Monthly Archives: March 2016

The smell of a human

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Perfume

The base: half a spoon of cat-shit, several drop of vinegar, a thumbnail piece of pungent cheese, a something-or-other of sardine, rotten egg and castoreum, ammonia, nutmeg, horn shavings and finely ground singed pork rind. A relatively large amount of civet, alcohol. Then peppermint, lavender, turpentine, lime, eucalyptus. Disguised with geranium, rose, orange blossom and jasmine.

(from Patrick Süskind, Perfume (London: Penguin, 1987), pp 155-6)

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Knut Hamsun, ‘Hunger’

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Hunger, republished this year to mark the 125th anniversary of its original appearance, is one of those rare and compelling books which feel like they were written decades out of time.

With its sparse writing, modest plot and starving and dishonest narrator, Hunger feels like it should have been written three decades later by a Kafka or a Camus, responding to the horrors of the trenches, the possibilities of a revolution or the threat of its defeat.

Even to speak of Hunger’s plot is to give the impression of substance when, for the majority of the book, the story meanders between seemingly unrelated incidents.

The narrator comes to a city, he starves. He offers articles to a newspaper, he worries about his rent. He sells an article but even this successful commission leads only to further moments of hunger. He is evicted from his room.

The narrator neither learns nor changes and the reader never has a sense of a mission for him to complete or fail. He flirts with a girl, unsuccessfully. At the end of the story and, without purpose, he leaves the city.

Two scenes give a flavour of the book. Near the beginning, the narrator encounters an old beggar. Drunk with hunger and despising the old man’s frailty, the narrator decides to pawn his waistcoat and give the money to the beggar. The recipient is stupefied by the gift and silent. The narrator shouts and swears at his ingratitude.

Returning to the pawnbroker, the narrator seeks the return of the pencil-stub which he has left in one of the waistcoat pockets. The broker lets him take the pencil. Filled with energy, the narrator tells him that it was used previously to write a three-volume philosophical treatise. The pawnbroker humours his blatant lie.

Many generations of readers have sought to impose a logic on Hunger by calling it an existential novel or portraying the narrator as a zero in search of meaning or the opposite: a person seeking to discard meaning by starving himself to death.

The process of giving the novel meaning is encumbered by the events of Hamsun’s life.
The older the Norwegian writer got, the more right-wing he became. Wooed by Hitler, he wooed the nazis back and although his eventual meeting with the fuehrer in 1943 disappointed the latter, Hamsun never disowned fascism.

A letter to Hamsun by his publisher in 1946 strikes a chord with many disappointed readers: “There are few people I have admired as much as you, few I have loved so. None has disappointed me more.”

The conventional response to Hamsun’s politics is to say that he adopted them later in life and that the novel should not be blamed for the author’s subsequent follies.

This is too simple. Hunger does have a philosophy and is coherent in its own terms. If not fascistic, it is certainly misanthropic.

Reading Hunger in 2016, it’s not hard not to feel that the “personality” of the book is hostile and yet the novel is a thing of beauty — a frosty winter’s landscape to watch and admire but not to live in.

Originally published in the Morning Star

 

On not running at all

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A couple of weeks ago I was thinking about not running a marathon, since then I’ve not been running at all. When  you see a physio, what they are usually looking for is evidence that you’ve been overworking your body, most often by running too far. If not, then by running too fast. The more memorable cases are ones where there has been some change of technique without increased effort. In runners, that might be something like a new pair of shoes subtly altering your “form”, ie your running technique.

The following (me at the start of this month) constitutes a kind of full house: new running shoes, increased mileage (60 miles in one week), two races in successive days, the second of which was a pb of sorts (10k on the road). In the same seven days which had seen all of these changes, I’d also been experimenting with running with music. Normally, that isn’t my thing at all but I was enjoying playing my phone on shuffle and seeking how even the dullest and most formulaic music (Fields of Athenry by the Dropkick Murphys, bless them) would give my tired muscles a jolt. Six kilometres into my last race, I could feel a soreness in the middle of my left calf. By the race’s final 100 metres my leg was a sniper’s victim taking bullet after bullet.

Three weeks with no running, the physio says. Three weeks at a minimum.

