our Director of Studies sent out to prospective first-years – a kind of conspectus of English literature from the seventeenth century onwards, under the general heading of ‘books we ought already to have read‘. I started at the top (the King James Bible), blithely confident that I’d be able to work my way through the whole thing over the summer. (It included Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End trilogy, I remember, and John Galt’s the Entail. It was comprehensive.) I forget how much of the list I read in the end, but I’m pretty sure I got through the Bible. When I got to college we spent the whole of the first term reading Middle English. Happy days.

Some of the ‘loved it’ underlinings are a bit arbitrary. I might have said I loved the Woman in White if I hadn’t also read the Moonstone – that I really loved. The Remains of the Day I didn’t love until I re-read it, which was after reading When we were orphans and the wonderful The Unconsoled. And Cloud Atlas depressed me for weeks after I read it, so ‘love’ doesn’t seem quite the right word. But it really got under my skin & I’m glad I read it.

47/100 – and only one on the list I actually haven’t heard of (Ruiz Zafon – ¿quién él?). Some odd omissions, though – wot no Tristram Shandy? Billy Liar? Flann O’Brien? Beckett? Pynchon? Alasdair Gray? Jonathan Coe? Why, in other words, aren’t they asking whether people are reading the books that I’m reading? That would make much more sense.

Young bones groan

Just recently, I’ve got heavily into traditional music – specifically, traditional English, Scottish and Irish music. One of the effects has been to make me feel a bit ambivalent about the local folk club – which is ironic, as it’s going to the folk club that exposed me to traditional music in the first place.

I went to the aforesaid club the other night, and a terrific night it was too. There were 16 acts – a total of 18 musicians and two poets – and some of them were stupendously good. Good value, too – singers’ nights are a quid in, and you make that back on the beer, thanks to a cricket club licence (the bitter’s £1.60).

Here’s what I heard. (All numbers arranged for vocal and guitar unless otherwise stated.)

– “Skip to my Lou”, vocal and maraca
– “Changes” (from O Lucky Man!)
– “The ballad of Sir Patrick Spens” (a parody), unaccompanied vocal
– something C+W (possibly traditional)
– two poems by a Danish poet (in translation), recitation
– something bluesy (possibly traditional), vocal, harmonica and guitar
– something bluesy and jazzy (just possibly traditional)
– “When I’m cleaning windows”
– “The house of the rising sun”
– a song about the death of Kirsty MacColl set to the tune of “The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll”
– a love song (original), vocal, guitar and harmony vocal
– a song about housing development set to the tune of “Johnny B. Goode”, two guitars and vocals
– “La vie en rose”, unaccompanied vocal
– two original poems, recitation
– something C+W (possibly traditional), vocal, harmonica and guitar
– “I guess it doesn’t matter any more”, vocal, guitar, harmonica and percussion
– an original song about a Scottish hermit, vocal, guitar, harmonica and percussion
– an original song and two covers

So that’s four poems and eighteen songs, which divide into

original (6)
covers (7)
American traditional (1) (viz. “Skip to my Lou”)
songs in American traditional styles, which may have been any of the above (4)

Traditional songs were either a small minority or a tiny minority, and there was nothing at all from an English, Scottish or Irish traditional source. (The Sir Patrick Spens parody almost qualified, but it was original material – and it did mock traditional ballads & their singers, albeit quite fondly.) I can’t help thinking that’s a bit weird, for a folk club.

Poking about on the Mudcat site I found this comment by Jim Carroll from a couple of years ago:

I came to ‘folk song’ at the beginning of the sixties through the ‘folk clubs’. In those days, while there was much debate on HOW the songs should be performed, there was virtually no ambiguity about WHAT you would hear if you turned up at a folk club. You chose your club on the basis of performance, not on material.

