The People Died
Wednesday, 30 September 2020 07:23

The People Died

Published in Poetry

Karl Parkinson presents The People Died, published in his recent collection Sacred Symphony (Culture Matters)

The poem has been made into a video by poet and videographer Dave Lordan, and performed by myself. It's a danse macabre, an avant-garde videopoem for the 21st century that looks back on the poetic tradition, and to our present situation.

I received an Arts Council Covid-19 response award, to make spoken word video poetry for people during the pandemic, and this is one of the pieces I made. It was sparked off from listening to Puerto Rican Obituary by Pedro Pietri, and with the phrase the people died running through my head, I went on a poetic run, adding more lines and extending the poem with relevant unpublished pieces I had, resulting in a ten page poem. Please share.

If you would like to read the text of this and other recent poems, you can buy Sacred Symphony here.    

Rethinking the kind of culture we want
Wednesday, 30 September 2020 07:23

Rethinking the kind of culture we want

Published in Cultural Commentary

Theresa Easton, Northern Organiser for Artists' Union England, shows how the Covid crisis should be tackled by applying the principles of cultural democracy. The image above is by David Shrigley

The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the cracks in the arts sector, which is supported by a freelance workforce that has few employment rights and protections. Many supplement their poorly paid freelance art practice with part-time jobs, zero-hour contract work and precarious, casual employment. Artists’ average annual income from their art is only around £6,000.

The lockdown resulted in all work being halted. Members of Artists’ Union England have reported that all exhibitions, projects, and commissions were abandoned, delayed indefinitely or cancelled.  Government support packages excluded many artists – because so many artists are forced to seek other kinds of paid work, they fall outside the government’s categories for self-employment. So many artists have been forced to sign on to the pitifully inadequate Universal Credit scheme.

Arts Council England’s emergency financial support of £20 million for creatives turned into a lottery.  Keep it Complex, an artist-run group of cultural workers described the response from ACE as ‘business as usual’, creating competition between cash-strapped freelancers in a time of crisis. Keep it Complex kicked back against ACE’s proposal, organising artists into syndicates, working collaboratively to share any winnings. AUE recently launched its Solidarity Fund to support those in financial hardship, supported by artists contributing some of the proceeds from sales of their work.

Overall support from government for freelance and self-employed artists has been inadequate, with many falling into debt, struggling to pay bills and worrying about the future. 

The announcement of a ‘rescue package’ for arts, culture and heritage has been launched to much fanfare. Typically, comments from Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden about preserving the ‘crown jewels’ of the arts sector, along with similar statements from Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, have revealed the limits of ministers’ understanding of the arts, and their inability to look beyond buildings and institutions.

There is only 7% grant support for freelancers to apply for, after larger institutions take their cut of the pie from an allocated grants budget of £880 million. Some of these institutions are currently making staff redundant while receiving handouts from government. 

Tackling precarious employment in the arts

So what are the answers to this crisis? One suggestion from one of our members to tackle a long-standing problem was for more equity in spending between London and the rest of the country. The arts and culture are not funded adequately or fairly, and so have become irrelevant to many people’s lives – particularly outside London and in less well-off communities everywhere.

Trade unionists from Yorkshire and Humberside TUC have highlighted “the disparity of DCMS and Arts Council England funding, at £69 per head for Londoners and £4.58 per head for the rest of England”. Investment in the arts, they argue, should not be driven by economic considerations, but by its social benefits, and it should be accountable to local communities, not imposed on them.

We need to tackle precarious employment in the arts sector. A group of Northern based AUE members have been working on a charter of minimum standards of employment for visual arts freelancers working in the sector, which needs to be widely promoted and adopted by employers. 

Work in the creative and cultural industries should be accessible and feasible for everyone. But there is plenty of evidence that the precarity of contract work, the informal networks of institutional gatekeepers, and discrimination on the basis of class and race make it harder for people from working-class and BAME communities to access and progress equally in the arts and culture sector.

Working-class voices and experiences are increasingly absent from the professional arts sector. The most recent official analysis of employment in the cultural sector finds only 13% working in the sector to be from working-class backgrounds. Social mobility in the arts, as in many other areas of British life, has stalled.

The fundamental problem is that years of cuts to local authorities, austerity, and ongoing privatisation have created a sector with an unsustainable, capitalist business model. It relies far too heavily on commercialisation, corporate sponsorship and market forces to fund people’s cultural experiences. But the arts and culture, like health and education, are just too important to be left to the market.

The pandemic has meant that institutions are struggling to cover building costs and management roles, while cutting the jobs of creative workers. And the reality is that apart from TV and cinemas, most people have limited access to the arts, both as consumers and as creative workers.

Shared ownership and control

So Covid-19 is also a chance for us all to rethink what kind of culture we want. 

It's time to radically change the way that cultural provision is planned, managed and delivered. Democratic principles of shared ownership and control need to be applied.

We need a radical rebalancing of provision towards less well-off communities. Local authorities and communities need the funding and power to develop culture hubs which can stimulate and encourage local cultural production. We need democratic accountability of cultural institutions.

Finally, there needs to be close involvement of trade unions in the strategic planning and delivery of cultural experiences, so that working people, both as producers and consumers of culture, have fair access to all the benefits that the arts and culture can deliver.

Artists’ Union England is a relatively new trade union representing visual artists which emerged from the 2012 anti-austerity and anti-cuts movement. The trade union is a grassroots, members-led organisation campaigning for better working conditions, pay and equality in the arts sector.  This article is the latest in the series of articles on Covid-19 and culture, jointly published with the Morning Star.

Free culture in the time of the virus
Wednesday, 30 September 2020 07:23

Free culture in the time of the virus

Published in Cultural Commentary

Adam Stoneman explains how the Covid crisis is an opportunity to share digital cultural experiences more freely. The image above is 'Hands', by Theresa Easton

Kneeling on Mount Alvernia in prayer, hands and feet freshly pierced with stigmata, St. Francis faces the apparition of Christ. Zoom in and you see his eyes fixed in stoic determination, lines of flesh in furrowed brow, a body transcending mortal pain. Zoom in further and spidery lines of cracked paint appear, flecked and damaged. Zoom in further still until shimmering waves of light disturb the vision; rows and rows of LEDs break the surface. Zoom out, blink and rub your eyes, sit back in your chair.

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During the long days and nights of lockdown, many of us reached through our screens for culture, quenching our emotional and intellectual thirst in isolation. Museums and galleries published virtual exhibitions and tours (you can see St. Francis in glorious macrophotography as part of a virtual Van Eyck exhibition); theatres and opera houses streamed archive performances; JSTOR expanded free access; the Internet Archive created a National Emergency Library of free e-books. UNESCO, which launched a #ShareCulture campaign to promote online exhibitions of world heritage sites, proclaimed that culture must be “accessible to all, and that the full diversity of humanity’s cultural expressions can flourish, both online and offline.” The proliferation of initiatives like this during lockdown arose from a recognition of the important role that art plays in sustaining us and the universal right to culture.

Knowledge, art and culture held in common

Despite the limitations of experiencing certain forms of culture through digital interfaces, along with the individualised nature of online engagement, digital access to art is enriching. From the confines of our houses, access to performances, films and music was a lifeline to a world of ideas and emotions that helped to guard against the darkness of isolation. The sharing and free access to digital culture during the lockdown provided a glimpse of a future in which knowledge and art are shared freely and in common.

Throughout the first few months of the lockdown, most moves to extend free access to online culture were billed as temporary, ‘emergency’ measures in response to the crisis and most have since ended as institutions have opened up again. Emergency or not, copyright holders were not slow to act when they felt their intellectual property was being infringed. The Internet Archive’s free library of e-books was shut down after only a few weeks on threat of a lawsuit from publishers.

