Now That's What I Call Politics!
Saturday, 23 September 2017 05:29

Now That's What I Call Politics!

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mark Perryman argues that for Corbynism to succeed it needs cultural activism, in an exclusive edited extract from his new book The Corbyn Effect.

There were various models of modernisation available to Labour in the early 1990s. What the party chose in the end was one particular version, a conservative modernity which coupled populist rhetoric with a neoliberal politics to disavow even the mildest version of social democracy. The populist rhetoric was typified in Blair’s final Labour Conference speech as leader of the opposition prior to the ’97 landslide:

Labour’s coming home! (Applause) Seventeen years of hurt never stopped us dreaming. Labour’s coming home! (Applause) As we did in 1945 and 1964, I know that was then , but it could be again – Labour’s coming home. (Applause) Labour’s coming home.

The effortlessly uncritical appropriation of popular culture is a Blair classic.  Harmless stuff, just a bit of fun? No, not entirely. David Stubbs in his brilliant book 1996 and The End of History captures very well the pre-millennium mood of celebrating all things new, the drive to reinvent and rebrand, and the  technocratic managerialism divorced from the political that dominated Blairite thinking. It was founded on a belief that we were living in an era that was marked by the eclipse of left versus right politics, or as some mistaken theorists put it, the death of the ‘grand narrative’. As Stubbs says:

One of the main delusions of the decade, its most naïve conceit, was that we were past all that, post-all that: that the End of History meant the end of the old struggle between top-hatted Capital and cloth–capped Labour.

And what did this mean in terms of where New Labour ended up? David Stubbs is delightfully clear:

Post-leftism, post-feminism, drifting backwards into a future in which a communal conservatism would see to it that the present , the Be Here Now, was maintained as long as possible.

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Billy Bragg speaking at the Red Wedge launch at the House of Commons, 1985.

Prior to all this there was a very different model of a popular, left, cultural politics. In ’86 I organised a gig on the Red Wedge comedy tour at what was then called Wolverhampton Poly. This felt like, sounded like, and joked like the kind of party I’d always wanted to be part of. The better known half of Red Wedge was music, I caught a night of their first tour in Birmingham. I’ve got a strong memory of my first sighting of Billy Bragg complete with amplifier in a rucksack blasting out something or other from the stage to a packed, if slightly bemused, auditorium. Morrissey featured somewhere, Jimmy Sommerville from The Communards, also I think Paul Weller was involved.

Coming out of the wave of benefit gigs that the 1984-85 Miners Strike had sparked, this was a well-intentioned and hugely ambitious attempt to keep a culture of resistance on the road. It was avowedly political, ‘soulcialism’ as us Red Wedgers liked to call it, and pro-Labour without being in and of the party. None of this is easy, then, or now. Music writer Sean O’Hagan put it neatly just as the venture was beginning:

The fact that Red Wedge has a distinctly loose, hazily defined relationship with the Labour Party is both a strength and a possible falling.

While Stuart Cosgrove, with Sean an early pioneer of the New Musical Express post-punk shift towards a 1980s politicised rock writing, put those contradictions in two vivid passages of critique. Firstly, the potential audience which he described in terms of geography, gender and class:

A red wedge is just a ginger haired typist from Carlisle who dances to soul music  and has to save up for her holiday. And if Labour wins the typists’ vote, who cares what art students do with their ballot papers?

And secondly the fundamental challenge a cultural movement of the sort Red Wedge aimed to generate posed to the conservative organisational structures of Labourism:

What happens when the Red Wedge circus moves on? What does it leave behind, some satisfied souls and a few hangovers? Red Wedge has to become the animator not the afterthought, it has to generate events and not simply provide them.

Before adding to emphasise the point:

Red Wedge has to chase the improbable, and fast. It has to unite the night away. Labour: it ain’t nothing but a parrrty.

Of course nothing of the sort happened. Labour lost the ’87 General Election, and then reverted to cultural type at the notorious ’92 Sheffield Rally with Kinnock shouting repeatedly ‘We’re all right’ plus the occasional starstruck ‘Woah!’ for bad measure. Blair at least professionalised the output with celebrity photo-opportunities – but as for any cultural shift? There was nothing of the sort.

The key point about Red Wedge was that it came from both within and without Labour. It was an ambitious attempt to effect change in the party’s culture that wasn’t factional in any traditional sense. Red Wedge was much more open than that, all who could see that Labour’s ways of working and appealing weren’t working could have a piece of that change, but the commitment to this necessity wasn’t deep enough, and it was swiftly jettisoned.

In Walls Come Tumbling Down, Daniel Rachel's superb account of Rock Against Racism, 2-Tone and Red Wedge, Tony Manwaring is interviewed. Tony was political assistant to the Labour Party’s General Secretary, and thus deeply embedded in the party’s organisational ways and means. He rather honestly describes this lost opportunity:

There was a moment of crystallisation of a new form of politics. It was brilliant and beautiful to see , and Red Wedge was reconfiguring the DNA. But I don’t think the Labour Party had the reflective learning capacity to draw and learn and honour what was being done. The Party was bound to let it down in some way because there wasn’t a clear enough expectation and conversation about what ‘good’ would look like.

Yet 30 years on Tony remains convinced of the potential that did exist:

The answer isn’t what Red Wedge brought to the Labour Party, it’s what kind of politics we could have created together. If it had developed for another few yeas it would have been extraordinary.

In 2017 something of this sort emerged once more. It isn’t that music has lacked politics in the intervening years, there are stacks of bands and artists who confound that well worn and incorrect observation, but at no point have any come together to create anything we might call a movement. This was true even at the height of the anti-war movement against the Iraq War, and ever since too.

Love Music Hate Racism tries but has never reached the heights of its predecessor Rock against Racism (RAR). It is too early to be sure with any certainty what #grime4corbyn will end up amounting to but already it has at least broken with this sorry convention. And like RAR it is framed first and foremost by the music and culture that generated it. For 1970s punk read grime now – music and politics both sharing their coincidental breakthrough moment. In a 2016 end of year preview of grime’s prospects for the year ahead Dan Hancox, author of Stand Up Tall: Dizzee Rascal and the Birth of Grime predicted:

It is tempting to think we live in more enlightened times, and that the nature of the music business in 2017 means that grime will be supported and allowed to stand on its own two feet. If the success of Skepta, JME, Stormzy, and Wiley prove anything, it's that artists and fans often do better when left to their own devices, without too much intervention from the music industry and their formulas. The future of black British music – urban, suburban, or global – is about to get a whole lot more exciting.

Dan was proved absolutely right. On its own terms grime achieved the success he could see coming. But who ever imagined this would happen hand in hand with Jeremy Corbyn? It is a measure of the music and the politics that it did, as Monique Charles points out here on Culture Matters.

Red Wedge was ten years before Blairism. It was an alternative model of modernising Labour, but eventually it found the door slammed shut. Now, in 2017, it appears to be open again. It is easy for timeworn politicos and hardbitten commentators to sneer at the rock-star style adulation of the Glastonbury crowd when Jeremy Corbyn took the stage. But there are precious few politicians now, or ever, who could attract not only such affection, but trust too, from young voters. And possibly even more threateningly, the 14-17 year old voters of tomorrow.

