Stick my neck out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And serve her right, too.

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

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

Or they may simply be a bit common:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Item 2 is meaningless. No, really:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Escape routes exist

Let’s get productive!

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

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

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

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

Mario Tronti, as ever, is the man:

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

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

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

Good news week

Callooh! Callay!

All together now:

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

Sign here with me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Colin MacIntyre (Mull Historical Society), 2001

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

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

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

I share my loss with you…

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

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

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

I share my loss with you…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish it could be you
Running next to me

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

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

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

How high?

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

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

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

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

Now this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pablo Picasso (II)

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

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

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

Berlusconi, 3rd April:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One final thought from la Repubblica:

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

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

Four. More. Days.

Pablo Picasso (I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public service announcement


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

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

More soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching low and high

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

Help – Google’s broken.

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

“basse police” definition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until they become part of the view

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally…

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

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

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

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

Snap into position

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many many sheep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are bored in the city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

He once inspired awe

Tonight, we burn the king of straw

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

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

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

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

Been in this town so long

A couple of months back I promised a post about the Brian Wilson album Smile. Here it is.

Smile would always have been a very strange album; now, it’s an extremely strange one. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very beautiful album and probably a great one. I’d recommend it almost without reservation to anyone seriously interested in music: you won’t have heard anything quite like it, and you won’t forget it when you have heard it. It’s made a stronger impression on me than Pet Sounds, put it that way.

But it is a strange album. The best reference point – and also, to get a bit Paul Morley for a moment, the worst – is “Good Vibrations”, which I’ve loved ever since it came out as a single. (I got into pop music at an early age, I should add – I’ve got fond memories of “Have I the right”, and I wasn’t even four when that came out.) “Good Vibrations” has some strange things in it: melody lines that twist around or stop dead; instruments – and combinations of instruments – that are naggingly, unnervingly wrong. Then there are the vocals: there are a lot of those sweet, soaring harmonies which the Beach Boys could do in their sleep by this stage. (But if it is a formula, it’s a magical formula; when they got into it the Beach Boys could combine the ear-filling lullaby sweetness of barbershop with the drama and uplift of Gregorian chant, which is quite a trick if you think about it.) And then there’s something else: moments of intense stillness and awe, when the music gestures to something outside itself, something beyond. (At the risk of descending irreversibly into Pseuds’ Corner, the full second of tape decay at 2:57 always sends me – and no, I don’t know where.)

So there are three things to say about “Good Vibrations”: it’s very strange, it’s very beautiful, and it works. Smile can only rate two out of three. Partly I think this is simply because everyone concerned was working so much harder and trying to produce so much more: an entire album constructed with the jigsaw intricacy of “Good Vibrations”, and with lyrics at once celebrating and questioning US nostalgia for the early years of the nation… Let us now, incidentally, praise the lyricist, Van Dyke Parks, although not without wondering what he was on back then. An American journal of record recently ascribed the lyrics of Smile to Brian Wilson, prompting a letter from Parks, who pointed out that Wilson’s contribution to the lyrics consisted of providing the melody; specifically, “Brian sang ‘Da da da da da da da da da’, I wrote ‘Columnated ruins domino'”. He added that he’d been embarrassed to admit to his part in Smile for most of his adult life; now that it was seen as something to be proud of, he felt he deserved to take some of the credit as well. Rightly so. Something odd and powerful happens – something unlike anything the Beach Boys had done before – when Brian Wilson gives voice to Parks’ fantasia on American themes: you wonder how the jockish innocence of the Beach Boys has produced the godlike omniscience of this singer/narrator. When it works it’s a magnificent conceit, but it doesn’t always work.