This changed fairly rapidly and the revival divided into two camps, those who adhered pretty well to the ‘traditional’ definition of ‘folk’ (some of whom saw it as a form to create new songs relevant to today), and those who went along with the broader ‘singing horse’ interpretation. Gradually the latter won the day and began to dominate the field; many of those who had gone along with the former crossed over and became experimenters and you got the mini-choirs, the ‘Electric Muse’, the fifth-rate comedians and the singer-songwriters. Those of us who preferred our folk music the way we had originally come to it, abandoned the term ‘folk’ and adopted ‘traditional’ as a description of the type of songs we preferred. We jogged along in our own particular enclaves in spite of the finger-in-ear and purist sneers, until gradually we became swamped and there was a massive exodus away from the scene, mainly because people no longer knew what they were going to get when they turned up at a ‘folk club’. What was left dwindled, the electric crowd and the mini choirs moved on to fresh fields and pastures new, some of the comedians found their niche in television; what remained was largely the ‘singing horse’ crowd tinged heavily with the ‘near enough for folk song’ philosophy. That seems to me, with a few notable exceptions, is how matters stand at present.

The ‘singing horse’ crowd – ouch. As it happens, somebody used the “never heard no horse sing” line the other night – and I confess I’ve used it myself (introducing a song by Beck Hansen on one of my first outings). These days I tend to think, with Jim, that that’s a very poor definition of ‘folk’ – not so much because it’s open to anything, as because in practice it seems to be open to anything except actual folk music.

I don’t want to sound too grudging; it was a very good night of acoustic music, and the closing act in particular is well worth paying a pound to see, if not two. (His name’s Mark Simpson and I expect him to go a very long way. He reminded me of the young Cat Stevens – and back then the young Cat Stevens was essentially God, as far as I was concerned.) But I do wonder what’s happened to the folk scene, that it’s doing so well – and getting so many people performing – without there seeming to be much folk involved.

Another up-and-coming local act got a big write-up in the local paper the other day:

Manchester duo The Winter Journey conjure up gorgeous tapestries of rustic country folk music. Like a merry meeting of Nick Drake, Belle & Sebastian and BBC’s Springwatch programme, it’s the sort of music which effortlessly evokes images of woodland retreat and summery splendour.

Make no mistake, The Winter Journey are definitely worlds apart from your typical Manchester acoustic folk act. As you’d expect from a band named after a short story by the celebrated French author Georges Perec, The Winter Journey are a group dripping with quaint romanticism, bookish sophistication and lots and lots of cool refinement. Think Stephen Fry were he to form an acoustic folk group, and you might be getting close.

[the album] sits up there with the best debuts by a local act this year – a bewitching journey through Seventies pastoral folk, but with a daring sonic palette which squeezes in influences from Elliot Smith to Gainsbourg to Krautrock. … it’s also an album oozing a warm-blanket intimacy. – Each of the eleven songs strives for a pure, old-world innocence and romance, and firmly intent on keeping those values safe from the big, bad avaricious world we live in.

“There definitely is a dusty vinyl quality to the album,” explains Anthony. “It’s the sort of record which tries to ignore the modern world and popular culture. It’s almost from another age, and that reflects our retro influences.”

I love the idea of harking back to the pure old-world innocence of the 1970s, when folk was pastoral and vinyl was dusty. (Emitex, that’s what you need. Kids these days.)

Anyway, I’ve listened to some of their stuff on their Myspace page; it’s pleasant enough in a close-miked, mostly-acoustic, slightly creepy way, like Nico recording demos with James Yorkston. (Or Espers. Actually quite a lot like Espers.) What it’s not, of course – and never claims to be – is traditional music in any way, shape or form. It’s in the genre of Seventies pastoral folk, supposedly: it gets the ‘folk’ label because it sounds a bit like Vashti Bunyan, in other words. (I’m not touching the Nick Drake comparison. The first album was half orchestrated, the second was a genre all its own (acoustic TV-theme jazz-funk) and the third was the sound of a man singing like an angel while waiting to be swallowed by his own loneliness. Nobody sounds like Nick Drake.)