To help achieve that, Corbynism needs to shape a cultural activism. We don’t know what that might look like, though Red Wedge and #grime4corbyn each give us an inkling, but I’m certain it needs to be about bottom-up, localised, open and messy affiliations – a do-it-yourself culture. For an indication of the potential just look at what the We Shall Overcome Weekend festival of 160+ gigs all across the country has achieved, on zero resources. Imagine what this could become with the Labour Party, the trade unions, and Momentum fully behind it!

The 2017 General Election suggests a breakthrough of sorts, electorally and culturally, in making possible the kind of connections between Labour as an institution and young and not-so-young voters that may have a durability and significance Red Wedgers like myself could only dream of, all those years ago. Now, Labour is led by a guy who’s old enough to qualify as a Grandad-dancer and we can only imagine the kind of moves he might have on the dancefloor to prove it. Now that would be a sight for politically sore eyes, wouldn’t it?

The Corbyn Effect is edited by Mark Perryman, with a foreword by Paul Mason. It is the first serious attempt to understand the phenomenon of Corbynism and an essential post-election read, explaining the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the fundamental shift in politics in 2017. It's available from Lawrence & Wishart, here.

 

 

Neoliberalism and Austerity
Saturday, 23 September 2017 05:29

Art for and by the many, not the few

Published in Arts & Cultural Policy

Phil Brett shows how art has often been about power and prestige, argues that art should be not only for but by the many.

The history of Western art has been dominated by artworks created for and by the few. Paintings and sculpture have been associated with power and privilege. In the twenty first century, liberal capitalist democracies may have tinkered around with that fact, but essentially it is still true. 

Leon Trotsky wrote, "Every ruling class creates its own culture, and consequently, its own art." This can be seen throughout history, from ancient times to the present leaders have liked to have statues, friezes and buildings to show their own glory. Rulers have always loved having their images captured for eternity. There are many examples, like Titian painting the Hapsburgs, oor Henry VIII appointing Hans Holbein the Younger, as the English King's Painter, whose iconic 1536 portrait depicts a powerful and athletic king. Even today, the paintings of Prime Ministers line the staircase of 10 Downing Street, and if the reigning monarch's portrait is being painted, it always makes the 10 o'clock news. Though, with no disrespect for the artists involved, we're not talking Holbeins or Titians here.

Battles have often been a popular subject for the rulers to use art as propaganda. They meant pain and agony for the poor folk actually involved in the fighting, but victory in them gave the rulers added authority and legitimacy. Two examples will suffice: Maria de'Medici commissioning Pieter Paul Rubens to paint a series of paintings depicting her dead husband's (French king Henry IV) victorious battles. In World War I, the Government wanted painters such as Paul Nash and Percy Wyndham Lewis to promote the cause of Britain. Whether their stunning depictions on the horror of trench warfare do so, is open for debate, because good art often exposes the truth and questions dominant ideologies - something the ruling class find troubling.

Even with religious painting, power and prestige are there. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel may be a stunning tribute to the glory of God, but it was also for the glory of Pope Julius II. Sometimes, the link is far from subtle. The Medici family were an example of a new class of people, powerful financiers, who used art to help the status of Florence (and themselves). In many paintings they had themselves painted in. In Sandro Botticelli's 1475 painting, Adoration of the Magi, the Medici family are actually the Magi. Keen takers of selfies should take note, that's quite a high bar to beat.

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Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi.

It hasn't always been monarchs and God. Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Gainsborough painted the landed gentry, keen to show off their fine clothes, homes and grounds, demonstrating their position and class power for all to see.

Governments of the twentieth century were aware of the power of art. The 1917 Russian Revolution, led to many artists, such as Chagall and Malevich flocking to its support. Many in the early Soviet regime embraced the avant-garde (October 1917 - the spark for great art). However, it did not see its role as to pitch one school against another. Both Lenin and Trotsky argued for the relative autonomy of art and artists, although in practice there was significant state sponsorship, support and influence over art and culture. A fundamental change occurred in the late Twenties and Thirties, with the art of ‘socialist realism’, designed to promote the Soviet model of socialism. In an ironic twist, in the late 1940s, the CIA promoted and funded Abstract Expressionist exhibitions - unknown to the artists themselves - to show just how free and exciting the USA was compared to Soviet Russia.

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Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm

In the private sector, profit joined prestige and power in the mix, leading to the rise of the collector/dealer. The names of Frick, Guggenheim and Sainsbury are familiar names of galleries. There are others such as Benjamin Altman, with his collection in the New York Metropolitan and Joseph Duveen, who made a fortune from art. Controversies about tax avoidance or the authenticity of paintings he sold did not stop him becoming a Lord and having a gallery named after him in Tate Britain.

This group of people may not have their names on the credits on the paintings we see, but they were very influential in modern art. With eyes and wallets focussed on the market, they helped the growth of isms, serving as brand names to help the sales. One such dealer was Ernest Gambert, the influential art dealer for the Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti nicknamed him 'Gamble-art' for his interference and keenness for the artists to paint in the Pre-Raphaelite style.  He once argued with John Everett Millais that the horse’s head was too large in his 1857 painting A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford.

Picasso's paintings from his Blue Period stayed in his studio for years because influential art dealer Ambrose Vollard dismissed them as being unsuitable for the wealthy buyers, with their depictions of beggars and street urchins. The few may have got slightly larger than in Holbein's time, but it was still only a tiny minority who could see, let alone own, such art. Ownership conferred status and privilege - and of course profit to the dealer.

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Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

The art world started to balloon in size, after the war. In 1955, Fortune magazine advised its readers to look to art as an investment, suggesting  De Kooning, Pollack and Rothko as good to start with, being between $500 and $3500 each (they're worth a whole lot more now). Today, the art market (not including the illegal sector, which Interpol have in their top five financial crimes) has been estimated as worth a cool $63.8 billion. In 2015, the UK accounted for 21% of this (behind the USA with 43% and ahead of China with 19%). A growth which has given people like Charles Saatchi enormous influence (and a few bob too).

Alongside the private collections, and following the Enlightenment, public museums began to emerge. The rich would have a monopoly of owning art but the common folk could be allowed limited access to gaze gratefully at masterpieces. As the art critic John Berger said: "Anyone who is not an expert entering the average museum today is made to feel like a cultural pauper receiving charity".

Museums may have grown very popular but there is still a separation of art and the majority. How many times have we heard people say, "I don't know anything about art but I know what I like"? Is that not an obvious defensive comment of a (usually) working class person, isolated from art and made to feel inferior to it?

But one might say, are not art galleries more popular than ever?  In the 2017 list of Britain's most popular twenty attractions for the previous year, the National Gallery was at number 2; the Tate Modern at number 3; the National Portrait Gallery at number 11, with the Scottish National Gallery ay number 18. That's a total of 15.59 million visitors, without even considering adding the Royal Academy or Tate Britain or the hundreds of other private and public galleries. That's a lot of people straining to see the pictures.

However, all is not as egalitarian as it seems. There has been much criticism that the artworks on show are from a small (often white and male) clique. For black artists it was for a long time impossible to be shown. Emory Douglas, the Black Panther Party Minister of Culture said, "The ghetto is the gallery for the revolutionary artist". Graffiti artists continue that tradition.

