Not mine

David, of all people, points to a fascinating lecture by Rowan Williams. Who writes, among much else:

Take Scripture out of this context of the invitation to sit at table with Jesus and to be incorporated into his labour and suffering for the Kingdom, and you will be treating Scripture as either simply an inspired supernatural guide for individual conduct or a piece of detached historical record — the typical exaggerations of Biblicist and liberal approaches respectively. For the former, the work of the Spirit is more or less restricted to the transformation of the particular believer; for the latter, the life of the community is where the Spirit is primarily to be heard and discerned, with Scripture an illuminating adjunct at certain points. But grasp Scripture as part of the form taken by the divine act of invitation that summons and establishes the community around the Lord’s Table, and the Bible becomes coherent at a new level, as a text whose meaning is most centrally to do with the passage from rivalry and self-assertion and the enmity with God that is bound up with these to the community in which each, by the influx of the Spirit, takes responsibility for all, and all for each.

When it comes to Christianity I’m an ex-believer, if that – church membership was always about the ethics in our house. When the Archbishop says that Eucharist and Scripture alike have to be considered in relation to belief in the resurrection it doesn’t mean much more to me than if he’d said that Mercury and Venus alike have to be considered as the rulers of air signs – and what he writes about the theology of the cross … a revelation of glory through self-forgetting and self-offering finds me deeply suspicious and rather hostile. (Blame it on Crass. “Reality Asylum” – once heard, never forgotten.)

But still, the argument I’ve just quoted strikes me as powerful and fascinating – and resonant far outside the Anglican tradition to which it speaks. If these are two ways of working with Scripture, they’re also two ways of using theory or doing politics. At one extreme are the converted believers, who will talk endlessly about how the text changes their view of the world and the new conceptual possibilities it opens up, without ever putting it to the test of working with other people. At the other are the pragmatic activists, devoting themselves to what’s actually going on out there, returning to the text (if at all) to mine it for parallels and sources of inspiration. These are caricatures, but I think they’re based on real positions – the discussion provoked by Dave‘s recent decision to rejoin the Labour Party drew some very clear lines between hard-headed realists and self-indulgent purists, or between principled socialists and opportunistic renegades.

While it was, in all probability, no part of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s intention to bang socialist heads together, his argument does suggest very forcefully that both sides in this debate were missing something. This isn’t just the familiar line about theory needing to be informed by practice and vice versa. The point is, rather, that theory (or Scripture) is something heard – a message – and as such needs to be embedded within a continuing conversation, within a community. (This may be closer to Jewish traditions than David suggests.) Neither the conversation without the message, nor the message heard by a single person, is adequate. I think there’s something profoundly useful and challenging here; it’s also profoundly depressing, given the current state of the Left. Still, to use theory to inform the intellectual life of a group – in Williams’ terms, to unite scripture with eucharist – strikes me as something worth aspiring to. Not that Williams’ thinking is flawless here; as that slightly grudging reference to the life of the community suggests, he doesn’t show much interest in what the community of believers is going to do in between Sundays. But a loss of focus on what an organised group is organised for is hardly unique to Christians.

There’s a lot more than this in Williams’ lecture. I particularly like the way he deals with St Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality, and the way it’s been used by conservative Christians; it’s the best exposition of what it means to take something out of context that I’ve seen. It’s hard going in parts – he knows his theology and isn’t afraid to use it – but I think it’s worth persevering with. If nothing else, it’s a corrective to the idea that religious thought is a contradiction in terms. If Williams were to lose his faith he could still write works of philosophy. (Not to mention sleeve notes for String Band re-releases.)

I call that education

It became apparent that most of them hadn’t heard of Twitter.

Tim Bray misjudges his audience. What’s interesting is that the audience in question was at something called Web Design World. This leads Tim to wonder just how small the ‘Internet in-crowd’ really is – and, conversely, if it is that small, how come it makes so much noise.

I wrote about this last year, and I think some of what I wrote then is worth repeating:

When I first started using the Internet, about ten years ago, there was a geek Web, a hobbyist Web, an academic Web (small), a corporate Web (very small) and a commercial Web (minute) – and the geek Web was by far the most active. Since then the first four sectors have grown incrementally, but the commercial Web has exploded, along with a new sixth sector – the Web-for-everyone of AOL and MSN and MySpace and LiveJournal (and blogs), whose users vastly outnumber those of the other five. But the geek Web is still where a lot of the new interesting stuff is being created, posted, discussed and judged to be interesting and new.

Add social software to the mix – starting, naturally, within the geek Web, as that’s where it came from – and what do you get? You get a myth which diverges radically from the reality. The myth is that this is where the Web-for-everyone comes into its own, where millions of users of what was built as a broadcast Web with walled-garden interactive features start talking back to the broadcasters and breaking out of their walled gardens. The reality is that the voices of the geeks are heard even more loudly – and even more disproportionately – than before. Have a look at the ‘popular’ tags on as I write, six of the top ten (including all of the top five) relate directly to programmers, and only to programmers. (Number eight reads: “LinuxBIOS – aims to replace the normal BIOS found on PCs, Alphas, and other machines with a Linux kernel”. The unglossed reference to Alphas says it all.) Of the other four, one’s a political video, two are photosets and one is a full-screen animation of a cartoon cat dancing, rendered entirely in ASCII art. (Make that seven of the top ten.)

[2007 update: still six out of ten, albeit only two out of the top five]

Yes, ‘insiders’ do make a disproportionate amount of noise. And yes, the in-crowd does look bigger on the inside than it does from the outside – so does any crowd once you’re in it. The mistake is to assume that your crowd is the only crowd there is – but it’s a mistake that every crowd makes. An old post about Technorati (this time from 2005) makes this point better than I could paraphrase it:

The equation of authority with ‘popularity’ is, in one sense, neither inappropriate nor avoidable … the distinction between the knowledge produced in academic discourse and the knowledge produced in conversation is ultimately artificial: in both cases, there’s a cloud of competing and overlapping arguments and definitions; in both cases, each speaker – or each intervention – draws a line around a preferred constellation of concepts. At some level, all knowledge is ‘cloudy’. Moreover, in both cases, the outcome of interactions depends in large part on the connections which speakers can make between their own arguments and those of other speakers, particularly those who speak with greater authority. (Hence controversy: your demonstration that an established writer is wrong about A, B and C will interest a lot more people – and do more for your reputation – than your utterly original exposition of X, Y and Z.) You may not like the internationally-renowned scholar who’s agreed to look in on your workshop – you may resent his refusal to attend the whole thing and disapprove of his attitude to questioners; you may not even think his work’s that great – but you still invite him: he’s popular, which means he’s authoritative, which means he reflects well on you. Domain by domain, authority does indeed track popularity.

But there’s the rub – and here begins the argument against Technorati. Domain by domain, authority tracks popularity, but not globally: it makes a certain kind of sense to say that the Sun is more authoritative than the Star, but to say that it’s more authoritative than the Guardian would be absurd. (Perverse rankings like this are precisely an indicator of when two distinct domains are being merged.) Similarly, it’s easy to imagine somebody describing either the Daily Kos or Instapundit as the most ‘authoritative’ site on the Web; what’s impossible to imagine is the mindset which would say that Kos was almost the most authoritative source, second only to Glenn Reynolds. But this is what drops out if we use Technorati’s (global) equation of popularity with authority. … This effect has been masked up to now by the prevalence of a single domain among Technorati tags (and, indeed, Technorati users): it’s a design flaw which has been compensated by an implementation flaw.

Some final brief thoughts. Blogging tends towards conversation. Conversation routes around gatekeepers (Technorati is, precisely, a gatekeeper – but an avoidable gatekeeper). Conversations happen within domains. People cross domains, but domains don’t overlap. Every domain thinks it’s the only one.

Except, of course, the domain shared by readers of this blog, which is plural and open to a high degree. A uniquely high degree, in fact…

The wills and the won’ts

Ellis links to an excellent appreciation of Raymond Williams. I’ve got nothing to add to it, except that I’d forgotten just how well he wrote – it’s an odd tone of voice, with a kind of patiently strenuous quality, but it’s very powerful and rather beautiful, once you tune in to it. I can’t think of another writer who so consistently combines reasoning and anger without slipping into preaching or polemic.

And here’s one I prepared earlier:

Culture is ordinary: Raymond Williams and cultural materialism

Raymond Williams developed the approach which he named ‘cultural materialism’ in a series of influential books – Culture and Society (1958), the Long Revolution (1961), Marxism and Literature (1977). I came to cultural materialism by another route. I’d just read Williams’ Drama in performance – a survey of the conditions under which plays have been put on over the years, and how changes in staging practice parallelled developments in society. One night, I had a dream. I dreamed I saw a series of scenes, each showing a group of people in their usual surroundings; I remember a group of cardinals, standing outside St Peter’s in Rome. The relationships between the elements in each scene – the architecture, the clothing, the rituals, the social roles – were luminously clear. I woke up with a clear, unshakeable sense of the validity and power of the cultural materialist approach.

By the time I read Williams’ theoretical work, in other words, I’d already been converted. This experience has had some odd effects. I find Williams’ writing clear and easy to read, for instance, which I gather is unusual; asked for a comment on Marxism and Literature, the historian Gwyn A.Williams said, “I defy anyone to read that book without going stark raving mad.” With this in mind, I’ve attempted to suggest why Williams’ work continues to merit the attention of socialists.

Cultural materialism was always, for Williams, a Marxist theory – an elaboration of historical materialism. “Latent within historical materialism is … a way of understanding the diverse social and material production … of works to which the connected but also changing categories of art have been historically applied. I call this position cultural materialism.” Cultural production is itself material, as much as any other sector of human activity; culture must be understood both in its own terms and as part of its society. The implications for cultural work are vast: imagine relating Howard Barker’s plots to the contemporary demographics of theatre-going, or setting the rise of Zoe Ball in the context of the economics of the BBC. Cultural studies – a discipline whose existence owes much to Williams – has scratched the surface of this approach to the arts, but following it through is a daunting prospect.