Anyway, calling the Winter Journey ‘folk’ on this basis makes very little sense – they sound a bit like a lot of people, not least the Velvet Underground. But somehow ‘folk’ is the label to claim, even if you then go on to claim a score of other influences. In fact the ‘folk’ label seems to have an odd combination of attraction and repulsion: folk is cool, but what’s really cool is to be folk-and or folk-but-also (folk-and-Serge-Gainsbourg-but-also-Krautrock in this case).

The problem with this is that it destroys any prospect of actually defining ‘folk’. You go from

1) artists called ‘folk’ because they do folk material
2) artists called ‘folk’ because they do their own material in a similar style to group 1)
3) artists called ‘folk’ because they do their own material in a style that’s similar to group 2) only different (‘worlds apart’, even)

And repeat. Give it a couple of years and, for all we know, The Winter Journey may be a touchstone of what contemporary folk sounds like – with new ‘folk’ acts coming through that sound a bit like them, only different.

Me, I’m a folk singer who also sings his own songs; they go down well in folk clubs, some of them, but they aren’t folk songs. (Not even the Patrick Spens parody.)

When how you want

Another music meme: “Pick an album for every year of your life”.

I guess anyone born much before the mid-50s is going to have trouble with the early years, says Jim. You don’t know the half of it. I was born in 1960, and I’ve really struggled with anything before 1966. I like Rubber Soul well enough, and I think Another side of Bob Dylan is a really important album, but there’s no comparison with how strongly I feel about most of the later choices.

So my list starts in 1966 – around the time the clock stopped on popular music. Most of these are, in my opinion, seriously great albums; several of them are so great they’ve pushed out other great albums (Screamadelica, The Queen is Dead and the Beta Band’s 3 EPs are just some of the albums that surprised me by not making the list, not to mention anything by Robyn Hitchcock).

Share and enjoy. I think any three of these would give you a pretty good view of my mental soundworld, should you be interested in it.

1966 Bob Dylan Blonde on blonde
1967 the Beatles Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
1968 Family Music in a doll’s house
1969 Captain Beefheart Trout mask replica
1970 Soft Machine Third
1971 Anne Briggs Anne Briggs
1972 Nick Drake Pink Moon
1973 Faust the Faust tapes
1974 Eno Taking Tiger Mountain (by strategy)
1975 Patti Smith Horses
1976 Shirley Collins Amaranth
1977 David Bowie Heroes
1978 Wire Chairs missing
1979 the Homosexuals the Homosexuals’ record
1980 Elvis Costello Get happy!
1981 the Teardrop Explodes Wilder
1982 the Fall Hex enduction hour
1983 Laughing Clowns Laughter around the table
1984 Scott Walker Climate of hunter
1985 Yeah Yeah Noh Cutting the heavenly lawn of greatness… Last rites for the god of love
1986 Mighty Ballistics Hi-Power Here come the blues
1987 David Thomas and the Wooden Birds Blame the messenger
1988 Peter Blegvad Downtime
1989 Swans The burning world
1990 KLF Chill out
1991 The Orb The Orb’s adventures beyond the ultraworld
1992 Julian Cope Jehovahkill
1993 Underworld Dubnobasswithmyheadman
1994 Sabres of Paradise Haunted dancehall
1995 Tindersticks Tindersticks (second album)
1996 Future Sound of London Dead cities
1997 the Verve Urban hymns
1998 Embrace The good will out
1999 Clinton Disco and the halfway to discontent
2000 Godspeed you black emperor! Raise your skinny fists like antennas to heaven
2002 Simian We are your friends
2003 the Shins Chutes too narrow
2004 the Earlies These were the Earlies
2005 James Yorkston Hoopoe
2006 Beth Orton Comfort of strangers
2007 Radiohead In rainbows
2008 John Kelly Come all you wild young men

A moment worth waiting for

Eliot Weinberger’s Obama v. Clinton: A Retrospective was clearly written in the heat of (interim) triumph:

