Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (74)

Culture for All
Wednesday, 23 March 2022 16:17

Culture for All

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Over the last year Culture Matters has been commissioning a series of short films about cultural democracy, called culture for all. The films cover a range of cultural topics, including the arts like poetry, film, theatre and music, and also other cultural activities like sport, religion, the media and videogames. The films were made by Carl Joyce and Mike Quille, with the support of the Communication Workers Union. We will be uploading them onto our website over the next few weeks, together with the text of the talk.

Here is the introductory video......

....and here is a video on the media, by Professor Natalie Fenton, followed by the text of her talk. 

Why the Media Matters

By Natalie Fenton

 We live in a society full of information and entertainment, coming at us from all kinds of media. The TV we watch, the radio we listen to, the newspapers we read, the content we consume online, are a crucial part of our daily lives. From watching ‘Strictly’ to getting our daily diet of news, our media are a source of pleasure as well as a means of education and information.

The media we consume stimulate conversations and provide collective experiences – from the televising of the football or the Olympics – to gaining knowledge about the Coronavirus Pandemic – to figuring out who to vote for and how we build our own identities. The very ideas and concepts that people use to make sense of an increasingly confusing world are to some extent dependent on the images and frameworks offered by the media.

So it matters who owns, controls and produces this content. It matters how messages are communicated and the sorts of values, beliefs and forms of understanding that the media promote at any one time. It matters which voices are excluded to the preference of others; who or what is marginalised or misrepresented; which sets of ideas are prioritised and which are neglected.

Ownership of newspapers is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few billionaires. Newspapers continue to set the news agenda of the nation yet just 3 companies dominate 90% of the UK’s national newspaper market, Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, DMG Media and Reach. Concentration of ownership creates conditions in which wealthy individuals and organisations amass huge political, economic and cultural power and distort the media landscape to suit their interests.

The same happens online. Our digital media space is dominated by a few unregulated tech companies and social media platforms. Apple is the first trillion-dollar company in history. Jeff Bezos, founder and owner of Amazon, is the richest person in history. In 2018 his net wealth increased by $400 million a day. These corporations – the likes of Facebook, Google, and Amazon – form the largest oligopolies the world has ever seen.

They exist to make money out of advertising – they seduce us onto their platforms, monitor our behaviour and then sell that information back to advertisers so that they can target their goods more precisely. These tech giants exercise considerable gatekeeping power over how UK audiences discover, access and consume media content constantly adjusting their search algorithms to maximise their advertising revenue. And although some independent media are flourishing online, their business models are precarious and their audiences tiny compared to legacy national media like the Mailonline, that benefit from algorithms that prioritise well-known brands. 

The BBC is still a powerful presence, but a decade of funding freezes has kept its budget far below that of its immediate domestic and international competitors. Over the last 3 decades its independence from government has also been steadily eroded and its programme making increasingly commercialised. Boris Johnson is threatening further cuts to its funding, and suggesting he might sell off Channel 4. So unsurprisingly, the editorial culture of the BBC has become increasingly Conservative.

And two rival news channels – GB News and News UK TV (from the owners of the Sun, The Times and Times Radio) – will launch soon. Murdoch’s move back into British TV will only increase his already tremendous power over UK politics.

This is bad news for democracy. Major shocks like the coronavirus pandemic have made it clearer than ever how much we need public media – accountable media institutions, run in the public interest, which help a divided society talk to each other and hold the powerful to account. ‘Public media’ are media institutions that act in the public interest, rather than the interests of politicians and governments, billionaire owners or powerful corporations. In the UK today, public media are the best of public broadcasting, as well as independent media cooperatives and democratically-run community media.

Public media are essential to a functioning democracy, and for facing the huge challenges of the 21st century. Our current media system is very far from this ideal, which is why we have to fight for change and for cultural democracy in the media. One vital area for change is access to the internet. 11% of the UK population still does not have access to the internet at home – that’s 7.5m people – more than the combined population of the cities of Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Bradford, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle, Sunderland, Wolverhampton, Leicester and Nottingham.

Many do not have the appropriate device, quality of connection or required skills to make use of digital technologies and services. Digital exclusion extends to all of life – access to work, quality of education, availability of healthcare, costs of goods and services and the ability to connect with loved ones as well as voice, information and political participation.

Studies also show that the varying forms of political participation online correlate to social class and educational achievement. In other words, although half of the world may now be online, those using the internet for political purposes are still largely middle-class and well educated.

So what can we do?

Firstly, we need to lobby government for regular media plurality reviews that will ensure plurality of media ownership and redress existing concentrations to deliver a rich mix of media at both local and national level.

Ensuring plurality also means ensuring our media serve a more diverse set of interests. So we need to encourage alternative models of media ownership such as co-operatives and employee buyouts that promote equality and financial security over shareholder returns through offering tax relief and direct subsidies for media that function in the public interest and not for profit.

Social media and other fundamental media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google need to be brought under public ownership and control, in various national and international ways.

We need our media to be fully accountable to the public they serve through independent and effective regulation so they can no longer be discriminatory and cause harm.

We need to ensure equality of access to careers in the media for working-class people, women, people of colour and others who are systematically excluded from sustainable, satisfying careers in TV and broadcasting, newspapers and publishing as well as online provision.

We need to ensure equal and fair representation of working-class people, women and people of colour and others who have historically been under-represented and unfairly represented in the media.

We need a more democratic, diverse and devolved public service broadcasting that is fully independent of government and fully representative of all UK citizens.

And we need free broadband for all.

We need these changes now – there can be no meaningful democracy without media reform.

The Media Democracy Festival is on Saturday 26th March, see here.

Capitalism and Death
Monday, 21 March 2022 17:04

Capitalism and Death

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My maternal grandmother passed away at 2 am on February 14, 2022. For her funeral, I went to Bihar where my grief was socialized among the many people who came to collectively remember her. I could not help but remember what bell hooks said in her book “All About Love: New Visions”:

Love invites us to grieve for the dead as ritual of mourning and as celebration. As we speak our hearts in mourning we share our intimate knowledge of the dead, of who they were and how they lived. We honor their presence by naming the legacies they leave us. We need not contain grief when we use it as a means to intensify our love for the dead and dying, for those who remain alive.

The calmness of my stay at Bihar was torn apart by my school’s announcement of exams which immediately made me worry about how I would have to frantically complete the syllabus in a short time. This incident made me realize how capitalism has penetrated into our understanding of death. The present-day social structure of accumulation is obsessed with the need to be ambitious, competitive and achievement-oriented. As such, it never allows us to nurture social bonds of relaxation in the present, constantly compelling us to remain neurotic about the future. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

We tend to be alive in the future, not now. We say, ‘Wait until I finish school and get my Ph.D. degree, and then I will be really alive’ .We are not capable of being alive in the present moment. We tend to postpone being alive to the future, the distant future, we don’t know when. Now is not the moment to be alive. We may never be alive at all in our entire life.

Our passive submersion in the future means that we keep avoiding the question of death in the present. We worship monetary wealth in order to cope with our fear of death, using feelings of strength and superiority to protect ourselves against the sense of smallness and insignificance that death can engender. In other words, we deny death, clinging to the symbolic immortality offered by material commodities. Contra this ideological concealment of death, Avijit Pathak explains how the recognition of death can promote a humane art of living:

Things are impermanent; yet, for some time we have got an opportunity to find ourselves in this world amid this blue sky, these mountains, forests and rivers, or amid the presence of the loved ones. And to live is to live with this sense of gratitude. This is like seeing ourselves as humble wanderers or seekers, not egotistic conquerors.

By refusing to attribute any element of eternity to our existential environment, we come to embrace the fragility of things, working hard to sustain our relations with them in the face of the possibility of loss; with this sense of mortality, we become aware of the fundamental fact that our lives are dependent on the actions and inactions of others, that we need to be sensitive to the needs of others. This means that the recognition of our shared vulnerability and finitude is the foundation of a human life based upon reciprocity and mutual love. As Martin Hagglund notes:

My devotion to the ones I love is inseparable from the sense that they cannot be taken for granted. My time with family and friends is precious because we have to make the most of it. Our time together is illuminated by the sense that it will not last forever and we need to take care of one another because our lives are fragile.

As we understand that the present is the only moment available to us, and that it needs to be lived with compassion, grace and love, our hubristic orientation to the surrounding world changes. A deep awareness of the perishability of things does not transform the human body and nature into dead stuff that can satisfy our desires. Rather, it looks at them as receptacles of finitude whose lifespan can’t be wasted for the possession of an illusory future of death-defying promises. We see these flows and forces of life; who knows the next moment they may not be alive because death doesn’t follow a pre-formulated plan of arrival. Pathak articulates this perspective vividly:

[T]o live deeply and intensely here and now is to hear the chirping of birds, feel the warmth of the sunray and experience the boundless laughter of a child. Indeed, at this intense moment of living, one breaks the egotistic wall of separation; one becomes the butterfly, the sun, the tide in the ocean; in other words, one becomes the universe. And this confluence removes all sorts of fear. Instead, what grows is the abundance of love.

As I looked at the trees and pond that fill my grandmother’s village, it dawned upon me that I am embedded in the world. I am not an “exam warrior” that unilaterally contemplates the supposedly external reality in concise formulae and memorized words; I am not a mere student that wants to compete with the world and become a “topper” – I am a formless human being that draws its meaning form the well of earthly fragility; I am someone whose life is defined not by individual pursuits but by relations of empathy and care toward other things. As I realized that the world is intrinsic to me, that it resides within me, the destructiveness and futility of the present-day capitalist lifestyle became evident. By structurally subordinating our existence to the compulsion to achieve, capitalism deprives us of the poetic density of life and turns death into an event of meaningless chaos. Building an alternative to this barbaric system is crucial.

The Future of the Scots Language
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 24 February 2022 10:57

The Future of the Scots Language

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2022 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Scots Language Society, set up to encourage and promote the use of Scots Language. In 2021 a Scottish Parliament Cross Party Group was reconvened in order to advise the Scottish Government on ways of taking Scots forward. It is worth considering not only how this might be achieved, but to look at attitudes toward Scots and how they have changed during the last fifty years.

Re-reading David Purves “A Scots Grammar - Scots Grammar and Usage’, published by The Saltire Society in 1997, though full of facts, knowledge and examples of Scots as it is, I was struck by how much it has dated in less than three decades. Purvis was a notable spokesman and advocate for Scots. Though I was impressed at the time I feel now that “A Scots Grammar” represents a miss-step in terms of the way we think about Scots Language and languages in general. David Purves was a hard-working editor of Lallans, the magazine of the Scots Language Society, who put in much time and effort on behalf of the auld leid. It may seem harsh to criticize his book when he is no longer around to defend himself but now is a good time to take stock.

In “A Scots Grammar” Purves tries to establish a case for a form of “correct” or “pure” Scots that he can base his system of grammatical rules on. This is an unhelpful inversion but one that is typical of an academic approach. He argues that the grammars of all languages are based on their national literatures – the language, he claims, represented in its highest form. He is, in effect, implying that languages derive their identity from their literature. This is not the case. They derive it from their speakers, the people.

In the book, Purves suggests that following the Union of the Crowns and then the Parliaments, Scots lost its status as a national language. This has been oft repeated, along with other historical explanations such as the effect of the Reformation and the unionist-supporting Uncle Tams of the Enlightenment.  It is true to an extent of course, but more so if you place greater credence in crowns, parliaments, philosophers and kirks. The fact that Scots has survived as a spoken and written medium since 1707 is because it has continued to enjoy the support (or authority, for want of a better word) of the majority of the folk who have never let it go.