Williams’ conception of cultural materialism went further, however. The key question was how the relationship between society and culture was understood. In his 1958 essay “Culture is ordinary” Williams cited the Marxist tenet that “a culture must finally be interpreted in relation to its underlying system of production” and glossed it as follows: “a culture is a whole way of life, and the arts are part of a social organisation which economic change clearly radically affects.” The second part of this statement indicates Williams’ resistance to the classical Marxist idea of culture as a ‘superstructure’ which echoes an economic ‘base’. The first part suggests how he would bridge the gap: culture was “a whole way of life”. This Williams counterposed to ‘high culture’ – “this extraordinary decision to call certain things culture and then separate them, as with a park wall, from ordinary people and ordinary work”.

Hence, culture is always political. This is not to say that the crimes of the ruling class can be read off from a film or an advertisement, any more than they can from a party political broadcast. Still less does it imply that work which aims for that level of explicitness is the best or most important. Rather, culture is political because the social process addressed by political analysis is always embedded in culture. Williams reversed the terms of the usual analysis. Rather than being a specialised area in which we see reflections of the political processes governing society, culture is the “whole way of life” which makes up human society; political analysis is a specialised framework which can be used to understand it.

Much writing on culture treats political change as an external force: something which impinges on ordinary people’s lives from outside, and which writers may choose to focus on or not. This assumption underpins the tendency of right-wing critics to claim authors for their own – ‘apolitical’ – perspective. “By the fifties the trick was being turned that if you thought George Eliot was a good novelist, you had to be against socialism. There was a directly political confiscation of the past that was intolerable.”

Radical criticism is often little better. Even the approach of reclaiming ‘apolitical’ works, re-attaching them to their history – reading the Industrial Revolution into Wuthering Heights, for instance, with Heathcliff seen as a dispossessed proletarian – made the same mistake, Williams argued. “Social experience, just because it is social, does not have to appear in any way exclusively in these overt public forms. In its very quality as social reality it penetrates, is already at the roots of, relationships of every kind … When there is real dislocation it does not have to appear in a strike or in machine-breaking. It can appear as radically and as authentically in what is apparently, what is actually family or personal experience.” Wuthering Heights was “central to its time” because of the power of its articulation of emotional experience – an experience which was characteristic of a society which was being torn apart, psychologically as much as socially, under the stress of industrialisation.

Politics for its part is always cultural. The history of the Left and the labour movement is the history of attempts to develop an alternative culture – a long, complex and contradictory process. Williams resisted prescriptive approaches to culture: if it was intolerable for the Right to appropriate George Eliot, it was absurd for the Left to claim that certain art forms were or were not ‘socialist’. “A culture is common meanings, the product of a whole people, and offered individual meanings … It is stupid and arrogant to suppose that any of these meanings can in any way be prescribed; they are made by living, made and remade, in ways that we cannot know in advance.”

The culture of the Left exists on a number of levels. There are continuing and developing art forms, such as the art of banners, flags and quilts. There are the achievements of the continual drive for working class ‘self-improvement’ – in fact a movement of resistance to exclusion from education – from the Institutes of mining villages through to today’s WEAs and the Open University. More broadly again, there is the body of collective experience built up through struggle. (“The single most shocking thesis to established liberal opinion in Culture and Society … was that I did not define working-class culture as a few proletarian novels … but as the institutions of the labour movement.”) Marches and demonstrations, strikes and occupations, all create new forms of consciousness and promote awareness of different ways of living; on a more mundane level, they also bring out ordinary people’s ability to organise and co-ordinate activity. Williams insisted that those achievements – and resources – should not be forgotten or minimised.

Moreover, political struggle itself takes cultural forms. The ‘DiY Culture’ [sic] of squats, anti-roads protests and Reclaim the Streets actions is, among other things, a direct assertion of new cultural possibilities – and of a way of living in which culture, art, pleasure would play a central part. Actions such as these often involve the playful reappropriation of buildings and monuments, symbols of the dominant culture: in Williams’ terms, an emergent culture is imposing itself, making itself heard. Predictably, the full armoury of the dominant culture and social order is brought into play to combat it: from “the scum on the front pages of the richer newspapers” (to quote Williams from 1968) through to direct – political – repression. For capitalism has not ceased to be victorious: the space available for cultural or political opposition is continually under attack, from the reappropriation of radical symbols to the literal occupation of social territory through CCTV. And culture cannot substitute for politics – cannot be a short-cut to a larger social transformation, any more than the instrumental model of left politics could function without culture. The complex set of transformations which Williams labelled ‘the long revolution’ could only triumph by dispossessing “the central political organs of capitalist society”: “the condition for the success of the long revolution in any real sense is decisively a short revolution”.

Williams’ assessments of the prospects for change were sometimes bleak. He believed that neither the Labour Party nor the union movement had advanced a genuinely reformist project for many years, preferring to manage capitalism and take sectoral gains: “The underlying perspectives of a reforming Labour Party and of a steadily bargaining and self-improving trade-union movement – a perspective within which so many major gains have been achieved – suddenly look like and are dead ends,” he wrote in 1982. The following year he developed this analysis in Towards 2000, in which he analysed the new managerial politics – a politics which he named ‘Plan X’, in which the only goal is the continued functioning of capitalism and the pursuit of strategic advantage. Williams didn’t live to see New Labour, but I’m certain he would have recognised Plan X through the rhetorical fog.

That said, the space for alternatives is never entirely blocked: “no mode of production and therefore no dominant social order and therefore no dominant culture ever in reality includes or exhausts all human practice, human energy and human intention”. There is always – must always be – space for opposition: for thinking and action directed towards the elaboration of another social order. This refusal of despair was also a refusal of indiscriminate anger and weightless theory, of critiques written in the margins of the dominant order. Its roots were in Williams’ sense of loyalty: to class, to community and to history. The sense of community he had known in Wales was crucial to him: his recognition of green issues and the politics of place extended rather than diluting his earlier emphasis on class.

His loyalties gave Williams a quiet steadiness which sometimes made him seem like a placid gradualist – a deeply misleading impression. On other occasions the impression was more brutal. In 1985 he wrote: “As the [miners’] strike ends, there will be many other things to discuss and argue about; tactics, timing and doubtless personalities. But it is of the greatest possible importance to move very quickly and sharply beyond these, to the decisive general issues which have now been so clearly disclosed.” After Williams’ death R.W. Johnson recalled this passage, attacking Williams for attempting to forestall a critique of the NUM’s ‘tactics, timing [and] personalities’. The charge is accurate but irrelevant. Williams deliberately refused to play that game, for reasons which recall his enduringly controversial critique of George Orwell (“while travelling seriously, he was always travelling light”). Of Orwell’s “plain style” Williams commented, “the convention of the plain observer with no axes to grind … cancels the social situation of the writer and cancels his stance towards the social situation he is observing.” The miners’ strike, Williams believed, created new possibilities for oppositional thought and action, even in defeat; a socialist writer who ignored these possibilities in favour of post-mortem recriminations would truly be ‘travelling light’, cancelling out their own social position and political goals.

Three years earlier, Williams had helped set up a group aiming to work on those “decisive general issues”: the Socialist Society. The work of the Socialist Society led to the Chesterfield Conferences, the Socialist Movement and the newspaper socialist – eventually reborn as Red Pepper. Several of the people now involved in Red Pepper were active in the Socialist Society in the late eighties and early nineties – myself included. With this history in mind, it is worth asking, finally, what directions Williams’ work suggests for the Left in 1999.

Firstly, work is still needed on understanding ‘New Labour’. While the genuine reforms enacted by this government cannot be ignored, the heart of New Labour is an attempt to graft reactionary and managerial values onto the image, language and organisational resources of the Labour Party. The true dimensions of ‘the project’, and the weaknesses in Labour which allowed it to triumph, remain to be analysed. A second area in need of reassessment is the Left itself. The bizarre and disastrous positions adopted by much of the Left during the Kosova crisis attest to the work which now needs to be done, to reconnect the Left with its founding humanist – and Marxist – values.

In a small country undergoing rapid change, national identity is another important theme. While trans-European linkages may be beneficial, their uneven development, dominated by the requirements of capitalism, puts the identity associated with the British state under strain – particularly accompanied by Scottish and Welsh political self-assertion. One symptom is the English cultural valorisation, ever since Trainspotting, of a curiously regressive image of young Scottish masculinity. The advent of these Celtic rebels without a cause is related to a fourth theme, gender politics: in particular, the recurrent anxiety as to whether feminism has ‘gone too far’ or ‘lost its way’.

Finally, the late nineties have given us two further concerns which Williams could not have foreseen. The Internet has been hailed as transforming the nature of work and even of capital. Serious work is now being done to test these claims; this needs to be complemented by an awareness of the real potential of the Internet as a medium for radical communication and action. Lastly, the nineties have been marked by an extraordinary growth in three inter-related ideologies: ‘New Age’ beliefs, often associated with alternative therapies; belief in the paranormal and extra-terrestrial life; and ‘conspiracy theory’. While the last of these, at least, has something to offer serious politics, taken together these beliefs indicate a loss of belief in established authority – and a loss of faith in our own ability to reason and act.

Williams never lost that faith. He believed that the Left could understand the dominant order: we faced, not “some unavoidable real world”, but “a set of identifiable processes of realpolitik and force majeure, of nameable agencies of power and capital, distraction and disinformation”. But naming the blockages was not enough. “The dynamic movement is elsewhere, in the difficult business of gaining confidence in our own energies and capacities.” The task was to establish the lines of development for an alternative. “It is only in a shared belief and insistence that there are practical alternatives that the balance of forces and chances begins to alter. Once the inevitabilities are challenged, we begin gathering our resources for a journey of hope. If there are no easy answers there are still available and discoverable hard answers, and it is these that we can now learn to make and share.”

A version of this essay appeared in the August 1999 issue of Red Pepper.


The English novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970)
Orwell (1971)
Politics and Letters: interviews with New Left Review (1979)
Towards 2000 (1983)
Marxism and Literature (1977)


“Culture is ordinary” (1958), “Why do I demonstrate?” (1968), “The forward march of Labour halted?” (1982), “Lukács: a man without frustration” (1983), “Mining the meaning: key words in the miners’ strike” (1985).

