Category Archives: Me; running

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

 

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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.

 

On not running marathons

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There are so many good reasons for not running marathons. The training for a start. A standard marathon training plan will invite the runner to build up their distance until they are running 80 to 100 miles without difficulty every week. At the slow speed that I need to run those distance, in order to avoid injury, that’s around 10 hours running every week, on top of which you can add about half the same time again in the hot baths I take (again, to avoid injury) every time I have run further than two or three miles. That’s two hours you have to find every waking day, time you lose between being with the boys when they awake, taking them to school, cooking for them, their bed time story, their coding club, their swimming or their football teams. Ten hours a week for thirteen weeks: that’s the writing of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or The Remains of the Day .

Then there’s the pain. So far this year, I have run indoor track races at 400, 800, 1500 and 3000 metres. At every one of those distances I could feel my speed deteriorating the longer the race went on. The last of those races, a 3000 metres on the steep blue banked-track at Lee Valley, I ran the final kilometre a full thirty seconds slower than the first k. That’s what lactic acid does, it hurts. The bounce with which you set off: it departs. Your knees, which once lifted from the track in something like a bicycle motion, shuffle. Your feet lift so heavy from the ground. Friends tells me that they survive distance races by breathing in ever deeper mouthfuls of oxygen, in their own private approximation of a woman giving birth, “Gas and air. Gas and air.” “I want an epidural now.” I’m sorry, the marathon midwife says, you’ve got four hours thirty minutes of just air and air.

I’m not a long-distance runner; I weight too much. My bones are too big. Vestigial as those muscles may be, I did once have some fast-twitch muscle in my legs and its memory and its burden remains.  In the distance past I used this blog to sing the praises of a kind of running, middle-distance running, which suits a personality trait so deep – my preference for the sudden burst over the slow journey. I’ve run a lot since then, 100 miles a month for the last five years but never once have I managed 100 or even 80 miles a week.

“The party of home ownership”

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So how many properties do you own? “I own a house in North Kensington which you’ve been to and my house in the constituency in Oxfordshire and that is, as far as I know, all I have.”

A house in Cornwall? “No, that is, Samantha used to have a timeshare in South Devon but she doesn’t any more.” And there isn’t a fourth? “I don’t think so – not that I can think of.” Please don’t say, “Not that I can think of.” “You might be … Samantha owns a field in Scunthorpe but she doesn’t own a house…”

Source: Times [David Cameron forgetting how many houses he owns, May 2009]

“We’re not bothering you, we’re from the press”

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I have extracted the sound file of Jeremy Corbyn being harassed by the media on Sunday. They have already caused suffering by door-stepping several members of his extended family, people who never chose to be in the limelight, and are entitled to their privacy.

After a while you stop listening to the questions, and hear only the answer, the rhythm of Corbyn’s feet. He walks as a sometime runner might, with purpose. You can also hear his fatigue. This is a figure, after all, who has given more than 100 speeches to his supporters in three months, and addressed (in addition) so many joint debates that his rivals (20 years his junior) are exhausted. As her prepared himself for his victory he may well have thought, naively, that a holiday was in order.

So much of all our collective longing is invested in him. How heavy that burden must be.

Whatever scenario you might paint in your imagination as to how socialism “should” come about, do not kid yourself that the path would be any easier for an English Trotsky, a British Che, a North London Bakunin.

“Why do you keep walking”, he is asked, “and not answering the question?”

In the press reports, it is said that Corbyn is rescued by an aide, but I’m pretty sure it is in fact his son Tommy – good on him.

And then the journalist becomes conscious, for a moment, of where he is and what he is doing. “Jeremy, we’re not bothering you, we’re from the press.” Well, what do you think you are doing? It is not enough to say ‘our job’. Everyone, whatever they do, always has a choice.

On the Independent Greeks; and on Alliances

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Six weeks ago, when Syriza formed a coalition with the Independent Greeks a common view among my friends was that this was Syriza’s first betrayal and that others would inevitably follow. The story was familiar; outside government, Syriza had promised to do politics differently, including granting 100,000 migrant children in Greece full citizenship, tearing down the refugee camps and rehousing the people in them. It would be the greatest challenge to Fortress Europe in a generation. But electoral parties are no different, the pressure of keeping in office always moderates reformists. And by joining with the racists of the Independent Greeks, Syriza was indicating its willingness to compromise on everything.