This is not wishful thinking. As far as the establishment has been concerned, Scots has been dying out now for over three hundred years, even though members of that very same establishment who attack it have continued to use it. Burns believed this to be the case and it motivated him, not only to preserve, but to create a completely new body of folksong. Burns actually came on the scene at the end of a renaissance rather than a decline. But in the everyday context of the factories, fields, shops, playgrounds, pubs and homes, Scots has aye been thrang.

Hamish Henderson got this, but MacDiarmid didn’t.  Purves doesn’t really get it either. For him, it is about the restoration of an older tongue back to its former days of courtly prestige and royal patronage. But such authority tends to take little notice of the list of places I mentioned in the above paragraph. “Establishment” is a vague and pejorative term to use in itself but it includes all “the Gaffers”: the gentry, landowners, academics, educationalists, and all those in authority charged with running the North British reservation. And Scots is often not spoken when the Gaffers are around so naturally, they have assumed that it is the tongue of a shrinking, cap-doffing minority.

Ironically, in providing examples of ways in which Scots differs from English, Purves gives many examples taken from his own Borders dialect area, but he is less generous in his comments toward other regional dialects of Scots, inferring that they exist only as corrupted survivals from pre 1600 (excluding Kelso!). Anything that is newer and urban he classes as demotic. He is particularly dismissive of the working-class speech of Glasgow which he quotes examples from and highlights as not being Scots and also labels as ‘bad” English.

None of this makes sense, however it is easy to see why he is doing it. In order to justify and defend Scots as being a language in its own right, especially against the perceived threat of extinction from English, he feels obliged to “fix” it as a kind of unchanging model with lots of rules that can be learned and taught by rote. Doing this proves not only that it exists but it makes it much easier to prescribe and own. His grammar of Scots is predicated on the notion that the Scots grammar rules are different from the English grammar rules, but he is still in thrall to the English model in his approach. The demonstrative pronouns are different and the verbs more irregular from English so Scots must be a language like English is, he tells us. 

This lack of linguistic self-confidence and hang up with English holds back the development of Scots to this day. Endless arguments about “correct” spellings and attempts to make each and every syllable look as different as possible from an English equivalent not only deter those interested in taking Scots up but take us far away from the bruckle beauty o the leid. A further aspect of this academic approach and emphasis has resulted in far too much importance being placed on owersetting or importing other literatures into Scots. Not a harmful or bad thing in itself but something that is far easier to do than attempting to be genuinely creative in your own language with the aim of producing new work that stands with the best internationally.

As the late Tom Leonard put it in his put-down poster poem “Makar’s Society”:

Gran meetin’
The nicht
Tae decide the
Spellin’
O’ this poster
And the admission price is thritty pee (a heid).

Purves is attempting to take possession of Scots, to put a fence around it. But as Tom Leonard also wrote, all living language is sacred, it carries a heavy responsibility to communicate truth and therefore must not be twisted or appropriated in this way. Especially so in our contemporary world of “alternative facts”, fake news and internet conspiracy theories.

A better way of thinking about it might have been to try to demonstrate how our language, our syntax, our word choices reflect the way we perceive ourselves and our existence within our environment – our culture, history, people, landscape. A kind of psychic or karmic grammar if you like. A much harder thing to do. All languages right down to idiolects are unique. They represent who we are. To mock or seek to undermine linguistic expression is to deny identity. Orwell knew this.

Languages die out in time. Their survival depends on whether they are used or not. We know that all language is organic and in a continual state of flux. Languages wane and wax. As I write, dialects are becoming languages and vice versa. You can say that a language is a dialect with an army and navy. You can say what you like. People usually think that the medium they use to fill in their tax forms in is the “official” language.

Some of this is based on geo-political influences. To give one example, Norwegian (Norsk) has become stronger and more widely used over the last hundred years since the country gained its independence. But there are no such things as “rules”, only conventions of speech and writing that are perpetually changing, morphing, adapting.  Of all people, authors and poets are continually tinkering, bending and breaking convention in order to create new forms. So to try to fix a centralized model derived from a literature, especially an older one divorced from common speech, is plain daft. Nor can it be forced retrospectively against the will of people. But the fact that Scots has retained a strong and living identity over a number of centuries, against constant attempts to marginalize it and belittle it, tells you that it has something of a powerful hold in our heads and hearts.

We may not speak in the iambic pentameters of Drummond of Hawthornden when we meet wi our drouthy neebors at the pub. And neither do our English neighbours speak in the language of the sonnets of Shakespeare in theirs. But colloquial Scots is used every day by hundreds of thousands and in millions of social contexts.

David Purves was wrong because he suggested that there was good Scots and bad Scots. It is all good Scots. And as usual in these cases he was the self-appointed judge and jury. The usual cultural elitism prevailed. But he was also a man of his time – by now, some of his views may have changed. For over three centuries, Scots has been in an unusual but not unique situation for a language under threat from a colonialist education system and social conditioning. Today, we could either be at the end o an auld sang or the stert o a new reel. I believe much depends on how we approach it and how external factors effect it but I am hopeful.

Tomás Mac Síomóin: From One Bright Island Flown
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Saturday, 19 February 2022 11:11

Tomás Mac Síomóin: From One Bright Island Flown

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Jenny Farrell pays tribute to Tomás Mac Síomóin and reviews From One Bright Island Flown - Irish Rebels, Exiles,and Martyrs in Latin America, Nuascéalta, 2022

Tomás Mac Síomóin has died on the eve of his 84th birthday. He was a significant Irish language writer, poet, publisher, scientist, and Marxist. A former editor of the Irish language and weekly newspaper Anois and later for the monthly magazine Comhar, he published four collections of poetry before embarking on prose fiction writing. His sardonic Cín Lae Seangáin [An Ant's Diary] (2005), won first prize in the 2005 Oireachtas short story competition.

Mac Síomóin was one of the finest Irish language novel writers of the late 20th/early 21st century. His novel An Tionscadal won the highest award for an Irish language piece of literature in 2007. In an effort to bring to the non-Irish speaking public the work of the outstanding poet Máirtín Ó Direáin, Mac Síomóin along with Douglas Sealy translated his work into English, published as Selected poems/Tacar dánta (1984). We have presented his work before in Culture Matters.

Among his outstanding achievements are the republication for the first time since their original edition outside Ireland and subsequent banning in Ireland of three of Liam O’Flaherty’s five novels placed on the index. Apart from this, Tomás Mac Síomóin wrote two studies on the cultural conquest of Ireland by Britain and more recently Anglo-American cultural domination, following in the footsteps of Frantz Fanon and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, applying and developing their thinking in the Irish context.

Mac Síomóin wrote tirelessly, exposing neoliberal society and its profoundly inhuman nature in both fact anf fiction, often in a very satiricalway. His internationalism found expression, among other things, in his indefatigable translation work into and out of Irish, English, Catalan, Spanish. Among his outstanding translations into Irish are Juan Rulfo's classic Pedro Páramo and the selected poems of Marxist priest Ernesto Cardenal. He also translated The Communist Manifesto into Irish.

Being ostracised in Ireland for his outspoken anti-establishment views, Mac Síomóin made Spain his home in 1998. There follows a review of his last book, From One Bright Island Flown, published only last month.

Tomas 2

The defeat of the Gaelic Irish, supported by Spanish forces, at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, was the final blow in the English conquest of Ireland and  a watershed in Irish history. Following this, a great number of the aristocratic and military leaders of Gaelic Ireland fled the country as the only alternative to submitting to criminalisation by the coloniser. This brought with it the rapid decline of the Gaelic society and culture, eventually leading to the near destruction of the Irish language.

The majority of those who emigrated went to Catholic countries, above all France and Spain, although they also went to other European countries such as Austro-Hungary to serve in their armies and become military and administrative advisors. The great Lament (keen) for Art O’Leary/ Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire tells of the return of one such officer to Ireland, defying the British authorities and paying the ultimate price. 

Tomás Mac Síomóin, who was one of the foremost Irish language writers and activists, has now published a book on the “Wild Geese”, as these emigrants are known. However, this is a book with a particular focus on the men who went, via France and Spain, to Latin America and became Latino heroes in their own right.

Typically, they initially went to Spain to study, work or join distinct military units in the Spanish army,  commanded by their own officers. Some travelled on to Spanish colonial countries in South America, in roles such as administrators, business people, military men. Frequently, the men integrated, and settled in their new homelands, indeed becoming involved in the fight for independence in these countries. A number became so famous, that their names known to this day. These are the stories Tomás Mac Síomóin tells, in by what he describes as 'an incomplete compendium'. Nevertheless, it is an encouragement to future researchers to look further into the lives of those in the Irish-Latin American hall of fame.

Mac Síomóin introduces the reader to six of these colourful lives.

Liam Lamport was born in Wexford in 1615, later became Guillén Lampart in Mexico, and wound up intriguingly as the inspiration behind Zorro, the fox. He is the only non-Mexican represented in statue at Mexico City’s Ángel de la Independencia.

Alejandro O’Reilly, too, has left a mark in present day Latin America – a street in Havana, Cuba, is named after him. Born in Moylough, County Galway, in 1722, his family fled the notorious Penal Laws and took him to Spain as a child. A military man, he was sent to Cuba by the Spanish crown in 1763, and from there continued his service to the Spanish monarch in Puerto Rico and Louisiana and back to Cuba and then Spain. Many other Irishmen are memorialised alongside him in this chapter.

Camila O’Gorman, on the other hand, was born in Argentina and suffered the same Catholic prejudice against women and those who opposed Catholic values, as so many women have done in Ireland. Aged twenty and eight months pregnant by her lover, Father Uladislao Gutiérrez, she was hounded and betrayed, and suffered the death penalty for living outside the iron rule.

The next chapter explores the story of a group hero (as did some of the early ones), the St. Patrick’s Battalion. Their deeds for Mexican independence are commemorated on a plaque at the San Jacinto Plaza in the district of San ÁngelMexico City: “In memory of the Irish soldiers of the heroic St. Patrick’s Battalion, martyrs who gave their lives to the Mexican cause in the United States’ unjust invasion of 1847”.

The chapter on Eduardo Bulfin acquaints the reader with the background to the largest Irish migrant population outside the English-speaking world in Argentina, which of course includes the family that brought forth Che Guevara. In this chapter, however, Mac Síomóin focuses on a family that returned to Ireland only to take part in the Easter Rising. Both children of the family were actively involved in the Irish struggle for freedom. Eduardo, a Republican activist and Catalina, secretary to the Irish revolutionary, Austin Stack. 

This small collection of outstanding Irish people with a Latin American connection concludes with the story of Rodolfo Walsh, another Argentine-Irishman, who saved the Cuban revolution. Rudolfo was a founder of Prensa Latina in Havana. He famously cracked the secret code which revealed the CIA’s intentions leading up to the Bay of Pigs. Consequently, Fidel Castro was able to defeat this assault on Cuban sovereignty.

Mac Síomóin points out that the book opens a window on a fascinating connection between Ireland and Latin America. Many more stories await their telling. Among them Daniel Florence O’Leary, aide-de-camp and chronicler of Simón Bolívar, the father of the Argentine navy, William Browne, and Bernardo O’Higgins, Liberator of Chile. Ireland’s loss of her Wild Geese was the Hispanic world’s gain.

Karen Dietrich’s beautiful illustrations complete the book’s purpose to reimagine the lives of those who took their sense of rebellion to the new continent.

The book is available here.

Banksy’s 'Season's Greetings' and a lesson in the commodification of art
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 16 February 2022 14:07

Banksy’s 'Season's Greetings' and a lesson in the commodification of art

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In December 2018, Ian Lewis, a steel worker from Port Talbot in South Wales, woke to an early Christmas present – an artwork by world-renowned street artist Banksy had appeared overnight on his garage.

Season’s Greetings, as the painting was officially named, is painted on two sides of a wall. One side shows a child playing in what looks like snow. Turn the corner and the ‘snow’ becomes falling ash and smoke from a skip fire.