Smile is a strange album musically, as well – stranger than Pet Sounds at its most ambitious (“I wasn’t made for these times”, “Caroline No”), or even “Good Vibrations”. Lush vocal arrangements meet twisted, off-kilter melodies amid orchestration that ranges from ambitious to bizarre; the elements are familiar, but – with only a couple of exceptions – the overall effect falls short of “Good Vibrations”. (Sadly, this is even true of “Good Vibrations”, a briskly cheerful version of which closes the album.) Still, there are glories here. “Wonderful” is perfectly named; “Heroes and Villains” tacks obsessively back and forth between suspense and resolution, but does it so elegantly that you only want it to continue; and “Surf’s Up” is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, unless you’ve spent time in Heaven recently. But as a whole Smile feels like a delirious fantasy: a jumble of endlessly, naggingly charming musical ideas, the product of a mind which had overdosed on sunny major chords. Which, I suppose, was precisely what it was.

Or rather, what it would have been. Nobody has ever heard the Beach Boys’ Smile, or ever will (although I gather there are some interesting mix-tape versions out there). What we’ve got now is the product of the two-decade pause in Brian Wilson’s life after 1966, and of the eternal present of rock music which began shortly afterwards. It’s an album that Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks left incomplete, some time ago, and which they and some other people have now got round to completing. But it’s also a Cream-at-the-Albert-Hall thirty-year-retrospective Mojo-reader cultural event, commemorating and celebrating the album that was never made – and it probably wouldn’t have been completed if it didn’t function on that level. The combination of those two perspectives is always present when you listen to Smile now – and sometimes makes it a heart-wrenching experience.

Brian Wilson’s vocal range would be remarkable at any age; for a man in his sixties it’s astonishing. He’s still got it. Except that a large part of it, for the Beach Boys, was youth – youth and freedom and potential. Really, Brian’s were quintessentially adolescent songs – standing at the edge of childhood and looking into a wide-open future when anything would be possible. Sex, for example – the Stones celebrated it, the Beatles avoided the subject, but the Beach Boys sang about it (sweetly, joyfully) as something to look forward to:

You know it’s going to make it that much better
When we can say goodnight and stay together

On the original Smile Brian Wilson was looking ahead to an adult existence which included everything: Old World decadence, life on the Western frontier, the colonisation of Hawaii and, er, the pirates of the Caribbean (not the album’s high point, that). On the Smile we have now, he’s looking back on the youth in which he looked forward to those things. The man who voiced the dreams has forty years of (often traumatic) experience behind him; the dreams are unchanged. And so, in the album’s first full song, the weathered voice of a sixty-year-old man sings a twenty-year-old’s fantasy of maturity – and, for a moment, he relives his ignorance of what the words would come to mean.

I’ve been in this town so long
That back in the city
I’ve been taken for lost and gone
And unknown for a long long time…

Letting go

I went to my mother’s funeral on Monday. Writing those words I’m immediately reminded of Camus’ use of a similar opening, which he put to strikingly blank and dissociated effect (After the first sentence: “Aujourd’hui, Maman est morte,” you know that you are in the good hands of Albert Camus. The existential theme is just awsomeJosh, Great Falls.) Well, I’ll see your Meursault, Josh, and raise you Oswald Bastable:

There are six of us besides Father. Our Mother is dead, and if you think we don’t care because I don’t tell you much about her you only show that you do not understand people at all.

Or, for that matter, Lemony Snicket:

If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels; and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.

This quite complete statement will stop here.

The funeral was an odd affair. It was billed as a ‘celebration of the life’, with a brief family committal ceremony afterwards. This way of rebranding funeral services usually strikes me as inappropriate at best and positively unhelpful at worst: to celebrate a life is all well and good, but the loss also needs to be honoured – and surely it can’t entirely be honoured without letting go and howling. (She wouldn’t want us to be sad? Not forever, no, but I think she’d want us to miss her.)

In the event, though, the celebratory elements of the ceremony didn’t grate on me; I never felt we were rejoicing in the life so as not to look at the death. The life we were celebrating is over, after all: ultimately, celebration only adds to the keenness of the loss. What I couldn’t share was the consolation-of-faith element. I wondered if this was simply because my religious faith, if not quite non-existent, isn’t strong enough for me to entertain any thought that my mother is in a better place or happier now, let alone that she’s hooked up again with my father. But then, I don’t think I’d want a faith that gave me such certainty about something so unknowable. I’m not sure I’d want a faith that took the edge of something so sharp, either – but that’s not quite the same thing.