 

Hsiao-Hung Pai, ‘Angry White People’

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One way to understand the recent history of the British far-right is as a series of attempts to overcome the isolation of fascism, a form of nationalist politics, where among the prime candidates for a unifying national story is precisely the memory of a war against fascism. In the 1960s, John Tyndall tried to revive interwar Nazism, complete with uniforms and copies of Mein Kampf. After the National Front there was the British Movement, who wanted Nazism without Hitler and tried to promote Gregor and Otto Strasser as the revolutionary martyrs of the fascist victory.

The British National Party (BNP) calculated that if you could split the old fascist parties of the 1930s in two and lose the street-fighting half, the electoral remainder would be sure of a breakthrough. Indeed, so rapid was the march rightwards of the Labour Party in the 2000s that it left a space which the BNP was able to exploit, winning two MEPs and fifty elected councillors. The BNP had, however, nothing new to say about Islam or the War on Terror and its demise, as the Conservatives and UKIP filled the space available to right-wing electoral parties. This created a further opportunity, which was taken in 2010 by the English Defence League (EDL). Islamophobes with Israeli flags who sang the Dambusters tune in pubs, for a time they seemed to be much more successful than the BNP at articulating contemporary racism.

Although there are passages in Angry White People which connect the story of the far-right to that of institutional racism, and there are attempts near the end of the book to situate the EDL’s rise within a broader context, Pai’s book is essentially a study of the English Defence League between about 2010 and 2013, based on a series of interviews conducted principally in Luton, where the group was founded. Pai has spoken to EDL leaders and supporters, sometimes re-interviewing the same people repeatedly over time, and her main characters appear in the book as fully-rounded people, with lives both inside and outside the far right.

Historically, the left has lacked a coherent approach towards interviewing fascists: some writers have refused to do this at all, but are then left dependent on interviews conducted by others. Some have spoken to activists from the far right and have been bowled over by them, and the books and articles they have written about fascism have absorbed the fascist version of the history (Stephen Cullen, Robert Skidelsky’s Oswald Mosley). Others, while remaining broadly sceptical of the right, have repeated select parts of the interviews naively, as if the mere fact that Nick Griffin says something distinct about why his party developed a certain way makes it true (Matthew Goodwin).

As a result, no-one on the left has spent as much time as Pai has done interviewing and then re-interviewing the same leaders of the EDL since Christopher Husbands in the 1970s. While Husbands’ book resulted in a collective academic and sociological portrait of a different generation, Pai’s approach is a journalist’s: she listens and relates and keeps her commentary brief.

Pai is very good on Luton, the town’s poverty and its diversity. She notices a steady influx of people from white minority ethnicities (Irish, Roma) into the EDL and the tensions that arise from the positions they took.

The most interesting character Pai interviews is Darren, a cousin of Kevin Carroll, Tommy Robinson’s deputy. Darren lived in Luton and became one of the EDL’s leaders. An anti-racist in the 1970s, he was motivated to join the EDL by intense localism combined with a dislike of the Muslim controversialist Anjem Choudary, whose 2009 protests against Luton troops provided the opportunity for the EDL’s launch. Darren saw the soldiers as workers like himself; he was pro-Palestinian and anti-war, but supported the anti-Choudary protests, understanding them as Luton residents standing up to outsiders pushing them around.

Darren mentions having bought Socialist Worker once and having read articles in it against the war in the Iraq but – unlike the 1970s, where the left usually had a base in the very areas that the National Front contested – there is never a sense in Angry White People of the left being any sort of option for potential EDL joiners. The choice is either the EDL or representative politics as usual.

In Pai’s book, Darren is a good introduction to the ideological blurredness of the EDL, which in reality runs through much of the organisation. Pai mentions the last book about the EDL, the participant-memoir ‘Coming Down the Road’, but perhaps could have made more of its author’s name “Billy (i.e. the poet William) Blake” and other, incompatible heroes, Bessie Braddock (the doyenne of the old Labour right in Liverpool) and Dave Nellist of Militant.

