Monthly Archives: August 2013

Running for Rosa

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rosa

Three fellow Trotskyists (Amy Gilligan, Jeff Webber, Robin Burrett) and I met up to run a 5k this morning around Victoria Park for Rosa Malloy-Post, hiker, mountain biker, skier, climber, nursing student who was paralysed in a climbing accident in May. She is dreaming of driving, hiking and competitive mountain biking again, while struggling with the privatised American health care system which loads much of the cost of complex health care onto patients themselves.

Jeff was also the first home in 22 and half minutes, which he managed to do without breaking sweat, while – at the same time – giving an impromptu talk on the class struggle in post-Chavez Venezuela. The rest of us struggled in about a minute behind.

The run was inspired by a 10k run by the Marxist economist Dave McNally in Canada.

We took £180 on the day for Rosa; and then most of us went off to Trafalgar Square for the demonstration against attacks on Syria.

Rosa’s friends and family are still raising money towards the costs of her medical care which are likely to run to around $75,000 in the first year alone. Please donate here: http://www.youcaring.com/medical-fundraiser/rosa-we-have-your-back-/61198.

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Remembering Vic Williams

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David Cameron lost last night because the Coalition’s MPs were unwilling to risk the loss of authority and electoral defeat that New Labour suffered as a result of imposing a war on an unwilling electorate. The anti-war movement has been on a minute scale until now and it would be a delusion for the left to pretend that we caused the government’s defeat. But this hurried vote did not take place in isolation from the last twenty years’ history.

Of all the people who have been retrospectively vindicated by last night’s vote, one name occurs to me: Vic Williams, the first of the Iraq war resisters. Vic had been a Gunner serving in Germany. At the start of the Gulf War of 1991 Vic was on leave in Britain where he met by chance a group of socialists selling papers in West London. He explained that he was nervous about returning, and hostile to being sent to fight in Iraq.

So began a process which saw him refuse to return to Germany, going absent without leave, and eventually speaking from a series of anti-war platforms. A Defence Campaign was set up.

At my school, a group of friends wrote to communicate our solidarity to him. I was astonished that he responded. He was on the run, after all. But he did, and he wrote to us with a quiet courage and immense conviction.

Eventually, Vic saw a solicitor and explained that he was fed up with life on the run.

He was shown for the first time the Army Regulations which make desertion at war time a serious offence, carrying years in military detention. ‘Why didn’t the army show me these?’, he asked.

Giving himself up, he was discharged with disgrace and received 14 months in military prison. By some magic of the internet, you can now watch Andy Wilson putting Vic’s case on ITN in the aftermath of the verdict. He explained that Vic was not a conscientious objector; he had served in Ireland. But he simply could not fight in a war whose aims he deemed offensive. The clip is also worth listening to for General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley former commander in chief of Nato’s Allied Forces Northern Europe having to explain that neither Britain nor the US has ever had a “hidden agenda” to enter Iraq and “subjugate it…”

Here’s Robb Johnson’s song, the Ballad of Vic Williams, which I recall being played at benefits for Stop the War 10 years later.

The army didn’t stop persecuting Vic afterwards. Employers were “spoken to”, and the army made it as hard as they possibly could for him to  find a stable career.

The numbers who had heard Vic speak at Hyde Park were relatively modest – tens of thousands compared to the millions who marched in 2003. His detention caused no public outcry.

And yet there must have been hundreds of thousands of people who heard the news of Vic’s treatment, and thought to themselves in the privacy of their own heart that the way he had been treated was just wrong.

Soul by soul and silently an argument was being won – against military power – and for popular consent as the only check to it.

Twenty years on, the wavering Coalition MPs fear the capacity of war to become an issue which dominates a generation, as the failure to find WMDs dominated politics for five years afterwards. And they fear the potential of the anti-war majority to become organised: to build a social movement, and to create an electoral machine. For the wavering Lib Dems, in particular, several of whom owe their seats to people’s revulsion against Blair after 2003, this anxiety must have been intense.

We may be bigger, in a better campaigning shape, and more of a menace in their imagination than we are in reality. But we carry this threat from the memory of the occasions when our side did organise.