The mood of the committal ceremony was quite different. The minister opened by saying that we were there “to let go and let God”, which struck me as exactly right: this was a ceremony to move us on, a place for us to say she’s not ours any more and begin to let our mourning take a different colour. (No less intense – no less painful, for that matter – but different: less anxiety, more melancholy.) The tone of the committal was not at all consoling, and it was all the better for that: the message was a public, collective acknowledgment that something huge and incomprehensible had happened; and that those of us left were in enormous pain; and that this is how it is. Which doesn’t bring in consoling certainties; what it does do (oddly) is make the pain a little more manageable. There’s no denying how I feel – but there’s no denying how it is, either.

China Miéville (via Ellis) got me thinking about mourning and celebration, by way of some thoughts on revolution in fiction. (Stay with me here.) China:

the fantastic is uniquely well suited to examine these issues. I think that there are certain political issues that cannot be dealt with by ‘realistic’ narrative, and for me, revolution is a key one.

a revolution described by someone not in a revolution, let alone a post-revolutionary society so described, cannot be anything other than the palest imitation of the Carnival of the Oppressed that it would be, the earth turned upside down, because our minds are the minds of those living in an earth stubbornly and annoyingly the right fucking way up so if we take seriously the utter radicalism of a revolution and after, it is unthinkable for we who aren’t there. It either turns into absurdity or bureaucracy, in our telling – but with the fantastic, and only with it, I can literalise, concretise, Rosa’s insistence on the revolution’s immanence: I was, I am, I shall be.

actually existing humanity is already pretty fucking great, in much of its numbers, much of the time, so just imagine how fucking great the unfettered variety will be. I’m trying to remember the last line of Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution: ‘From these, new heights will emerge’ – something like that, about the astonishingness of the new human

For what it’s worth, here’s Leon:

the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.

But let’s not linger over Communist man. China’s key point – and a deeply Marxist point, for most decent values of the word – is that actually existing humanity is already pretty fucking great, in much of its numbers, much of the time. Amen to that, and cue Russell:

DOCTOR [genuinely shocked]: Who said you’re not important? I’ve travelled to all sorts of places. Done things you couldn’t even imagine, but… you two… Street corner. Two in the morning. Getting a taxi home. I’ve never had a life like that. Yes. I’ll try and save you.

Ordinary people – or rather, ordinary lives – they’re great.

But note the echo of Roy Batty’s death scene (“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”) Street corner. Two in the morning. Getting a taxi home. – those moments, too, will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Ordinary lives, they’re great. They deserve to be celebrated – and mourned.

Not to mention tea

My mother once said that when she retired she’d call her house “YBOTHACUKIN”. (After some discussion she agreed that this spelling was a bit common and accepted my suggested alternative, the fake-Welsh “Y-BODD-Y-CWCYN”. Too clever by half, we were.) She never quite reached the point of “why bother”, and never intended to; it was a daring, scandalous suggestion. Still, in her last few years she didn’t do much cooking – quiches from M&S and Waitrose were a favourite.

When we were young, though, she cooked a phenomenal amount. There was, among other things:

Bara brith. Served sliced and buttered. The trick was soaking the fruit in tea beforehand.

Cheesecake – and one recipe in particular, set rather than baked and using cottage cheese as well as curd cheese. Sounds a bit odd but was wonderful.

Cheese scones. Particularly good split and buttered while still warm from the oven.

Devil’s food (never “Devil’s food cake”). Very dark, very dense, very rich. Served in small slices.

Eggy bread – my breakfast every day for several years, school days included. (I don’t know what time my mother got up.) A slice of bread soaked in beaten egg and fried, served in quarters. Not to be confused with

French Toast, a simple but beautiful recipe consisting of two thin slices of bread, sandwiched together and toasted on the outside, then buttered on the untoasted side while still hot.