Darren was present on many of the early EDL marches. He listened to the EDL’s anti-racist critics and felt torn. He detached himself from the EDL’s social events, but continued marching. Darren attended the protests with a “black and white unite” banner, testing how much space there would be in this new movement for the diverse group of football supporters who he had thought were its original core. Darren was disgruntled to see Carroll taking his grandfather’s wartime medals to an EDL protest, in order to wave off criticisms that he came from a Catholic (i.e. Irish) background. Carroll was lying to himself and to his supporters, Darren thought. In such clashes, you can see the working out of the kind of tensions that sociologist Satnam Virdee has talked about in his work on the “racialized other”.

The liveliest parts of Angry White People are reminiscent of Inso Hasselbach’s book Führer Ex or Matthew Collins’ Hate in describing Darren’s journey out of the far right. By the end of the book he has joined the Labour Party, only to be disappointed by their unwillingness to tackle racism directly.

The EDL’s Tommy Robinson, of course, has been going through a more public process of reinvention after his own departure from the EDL. Pai is generous about the local activists who encouraged Robinson to leave. She is, however, gently scathing about the Quilliam Foundation, which was in some financial difficulty when it met Robinson and benefitted from the publicity that accompanied his departure. By the end of her book, you doubt that Robinson can stay away from the far right for long.

The third main interviewee after Darren and Tommy Robinson is Paul Sillett of Unite Against Fascism, who is quoted repeatedly without authorial comment. Pai also speaks much more briefly to activists from Sisters Against the EDL, but it is a shame that she saw no need to interview anyone from the Anti-Fascist Network, who have after all been so much more visible than Unite Against Fascism at Dover, in Liverpool, and at many other protests for two years now.

Overall, this is an exemplary account of the working class milieu in which a version of the far right began. The main thing I will take away from Pai’s book is the failure of socialists to build in the areas where the present government’s austerity politics have hit hardest. If we are ever again going to have a left of which we can be unambiguously proud, one place it would surely have to prove itself would be in the very terraces and on the same estates where the EDL was born.

Originally published by RS21

Tom Bower, ‘Maxwell The Outsider’

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Twenty-five years since Robert Maxwell’s death the organisations with which he was associated are in no healthier condition than they were on his demise: Pergamon Press, Oxford United football club, the Daily Mirror. None of us to want to think ill of the dead (it is hardly a healthy way to be, reliving repeatedly the betrayals of past generations) but Maxwell in particular is unjustly prettified by forgetfulness. At least he wasn’t as bad as a Donald Trump or a Rupert Murdoch, you find yourself thinking. Except that he was.

As far as his contemporaries in business were concerned Maxwell ran the Mirror just about as well as any paper could have been run. Copying the Sun by filling the paper with images of women breasts, reducing the news, the politics and the circulation. Filling it with puff pieces about Maxwell’s businesses success, his meetings with General Jaruzelski the butcher of the Polish revolution, his plans to make bids for decaying British businesses (always better reported than Maxwell’s subsequent failures to proceed with the mooted acquisitions). Attacking the unions – one of the greatest annoyances of Tom Bower biography is Bower’s hostility to the unions.

The mathematics of the transaction were depressingly simple. Maxwell paid £100 million for the Mirror. Like all the great acquisitions of the 1980s (the takeover of Harrods was just the same), this was not money he ever owned himself. He went to the banks, who accepted that he showed every visible sign of being very rich, and persuaded the banks to lend him the money and on buying the paper put the debts of its sales through its own books. How then was the Mirror, which had already been struggling prior to its acquisition, supposed to pay the interest on his £100 million? Simple, Maxwell said. By sheer force of personality, he would compel the workers to accept redundancies and pay cuts until the paper’s wage bill was cut in half. At that point, with every worker doing the work that was previously done by two, the paper could afford his purchase of it.

To an extent, the plan worked. There were protests of course, but the unions were being crushed everywhere in print. The Mirror had a number of left-wingers on its board, none resisted Maxwell, and Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party which had a disproportionate influence (the Mirror had long been a Labour paper and a number of promises having been made that it would remain one) was hardly going to stop him.

On having broken the unions, there was no force capable of stopping the second stage of Maxwell’s plan. For his £100 million, he had acquired not merely the paper itself but its pension fund built up to protect around 16,000 present and former employees in their retirement. From the fund, £400 millionleached into his private finances, paying for the champagne and the smoked salmon at Maxwell’s private parties and all the ostentatious spending which persuaded the banks to acts as the intermediaries in the next steps of Maxwell’s subsequent business acquisitions.