As with changes to remote working, the extension of access to digital culture is unlikely to disappear now that it has been established. Though the crisis has accelerated the trend, digitising and opening up collections had started long before the virus struck (Europeana, for example, is an online platform that hosts over 10 million cultural artefacts from 3,000 European institutions for educational and non-commercial use). The question is how expanded digital access can be integrated within a rehabilitated cultural sector. Facing a cultural industry ravaged by the virus, if not quite a “cultural wasteland”, institutions are under enormous pressure to increase revenue, and subscription and paywall models are already being trialled. The Met Opera in New York, which had streamed archive performances for free during lockdown, is now testing a pay per view model.

The success of Netflix - now worth more than Exxon - and other streaming platforms is held up as a model for emulation. But the commercial logic of algorithmically designed streaming services like Netflix and Spotify privilege certain forms of culture to the detriment of others. Streaming is predicated on high consumption ‘binging’ and repeated playbacks and therefore trades better in mood and affect than intellectually demanding culture. At local, regional and national level, public funding can provide artists with patronage that breaks from a commercial logic, allowing more radical and challenging forms of culture to emerge. Digital culture must not be beholden to the laws of the algorithm - the Netflixification of culture needs to be resisted.

It is clear the Covid-19 crisis will be used by corporate interests as an opportunity to further entrench the neoliberal privatisation of the cultural sector. The Southbank Centre recently announced plans to make 400 of its 577 staff redundant this week and when it reopens in 2021, to model itself on a start-up enterprise, with 90% of its spaces for rent and only 10% for art. While these moves must be resisted, there is the opportunity to go further, to strengthen and extend public funding and democratise access to and participation in the arts. Indeed, this pandemic has helped arguments for a publicly funded cultural sector. The model of private arts funding dominant in the United States, in which institutions rely on philanthropy and earned income rather than government funding, has left cultural institutions especially vulnerable; the American Alliance of Museums reported to Congress in March that as many as a third of museums could fail to reopen their doors - compared with one in ten globally.

Reward the artists, not the shareholders

Rather than finding new ways of monetising digital culture, our recent collective experience of free online art can lead to fundamental questions about access and ownership. Copyright is usually framed in terms of the individual artist or author; in practice, copyright is typically ceded to publishers or studios, who exercise these powers and get most of the benefits, sharing only a small portion with the creator. It is usually publishers that lobby to increase copyright powers. Yet corporations spin and hide behind the image of the penurious artist to defend their extraordinary profit ratios. It is not illegal file sharing that has increased that has made the cultural sector so precarious, but a system which rewards the shareholders of Spotify while the company pays artists as little as $0.0032 per play.

The paradigm of free digital culture can challenge and expose the lie of neoliberalism. The internet has opened up new possibilities for cultural exchange, both in terms of sharing existing content and also finding platforms for one's own work that are not mediated by institutions or corporations. The persistent popularity of file sharing networks demonstrates a social desire to share and exchange culture; as filmmaker Shekhar Kapur quipped, "In India we see copyright as the right to copy".

Cultural producers organising as part of the labour movement can ensure the post-pandemic cultural landscape is one in which artists earn a decent and secure living. In France the system of financial support for artists and technicians, known as intermittents du spectacle, has just been extended into 2021, despite years of government attempts to end it (after one such attempt in 2003 actors and technicians went on strike, leading to the cancellation of a major festival in Avignon and sacking of the culture minister). The artists' unemployment insurance system, paid for by employers and workers' contributions, an artist or technician must work for a certain number of hours during high season to gain benefits for the fallow periods between intermittent contracts. Models such as this can be taken up by artists’ unions to shift the balance of power back towards artists and cultural producers.

Free access to digital culture need not threaten cultural producers; digital culture is not a replacement for the physical experience of art but complements and enhances it. Rather than build walls around online culture and knowledge, we must work on expanding free access. Let the harm of the pandemic spur us to build a society in which culture and knowledge are freely shared in common.

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A lesser evil
Wednesday, 30 September 2020 07:23

A lesser evil

Published in Fiction

13th October 2040

Dear Richard,

I know it must be weird and more than slightly disturbing to receive a ‘letter from beyond the grave’, but I trust you won’t be seriously spooked by it, not after all those years as a hospital doctor like me and some of the strange, last-minute revelations we both got to hear from time to time. I’m writing because I have something to tell you which I’ve never spoken of to anyone else although it has been on my conscience for the past twenty years and I’ve been half-minded to tell you about it many times.

The whole thing will probably come as a bit of a shocker and I leave it to you whether or not to make the story more widely known. I still feel justified in what I did and hope that you’ll agree in thinking it was for the best, everything considered. You’ve been a great friend through various thicks and thins over the years and I hope – really hope – this won’t lead you to change your opinion of me or make you wish we’d never met.

I shall lay out the facts as ‘objectively’ as I can but will need to bring in some stuff about how my mind was working at the time in question and what sorts of moral consideration came into play. You took that ‘Medical Ethics’ course with me when we qualified back in the day so maybe the moral philosophy bits won’t seem quite so dry and unappealing. Some of it did strike us both that way at the time but the topics came back to me and really helped to clarify my thoughts during the short period – just a couple of days in 2020 – that I want to talk about here. Anyway my blessings on you, friend, and I sincerely hope that being singled out for receipt of this ghostly communication won’t prove too burdensome or curse-like a privilege.   

******

They brought him in around 3 a.m. with lots of security and a flurry of medics and senior admin people, all trying to look calm and commanding on their home terrain, but constantly jostled by the bodyguards if they got too close. None of the usual signing-in stuff, the standard formalities or pleasantries. Straight off to Intensive Care it was, with me following on since that was my ward and we’d had advance notice that a ‘special patient’ was about to come in, someone with advanced symptoms and a severe lung infection.

I’d not thought any more about it – too many other cases to cope with, quite a few of them just as bad – until he actually turned up and I realised who it was. No mistaking him then, even looking like that, clearly in a very bad way, what with constantly fighting to breathe and the wild, frightened eyes of someone who’s been in denial for days but now knows it’s for real. For the rest of that night-shift I just got on with it, looked in on him twice but had more to do with the other patients. Besides, they seemed to have drafted in a small team of unfamiliar medical staff, specially trained maybe, who were always in and out of his side-room. Just as well – us regulars had our hands more than full.

This was all twenty years ago and I don’t now have any detailed memory of what happened over the next two days, or exactly what stages my thinking went through before I reached my decision. There was one conversation I do recall having in the hospital canteen during the evening after the night of his admission. It was with two friends, both nurses, one male and one female, and they were talking about a bunch of related topics – the pandemic, the NHS as it then was, the government cutbacks, their likely effect on our ability to cope with the crisis, that sort of thing.

I started off just lending half an ear and thinking more about how tired I felt, having slept very patchily during the day and not made up for several days’ cumulative deficit. What drew me in was their brief but lively discussion of where the blame lay, how ‘he’ – the guy lying upstairs in our ward with all those tubes and pipes and monitors attached, all those doctors and nurses looking after him – was one of those Tories who had hugely worsened this crisis, who’d cut public spending to the bone, privatised whole chunks of the NHS, flogged them off to their fat-cat friends, and were even then planning to cut a huge deal with US Big Pharma. Their talk stopped there, with both of them expressing their anger but not drawing conclusions, not suggesting there was anything we could do. . . . I had to go back on my rounds then but the talk had set me thinking and I needed more time to sort my thoughts out.

I’d next be working on Intensive Care the following night and one of my assignments given the shortage of staff was to check his oxygen levels, make sure his respiration wasn’t too spasmodic or effortful, and run all the usual measurements – pulse, temperature, and so forth. It was routine stuff, if anything could really be called ‘routine’ in those crazy times, but of course we were all very aware of those jumpy-looking security people and there was no pretending, management pretences aside, that he was Joe Public and to be treated on a par with everyone else.