Hamburgers. When I was about ten I went to an air show with a friend’s family, and was surprised to hear his father talk about going to get some hamburgers – I couldn’t imagine anyone going to all the trouble of making hamburgers in the middle of a field. My mother’s hamburgers were labour-intensive; as well as mince (which she minced herself, sometimes from cold leftovers) they contained onion, flour and egg – and then there was all the bother of frying them, two or three at a time. They were good, though.

Hot cake. As this list grows I’m becoming aware of the key role played by butter in our family recipes. Hot cake was so called because it was best eaten hot from the oven. It was a lemon-flavoured sponge, baked in a square tin; you ate it in small slices, buttered.

Kartoffelpueffer (potato pancakes). You grate raw potatoes coarsely (squeezing the water out), then combine with chopped onion and bacon, bound with egg. And fry. One of the most satisfying meals I can imagine. (My wife’s Ukrainian mother had a similar recipe, but with the potatoes grated finely – more like latkes. Latkes are very nice, but my Mum’s kartoffelpueffer went up to eleven.)

Lemon meringue (never “Lemon meringue pie”). (Another Americanism – perhaps borrowed from Americans they’d met in Germany?) Every Sunday, we would all go to church. Every Sunday after church, my mother would make a roast dinner. And every Sunday, she would also make a lemon meringue, from scratch. This is, essentially, three desserts in one: make pastry, line a dish and bake it blind; separate some eggs and make a thick, sharp, translucent lemon custard with the yolks; combine the whites with sugar and beat them into meringue. Then combine and bake. By our current standards it’s insanely labour-intensive, especially for following a big meal; you wouldn’t dream of putting yourself through that on a weekly basis. But she did.

Marmalade. The first time I worried that my mother’s health might be failing was the winter when she said she wasn’t going to make marmalade. There are some good shop marmalades out there – I’m quite partial to Duerr’s 1881 – but nothing has ever come close to the marmalade my mother used to make.

Rolled oats. We were highly European. One of our favourite breakfast cereals consisted of rolled oats with sugar and milk. It was only years later that I realised I’d been eating a makeshift muesli.

Rum cake. A Christmas speciality, served from the fridge; as far as I can remember it consisted mainly of sponge fingers, buttercream icing and rum.

Spaghetti Milanese. We had spaghetti bolognaise [sic] and macaroni cheese, but we also had this recipe, which combined spaghetti with onion, bacon, chopped hard-boiled egg, grated cheese and tomato puree. (I’ve no idea if this is what anyone else would call ‘Milanese’.) It’s dry without being bland; if you make it right the tomato puree, the cheese and the boiled egg yolk effectively coat the pasta. Like the kartoffelpueffer, I still make this from time to time. Like the kartoffelpueffer, it’s superb.

Some of these are already lost to me – I doubt I’ll ever make marmalade (or lemon meringue for that matter), and ‘hot cake’ will probably always be a mystery. Still, some remain. I’ll take them from here. And I will mention

Tea. My mother was a great believer in cups of tea. She would always put the kettle on when I arrived, and always top up the pot so that I could have a second cup. She introduced me to tea when I was eleven or twelve years old. My son, who is ten, has recently started drinking tea. I’m glad about that.

I’ll see you in my dreams

My mother died this morning. She was 84.

She was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, a Protestant group with strict ideas about most things but not much internal hierarchy. At their Communion services, PBs would share actual bread rather than the rice-papery wafers they use in the Church of England. According to my mother, one member of their ‘Meeting’ argued that modern English bread was just as inauthentic as the wafers, and that they should be using unleavened bread. He lost the argument, but got his way; from then on, he brought his own supply of unleavened bread and communed with himself.