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The Guerrilla Girls, a group of feminist artists who confronted the sexism of the art world, estimated in 1989 that 5% of the Metropolitan Museum were by women whilst 85% of the nudes were women.

Curators might argue that there have been some attempts to address this, but the fact is that the people running them are still from a narrow social base. Look at the patrons of the Royal Academy and you'll see lord and ladies, with the common person occasionally represented by the likes of Stephen Fry.

The influence of the private art world ,with such figures as Saatchi in public galleries should not be underestimated. With the costs of art rocketing, most of the public galleries cannot compete, they feel that they have do deals with the private world. The Tate receives 70% of funding from non-Governmental sources. Public galleries have found one way to compensate this by getting sponsorship from big business. The Victoria and Albert exhibition of You Say You Want a Revolution included sponsors such as Levis, and the Royal Academy show Abstract Expressionism boasted the sponsor: 'BNP Paribas: The bank for a changing world'.

If that isn't ironic enough, then consider that one of the major sponsors of the Royal Academy's Revolution: Russian Art 1917 - 1932 was the Blavatnik Foundation. Its founder, Sir Leonard Blavatnik, may not be that well know, but he perhaps should be. In 2015 he was named as Britain's richest man, worth an estimated £17.1 billion. It is perhaps a brief look at his history: 1978, he emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States. He built an international conglomerate, which entered the commercial stratosphere, when it made billions after the collapse of the Soviet Union from the petrochemicals and oil industries. Considering that many people were unhappy at the political impartiality of the exhibition - see Great Art, Shame about the Curating - one can legitimately ask how much influence, direct or otherwise, did the foundation have on the exhibition. See also Corruption of Art and Culture.

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Poster advertising V. and A. exhibition - and its sponsors

So why do these multinationals get involved? The answer is from our old friends, power and prestige. Those attendance figures of galleries means that they are now goldmines for tourism. Bilbao used the Guggenheim Gallery, opening in 1997, to regenerate the area. It worked. One survey found 80% of the visitors at the airport had arrived to visit it. Big money then, which cannot but affect the direction of the museum - not only the acquisition policy but its display. In 2011, a BBC Freedom of Information request found that the Tate only shows 20% of its permanent collection. To be fair, that contrasts well with the international average of 5%. The removal of art has been termed, "deaccessioning". It is estimated that MoMA has thirty Picasso paintings 'deaccessioned'. Galleries are as much like banks, storing valuable assets, as museums to entertain, educate and interest people.

Curators wield considerable influence on cultural and art policy. So John Berger's view that, "as a professional group, their character is patronising, snobbish and lazy" should cause us to worry. Certainly, Royal Academy show on the art of Russian Revolution with its lack of historical and indeed artistic understanding, would give some credence to such an accusation. The concern being that, even in the twenty first century, curators, gallery directors and critics all seem to come from a very narrow social base.

In recent months, articles in the Guardian, the Morning Star, and various other professional periodicals as well as in the social media, have discussed the whole issue of the running and funding of arts. The Government body with overall responsibility for the arts is the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), who in turn fund and oversee Arts Council England (ACE). ACE gets its funding partly directly from the Government and partly from the National Lottery. This is public money and there has been a concern that essentially it is still art for a few, by a few – but with the many paying for it.

Laura Barton, feature writer of the Guardian, raised concerns that 85% of ACE funding for music goes to classical and opera. A growing number of people have attacked the National Portfolio (basically the list of organisations which ACE funds) as being London-centric, biased against the working class, being too focussed on middle class taste and not diverse enough, e.g. in terms of gender and ethnic background. The balance between community and premier league art establishments leans towards the latter. ACE is institutionally biased towards the middle classes who see arts management as a good career path. Worries have been expressed just how transparent the decision process is, with the issue of a £2 million grant being given to as yet unformed theatre company, whose director appears to have links to senior figures of ACE.

With the Government policy of austerity, money (for some areas) is tight. So such uses of public money are legitimate ones to raise and socialists should do so. However, the Tories use this as cover to attack the very status of art. In the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto did have a few words about the importance of art but set beside the fact that in the last five years money spent on the arts has been cut by £165million, they don't really amount to much.

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Simon Wren-Lewis: Neoliberalism and Austerity

Tom Watson rightly states that, "Lottery money is plugging holes where Government funding has been cut". Tories will argue that hospitals and schools matter more than galleries (whilst cutting these in any case). Of course, money can be found when they want to: £7 billion for the Parliament refurbishment or £370 million for Buckingham Palace, for example. What they really mean is that art is for them, not us – for the few, not the many.

Here’s John Berger again: "the fundamental division between the initiated and the uninitiated, the loving and the indifferent, the minority and the majority has remained as rigid as ever." This is especially true in education. In primary schools, especially in working class areas, a major concern are the SATs results, which in turn lead to league tables. Failure to meet the school's targets set could lead to failing OFSTED and thus academisation. Fundamentally, even with some tokenistic nods towards child happiness and creativity, Government policy is all about reading, writing and maths (and mechanical versions of them at that). The squeeze is being put on the arts.

The same is true in secondary schools, with the focus on the EBacc, when students achieve Grade C or above in English, maths, history or geography, a science and a language. If budgets are tight because of education cuts, the curriculum is narrowed, with subjects dropped, and the arts get squeezed out of the curriculum. Ditto in further education and university.  And of course, with tuition fees, the chances for working class students to attend university or art college are narrowing. Whatever the Tory manifesto might say, the policy is that we proles just don't understand, or need to understand, the arts.

As a result the social base of the artists is narrowing. To an extent the artist, certainly the successful one, has always come from a particular stratum of society. One of Britain's greatest artists, Turner, faced snobbery from his fellow Royal Academians because of his lowly birth. Damien Hirst is from a working class background but he is now in a very different world. His latest exhibition, in Venice, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is impressive. I was lucky enough to visit it and thoroughly enjoyed it. But I note that it cost Hirst personally £50 million to create it; not many artists could do that! 

All gloomy then? Well, not quite. It is heartening that Jeremy Corbyn has launched a comprehensive arts policy, with a number of excellent initiatives which includes introducing an £160 million arts pupil premium, which would "support cultural activities in schools". Scholarships would be introduced. They would also "consider demands of those working to maintain our public museums to challenge corporate influence".  The policy also promises to 'consider' including an art element in EBacc.

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Labour Policy for Art: http://www.jeremyforlabour.com/arts

The policy is a good starting point art moving away  from the few to the many. I think that any Corbyn Government should be bold. There does not have to be a choice between galleries or schools, museums or hospitals. Whatever indicator you use, Britain is always in the top ten wealthiest countries in the world. Britain can afford galleries and schools, museums and hospitals.

The choice in reality is tax cuts for the rich, or galleries, hospitals, and schools for the many. A Corbyn government can challenge the notion of art as a luxury just a for a few. He has committed to scrapping tuition fees - good. But there should also be a commitment to scrapping SATS, EBacc and league tables, to create a freedom to learn. Pump funding into education so the widest possible curriculum is offered, from the nursery to university and evening classes. Be totally upfront that art is important, it can enrich and change lives.