This pessimism was always unconvincing. After 40 years of left-wing parties exercising ever greater efforts to show how little they differ from the press-business neoliberal consensus, paling their flags an ever lighter pink as they went, Syriza is very clearly a different sort of project. And it was never going to be exhausted merely by its first, incomplete, compromise.

Being short of a majority in parliament, Syriza had no real option but to do a deal with someone. The KKE had already refused an alliance, foreshadowing its present position which is to vote with New Democracy and PASOK. The only other option, the River, was a party of neoliberal enthusiasts for cuts; on the central issue facing Greece –  austerity – the Independent Greeks were Syriza’s only possible allies.

And there are many different kinds of alliance. Such was the Parliamentary arithmetic (Syriza only needing two votes for a majority) that Tsipras had no need to water down on his commitments. This was reflected in his party’s deal with the Independent Greeks, where the two parties agreed to vote for migration policy along party lines (ie Syriza will get these measures through without needing the Independent Greeks’ support).

Far from dropping its promises, Syriza has renewed its commitments, on citizenship, and on the camps. The migration minister is Tasia Christodoulopoulou, doyenne of Greek migrants’ lawyers – the equivalent in England of giving our unreconstructed CLR James-ite Ian Macdonald the job. Indeed even the wretched four-month bailout deal has given Syriza additional reasons to maintain its promises to migrants. Precisely because its economic programme has become harder to implement, Syriza has needed to show that its social programme remains undiluted.

At this point, the voice of conscience intrudes. Isn’t the whole point about left-wing governments (or, at least, those worthy of the name) that they make no compromises, and in particular they do not, under any circumstances, make an alliance with conservatives or racists?

It may be helpful to review at this point some of the compromises that the party most often cited as a comparison, the Lenin-era Bolsheviks, made with its enemies. Brest-Litovsk, the recruitment of Tsarist officers to senior positions in the Red Army, one-man management in industry, the NEP, the Rapallo peace treaty under which the German military hosted its research facilities in tanks and chemical weapons on Bolshevik soil. The pamphlet in which the Bolsheviks drew up a balance-sheet on their experiences drew the inevitable conclusions – “to reject compromises ‘on principle’, to reject the permissibility of compromises in general, no matter of what kind, is childishness, which it is difficult even to consider seriously. A political leader who desires to be useful to the revolutionary proletariat must be able to distinguish concrete cases of compromises that are inexcusable and are an expression of opportunism and treachery.”

Some of the Bolsheviks’ compromises went deep. As Isaac Babel pointed out, long ago in Red Cavalry (and as Brendan McGeever has shown again in research which, when it makes it into print, should be compulsory reading for anyone nostalgic for a time which never existed), these compromises included in 1918-1919 leaving local Soviet power in many areas in the hands of people who were murderously anti-Semitic. This approach proved temporary because the Civil War finished and there was then a struggle within the fragile Soviet regime to purge itself of these elements.

So, a compromise with conservatives or racists is always unwanted and undesirable (means and ends always interconnect), but may be necessary as a temporary device provided as a minimum that it is the right making the principal compromises and the direction of travel is towards liberation.

Panos Kammenos, the leader of the Independent Greeks is no outsider, having been an MP for New Democracy for 20 years and a former minister for the shipping industry. The majority of its MPs were recruited like Kammenos from the anti-bailout wing of New Democracy, although they have had at least one MP come over from PASOK. The party is fiercely nationalist, and enthusiastic about the Orthodox church. Its racism expresses itself in two ways, first, in a hostility to migrants, and second, in a tendency to explain the Greek debt crisis in terms of banks, and therefore Jews, who stand in familiar anti-Semitic trope as the imaginary, physical embodiment of all that is wrong with finance as opposed to industry.

Just as Syriza has profited from “pasofikation” (ie the dramatic collapse of the main party of the centre-left, in conditions where it ceased to offer its voters anything), the Independent Greeks seem to have their own plan to become over 5-10 years the main party of Greece’s political right. They act as if they believe that austerity will ultimately be cancelled, and that all the parties which attempted to enforce Greece’s debts will wither. One of the Independent Greeks’ key proposals is therefore to investigate the terms under which during the second half of the 2000s New Democracy agreed to a massive increase of Greece’s debts, and to prosecute the ministers responsible. A deal with Syriza, from this perspective, is merely the means to an end: the complete reconstruction of the Greek political system and the defeat of New Democracy, after which it will be left vs right politics as usual.