Growing up in an intensely religious household, my mother had the worst of both worlds: she believed that her parents’ religion was true, but she didn’t, herself, believe it; she wasn’t saved. Which meant that Jesus could come back at any moment, and she’d be bound for preterition. For a while she used to pray that Jesus would at least postpone the grand finale until her younger sister had been saved. Her sister spoiled this plan; not taking the whole religious thing quite so seriously, she was quite happy to please her parents by announcing that she was saved.

My mother didn’t do too well at school. She was studying psychology in evening classes when she got married; she gave up the course shortly before she would have completed it, feeling it wasn’t the kind of thing a young married woman should be doing. So, no qualifications. She always regretted this, but never did anything about it; she didn’t even learn to drive when my father did, feeling (in her fifties) that it was too late to be bothering with anything like that. (Then she regretted that decision, too.)

She’d married my father, anyway, when she was 28 and he was 35. (I always found their wedding day easy to remember in my Red youth, as it was the 1st of October 1949.) Neither of them ever talked much about the war. They lived in London throughout it; he’d had TB and wasn’t fit enough to enlist (he also worked at the War Office, which might well have been a reserved occupation). Soon after they were married he was posted to Germany, where they had a house, a maid and money to spend. They also had three children in just over two years (all girls, two of them twins). Coming back to Britain in the early 1950s – with no servants and a mortgage to find – must have been a shock to the system. I think it was around this time that my mother in turn developed TB, had half a lung removed and gave up smoking. (It’s thanks to my mother that I’ve only ever bought two packets of cigarettes – and one of those was for research purposes (If you can get twenty cigarettes for 50 pesetas, just how bad can they be?) She found out I was smoking halfway through the first packet (Gitanes, naturellement), and she came down hard.)

I was born in Purley – which wasn’t a famous place at the time, thanks all the same – at home, at midnight, assisted by a midwife who (bizarrely enough) had previously nursed my mother when she had TB. (She recognised her; her first words were “Do you think you ought to be having a baby?”) My mother told me later she was afraid for me during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We moved down the road to Coulsdon when I was three; I grew up in a detached, four-bedroomed house, which my mother later said they would never have taken on if they’d realised how much work it needed. When I was still quite small my father’s TB recurred; apparently my mother was just giving me my lunch when I saw him being taken out of the house on a stretcher and screamed. I don’t remember that, but for a long time I had a vivid compound memory of the music from Desert Island Discs, a willow-pattern plate and a nice big helping of some unidentified stuff (a bit like baked beans, only not beans, that other stuff, that stuff I used to have, I really liked that stuff…). I guess that was the moment before.

They were quite religious in this period. From my mother’s PB background and my father’s Chapel they’d both migrated to the Church of England, where they were fairly active; for a few years we even had holidays at church retreats. (On one of these I played with Tim Westwood and acquired a red plastic fish called Belinda. Unfortunately I only remember one of these.) There was religion and there were rows; my mother walked out on one occasion, fully intending to go to her mother in Thornton Heath, but came back when she realised that she didn’t have the bus fare. Things were less stormy by the time I was taking notice, but I do remember that the Sunday Lunch Washing-up Row was a regular fixture. (They even shut the kitchen door.) My younger sister was born in 1966. My father was still working for the War OfficeMinistry of Defence (the Civil Service may have changed now, but in his day once you were in a Ministry you stayed put); when my sister was two and I was eight, he was posted to South Wales.