Labour could involve the public in decision making more. Not just in making ACE more transparent but also why not make regeneration projects, really that, regeneration and not just social cleansing? In areas such as the North East, housing could be built, with input from local residents, deciding on what they need and want. There are plenty of vacant industrial buildings - why not renovate them alongside the new homes and use the stored art collections of the Tate, RA, National and Imperial War Museum (which has over 200,000 paintings, most, yep, hidden away!) to create new wonderful galleries? Let's 'accession' them! After all, they are ours. Ask people what sort of gallery they would like. New schools and hospitals? Get local artists and community groups to decorate them. That is what an art policy for a Government should be: to fund, facilitate and support. It does not need to be prescriptive, we don't need instructions.

That would be a great start, it would be an arts policy which could help transform this country, creating a place for people to live in. I am a revolutionary socialist, and believe that people's creativity will only be allowed to fully blossom in a class-less society. Whilst we live in a capitalist society we shall still have the haves and have nots – those with power and those without. It is difficult to be creative when you are working long hours, paying the bills and looking after the kids. In a socialist society, in the words of Trotsky, "The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise."

In other words - art for, and by, the many.

The Peterloo Massacre
Saturday, 23 September 2017 05:29

More than ‘Rise like lions’: Shelley beyond The Mask of Anarchy

Published in Poetry

Mike Sanders writes about Shelley 'the Chartist poet' as a catalyst for working class creativity, how he envisioned a communist society, and how the privileged classes refused to hear the revolutionary meanings of his poems.

One of the unexpected features of the recent General Election campaign was the ‘co-opting’ of a long-dead Romantic poet as a speech-writer by Team Corbyn. Many of Jeremy Corbyn’s speeches ended with the recitation of the closing lines from Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many, they are few.

These lines written almost two hundred years ago in response to the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ have long been part of the Left’s cultural memory – anthologised, repeated and recycled for the best part of two centuries. I first encountered them as a teenage punk rocker in 1980 on the back cover of the Jam’s Sound Affects album and the discovery prompted me to buy a selection of Shelley’s poetry from a local second-hand bookshop. In that dog-eared volume, I discovered a poet who could give better shape and expression to some of my own rather more inchoate ideas about the society I lived in and my hopes for a better future.

Subsequently, I came to understand that previous generations of workers had also found in Shelley’s words, ‘resources for their own journey of hope’ (to adapt Raymond Williams’ wonderful phrase). Working-class appreciation and recognition of Shelley began relatively early. Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England observes; 

Shelley, the genius, the prophet, Shelley, and Byron, with his glowing sensuality and his bitter satire upon our existing society, find most of their readers in the proletariat; the bourgeoisie owns only castrated editions, family editions, expurgated in accordance with the hypocritical morality of today.

Shelley’s long poem Queen Mab was often described as “the Chartist’s Bible". Indeed, there is a sense in which Shelley is a Chartist poet insofar as many of his more overtly political poems, such as ‘Song to the Men of England’, were first published in 1839. 

The poetry column of the Northern Star, the leading Chartist newspaper, attests to Shelley’s importance as a catalyst for working-class creativity. In particular, Shelley’s ‘Song to the Men of England’ is reworked a number of times by various Chartist poets. I would like to suggest that this poem, which identifies the inverse relationship between production and consumption as moral obscenity as well as economic injustice, is even more important than ‘The Mask of Anarchy’. The poem begins with a series of questions intended to highlight the paradoxical way in which the economy distributes economic rewards:

Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?

Wherefore feed and clothe and save
From the cradle to the grave
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?

Replace “lords”, “tyrants” and “drones” with “bankers” and “bosses” and you have a concise summary of our current economic woes. But Shelley does not rest there, he continues by observing that the workers also produce the means of their own political oppression:

Wherefore, Bees of England, forge
Many a weapon, chain, and scourge,
That these stingless drones may spoil
The forced produce of your toil?

Next, Shelley asks his readers if they enjoy the key features of a genuinely human life?

Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,
Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?
Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?

Thus far, the poem consists of a series of questions designed both to defamiliarise and thereby make visible the structural features of the economic order. These questions also invite the reader to think. However, in the second half of the poem statements predominate, as Shelley offers two very different views of the future. The first of which is the maintaining of the current economic and political order:

The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robes ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears.

The second envisages a future in which there is a direct correlation between production and consumption.

Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap:
Find wealth—let no imposter heap:
Weave robes—let not the idle wear:
Forge arms—in your defence to bear.

In the poem’s penultimate verse, Shelley makes clear that social change will require resistance and courage on the part of the oppressed. The “drones” will indeed shed, if not drink, blood to preserve their privileges if necessary:

Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells—
In hall ye deck another dwells.
Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see
The steel ye tempered glance on ye.

In the final stanza, Shelley makes clear that the choice is one between life and death.

With plough and spade and hoe and loom
Trace your grave and build your tomb
And weave your winding-sheet—till fair
England be your Sepulchre.

The clarity with which Shelley both identifies the structures of exploitation and oppression, and identifies two very different visions of England’s future in this poem goes some way to explaining the different assessments of his work in the Nineteenth Century (and beyond). The privileged classes simply refused to hear this Shelley, preferring to construct him as a naïve dreamer – “A beautiful and ineffectual angel” to quote Matthew Arnold.

The Chartists and their successors heard a different Shelley. They heard a Shelley who was in no doubt as to either the necessity or the difficulty of securing political and economic change. The “Rise like lions” passage is inspiring, but if we read it in isolation there is a danger of seeing it as a promise of easy victory. For Shelley, the murdered victims at Peterloo were sufficient testament that there would be no easy victory. And the same is surely true for us today.

 

Grime helps launch a revolution in youth politics
Saturday, 23 September 2017 05:29

Grime helps launch a revolution in youth politics

Published in Music

Monique Charles examines the links between grime and progressive politics.

It became clear on June 9 that Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election was ill judged. This election has highlighted the disregard for the “many” that government should serve, and after an election in which the youth turnout was around 72% of those aged 18-24, the impact of the youth in Labour’s surge of popularity is obvious.

Of particular note is the role of a series of influential grime artists, who are not traditionally known for their politics yet came out in full force, working to galvanise the youth to vote and specifically supporting Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. In a 2003 radio interview, then MP Kim Howells laid into the grime scene, calling its artists “macho boasting idiots”. In the aftermath of the election, who are the macho boasting idiots now? Those in power should never underestimate the collective power of the masses. This is particularly true of the grimy kind.

 MC JC images

The relationship between grime and politics has been an interesting and evolving one. Grime is a genre of music that emerged at the turn of the 21st century in London’s inner boroughs. Early on, its sound was most closely likened to US hip hop and rap. But those in the know appreciate grime’s deep connections to its UK predecessors, which include music from the British underground scene such as garage and jungle, in addition to Jamaican dancehall, electronic/experimental music, and British punk. The grime “sound” developed as it grew, eventually being acknowledged as its own genre at the MOBOs in 2015 and iTunes in 2016. But grime has always been more than music. It is a culture, and this is key to its significance in this last general election.