Maybe that’s what first really got to me, the sense of how unjust it was, how monstrous, that a man like that, a creature of wealth and privilege who’d done such harm to the country and would soon very likely go on to do a whole lot more, should now have this ultra-special treatment while thousands of others fought for their lives in hospitals, homes and social conditions severely impacted by policies like his. And then I thought, or the thought came to me: what had I learnt from those few classes in medical ethics that we went through as part of our training? Is the issue quite as clear as surely it ought to be if the Hippocratic Oath has the kind of straightforward, unambiguous force it’s meant to have, according to longstanding tradition and present-day orthodoxy?

I slept intermittently the next day, waking up each time with a sense that I’d been churning things over in my sleep, coming up against the barrier of something unthinkable, and jolting awake with the urgent desire to sort myself out. I remembered enough of the medical ethics stuff to know pretty much what the big questions were and what kinds of answer they’d received from people who appeared to have a good grasp of them. There was the debate around ‘causing death and letting die’, the difference (which most people think is a real one) between actively or deliberately killing somebody and omitting to save his or her life, whether through negligence or refusal to intervene. That’s ‘most people’ in a broad sense, by the way, not ‘most philosophers’ or ‘most people who’ve done a few classes in medical ethics’. They often got into a bit of trouble when asked to justify their view but the intuition ran deep and there were arguments to support it.

I thought: would letting this man die be morally unacceptable given how much harm he has done to so many lives, not to mention how many people have died during the pandemic as a result of his incompetence, indolence, arrogance, and downright wickedness? And given the prospect of his otherwise surviving, remaining in office and inflicting future harm on even greater scale? The more I thought about it the less monstrous it seemed, the idea of (as orthodoxy would have it) betraying my medical vocation, my professional duty, and indeed the basic principles of right conduct enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath.

But then: might there not be another, more specific reason for believing that Oath to have more than one interpretation and for thinking that it could – on a longer, larger, you might say more socially responsible view – suggest a very different view of things? Again, I kept running through the arguments and counter-arguments and kept coming up against the same obstacle. On the one hand I couldn’t overcome the feeling that failure of care toward any patient – for that matter, any human individual whose well-being or very survival depended on it – must be morally as well as, in my case, professionally and legally wrong. That means a strict, no-exception understanding of the Oath and a belief that acts of omission are morally as culpable as – or fully on a par with – acts of commission whenever those acts knowingly entail or might foreseeably cause harm to another person.

On the other hand the person in question here was one whose future life, if his record to date was anything to go by, would be spent doing harm to a great many people in a great many ways, among them people placed in his own desperately needful situation but enjoying nothing like his advantages of power, wealth, and unearned social privilege. On this view the Oath could be justifiably be taken to allow for the sort of case where a medical worker in my position reviewed his choices, consulted his conscience, and decided that an act of omission – involving, say, the patient’s breathing apparatus or some other vital arrangement – was morally in order. It took me many hours of concentrated, sometimes agonised conscience-searching to work myself around from the first to the second way of thinking.

Another thing I learned from that medical ethics class was the difference between deontic and consequentialist accounts of moral responsibility. The deontic view, simply stated, is that there exist certain absolute moral imperatives, that they have to do with unconditional rights and wrongs, that they are strictly universal (hold good across all situations, cultures, or belief-systems), and that departures from them admit of no exculpatory factors, such as pleas in mitigation or extenuating circumstances. This position tends to go along with an abstractly high-minded morality and a punitive attitude in matters of legal or judicial practice. This follows from the fact that deontic ethics makes the reasoning individual and his or her conscience, motives or deliberations the ultimate arbiters of right and wrong. It leaves them without any recourse beyond that universalist tribunal, no leeway to claim ‘I did it for the greater good, even though it involved an acknowledged lesser harm and even if that harm would count as grievous on a deontic account’.

The other main approach – flatly opposed in most ways – is the consequentialist view whereby motives will (indeed must) come into it although what really matter are the consequences of an action, its outcome in terms of overall benefits to those concerned, or those whose lives would be adversely affected by the agent’s choice not having gone that way. If anything, this puts greater strain on the agent’s conscience or their effort to think through a complex situation because they can’t fall back on the routine application of pre-existing rules. But it allows them scope to steer a conscientious way around the deontic call for actions or choices that might be so rule-bound, counter-intuitive, or repugnant as to leave them feeling utterly revolted by their own ‘principled’ conduct.

This is all very heavy and not what you’d expect from me, even in a letter written, as I hate to say (such a cliché, for one thing) ‘at death’s door’. But it’s stuff we both heard about and then promptly forgot, me at least, since on the whole – in the normal run of cases – we had few choices but got on and did our jobs the best we could do and left hard cases to the guys on the ethics committee, or (more often than most people realise) to medics and relatives in an urgent huddle over some poor suffering soul. But then it all came back, that ethics stuff, when I found myself faced with a real choice and one that left behind any rule-book, moral or professional, for dealing with hard cases. I’ve said how my thinking went in that terrible time and you’ll certainly have figured out by now which way I decided. Still I’d better be a bit more explicit about it in case the choice I made might appear too quick or straightforward.

I didn’t want to fall back on the idea that omissions are less blameworthy than commissions since I took full responsibility for not performing certain of my professionally and (on the narrow view) ethical responsibilities. To pretend otherwise would be to shuffle off any burden of guilt by effectively declaring myself not fully accountable for my action and hence unfit to exercise any kind of genuine moral agency. No: my omission was a full-fledged commission and subject to no such get-out clause. Where I did part company with what many people would no doubt think my plain moral obligation was with regard to both the interpretative scope of the Hippocratic Oath and – closely related to that – the deontic versus consequentialist debate.

They are related because the Oath is mostly read, in broadly deontic terms, as addressed to the individual doctor’s or medical worker’s conscience and as bearing primarily on their obligation to the patient, likewise conceived as an individual bearer of certain strictly inalienable rights. I agree with this view in so far as it applies to persons as persons, that is, as individuals conceived quite distinct from certain roles they may play in contexts – like that of politics – where their beliefs, policies, and actions can have consequences far beyond the private-personal-individual sphere. Shifting from one perspective to the other entails some large changes of moral reckoning, among them the shift from a strongly individualist or person-centred to a longer-range, more socially responsive and collectivist view.

Along with that goes a much greater emphasis on the weighing-up of bad against good consequences, a process that has the beneficial effect of bringing us rapidly down to earth from the abstract universals of deontic precept. In simpler terms: when times are bad or perilous, as they were twenty years ago when all this happened, then it may be commendable to act on the maxim ‘do whatever serves to create the best outcome or cause least suffering to the greatest number’. This might entail an action at odds with some more specific rule, such as ‘act always in the interests of the patient and, above all, for the preservation of his or her life’. Then the consequentialist is entitled to reply ‘but that precept may be suspended or overridden if the result of its strict application is to bring about the kinds of larger-scale social or collective harm that will, very likely, follow from its being applied without reference to context or consequences. And there is another point here about the agent’s motives and the conception of justice they involve. For it is in no sense a retributivist conception, one that conceives the act as a right and proper punishment, whether exacted by the agent as self-appointed minister or carried out in their (again self-appointed) role as instrument of justice in its social or communal form. Rather, the act is performed purely for the sake of averting bad – humanly undesirable – consequences, and not out of any hankering for retribution, for payback time, or any such punitive aim.

Of course my assessment of the situation took account of the man’s character, his many amply documented vices and weaknesses, as well as his proven record of incompetence in office and the effect of an Eton-Oxford education in bolstering his native arrogance and strongly marked sociopathic traits. After all those considerations had a lot to do with the case – the strictly consequentialist case – for what had by now become something very like a fixed intention to act according to my new-found ethical lights. But, equally important, they didn’t involve any idea of his having deserved such treatment at my hands, or his having behaved in such a way that punishment of this sort is justified. Consequentialism applies more than anywhere in the context of political judgement since here we are concerned with the consequences for better or worse in a great many lives when individual politicians with great power in their hands enact policies that impinge directly on those lives.