The next five years were, fundamentally, magical. The schools weren’t great, the social life was highly circumscribed and it was a twenty-mile journey to the nearest cinema, concert venue, large supermarket or school uniform shop; for my older sisters it was a very mixed blessing, and for my mother – at least to begin with – it was unimaginably dull. But I remember it very fondly, as does my younger sister. There were woods to explore and cliffs to climb and miles of beach to walk, in and out of season – especially out of season. And there was that year-round sense of occasion that only village life can really give you: that sense that there are only a few events to look forward to, but everyone will be taking part in those same few events and everyone’s looking forward to them. (Years later we happened to be on holiday in Mullion Cove, in the West of Cornwall, on the day of the annual fete. I knew exactly what was going on – it hadn’t changed a bit.) Then there was the background thrum of pride that characterises the world of the armed forces. This isn’t just an officer-class thing. My parents, uniquely and rather scandalously, used to go to the Sergeants’ Mess as well as (and more often than) the Officers’ Mess. (My father was head of the local establishment on the civilian side, so naturally we were ranked as an ‘officer’ family; he was also the son of a Welsh miner and rock-solid Labour, so the idea of only mixing with other ‘officers’ didn’t sit too well with him.) I’d say that the sense of pride – and the sense that any privileges we might enjoy were entirely justified – came from (and was felt by) the other ranks as much as the officers: it was partly when the chips are down, we run this place but mostly if it needs doing, we’ll do it. It’s a remarkable atmosphere, and I’m not sorry to have been exposed to it.

I was nearly 13 when we came back to Coulsdon, and my mother was 52. My father was approaching retirement age, and there was some talk of retiring right there in Wales; they even looked into taking over the post office in a village called Login, which would have been interesting if nothing else. Nothing came of it, though. Once, before we went to Wales, my mother had got a part-time job on the telephone exchange; I more or less forced her to give it up, at one stage going out in the street with the intention of waiting till she came back. Things were a bit easier now, and she took a part-time job working at the godforsaken Immigration and Nationality Department of the Home Office, at Lunar House in Croydon. (Someone who’s an authority in my current academic field was working at Lunar House in the same period, as a twenty-something Executive Officer. I’m meeting him soon and had been looking forward to asking him if he remembered my mother, and telling her about it afterwards. I suppose I can still do some of that.) When she got home, during the school holidays, we would regularly share a pot of tea and a Caramel bar. (Doesn’t sound like much, I know.)

Later, she got involved in teaching English as a second language. This wasn’t class-based; she was given the details of two or three immigrant women who wanted to improve their English, and she’d go round and chat with them. I remember the Nigerian woman who my mother introduced, purely for social reasons, to a young Nigerian guy we knew; what she hadn’t factored in was that he was Yoruba whereas she was Ibo, which meant that it went off rather like a royal visit (So you do all the cooking? Good, good!) Another of her clients, Mrs A from Sri Lanka, became a family friend; I’ve got fond memories of her ‘rich cake’, which was essentially fruitcake reimagined as an Indian sweet.

It was Mr A who suggested that I get a job, between school and university, at the local psychiatric hospital (which was one of the institutions that ringed London, where the old Green Belt began). My mother encouraged me to take the job and to stick at it. I’ll write about that job another time; a two-word summary would be “unbelievably awful”. Then I went to university; then I went back home; then I moved to Manchester, to the great displeasure of both my parents. They didn’t understand my choice of career, they didn’t immediately get on with my girlfriend, and they certainly didn’t approve of my decision to move to be with the latter before I’d even got a job. Eh, well – water, bridge.

After my father retired, they moved to Brighton (selling the house to Mr A). The community in the street and the local church gave them both a new lease of life, my mother especially; she also worked in the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau for a while, and kept in touch with CAB people for a long time afterwards. (She also kept in touch with church people who had moved on, as well as with a lot of people from Coulsdon and one or two from Wales. That was how she was.) For several years I went to Brighton on my own at Christmas, while my girlfriend (same one) went to her mother’s. With five in the family, family Christmases were always a very big deal. It wasn’t quite the same in Brighton – not everybody could stay, apart from anything else – but for a while it was close. And then of course there was Brightonpace Arthur Machen, the best town there is for wandering around. It was less tarted-up and redeveloped then than it is now; the North Laines, in particular, were still scrubby and bohemian.