From Bower’s book, you get a sense of Maxwell’s upbringing in an Orthodox Czech Jewish family, his distinguished war service in the British army, his personal corpulence (he was 21-stone on his death), his love of bartering and his bullying. You see Maxwell’s talent for persuading himself that his private greed was in fact some public mission (“service to my fellow man”, he called it).

The most memorable passages of Maxwell: the Outsider are ones in which Bower describes Maxwell’s first and failed attempt in 1968 to buy a newspaper, the News of the World. His bid was defeated by its owner, a drunk example of old English money, playing loose with business rules and denigrating Maxwell publicly in anti-semitic terms. Rupert Murdoch, newly arrived in London, was less of a foreigner than Maxwell who had been here for two decades.

Reading Bower, you can see why Maxwell fixed on the newspapers which he saw as having a unique access to political influence (far more so than Maxwell had had during his brief time as a backbench Labour MP). You see his giant parties, with their tables, each graded according to the influence of the guests seated on them, and the menus of each table set accordingly.

If you’re trying to show off to a former Prime Minister, to your other press barons, and to your own senior executives, wouldn’t it be cheaper and easier just to give everyone the same lobsters and caviar? Not at all. Maxwell may have been a thief but he was a rich man. Just like everyone who ascends that high: while he was exuberant with his own tastes, when it came to everyone else he scrimped like a miser.

Why are the Tories divided over Europe?

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The way I see it, Europe is the unfinished business of the 1980s.

By 1990, there was an emerging Thatcherite critique of the EU. The EU was led by a social democrat (Delors) and was seen from Britain as having a corporatist strategy for development. IE if the unions were on board and there was a social compromise, society was at peace and you could get on with building up the European economy as you wanted. As far as the people who led the EU were concerned the condition for avoiding war or civil war was still (as it had been in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s) social compromise. The Thatcherites disagreed with them.

To the Thatcherites, the unions were so weak – in the EU and in Europe – that you no longer to make a deal with them. Corporatism was based on a false calculation of the weakness of the global ruling class and they wanted a period of ideological attack against the “enemy within” (trade unions, overpaid workers, peace campaigners, feminists, LGBT groups…). To put it in its crudest form: the rich were fed up with paying taxes and no longer understood why “their” politicians expected them to pay anything.

There was also a secondary aspect to this with the Thatcherites saying Britain could trade with the US and Japan rather than the EU – but that was the second, weaker part of the argument. More UK businesses had stronger links then (and today) with the EU than the US and this wasn’t a strong enough basis to create a majority for departure. Plans for changing Britain, rather than geography of trade, were key.

By 1990 (when she was toppled) Thatcher herself was sounding more and more like she was in favour of the UK leaving the EU but it didn’t happen, because Thatcher as an administrator was more cautious than she was as an ideologue and she tended not to do the things she said she would do until she was convinced that they were guaranteed not to rebound on her – the Conservative Party in Parliament was more ideologically heterogeneous then than it is now so she did not have a majority to push EU departure through – and the poll tax was coming and her authority was diminishing and Europe was one of the factors that made her seem week.

Since the 1980s the EU has become more important:

i) In the period where Social Democrats were in government in most EU states (c1995-c2008) they pushed legislation through the EU institutions (the working time directive, the equality directive, etc). The EU didn’t stop being a caucus for organising business or capitalism but it’s style looked too social democratic to the Thatcherites. While many on the left have used this period to say the EU was too neo-liberal, as far as the Thatcherites were concerned it wasn’t remotely neo-liberal enough.

ii) the EU’s reform period has placed more of a burden on small businesses for whom the EU personifies the cost of hiring labour in a world of employment tribunals, health and safety laws… There is a burden for big business too, but it is swallowed up by the larger scale on which larger companies operate. Hence the hard brexit supporters you hear on the radio complaining that they can’t recruit apprentices (ie workers paid less than the minimum wage) because of the (fictitious) EU taxes on hairdryers, etc.