Generation grime

Although now considered trendy in many strata of society, grime is a working-class scene. It originated from the very people and places government legislation has hit the hardest in its austerity measures over the last ten years: the bedroom tax; underfunded schools; tuition fee rises; zero-hour contracts; dwindling prospects of owning a home; and increased job insecurity. From this perspective, the relentless spread of gentrification and London’s role as a global financial capital can make David Cameron’s profession that “we are all in this together” simply farcical.

Grime originated as a predominantly black British musical form, yet appeals to young people irrespective of race or ethnicity. The common ground in its appeal was the focus on class based oppression and British cultural references. While racism remains pervasive and impacts young people in different ways, we live in a time of diverse multiculturalism, particularly in the inner city home of grime. There is a level of commonality in the British working class experience.

 MC grime and politics

 

This is all the more powerful given the collective nature of the grime scene. Success achieved by individuals in the scene is viewed as success for all. Individual achievement produces collective pride. This collectivity contributes to the solid sense of identity and culture that grime promotes. The collective experience of hardship and navigating it fosters community.

And middle class youth also see their futures in less certain terms. Grime, as with the appeal of other genres of music, is also a method of identity formation, which helps them to separate themselves from “older” generations, most notably parents.

Quite possibly for the first time, this election provided what I term “generation grime” (those predominantly under 30 who have grown up with it as a soundtrack to their lives) with an opportunity to engage with a political figure whose values align more closely with their lived experience, personal values and aspirations. Corbyn’s understanding of working-class issues, racial oppression and homelessness struck a chord. While the lyrical content in much grime may not be political, lived realities and hardships are a common theme to this work.

Prominent grime artists openly supported Labour and worked hard to encourage their supporters to vote: in response to their lived experience; the government’s disregard of their future; and the disconnection they felt to this government. Stormzy was one of Corbyn’s first grime supporters. In a 2016 interview, he said: “I dig what he says. I saw some sick picture of him from back in the day when he was campaigning about anti-apartheid and I thought: yeah, I like your energy.”

MC Jeremy corbyn 1496590874 crop 550x407
 
 
JME and JC

JME, Akala, and Rag'n'Bone man, all influential artists to generation grime and all of whom admitted to not voting before or having little interest or faith in the political system, also got behind Corbyn. Recent protests about government decisions which affected the future of generation grime led to minimal change and kettling, heightening apathy. This election offered a new approach. For scene members and fans not politically minded or disengaged from political processes, grime artist endorsement was the much needed push to look into Corbyn’s track record and manifesto. Young people suddenly felt they could do something to influence British society and their futures.

What now?

This election provided the opportunity for generation grime to really see the collective power in working together for the society they would like to create and the things they want to preserve. Although Labour did not win the election, a new energy has been injected into politics and political engagement among young people. It has given them the opportunity to realise their political power, and how to use it.

Significantly, this last election has also reignited the music-politics relationship of British punk in a new, 21st-century way. Grime artists made particular use of social media in order to galvanise generation grime into political action through the use of hashtags such as #Grime4Corbyn. And it doesn’t stop here. After the election, artists encouraged each other and scene members to engage with their local MPs. Grime artists tweeted about the success and the importance of staying involved.

This movement could be the start of something huge. The challenge is to maintain the momentum. While grime content is largely apolitical, this shift could open a space for more political lyrical content and imagery for both new and established artists. It may also lead to more systematic civic engagement, as artists can see first-hand the power of their influence on generation grime to push for social change.

For more than a decade, the government undervalued and strategically implemented policies to decimate the life chances of generation grime under the banner “we are all in this together”. We are not. Government must govern #ForTheManyNotTheFew, and now generation grime realise the potential of their political power they can push for it strategically.

Jeremy Corbyn addresses the huge crowd at the 2017 Durham Miners' Gala
Saturday, 23 September 2017 05:29

Seeing Red

Published in Poetry

Seeing Red

by Jon Tait

If it wasn’t hung from the ceiling in a museum,
we’d paint Jeremy Corbyn’s face
on the red Lodge banner
alongside Keir Hardie and Nye Bevan.

We’re still going Forward with Socialism
and the colours never fade;
still red as the Manchester United shirt
that Bobby Charlton wore,
red as the light glinting through a schooner
of McEwan’s Export in the social club
or the flag that’s waved to a bull.

Red as a banner consigned to the silence
of safe corridors silent as libraries,
with walls adorned in paintings
of the brick colliery rows,
the whippets and pigeon duckets,
the leek shows and allotments,
and the men in flat caps
with bait bags on their shoulders,
the ghosts of a time now gone.

We are the bairns and the grandbairns
of the last of the pitmen
and we never forget.

We’re still seeing red.

The Corbyn phenomenon
Saturday, 23 September 2017 05:29

The Corbyn phenomenon

Published in Music

Attila the Stockbroker offers his considered reflections on the Corbyn phenomenon.

There's nothing new about Jeremy: he's been saying the same thing for 35 years.

It's not a personality cult. He was an unassuming Left backbench candidate in a leadership election transformed by a rule change who has risen magnificently to the - gloriously unexpected - challenges he faces. It's the IDEAS he represents which have struck such a chord. Ideas reviled and written off for so long, their exponents mostly ignored by the mainstream media and if discussed at all dismissed as 'dinosaurs' - while hundreds of thousands of people never forsook those ideas and hoped for a day when their essential justice and goodness would once again bring them to mass acceptance.

I can talk about this first hand. I have earned my living as a socialist performance poet for 36 years more or less ignored by mainstream media but, I'm happy to say, supported by thousands of people all over the world. The most wonderful compliment I have had at my gigs through the decades has also been the most common one. 'Thank you for saying what you are saying, I thought I was on my own and no one thought like me any more'. Through my travels over all those years I always knew there were thousands, nay, millions of us out there and all we needed was a banner to unite under.

Ironically, of course, it was a Labour leadership election rule change brought in by the Right to assuage the Tory press by 'lessening the power of the unions' which gave us that unifying banner and the rest is history! It's not just the young. Our support goes right across the board and a massive element of it is people who had completely given up on 'politics' ('they're all the same') and now see a reason to vote - and in many cases get involved too.

A great example of this is my own constituency of East Worthing & Shoreham. A 16,000 Tory majority reduced to 5,000, simply by having a good local candidate presenting a manifesto which addressed the concerns of people beaten down by endless years of Tory austerity, while appealing to the kindness of their fellow citizens who are doing OK. It was THAT which resonated in our comparatively comfortable (with pockets of extreme poverty) bit of West Sussex.

A manifesto of hope and fairness, the opposite of Tory appeals to naked self interest. The number of comfortably off people I spoke to who said 'I voted Tory in the past but I am ashamed of the food banks and the homelessness in this country and am very happy to pay more to live in a more caring society...'

We mustn't get carried away. We didn't win. We lost 4-3 in the away leg of a two leg tie when we were expected to lose 7-0, and only lost at all because the opposition have teamed up with a feeder club with a disciplinary record worse than George Best, Joey Barton and John Terry combined!

This coalition of chaos won't last. The second leg will be soon. We know where we are. We know what to do.