Just when you thought [Clinton] had hit bottom, she went even lower. She tried to cast Obama as a scary black man who, as subliminally suggested in her infamous (and mercilessly parodied) ‘3 a.m.’ ad, would break into your house and murder your cute little sleeping blonde daughter. She cast doubt on whether Obama was really a Christian and not a scary Muslim. And when that didn’t work she reinvented herself as a Woman of the People, waxing eloquent on her hunting days with Grandpa and downing shots in working-class bars, as she derided Obama – the son of a single mother on welfare – as an elitist, out of touch with the regular people she’d presumably been hanging out with all these years at Yale Law School, the Arkansas governor’s mansion, the White House and the Senate. Those regular people, she explained in one of many embarrassing moments, were ‘hard-working Americans, white Americans’.

I like ‘one of many’ – shorthand for You think that’s bad? There’s more where that came from – plenty more… Weinberger states and restates his contempt for Clinton in open-handed, effusive prose; he’s generous with his derision. It’s all good fun, if you’re on the same side as Weinberger – at least, if you’re not on one of the sides he’s not on.

On the final night of the relentless presidential primary campaign, Jesse Jackson compared Barack Obama’s victory to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Erica Jong compared Hillary Clinton’s defeat to watching Joan of Arc burning at the stake. Obama was in St Paul, Minnesota, pointedly in the very arena where the Republicans will hold their convention in September … Clinton was off on what has come to be known as the remote island of Hillaryland – in this case several storeys below ground at Baruch College in New York, inaccessible to cell phones or BlackBerries – still insisting that, according to Hillarymath, she had won the popular vote, still declaring that she was ready to be commander-in-chief on ‘Day One’ … And then there was John McCain, in what seemed to be a high school auditorium somewhere in Louisiana (even he wasn’t sure: he thought he was in New Orleans, but he wasn’t), addressing a few hundred sleepy geriatrics

You get the picture: Clinton arrogant and ridiculous, McCain ridiculous and old. And Obama? When it comes to Obama, there’s something rather more complicated going on.

Obama didn’t win because Clinton lost. He was, in American terms, the better candidate. I knew he’d win when I first watched him on television in Iowa, for he has the quality Americans most prize in their presidential candidates: sincerity.

Obama, by all accounts, has remained true to his vision of grassroots organisation and politics through reconciliation; he has yet to be caught holding any contradictory positions. In a country that believes, above all, and largely to its great detriment, in individual self-reliance, he is a self-made man whose message emphasises that progress must also begin at home.

What’s good about Obama wavers in and out of focus here. He’s got a vision of grassroots organisation and politics through reconciliation: a contradictory vision, by the sound of it, as well as one which doesn’t have much to do with the office of President. He’s a self-made man, and as such appeals to a country which believes – to its own great detriment, i.e. incorrectly – in self-reliance. He’s personally sincere, or at least manages to appear sincere, which makes him (in American terms) a good candidate for Head of State.

Perhaps the key to what Weinberger’s saying about Obama is that odd line “he has yet to be caught holding any contradictory positions” (emphasis added). Consistency as a virtue, with the implication that a candidate who doesn’t contradict him- or herself is, perhaps, a candidate with fixed principles: and that in itself is something to be prized, irrespective of what those principles are. This ties in to an oddly lenient passage in one of Weinberger’s many critiques of Clinton:

Believing that it was the only way a woman could be elected, she had built her image as a Thatcher-like Iron Lady, not only supporting the Iraq war, but also identifying with various military and defence issues. Assuming she would be running against the right, never imagining a challenge from the left, Clinton was not prominently identified with any progressive legislation in her six colourless years in the Senate, for fear that it would ultimately be used against her. On the contrary, she largely tried to burnish her credentials as a hardline patriot, even introducing a bill against flag-burning, though there had been only one known incident since the Vietnam War – some drunken frat boys at a party.