Mr Lewis’ garage became an overnight tourist sensation, hitting national headlines, as crowds flocked from all over the country to see it.

What follows is nothing less than a salutary lesson. It quickly became clear that the artwork needed protecting. Amid fears of vandalism, fencing was installed, together a screen in front of the wall. Security guards were stationed at the entrance, together with parking attendants.

Next came the news that John Brandler, an Essex-based art dealer, had bought Season’s Greetings for an unspecified six-figure sum, despite not having seen the painting in real life. In May 2019 the piece was moved from the Taibach garage wall to Ty'r Orsaf, the site of the former police station on Station Road, where it was safely positioned behind panes of reinforced glass.

This month came the disappointing news that, despite the townsfolk’s best efforts to keep the artwork in the town where it was created, it was to be rehoused at a gallery in England. Apparently, Mr Brandler had plans to eventually create a street art museum in the Banksy's new home, Ty’r Orsaf, featuring other world-renowned artists. But in June 2019 he scrapped the idea after the cash-strapped Council refused his demands to pay a yearly fee of £100,000 for the loan of the artwork.

So that’s that, then. An artwork which was gifted to the city – and which arguably only makes sense in the context of its original location – is to leave Wales, possibly forever. Capitalism commodifies everything – skills, time, land (I recently read of The Adam Smith Institute’s plan to sell shares for plots on the Moon) and, yes, Art.

Determining the price of a piece of art is a tricky one. Who decides whether Tracy Emin’s bed is art or just…a bed? Or whether a cow pickled in formaldehyde is worth as much as an Old Master? Such decisions often feel arbitrary, based more on reputation than Skill. Even artists play this game. Salvador Dali famously avoided paying for drinks in bars by drawing on the backs of his cheques, making them priceless works of art and therefore un-cashable.

Artists, of course, deserve to make a living. It’s not unreasonable to charge prices that reflect the time, effort and skill required to create something beautiful and unique. The problems arise when collectors and dealers move in, and art becomes prized more for its perceived monetary value than its intrinsic worth. (Banksy, of course, famously played with this concept with his ‘shredded picture’ stunt at a London auction house).

Who determines what a piece of art is worth? A few years back, I bought an original painting for a fiver in my local charity shop. I bought it because I liked it. I’ve no idea who painted it. If tomorrow I was to discover that it was the work of a famous artist, nothing materially would have changed. The painting would be exactly the same as when I bought it. The only difference would be the market value, but the artistic value – the reason I bought it – stays the same.

Street art, by its nature, has always been ephemeral. Images and tags appear and disappear. Unlike the carefully curated art in galleries, historically Street Art has been egalitarian – anonymous or semi-anonymous, created purely for freedom of expression, with no intention of material gain. In a world where so many are made to feel invisible and worthless, it’s a way of rising up through the cracks, a two-fingered salute at the world – a way of shouting ‘I Exist!’

When does Street art become Established Art? A few years ago, Swansea Council, in their wisdom, decided to paint over a Cofiwch Dryweryn mural which appeared on the marina wall – arguably just as strong an artistic statement as the Banksy. When is an artwork deemed graffiti? When the Council considers its message too political? When it’s not judged to be in keeping with the tourism aesthetic of the area? When it poses a threat financially?

Banksy’s ‘Season’s Greetings’, too, was political. It was a statement about pollution, about the town’s industrial past (and future). A statement about how the ugliness of industry can, when viewed through innocent eyes, appear beautiful. About the legacy of a town which in 2018 was listed as the most polluted area of the UK, yet relies upon industry to feed its children. And it’s a child, significantly, who appears in the mural – a symbol of the town’s future, appearing at Christmas when the symbolism of Nativity, and of lost childhood, is at its most redolent. Above all, I think, it is a symbol of hope.

It’s easy to feel hopeless, as the town’s Banksy is lifted onto a crane to begin its long journey to a gallery miles away in England. It’s easy to feel frustration at an opportunity missed. Yet, amidst it all, there is hope. Banksy’s gift to the town has inspired the Port Talbot ARTWalk – a coming together of artists from across the town and farther afield, both known and unknown, to create a stunning walkway of murals and street art.

The ARTWalk is, of course, free for anyone to enjoy. Amid the gloom of a steel-grey February sky, these colourful, rebellious swirls of colour are a joyous shout to the world: We are here, we are the voices of the town, and we are not going anywhere.

Writing on the group’s Facebook page, Derek Davies of Port Talbot ARTWalk explains:

As a community, we will move forward. The fact that the Season’s Greetings artwork is not with us anymore – is that really so important? The mystique about the artwork will remain with us for all time in our town, regardless of not having a piece of wall. The story of the Port Talbot Banksy is part of who we are, the people and the passion of Port Talbot. It stays in the hearts of the people of Port Talbot and that, that cannot be taken away by money or profit. We are the winners, not art dealers. Money is okay for some, but the legend of the Port Talbot Banksy holds far more riches than money can ever, ever buy…And that my friends…is priceless.

So the commodification of Banksy’s Season’s Greetings has, in fact, achieved just the opposite. Rising up from the streets is unbridled freedom of expression – uncommodified, de-monetised, freed from the shackles of galleries and dealers. This is Art for Art’s sake. I reckon Banksy would be proud.

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Art and the Garage
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 10 February 2022 15:50

Art and the Garage

Written by

Coming back from a night shift I’m dropped at a garage on the edge of town. I’ll wait there for my lift home. Inside I can sit down at the plastic tables. Get in from the weather forming out in the Atlantic. At this hour, as I sit and watch, cup a warm drink I don’t want, the morning workers are mopping up the floor, setting up the fast food counter, or running the till. They are mainly immigrants or students. A few locals pass in and out. This is the precarity.

I’m tired after my shift, tired in my skin, beginning to drift in to the low, ever present, rumbling hangover of the night worker. I’m aware, especially at these times, of the jarring friction between my own struggles as a writer of non-commercial literature, or writing that nobody wants to read if we’re just going by the market, writing therefore of no value, and my need to make a living. I look over at the person mopping the floor, someone beside her stocking a shelf, someone in the outfit of the fast food server. At this moment, at this time, they’d look over at the nightshift worker and recognise me. They’d see me. We occupy the same space. The same, irritable, tetchy, fractious space. The same desperate for a laugh space. The same here out of necessity space. We are in the same space.

The precarity of the artist is the gig economy, the bursary, the grant, the funding, the deadline, the books and pictures and music that doesn’t sell. The artist should, by right, by context, recognise this early morning garage scene. The artist should know this world far too well. Yet, here’s my empirical observation. The eastern Europeans, the students, the immigrants, the over qualified asylum seeker, the small-town-trapped local, I see them here by the coffee machine, and the brightly stacked aisles, and the wearisomely loud tabloid headlines. But I don’t see the artist. I never have. I never do.

There’s no nobility in the low-paying job. No nobility in labour as experienced by most people. This isn’t some ugly, sly, paean to those who get up early in the morning. But if we have to sit here in the grit of neon light just in order to keep going, a pay check away from financial chaos, where are the artists? Where are the poets? What are they doing?

Not only that but, and as someone who straddles both worlds I can vouch for this, it is not just that the poet isn’t here. It is that the poet is looking down on this. The poet, and we know it, those of us sat here amongst the garish furniture and the far too bright, shiny symbols of commerce, is affronted by this scene. Not just aesthetically, we’re all trying to blink it away, but by the idea that they, the artist, the poet, should be part of it. Could be part of it. Might have no choice but to be part of it. That is an affront. This is not for them. This low-wage poverty is of a different kind to that of struggling on a bit of funding here or a paid gig there. One is superior to the other. And we all know it is not the one that contains these purple chairs or these disposable cups.

Truthfully, none of us can afford to write a poem. Not merely because of the lack of renumeration. There is more behind it than that. But if the world of the poet, or the artist, does not contain this early morning garage, has no need to, has never had to, indeed has no conception of it, knows there is no possibility of it in their world, knows it will never come to this, knows financial chaos is not a factor in their world, knows nothing of this precarity, cares even less for it, indeed looks down upon it, then, true, none of us can afford to write a poem. But some of us can afford it far, far less than others.

The struggle to decolonise the mind: Frantz Fanon and his Irish translator, Constance Farrington
Saturday, 15 January 2022 13:34

The struggle to decolonise the mind: Frantz Fanon and his Irish translator, Constance Farrington

Written by

Luke Callinan sketches the life of Constance Farrington (see image above), translator of Fanon's Wretched of the Earth

Last month marked 70 years since the passing of psychiatrist, political radical, Marxist and philosopher of the Algerian Revolution, Frantz Fanon, at the young age of 36. He was born in 1925 on Martinique, a French colony from 1653.

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Fanon left his home in 1943 at the age of 18 to join the Free French Forces which had been established by the French government-in-exile during the Second World War to fight fascism. After the war, he studied medicine and psychiatry in Lyon, France. Having qualified as a psychiatrist in 1951, Fanon completed a psychiatric residency during which he wrote his first book, Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks), an analysis of the deeply destructive psychological implications of the colonial subjugation of black people. He contextualises this analysis with the realities of his own life, writing in the Introduction:

 The attitudes that I propose to describe are real. I have encountered them innumerable times. Among students, among workers, among the pimps of Pigalle or Marseille, I have been able to isolate the same components of aggressiveness and passivity.

Fanon’s most influential work, however, came in 1961 with the publication of Les Damnés de la Terre (The Wretched of the Earth), its title taking inspiration from the first verse of “The Internationale” written by Eugène Pottier, a member of the Paris Commune. The Wretched of the Earth presents a psychological analysis and critique of the savagery and violence of colonialism on the individual, the community and the nation. It discusses the deeply traumatic impact of this brutality but also the necessity of violent resistance: “decolonisation is always a violent phenomenon”. He furthermore reflects on the collective decolonisation of communities and individuals, “the opportunity to return to the people during the struggle for freedom”.

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This analysis is very much rooted in Fanon’s experiences in Algeria where he initially worked in the psychiatry department of a hospital during the Algerian revolution, treating both Algerians and French soldiers as well as more broadly observing the effects of colonial violence on the human psyche. He subsequently worked with the Algerian liberation movement, Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), and in 1960 was appointed ambassador to Ghana by Algeria’s FLN-led provisional government. That same year, however, he was diagnosed with leukaemia and spent his last year of life writing The Wretched of the Earth. He died in December 1961 in the United States undergoing medical treatment.

The Irish translator

Although Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is well known as a psychological analysis of the dehumanizing effects of colonization, there is little known or written about the Irish woman who translated it to English.

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Constance Farrington (née Conner) was translator of the only English version of this work in circulation until 2004, when Richard Philcox produced a version for Grove Press. Her translation, published by Présence Africaine in 1963, was also the first English edition of any Fanon publication. The little we do know about Constance comes from an interview with her about the translation, published in the Irish Press (September 1963), a short article in the Irish Times one month later (October 1963), a memoir written by her first husband Brian Farrington, and ongoing research being carried out by Dr. Kathryn Batchelor of University College London (UCL) into both the life of Constance and her translation of Fanon’s seminal work. Until the publication of her former husband’s memoir (A Rich Soup with additional material, 2010: Linden Publishing), the only information available on Constance suggested that she was English and a member of the British Communist Party. Neither claim holds up to scrutiny.

Constance Conner was from a protestant family in Cork. When just 9 years old, her mother died at the family home in Tyrone. Her father Willie – a Church of Ireland clergyman and Trinity graduate – later married Jemima, a former parishioner of his from Drumquin in County Tyrone. By the time Constance was attending college, she was living with them in a house at Mounttown Lower, Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin, while studying Modern History and Political Science at Trinity College Dublin. She subsequently worked in the university library for five years.