Then my girlfriend and I got married (still the same one) and had two kids of our own. When our second was still quite young, my father died. He’d been ill in various ways for quite a while – that’s another story which I’ll write another time – but the end, when it came, was gentle and quiet: one day he stopped eating, and the GP advised my mother to stop trying to feed him; a few days later he stopped talking; a few days after that it was over. It was a good death, for him. My mother had run herself ragged looking after him; she was determined to make sure he could die at home, even if it meant she had to give him what was effectively 24-hour care. She grieved a little after he’d died, but she didn’t collapse. She confided later that a large part of what she felt was relief.

I stayed in touch, of course, and we kept on taking the children down to Brighton, of course. As time went on there began to be something odd about the way she talked. The stream of recollection and anecdote was as fluent as it had ever been, but it seemed less focused – half the time I really didn’t know these people she was talking about – and more repetitive: she’d start with a story, move to a general point, then use the same story to illustrate it. But who was to say how well you or I would be functioning at 83?

Shortly before her 84th birthday we had a family get-together. We were missing one of my sisters (plus husband and two children), but otherwise we were all there: four children, five grandchildren and her. Apart from my father’s memorial service, that was the only time we were all in the same place. It was also the only time she visited the sister who hosted it in that house. She didn’t travel much after my father died; she said a few times she’d come to see us in Manchester, but never managed it.

Two months after her birthday she had a stroke. She didn’t lose consciousness, but she was paralysed down one side and couldn’t speak at all. Within a couple of weeks she’d regained most of the motor function and verbal ability that she’d lost, but something else had gone adrift. She went from the hospital to a specialist stroke rehabilitation unit, which discharged her with indecent haste (or so, at first, it seemed to us); she went to a nursing home, fees to be funded from the sale of her house. Gradually we realised that it wasn’t simply a matter of recovering from the stroke; dementia had already been eating away at her mind and memories, and the stroke had only made matters worse. (‘We’ here refers to her children, or at least the four of us who were in Britain and in regular phone contact. I will happily throttle anyone who uses the words ‘bright side’ or ‘silver lining’, but it’s true that we’re talking a lot more than we had been before.)

She was in that home for a little over two months. I’m not sure she ever really settled there. On two of the last three times when I saw her there, she was quite convinced that we had come to take her home – or, if not, that we could be persuaded to take her home – or, if all else failed, that we couldn’t actually overrule her if she told us she wanted to go home. It was distressing. Fortunately the third time was the odd one out; she was a lot calmer that day, possibly because we’d told her that we were calling in on our way back to Manchester. A few days after that she actually made a break for it and got about fifty yards up the road before anybody from the home caught up with her. Brighton’s not the kind of town where dotty old ladies can safely wander; the home told us that she’d have to go to another home, preferably one which was geared up to deal with dementia patients – and had locks on the doors.

Nothing ever came of that. About a week later, she had another stroke: a much larger bleed this time, and on the other side of the brain. She lost consciousness and didn’t come round again. My sisters and I went to Brighton, to sit with her. There was nothing to be done; the consultant told us that, while a sudden reversal couldn’t be ruled out, the chances were that she was in “the dying phase of her life” and that heroic efforts to revive her – or even to treat any infection that might develop – would be misplaced.

She didn’t develop an infection, as far as we could tell. I saw her yesterday morning; by all appearances she was simply sleeping peacefully, her breathing shallow but relaxed. I think now her breathing had grown more shallow over the three days that she’d been unconscious, but I may be imagining that. In any case, she died this morning, without ever regaining consciousness.

Early this morning I had a nightmare: four black dogs – squat, belligerent Labrador crosses – were outside our front door; when I opened the door a little way, one of them lunged, got its nose into the door and tried to attack me. No prizes for guessing where that came from. But there’s a difference between ‘bad’ and ‘sad’: this is an unutterably sad time, but what’s happened isn’t wrong or frightening, even for us. Certainly not for her. I talked to her a few times while I was there; one of the things I told her was that it was time for her to rest, and that she could go in peace. My sister helped to lay her out. She said that her face had an expression of pleasant surprise, “as if she’d just got the punch-line of a joke”.

Oh, so I don’t have to go back there!

I hope it felt like that, anyway.

Goodbye, Mum.


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