Clinton, here, is pure political tactician; if she used her influence as a Senator to the benefit of the militaristic Right, this was because she wanted to avoid anything that could be used against her and to burnish her credentials as a supporter of her enemies’ favourite causes. Weinberger presents all this as a series of self-seeking tactical manoeuvres; if we accept this, Clinton’s great error was not moving Right, but failing to anticipate that moving Right would become a liability.

Anyone who remembers my comments on Davis won’t be surprised to learn that I find this a deeply unsatisfactory way of thinking about politics. Actions have consequences, and in politics symbolic actions can have material consequences: the US political sphere and US society were affected, however infinitesimally, by every right-wing speech Clinton made as a senator and by her every refusal to support progressive legislation. I’m arguing, in a sense, for something like Benjamin’s messianic perspective on history: I’m suggesting that the music stops every so often, and that in those moments we can see who’s done what and judge them on that basis. Or rather, I’m suggesting that we should imagine that the music stops every so often, and that we can hold politicians to account in terms of what they’ve actually done.

Looking at Clinton’s Senate career, we need to think of its effects on the outside world as well as on Clinton’s subsequent electability. Conversely, we shouldn’t let Obama off the hook because he appears to have principles of some sort. Obama should be seen as a politician – someone with the power to make changes, benefiting one group rather than another – as well as a dreamer of dreams (that music eventually stops, too). And Clinton should be seen as someone who has made a difference – mostly for the worse – as well as a mere ladder-climbing politician.

The worst thing you can do with politicians is believe in them: the best of them is much more (and less) than a principled idealist. The second worst is to disbelieve, reducing politics to court intrigue (that’ll embarrass him… how’s she going to get out of this?…). It takes a sincere reactionary to start fires deliberately, but cynical hacks do a lot of playing with matches – and the fire’s just as real.

A system and a theory


Once Blair et al dreamed of a hegemonic project that would dominate the centre left for decades. At this rate they’ll be lucky to salvage anything from the wreckage.

Which reminded me of something I wrote for Casablanca (anyone else remember Casablanca?) in October 1994. To set the scene, John Major’s Conservative government had been re-elected two years earlier; John Smith had died in May; Tony Blair (the then Shadow Home Secretary) had been elected to lead the Labour Party in July; Melanie Phillips was still writing for the Observer; and Barry Norman presented Film 94. I don’t understand the bit about Bill Clinton.

A gloom of one’s own

Just what is it that makes today’s Left so different, so depressing?

When I was an infantile leftist there were two main groups on the Left, the Campaigners and the Believers. (Three, if you count the Labour Party Members). The best kind of Campaigning, it was generally agreed, was going on strike. The rest of the Left would immediately rally round and offer comradely advice – to stay out for as long as it took (the Trots), to stay out forever and picket everyone in the world until they came out too (the anarchists), to make the rich pay for the crisis (the RCPB(M-L)). Campaigning by leafletting, blocking the traffic and so on was not so good: this made you a Single-Issue Campaigner, and you would usually only be allowed into the Left after most people had gone. (Being on the Left means knowing all the Issues). And if you Campaigned by harbouring foxes and releasing chickens nobody would even talk to you except the anarchists, but that didn’t matter because it’s about something much bigger than just like politics, right.

Like many people, I rapidly graduated from Campaigning to Believing. This is considerably less strenuous, as it consists mainly of (a) finding the right Line and (b) recruiting more Believers. The idea is to ensure that, come the inevitable collision with History, you will be equipped with (a) clean ideological underwear and (b) plenty of witnesses. Being a Believer isn’t a bad way of meeting people and it does get you out of the house (usually on Tuesday evenings, for some reason – so three proletarian cheers to the BBC for moving Barry Norman to Mondays). On the other hand, it is fairly pointless. Realising this, many Believers gravitate towards Campaigning organisations, sometimes in quite large and organised groups. Others attempt to unite the Left, presumably on the basis that if you assemble a large enough group of Believers it will automatically turn into a Campaign. The only problem with this strategy is that the idea of uniting the Left is in fact a Line in its own right and thus only attracts its own Believers – just another strand in the Left’s great dayschool.