In his memoir, Brian provides valuable information on Constance’s life, how she came to translate the text as well as her political leanings. He recalls that he got to know her:

because I had joined the University dramatic society (…) She was three years older than me and, when we met, she had just got a brilliant first-class degree in history. She had never received the gold medal that her starred first should have earned her, through, I think, the inefficiency, or, more likely, the sexist prejudice, of one of her history professors, and was angry about this.

Constance married Brian Farrington in January 1953 when she was 31 years old. Having put a lot of work in to qualify as a librarian, she was less than pleased at having to give up her job after marriage, particularly when she discovered that the qualification would not be accepted in France, where she and Brian moved due to his finding employment as a teacher with the British Institute in Paris.

In France, Brian and Constance found accommodation in a “commune of left-wing people” at Châtenay-Malabry in the south-western suburbs of Paris that came to be known as La Cité Nouvelle. Brian remembers that the “only absolute rule for the acceptance by the Cité was that you had to agree with the general aims of the French Communist Party.”

The mix of people who co-habited with the Farringtons in Châtenay, as well as the very nature of communal living, undoubtedly had an impact on the politics and worldview of Brian and Constance. They resided with journalists, bus drivers, musicians, students, painters, electricians, builders and more, who all contributed to the couple’s strong left-wing convictions, Brian noting that nothing changed in his “estimation of the truth or validity of Marx’s analysis of society”.

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The Algerian War of Independence was brought into sharp focus for Constance and her family when she met a Frenchwoman named Micheline Pouteau who had come to live in Châtenay during the late 1950s. Micheline was involved with a left-wing underground network in France established by Francis Jeanson, the biographer of Jean-Paul Sartre, another member of the group. These activists were very critical of the French Communist Party’s weak position on Algeria and made the decision to actively assist the FLN in their resistance to French colonialism. Constance, while on a visit to Micheline who was incarcerated in La Petite Roquettei on the north side of Paris, provided her with a bunch of nylon stockings that helped Micheline and five other comrades flee the prison to freedom and over the border to Belgium.

Constance later became friendly with a French political personality, historian and journalist Charles-André Julien, to whom she gave English lessons. Julien had lived in Algeria with his family as a teenager and it was he who arranged for Constance to translate Les Damnés de la Terre by Frantz Fanon.

Patrick Lagan’s reported interview with Constance, published in the Irish Press on 16th September 1963, gives us a sense of her understanding of the conflict in Algeria from an Irish perspective:

Constance told me, she found as she read and translated this book, a sense of the familiar about it – the resemblance between Algerian freedom struggle and the Irish. Not only while the war was going on – with paras standing in for Tans – but afterwards; the outbreak of violence and civil strike sparked off by the necessary violence of the revolution itself.

The article also notes that while Constance had not been to Algeria, she “has seen the French colons, the ‘pieds noirs’ who have come to live there, seen what effect of brutally opposing emergent Algeria has had on them.”

Constance and Brian later divorced, and both remarried. Constance married a mutual friend, André Ramillon, or “Ram” for short, a primary school teacher from a small village near Orléans in France, about 100km from Châtenay. Ram had been an active participant in the French resistance against Fascism and a Communist Party member for most of his life. Brian married Olivia McMahon, a colleague from the Institute, born in France to parents from County Clare in Ireland. Both couples remained close friends, often going on holidays together to Ireland.

Coincidentally, Brian and Constance divorced at a court in Edinburgh on the same day as Edinburgh City Council erected a plaque at James Connolly’s birthplace in Cowgate, at the suggestion of the Connolly Association. Both attended the ceremony, which included performances by a brass band that had been sent over for the occasion by the Dublin Transport and General Workers Union. Brian took a photograph that day of Seán Redmond, former Secretary of the Connolly Association and brother of the late Tom Redmond, a lifelong Communist who passed away in Dublin just over six years ago.

Constance went on to teach English in one of the Grandes Écoles, l’École Centrale near Châtenay and in the 1980s received a doctorate for her research in to Paschal Grousset, a native of Corsica who had been an active member of the 1871 Paris Commune and who visited Ireland as a journalist during the summer 1886. Following his visit, Grousset published the notes he had compiled in Ireland simultaneously in English and French versions under the pseudonym Philippe Daryl (Ireland’s Disease: Notes and Impressions, 1887). In 1986, Blackstaff Press re-published this book on the centenary of Grousset’s visit under the title Ireland’s Disease: The English in Ireland and included a substantial introduction by “Constance Ramillon Conner”.

There remain gaps in our understanding of Constance’s life and work. Her son Paddy has outlined some of the political activism in which she was involved including campaigning for the left-wing Republican political party Clann na Poblachta in Dublin during the late 1940s, involvement in the 1965 protests in Paris against the escalation of the Vietnam War and membership of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) Trade Union. However, we don’t know what contact she had, if any, with other translators or writers of decolonial and postcolonial literature such as the poet and author Aimé Césaire from Martinique, a former secondary school teacher of Fanon who, in 1950, penned Discours sur le colonialisme (Discourse on Colonialism); French-Tunisian writer Albert Memmi who passed away in 2020 at the age of 99; or translator Howard Greenfeld who produced an English version of Memmi’s Portrait du colonisé, précédé par Portrait du colonisateur (The Colonizer and the Colonized) in 1965 just two years after Constance’s work had appeared. It is unclear where precisely she was born or when she passed away, although we do know that she outlived her husband Ram who died in 1995, and that she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in her final years.

A lucid and powerful translation

Regardless of these questions, the lasting contribution of this Irish woman to the continuing struggle for emancipation of the wretched of the earth is certainly her translation of Fanon’s masterpiece, making it accessible to the English-speaking world. It was read, for example, by republican prisoners in the cages of Long Kesh outside Belfast such as Bobby Sands, who died on Hunger Strike in 1981, and particularly influenced the intellectual debate among republicans and socialists during the post-1981 phase of conflict, evidenced by the many references to Fanon in An Phoblacht/Republican News over this period. Her translation is lucid and powerful and has arguably been a significant stepping stone in the thinking of other great proponents of the need for decolonisation, politically and psychologically, such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Tomás Mac Síomóin.

Fanon’s grasp on the psychological effects of colonialism as well as the need to decolonise is presented well, as this extract shows:

The claim to a national culture in the past does not only rehabilitate that nation and serve as a justification for the hope of a future national culture. In the sphere of psycho-affective equilibrium it is responsible for an important change in the native. Perhaps we haven't sufficiently demonstrated that colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native's brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it. This work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectical significance today.

This struggle to decolonise the mind that Fanon refers to is one that applies universally to colonised peoples: the enormous effort necessary to rid the psyche of the effects of colonisation that continue to deform and debilitate, unless challenged, for a long time after the political end of such occupation. Constance Farrington understood how relevant this was to Ireland and beyond.

Philosophy, cultural relativism, anti-intellectualism and the far right
Sunday, 26 December 2021 13:04

Philosophy, cultural relativism, anti-intellectualism and the far right

Written by

Jim Aitken analyses the links between philosophical and cultural relativism, anti-intellectualism and far right politics, in a wide-ranging, discursive essay. The image above is of the Night of the Long Batons (29 July 1966), when the federal police physically purged politically incorrect academics who opposed the right-wing military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía (1966–1970) in Argentina from five faculties of the University of Buenos Aires

The postmodernists would detest a title such as this one. They claim to be opposed to elites – who are seen as somehow remotely intellectual – while at the same time claiming a relativism in all artistic production which could rank the novels, say, of Nadine Dorries alongside the work of Dostoevsky. In all things, it seems, there is this relativism that seeks to bridge gaps between so called high and popular art forms and between thought and opinion; between all forms of discourse, even when there is very little of it about.

The deconstructiveness of their thought is also highly sceptical. While a healthy scepticism is certainly agreeable before making judgements and decisions, to continually vacillate is to create a vacuum which can be so easily filled by unwelcome forces. Today, these forces are the forces of the far right, both within the Tory Party and outside of it. And these forces are in power, or fighting for power, across Europe and the rest of the world.

Amazingly, these trenchant forces all claim they are challenging the elites that are holding back their bizarre vision of progress. These elites, they maintain, reside in universities, in the civil service (called ‘The Blob’ in The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail), on the left (as always), in the scientific community, in literary, artistic and media circles, among academics and so-called experts, and in the actual vacuum that is social media. In America they are called liberal elites while here in the UK all opposition is derided as mere ‘wokery.’

The grand narrative of capitalism

And this state of affairs can be attributed, in part, to the woolly relativist thinking that says there is no such thing as class when there are billionaires and those living in dire poverty, and where the grand narratives of socialism and communism have been discarded while the other grand narrative of capitalism continues plundering the planet and its peoples.

In a sense the outrage at liberal elites and wokery; at Black Lives Matter and climate protests, and against anything remotely left, whether politically or culturally, shows the deep unease within the actual real elites who continue to run the affairs of state. These elites are the same ruling classes that have always been in power and their shift further to the right actually shows their unease. This is because these ruling classes realise there is a strong reaction against their divisiveness of people on the basis of class, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. And they also realise the enormity of the forces gaining momentum against climate chaos, as well as those appalled at the corruption within the state. Before it was Jews and witchcraft as scapegoats, now it is migrants, Muslims and general wokery.

We have been here before. This classic anti-intellectualism is designed to divide people and blame others rather than the elite caretakers of the chaos that is capitalism. To divert attention, divide and rule. But throughout history there have been those who have consistently challenged how things were and sought radical change.

In the ancient world both Confucius (551-479 BC) and Socrates (469-399 BC) tried to achieve a higher level of good governance for their respective states by simply asking questions. Neither had a dogmatic manner but their aims were both the same – to educate by posing questions that can be enlarged upon and debated. Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the Athenian youth of his day and sentenced to death. Confucius never attained any high office of state though some of his former students did and made appeals on his behalf.

Around the time of Socrates there was a group of philosophers called the Sophists. While they did foster critical thinking, some like Protagoras and Hippias used logic simply as a suave exercise in cynical virtuosity to prove things like sin and virtue can be synonymous or that evil can be as desirable as good. Their logic simply led to an earlier form of relativism, negativism and a thorough lack of human values that Socrates believed would ultimately undermine Greek society.

Similarly, today’s anti-woke brigade of continually outraged Conservatives thrive in the absence of any socialist alternative offered. They are the adherents of political postmodernism which claims that class is dead despite Victorian levels of inequality. They applaud what they call good old fashioned common sense and rail – as Gove did during the Brexit campaign – against experts. This attitude took on deeply disturbing scenes at a Trump rally when he encouraged his audience in shouting ‘Fire Fauci’, the Chief Medical Officer in America, who was calling for measures to be taken against the rising cases of Covid.

History is littered with anti-intellectualism and it is clear that rich and powerful individuals do not wish scrutiny; do not wish to be intellectually or culturally challenged because their rule would be in jeopardy. However, the much-used phrase telling truth to power remains suspect for Chomsky. He maintains that the ruling classes are only too well aware of the truth and that they seek simply to conceal it and the people who should be told the truth are the masses oppressed by the rich and powerful.

Ancient Chinese and Roman emperors were constantly ill at ease with scholars and writers. It was said during the Dynasty of Qin Shi Huang (246-210 BC) that political power was consolidated by suppressing freedom of speech. Books like the Shi Jing (a poetry classic) and the Shujing (a history book from c.6th century BC) were ordered to be burned. Anyone refusing to give up their copies would be executed. The imperial library though still kept copies of such texts which confirms Chomsky’s view.

In imperial Rome too the Emperor Augustus (63 BC -14 AD) had his henchmen search houses for books he did not wish to be circulated. The poet Juvenal once said it is better to criticise emperors once they have died.