So you can’t exclude assessments of moral character from a consequentialist reckoning but you can – and must – be absolutely clear that any practical conclusions arrived at have nothing to do with just desert, retribution, or other such punitive concepts. I won’t pretend that all this reasoning went through my mind during those incredibly stressful and often, to be honest, horribly confusing times. I’m doing a sort of rational reconstruction, arranging my thoughts so far as I recall them into something like an ordered sequence. But of one thing I’m certain: that I somehow made the journey from thinking it monstrous, that idea of mine, to thinking it not just compatible with but actually required by my ethical and professional commitments.

I know it’s the biggest of asks to send you this letter now, when I’m safely beyond worrying, and leave you stuck with the decision whether or not to make the facts public. Believe me, you’re the only person I could possibly have trusted to take it on, both on account of our shared medical background and our friendship having held up so strongly over the years. Besides, there were times after the event when we talked about related matters – politics, ethics, social justice, and of course the NHS, still there now in more than name despite all those decades of chipping away by Tories, fat cats, Branson-style carpetbaggers, assorted rippers-off and US Big Pharma.

Once or twice I almost let slip what had happened, or perhaps did let it slip when the drinks had loosened my tongue and slightly befuddled your brain. Perhaps it won’t come as such a huge surprise or shock after all. Let me say, in case you’re wondering: I do feel regret that it fell to me, at that time and in that situation, to make the choice that has since weighed heavily upon me and occasioned many moments of painful, even guilty recollection. But let me also say that when I manage to focus and think things through once again, as I did during those extraordinary days, then the regret comes apart from the guilt and my conscience arrives at the same conclusion.

Goodbye, my old friend.

 

Giovanni Boccaccio, writing at a time of plague
Wednesday, 30 September 2020 07:23

Giovanni Boccaccio, writing at a time of plague

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell gives the historical background to Boccaccio's work

The Black Plague was the most devastating pandemic ever recorded, resulting in the deaths of between 75-125 million people. It peaked in Europe between 1347 and 1351, having come on Italian merchant ships from Asia via the Silk Road. In fact, the idea of quarantine originates in plague-stricken 14th century Italy, when ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to wait offshore for 40 days before docking. The word quarantine derives from the Italian quaranta giorni, 40 days.

The Italian territories were the cradle of early capitalism. Lombardy and Tuscany were the most advanced cities. Trade and industry developed here in the 13th century, favoured by their trade routes to the Orient. Venice had possessions in Greece, Crete, Cyprus and on the Dalmatian coast. Venetian ships called at European ports, and Venetian ducats became an international currency. With 200,000 inhabitants, the city had a surprisingly large population.

The social order of the Venetian state was determined by its economic interests and the nobility, so its constitution remained aristocratic. This was different in Florence, the second most powerful city in Italy. Florence had a constitution since 1293, which excluded the nobility from the government and transferred its administration exclusively to the patricians. Its council, however, excluded small craftsmen and the common people. At that time, Florence was unique in Europe for a constitution based on bourgeois democratic principles.

This newly developing society brought with great changes in the way people understood the world and their place in it. In the arts, the humanists of this early Renaissance began to rediscover the books and art of the ancients, their focus on this world, the world that the new class, the bourgeoisie, were about to take on. This new focus on the merchants, artisans, patricians brought with it the growing importance of their vernacular. Dante (c. 1265 – 1321), who represents the transition from medieval to Renaissance writing, penned his “Divine Comedy” (1308–21) not in Latin, as might have been expected of a work of this scope at the time, but in Tuscan or Florentine Italian, which helped make that dialect the standard one for Italy. Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 - 1375), following Dante, are firmly established Renaissance writers, both of them also writing in the Florentine dialect.

Writing during the Plague

Boccaccio witnessed these momentous times and gave the world one of its most well-known and widely read books, “The Decameron”. This is a book written and set during the Plague and its introduction and frame story bring it to life. Given the present circumstances, I’ll refrain from delving into the gruesome details of Boccaccio’s introduction, but leave this to the interested reader to do for themselves.

The idea of a great many stories collected within a frame story was not altogether new. Centuries earlier, the Middle East had produced “One Thousand and One Nights” (in Arabic alf layla wa layla), the earliest manuscripts of which date back to the 9th century. These reflect a different kind of society, a feudal society, and yet they do this with as much vividness and cheekiness as Boccaccio would describe his world. The Persian poet Hafez (1315-1390), on the other hand, wrote satirical and love poetry that finds a parallel in Petrarca.

Boccaccio’s frame story goes like this: ten wealthy young people leave Florence in order to escape the plague, moving to a country villa, not without with some servants. They decide that they shall each rule for a day and preside over a set time every afternoon, when each one tells a story on a different theme. What unfolds is a panorama of 14th century Florentine life, with some of the stories told originating in different cultures. With Dante’s Divine Comedy in mind, Boccaccio’s has been called a Human Comedy. Many of the stories satirise clerical lust and greed, the adventures of traveling merchants – and their wives at home, tensions between the new wealthy commercial class and noble families. Quite a few of the stories are explicitly sexual. However, while this doubtlessly contributed to the book’s enormous popularity, it would be wrong to reduce the book to just its sexual theme.

In fact, it became a rich source for writers of world literature. One example is the third story of the first day, a story with origins preceding Boccaccio. The great German Enlightenment poet Lessing discovered the story and based his famous play “Nathan the Wise” on it. This play about the equal value of all religions and cultures was the first play staged in many German theatres after World War II.

The fifth story on the fourth day is the source for Keats’s poem “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil”, a poem about which Shaw said that had Marx written a poem instead of Capital, it would have been this.

All this said, it does not do the work justice either to simply view it as a repository. In fact, the way in which it was most richly emulated was by Geoffrey Chaucer in his “Canterbury Tales”. Chaucer had visited Italy on royal business and was very well read. His marvellous Tales, written between 1387 and 1400, take from Boccaccio the idea of a frame story – the ride from London to Canterbury with thirty pilgrims telling stories to pass the time. Indeed, they are similar in their often bawdy content and satire of the clergy.

The Canterbury PilgrimsPAINTINGSpaintingBlake, William (1757 - 1827, English)  Painting entitled 'The Canterbury Pilgrims', by William BlakePC.89

Canterbury Pilgrims, by William Blake

Yet there is a difference. Chaucer’s pilgrims come from three distinct classes of society (the nobility, the clergy and the common people), and all are more concerned with worldly things than spiritual concerns. Had Chaucer completed this project of thirty pilgrims telling two stories each on the way to Canterbury and two again on the way back, we would now have 120 stories. It was a very ambitious project, one Chaucer could not complete. He finished 24 of them, and others have come down in fragments. Nevertheless, the tales we do have paint a similarly vivid picture of 14th century England as Boccaccio’s do of Florence. And while it took the plague to unite the young Florentines in their country refuge, here it is the pilgrimage that unites these diverse English to be in the same place at the same time.

Writing in the language of the people

Chaucer’s plan differs from Boccaccio’s also in that the prologues to the tales characterise the teller of the story in detail, in particular linguistically. As pointed out, these come from the spectrum of classes in medieval England. For example, the Wife of Bath uses only Germanic adjectives, while the Prioress uses mainly adjectives with a French etymology, reflecting on the one hand a person from the ordinary people, on the other a woman from a noble background.

Like Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio, Chaucer wrote his masterpiece in the vernacular. It is hard to imagine today just what a new departure this represented. For over 300 years, since the Norman invasion of 1066, English had not been spoken by the nobility, the upper classes in England. English, specifically Anglo-Saxon, was kept alive by the common people of England as their vernacular. Given that this was no longer a language of education, reading, etc, the English language developed like wildfire over the historically very short period of 300 years into Middle English, a form of the language that we can still understand, with some effort.