About the Labour Party Members there isn’t much I can say, never having shared their belief in the capacity of a Labour government to enact socialism – I suppose every movement needs its dreamers. Actually the rest of us always tacitly relied on the Labour Party. The way it worked was that the press and the BBC would attack Labour for being left-wing – or praise them for being left-wing, it didn’t really matter – and we would attack them for not being left-wing enough. Even the anarchists used to join in, attacking Labour as a way of getting at the Left as a whole. It was quite a good recruiting tactic, while it lasted.

That was how I used to see things – I’m less optimistic nowadays. Most of the Believers have never quite recovered from the end of actually existing Stalinism – arguing about whether Cuba is a deformed workers’ state just isn’t the same somehow. You don’t get the same class of Believers these days, anyway – whatever happened to Red Flame? or Big Stripe? These days there’s hardly anyone doing any Campaigning, either, apart from those young people who sit down in front of trees, play didgeridoos and tell us they won’t get fooled like we did. (They call themselves ‘zippies’, apparently – I grow old, I grow old). Good luck to them, anyway – they’ll need it, now that the Labour Party thinks the Criminal Justice Bill isn’t such a bad idea.

Ah yes, the Labour Party. It’s not Labour’s abstaining on the Criminal Justice Bill that bothers me, or their refusal to support the signal workers; it’s not all the weird stuff which Tony Blair apparently believes (cannabis should stay illegal, the electoral system couldn’t be better and the middle class bore the brunt of the recession – Dan Quayle eat your heart out). It’s true that Tony Blair went to a minor public school, but then so did Prince Charles, and look how well he’s turned out. It’s not fair to attack Blair for coming across as smug, ugly and dull, either – put next to John Major, who wouldn’t?

What bothers me (and I’m amazed it doesn’t bother more people – that’s depressing in itself) is Tony Blair’s obvious intention of redefining Labour as a kind of Socially Responsible Mildly Reactionary Party, somewhere between the Right of the Liberal Democrats and the Left of Melanie Phillips. If he succeeds (which means winning two elections – look at Bill Clinton) Labour will have ceased to exist as a party of the Left. If he fails (which seems highly likely – look at Bill Clinton) Labour will probably just cease to exist. Either way it means that, for the first time since the Labour Party was founded, there’s no party worth voting for with any kind of commitment to the Left – which is an uncomfortable prospect for Believers and Campaigners alike.

What makes it even worse is the odd references to ‘socialism’ from Blair’s direction – a ‘socialism’ which, for the first time in history, says nothing about either collective rights (except those of ‘society’) or individual freedoms (except the freedom to ‘achieve’). It’s as if they’d realised that the Left could never be completely defeated while we still had a language to call our own. (We’ve still got ‘Comrade’, I suppose, and ‘Point of order, Chair’, but that’s about it).

It’s almost enough to make you envy the Greens. But not quite.

What I didn’t consider was what would happen if Blair and his acolytes succeeded and then failed, by failing to sort out the succession. Or succeeded and then washed their hands of the whole thing, for that matter. Essentially, Blair’s done to Labour what Thatcher did to the Tories. Leaving… what? Will:

There was always the risk that New Labour was an ironic echo of a former political era. The commitment to the original values of Labour, but without the policies of Labour, always teetered on the edge of farce. The language of ‘tackling poverty’, ‘democratic empowerment’, being ‘progressive’ was not invented, but borrowed from the initial tragedy of failed socialist ambitions. … But to take that socialist vocabulary, then to marry it to Thatcherism, was to invite failure for a second time as farce. Should we be all that surprised that inequality is rising as fast as it is?

But then again, maybe New Labour was the tragedy, because if one thing is certain it’s that it’s about to be followed by a farce. … Within two years, the country will have elected a new government on the basis of no policies whatsoever, and which we have so little confidence in that the honesty or otherwise of their claims is no longer even discussed. The Conservative Party have succeeded in losing all of their unpleasant political baggage by dumping any form of baggage whatsoever.

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.

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