Rich, powerful, ignorant and stupid

The richest and most powerful capitalist economy on Earth has nurtured a culture of ignorance and stupidity. For decades now the United States has been well down the league table internationally for educational attainment. While Hollywood can show the luxurious living of the wealthy, along with the US media more generally, it seems there is little appetite to focus on the millions in jail, millions more homeless, and tens of millions living in poverty. In this mix could be added the extent of the drug problem, both legally prescribed by Big Pharma and drugs circulated by criminal cartels. There is also the incredible death toll annually caused through the domestic sale of weapons, running at 30,000 per year with some 11,000 deaths from this figure caused through suicide.

There is nothing to feel patriotic about with such figures, and those who would argue such a case would simply be labelled communists or socialists as if the use of those words brings to an end any more discussion. This is effectively saying that social conscience is both ludicrous and dangerous.

The show trials that took place in Soviet Moscow and the McCarthy trials that took place in Washington both revealed a sense of paranoia with alternative ideas. The left-wing ideas that were disseminating in the US would have improved the social conditions of the American masses and the ideas of many of those charged with being enemies of the State in the Soviet Union were highly intelligent and original thinkers. People like Kamenev, Zinoviev and Bukharin were leading Party figures and their loss robbed the revolution. As for Trotsky’s expulsion and eventual assassination, the international socialist and revolutionary movement would have a permanent split that could only aid the capitalist powers. Murdering opponents is stupid because it holds back progress by instilling fear, which works as a barrier to a better system being developed. Ideas should always have free rein, especially ones that are suspect so that they can be shown to be suspect. Discourse must always be seen as desirable because it can invariably lead to desirable conclusions.

While the bureaucracy of the USSR simply ossified the entire system without the vital intellectual input required in such a historical development, the actively encouraged ignorance in the West has given us Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Modi and others.

A Trump supporter being interviewed by Jordan Klepper replied to his questioning – ‘Do I have proof? No. Do I have articles? No. But my mind is made up.’ This kind of response is a fairly commonplace one precisely because it has been cultivated that way. Fox News and GB News both cultivate ignorance through demanding their views are the stuff of common-sense. The shock-Jockery of the hosts fill the airwaves with bile and legitimise draconian legislation like the Borders and Nationality Bill going through Parliament, as well as denying they hold any racist or sexist views.

In fact, most news media have become smiley and friendly forums for entertainment as much as informing viewers about our world. Since Brexit there is even less of a focus on the wider world with the result that even greater insularity prevails. That simply mirrors the media in the USA and fosters a culture of unquestioning acquiescence.

It was Oscar Wilde in his wonderfully satirical play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) who captured exactly the point of not educating the populace. Lady Bracknell tells Earnest:

I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.

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Wilde is ridiculing the upper classes that Lady Bracknell is talking about. Exactly the same sense of satire took place in Parisian clubs like the Le Chat Noir around the same time when Aristide Bruant, made famous by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his poster of him with his black cape and red scarf, would poke fun and insult his upper-class clientele. They would similarly be rolling in laughter like Wilde’s audiences. They control everything, after all, so why would they not feel safe?

It was Walter Bagehot (1826-1877) in his The English Constitution (1867) – clearly not the British one since that would include Celts - who seemed to grasp the essence of Conservatism:

The Conservative turn of mind denotes adhesiveness to the early and probably inherited ideas of childhood, and a very strong and practically effective distrust of novel intellectual suggestions which come unaccredited by any such influential connection.

 Psychologists would call such characteristics arrested development. To this day when Conservatives are ever challenged they claim their opponents are being political as if to imply that they are somehow not. It is politically infantile but when they find themselves in serious trouble in their Parliaments there is always the reserve teams on hand to help them out. They are the patriotic demagogues like Trump, clowns like Berlusconi and Johnson, the military and emerging Fascist parties.

It was the Italian philosopher Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944), the father figure of Fascism, who was responsible for a solution to guarantee capital’s security. Like Marx, he was much influenced by Hegel but arrived at totally different conclusions. He was proud to be called by Mussolini ‘the philosopher of Fascism’ and went on to co-write with Il Duce The Doctrine of Fascism (1932) as well as serving as Minister for Education in his Government and becoming a member of the powerful Fascist Grand Council.

For Gentile the idealism of Hegel had to have action and Gentile went on to develop his own brand of thought which he called actual idealism. One of his key texts gives a clear indication by its title what he was on about –Theory of Mind as Pure Act (1912). In order to move away from class conflict, from both liberalism and Marxism, Gentile offered up corporatism as his solution whereby there would be the collective management of the economy by employers, workers and state officials. Corporate groups would organise society through its various areas such as agriculture, military, business, science and so on. The already rich would be perfectly secure and the workers would be firmly in their place. Today’s giant corporation Amazon comes immediately to mind in this regard and its model would be applauded by Gentile.

Fascist dictatorships are the most stupid ones of all. The horror and the evil of Auschwitz was also absolutely insane. During the Spanish Civil War the Franquist General Astray confronted the Spanish writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno at the University of Salamanca with cries of Muera la inteligencia! Viva la Muerte! (Death to the intelligentsia! Long live death!) And during a burning of left-wing books in General Pinochet’s Chile, soldiers burned a book on Cubism believing it had something to do with Castro’s Cuba.

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It was the American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) who wrote Fahrenheit 451(1953) and this novel came out of the McCarthy witch-hunt trials that also threatened to – and did – burn books. As an emerging writer this alarmed him. It has an Orwellian feel to it in that firemen exist not to put fires out but to start them. If books are found to be in anyone’s home then the fire brigade is on its way to burn them. The central character Montag becomes disillusioned with his job and goes over to the other side where a small group of book lovers seek to protect all literature for future generations. Though Bradbury was conservative himself, he was appalled by the anti-intellectualism of his nation and went on to say how he believed the emergence of the mass media was hampering reading and an interest in books.

As well as making sure education has little impact, the ruling classes also manage to trivialise what is genuinely important – like our social conditions, wages, prices, housing, alternative progressive politics - and make popular the vacuous cult of celebrity. Again, Wilde stated in an interview for the St. James Gazette concerning his play, that:

(The Importance of Being Earnest) is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has its philosophy…That we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.

Trivial TV

This comment sums up much of the TV we watch and it is clearly designed that way. And it has been going on for an exceedingly long time. TV and radio hosts are adept at talking trivia and it was pointed out by Epictetus (c 56- c 135 AD):

When we blather about trivial things, we ourselves become trivial, for our attention gets taken up with trivialities. You become what you give your attention to.

Bombarded by trivia and with a clear control over any opposing ideas, so-called democracy seems a safe haven for capital to flourish. For another science fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) this was the anti-intellectual basis of democracy:

Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

Such a statement is all too near today’s political and cultural malaise. Of course, the concept of truth itself is suspect for the postmodernists which merely enables more and more exploitation of various kinds – through the mass media, through attacks on trade unions, climate protestors, Black Lives Matter activists, women campaigning against domestic violence – to take place.

Ruling classes have a fear and loathing of history. Liz Truss, the new Foreign Secretary and Brexit Minister, recently lauded our wonderful nation as the greatest on earth and told her audience that all nations have warts in their pasts and that dwelling on the past is not what matters but creating a brighter future is what truly matters.

Harold Wilson, twice a Labour Prime Minister, was considered by his politics tutor at Oxford to be the finest student he had ever had. He received a triple first in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and became the youngest Oxford don of the century at age 21.  Before becoming MP for Ormskirk he had previously been a lecturer in Economic History at New College and a research fellow at University College. With such a brilliant academic pedigree it seems incredible that he would boast that he had never read Marx’s Das Kapital.

Francis Wheen tells us in Marx’s Das Kapital (2006) that Wilson claimed to have got as far as page two ‘and that’s where the footnote is nearly a page long. I felt two sentences of main text and a page of footnotes were too much.’ Any cursory look at the opening pages of this text would show that there are indeed footnotes in the opening pages, but none more than a few sentences. Such a comment is a clear case of anti-intellectualism.

Before the English socialist Henry Hyndman actually acknowledged his debt to Marx and his text, he had initially told Marx that he did not wish to mention him by name in his England for All (1881) – presumably, like Bagehot before him, using England to mean Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well he told Marx he could not do so because the English ‘had a horror of socialism’ and ‘a dread of being taught by a foreigner.’ Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done and Build Back Better are founded upon such xenophobic nonsense.

Marx’s book was never published in England during his lifetime. Activists, writers and academics had to rely on French and German editions until it was eventually published. The Irishman George Bernard Shaw found the book a marvellous read, having read the French edition in the British Library where much of Marx’s research had been done. For Shaw the book ‘revealed capitalism in all its atrocity’ and his passion for the text never dimmed. Not so Shaw’s fellow Fabian, HG Wells, who dismissed Marx as ‘a stuffy, ego-centred and malicious theorist.’

Yet, what took place was an enormous flowering of thought that came from Marx’s ideas. Of particular significance is also Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 which only appeared in English in 1959, having first been published in German in Moscow, 1932. These papers are also known as the Paris Manuscripts because the text was written there when the youthful Marx was a Left-Hegelian.

Refining Hegel’s concept of estrangement or alienation, Marx showed how such a concept has its origin in the exploitative economic system of capitalism. He also made clear the fateful consequences in the social formation of human individuals, and therefore in society as a whole.

Philosophers and writers found this a fertile analysis ripe for development. The notion of being alienated within society came to be explored in literature, literary theory, cultural theory, art, psychoanalysis, social sciences and in philosophy.

The existentialist philosophers, particularly in France, fused Marx’s ideas into their texts. Chief among them was Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). He was much more than just a philosopher, he was also a dramatist, novelist, biographer, literary critic and a political activist. Sartre had read Heidegger and Husserl and their influence is clear in his work. In the 1960s he had said that Marxism was the spirit of the age.

It is sad to see that this flowering of intellectual ideas that took place in France is now a country where the dominant narrative is Islamophobia, with writers and journalist like Michel Houellebecq and Alain Finlielkraut among the most Islamophobic. The demise of France intellectually is traced in The End of the French Intellectual (2016) by Shlomo Sand. The rampant racism there – as here – can be attributed to the imperial past, but also to the thinkers who came after Sartre like the postmodernists.

According to Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), Marx is now no more than a spectre. All we have left of him is Spectres de Marx (1991) which claims to be a work of mourning. A debt to him had been paid but with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, would anything of Marx remain? The capitalist triumphalism that greeted this collapse found its best expression in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man which came out in 1992. We are all liberal democrats now, he seemed to say, with liberal democracy the settled will of all people.

Only contemporary capitalism is becoming less liberal with attacks on wages, living standards, Muslims and migrants along with vapid anger directed at liberal elites – a group that had no mention whatsoever in Fukuyama’s book. And furthermore, just as Marx and his followers had claimed that capitalism, in its ravenous desire to seek more and more profit, would tumble under the weight of its own contradictions, this very system is seemingly prepared to ignore the warnings of climate catastrophe that awaits humanity unless we change tack. This is the logic, sadly, of where we are.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes The sleep of reason produces monsters No. 43 from Los Caprichos Google Art Project resized

There is a wonderful capricho (‘whim’ in English) etching by Goya (1746-1828) of a man who has fallen asleep at his writing desk.  Unknown to the man, various owls and bats fly above him as he sleeps. Goya called his piece El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The sleep of reason brings forth monsters). In this etching Goya is reminding us that reason must be ever vigilant so that monsters do not reappear. The collapse of communism never created any peace dividend and never ushered in so-called liberal democracy, and is showing an extremely illiberal tendency with people like Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro the clowns now taking over the asylum.

If the system of Capital is all about accumulating more Capital at whatever expense then the monsters are already on the loose. The victory over communism has been simply the opportunity for Capital’s monsters to fly wherever they want and create as much destruction as they can so long as profits are made. They even call it collateral damage.

Yes, we have been asleep. Our reason, our thinking has been defective, if not completely absent. Everything seems to point to our demise except for the groups mentioned earlier – climate protestors, Black Lives Matter activists, women’s groups along with all the community groups up and down the nation trying to keep the poor from sinking further. The challenge is to link all these groups and more to demand a world free from the greed that destroys us so that there can still be a world.