All essays are in Resources of Hope (1989) except “Lukács”, which is in What I came to say (1989).

Feels like 1974

I haven’t said a lot about Labour or the Left here lately, mainly because I’ve been saying it all at Dave’s place (another example of the essential superiority of Usenet over blogging). Here’s a slightly edited version of my comments on recent threads.

Dave argues that this government’s left-wing achievements have been localised and timid (Blair worships the god of small things) and that these are vitiated by its failure to break with the neo-liberal agenda set by its Tory predecessors (Tory anti-union laws and Tory privatisation policies stayed in place).

I’d argue that this is praising with faint damns – it’s much worse than that.

It’s true that there are positives, from the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament to the minimum wage, but loyalists tend either to ignore all the negatives or to tacitly assume that they would have been the same under any other government. I study the criminal justice system in my day job, and it’s extraordinary the way things have changed since 1997:

Parenting Orders.
Penalty Notices for Disorder.
Community Support Officers.
Drug testing on arrest.
DNA swabs on arrest.
All offences made arrestable.
Terrorism Act 2000…

That’s just one area where New Labour has gone beyond the Tories. They’ve also taken neo-liberal economic policies further than the Tories ever did – and probably further than the Tories, with a Labour opposition, ever could. Privatisation and competition have reached far further into the public sector under Blair than they did under Thatcher. As for Blair’s foreign policy, it’s hardly any less anti-European than Thatcher’s was – and it’s much more subserviently pro-American than her delusions of imperial grandeur would allow her.

In short, Blair’s presided over a government that stands to the right of the Tories – even Thatcher-era Tories – in almost all areas, and he’s done so with the backing of the Labour movement. It’s quite an achievement. It also puts left-wing Labour loyalists in an impossibly difficult position. If Labour were campaigning for unambiguously right-wing policies, could a Labour leftist still advocate a vote for Labour? Even if they were consistently attacked from the Left by the Lib Dems (or, God help us, the Tories)?

It’s not hard to imagine this happening, sadly. Suppose that your MP retires suddenly, precipitating a by-election. Labour policy at a national level is pro-PFI, pro-ID cards and pro-Iraq war. The Labour candidate is an identikit Blairite – enthusiastically pro-PFI, pro-ID cards and pro-Iraq war. The Green candidate, the Lib Dem and even the Tory are all opposed to Labour policy in these areas, or at least unenthusiastic about it. Someone tells you that, as a socialist, they can’t possibly vote for the Labour candidate – look at their policies on PFI, ID cards and Iraq! What could you tell that person, to persuade them to vote Labour one more time? And, perhaps even more importantly, what would you tell them after the election, when their vote had helped elect another identikit Blairite?

One answer would be that the Labour Party is a potential vehicle for progressive change in a way that the other parties aren’t. (The unions are the obvious example here – I’d still advise a colleague to join the union even if the leadership had repeatedly sold us out.) This being the case, however reactionary our actually existing government might be, a Labour government could still become an instrument for reform if it was dragged back to the Left by pressure from rank-and-file members. The trouble is, in the current state of the party’s democratic machinery, I can’t see any way in which rank-and-file members can actually bring that pressure to bear. One Labour leftist reminded me that “the policies of the Labour party as decided by Conference include renationalisation of the railways, an end to Foundation Hospitals and privatisation of the NHS, an end to PFI, the immediate restoration of the pensions-earnings link, the restoration of trade union rights, direct investment in council housing, etc”. Nevertheless, the Labour government has pursued the opposite of all of these policies with impunity for the last ten years – and done so with the votes of a lot of good Labour MPs, many of whom almost certainly have serious misgivings but don’t want to get in trouble with the Whips. Another answer would be that Labour’s union links mean that the party is the party of the organised working class – but again, I don’t see much evidence of leftward union pressure on the party having any effect.

It seems to me that New Labour is a coherent project which is reactionary, pro-capital and anti-working class in almost every way; that New Labour reforms to party structures make it titanically difficult to impose a change of course from below; and that individual Labour councillors and MPs – however left-wing they may be as individuals – have very little freedom of manoeuvre. All that being the case, voting Labour will almost invariably mean voting for someone who will (for example) stand up to the leadership on Iraq and the NHS but toe the line on Best Value and ASBOs. In other words, in the short term they will both do good and do harm – and in the process they will do long-term harm, by helping to turn the New Labour agenda into the ‘common sense’ of Labour.

Labour governments have always had left-wing opposition, but I believe this is a different kind of situation: we’re not in the seventies any more, with a Labour government offering a few crumbs and the Left demanding the loaf. If the New Labour project is anything like what I’ve described, then New Labour is actually working against the interests of the working class, and those of the Labour Party. Opposing the project some of the time isn’t really good enough if it means you’re assisting it the rest of the time.

My pre-election advice remains what it was two years ago:

Don’t abstain. Don’t be an idiot and vote Tory.

But don’t vote Labour.

Then don’t think twice

I haven’t got much of a comments policy. Any spam that makes it through the filters will be deleted, that’s a given. Apart from that, there are a few types of comment that I don’t like – people commenting for the sake of plugging their own blogs (human spam); anonymous comments; ad hominem attacks; anonymous ad hominem attacks – but nothing I could define tightly enough to put in a spelt-out Acceptable Comments Policy.

I came to blogging after several years on Usenet, and in particular on a newsgroup (alt.folklore.urban) which had very high informal standards for the content of posts and very low standards of civility and politesse. I believe the two were connected. It was understood on a.f.u, in its heyday, that a badly-written post could and would be torn line from line, with contempt, with wit and quite often with swearwords. It was a spectator sport, often undertaken for fun and without any real anger; most of the time the group’s sympathies would be entirely with the poster doing the shredding, not the one whose post had been shredded. It was also understood that this wasn’t personal: we might have called you an idiot on the basis of posting a stupid and ill-informed argument, but that should just encourage you to come back and try again. (I was particularly scrupulous about this myself, and used to tell people that they were being an idiot.) Most of the time it seemed to work: most people either shaped up or shipped out, although a few would always insist on hanging around and complaining. Either way, they rapidly gained a name for themselves, which was always a big part of being on Usenet.

With that experience behind me, it’s hard to get too worked up about anonymity – or rather, it’s hard to define anonymity. If an anonymous commenter signs off with his or her given name, and I recognise them as someone who’s in my phone book, is that really anonymous? Conversely, if a commenter with a screen name gives a valid URI and a valid email address, none of which give any clue to his or her real-world identity, is that not anonymous? What about the regular commenter with a consistent screen name – if one block of text can be linked to the author of several others, how much does it matter that nobody knows what their real name is? Deep waters.

More to the point, my a.f.u experience means that I find it hard to endorse any kind of blanket condemnation of ad hominem attacks, let alone ‘bad language’ or ‘rudeness’. Writing out of personal spite and contempt is bad (“don’t drive angry“). Writing to offend is bad; writing to provoke is bad; writing to arouse spite and contempt in other people is bad. But I don’t see that you need to use swearing or incivility to do any of those things – and I don’t see that swearing or incivility is a good indicator that you are doing any of those things. I’ve been deeply offended and angered by blog posts and blog comments before now, but I don’t remember that any of the offending material was rude.

Do I deplore ad hominem attacks? Yes, generally – but I also recognise that some attacks take passive-aggressive form, presenting the attacker as a well-meaning observer or a wronged victim who only wants justice. Scrupulously polite and civil language may convey the most hurtful sentiments. On the other hand, what can look like attacking language may be robust or even playful criticism. That said, I’m not so naive as to think that everyone who gives offence is just being playful or that everyone who takes offence is over-reacting. Setting out to cause offence and being offensive certainly overlap – but the first doesn’t imply the second, and vice versa. If we imposed a rule of universal politeness, it might drive personal attacks underground – or between the lines – but it would do nothing to stop them; those who want to would find a way. (And, at some time or other, we all want to.)

So, do I delete ad hominem attacks, or abuse, or anonymous trolling? No, not most of the time. And yes, sometimes – although this doesn’t necessarily correlate with the overt level of offensiveness. Essentially my comments policy is Tom‘s:

Please stay on-topic, informative and polite. I reserve the right to remove comments for whatever vague capricious reasons seem reasonable at the time.

You can argue with that if you want to – you might change my mind, or you might not. Either way, I won’t delete your comments. Probably.

Sometimes I wonder

The estimable Unity – who well deserves the title him- or herself – has nominated me as a ‘thinking blogger’, so I guess I’d better pass on the baton. I’ll take the easy way out and say that my blogroll is full of ’em, and I’d especially recommend you check out… well, any blog on the list that you aren’t reading already. (I’ve built up and merged two separate blogrolls, one consisting almost entirely of left-wing Brits and the other consisting almost entirely of Americans who know about Web 2.0, so I’d be quite surprised if there isn’t anyone on the list who qualifies.)

If I had to single anyone out, it would be Chris, who is utterly wrong in some way that I’ve never yet managed to put my finger on; reading his posts is always good, if frustrating, mental exercise. Unless it was Shelley, who’s very smart, very human and very rarely wrong. Or Jim, whose posts are a constant reminder not only that things could be different but, more unsettlingly, that some time soon things are going to have to be different.

The other part of the deal is to say what I think about the category of thinking blogger. I think it’s a bit of an unfortunate term, but it does correspond to a recognisable blogging style. A thinking blogger isn’t a comedian, a diarist, a fisking railer or a controversialist – they’re all good ways to blog, but they’re not what I’m talking about here. A thinking blogger is a blogger who makes you think: makes you develop your own ideas in response to theirs – or reconsider your own ideas in response to theirs – or both. A writer who makes you wonder, once again, just what the Guardian pay their columnists for.

A recent post by Dave Rogers reminds me that a thinking blogger is also someone who invites you to slow down. Dave:

“thinking” is kind of like preparing a meal. It takes some time, and if you want to make a good meal, you kind of have to work at it. … This is one of the “problems” with the internet, and I believe it contributes significantly to episodes like the one most recently surrounding Kathy Sierra. It’s too easy for us to jump on our machines, which we are far too connected to, and dash off the quick post. I will guess that it has something to do with the reward centers in our brains and dopamine receptors. We go for the “quick fix” (as in drug fix, not “repair” fix). We don’t take the time to really think.