 

For the Many not the Few
Saturday, 23 September 2017 05:29

For the Many not the Few

Published in Poetry

If All the People Voted for the Many Not the Few

by Zita Holbourne 
 
If all the people who didn't vote used their vote
They'd force politicians to sit up and take note 
The number of young people who didn't vote at all
Outnumbered those voting last election in total

If all the people who said "I don't do politics"
Joined the "all politicians are the same" cynics 
They could hold our political future in their hands
And influence on June 8th what happens in these lands 

If all those who said they like Jeremy Corbyn
But they don't think  he can win so they won't be voting 
Used their vote and voted for  Labour he would win 
If all who won't vote Labour 'cos they don't like him

Voted on policies not his personality 
We could make stopping cuts a reality 
We could save the NHS, reduce inequality 
Lift those struggling to survive out of poverty

End zero hour contracts and earn a living wage
Stop disadvantage based on gender, race and age 
Disability and sexual orientation 
Make a stand against exploitation

Or neglect of the most vulnerable people 
Build a society that's more just and equal 
Invest in social and affordable homes
Get paid a living wage, not turn to payday loans
 
Renationalise energy and Royal Mail 
End the privatisation of buses and rail 
Reverse welfare reforms like the bedroom tax 
And to University tuition fees give the axe

Make education free not a privilege for the rich 
Kick draconian Tory policies in the ditch 
Halt cuts to jobs, services and communities 
That are destroying lives, made with impunity

Stop austerity measures that are ideological 
Reject the myths and lies that they're economical 
If all the people who even though they know full well
These Tory cuts assign them to a living hell

But still in vox pops and polls, when asked will say 
"I'm voting Tory cos I like Theresa May" 
Would see that's just like turkeys voting for Christmas
It makes no sense at all, it's just ridiculous

If all those who say they're voting for May "because she's strong"
Would stop to realise you can be  strong and wrong 
That gentle and peaceful doesn't equal weak 
That being real and caring doesn't make you a freak

If all the people voting on how you look not what you do 
Looked at voting records rather than each leader's shoes 
They'd see that Corbyn's stood up for us from time 
That for decades of time he's had your back and mine

In communities not just in  Parliament
He's meant what he said, said what he meant
Joining rallies and vigils for justice and peace 
Stood on picket lines and protested on the streets 

If elected Labour will invest  in schools and  education 
- An old African proverb gives Corbyn inspiration
"It takes a village to raise a child" he says -
EMA and free school meals because it pays

To invest in the lives and  futures of   our children 
This is what it's all about, the next generation
If all the people who say they won't vote, voted Labour 
Encouraged their friend, colleague and neighbour

We could change the future life chances of  young people  
Build a society that's safe and is stable 
Protect our rights and defend communities 
Focus on building trust and hope and unity

If all the people who say "I don't really know"
Take the time to read the Labour manifesto 
The undecided could be the people who decide 
And together with those who "don't vote" turn the tide 

If all those who don't, decided now that they will 
We could move forward rather than standing still
Just imagine how empowered we could be 
If we stopped thinking I and thought of we
 
If the “don't vote” became the people who do
If we voted for the many not the few
If we acted as a majority
We could  finally see an end to austerity
We could rise up out of poverty
We could achieve true equality
 
If all the people voted for the many not the few.....
 
Ballade upon 'Warts and All'
Saturday, 23 September 2017 05:29

Ballade upon 'Warts and All'

Published in Poetry

Ballade upon ‘Warts and all’

by Rip Bulkeley

Only the old world could provide
the means by which to reach the new,
wreck timbers soiled by the tide
of history which a stumbling crew
have cobbled for a rough canoe,
then launched with hope for all our sakes
despite the fact, which they well knew,
that politicians make mistakes.

It need not, surely, be denied
that Jeremy has blundered too.
How could he not, when vilified
by hacks from here to Timbuctoo
who yearn to cage him in their zoo,
then smear across their mental jakes
the headline revelation: ‘Ooh!
This politician makes mistakes!’?

Our man pays no one else to hide
his defects from the public view.
He’s neither schooled nor prettified;
his faults and merits are all true
and benefits from this accrue.
A voter from the balance makes
an informed choice: this much virtue;
this politician; some mistakes.

Envoi
Let none of this bewilder you,
divert you from the greater stakes
which some would have you misconstrue:
Which politicians? Which mistakes?

Saturday, 23 September 2017 05:29

Stop consuming and do it yourself

Published in Music

Via email interview, Robb Johnson introduces his new album and talks about politics, protest music, and plum pudding.

Q. Can you tell us something about your new album, whether it's a change of style, direction, material or theme?

‘My Best Regards’ consists of 16 tracks, 13 songs recorded with Jenny Carr on piano and organ, John Forrester on bass and double bass, Arvin Johnson on drums and percussion, with some guest contributions from Jim Cannell on cello, Linz Maesterosa on clarinet and saxophone, and Saskia's Tomkins on violin. Kirsty Martin’s singing adds some extra vocal magic, and there are two tracks which are different versions of songs on the album, recorded live with Brighton's Hullabaloo Quire, which Kirsty coordinates. Then there is one track that is an alternative version of the song ‘When the Tide Comes In’ again performed live, with Palestinian singer Reem Kelani.

 

I think it is more of a development than a change of style, and it's not really a change of material. For a while now, my songs have generally been understood to be a balance of the personal and the political. I am quite happy about that, and that seems to me to be a pretty good description of the songs on this album, though sometimes I think more mainstream reviewers only seem to hear The Political, at which they promptly throw their hands up in horror.

I have released albums that have been determinedly Political – ‘Some Recent Protest Songs’ and ‘Us and Them’ – partly because I had accumulated a lot of overtly political songs, but partly because there was a tendency for mainstream media hacks to spew out articles complaining that no-one writes that sort of song any more. This seemed to me a combination of arrogance, ignorance, and an unhealthy dose of hypocrisy.

Mainstream media hacks have been either sneering contemptuously at politics in music which they term dismissively ‘protest music’ (in a way they never quite do with theatre or film) or ignoring it altogether for so long. Then they felt able to wring their hands, as austerity ravaged communities and cities erupted in riots, and take songwriters to task for not writing about austerity and riots any more. Yet their idea of popular music doesn't seem to be interested in anything that isn't in the media-sanctioned pop mainstream.

But this isn't one of those albums, although I suppose it is structured so as to have a political theme framing it. I like to have albums that give a narrative, that have an emotional or intellectual beginning/middle/end coherence. So this one starts off with the rather bleak ‘September 1939’. Immediately after the last general election I felt that the summery sunny days that followed must have been a little what it was like after war was declared in 1939. The album ends, though, with the post-Corbyn election song ‘The Future Starts Here’.

Originally the album was to be shorter and much more obviously politicised, but we used some of the more personal songs as warm-up numbers in the studio, and enjoyed playing them so much that we kept them. I think they actually work well to balance some of the album's bleaker moments, and help make the album more of a narrative journey.

Q. The JC4PM tour reminded some of us oldies of the Red Wedge tours in the eighties in support of Labour. How did the tour go?

Well, I think it was pretty successful. Certainly the gigs I did were very enjoyable and there was a very effective mix of speeches, stand-ups and songs. There seems a lot more comedy involved in JC4PM, compared with the earnest guitar and song tendencies of what I remember about Red Wedge, but then I suppose that's post- modernist irony for you, comedy being the new rock'n'roll etc.