ADN-ZB Katschorowski 5.10.71 Berlin: Festtage-

Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1856), in his play The Life of Galileo (1937), explores how truth can be problematic to those in power. They don’t want to face it because it changes their sense of themselves in the world, and therefore changes their relationship to everyone else. They would rather ignore truth completely. When Galileo asks them to look through the telescope and see for themselves the truth of how the cosmos is, they all refuse.

Galileo also says in the play:

Someone who doesn’t know the truth is merely a fool. But someone who does know it and calls it a lie is a criminal.

But lies and stupidity are still force-fed to us.  George Orwell (1903-1950), in his novel 1984, published in 1949, tells us that one of the three mottos supplied to the masses is IGNORANCE IS TRUTH. Ironically, a dumbed down reality TV show called Big Brother takes its title from the anonymous leader of Oceania featured in the novel. The warning Orwell was giving us in this novel simply has to make us question three-word slogans like Take Back Control and Get Brexit Done.

The pernicious anti-intellectualism that permeates contemporary capitalist countries also leads to a frightening level of political illiteracy. Brecht captured this sense particularly well in his era:

The worst illiterate is the political illiterate. He hears nothing, sees nothing, takes no part in political life. He doesn’t seem to know that the cost of living, the price of beans, of flour, of medicines all depend on political decisions. He then prides himself on his political ignorance, sticks out his chest and says he hates politics. He doesn’t know, the imbecile, that from his political non-participation comes the prostitute, the abandoned child, the robber and, worst of all, corrupt officials, the lackeys of exploitative multinational companies.

This pretty much sums up the state of the western, liberal democracies today. Ignorance is desirable for the ruling elites. Marx, studying the capitalism of his day, predicted the growth of such multinational companies. He followed the logic of capitalist competitiveness, accumulation and insatiable greed. It has brought us to where we are today.

Sophistry and postmodernism seem weak tools to deal with this impasse. Terry Eagleton, in his book The Illusions of Postmodernism, published in 1995, castigates it by saying that it ‘does not envision a future for us much different from the present.’ This statement remains a powerful indictment against it. Marx’s famous statement in his Theses on Feuerbach of 1845 said that philosophers had only ever interpreted the world, and if this can be updated for today we may be able to say something like this – that the postmodernists have only deconstructed the world. The point remains to change it.

An artist's pledge to boycott Israel
Wednesday, 13 October 2021 09:31

An artist's pledge to boycott Israel

Written by

Dave Lordan adds his support to the boycott of apartheid Israel

I am proud to be among the many Irish and Ireland-based artists from across creative disciplines who have chosen to publicly support the growing campaign of boycott against apartheid Israel. Compared to the imprisoned Palestinian people themselves and to those taking part in flotillas and other perilous anti-apartheid activities in Palestine our contribution and risk may be justly considered small. At most we might lose the chance of lucrative invitations to read, perform or display our works in parts of the US where apartheid Israel's supporters hold the power of censorship. Departments of foreign affairs and ministries of culture may also not include us among those artists they can rely upon to project a lying image of a harmonious, bon vivant and, above all, harmlessly apolitical intelligentsia. We are sure to be slandered and ridiculed by the hired bullies of the global media empires.

These are tiny punishments indeed compared to the instant annihilation that Israel with its snipers and bombers and jet planes and tanks has visited on a daily basis upon Palestinian men, women and children for the last 62 years. The threat we come under for speaking out at a safe distance is nothing beside the threat apartheid Israel holds constant over every urban civilian in the Middle East with its 200-bomb-strong nuclear arsenal. Besides, to be ostracized and blacklisted by these last remaining friends of apartheid Israel, the gangster governments of west and east and their spies and ideological enablers, is to be reminded of the phrase of that great political artist William Blake, who tells us to "Listen to the fool's reproach — it is a kingly title."

Artistic aloofness

The argument that artists should remain aloof from politics does not survive the most cursory of cross examinations. Over the centuries artists have taken every possible political stance both inside and outside their art. They have also performed every possible political action without it having the least negative effect on their own work or on art in general. Indeed, much great art has been produced out of intense engagement with political events and with social movements. One can look up the biographies of the list of Nobel prize winners in literature, or take a stroll around one's nearest significant gallery if one needs any proof of this.

Artistic aloofness in relation to Israel-Palestine is without doubt a political stance, a signal that one will not stand in the way of the strong as they bear down with all their might upon the weak. But to perform in Israel, or to leave oneself open to performing there, is not simply remaining aloof. It is choosing the side of tyranny. It is a decision to ignore the cry of the oppressed.

Some artists will make this decision out of ignorance, or because they believe in or are confused by apartheid Israel's untiring propaganda machine, which is so consciously assisted by the western media and politicians. To these artists I say, take a few days to look behind the headlines, give yourself some time to familiarize yourself with the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict in all of its contexts. Inform yourself properly, and then make your decision.

Obviously there are artists, motivated by fame and finance, who will perform in apartheid Israel knowing full well that their actions are an integral part of the war effort against the Palestinians, while of course loudly protesting otherwise. In the long run this may count against them. Their memory will be linked throughout posterity with all those images of rubbled apartment blocks, of old farmers shackled at crossroads, of sad-eyed children dying in makeshift hospitals for lack of basic medicines due to the illegal blockade.

Alongside the financial, political and military support of western rulers, the cultural support of western artists is a crucial link in the chain of oppression that tightens every passing minute around the neck of Palestine. Artists occupy a position of public privilege. What we think and feel as it is expressed through our art is elevated above ordinary discourse and seriously discussed at events, in classrooms, and in all kinds of media. Both individually within our local networks and communities, and collectively at a national and international level, we can and do have a disproportionate effect on opinion. We are, I think, perhaps the last significant body of people to enjoy large-scale public trust in most parts of the globe. Added together, what we say and do publicly in our art and in our lives as citizens is reflected upon by many people in a much more profound way than the utterances of most politicians. Our deeds and words ring louder then, and wider, and longer, then those of many others. But so do our silences, our non-actions. That is why both the tacit and the enthusiastic support of artists have been worth so much to dictators and criminal systems like apartheid over the centuries, and why we have been so brutally persecuted when we have refused to give it.

The culture-washing of apartheid Israel

All an Israeli major has to do to unwind after a day directing the bulldozing of ancestral Palestinian homesteads is to change into her casuals and head out to see a platinum-selling rock group, or to clap along politely like everyone else is doing at the poetry of some prize-glittering western writer. Then she can feel as refined, as hip, and as justified, as any other liberal westerner. The presence of international artists in apartheid Israel normalizes and buttresses the apartheid system, contributing to its self-confidence and smooth functioning.

By performing in Israel, in despite of the clear call of the Palestinian artists and cultural institutions to boycott Israel, an international artist gives — whether or not they are conscious of it — a signal of approval to the settler-pirates and to the racially brainwashed conscripts who take pleasure in having themselves photographed beaming with national joy in front of blindfolded and humiliated Palestinians. Approval for these and countless other abuses and injustices is exactly how the appearance of international artists in apartheid Israel is interpreted by its politico-military leadership and, crucially, by its rank-and-file soldiers, boosting the morale of those who must implement the bloody practicality of apartheid on the ground.

The boycott, if it gained momentum, could have just the opposite effect. It could remove the visage of respectability and normality which the leaders of apartheid Israel so desperately crave in order that they can continue with the dirty work of oppressing the Palestinians unperturbed by the moral opinion of the rest of the world. It could undermine the confidence of the military rank and file and cause significant numbers to question and refuse the implementation of apartheid policies. Above all, it could help to inspire the continuing anti-apartheid resistance of the Palestinian people, and contribute — similarly to how international solidarity with black South Africans did in their case — to the eventual collapse of the apartheid system. To have played even the tiniest of roles in such an outcome would be a greater honor than any prize, review, or invitation is capable of giving us.

This piece was written at request of Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign as part of launch of the Irish cultural boycott. Contact the IPSC to add your name to the growing boycott. Dave Lordan wrote the original call-out for the successful Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign's cultural boycott of apartheid Israel. Read his essays on Literature and Revolt here.

Anxious Corporals: Fran Lock interviews Alan Morrison
Monday, 30 August 2021 10:25

Anxious Corporals: Fran Lock interviews Alan Morrison

Written by

Fran Lock interviews Alan Morrison about Anxious Corporals, a polemical and poetic history of post-war working-class culture, which can be ordered here

Fran Lock: Hi Alan, thanks for taking the time to talk to me about Anxious Corporals. The term ‘anxious corporals’ was first coined by Arthur Koestler to describe working-class servicemen with a need to ‘satisfy some/ Vitamin deficiency of the mind’, not for the purposes of self-advancement, but to fill some kind of existential void or to make sense of the fragile and threatening world around them. I wonder if you could start by talking a little bit about this feeling of anxiety, which is communicated in the language and restless lyric flow of the poem. Do you have any thoughts about why, at a contemporary moment that is surely ever more precarious and insecure, there doesn’t seem to be a corresponding drive or thirst for knowledge?

Alan Morrison: Anxiety is underneath everything I do, particularly creatively, it’s the conductor of my thoughts and words and ideas; also an obsessiveness, which very much comes through in the obsessional pull of this poem, of the phrasings punctuated only with commas, giving a breathless almost panicky quality.

Creativity and self-expression are essentially anxious acts. Arguably life itself is a state of anxiety, of anticipation, apprehension, excitement, dread, I take quite a Kierkegaardian angle (which can also be exhausting). But on a more personal level, I’m a lifelong sufferer of anxiety so I suppose this comes through in what I write, and what I write about.

My tendency to compose in an almost stream-of-consciousness outpouring of lines and phrasings with only commas is something that’s crept into my poetry in the last couple of years. It’s not really a conscious thing, it just feels natural to me now, and more liberating, to write in this way, for some reason I’ve come to hate full stops, even to the point that I end stanzas and poems with ellipses (i.e. dot dot dots) – full stops look too final, and it feels absurd to me that any thought or thoughts, often profound, especially as expressed in a poem, for example, ever have a definitive end as signified in a full stop: thoughts and feelings and sensations are continuous or recurring, they are tortuous, they loop, they collect and disperse and collect again, like starlings, hence for me it feels completely inappropriate to end a verse or a poem with a full stop.

Within verses and poems I find commas less intrusive, and occasionally I use semi-colons as stitches between different trains of thought; but commas seem to me the most poetically accommodating of punctuation marks, helping the poem keep a constant cadence and flow, each line, phrasing seeping into the next, like thoughts, like feelings…

On the other part of your question, I think the irony today is that with ever greater resources for communication and information the novelties in those areas have diminished rather than expanded, the sense of curiosity blunted, it’s as if a kind of generational ennui has set in, you see perhaps the ultimate triumph of commodity-based consumer capitalism in the sight of families and friends sat at cafes scrolling through their phones rather than conversing properly, the ultimate individualisation, almost a form of mass-solipsism - but which ultimately is just another form of conformity. 

It’s impossible to generalise of course. No doubt there are sections of society, certain types of people who do still thirst knowledge, but a lot of the time the knowledge sought might not be the most enlightening. But ultimately what such vast archives of easily accessed knowledge such as on the internet seem to have achieved is an increasing craving for instant gratification, an impatience, a poor concentration, an attitude that seems to expect everything to be immediately explainable at the touch of a button. But most things aren’t instantly explainable, many things require very active application, long studied reading and processing.

FL: Related to the last question, it occurred to me that we have unprecedented access to all kinds of knowledge today, and that in theory at least, education – both formal and informal – is more readily available to us than ever before. Despite this, Anxious Corporals is excoriating about the demise of critical thinking among working-class cohorts, and I think one really significant aspect of this book is its understanding of this demise as something that is also done to us, deliberately, politically, over time.