Bill Shankly: Revolutionary Socialist

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No socialist in sixty years of British life has had more followers than Bill Shankly; no-one on the left has had greater success. Taking over as manager of Liverpool Football Club in 1959, with his team struggling in the second division, he had by his retirement in 1974 guided Liverpool to three league titles, two FA cups and the club’s first European trophy, the UEFA cup. He had built the structure for the team that would over the following decade go on to win a further 4 European Cups, and 6 League titles. This was a domination both at home and abroad which no other team in all the long history of English football has ever come close to matching.

A part of Shankly’s charisma came from the way in which he related his brand of football to a philosophy of collective endeavour, “The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life.” Shankly kitted his Liverpool side all in red. “Chairman Mao has never seen a greater show of red strength”, he said after one performance. Shankly insisted that the key to victory was the passion of the supporters. The first football “fanatics” to be seen on television were the Liverpool fans, swaying on the terraces, in their club scarves, joking, singing.

Few writers could be better placed than David Peace to bring Shankly into fiction. His Red Riding Quartet told the story of the 1970s and early 1980s with a radical bleakness. There was no space for innocence in these stories, not a policeman but one on the take. In GB84 Peace explored the mindset of Thatcher’s go-betweens, the shadowy figures who financed the efforts to break the Miners’ Strike. Peace has also written previously about football, with The Damned United telling the story of Brian Clough 44-day spell at Leeds. Writing in a style where myth, history and the occult mix, Peace is arguably the most ambitious novelist in Britain today.

Even David Peace however struggles to bring Shankly’s story successfully into fiction. There are difficulties here, which he only partially overcomes.

A reader of the Sun or the Mirror may content themselves with a generic report of their team’s latest game, for the paper’s treatment of the highlights is likely to last no more than a minute’s reading, but a novel demands that the writing holds the reader’s interest for hundreds of pages at a time. Peace didn’t have this problem in The Damned United as Clough only led Leeds for four League games. Shankly by contrast led Liverpool for over 750 games; and his triumphs, the League titles, were the product of long, campaigns with his Reds pulling ahead only at the end.

Peace’s style exaggerates the humdrum nature of the games. Many reports begin, “On the bench, the Anfield bench, Bill watched…” The attendance numbers are given. He conveys the chants of the crowd, and there are games for which the word “LI-VER-POOL” appears more than 200 times in 1000 words. Reports of home fixtures end, “Liverpool drew … At home, at Anfield.”

There are certain advantages to this way of writing. The evolution of tactics and the increased fitness of the players themselves have tended to make football a much more cramped and repetitive game than the sport of even a hundred years ago. I remember watching even the Liverpool sides of the early 80s (the period just after Peace’s book), for whom every attack would begin with Grobelaar rolling the ball to Hansen, and the defenders passing it to each other, and if need back to Grobelaar. Even then, this was immensely repetitive. To write about football in a way which makes the mundane appear fantastic (in the style, to be anachronistic, of a Sky pre-match advertisement) is actually to do your reader a disservice and patronise them.

Peace’s writing is at times beige: a dull and uninspiring background. By allowing some games to be uneventful, Peace gives himself the space to build up to more important matches, as for example the away game at Hillsborough in 1963, where, Peace suggests, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, was first sung. In Peace’s account, Shankly is aching with the fatigue of defeat, in his muscles, “beneath his skin, within his flesh. Through his bones and through his blood. His red, red blood.” The song is sung as Shankly returns to his team’s dressing room and begins to heal. In the context of the mundane, the special is made to appear truly extraordinary.

Any reader will grasp the effect Peace seeks; and yet the writing at times is consciously art-less, and some readers will complain that they could have written the words themselves. Like the modern art of a century ago, when compared to a doodle; it invites the reply: “you can paint like Picasso? Go paint then”. But Peace isn’t Picasso and even I, an enthusiast, found my attention waning at times.