So a thinking blogger’s blog isn’t the blog you read first; on the contrary, it’s one you sometimes save for last – and sometimes save for another day – because you know it’s going to need your full attention. Indeed, I could name some thinking bloggers who I never read at all – although that’s probably just me being lazy.

A thogger, on the other hand, is a devotee of the school of literary appreciation named after Thog the Mighty. But you knew that.

And we moved to Paraguay

Will is keen to dispel some myths about think tanks:

Imagine you’re throwing a party, and invitations have to be equally split into three factions. Firstly you must invite your grandparents, great uncles and great aunts. Secondly, you must invite your colleagues. And thirdly you must invite the kids who hang around the local park. When they arrive, they inevitably split into their respective groups, and congregate in separate areas of the room. As the host, it’s up to you to come up with topics of conversation on which all three groups will engage enthusiastically and frame that conversation in language that all three groups can understand. If any group opts out or feels alienated by the conversation that you introduce, you have failed in your hostly duties. Within those limits, you have complete freedom to take the conversation where you like.Now substitute ‘government, business and media’ for ‘grandparents, colleagues and kids’ … and you have a sense of how much independence a think tank has in what it says.

There’s a bunch of assumptions here which could do with unpacking – who is ‘media’? who is ‘business’? come to that, who’s ‘government’? Do the answers change over time, and do think tankers make any contribution to the way they change?

But what struck me was something about the metaphor itself. Firstly you must invite your grandparents, great uncles and great aunts. What this tells me is that British thinktanks are populated by young people. The last time I could have invited a grandparent anywhere, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.

I used to work in IT – programming was my first job after college (Thatcher was in power then, too). Over a period of years I learned that young coders tend to be very bright, very keen, very confident and very prone to screw up (myself, in retrospect, very much included). They could really crank out the lines of code, but you needed to watch them. You wouldn’t let them do their own program design without severe misgivings, and you certainly wouldn’t let them go out and talk to the business.

This has nothing to do with intelligence or ability to learn – I had plenty of the former when I was a junior programmer, and probably more of the latter than I have now. (I seem to remember I had something called ‘energy’, too. Wonder what that’s like?) What I didn’t have was experience – including the experience of screwing up horribly. Consequently I didn’t have a lot of the other qualities that go under the heading of ‘maturity’ – caution, circumspection, the sense that things are probably more complicated than you realise and that other people probably know more than you understand.

Greater than all of these is the sense that it’s all been done. Back on (those were the days eh?) one of the regulars summed up the “old coder” mindset as

10 We tried it
20 It didn’t work
30 GOTO 10

Which makes the encounter with old coders frustrating as hell for new-broom managers and business consultants.

Admittedly, this isn’t a good guide to (in)action all the time – you’d end up with the character in La Peste who’s described as a saint because he sits in bed all day, and hence doesn’t do anyone any harm. But I can’t help thinking that the old coders are likely to be right more often than not.

So, think tanks are meeting-places for government, business and the media, and places where they go to hear new and interesting ideas. And think tanks are staffed by young coders. I guess that explains a lot.

Red, gold and green

David Cameron: active hypocrite or passive hypocrite? Or both?Jim has an excellent post up discussing Tory Boy’s not-quite-admission to a dope-smoking past. Clearly Cameron’s a hypocrite, in the sense that he’s conformed to other people’s standards while covering up his past transgressions. But, Jim argues, that only accounts for passive hypocrisy; what’s really objectionable about Cameron is that he’s an active hypocrite, who advocates standards for other people which he couldn’t meet himself.

This is a useful distinction: passive and active hypocrites are very different creatures. A passive hypocrite is simply someone who fails, sometimes, to live up to the standards he or she publicly advocates. If we share those standards we may find fault, but we’re more likely to sympathise, particularly given that we’re human ourselves. If we don’t share those standards, the worst we’re likely to feel is indifferent. Indeed, passive hypocrisy can be a positively good thing if it helps to erode bad and destructive standards. You can even think of it as a tactical move, temporary reticence: I never thought I’d vote for a dope-smoker, but seeing as it’s that nice Mr Cameron…

Active hypocrisy, on the other hand, can only be bad news. I don’t want someone who’s failing to live up to standards I share to police those standards – they’re not likely to do the job very well, for one thing. Again, perhaps the reason they’re not living up to those standards is that the standards need revising – they may be standards which humans can’t live up to. Passive hypocrisy might not make it any easier to make that discovery, but active hypocrisy – denouncing other people’s shortfalls while concealing your own – actually makes it harder. In the case of standards I don’t share, active hypocrisy is even worse – if you can’t even live up to them yourself, why impose them on other people?

I’d got this far in my thinking about Cameron – which was broadly in alignment with Jim’s – when a colleague asked an unexpected question: What if he’d been a shoplifter? What if the criminal escapades Cameron had concealed, in passive-hypocrite mode, had involved theft rather than dope smoking? There are two questions here: would we still regard him as an active hypocrite for denouncing teenage shoplifters? And, relatedly, would anybody much care?

I think the answer to both questions lies in an unexamined assumption about drug use, which is shared by many people on both sides of the debate. It was summed up by one of the more crazed letters printed in Metro, on one of the two or three days when the story was news. I forget the details, but the message was that Cameron could never be trusted on anything ever again – and not because he’d covered his past up, but because he’d been a “druggie”.

Drugs are different. Thieving is something you do; a druggie is something you are. Or rather, it’s something you become when you start using drugs – and never cease to be thereafter. Once your mind’s been warped by drugs you can never go back; you’ll always be confused, unreliable, self-indulgent, half-crazed and essentially a bad person.

This is presumably why it was headline news. What’s interesting is just how few people would actually put their name to this kind of attitude: John Reid certainly wouldn’t, and all the vox pops I saw were equally relaxed about the whole thing. The news media seemed more upset about the whole thing than anyone else in the country (and speaking of hypocrisy…). Presumably the calculation was that the story still had the potential to be scandalous, even though most people didn’t give a damn, because those people who do care about it care a great deal. It’s a clear case of valuing beliefs, not because of their content, because they’re strongly held – and it shows what a bad idea that is.

(Incidentally, I think the outrage expressed by some advocates of illegal pharmaceuticals springs from a very similar outlook to that of our ‘druggie’ friend, albeit with a more positive version. You can steal and then not be a thief, you can start fights on a Friday night and then not be a brawler, but you can’t use drugs and then not be a user: you can never go back. For drug criminalisers and advocates alike, Cameron isn’t denouncing an activity he once indulged in and now wishes he hadn’t: he’s denouncing a permanent fact about himself.)

So, passive hypocrisy’s not such a bad thing – it’s pretty much part of being human. The active hypocrisy charge is tougher, but Cameron could dodge it by making it clear that he doesn’t regard drug use as something that changes the user forever. It was illegal, he tried it, bad idea, it should stay illegal, end of story. (Yes, it would probably be better all round if he came out for legalisation – it would certainly be more interesting – but I don’t think even Cameron is going to push the Tories that far.) This would be a particularly good strategy in view of the allegations of cocaine use which have stuck to Cameron since his PR days. Admitting to teenage cannabis use would make it all the easier to brazenly deny adult cocaine use. This might get Cameron into the realms of flat-out lying rather than mere hypocrisy, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – as the relative popularity of Blair and Brown makes clear, the public prefers a liar to a hypocrite. (This comparison courtesy of David Runciman.)

So why hasn’t he done this? Why does he persist in dodging the question and waiting for the issue to blow over? (Oh, it has. I’ve been a long time writing this post…) The answer, I think, lies in another odd feature of the drug laws, or the mentality underlying them. Since the days when constables of the Watch kept a look out for breaches of the King’s peace, there has always been something chancy about public, social crimes: to be prosecuted depends on a three-way conjunction of offender, victim and guardian of the law. If you get nabbed while you’ve got your hand in the till, fair enough, but if not… well, the police can’t be everywhere. (This is one of the reasons why the level of crime reported in victim surveys is so much higher than the level recorded in police figures.) And I think our way of thinking about crimes like this incorporates this assumption. We might want the police to be more effective in preventing burglary, but nobody thinks they’re ever going to prevent it entirely. (The police themselves certainly don’t – they’re the first to recommend target-hardening and victim-centred crime prevention.) There’s an acceptable level of burglary, theft, taking and driving away – or at least a level which we accept is never going to go away.

Drugs are different. To say that a substance is controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act is to say that the government wants it not to be used at all: the underlying mentality is one of prohibition. Some theft will always go on, and some will always go unpunished; even for the hardest law-and-order zealot there’s a margin of resigned tolerance there. In the minds of drugs prohibitionists, there is no margin of tolerance for drug use: ideally the law would ensure that no drug use went on, and failing that it would ensure that no drug use went unpunished.

This is the real problem for Cameron. It’s not that he’s a druggie at heart and can’t be trusted – or that he once turned on and shouldn’t now denounce his brothers in the herb. (As I’ve said, I think these attitudes are essentially mirror images of each other, and I don’t really like either of them.) The problem is that every drugs law is a zero-tolerance drugs law. For a politician, to admit to teenage shoplifting is to say I did it and I shouldn’t have, but to admit to teenage dope-smoking is to say I got away with it and I shouldn’t have. Which would leave Cameron with only two options. One would be public penitence – and I’m sure the Home Office could find a course for him, something to address drug-related offending behaviour. The other would be to come out and say that, yes, he got away with it and, damn it, people like him actually should get away with it. I suspect that if Cameron said that he’d be neither lying nor hypocritical.

Eat y’self fitter

Inconsequentially: it occurred to me the other day that I’m firmly convinced that some kinds of food and drink are good for you. In most cases this belief doesn’t appear to have any rational basis – although in some cases it’s probably based on experience, which is almost as good. Anyone else have a similar list at the back of their mind, or is it just me?