The “Canterbury Tales” is the first great work of English literature, establishing the artistic legitimacy of vernacular Middle English, as opposed to French or Latin. At around the same time, John Wycliffe, a very early religious reformer, translated the Bible into vernacular English (1384). This challenge to Latin as the language of God was considered a revolutionary act at the time, and the Church banned the translation. Access to the Bible in the vernacular was key to the Peasant Revolt of 1381, where one of the leaders, John Ball, asked in a sermon: “When Adam delved and Eva span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created equal.”

The vernacular was crucial for social change. Using it meant identifying with the people, it meant standing up to an elitist and exclusive ruling class and empowering the people to understand the injustice of their situation, thus giving them a prospect for change. This use of the language of the people, which the Renaissance brings us, is deeply connected with the struggle for a new era.

Poetry, Politics, Pandemics and Washing Hands
Wednesday, 30 September 2020 07:23

Poetry, Politics, Pandemics and Washing Hands

Published in Cultural Commentary

Sally Flint looks at the state of poetry, continuing the joint series with the Morning Star on the cultural fallout of Covid-19. The photo by Jasbat Malhi is of Dr. Rahat Indor performing in Tagore

History shows that catastrophes, conflicts, traumas and protests provoke poets to write, and that the most insightful poems survive because they contain a universal truth connected to the human condition. So how are poets dealing with disease, death and often contradictory political rhetoric in a world that has suddenly and unexpectedly locked-down our lives – a place where we’re clearly not ‘all in this together’?

However, as the virus spreads there are multiple windows opening, especially related to online technology. Poets are used to connecting things in their heads though, pinning down what Coleridge describes as a poem being, ‘the best words in the best order’; they are well practised in staying focused to search out and unravel the truth.

For example, there are poets taking purposeful walks to scrutinise nearby cemeteries, researching past flu epidemics, noticing signs in newly barricaded shops, and empty public spaces. Poets are asking what matters most to friends and families, what ‘isolation’ means, and what Covid-19 is doing to the poor and BAME communities, imagining alternatives and what happens next for humanity as a whole.

As riots spread across the USA, and marches across other capital cities take off, it shows that while the proletariat can be contained by a life-threatening virus for the common good, they can’t be by the horrific murder of a black man by a policeman on the side of a road in Minnesota, witnessed on screens in homes around the world.

Poets are always on the lookout to connect narrative threads – as storytellers they are alert to ‘plot holes’, and can capture injustice in a few words. It’s why Jeremy Corbyn used poems to great effect, reading Wilfred Owens’ ‘Futility’ on Remembrance Day in 2015 and often quoting Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ to drive home a political message, for us to ‘to rise up like lions’. Poet Laureates Simon Armitage and Carol Anne Duffy are also showing showing that poetry is not about privilege or elitism.

Simon Armitage performing 'Lockdown'

We stand united on a precipice unlike any other time, where capitalism is exploiting but not providing for the many. There are new voices and imaginations needing to be heard, and brave new poetry editors who are poised to publish challenging writing. Spiteful, confusing tweets and blogs may come and go, but meaningful poems that reflect the strengths and vulnerabilities of the human condition have the potential to drive positive change and endure. Websites and publishers like Culture Matters can get key messages across quickly and effectively, just as a virus spreads.

Poets’ imaginations will be fired up as more stories emerge out of this pandemic, and political falsehoods will link in creative minds. We will be watching to see if the homeless are back on to the streets this time next year, if health and social care workers receive a pay rise, and whether the newly unemployed desperately chasing poorly paid and precarious jobs remain indebted to private landlords. While politicians and the press turn blind eyes, poets will continue to write and scrutinise the ‘new normal’ in a quest for the truth.

It seems few of us will see out this virus unscathed, but it’s the workers – especially the struggling, less well-off workers who need to be remembered and supported most by progressive politics and progressive political poetry.

Over a decade ago, in her poem ‘Indoors’, the late Eavan Boland writes, as if forecasting Covid-19:

So it was above our neighbourhood, the world straightening
under wings, the noise of discord
clearly audible, the hinterland reaching to the sea,
its skin a map of wounds, its history a treatise of infections.

In a ‘second wave’ of Covid flooding the planet, poets will be peeling back the skin to see what lies beneath, to show among other things how politicians have handled this crisis – or washed their hands of it.
As June Jordan said, ‘Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.’ A body of politically driven and socially relevant poetry will surely grow out of this pandemic. It will continue to reach out in protest, anger, sadness and compassion, and touch even the hardest of rich and powerful capitalist hearts, so we can all move towards a greener, kinder, safer and more equal, truthful future.

Will post-pandemic poetry be like this? Steve Pottinger performing a recent poem of his.

Ravers 4 Justice
Wednesday, 30 September 2020 07:23

From Seoul to Detroit: Techno Amidst Protest and Pandemic

Published in Music

John R. Eperjesi outlines the connections between techno, COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter. The article is in memory of Mike Huckaby

 So we make music. We make music about who we are and where we’re from. - Jeff Mills

We need images of tomorrow; and our people need them more than most. - Samuel Delany

Techno music is global music. Every city around the world, big or small, has a techno scene, and there are more than a few countryside techno crews out there. Seoul’s vibrant underground techno culture was recently on display, literally, with the online streaming event “VFV Club” (www.vfvclub.live/about), which brought together 22 DJs from the city’s three underground techno clubs, Vurt, Faust, and Volnost, giving people who tuned in from around the world some much-needed machine music to help them get through the coronavirus pandemic, while donations helped struggling artists and venue owners earn some desperately-needed income.

JE1 Club Directors

Club Directors: Yoojun (Vurt), Marcus L (Faust), Jungtak Moon (Volnost)

But while techno is now global, this music first emerged in the early 1980s in local African American communities in and around Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is a predominantly black post-industrial city that is still recovering from the flight of well-paying auto industry jobs, first to the white suburbs starting in the 1950s, and then overseas. Population and job loss, combined with racist segregation and job discrimination, has resulted in racialized patterns of inequality in which black people experience significantly higher rates of poverty and unemployment. Economic inequality, combined with underfunded public schools, health and other social services, has made cities like Detroit especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

And yet despite all of this, African Americans from Detroit created one of the most exciting and important genres of music to emerge in the past 40 years. A recent viral YouTube video (above) shows a motley crew of Black Lives Matter protesters in Detroit marching and chanting through the streets while techno beats blast from a stereo, similar to the way that Korean pro-democracy protests are energized by the singing, dancing, and percussion of pungmul. A handmade sign declares, “Techno is Black! Police are Wack! Ravers 4 Racial Justice!” Black Techno Matters is a local community organization that works to remind people that, “the very roots of techno were planted by black artists in Detroit”. So who are some of these artists?

History

There is some debate over which African American artists from Detroit created the first techno song, “Sharevari” by A Number of Names, or “Alleys of Your Mind” by Cybotron, both of which came out in 1981. The title of the former refers to an upscale clothing shop and party club (spelled Charevari), and captures the Europhile fantasies of upward mobility and conspicuous consumption – fine wine, Vogue, Porsche – that characterized the African American high school party scene in late 1970s and early 1980s Detroit. The latter takes dystopian tropes of science fiction, paranoia and government mind control, and unleashes them on the dance floor.

In contrast to Motown, the pop soul music institution that grew up in Detroit and left a cultural void in the city when it departed for Los Angeles in 1972, these two songs offered a new style of post-soul electronic music which drew inspiration from the robot pop of Kraftwerk, the synthesizer-driven Eurodisco of Giorgio Moroder, and the futuristic funk of hometown heroes Parliament-Funkadelic.