I was particularly struck by your critique of relativist or postmodern discourse, which tries to ‘prove/ Everything is relative, ultimately subjective, intrinsically/ Ironic, endlessly reductive’.  I’m reminded of the ways in which these ideas were used cynically within the space of the university to re-establish the status quo, following decades of radical ferment during the sixties and seventies. Throughout this period there was a great deal of on-campus activism, but also a profusion and merging of solidarities inside and outside of the academy, with a huge rise in worker-student alliances.

Postmodernism was deployed in this context to convince students that nothing is true. If activism begins with the basic assumption that some ideas and actions are right, and that others wrong, then undermining this conviction removes the motivation to protest. Being heavily jargonistic, postmodernism also undermines the ability of those inside the academy to speak clearly and coherently to those outside, reinforcing a sense of elitism and hierarchy. Finally, there is the attack on kinship through an absolute insistence on identity-driven subjectivism. Nauseating, and I think one of the things Anxious Corporals is really acute on is articulating how this toxic creed spills out of the academy and is deployed by neoliberal culture more broadly.

Could you say something about how this kind of neoliberal postmodern malaise has affected the way in which working-class cohorts understand ‘knowledge’, how we access knowledge, and how postmodernism has whittled down and shaped the value placed on intellectual curiosity, education, and ‘facts’?

AM: Yes, absolutely, when we think of the internet and its vast repository of information readily available for pretty much anyone to access today (bar maybe those families at the lowest economic scale who perhaps can’t afford phones or computers), a greater democratisation of knowledge if you like, then the past arguments that whole sections of society are unable to access these areas and are thus significantly handicapped in attempts at self-education (though there have always been libraries!) would seem less credible, ostensibly.

I say ostensibly, since of course one has to some extent to know or have some clue as to where to look for certain types of knowledge; okay, so Wikipedia is very prominent and easily accessible on pretty much any subject today, but there still might be barriers of literacy, and domestic demands on time and concentration in those families that are materially impoverished; as I learnt myself as a teenager struggling to learn anything much at school, poverty is not very conducive to learning.

However, in spite of growing up in relative poverty, which had been the result of lots of bad luck on my parents’ part, I had other advantages that many of my working-class and disadvantaged schoolmates didn’t have: my parents were both essentially middle class, they’d not been educated at public schools, but my father had been to a good quality grammar school, while my mother, though from a more working-class background originally, had been partly educated at a convent school, and then had had elocution lessons when she was a young aspiring actress (though she didn’t in the end pursue that career, instead deciding to settle and have a family; she had at one point been a teacher at a fairly prestigious primary school but thereafter had worked as a dental nurse, dinner lady, auxiliary nurse).

So my brother and I grew up in an atmosphere of educational and cultural aspiration, encouraged by fairly well-educated parents, and in my father’s case, well-read. The atmosphere of our upbringing was bookish. But materially we were pretty impoverished for the entire period of our secondary education, during which my father through no fault of his own suffered periods of unemployment. After leaving the Royal Marines in 1967 (AC is part-dedicated to him since he was a Corporal, and an anxious one at that!),he had gone into the civil service and worked in London in different government departments, but after our move from Worthing to Cornwall he had found it extremely difficult to get back into the civil service and eventually ended up working as a security guard for the rest of his working life; he was what sociologists would call a ‘skidder’, someone who has skidded down the occupational ladder. My mother worked as an auxiliary nurse in an old peoples’ home. Both of them were on very low wages and worked punishing shifts.

I suppose I’d describe my family background as lapsed middle class, one of faded gentility, the perennial shabby-genteel; financially and materially we were very much on the working-class level, if not actually below that at various periods (sufficiently poor that I have memories of often going to bed hungry).

So it wouldn’t be entirely accurate for me to claim to speak on behalf of the working classes since mine was a mixed-class background: I think this is a category that even sociology has yet to fully get to grips with. It meant that our kind of poverty was particularly severe in terms of social isolation, since we were not part of any broader and similarly disadvantaged community and lived in a small hamlet which only added to our sense of remoteness from everything. But suffice it to say that I agree that much of this cultural deprivation is ‘done to’ people and of course we see this mass effort of ignorance-promoting misinformation deployed daily through the right-wing red top press, which also completely corrupts our democratic process through its mass hypnotism of vast sections of the population towards voting Tory or the nearest equivalent. Tabloid editors would argue it’s patronising to say so, but what could be more patronising than the presumption that the working classes want to read the anti-intellectual, culturally philistine and politically reactionary tripe that they spoon-feed them?

When I wrote AC I was very angry, perhaps not completely fairly but I felt I’d lost a lot of sympathy with certain sections of the working classes for voting for Brexit in the Referendum. Back in the Eighties many had fallen for the false promises of Thatcherism, which resulted in the spiritual crippling of our culture and society and lasting scars that have still yet to heal; so when so many seemed to fall for the xenophobic populism of Farage, Johnson and Vote Leave, I just felt so frustrated, betrayed and, well, just angry, angry at what I saw as seeming mass ignorance. And then the final nail in the coffin was the ‘red wall’ in the Midlands and North turning blue in December 2019 – how could such huge swathes of the working classes vote for someone so transparently dishonest, unprincipled, unscrupulous and out of touch as Boris Johnson…? How on earth could they perceive an upper-class narcissist like Johnson as representing their interests…?

Of course the red top press has much to do with this, targeting the working classes as it does, but does there come a point when the Left has to stop and ask, to what extent can we blame the tabloids for proletarian attitudes and voting choices? Is there an element on the Left of our sometimes infantilising the working classes by perceiving them as constant victims of circumstances, and assuming to abdicate all responsibility on their behalf, treating them like overly impressionable children who are easily ‘taken in’? (I say working classes as opposed to working class since they’re/we’re not a homogenous mass of course). The Sun and the hard-right Daily Express might well be daily appealing for their attention in every newsagent, but there is also the Daily Mirror, also a tabloid, but a Labour-supporting one, which has a similar ‘celebrity gossip’-pulling power as its right-wing competitors; and the Morning Star, though not available everywhere, is ostensibly presented in an accessible tabloid format. These are just things I’m throwing in the air, they’re open for debate, I’m ultimately still in a quandary about it all.

The study in working-class Toryism, Angels of Marble, which I excerpt extensively in AC, provides us with many depressing and uncomfortable answers to the conundrum of blue-collar Conservatism, and it really is vital information which still applies today and is something so fundamental to British society that it has to be understood and combated by the Left into the future if we’re ever to break the right-wing hegemony of our political system (though personally I think the only real solution to neutralising the Tory monopoly in the long term is proportional representation – something which might come in time through petition, protest and perhaps an electoral referendum, and maybe one day will be rooted out just as rotten boroughs were in the 19th century).

FL: I also wonder to what extent you think that capitalism – and Thatcherism in particular – has succeeded in devaluing education in and of itself, if it is not connected to some kind of quantifiable economic ‘success’?

There’s a kind of grotesque instrumentalisation of intellectual effort at play within capitalism, which goes hand-in-hand with a carefully cultivated suspicion of – and hostility towards – ‘knowledgeable people’ from those organs and institutions supposed to represent working-class interests and ideals. This is beautifully and bleakly communicated by both yourself and Richard Hoggart, who you quote from extensively throughout Anxious Corporals, in section XII. In this section you also talk about the general distortion of working-class values by capitalism and through culture. Hoggart published The Uses of Literacy in 1957, but this process is horribly ongoing.

Could you speak about this process of distortion and some of its most recent manifestations? Is it a trend that you also see reflected in contemporary poetry?

AM: Oh absolutely, the primary preoccupation of capitalism and all capitalist governments is economic productivity and this is why there is such lack of interest in and low tolerance of Tory ministers towards the Arts and Humanities in academia, as these areas are not perceived to be particularly productive economically nor geared towards capitalist/Tory notions of societal progress which they see as almost solely invested in the sciences and technologies – this betrays the philistine materialism of much Tory and capitalist thought (if it can be called thought at all).

This is why we’re now seeing governmental disengagement with the Arts and Humanities, not only in terms of funding in the universities but also in wider culture. Moreover, the Tories tend to also see the Arts and Humanities as an intellectual threat to capitalist dogma and hegemony, particularly subjects such as Sociology and Cultural Studies. To use the old adage, capitalism ‘knows the price of everything but the value of nothing’.

There is definitely a cultural hostility towards ‘knowledge’, to some extent there’s always been a philistine seam to the British mentality, but our society became very actively anti-intellectual since the Thatcherite revolution, neoliberalism is the ultimate bourgeoisification of culture in terms of promoting mediocrity and banality (e.g. celebrity culture), imagination is distrusted, everything is trivialised to the lowest common denominator, individualism encouraged but individuality mystified and even stigmatised.

I think this anti-intellectualism and, indeed, anti-idealism, has permeated contemporary poetry for some decades now in the postmodernist mainstream, there’s long been a culture of stylistic policing which increasingly homogenises the medium, and so one has to look elsewhere, to the fringes, the small presses, to find the most interesting and authentic poetry being published. For a long time, certainly through the Nineties and Noughties, political poetry was generally frowned upon and belittled by the literary establishment and shunned by mainstream imprints (notable exceptions were presses such as Smokestack, Five Leaves, Flambard and a few others).

It took the financial crash and the onslaught of Tory austerity, then Brexit, then Trump, to jump-start the poetry mainstream into more active political consciousness, but even then it’s been on catch up. As I’ve written before, in a polemical monograph ‘Reoccupying Auden Country’, published at The International Times in 2011 (http://internationaltimes.it/reoccpying-auden-country/) and then reproduced in The Robin Hood Book – Verse Versus Austerity, postmodernism is peculiarly ill-equipped to tackle socio-political topics.

But there has been a slow continuing politicisation of poetry over the past few years, something like a depth-charge, which is has infiltrated the mainstream to some extent, though nowhere as markedly and authentically as through such auspices as Culture Matters, Smokestack Books, the Morning Star, the Communist Review, poetry journals such as Red Poets and The Penniless Press, and other such politically engaged outlets, that have been doing this since long before the mainstream picked up the scent. Nonetheless, at the upper echelons of the poetry scene, the trend is still, stubbornly and increasingly towards social irrelevance, individualism, poetic solipsism, and attitudinal narcissism – selfie-poetry.

FL: Following on from that last thought, I wonder to what extent you see poetry as a potential site of resistance to this distortion of working-class values by capitalism; a kind of redoubt against mass or – to quote Hoggart  ‘synthetic culture and intellectually-vetted entertainments’?

AM: Yes I think poetry can be a form of creative resistance, of polemical response through poetic self-expression to political events, but at the same time it can also end up being co-opted by the capitalist powers and upper echelons, and there are excerpts I include in AC from Ken Worpole’s exceptional polemic Dockers and Detectives that specifically touches on this phenomenon. Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy, too, is an extensive polemic about the dumbing down of mass culture which he documented way back in the late 50s, which was still well within the post war social democratic consensus. I’ve yet to read any of Hoggart’s later writings but I can only imagine his sense of complete despair at how things sped up in these respects through the Eighties and beyond.

But to return to poetry: in a sense, being arguably the least economically productive or enriching artistic medium, it has nothing to lose in being as political, as oppositional as it can be (and yet so much of it is so conservative!); it’s a medium belittled by the capitalist establishment, if not openly despised for its impecuniousness, and thus deeply distrusted. Poetry can be weaponised, more spiritually than politically I think, in the sense that it is something materially transcendent, since it has such little material incentive, and this gives it an unpredictable power all its own. Most of this power is in metaphor – metaphor is both weapon and camouflage. 