English writers tend to compare them to UKIP, but they are in other respects more akin to the kinds of far-right “independents” that became the third power in the House of Commons between 1918 and 1920, in a period of intense paranoia about German power. To understand their appeal you may recall the inventor and champion of middle-class life but serial debtor, Caractus Potts, in his war with the Vulgarian (i.e. German) Baron Bomburst. Beneath the castles of the Baron’s power are the children of the poor, held in debt bondage through the medium of the (Jewish) childcatcher. The secret of German power, it follows, is its hold over the debt. If only the Baron can be captured, the children will go free. But who will defeat the Baron? You could scour Ian Fleming’s books (or those of his predecessors Erskine Childers or John Buchan) for an answer but you will find none.

Kammenos’ thinking suffers from the same weakness: the Independent Greeks are furiously anti-austerity, and blame Troika, and behind them “Germany”. During the negotiations, they were if anything harder against compromise with the Eurozone than Syriza. In contrast to them, Syriza has an idea of how to renegotiate the balance of forces within Germany – by encouraging the election of anti-austerity parties in Spain, Portugal and Ireland, and by promoting anti-austerity leftists in Britain, German, etc. The Baron can be defeated in other words, by the German Left Party, or (beneath it) by the German working class. Short of switching Greece’s client status to some alternative backer wealthier than Germany, Kammenos has no equivalent plan. His racism, in other words, constantly limits the desire for national independence which is his party’s rationale.

Syriza’s strategic thinking in response to the Independent Greeks appears to be as follows. The tasks facing the left (which remains a minority) remain too large for the social forces available. Therefore, the left has to try to split the right into two parts, a first with which it is possible to work, and a second (New Democracy, Golden Dawn), who are or will be beyond the pale. The Independent Greeks are sufficiently robust allies, not merely because they are committed to anti-austerity politics but because their social base reflects above all the influence of the Orthodox church, which has a very wide but very shallow hold over large parts of the Greek people and even dispossessed classes. If the recomposition of the left happens on the terms that both Syriza and the Independent Greeks want, Syriza predicts, the destruction of both Pasok and New Democracy, will not just result in the replacement of one old left-right rivalry with a new one (Syriza versus the Independent Greeks), it will also lead to a shift between left and right, with the future balance of powers foreshadowed by Syriza’s present hegemony in the coalition (it has 12 times as many seats as the Independent Greeks). Syriza will win because it will prove to have been the better fighters against austerity – and the (limited) polling evidence to date appears to be that it, rather than Independent Greeks, has been winning the most voters from New Democracy since the election.

An obvious attraction of this thinking to those of us outside Greece is that is a strategy for dealing which the right which envisages a victory over it. As such, it has an advantage over our usual way of thinking in which the right represents a significant social layer (the petty bourgeoisie) which has a static position of utter hostility to the workers’ movement, and whose racism is permanent and unsatisfiable. We have an idea that if this class throws up outlier parties, they may become so unpopular that we might isolate and physically defeat them. But we have seemingly no conception at all of how to go beyond a situation where they are not outliers but more respectable, and we (rather than they) are the unpopular minority.

Now the fact that a party has a plan does not mean that it is guaranteed to succeed. The gamble (as it is best characterised) risks treating the “left” and the “right” as if they were objective political realities rather than temporary relationships. Precisely because Syriza has had some success in quarantining off the bad parts of the right, they risk over-using the tactic. You can see this danger when it comes to the pending  prosecution of the leaders of Golden Dawn, Greece’s neo-Nazi revivalists, with their base in the police and their 5% of the vote.

Critics of Syriza to its left have taken umbrage at Syriza’s suggestion that elected Golden Dawn MPs should be released from custody to attend votes in Parliament suggesting that Syriza is extending too much deference to the right, and warning that Syriza may be cooling as to the prosecution itself. At this distance, it is impossible to know whether they are right about the prosecution itself (which is necessarily in the hands of the judiciary rather than the politicians) or these are the exaggerated fears of people who have committed themselves in advance to the narrative that Syriza will betray its supporters. But Syriza’s friends should be watching closely and urging the government to take no steps which help the fascists.