The other difference is that Red Wedge were working in support of a Labour Party in retreat, a Labour Party under Kinnock beginning the long and dismal process of making itself electable in the eyes of Rupert Murdoch, by making itself into something that was hardly worth electing at all, and losing all sense of principle, integrity, and contact with the very section of society it had traditionally represented.

JC4PM, on the other hand, is working with a Labour Party – leadership and membership anyway – that is on the advance, reclaiming its principles, integrity and commitment to represent its historical constituency.

Q. What are your thoughts about politics at the moment, generally and of course in particular the situation with Jeremy Corbyn, socialism and the Labour Party?

I have rejoined the Labour Party. It was the pusillanimous attitude towards the poll tax, and the collusion over the Gulf War that did for me. I have always voted Labour. I didn’t have illusions about voting Labour, but as a working person and a trade unionist – I worked as a teacher for 35 years and was a fairly active member of the NUT – having a Labour government seemed a better option than having a Tory one.
Indeed, that old inch of difference between Tory and Labour was really significant for early years’ education at the start of the century, where there were some really positive developments for children introduced, while Tony Blair was telling us about how Saddam had all these weapons of mass destruction only 15 minutes away.
So what Jeremy Corbyn represents is a significant shift in the accepted narrative that has dominated politics in the U.K., since the Tories set about deliberately trashing the postwar consensus 30+ years ago. Corbyn's selection has taken the gag off those voices that never accepted that greed was good, that there was no such thing as society, that the poor have to pay for the fuck-ups of the greedy rich.

I know Jeremy Corbyn from being on the same anti-war demos, and he is like you and me, only whereas my day job was teaching, playing guitar and secretly wishing I'd been in the Stooges or The Pink Fairies or whatever, Jeremy Corbyn's day job, and I suspect his version of being in the Stooges, is doing politics properly, with principle and integrity. Doing a version of politics to ensure society and social organisations exist to serve the needs of the people, not the other way round.

Obviously, the consequences of Blairism means we have a parliamentary party of careerist small businesspersons for whom that idea is both strange and threatening, because Corbyn's politics are essentially about inclusion and empowerment, and machine politicians like being machine politicians. They play the game, they prefer to serve the machine that rewards them for their compliance, rather than serve the voters who put them there.

Socialism is simply the tradition of trying to organise society to the benefit of all, so to me it seems simple common sense. Certainly, my experience has confirmed that to be the case. Working with under fives, you see people at their best, before the manifold poisons & disappointments of capitalism and its commodifications screw us up. I know that human beings are absolutely brilliant, every single one of us, and that humans are essentially kind and positive, happiest when they cooperate rather than compete. Happiest also in societies that value their individual members, and are organised along principles of inclusion, empowerment, equality, and fair play.
That is of course why 30 years of government interventions in education have only served to produce generations of unhappy, stupefied consumers. It is significant that it was the dismantling of that bastion of the concept of privilege, of the fatuous and inhuman concept of the deserving being separated from the undeserving – I mean the the grammar school system – that first really energised the Right in their challenge to the postwar consensus. And here it is again, being exhumed by Theresa Mayjor! A sure indication of how politically bankrupt the Tory party is.

Q. What's it like working in the music scene at the moment, as a worker? How has it changed, over your career? What do you think of other bands and musicians, and other music these days?

As with all workers, the introduction of new technology does tend to result in fewer jobs. Growing up in the 70s, I got to see lots of great bands at lots of great venues, and also lots of bandslike Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, who worked conscientiously round the pubs and who gave you a good night out.

By the 70s, the average band size was four people. But bands and musicians still exercised a certain creative control, and up to and including punk I think musicians rather than the music business determined the progress of popular music. This of course is not the case now. The business now determines the culture, the media polices its business decisions. From being the most exciting, innovative, democratic and radical cultural form of the last century, popular music has become a dull, processed puppet of the society of the spectacle.

You could say that there is surely a limit with what you can do with three chords, and that may well have been reached even before the Gallagher brothers made a career out of recycling old John Lennon riffs. This never used to bother folk music however, or indeed blues musicians, because these musicians were working within a tradition of form that facilitated personal expression. The experiences of the worker animated each song into something particular and expressive.

Now, there are bloated spectaculars of television, festivals and stadiums, no middle ground where the likes of Sutherland Brothers and Quiver can earn an honest crust, and pubs that will either play safe with covers bands or pay bugger-all for open mike nights. It is difficult in these circumstances for people to find their own voice, and to give their own lives particular expression.

Nonetheless, people keep on writing great songs and singing their hearts out about what it is like to be like them, to think like them, rather than Ed Sheeran. The media doesn't want you hear about them, because they remain outside the process of cultural recuperation. But they are there. They are people like Joe Solo and his mates, inventing We Shall Overcome, a grass roots weekend of nationwide self-organised gigs and community action as an annual alternative to getting kettled at a demo.
We need more of that, taking back our culture, organising a folk club or whatever you want to call it – Grace Petrie's just started a folk club in Leicester – more gigs like Nick puts on at the Yorkshire House in Lancaster. And less nostalgia!

Q. Can I have your thoughts on politics and music, such as what your favourite political songs are? And how you think music makes a difference, politically?

All music carries political meanings. In our agitprop trio The Ministry of Humour, singing down Thatcher, apartheid and capitalism in the 1980s, when people accused us of Being Political we used to say ‘everything's political.’

I tried translating The Marseillaise and it is awful, but I think the Internationale is beautiful, and the words don't really need updating. Songs may not of course kickstart strikes and seizures of post offices and telephone exchanges, or storm the Winter Palaces of the Ice Queen etc, but as we all know – and this is why the media don't want us listening to politically conscious songs – that magic combination of the perfectly apposite words with a perfectly apposite melody stays with us long after the speech or the editorial or the television interview. We can hum and sing them, and we realise we are not alone in our ideas and our aspirations, and they inspire us as we kickstart our own little part of the revolutionary process.

My favourite political song? ‘Te Recerdo Amanda’ by Victor Jara. My favourite song, which is also set within the landscape and language of working class life, but which carries its politics less consciously, is ‘Les Amants d’un Jour’ by Marguerite Monnot, sung by Edith Piaf.

 

Q. Culture Matters has recently started a series of articles looking at arts and culture policies, in the light of the austerity driven cutbacks which impact more on working people, and in the light of the research which is showing that working class people are finding it harder to access the arts, as consumers and as performers. And of course the gap between the funding of the arts in London/the South East and the rest of the country is pretty huge. Can we have your thoughts on arts and culture policy please?

Well – first step as above mentioned is to stop consuming and do it yourself. I saw a headline in a London newspaper on a London train which trumpeted – like it was a good thing – that arts funding in London wouldn't be cut! The headline should of course have been ‘Arts Funding to be Cut for Most of the UK’, just like we should recognise that for most of us, the Tory obsession with selection at 11 means a reintroduction of education at secondary moderns, rather than a reintroduction of grammar schools.

Yes, I would like to see funding directed at supporting art and culture initiatives rather than paying for military action in the Middle East, or Armageddon being parked at Faslane. But this financial support needs to be supported in turn by a social culture of empowerment. State education needs to be reconfigured to serve the needs of the child, not the state, which will mean a curriculum that values and encourages imagination and creativity. The media needs to be regulated to ensure cultural as well as journalistic balance, and press freedom should not be confused with the lowest common denominator.