Also in 1981, a DJ collective, Deep Space Soundworks, began to play an eclectic mix of dance records at parties around Detroit. Three members of this collective, Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, are routinely venerated as the founders of Detroit techno, often referred to as the “Belleville Three,” a reference to the high school outside of Detroit where they met. But any narrative about the origins of Detroit techno that excludes Eddie Fowlkes, who was also a member of Deep Space Soundworks along with Art Payne and Keith Martin, is incomplete.

Juan Atkins had already been producing electronic music as a member of Cybotron, along with Vietnam War veteran Richard “Rik” Davis. Deciding to go solo, Atkins renamed himself Model 500 and quickly created his first solo hit, “No UFOs” (1983). This track was a hit on dance floors both in Detroit and in Chicago, where a new genre of dance music, acid house, was also incubating. After gaining attention in Chicago, the electronic music produced by Atkins, May, Saunderson, and Fowlkes began to travel across the Atlantic to dance floors in the UK and Europe. Fowlkes’s banging “Goodbye Kiss” (1986), May’s euphoric “Strings of Life” (1987), and Saunderson’s soulful hits “Big Fun” and “Good Life” (1988), all became anthems in the new rave culture that began to emerge across the Atlantic during the late 1980s.

Inspired by the immense popularity of the music coming out of the Motor City, a compilation for 10 Records in the UK was initially going to be called The New House Sound of Detroit, but when Juan Atkins’ delivered his contribution, “Techno Music,” the title of the compilation was changed to Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit (1988). For music critics, this new dance sound contributed to an older tradition of Afrofuturism which connected Detroit techno to the free jazz explorations of John Coltrane and Sun Ra, to the space rock of Jimi Hendrix, to black science fiction writers like Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, and to films like John Sayles’s Brother from Another Planet (1984). On the question of why black science fiction, and by extension Afrofuturism, is important, Samuel Delany explains, “We need images of tomorrow; and our people need them more than most.”

Underground Resistance

Often described as the Public Enemy of techno, the Underground Resistance music collective and record label was started by Jeff Mills, Mike Banks, and Robert Hood in the late 1980s. Underground Resistance wanted artists to have complete artistic independence and to be protected from exploitation by record companies, and their music is wide-ranging, including everything from the gritty dystopian loops of Revolution for Change (1992), to the jazzy outer space utopianism of Galaxy 2 Galaxy (1992).

JE3 Underground Resistance Logo

Techno DJs, producers, and fans around the world are inspired by the militancy and authenticity of Underground Resistance, and the UR symbol has become rebel chic, a Che Guevara for techno heads. The militant style of UR has been linked to the Black Panthers, an association confirmed by Jeff Mills in a 2006 interview:

All the black men you see in America today are the direct result of those actions: all the freedoms we have, as well as the restrictions, refer back to the government and the Black Panthers in the '70s . . . So we make music. We make music about who we are and where we’re from. - (Daily Yomiuri)

The title of Riot EP (UR 1991) alludes to the 1967 Detroit Uprising, also known as the Detroit Rebellion or 12th Street Riot, when the histories of racism and economic inequality erupted into clashes between black communities and the police that lasted for five days. Ideological conflicts over the naming of this event, whether it was an uprising, a rebellion, or a riot, is something that the people of Jeju and Gwangju can definitely relate to. With Black Lives Matter protests emerging all across the United States, Riot EP is once again in heavy rotation.

JE4

Mike Banks often appears in public wearing a mask, as does UR artist DJ Stingray. The mask is a symbol of resistance to the promotion of egotism and narcissism in commercial dance music culture, and visually alludes to the Mexican insurgent and former Zapatista and Indian resistance leader, Subcomandante Marcos. Mike Banks has two legacies of oppression and resistance in his family background, as his mother is Blackfoot Indian and his father is black, a biographical detail that can be heard in a song like “Ghostdancer” (1995), which refers to a resistance movement first practiced by Nevada Northern Pauite Indians in 1889 and quickly spread across the Western United States. Underground Resistance proves that you can be anti-racist and anti-imperialist and still rock a dance floor.

Protests and Pandemic

On April 24, 2020, the Detroit techno community lost one of its most beloved figures, the DJ, producer, and educator, Mike Huckaby, to complications resulting from a stroke and COVID-19. He was only 54 years old. The pandemic has devastated African American communities around the United States. Black people account for 13% of the U.S. population, yet 24% of COVID-19 deaths, nearly twice their proportion of the population.

While African American communities are fighting to survive this novel virus, a very old disease, the extrajudicial murder of black people by the police, has once again surfaced, this time in the form of an 8 minute and 46 second video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin methodically choking the life out of George Floyd, confident that he can calmly execute a black man in public and not be punished. The murder of Mr. Floyd has triggered one of the largest protest movements in the history of the United States, led by the movement Black Lives Matter.

Thousands of people gather for a peaceful demonstration in support of George Floyd and Regis Korchinski-Paquet and protest against racism, injustice and police brutality, in Vancouver, on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

With historic Black Lives Matter demonstrations gathering in streets and parks across the United States, and around the world, people who care about techno music, whether at home or at the club, as a critic or dancer, as a producer or DJ, should take some time to understand both this movement to end systemic racism and this history of techno, because it is all connected. The roots of techno were planted by black artists in Detroit, but those artists have often been aggressively utopian in working to imagine racially and economically egalitarian futures.

From Detroit to Seoul

Local music scenes matter too. Underground, independent, non-commercial music, from folk to techno, and from jazz to house, is the heartbeat of every community. People often go to underground dance music clubs to escape their everyday lives for a brief period of time. As the soulful disco group Sparque sang in their 1981 hit for West End Records, “Let’s Go Dancin’:”

Working hard just ain’t no good

Do something else if we only could

The only chance we get to come alive is after our nine-to-five.

As Ernst Bloch taught us, fantasies of escape are serious business, as they often contain utopian dreams of a better future. But while some people go to clubs to escape work, for others the club is a place of work. From musicians and DJs who often live gig to gig, to sound and lighting engineers, cleaning staff, door people, security, bar staff, managers, interior and graphic designers, promoters, a massive amount of labor – physical, emotional, artistic – goes into the functioning of a club.

JE5

DJ Stingray at Contra in Seoul. Photo: John Eperjesi

With clubs in Seoul and other cities around the world shut down due to the COVID-19 crisis, venue owners who have devoted their lives and pocketbooks to their passion for underground music are really hurting. But there are some signs of hope. Earlier this month, the German government announced 12-month “Restart Culture” funding initiative which will provide the coronavirus-affected creative sector as a whole with €1 billion in assistance. $56m of that total will go towards grassroots venues. Hopefully the South Korean government, which has shown remarkable compassion and leadership during this difficult time, will find a way to devote some resources toward keeping the heart of the local, underground music scene beating. 

Mike H

i. m. Mike Huckaby, Detroit techno legend

Separate Cells
Wednesday, 30 September 2020 07:23

Separate Cells

Published in Poetry

David Erdos introduces his new collection of poems, downloadable below. The collection is illustrated by Max Crow Reeves, who also made the image above.

Coronic Irrigation: An Introduction

by David Erdos 

If an irritation is seen as something that disturbs
The smooth surface, thus came Corona to rub
And to warp settled flesh. I started setting my thoughts
Into verse as February sought its foreclosure, and by
The time of my Lockdown on the 23rd of March

Words were dressed

By the rhythms and rhymes

Echoed within this introduction,
As my pen tried to tidy the chaos
Of what I feared and felt coming next.
And so it has proved,

As the simply unconceivable came to dream us,
Making our past lives the fiction that a sedentary
State came to write. And so I posted each day
Each written text to colleagues and friends
On email and textbook and then started

Recording on Youtube from the my own Psalm 23
To cast light on some of the issues I felt
Would spike and stain everybody; Johnson
As Bete Noire, and Cummings the stain
On each night. Or the Cabinet Corons as a whole

Who have stumbled by day and through darkness.
In the clash of information they’ve given
The fight to feel free has begun. What has been
The true contagion; Covid? Or, the fact that we
Have become almost nstitutionalised in our houses?