Healthy Food

Anything with ginger is good for you. Fact. A friend once advocated ginger tea to me as a cold remedy so persuasively that I was genuinely disappointed still to have the cold when I finished the pot. (It did do me good, obviously, just not quite that much good.) Chopped ginger in cooking is good, or sliced ginger. Crystallised ginger, even (lots of sugar is generally bad for you, but the ginger makes up for it). I’ll reluctantly concede that chocolate ginger probably isn’t very good for you. (Better than chocolate without ginger, mind.) Gingerbread. Ginger cake. Lebkuchen (although not the ones with jam in). It’s all good.

Anything with lemon is good for you, apart from sweet things. Apart apart from hot lemon with honey. Bizarrely, hot lemon with honey and whiskey is even healthier.

Chinese soups
Those clear broth ones. They’re good for you. It’s true. Not so much the ones with all the egg in or those crabstick ones. Hot and sour I’m not sure about, either. But the clear ones, they’re great. Same goes for any of those Chinese main courses which are basically a slightly drier version of one of those soups, with noodles or boiled rice (not fried, sadly).

Goat’s cheese
Not just goat, though. Blue Stilton, that’s got to be good for you. And white’s even better, if you can get it without the fruit salad stuck in it. Goes off in no time, mind you. So that’s white Stilton before it goes off. Careful now.

Fruit and stuff
Yeah, I suppose.

Healthy Drink

Anything fizzy
Well, OK, not anything. But mineral water, certainly, and basically anything non-alcoholic. And a nice gin and tonic, that’s got to be good for you.

Beer with yeast in the bottom
Bound to be healthy, isn’t it? (As long as you drink the yeast. Whether you do this by swirling it up and drinking it out of the bottle or swirling it up and pouring it into the glass depends entirely on the type of beer. But you knew that.)

Not all beer, obviously. Not stout, and only some porters. And not keg beer, obviously. A nice well-kept bitter, that’s what you want. Mild’s even better.

So there you have it. Of course, you wouldn’t want to let your life be governed by a list like this. Variety is important; custard, Guinness and curry are fine in moderation. But if you really want to pig out, go for Stilton, Hefe Weizen and a nice Chinese.

And ginger. Anything with ginger is good for you.

Great big bodies

I think the thing that really irritates me about the Long Tail is just how basic the statistical techniques underlying it are. If you’ve got all that data, why on earth wouldn’t you do something more interesting and more informative with it? It’s really not hard. (In fact it’s so easy that I can’t help feeling the Long Tail image must have some other appeal – but more on that later.)

As you may have noticed, this weblog hasn’t been updated for a while. In fact, when I compared it with the rest of my RSS feed I found it was a bit of an outlier:


The Y axis is ‘number of blogs’: two updated today (zero days ago), 11 in the previous 10 days, 1 in the 10-day period before that, and so on until you get to the 71-80 column. Note that each column is a range of values, and that the columns are touching; technically this is a histogram rather than a bar chart.

You can do something similar with ‘posts in last 100 days’:


This shows that the really heavy posters are in the minority in this sample; twelve out of the eighteen have 30 or fewer posts in the last 100 days.

So it looks as if I’m reading a lot of reasonably regular but fairly light bloggers, and a few frequent fliers. If you put the two series together you can see the two groups reflected in the way the sample smears out along the X and Y axes without much in the middle:


My question is this. If you can produce readable and informative charts like this quickly and easily (and I assure you that you can – we’re talking an hour from start to finish, and most of that went on counting the posts), what on earth would make you prefer this:


or this:


I can only think of two reasons. One is that it looks kind of like a power law distribution, and that’s a cool idea. Except that it isn’t a power law distribution, or any kind of distribution – it’s a list ranked in descending order, and, er, that’s it. The same criticism applies, obviously, to the classic ‘power law’ graphic ranking weblogs in descending order of inbound links.

You can compute a distribution of inbound links across weblogs using very much the techniques I’ve used here – so many weblogs with one link, so many with two and so forth. Oddly enough, what you end up with then is a curve which falls sharply then tapers off – there are far fewer weblogs with two links than with only one, but not so much of a difference between the ’20 links’ and ’21 links’ categories. However, even that isn’t a power law distribution, for reasons explained here and here (reasons which, for the non-mathematician, can be summed up as ‘a power law distribution means something specific, and this isn’t it’).

The other reason – and, I suspect, the main reason – is that the Long Tail privileges ranking: the question it suggests isn’t how many of which are doing what? but who’s first?. A histogram might give more information, but it wouldn’t tell me who’s up there in the big head, or how far down the tail I am.

People want to be on top; failing that, they want to fantasise about being on top and identify with whoever’s up there now. Not everyone, but a lot of people. The popularity of the Long Tail image has a lot in common with the popularity of celebrity gossip magazines.

Music of the future

About twenty years ago there was a Radio 4 sketch show called Son of Cliché, scripted by the not-yet-celebrated Rob Grant and Dave Naylor. Nick Wilton was one of the regulars (what’s he doing these days, I wondered when I remembered this; the answer’s “panto, mainly“). The music was by Peter Brewis, including one of the funniest moments in musical comedy I’ve ever heard: the credits sung in the style of Bob Dylan, to the tune of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s door”, with each verse ending

“And the music was by – Peter Brewis,

Peter Brewis, Peter Brewis,

Peter Brewis, Peter Brewis…”

Well, I liked it.

There’s an interview with Peter Brewis in today’s Indie. It’s not the same one – this one’s a member of Field Music – but I do wonder if he’s any relation. Now, Field Music, although they’re quite young lads – this Peter Brewis would have been in nappies when the other one was doing his Dylan impression – make angular, jerkily melodic, thoughtful music, heavy on the keyboards and woodwinds. They’re so 1970s they ought to be on Caroline, in other words. They’re not alone, either. The Feeling are Pilot on a good day (or Supertramp on a bad one), and the Klaxons…

The Klaxons are a bit more complicated (not better, but more complicated). The Klaxons (or is it just Klaxons? I neither know nor care, actually) are ‘new rave’, apparently. Judging from the track “Atlantis to Interzone” (on the B-side of their single “Golden Skans”), ‘new rave’ essentially means ‘retro’; the track starts with whooping sirens and (I kid you not) a woman singing the words “Mu mu”. Then the bass kicks in. A couple of minutes later it kicks out again and the sound gets stroppy and punky, with a kind of 1979 art-school cockney vibe; my son pricked up his ears at this point and asked if it was Adam and the Ants. (He’s a fan of Adam and the Ants.) “Make it new” clearly isn’t an injunction that’s troubled the Klaxons greatly. “Golden Skans” itself takes me back to a period I’d completely forgotten: post-glam, pre-punk pop-rock. Think Graham Bonnet-era Rainbow, but without the metal cliches or the long hair, and with aspirations to make both three-minute singles and deeply meaningful albums. Think Argent earlier in the 1970s, or City Boy later on, or John Miles at a pinch. Punk cut a swathe through prog rock, but the pop-rock scene it destroyed. But it’s back in the hands of [the] Klaxons. I think they can keep it.

The Earlies, now – there’s a fine band. I’m listening to their new album The Enemy Chorus at the moment, and even though it’s only the first listen I can thoroughly recommend it. Most of the tracks have that “I’m going to like this later” itch to them, and a couple are instant synapse-flooding beauties. (Like a good strong cafe con leche, when it’s cold outside. With two sugars. Like that.)

But even their music has its 1970s and late-60s echoes. It’s stacked with them, to be honest – I’ve been reminded of Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, Faust, Neu! and the Beatles, and several times of Family (someone in that band knows Music in a Doll’s House and Family Entertainment).

I’m not complaining about the Enemy Chorus – it’s a wonderful album. But still… it’d be nice to hear something that would pin my ears back the way punk did – and, for me personally, the way the Desperate Bicycles and Scritti Politti did. The Fugees did it; cLOUDDEAD did it (cLOUDDEAD were very punk). Since then, not so much.

I wonder what they’ll find to play at Noughties Nights.

Better in the long run

Pessimistic Clive, 28th December:

When I find myself largely agreeing with UKIP leader Nigel Farage over the two new EU member states, despite disagreeing with the very basis of his party and being largely pro-EU, how much longer can the Union continue to keep its loose supporters on board with all this prevarication, shoddy decision-making and incompetence? There’s only so long you can hold on to hope in the face of so much mounting evidence of ever-worsening illness, after all – and no matter how much you may love your dear dog, at some point the realisation has to dawn that it’s so poorly, so incapable of looking after itself, and so unlikely to recover that the kindest thing is simply to have the poor mite put down and go get yourself a new one.

Optimistic Clive, New Year’s Day:

In the short term, the lack of progress on the constitution, the lack of progress on deregulation, the ever-increasing piles of pointless directives, mountains of wasted produce, and continued disasters caused by the Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries Policies – all of these are problems, some more major than others.But all of these problems are transient in the grand scheme of things. Even if they continue throughout my lifetime, if these initial birth-pangs of an organisation that will only reach its half-century this year are the worst that the EU can produce – after all the centuries of warfare that Europe has suffered to date – then I think we can surive them, if this is what it takes for our children and grandchildren to inherit a better world.

It’s not the volte-face that bothers me so much the particular face Clive seems to have volted into. When I was about fourteen I converted to Communism; it came a bit after my flirtations with Buddhism and Christianity, but lasted a lot longer. I’d read a bit about Cuba, and the news from China was all very inspiring at the time, but what really did it was an anecdote our History teacher told in class (yes, it’s a story within a story – David Mitchell look out). Our teacher said that he’d once met the Russian Ambassador, and asked him whether he really believed that the socialist states were progressing towards communism. Apparently the Ambassador said that he realised that he wouldn’t live to see communism, and he doubted that his young children would – but maybe, just maybe, if everyone kept the faith and worked hard, maybe his grandchildren would live in a communist society. And that thought alone was enough to make him a believer.

To his great credit, our teacher told us that he personally couldn’t believe anything like that, but that he did believe that people could make things a bit better in their own lifetimes, and that was why he considered himself a socialist. Me, I was a sucker for the grand plans and the glorious hopes and the torch of faith handed down through the generations, and I fell for it. It sounds rather as if Clive has too. I’ve arrived at roughly the point my History teacher was at in the seventies – I don’t believe social projects have some sort of Hegelian essence which enables them to develop coherently over more than one human lifetime. I certainly don’t believe in birth-pangs that last half a century. I wonder where the Ambassador’s children are now.