Similarly, community art – like open mike nights or reality TV – should not be used as a cheapskate alternative to paying skilled workers at appropriate skilled worker rates. However, we would also need to reconfigure cultural workers as workers rather than as the extraordinarily differentiated celebrities that is the paradigm we are presented with at the moment. We need to recognise individual aptitude, but also recognise that this needs to be understood within a spectrum of performance, not within a hierarchy of ‘excellence’ that is usually related to the valuations of economics rather than valuations based upon intrinsic qualities of artistic expression.

Art & culture need to be returned more to the reality of their social function. Some of us are pretty gifted when it comes to plumbing, some of us are pretty gifted when it comes to singing, but when your plumbing goes wrong, Bono is no use whatsoever.

This spectrum of performance needs to be supported by a plurality of performance spaces and opportunities – culture should not be something that only takes place on television or as spectacular events set apart from the lives of those people whose existence is only defined by the word ‘audience’ and whose appreciation and experience of art and culture is determined by the economics of production and consumption.

Applying huge amounts of money to something does not necessarily ensure high levels of performance. A couple of seasons ago Brentford drew Chelsea in the Cup, and so there they were, all these fabulously-paid celebrity Chelsea footballers so celebrated in the media, hoofing about Griffin Park, and not actually performing that much better than Brentford’s cheery collection of 19 year-olds still living with their mums. It was a draw at the final whistle. Possibly the most creative aspect of the afternoon was the Brentford fans chanting “You’re just a bus stop in Fulham.”

The same problems of scale exist in the arts. Size of spectacle and budget are no guarantee of artistic achievement. Any investment in arts would be obviously welcome, but it will be largely ineffectual unless it is animated by an understanding of the importance of diminishing the distances between performer and audience, which necessarily involves a more realistic perspective on issues of inclusion and particular aptitudes and skills. We need a culture where everybody can join in, and though some people can join in a bit more than others, this is not a big differentiating deal. Even genius shits like the rest of us.

Another consequence of having spent so long working with children, is that this experience convinces me that each of us is gifted with our own skills of creativity and our own unique artist’s perspective. With our current models of culture as commodity, most of us find our access to & participation in art and culture limited and defined by capitalism’s profit-driven economics, and the mindset of privilege and hierarchy.

But we all have an aesthetic intelligence, we are all artists. Access to and participation in culture should be on the basis of personal choice and predilection, our engagement should be based on the forms of self expression that appeal to our individual consciousness, and our choices should be encouraged and supported by empowering education and inclusive social organisation, whether we feel happiest expressing ourselves through plumbing, plum crumble or plumbing the profoundest depths of the human condition with poetry, or painting, or postpunk acoustic guitar. Or maybe a combination of all three – plumbing, plum crumble and postpunk acoustic guitar.


Robb Johnson’s new album, My Best Regards, is available from http://www.ethicalwares.com and all good record shops.

 

 

Films for Corbyn
Saturday, 23 September 2017 05:29

Films for Corbyn

Published in Films

Andrew Warburton interviews one of the organisers of screenings of some socialist films at the islington Mill, Salford.

One proof of Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to inspire grassroots action among Labour members and in the community as a whole is the ever-expanding list of cultural projects and activities bearing the name ‘… for Corbyn’. First, we had ‘Poets for Corbyn’ (a collection of poems released by Pendant Publishing in August 2015). Then we had ‘Dance for Corbyn’, a mixture of speakers and DJ sets in London, and soon there will be ‘Rock for Corbyn’, a night of live music in Warrington. Next week sees the beginning of a Greater Manchester-based project called ‘Films for Corbyn’, involving the screening of socialist films in aid of various causes, including the pro-Corbyn activist group Momentum.

The first film, screened on 24th August at the Islington Mill in Salford, is the documentary, ‘The Hard Stop’, about the shooting of Mark Duggan, a young black man, by the Metropolitan Police. Speakers at the screening will include Claudia Webbe, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee; Carole Duggan, the mother of Mark Duggan; and the poet Mark Mace Smith.

I asked Simon, one of the project’s organisers, what inspired him and his Momentum colleagues to start a film series in support of the Labour leader. A testament to the dynamic nature of grassroots organising associated with the Corbyn-led renewal of the Labour Party, Simon’s responses also demonstrated the importance of combining socio-cultural activities with the more serious business of political organizing.

What was the inspiration for ‘Films for Corbyn’?

I suppose ‘Films for Corbyn’ came out of us on the committee of Manchester and Trafford Momentum thinking about socials we could do to keep people engaged in politics. I think it’s important that as well as doing all of the important organising meetings, we do events which allow people to socialise and have fun, so that we don’t lose the energy from all of the people who have become enthused with politics for the first time in a while (or ever!) thanks to Jeremy Corbyn. I worry that it’s quite easy for people to become bored or disillusioned with politics, especially in the Labour Party, whose structures are often bureaucratic and unwelcoming to new people.

Will the project raise money for a particular cause?

We were initially going to donate any funds raised to our local Momentum group, which has been building a grassroots pro-Corbyn movement without any funding. The committee has had to finance our activities out of their own pocket, and that has become increasingly difficult as we have had to book bigger spaces to cope with the numbers of people coming to our events, which has risen dramatically in recent months. We will also be donating to causes which are related to the films we are showing. So our first screening will also be redistributing donations to the Duggan family.

Where will the films be shown?

This is initially a Manchester project, so we will be concentrating on showing films around the Greater Manchester area, with our first screening being in Salford. We don’t have any plans as of yet to show films in other regions, but if there is interest elsewhere it would be exciting to expand this project to other parts of the country

What kind of films do you intend to show?

We intend to show films from a radical working class or socialist tradition, which explore issues affecting some of the most marginalised groups and people in society, which are issues Jeremy Corbyn has been campaigning on throughout his political life.

What is your larger vision for the series, i.e., is it an educational project or part of a bigger political campaign?

For us, educational projects and political campaigns go hand in hand, and we want ‘Films for Corbyn’ to be both of these things. Not only is it something which we hope will maintain and attract enthusiasm for supporting a left-wing Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, the films and discussions we will host will hopefully raise further awareness of issues in Britain which the Labour Party should be fighting. Promoting political education is something we have been doing in Manchester and Trafford Momentum and is something which we feel there needs to be more of.

What do you see as the great socialist filmmakers or classics of socialist film?

Personally, I’m a massive fan of the work of Cinema Action, which was a left-wing film collective whose members produced amazing (but overlooked) documentaries from the late ‘60s to the ‘80s. Particularly for me, the work of Marc Karlin and Steve Sprung, such as ‘The Year of the Beaver’ and ‘Between Times’ stand out. As someone who is more interested in documentaries, I also admire the series produced by Granada in its glory days, such as ‘World in Action’. And I, of course, love a bit of Adam Curtis.

The first film in the ‘Films for Corbyn’ series will be shown on 24th August at the Islington Mill, James Street, Salford. Tickets are £5 (£3 unwaged) and are available through Eventbrite at the following link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/films-for-corbyn-opening-the-hard-stop-tickets-26874738065.

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