As BLM and BAME batter, to master the murders
At hand, who has won? This is what these poems reflect,
Along with Max Crow Reeves’ stunning photos.
Each entry is a diary, and a novel, too; a small film.
Poetry I would hope for those unversed in it.

Monologues with a mission. Fires first found
In thought’s kiln. The hope is they will speak
And soothe or stoke irritations, and that as these
Striving words wound oppressors, the scars
On screen and on paper may in some small way

Soon reveal the rising heart held beneath
This book of me written for you.
Life after Lockdown will sequel.
But here’s the first feature that tries
To describe what most feel.

It was written in my garden each day
And recorded across the day’s music.
As the birds sang their warnings,
I lucky to have light and space,
Wrote towards darkness as I tried to

Contain our new real.

The downloadable pdf below is free, but if you want to make a donation towards our costs, use this button. We hope you enjoy reading it.

a break in the weather: flags, fascism, mourning, and the machinery of capitalism
Wednesday, 30 September 2020 07:23

a break in the weather: flags, fascism, mourning, and the machinery of capitalism

Published in Poetry

a break in the weather

by Fran Lock, with image by Steev Burgess

even the dogs, distended with heat. i wanted rain.
women with their conscientious shopping washed
away. these mutant brides of hygiene, trending
and aerobic, who tsk my dirty boots in queues.
this mineral stutter. gardens stained with brute
occasion. chalk reproach. hedges choked with
bunting. england: a comic turn, drawing a string
of flags from his fly. rapture of hands. i wanted
rain. trampling the vintage of a sun-fucked face.
on days when days are graves. lack gravity or grace.
men, in the blank stare of their tatts, whose guts
are globes, whose biceps groan with empire.
anchors, roses, fragments of a fragrant name. rain.
to rinse this sickness, island ridicule from skin. this
city, where history exceeds its shadow. stall
and loop. audition the deadpan fault that feeds on
us. again, again. estates unspeak their skinner box
verbatim. smoke. and flame. conditioned
and engulfed. we are. i wanted rain to put these
civic fevers out. they're burning still. in vicious
figment cinders, still. my friend, to tread your
empty name to echo. to write the slant exception
of your name on dirty walls. the rain would wash
this too. and our illuminated wasteland: the futile,
sovereign portraits of our martyrs: bishops,
pricks and pawns. and you. any name to sanctify
a scene of threshing hurt. tread these borders,
boards, you walk abroad like thespy ghosts.
could cast your emanated arms in wax this
night. christ's face in the grain of the kitchen
table. his imprint in the splinters. rain. to dress you
in this deluge too, and all our mob, their masochist
vulgarities, in chains and chains and chains. cats,
made manx with mutilation, maimed like saints,
they spray their sympathetic wounds on everything.
i wanted rain. percussive stunt with thunder purge
the shape of me made minotaur and new. to flirt
my thrashing form through calendars and mazes,
prose. where others have been before. and i am
the turd emoji of trespass, an effluent refrain you'd
scoop from pools. i have written this poem before.
no, this poem was written without me: into the decimal
amber jots of a pit bull's eyes forever. into the garret
appetites of libertines, the somnolent garotte
of smack, mouths slack with musing, yielding in
their eyries to the pleasures of the spleen. and chains
and chains and chains. and rain. escape is begun by
betrayal. give me courage enough for that. to know
all flags are hoax, all names. to refute her slovenly
canticles, that fine old woman, who's lairy pastures'
rearing only weeds. she'd bind your bogmouth
shut with reeds. tell me, my friend, why i feel so
unclean. on the corner, some preacher spilling
wilful tight-lipped syruptone, his reflection warped
in windows. the fields have shed their shovels too,
and idiots are out there, begging brightness from
sky, the cryptic elegance of herons, cranes, the
chancy depth of rivers. i wanted rain. concentric
shocks that drive me inward toward you. something
clockwise breaking. covert and austere. england: rolling
up the sleeves of rumour, readies his ringmaster's whip.
god is a portable darkroom tonight. your image resolves
in a shallow chemical bath. a whisper arrives from
the outside world. the rain will come. canned laugh.
little white lies. promises, promises.

Flags, fascism, mourning, and the machinery of capitalism

by Fran Lock

 Listen, it didn't happen the way they're telling you it did. This poisonous myth of 'resilience'. Politicians love that word, and in recent years it has become a useful get-out-of-jail-free card for those who would make a fetish out of working-class survival to serve their own devious ends. Don't let them do it. This 'spirit of the blitz' thing is a lie. This government's persistent attempts to analogise coronavirus as an invading 'enemy' is insidious bullshit of the first order. This is not a 'war' against ideological opponents. The virus is remorseless and motiveless. It isn't tactical. When politicians recruit the iconography of the Second World War it allows them to yoke values of endurance, stoicism and sacrifice to a creepy nationalistic script that is toxic to the notion of global solidarity. To class solidarity too.

If fortitude is continually positioned as an exemplary British quality, then those who are not comfortably or obviously accommodated within their narrow conception of Britishness become morally suspect by default. Hate crime is on the rise. Xenophobia is on the rise. Antiziganism is on the rise. Further, by presenting the crisis on purely national terms, the government is able to elide the inequalities that exacerbate the virus and which the virus further exacerbates, cynically presenting Covid-19 as some kind of great leveller, which it manifestly is not. If you are poor you are twice as likely to die. If you are a person of colour and poor you are four times more likely to die. These are the facts.

The cynical manipulation of language, memory, identity and the dead

Listen, it didn't happen the way they're telling you it did. There was no Knees Up Mother Brown amongst the rubble. The outbreak of the Second World War saw a sharp increase (57%) in crimes of all kinds. There was hoarding, racketeering, speculation, a flourishing black market. There was violence too. The 'plucky resolve' of the poorest amongst us was a government fiction driven by propaganda films such as 'London Can Take it!' That famous photograph of the milkman picking his way through a bombed out street to deliver the milk? Fake. The man in the picture is not a milkman, but a photographer's assistant, posed in a white coat.

FL milkman 741x388

That isn't to suggest that acts of great kindness and courage did not take place. The point is, there can be no visual shorthand or semantic catch-all for the complexities of mass conflict or the trauma it initiates. To act as if there can is insulting and monumentally inattentive to history. Inattentive to the present too, and to those who exist under such conditions still; whose experience of the current pandemic is and will be shaped by the legacy of diplomatic sanctions and military intervention both. Coronavirus isn't war. It isn't like war either. Nothing is. But what does link both experiences is the government's cynical manipulation of language, memory, national identity, and the dead.

Listen, it isn't happening the way they're telling you it is. V.E. Day threw these manipulations into sharp relief for me, walking home in the sweltering heat, through a wasteland of flags and 'patriotic' bunting, the strains of Vera Lynn blaring through somebody's open window. I wanted to stop one of the women, flipping over charcoaled something on her barbecue, and ask her 'what are you celebrating?' but was worried the answer would only depress me. Many of the flags were accompanied by slogans, either posted in windows, inked onto the fabric of the flags themselves, or chalked inexpertly onto the pavement: 'Thank You Key Workers!', 'Thank You NHS', 'Stay Home, Save Lives', 'We ♥ NHS!' Laudable sentiments, as they go, but something about the way in which they were nationalistically framed is deeply disturbing. Something about the reductive sound-bite quality of the statements displayed against backdrop of union flags. As if we, the working-classes, had become the chief producers of our own propaganda.