A second problem Peace faces, and only partially resolves, is the character of Shankly himself. On his account, Liverpool’s manager had no excesses, was well read outside football, loved his wife selflessly, and carried some of the burden of housework for her. Shankly genuinely believed that the best player in his team, or even he himself, was worth less than the most passionate of his supporters. In order to win his historic wager – on the capacity of the working-class population of Liverpool to remake their team and the game through their passionate support – he was selfless with his own time, thanking supporters with gifts of tickets and, on occasion, of his own clothes. Shankly lived in a modest working class home, barely negotiated himself a pay rise, and tried to resist in every way the creeping commercialism of his times. Everything he believed, he lived.

All of us have seen activist projects which failed because their leaders were selfish, or because their senior followers rallied to protect the party from the victims of an injustice. Unlike small children, we know irony.

In an age where working class heroes, or at least those worthy of the label, are rare Shankly’s fictional biographer faces a challenge. The Shankly of this novel was better than anyone any of us are ever likely to meet. He does not develop as a character, he has no demons to overcome, his joy is not the source of his subsequent despair. Peace’s Clough was driven to succeed even at a club where he was likely to be hated; Shankly by contrast is simply a fixed point of goodness.

Since Lukacs, the usual response of writers to a character of this sort has been to invent a thwarted admirer (Salieri to Amadeus’ Mozart), so that the tension between the two protagonists give the plot its energy. In real life, Shankly had no antagonist, history supplies no-one for the author to develop into a rival.

Peace’s answer is a different one. If the story has a motor it is Shankly’s own sense that the game is unforgiving of the old, and the determination with which he gets rid of successive players on whom he had previously relied. This provides a theme building up to the final quarter of the book in which Shankly is retired, tries and fails to find a new role for himself at the club and is rebuffed. Shankly suffers a real, if modest, moment of incomprehension and bitterness.

There is a suicide in this book, but of a minor character. Otherwise, little goes wrong. There will be readers who find the book passionless in consequence, lacking the dark forebodings of Peace’s previous historical novels.

Was Shankly the greatest manager? Long ago, in the different context of cricket, CLR James compared the greatness of Bradman and W. G. Grace, pointing out that for all the statistical triumphs of the former, he did not change the relationship between cricket and society, built nothing that lasted, achieved only for himself.

Shankly’s sole comparator, on this test, is Ferguson, the manager who was in pole position to profit from the Premiership era, with all the subtle ways in which it concentrates resources upwards – the Sky TV deals, the overcompensation of success in the Champions League, Bosman and the escalating proportion of club turnover that the clubs are required to shell out on their players. Shankly’s achievements – a kind of fan culture, the Boot Room, European success – came in a shorter period than Ferguson was allowed. Their meaning was rooted in the values of the left, just as Ferguson was the perfect manager for a neoliberal age.

So as not to offend anyone, Peace makes no judgment on any other team (not even the Leeds side which Clough so hated); and even Liverpool’s rivalry with United, Peace carefully underplays by emphasising Shankly’s close friendship with their manager Matt Busby, who was, of course, a former Liverpool captain.

Shankly’s socialism was always vague. It was, after all, primarily a footballing rather than a political concept. While he undoubtedly had an idea of the potential power of class loyalty, his socialism was vague enough to take in a general feeling of goodwill to individuals as different as Chairman Mao and Harold Wilson.

There are moments in this novel, where the idea has knees and elbows. At times, Shankly’s well-meaning Socialism excludes those who are not worthy of the label. In Romania, his hosts refuse to serve Liverpool with the drinks that have been ordered, and Shankly assumes that their food or drink is being tampered with. He shouts: “You are a disgrace to International Socialism. You are a disgrace to your party.” Let us hope we never have to use that insult again.

Would Liverpool revive if only a new Shankly could be found? Some of the tricks attributed by Peace to Shankly – negotiating a potential £100 pay rise for all his players at the end of one season, then offering each player individually the unbelievably generous sum of £80 (far more than any of them had expected) – could not work today. Perhaps Peace makes too little as well of the source of Liverpool’s transfer wealth. They were never the richest club in English football, nor the highest payers, but unlike today the club was at least financially competitive. Peace lets one scene with an accountant introduce the Moores’ family wealth. A darker book might have made a little more of the compromises this must have involved.

The team’s progress was made possible in part by the loss of jobs on Liverpool, by the pre-history as it were of the terrible unemployment of the 1980s. The fans’ passion did not come from nowhere, but was a displaced form of class struggle against the perfidy of the regional and national capital, Manchester and London.