To illustrate the kind of mentality I’m thinking about, particularly for anyone who’s puzzled about some of the terminology I used up there (whether the socialist states were progressing towards communism and so forth) here’s a poem, Roque Dalton’s “On headaches”. (Dalton was a Salvadorean guerrillero, tragically shot by his own side in 1975; he was 39.)

It’s a great thing to be a Communist,
although it causes many headaches.

And a Communist headache
is a historical phenomenon, which is to say
that it can’t be treated by painkillers
but only by the realisation of the earthly paradise.
That’s just how it is.

Under capitalism our heads hurt us
and they take our heads off.
In the struggle for the Revolution our heads are bombs with delay fuses.
During the period of socialist construction we plan out our headaches,
which doesn’t make them go away – quite the reverse.

Communism will be, among other things,
an aspirin as big as the sun.

It’s a beautiful dream – but I don’t trust politicians with dreams.

Update 3/1/06: Clive strikes back, and explains how he can be both cynical and idealistic about the European project. Long, but good stuff.

No secrets left to conceal

Daily Mail, 5th June 2004:

Dr Phil Edwards is the national press officer of the BNP.

He may have an academic title, but Dr Edwards makes his living by letting off fireworks. When contacted via the mobile phone number given for his fireworks display company he is, unusually for a party political press officer, baffled and then furious that a journalist can call him, knows where he lives and has dared to pay a visit.

And, by the way, Dr Phil Edwards isn’t his real name. It is Stuart Russell. When asked, Dr Edwards/Russell tetchily says he uses a pseudonym for ‘personal reasons’ and it’s none of my business why. He is not unusual among his cohorts. Several have used names other than their own for ‘personal reasons’.

Stormfront ‘White Nationalist’ board, 17th April 2006

boutye: Phil Edwards did a great job, and the interviewer knew it. Someone was on earlier from Searchlight saying that isn’t his real name. What’s the crack on that?

.:.BNP.:.: His real name is Stuart Russell, he is the father of Julie Russel
[attaches picture of Julie Russell with Jean-Marie Le Pen]

Sweetlips: That’s a bit strange. Why doesn’t he use his real name for heaven’s sake?

BNP’er: Strange? I’ll tell you what’s strange! The Doc and his missis have suffered so much ****e you couldn’t wave a stick at it. He is a personal friend of mine and, like me, he has suffered for the cause of his race. No wonder it was decided to give him a non-de-plume. What I find strange is some stupid bitch trying to imply he has something to hide.

Guardian, 27th April 2006:

Even if it is not your usual thing, there is a video report worth watching on the Sky News website. It concerns Phil Edwards, the far-right BNP’s national press officer, and the recording of a telephone conversation he had at the start of last year with a student. When the student started working, Mr Edwards explained, he would be paying taxes to raise black children who would “probably go and mug you”.

Daily Telegraph, 27th April 2006:

Dr Raj Chandran, a GP and Mayor of the Borough of Gedling, Nottinghamshire, was not prepared to let the unfounded allegations on the BNP website go unchallenged, said solicitor Matthew Himsworth.

Mr Himsworth said that the BNP press officer Dr Stuart Russell – who wrote the article – and website editor Steve Blake “freely and completely” accepted that Dr Chandran was misidentified in the article.

Guardian, 21st December 2006, “Exclusive: inside the secret and sinister world of the BNP”

The techniques of secrecy and deception employed by the British National party in its attempt to conceal its activities and intentions from the public can be disclosed today. Activists are being encouraged to adopt false names when engaged on BNP business, to reduce the chance of their being identified as party members in their other dealings with the public.

The techniques, adopted as part of the campaign by Nick Griffin to clean up his party’s image, were discovered after a Guardian reporter who had joined the party undercover was appointed its central London organiser earlier this year.

Nothing like investigative reporting, eh?

Update 12/2/07

Last week “Dr Phil Edwards” made another appearance in the Guardian, in an article co-authored by Ian Cobain (he who went underground in the BNP and emerged with the shocking news about activists being encouraged to adopt false names). I complained, as I generally do, but this time I included some of the material I dug up for this post. The result was a phone call from Ian Mayes (the paper’s Readers’ Editor) who was very concerned; he said he’d advise the news department to refer to Stuart Russell under his real name from now on, and asked me if there was anything else I wanted from them. (I said No, since I don’t really feel that I’ve been defamed by the blighter. There was one occasion a few years back when my mother said she’d heard “Phil Edwards of Manchester” announced on Any Answers and been quite surprised by the views which followed, but I doubt many people were confused.)

So: a result, provisionally (we’ll know when the Guardian refers to Russell under his own name). I think it was probably the Telegraph quote that swung it. Top tip: if you’re going to publish under a pseudonym, don’t write stuff that puts you in the dock for libel.

Update 8/5/07

Here we go again:

Asked if there were serving police officers who were also BNP members, Phil Edwards, a spokesman for the extremist organisation, said: “I believe there are.”

I’ve written to the article’s author and to Ian Mayes, again. We shall see.

Heart of this nation

Who’s with me?

We have to wake up. These forces of extremism based on a warped and wrong-headed misinterpretation of Islam aren’t fighting a conventional war but they are fighting one against us – and ‘us’ is not just the West, still less simply America and its allies. ‘Us’ is all those who believe in tolerance, respect for others and liberty

We must mobilise our alliance of moderation in this region and outside it to defeat the extremists.

And mobilisation begins at home:

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and other faiths have a perfect right to their own identity and religion, to practice their faith and to conform to their culture. This is what multicultural, multi-faith Britain is about. That is what is legitimately distinctive. But when it comes to our essential values – belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all, respect for this country and its shared heritage – then that is where we come together, it is what we hold in common; it is what gives us the right to call ourselves British. At that point no distinctive culture or religion supersedes our duty to be part of an integrated United Kingdom.

Obedience to the rule of law, to democratic decision-making about who governs us, to freedom from violence and discrimination are not optional for British citizens. They are what being British is about. Being British carries rights. It also carries duties.

We are a nation comfortable with the open world of today … But we protect this attitude by defending it. Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it; or don’t come here.

One more?

The refusal to engage with opponents and the exaltation of intolerance are the ante-chamber to blind violence — and this must not be granted any space.

(OK, I cheated – that last one wasn’t Blair. I’ll come back to that.)

There’s a point to be made here about Blair’s record with regard to the rule of law and democratic decision-making, to say nothing of freedom from violence. But there’s something going on here that’s deeper – and stranger – than simple hypocrisy. Look at that odd formulation from earlier this month, we protect this attitude by defending it: to be open is to reject anyone who threatens openness; to be free is to reject anyone who refuses freedom; to be moderate is to reject anyone who isn’t. Or look at that list where democracy and non-violence are prefaced by ‘obedience to’ – as if democracy were not an achievement but a duty, not something we build but simply something we’re ruled by. For Blair, apparently, tolerance really is something to conform to.

You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means. But this isn’t simply the eternal Anglo-American invocation of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ as brand names. The terms Blair leans on most heavily are adjectives like ‘moderate’ and ‘tolerant’, which have the odd property of being positive but not absolute. You could make a case for maximising freedom for all people at all times and in every situation. It would probably turn out to be a lot harder than it looks, but you could do it – and you could do something similar with democracy, justice, equality or love, sweet love, to name but a few. Talk to me about universalising moderation and I’ll ask for details of your moderate position on the death penalty or freedom of speech; talk about maximising tolerance and I’ll just ask, of whom and of what? Where moderation and tolerance are concerned, it makes a difference. Some beliefs shouldn’t be held moderately; some practices shouldn’t be tolerated.

As for deciding what those beliefs and practices are, that’s what we have politics for. But it’s precisely that debate which Blair is trying to foreclose, by rhetorically turning ‘moderation’ and ‘tolerance’ into absolute principles, counterposed to their eternal antagonists Extremism and Intolerance. What’s missing here is any real sense of what we’re supposed to be moderate about and tolerant of – and where that moderation and tolerance is supposed to end. Of course, Blair has his own ideas about this – even in multicultural, multi-faith Britain, freedom from violence and discrimination trumps the right to practice [your] faith and to conform to [your] culture. I don’t dissent from this statement; what I object to is the idea that these limits to tolerance and moderation can somehow be justified by the principles of tolerance and moderation themselves – and not, for instance, by a broader statement of liberal humanist principle.

But then, the beauty of relative virtues is precisely that they don’t lead out into broader statements – or broader debates. If I could make an appeal to everyone else in the world who believes in freedom, I’d get some replies from people with very different ideas about freedom for whom from what and for what purpose, but I think we’d recognise that we were all interested in starting the same kind of argument. If I could appeal to everyone who called themself ‘moderate’, the chances are I wouldn’t recognise half the people who reply as deserving the name. (You’re a moderate Creationist?) When I say ‘moderate’ I mean ‘moderate like me’; and when Blair says ‘moderate’ he means, more and more explicitly, ‘us’. Where ‘us’ means ‘not them’ – or, if the cap fits, ‘not you’.

Rochenko went over much of this ground some time ago. Excuse the long quote, but this stuff is hard to cut (and I know, I’ve tried).

The much-spoken of Manicheanism of the US and UK governments and their media supporters plays out now alongside the Israelis’ pursuit of the fantasy of the unbreakable iron wall of security. In both cases, the fantasy of incommunicability covers everything. The hatred of our values by all those who practice Terror, the existential threat posed by Hizballah.

The fantasy is fed by the belief in the incommensurability of values. I cannot communicate with you because your fundamental beliefs are absolutely at odds with mine. There is undoubtedly slippage, in politicians’ and media talk about the current ‘global situation’ between this hard Manicheanism and the kind of disagreements better represented as cases when ‘you’ don’t agree with ‘me’ about lots of things that I consider to be important. When someone mentions, usually in a racially or ethnically inflected context, ‘alien values’, they often slide very easily – and often hysterically – from a case of the latter to a case of the former.