There is a second area where the alliance with the Independent Greeks bears a risk; and it is in terms of Syriza’s analysis of its  problems with Europe. Because they are advocates of simple, conspiratorial thinking, the Independent Greeks tend to explain all of Greece’s difficulties simply in terms of “Germany”. Here they risk bolstering some in Syriza for whom neo-liberalism in Europe is a German  phenomenon, and all sorts of alliances (with the United States or Britain or with Italian or French technocrats) remain potentially open. The alternative tentatively emerging within Syriza, which gives the greatest weight to explaining the balance of forces honestly to the party’s supporters, is incompatible with that sort of fantastical thinking.

The alliance with the Independent Greeks remains a difficulty, then; even if it is not yet the fatal germ against which Syriza’s original critics warned.

Peter Sedgwick, The Unilateralist State

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[first published as anon, ‘Say no to Nato’, Rebel, September 1960]

After nuclear disarmament, then what? it would be good to think that we were anywhere near asking that question. Most of us in CND are too busy asking, “Before nuclear disarmament, what?” to bother about very long-term crystal-gazing. However, it is very necessary to have a general picture in one’s mind of the kind of Britain that could pursue a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, and the kind of foreign politics that such a Britain would follow.

If we limit our vision to what a single anti-nuclear government could do in NATO to influence its “partners” towards abandoning the Bomb we are not trying to see nearly enough possibilities. Of course Adenauer, De Gaulle and the American government won’t listen. But a British government which had abandoned nuclear arms would also, if it was consistent, have to abandon the use of the Bomb by other governments on her behalf; that is, simply to refuse to stay in an alliance dominated by an atomic strategy. This does not mean isolationism. On the contrary, Britain would have to appeal to the peoples, and particularly the working-class movements, of other NATO countries, to follow our lead.

A year or two ago there was a vast anti-Bomb movement in West Germany, an Aldermaston in every major town, which petered out largely because it didn’t seem to be acheiving any real change. But if the working people of the world were faced with an actual government which had given up the Bomb, the international consequences would be tremendous.

After all, the reason why the Stalinist brand of Marxism has had so much influence in the world over the last thirty years, as opposed to other, less influential varieties like Trotskyism or Austrian Marxism, is that there has always been at least one important Stalinist government actually existing in the word. An anti-nuclear Britain would have at least as shattering an influence, by-passing governments and disarmament conferences, as October 1917.

I would certainly agree that there is a risk, if we were to break out of the Cold War, of being squeezed between the rival politics of Russia, or China, and the USA. But we run that risk anyway by being in the Cold War. The Deterrent theory is in any cause the maddest gamble in the world, beside which even the most risky alternative of breakthrough seems as sure as a fixed roulette-wheel.

It is difficult to understand how members of CND can have any doubts about NATO. NATO and the Bomb are inseparable for Britain and if you reject one you must reject the other. General Gruenther stated as long ago as 1954 that the Western Powers had already “passed the point of no return” in the use of conventional weapons, and that he had “no choice except to use atomic weapons whether the enemy does so or not” (quotes from Alistair Cooke, Guardian, 1/3/55). It is quite unprincipled for people like Crossman and Wigg to talk of Britain giving up her own Bomb and contributing conventional forces to NATO. This only means that we will start or engage in the “limited” wars, a new Korea or Suez perhaps, that may develop into an “unlimited”, “unconventional” H-Bomb blitz.

The policy advocated here is probably best called “subversive neutrality”. A government which was seriously neutral and anti-Bomb would have to be subversive too about its domestic capitalism. It is inconceivable that the vested interests of British imperial capitalism would stand by quietly and watch their overseas alliances and nice fat arms-shares fade away into nothing.

A Britain which gave up the Bomb and the arms-race and stayed capitalist would in any case find itself in a serious economic crisis, since static military spending provides an essential boost to a private-enterprise economy.

That means the only sort of government that is capable of implementing CND policy is one which is revolutionary -Socialist and internationalist. A tall order you might say; but no taller than the facts of power demand.

[Thanks to John Rudge, for finding the article and confirming the attribution. More on Sedgwick here]