The sacrifice of workers

The allied defeat of the Nazis is a testament to international cooperation, and the fight against fascism is an ongoing struggle, one worthy of commemoration and respect. However, mainstream media narratives have, for years, been subtly recalibrating these acts of remembrance to suggest that working-class life has value only when instrumentalised in the service of the military industrial complex. And 'sacrifice', particularly of poorly paid and exploited workers, has become the rhetorical and thematic hinge between a nostalgic evocation of war-time Britain and the Britain of our current crisis. The 'sacrifice' for example of front-line NHS staff. The 'sacrifice' of those providing essential services and exposing themselves to the risk of infection. The 'sacrifice' of care workers, bin men, and bus drivers. The 'sacrifice' of postwomen, check-out operators, and teachers. 'Sacrifice'. As if they were soldiers. As if the daily risk to their lives was a deliberate and meaningful choice in a world of infinite options.

When the government, through its various media mouthpieces, speaks about the 'heroism' of these people, it does so in an act of abdication. If key workers are engaged in feats of exemplary individual bravery, then their deaths are their gift to us. The state bears no responsibility for allocating adequate resources, or prioritising safe and fully-funded working conditions so that these deaths may be avoided. No, a floral tribute and a posthumous round of applause are quite sufficient. And the beauty of that system is that after these people are dead they can continue to be exploited, as political propaganda.

It's not the way they say it is. The 'sacrifice' narrative allows governments to arbitrate on which working-class lives are meaningful and which are not, contingent upon our 'usefulness'. It's a farce. Or it would be if it were remotely amusing. How can Johnson invoke the spectre of herd immunity – a strategy guaranteed to impact the poorest amongst us first and hardest – one minute, then bombastically extol the virtues of key workers the next? We are the same people, the same communities, but it is only those of us actively risking and losing our lives to the functioning of society or the machinery of capitalism who are worthy of notice. This was ever the strategy of the military industrial complex, which for years has mobilized the bodies of working-class men and women to recruit support for its interventions and to shield itself from criticism: if you protest the war – any war – you are pissing on the memory of those who 'died for you'. A proper display of 'gratitude' entails a tacit acceptance of the ideologies that produced that war, the exploitation of working-class labour by the armed forces, and the unacceptable conditions under which many military personnel serve. This is the government's strategy with regards to key workers too.

A stale, pale history

So, 'what are you celebrating?' What is being marked, remembered or enshrined? What kinds of equivalence are being posited? What notions of 'service', notions of 'endurance'? It hurts my head. On the phone that night to an elderly relative who tells me I'm 'overthinking', who says, 'of course you wouldn't join in, you hate Britain.' I almost want to cry. I want to shout. I don't 'hate Britain', not in the way that he means. I hate the way political elites exploit and abuse their people; I hate the way successive governments have made a fetish out of our endurance when endurance was unavoidable, when survival was our only priority. I hate the way they leave our traumas unrecorded and untreated, then reimagine us, years down the line, as cheerfully mucking in and making do. I hate nostalgia, and the way the Tories have weaponised it to turn us against one another. I hate the way our richly storied subjectivities have been flattened and diluted to produce a stale, pale history by numbers: Vera Lynn and victory rolls, polka-dot dresses and nylon stockings, gollywog jam and rationing.

FL Nelsons Column during the Great Smog of 1952

It's not the way they tell you that it is. I lay awake and thought about it for hours. I'd been reading about the Great Smog of 1952, a public health disaster that's almost vanished from popular consciousness. How Britain's cleaner burning anthracite coal had been exported to pay off war debts, which left thousands of predominantly working-class homes burning toxic 'nutty slack' instead. Over five days in December 12,000 people died as a result of a pall of poisonous vapour that settled on London. Mostly poor people. The government of the day – Churchill's government – were insultingly supine in the face of these deaths. The war was over. Working-class life no longer mattered.

I have always mistrusted public displays of remembrance. At their best they provide an opportunity for disparate people to coalesce around a moment, to find community and meaning in their separate experiences of tragedy. But at their worse they make a fetish of the dead. They lose the granular particularity and almost infinite tenderness with which human life deserves to be mourned and cherished. Such ceremonies embrace spectacle, which is hardly conducive to acts of probing reflection; they universalise experience, which tends to evade any form of reckoning with the historic and material forces that produced the death. They reclaim our dead from us, gather them up into narratives of nationhood or 'cause' or party. 'The dead' become an abstract concept, an undifferentiated mass whose job it was to die and to be dead. After sufficient time has passed we forget that they were people like ourselves. In which context, what does it mean to 'commemorate' or 'remember'? If the war is obscured behind period costume, sound-track and slogan, and all the aesthetic signifiers of its era, then what is it we are being asked to 'commemorate'? Who is steering the ship of public memory?

'Long live death!' is a fascist slogan. José Millán-Astray, a key military figure in Franco's dictatorship came up with that one. Nauseating, isn't it? And echoed everywhere throughout fascist discourse and rhetoric. For fascism the dead are always with us, an immortal moral exemplar, constantly evoked and enlisted through ritual; through myriad speech acts, inscribed upon civic space in countless memorial gestures. For fascism, it is death itself which confers meaning upon the life of a person. Conquest is glorious, but death is the sanctifying seal set upon conquest. That is, of course, if death comes at the service of the fascist state. The most exemplary deaths are those that take place during war: 'War alone brings all human energies to their highest tension and sets a seal of nobility on the peoples who have the virtue to face it.' writes Giovanni Gentile in the odious Doctrine of Fascism, ghostwritten on behalf of Benito Mussolini, 'All other tests are but substitutes which never make a man face himself in the alternative of life or death.'

Further on, from the same text, 'In Fascism man is an individual who is the nation and the country. He is this by a moral law which embraces and binds together individuals and generations in an established tradition and mission, a moral law which suppresses the instinct to lead a life confined to a brief cycle of pleasure in order, instead, to replace it within the orbit of duty in a superior conception of life, free from the limits of time and space a life in which the individual by self-abnegation and by the sacrifice of his particular interests, even by death, realises the entirely spiritual existence in which his value as a man consists.' Discursive, rapturous, and broadly nonsensical. Remind you of anyone?

I'm being somewhat facetious, of course. But only somewhat. Neither Trump nor Johnson are afraid to co-morbidly entwine notions of nationhood and sacrifice in ways uncomfortably close to fascist ideology. That doesn't make them fascists, not exactly, but it shows, I think, that capitalism and fascism are kindred spirits. There's an Adorno quote that is applicable here: 'Fascism is itself less 'ideological', in so far as it openly proclaims the principal of domination that is elsewhere concealed.' For Adorno capitalism is more dangerous because its messages are coercive, manipulative and insidious. Yet through its covert workings, its slick populist appeals, its slogans, its dexterous deployment of nostalgia, its sentimental appeals of concepts like 'resilience', and 'freedom', capitalism can help to bring about the conditions under which fascism can rise and flourish. And this should give all of us pause.

Sounds of the Seventies
Wednesday, 30 September 2020 07:23

Sounds of the Seventies

Published in Poetry

Sounds of the Seventies

by Martin Rowson

Stumbling out of Lockdown
Like a 70s British porn star
Falling shackled from the wardrobe,
Streaky Y-fronts round your ankles,
When her old man comes home early
because the abattoir's closed down.

Opening up the schools
Like the janitor in "Please Sir!",
Kids' heads caught in the railings
And bodging up the carpentry
With make-do-and-mendy comedy
and jokes about The War.

Tackling systemic racism
Like a blacked-up back row chorus boy
In The Black And White Minstrel Show
As seen on prime time telly, and
Now headlining the Summer Show
down the pier in endless rain.

Strategising everything,
A genius wearing tracksuit pants,
Dressing up like Jimmy Saville
In standard-issue rapist wear
And fixing it and fucking it
all up with a sneer.

Crumbling a curly-wurly
Into his bowl of Special K,
Benny-Hilling "Oo-er Missus!
It's getting really close in here!"
He slops in slugs of Rohypnol
to forget the stench of death.

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