iii) Since 2008, the EU has adopted politics of austerity which has effectively ended the period of EU reforms, and since then EU has become a driver of austerity. Obviously this is happening really fastest in Greece because of the debts but it’s happening almost everywhere (except, as it happens, the UK – where we have reached a purely national route to austerity – one reason why the social basis for a left brexit perspective is missing).

iv) Immigration has given the Tory right a populist excuse for what remains an ideological critique of the EU – that it is still too corporatist and this inhibits capital accumulation in the UK. Hence the “anti-migration” opposition to the EU of individuals like Johnson and Goldsmith who are in other ways pro-movement. As far as the Brexiter Tories, as a group, are concerned: while immigration is *not* the basis of the Thatcherite critique it could be the policy that delivers a majority for No. There will be a price to this: if they win Brexit then there will have to be significant anti-migrant moves, as the price for winning they extra 10-20% of votes they need. (We shouldn’t expect the Brexiters to move for the immediate removal of all EU migrants, but neither will they allow them to remain in the UK on equal terms to UK nationals: access to benefits, the NHS, will all come into play).

v) the Euro: Thatcherites hate it, and it has become a totem of the EU’s corporatism (Ironically, of course, in Ireland, Greece, etc it feels like the opposite, an instrument of neoliberalism).

But despite all these changes to the EU, essentially the politics haven’t moved and this is still about the unfinished business of Thatcherism rather than a critique of the EU in the last 30 years.

For the Tory right it’s about closing that period with a final victory – it’s their triumph that follows the tears they had to shed at Thatcher’s funeral.

The reason why Osborne and Cameron and the minority of Tory MPs who go along with them (it’s a very definite minority if you only count backbenchers, ie people whose jobs in the govt aren’t at risk if they call publicly for exit) do not share this belief is that as far as they’re concerned it’s too risky. Brexit would lead to a series of negotiations they couldn’t control with a horribly tight timescale (in theory just 2 years – compare the more than five it has taken to close off trade negotiations with Canada). Brexit could be bad for the City of London, uncertainty usually is. As far as the Thatcherite stayers concerned, they’ve already won in Britain – and, since 2008, in Europe – and they don’t need the extra risk.

The divide is about how much risk is needed, or not, to entrench a Thatcherite hegemony.

Tim Pears, ‘In a Land of Plenty’

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A best-selling literary author struggles for a short phrase that will encompass the narrow walls inside which his characters live. “The past never dies,” he writes. He carves the phrase in longhand, he takes it to his computer. He likes it so much that he shares it with his agent and it becomes the subtitle of his book. If you listen carefully, it is Faulkner whose words are being condensed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Now imagine those same few words but with a broader ambition. What would fiction be like if there were writers capable of showing how heavily the tradition of dead generations weighed now, here, on the minds of all of us?

If only there was a literature which could explain how trapped we all are in the choices of thirty years ago – spinning, in this summer’s referendum between the politics of September 1988 (Thatcher’s Bruges speech) and June 1989 (Thatcher’s rejection of the Social Chapter) – save that the generation that presently rules us is made up of the erstwhile young, the unpopular, obsessive children were bewildered to see how quickly their champion was losing their authority and now seek to use this referenda, whichever way the UK votes, to undo her humiliation.

Our Friends in the North did that, you could say. GB84. The list is short, isn’t it?

After them, at the front of the second rank, it’s Tim Pears. His novel In a Land of Plenty is the story of Charles Freeman, postwar industrialist, his poet wife, his son James who becomes a photographer, James’ cousin Zoe who travels, takes drugs, owns a cinema. It is a story of the battles between Freeman and his workers, anti-racism concerts, peace demonstrations, green protests.

The BBC turned the novel into a mini-series which for some barely comprehensible reason they appear to have made available on VHS only. (On Amazon, they have even blocked the trailer for the TV series…).

Here are some of the things I admire about the book: the slow pace at which James learns his art; the recurring anticipatory dreams he has of a wedding (when he does marry it will become a moment of intense trauma), the ease with which Pears uses dress to convey character (Zoe wears not one rainbow scarf, but two at ince), the unpredictable character of Charles’ domestic tyranny (the way he approves of one of his sons renting out the stately home for an illegal rave: at least money is being made), the grotesque way in which his business swells during the Thatcher years…

If only there were more books like that.