The only thing that can overcome this situation, generally referred to as something like the ‘failure of multiculturalism’ or whatever, is held to be a reaffirmation of ‘common values’, be they ‘core British’ or whatever. Supplementing the fantasy of incommunicability with one of unproblematic communication is I suppose the natural thing to do. But it’s a highly damaging manoeuvre. Obviously we cannot locate any ‘British’ values, except either at the level of popular culture, or at the most generalist and therefore inclusive level, where their supposed Britishness and purported minimal exclusiveness immediately evaporates. But the whole gesture of trying to solve the problem of communication by commanding those you have defined as alien to subscribe to a set of values is again an affirmation of your separation from them, which simply reproduces it. We rule you, and we shall demonstrate it by defining your world for you.

But the problem with this whole fantasised solution to the problem of incommunicability is that communication doesn’t require ‘common values’ in the first place – not, at least, at the concrete level where disagreements take place. The fantasy of incommunicability mirrors the relativist concept of the untranslatability of languages … this states that in recognising someone as a speaker of language, we already have understood that they operate with criteria of consistency and truth, and that we therefore already have the capacity to understand them. Without a commitment to consistency and truth, there is no possibility of a ‘perspective’ in the first place. What matters in such situation is not ‘common values’, but the capacity to make a creative gesture of translation … The shift here is in possibility: from a standpoint where the only possibility seems to be separation, sealed-in individuality, the clash of civilisations, to the emergence of another space in which two or more agents are located, not yet as interlocutors perhaps, but now no longer as implacable contraries either. Such movements are always possible.

trying to solve the problem of communication by commanding those you have defined as alien to subscribe to a set of values is again an affirmation of your separation from them, which simply reproduces it. To demand a response you will understand is to demand a response you already understand, and to dismiss any other response as incomprehensible. To demand tolerance and moderation is to demand tolerance and moderation in precisely those areas where you display them, and no others.

Ultimately, as that third quote demonstrates, to demand tolerance is to offer intolerance. The refusal to engage with opponents and the exaltation of intolerance … must not be granted any space. This wasn’t written this year or in this country; the source is a front-page opinion piece in the Italian Communist Party’s daily paper l’Unità, the year is 1977 and the subject is the radical youth movement of that year. Which, as I’ve noted before, didn’t end terrifically well. Rather than granting the movement any kind of legitimacy – or even stealing their ideological clothes – the Communists repeatedly denounced ‘violence’ and ‘intolerance’ and demanded that the moderate students dissociate themselves from the violent minority. No ‘moderate’ student movement ever did make itself known, not least because every time a group of students did dissociate themselves from violence the Communist Party raised its demands (if they’re really opposed to violence, why don’t they co-operate with the police?). In the mean time, the party backed the police clampdown on the movement to the hilt. By the end of 1978 the movement had been policed into submission – but the number of actions by left-wing ‘armed struggle’ groups had risen dramatically, from 169 in 1976 to 1,110 during 1978.

The refusal to engage with opponents and the exaltation of intolerance are the ante-chamber to blind violence. Well, maybe so, but the thing with ante-chambers is that they have a door on each side – and if you can’t get your opponent out of one door you might push them through the other.

The most cruel has passed

Newsflash…. General Augusto Pinochet of Chile has just died. His condition is described as ‘satisfactory’.

(Thanks, Rob.)

Like Rob (and Ellis), my thoughts turned to Victor Jara, the Chilean Communist singer whose brutal murder would be enough in itself to damn Pinochet, even if Jara hadn’t been one of 3,000. Jara’s writing is vivid, poetic, charged with love, passion and humour – and it’s deeply political. Look at this song, “Abre la ventana”:


Abre la ventana

Y deja que el sol alumbre

Por todos los rincones de tu casa


Mira hacia afuera

Nuestra vida no ha sido hecha

Para rodearla de sombras y tristezas.

María ya ves,

no basta nacer, crecer, amar,

para encontrar la felicidad.

Pasó lo más cruel,

ahora tus ojos se llenan de luz

y tus manos de miel.


Tu risa brota como la mañana brota en el jardín.


Our life wasn’t made to be eaten away by shadows and sadness

Let’s remember one of the great unpunished crimes of the last century: a moment of revolutionary joy and revolutionary hope, snuffed out by the General. I could almost believe in Hell if I thought he’d rot in it.

Update 12th December

OK, OK, here’s a translation.

Open the window

Open the window, Maria
Let the light shine in
To every corner of your house

Look around, Maria
Our life wasn’t made to be eaten away
By shadows and sadness

Now, Maria, you can see
There’s more to finding happiness
Than just living, growing, loving
The worst time has gone
Now your eyes are filling with light
And your hands with honey

Your laughter breaks as the day breaks over the garden


Pasó lo mas cruel. Gets to me every time.

I’m no leader…

Here’s why I like Italian politics. My recent Sharpener post on the state of the two major Italian alliances concluded that a key concern of both Berlusconi and Prodi is securing the loyalty of the former Christian Democrats who are in their coalition and, if possible, luring across some of those on the other side. And:

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

That was the 23rd of November. On the 2nd of December Berlusconi presided over a huge rally of his coalition, widely seen – not least by Berlusconi himself – as the first step towards a federation, and ultimately a single party of the Right. The only person on the scene missing was Casini, who unfortunately had a prior engagement – addressing a rally of his own party. The snub hasn’t gone unnoticed; Berlusconi’s immediate reaction was to demand that Casini ‘come back’, adding a warning that he’d better make it soon. Casini’s response:

I don’t accept ultimatums from Berlusconi or anyone else – I was fighting the Left when I was in short trousers … My job is not to ape Berlusconi or to dance along behind him, but to win over disillusioned Prodi voters

Berlusconi’s reply also deserves quoting: “I was just making a joke when I said that we were rearing the fatted calf and that we’d kill it when Casini’s party came back. And I said, jokingly, that I hoped they came back soon, because otherwise somebody else would get to eat the fatted calf. It was just a joke – it’s not my nature to make threats.” Say what you like about Berlusconi, he’s got a sense of humour.

There are regional elections in Italy next March; Casini’s party has its annual conference the month before. If Casini breaks with Berlusconi and brings his party with him, Berlusconi can forget about coming out ahead at those elections – or any other elections. If Casini breaks with Berlusconi and leaves his party, the party is going to suffer – as is Berlusconi’s coalition. The one thing that isn’t going to happen is Casini bowing the knee and taking his place alongside Berlusconi’s other lieutenants, Bossi of the Northern League and Fini of Alleanza Nazionale. They both need Berlusconi to give them respectability and a way into national politics. Casini seems to have realised that he doesn’t.

And this is why I like Italian politics: there’s always something going on. The multiform polarisation of the main political parties, together with the inherent fragility of coalition politics, makes for an unusual combination: it’s machine politics, only it’s played out with real issues. Ironically (if predictably) both Berlusconi and Prodi want to build single parties, putting an end both to the uneasy coalitions which give Italian politicians leverage and to the small parties which enable them to stand for identifiable principles. So enjoy it while it last: in ten years’ time Italian politics may have been normalised into Anglo-American torpor.

Don’t shade your eyes

I’m posting from work, because this is (unusually) a work-related question. And I do mean ‘question’: I will be expecting comments. Look sharp.

I’m formulating a research proposal, building on the work I’ve done on what went on in Italy between 1966 and 1980. Basically, you have two successive waves of protest: one which starts in the universities around 1966, spreads to the factories and goes crazy around 1969 before subsiding; and another which starts in the factories around 1972, spreads to working-class neighbourhoods and from there to the universities, and goes crazy around 1977 before subsiding.

I’ve made them sound reasonably similar, but there was one crucial difference between the two. The first wave died away because Communist-affiliated trade unionists got behind it, with the result that the workers basically got what they were asking for (on the condition that they stayed with the union). By the time of the second wave, by contrast, the Italian Communists were in their ultra-respectable phase: the second wave died away largely because the police forced it off the streets using armoured cars and live ammunition, with the Communists’ full support. So in one case the protest achieved a lot and stopped because, for most people, it wasn’t needed any more; in the other case it achieved next to nothing and stopped because, for most people, it wasn’t worth the aggro any more.

What I’m looking for is examples of the same scenarios happening in Britain. Either:

  1. Protest starts
  2. Protest spreads
  3. It all kicks off in a big way
  4. Demands are more or less met with a little help from Labour
  5. Protest dies away because most people don’t see the need any more


  1. Protest starts
  2. Protest spreads
  3. It all kicks off in a big way
  4. Public order clampdown with full support of Labour
  5. Protest dies away because most people don’t think it’s worth it any more

I don’t think I’m going to have an enormous amount of difficulty thinking of examples of the second scenario – the 1993-4 period springs to mind straight away. I could do with some suggestions for examples of the first scenario, though. There have to be some…

Becoming more like Alfie

It seems to be compulsory for reviewers of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s 5.55 to get in a couple of references to her father. This is unfortunate; the fact that the singer is the daughter of the more famous Serge is certainly an angle, but it’s not one that tells us a lot about this album.

So forget Serge; forget Charlotte, even. Consider 5.55 for what it (mostly) is: a set of songs composed and played by Air, with lyrics by Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon. Godin and Dunckel, Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon, together at last. And a French actress supplying the vocals.

No, it’s not as good as that sounds. But it’s not far short.

Air never were particularly spiky, and over the years they’ve lost a lot of the rough edges and homed in on a lush, lounge-friendly sound; played after “Cherry blossom girl” or “Alone in Kyoto”, Premiers symptomes sounds positively avant-garde. The instrumentation of 5.55 is very lounge; most tracks are dominated by Dunckel’s grand piano, backed by a string section. What redeems it and makes it interesting is a couple of oddly spare, pared-down elements amid the general lushness. One is the composition itself, which centres on simple, repeated patterns of five or six notes on the right hand; not so much Air, more Beta Band. The other – and the really unique feature about the album – is Gainsbourg’s singing voice, which is quiet, light, delicate and frankly rather weak. But the contrast between that voice and that accompaniment – the sweeping strings and the lush, circling piano figures – is arresting; it makes you listen.