The feelings of anger and bitterness are still there. In London, a new generation of Toffs are concentrating wealth upwards even more visibly than before. Peace’s novel appears sandwiched between two images on the inside front and back covers, the 1911 Liverpool general transport strike and the 1981 March for Jobs.

The dockers are fewer than they were; socialism cannot be achieved simply by replacing the footage of the 1970s, on an ever-faster speed, until at one point the steel industry is saved, the car plants restored, and the Thatcher-Cameron hybrid defeated. Simply calling for a repeat of the past, without a recognition of the new, becomes just another preparation for defeat. There will be strikes in future, including mass strikes. But when the class moves next it will be a different set of people, with different ideas, in different organisations to the ones of 40 years ago.

The Trotskyist Milers run again

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guest post by Soren Goard

battersea

On Monday, four of us Trotskyist milers ran the Sri Chinmoy 3 x 1 mile self-transcendence relay in Battersea park. Run and Become, the party responsible for the race, seems to see itself as the Pret a Manger of the sports shop world. It likes to sell running shoes and gear by hinging it onto higher principles and ethics. However those ethics are less about the economic origins of the garments and more about a semi-religious vision that everyone can and should run. All the time. In specially fitted and astoundingly expensive running shoes. I went to the place once, because my partner needed a sports bra. The high walls are covered in 10ft pictures of Sri Chinmoy and his mantras, which of course fits the semi-religious metaphor nicely.

This is, of course, slightly unfair. Its probably good to have a place which takes running seriously – injuries are more likely in unsuitable shoes. And whilst I turned up at Battersea Park on Tuesday half-expecting something involving Kool-Aid or large wicker structures, it was completely normal. Pedestrian even.

Having slightly messed up organising the teams, we ended up with 4 of us for a race which required groups of 3. Sam, my arch nemesis who infuriatingly fooled me in the Trotskyist miler earlier this year, decided to defect to a ‘real’ running club. Me, Dave and Robin were left to fend for ourselves. It was a 3x1mile relay and our times were actually pretty good. I got my personal best, 5.17, a whole 30 seconds faster than the Inter-Sect Trot-Off I mentioned above. In all honesty I was still anxious that there was not, in fact, some kind of cruel punishment for those who failed to meet an adequate time/level of transcendence, which definitely motivated me to run faster. Robin, having only just escaped from a gruelling Welsh labour camp, and its accompanying diet that consisted solely of lamb and thick sliced bacon, got 7.03, which he was happy with. David got 6.18, so we had an overall time of 18:39 and placed 28th. Some of the teams that came in the top ten were achieving three four-minute miles, which is a bit of a mindfuck. What was really galling though, was being beaten summarily by David Harvey’s doppelganger. Zizek would have been at least bearable.

Sam ran 2 seconds faster than me. 2 seconds. It was a good time and I think he was proud of it. I will have my revenge nevertheless.

Did we transcend our individual selves and achieve a greater one-ness with athletic enlightenment? From what I can tell this was Sri Chinmoy’s shtick. One of the many gurus who got big out of the 1960s, Chinmoy developed a kind of competitive meditation, where you achieved clarity of mind through a transcendence of your physical limits. Chinmoy would demonstrate this through superhuman tests of endurance and, later in his life, superhuman shows of strength.

There’s probably some truth in that idea. We’ve all had that point where physical exertion stops being ridiculously painful and perversely sweaty all of a sudden and you actually start to lose yourself, but most of the time you’re torn quickly out of that celestial plane by a low hanging branch or when you slip on a Durex wrapper (who has sex in a layby on Brixton Hill? Why?). Personally, I find running is good because you can forget how much bullshit is going on by making your body doing ridiculously unnecessary exertion. And I’m happy with that; there’s a lot of bullshit going on. But I didn’t get that in Battersea Park – it was over so quickly.

The Trotskyist milers will be running next on Sunday 31 August at Victoria Park in Hackney as a fund-raiser for Rosa Malloy-Post. more details here: https://www.facebook.com/events/224184284401202/.