FL: My own take has always been that poetry requires of us – both as readers and writers – such deep, sustained attention to the operations of language, that it offers a kind of antidote to the passive content-imbibing we’re encouraged to participate in by other forms of literature and media. This leads me with a numbing inevitability to Insta-poetry, and the commercially successful pap that’s pumped out in its name.

One of the things I love about Anxious Corporals is that it is the absolute opposite of Insta-poetry. It’s knotty and complex, rich, allusive, rigorous and dense; it demands and rewards the reader’s non-trivial attention. It doesn’t offer these neat little parcels of peaceable catharsis. It’s troubling and difficult on the level of ethics and ideas. I suppose what I want to know is to what extent you see the cynical and sinister operations of capitalism through the rise of Insta-entrepreneur figures like Rupi Kaur and ‘Atticus’? Do you feel that the commercial ascendancy of such figures under the banner of ‘poetry’ is capitalism’s attempt to colonise or absorb the one form of literature it hasn’t yet successfully assimilated?

AM: I’ve no problem with accessibility and even simplicity in poetry, when it is appropriate for the subject or the tone or purpose of the poem, but I think people have the right to expect from apparently simple poems that, like Blake’s Songs of Innocence, there are other levels which the closer reader can discover under the ostensibly accessible surface.

Complete simplicity in and of itself in poetry –and any medium– inescapably morphs into the commonplace, quotidian, banal, into truism or platitude; there needs to be something else to it, engagement with language, symbol, metaphor, aphorism, something that lifts it beyond the trite or trivial. Ultimately I’m much more exercised by dumbing down or casualisation of literature.

But yes, capitalism absolutely tries to absorb or colonise any artforms that otherwise might pose some sort of threat such as becoming widespread or popular outside of its control. You see this increasingly in bank and building society adverts using spoken word artists, often from BAME backgrounds, in order to give the impression these corporate organisations somehow stand for inclusivity and are there to serve ordinary people, as opposed to profiting out of them.

FL: Connected to this last idea, I wanted to ask you about the notion of ‘accessibility’, both in terms of literature in general and poetry in particular. One of the beautiful things about the Pelican imprint – which is evoked throughout Anxious Corporals as both an emblem of working-class intellectual curiosity and a visual metaphor for the loss of this vital drive – was that it placed the tools of education within the working man’s material reach. These books were readily available in places working people were likely to frequent; they were easily identifiable, they were portable, and they were cheap. In other words ‘accessible’ in the truest sense.

One quietly disturbing trend in contemporary culture has been this shift in emphasis from ‘accessibility’ as equality of opportunity in terms of affordability and distribution, to being ‘accessible’ in terms of content, style or form. This has allowed any work that is challenging or nuanced or risk-taking to be positioned as ‘difficult’ or wilfully ‘alienating’, and this stance meets demands for richness, rigour and innovation with accusations of elitism. Is this something you feel aware of, maybe even write against? Could you tell me if it is something you have experienced in terms of the critical reception of your own writing? And to what extent do you see publishers like Smokestack as inheritors of Pelican’s mission?

AM: Yes, as AC pays to tribute to, Pelicans were originally sold in outlets such as Woolworths, purposely to target working-class readerships – this was a huge part of the Pelican ‘brief’, it was at the core of its publishing mission: to make knowledge, and mostly that hitherto perceived as ‘highbrow’ knowledge, readily available to the masses, cheaply priced, and accessibly communicated, but in no way that meant dumbing down, Pelican books were usually very well-written, often by leading thinkers and intellectuals of the time, but they were presented in an accessible and affordable format so as to attract the ordinary person on the street and give them access to hitherto cordoned-off rooms of information. Pelicans gave opportunities for true self-education on a wide variety of subjects. I agree with you that the perception of what ‘accessibility’ seems to mean today is in terms of over-simplifying. Crucially Pelicans still required intellectual effort from the readers, but glossaries elucidated all jargon.

Yes I suspect that much of my poetry is perceived as a bit ‘difficult’ at times, and on precisely this subject there was one review of AC which was generally positive but in which the reviewer took me to task for not making the poem a bit more accessible, mostly in terms of its presentation, density and, presumably, the absence of any glossary or notes. So perhaps with AC I didn’t quite hit the ‘accessibility’ mark of the very Pelican mission it’s partly paying tribute to.

If so, this was not a conscious thing, but basically down to space restriction, page count limit, and having already practically cut the poem by around 50% believe it or not – it was originally of truly epic proportions, now it’s a mere epic poem

And yes, absolutely, presses like Smokestack, and Culture Matters, and a handful of others, are indeed the poetry-equivalent to Pelican in many respects, and of the Left Book Club, while in the wider polemical field there are presses like Zed Books, Verso, Pluto, Lawrence & Wishart et al, and, indeed, a newly resurgent Pelican and Left Book Club. And online we have Prole, Proletarian Poetry, Poets’ Republic, Culture Matters, and of course my own The Recusant and its imprint Caparison, and Militant Thistles.

FL: Something else I’d like to ask about is the lack of funding this project received. I mention this because a bugbear of mine over the last few years has been to witness a number of poetic projects that were researched and written with assistance from ACE or like organisations. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but I always end up reading the declaration that ‘This book could not have been written without the generous support of blah-de-blah’ and thinking ‘Really?’ Because I think very often working-class writers are performing that work totally unacknowledged and unsupported because it doesn’t even occur to us to ask for help, or because we wouldn’t know who to ask or how to apply. And there’s a sense in which this is totally unfair, but there’s also a sense in which it produces rare, exciting and autonomous thought.

It proves that we can be the archaeologists, archivists and explorers of our own history and collective experience, without any mediation between ourselves as writers and the knowledge we seek, and the community of readers we are striving to reach. And in that sense, I think Anxious Corporals is not only a didactic work, it is also a hopeful example of what we can learn and what we can create under our own steam. Can you tell me something about your process for writing and researching this book, and share any thoughts you have about the differences between funded research projects and the kinds of self-directed autodidactic research you were engaged in with this book?

AM: I know exactly what you’re getting at here. You’re right, this particular work wasn’t funded in any way, it was a long-standing labour of love researched, written and painstakingly redrafted (over 100 times!) throughout the last three or more years. Having said that, I have received funding for some of my previous poetry books, two Arts Council G4A Awards in consecutive years for Blaze a Vanishing and The Tall Skies (Waterloo, 2013) and an online-only epic polemical poem Odour of Devon Violet (2014-) which has been an ongoing work-in-progress.

I’ve also over the years received grants from other bodies such as the Royal Literary Fund and the Society of Authors, not to work on particular books but as general subsistence support, and I did also acknowledge the Oppenheim-John Downes Memorial Trust for its financial support while I finished Gum Arabic (Cyberwit, India/US, 2020). But certainly for my earlier collections I was fairly unaware of any opportunities for support and it took many years of completely unfunded writing before I came to find out about some of these, mostly through tips from other poets and writers more adept at finding and applying for such things. But it’s not really a creative instinct, I think, to seek out support and funding for your work, even if it becomes a financial necessity (such as ‘time to write’ grants) – poets are perhaps particularly ill-suited to anything so rational and practical as filling out funding applications (though you might be surprised just how adept at this some are!).

It’s also difficult not to be sceptical about the poetry prize culture, since for so long it appears to have been monopolised by a relatively small grouping of perceived ‘top’ presses, which stretches credibility, the best work can’t always be being published by the same six or so imprints (out of tens of dozens), surely…? But there are pecking orders. Certain expectations. Self-fulfilling prophecies. Less than transparent protocols. There’s also the Oxbridge dimension which has never gone away and which has if anything become much more prevalent in the past decade (in every area of culture).

These prizes not only bestow prestige on recipients but also in some cases considerable financial reward, so it can be a double bitter pill for those struggling working-class and marginalised poets who feel they keep missing out on them. (And when I say ‘marginalised’ this also covers those with disabilities, whether physical or mental health issues, which significantly impact on their access to opportunities; ‘underrepresented’ is the term applied today, and I myself have been described before as an ‘underrepresented poet’). Then there’s the domino effect whereby scooping one prize seems to act as a passport to scooping more, often in fairly quick succession. One of the things I’ve observed over the years is that the best networkers, the pushiest, tend to get the best opportunities; it’s all as much to do with first come, first serve as it is with merit. Many of the most gifted poets I’ve known have often been the least pushy and thus the ones who have languished the longest in obscurity with few breaks or openings – perhaps that’s because they’re more focused on their craft than on its marketing.

Walter Gallichan (writing as Geoffrey Mortimer) in his brilliantly witty The Blight of Respectability, which I excerpt extensively in AC, coined some excellent adages on precisely this theme, one which touched on the ‘shy genius’ being shunned by the establishments while the ‘author of mediocre ability’, the ‘adept of claptrap’, gets all the opportunities and plaudits, just as in, as I also mention at this point in AC, the characters of Edwin Reardon (impoverished authentic writer) and Jasper Milvain (networking hack-writer) in George Gissing’s New Grub Street, a novel Gallichan would have no doubt been aware of and probably would have read. So little has changed since their time of writing in the 1890s!

AC was created out of self-directed research, it’s one of the ways I come to poetry, as a response to wide reading on certain subjects, the sources are books I largely sought out or discovered by chance, one of them was on my father’s bookshelves, he being a keen amateur genealogist with a strong interest in social history, and particularly that of the lower middle classes – I might point out here, too, that AC is not only or entirely focused on the historic working classes, it also takes in the lower middle classes, particularly clerks, much of the information sourced from David Lockwood’s rather dry but informative and compendious The Black Coated Worker. As mentioned before, I’d describe my own background as mixed class: materially and financially working-class (even at times underclass) but educationally and attitudinally middle-class, if that makes any sense.

FL: One of my favourite passages from Anxious Corporals contains these elegiac lines for the Pelican imprint:

Turn at ever more frequent intervals to silent trickles
Of the written page, and in those captivating lakes
Of meaning-making, of careful thought and crafted phrase,
Empathetic pools of escape, come to expand their mental plains

There is so much of note in these lines, which read in the first instance like both an elegy for and a celebration of print media itself, for a particular tactile experience of reading. There is also the real sense of the Pelican imprint’s value being in its empathetic reach, its capacity to expand horizons and connect working people in a kind of felt mutuality. This is exactly opposite to the cynically exploited ‘brand’ value of Pelican as a fetishised commodity, a hollow simple, emptied out of meaning, deployed in the service of a weaponised nostalgia.

What I really relish about this final section of the text is how the old Pelicans, surviving in ‘charity shop surplus’ become sources of solidarity and sustenance for the ‘amputees of new/ Imperialism’, for a new vanguard of ‘anxious corporals’.  There is deep sadness towards the end of the book for a loss of Pelican, and for the aims and aspirations of an intellectually curious working-class, but I also have a sense of hope: Pelican – like the working classes ourselves – persists, endures by other means. This is also something that is communicated in your muscular and resistive use of language. Would you mind finishing by talking about this germ of hope, and where – if it is coming from anywhere – you see it as coming from?

AM: Where there’s humanity, compassion, and spirit, there’s always hope, in the spirit of poetry, of creativity, of giving, of unconditional love – in this spirit of compassionate opposition, whether it manifests politically in socialism or communism, in liberation theology at the fusion point of Marxism and Christianity, in Christianity as the religion of the poor and oppressed as it was originally, and all other likeminded religions, where there’s imagination and compassion there’s always hope for something better to come, and if we are to save humanity and, indeed, the world on which we depend, then we need to become more compassionate, empathetic, communitarian and, of course, more nurturing of the planet which supports us.

Capitalism, materialism, consumerism all stand in the way of this, and so they must be swept aside, in time they will have to be, simply, if humanity is to survive into any future worth having, whether through human means or those outside of our control.  

FL: Thanks so much for talking to me, Alan! I hope that wasn’t too painful.

AM: Not at all, it was a pleasure answering such incisive questions.

 

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