And there’s a lot here to listen to. There are three songs which slide back and forth between English and French. The Godin and Dunckel composition “Tel que tu es”, beautifully sung – and beautifully enunciated – by Gainsbourg, had me struggling for a translation: “such as you are”? “how you are”? “just the way you are”? The last verse is in English; the line is “Come as you are”. Very nice. “Jamais” similarly plays with the different expressive qualities of the two languages. Each verse sets up a rejoinder of “Never”, which is delivered in French:

You think you know me, that’s your trouble
Never fall in love with a body double

The word ‘never’ is an undramatic trochee – one stressed syllable and one ‘uh’; ‘jamais’ is much more satisfactory, with two good vowels and a stress on both syllables. Lyrically it’s fine stuff:

I can act like I’m dumb, I can act like I’m clever
You thought that was me? Well I never!

And then there’s the title track, a fragile, bruised meditation on insomnia, which gets a lot of its effect from the sound of that pre-dawn time-check in English and French: ‘five fifty-five’, resigned, hopeless, here I still am; ‘cinq heures cinquante-cinq’, nagging, insistent, isn’t it morning yet?

A cinq heures cinquante-cinq
Nothing will ever change
On the altar of my thought
I sacrifice myself again
And again and again
Five fifty-five

Two songs are co-written by Neil Hannon, who even plays guitar on one of them; I suppose he must have been passing. “Beauty mark”, I’m sorry to say, stinks. I’ve never really understood – or believed – the classic film reviewer’s dismissal of porn as ‘boring’, but I must admit that this track’s attempt to conjure a certain kind of atmosphere rapidly gets tedious. “This darling bud… this little death…” Yes, yes. Put it away now.

Hannon’s other song, “The songs that we sing”, is one of the album’s highlights.

I saw a photograph:
A woman in a bath of hundred-dollar bills
If the cold doesn’t kill her the money will

I read a magazine
That said, by seventeen your life is at an end
Well, I’m dead and I’m perfectly content

What really lifts this track is the animation in Gainsbourg’s voice; it’s a perfect match with the lyrics.

And these songs that we sing,
Do they mean anything
To the people we’re singing them to?
Tonight they do

The vocal on this track is particularly powerful precisely because of the contrast with the previous track and the next track; it’s certainly not that strong in itself. (Charlotte Gainsbourg sings Ethel Merman will not be appearing any time soon.) It’s a trick that can be pulled perhaps twice in the space of an album. The second time, and the album’s other highlight, is the penultimate track, “Everything I cannot see”. By the standards of this album it’s a big production number. Gainsbourg pushes her voice to the limit: she peaks with a kind of petulant mew, bizarrely affecting in the emotion it doesn’t quite convey. Dunckel’s piano-playing similarly lets rip, sprouting flourishes and curlicues of melody in all directions. Even Jarvis’s lyrics jettison all traces of irony and pitch for heartfelt without worrying about overshooting:

You’re my friend, you’re my foe
You’re the miles left to go
You are everything I ever wanted
And you are my lover

After that, the album closes with “Morning song”, whose lyrics (in English) are by Gainsbourg herself; it’s either about falling in love with a ghost or about spending the night with an ex-lover, it doesn’t really matter which. All that matters at this point in the album is the still, trembling presence of Dunckel’s vibraphone and Gainsbourg’s half-whispering voice, gently promising or warning:

Ah, but to get to the morning, first you have to get through the night…

On the subject of Serge Gainsbourg, I’m pleased to report that What I wrote is now hosting the first in a series of extracts from the recollections of Sir Frederick William Jefferson Bodine, a man equally at home in theatreland, Hollywoodland and the Land of Green Ginger. In part 1 of his showbusiness memoir Remembering Judy Garland, Sir Frederick brings to life the Serge Gainsbourg he knew:

the uke had to go, for a start. The songs got a lot slower, and of course their lyrics had to be translated into French, pretty much in their entirety. Even then, they didn’t really take to him. Eventually I realised the name was giving us problems: we’d changed everything else, but Alfie was still going out with an English name. So out went ‘Khaki’ Gainsborough and in came ‘Serge’ Gainsbourg.

And more, much more than this.

Just like they said they would

There’s a point in some political arguments where opposition turns into personal antagonism, which itself is liable to turn into smouldering, resentful bitterness – normally I wouldn’t think anything of it, but seeing that he’s one of those people…. We’re lucky in this country – as compared with, say, the USA – that it’s very rare for people to view other people’s political allegiances as this kind of personal threat or affront. I’ve had Tory friends, and while I’m quite sure they thought I had idiotic and dangerous ideas, I never had any sense that they thought I was a dangerous idiot. (Is there an inverse correlation between levels of political activism and the tendency to take politics personally?)

There are exceptions, of course. The miners’ strike of 1984-5 was one; Ireland has often been another. I remember one day in 1988 when the office where I worked ground to a halt for a morning while we debated the ‘Death on the Rock’ shootings in Gibraltar – and Michael Stone’s attack on the victims’ funeral in Milltown cemetery. Everyone had an opinion – and a strong one, which coloured their view of anyone who disagreed. Not that many people did. The view with regard to Gibraltar was that the SAS commando were reacting on the spur of the moment to an imminent threat, and had no choice but to act as they did; I was in a minority of two in dissenting from this. The view with regard to Milltown, on the other hand, was that there were all kinds of murderous headcases on both sides, and Michael Stone might well have been working for the IRA to gain them public sympathy by making them look like victims. I was in a minority of two on this one as well, although I had a different fellow-dissenter this time. Things were a bit tense in that office for the next few days.

But not as tense as they must have been in a lot of other workplaces, a short hop from Holyhead. My other memory of 1988 is the New Statesman column which reprinted a poem in praise of Stone that was circulating in Loyalist areas of Northern Ireland – a broadsheet, really. It consisted mainly of a list of the various Sinn Fein worthies who were at the cemetery, each of them described as panicking, running away, soiling his pants and so forth as the noble Stone took them on. (A completely fanciful description, incidentally – Martin McGuinness for one reacted by heading towards Stone, showing what can only be called courage under fire.) The poem ended by apostrophising Stone:

Your brave deed today
Against Sinn Fein/IRA
Put you top of the heap – BOY YOU’RE GREAT!

Michael Stone was a folk hero in certain circles – a symbol of intransigent opposition to the ‘Shinners’. And this despite the fact that this symbol had not only attempted to murder McGuinness and Gerry Adams while they attended a funeral, but succeeded in killing three other mourners.

Eighteen years on, Stone is clearly a troubled man:

“Michael had become obsessed with the idea that the IRA were going to shoot him with the gun they captured from him [at Milltown] before any peace deal was finally concluded. That is why he turned against the Good Friday agreement after initially supporting it. He was totally paranoid and receiving treatment.”

“He saw a deal between the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein coming, and he believes there will not be a deal until he is dead. He has been trying to get put in jail for about the past nine months.”

There are two bitter ironies here. On one hand, Stone’s current state of mind isn’t a million miles from a rational response to his particular situation; if he is paranoid, he’s got more than most to be paranoid about. On the other, his current condition isn’t so far removed from a state of mind which – as that poem suggests – many people over many years have been quite happy to condone, even celebrate. Quoting from the same piece in the Times:

He wrote a book and launched a career as an artist, mainly based on his notoriety. The signature on the back of paintings was the print of his right index finger, which he told buyers was “Michael Stone’s trigger finger”.

It’s no problem, you can’t have it

Robert Skidelsky, author in 1975 of a rather nasty biography of Oswald Mosley (on which I’ve commented before & will do again), is going strong as a cross-bench peer and occasional newspaper commentator. Witness this piece in last Friday’s Indie:

The elements of a “whole Middle East” peace settlement are easy to see, though they will be hard to achieve. These elements include: a federal Iraq, with an agreed formula for sharing out the country’s oil resources between the three main provinces; a fully-independent Palestinian state roughly within the 1967 borders, with an internationally-patrolled demilitarised zone along Israel’s borders; a phased withdrawal of US forces from the Middle East in return for a guarantee of an uninterrupted oil supply; a nuclear free zone, without which Iran will never give up its nuclear ambitions (but Israel will have to give up its bomb as well); finally, a reactivation of the suspended customs union between Israel and Palestine, with a phased extension to Jordan and the Lebanon, and with a “Marshall Aid”-style programme to get it started, as happened in Europe in 1948.

Such ideas may seem crazily unrealistic. But sometimes crazy ideas are the only realistic ones: it is the cautious people who are the real crazies.

There’s a false opposition in that last sentence, or rather a dishonest and wishful conflation of two separate oppositions. I’m reminded of something Terry Eagleton wrote in the current LRB:

the fixed is not necessarily to be regretted, or the fluid to be celebrated. Capitalism is endlessly fluid, whereas the demand that the Israelis stop mistreating the Palestinians should be unwavering. The belief that the malleable is always preferable to the immovable is a postmodern cliché. There is a good deal about human history which ought not to alter (educating our children, for example), and quite a lot of change which is deeply undesirable. Change and permanence are not related to each other as radicalism is to conservatism.

The opposition between change and continuity is not the same thing as the opposition between the cause of righting injustices and the cause of preserving them – and it doesn’t do anyone any favours to pretend that it is the same thing, unless there’s anyone whose interests are served by confusion. Similarly, the opposition between radicalism and caution is not the same thing as the opposition between what can realistically be achieved and what can’t. Boldness of vision may be a political virtue (the Skidelsky who worshipped at the shrine of Mosley certainly thought it was) but boldness alone doesn’t overrule reality. On the contrary, the truly bold vision is the one which identifies a real opportunity for change and formulates it in way that makes it realisable. The true critique of political caution, in some historical conditions, is precisely that it isn’t adequate to reality.

But those conditions can’t be conjured by an act of philosophical will – or by the exercise of imperial force. Under current conditions, Skidelsky’s ‘crazily unrealistic’ ideas suggest nothing so much as a longing for somebody – or a lot of uniformed somebodies – to get stuck in and cut the knot of rebarbative reality. But the point is not to erase our starting conditions but to work within them. Debord had it right, again: “A critique seeking to go beyond the spectacle must know how to wait.”

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