Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (93)

Common Ground: rebuilding community and co-operation after Covid-19
Saturday, 25 April 2020 15:37

Common Ground: rebuilding community and co-operation after Covid-19

Written by

Lyndsey Ayre reflects on common ground, coronavirus, and the values of the labour movement. The image is of  a piece of embroidery by Melanie Kyles

This must be the beginning of change. Whenever we reach the other side of this crisis – whenever and whatever that might look like - we must begin to plan immediately for a better future. We must count the dead and hold those to account who failed them. And we must stand together and say: enough. Things cannot be allowed to return to the way that they were. The way that they were was the problem.

We must remember the people who worked tirelessly when so many of us stayed indoors: the checkout workers, the nurses, the refuse collectors, the teachers, the doctors, the librarians, the postal workers and delivery drivers. These are the people that we should value the most. These are the people who should be honoured, and whose salaries should reflect our gratitude.

We have lived in a culture of endless greed: of belligerent hedge fund managers, grubby-fingered billionaires and sneering, public schoolboy politicians. Though we dress it in the lineaments of modernity, beneath our filters and slick user interfaces is the same system: moth-eaten, broken, old.

The way that things were was the problem. This must be the beginning of change.

Common ground

It is 8.30am and I am walking down silent suburban streets towards Newcastle’s Town Moor. The morning is bright and cool like a whistle. The main road that runs in front of my flat is usually thronged with cars and busses, commuters rushing for early shifts and hectic parents on the school run. For several weeks now, it has been empty. Sunlight shines on red brick and daffodils, on faded chalk hopscotch daubed on cracked paving stones. Rainbows beam from high windows. Curtains are drawn. English Ivy reaches above garden walls, trailing wistful fingers towards the cherry blossom.

There is nothing. There is no one. The day is draped in a veil of yellow and blue. I’m looking for common ground.

 It has been over 100 days since the Chinese government declared an unknown pneumonia had been detected in the area around a wet market in Wuhan. In the weeks and months that followed, the world has been brought to its knees by what we now know to be the coronavirus named Covid-19. Previously titanic industries – oil, air travel – are at the edge of collapse. Businesses, large and small, have been forced to close their doors, with thousands of people furloughed. Arts organisations – scoring low on the list of public sympathy - face turbulent and uncertain futures. At the forefront, of course, the human cost: the days tick by with little to differentiate them other than the bleak death toll. 759, 823, 449. Every one a person. Every one a history: a favourite song, a favourite scent, a way of smiling.

At present in the UK, we are still allowed to go out for one walk a day. I’m grateful for these trips outdoors that afford respite from the trek between bedroom to the dining room table, where my work computer looms over the room. In many other countries, access to the outdoors was cut much earlier on. People across the globe find themselves legally confined to their own homes. We’re a world under house arrest.

Still, well-meaning Instagram videos tell us, that doesn’t have to be so bad. We may not have freedom to do as we please, but there’s one thing that we do have an abundance of: time. Finally, we can take up baking, learn a new language, plant strawberry bushes and tomatoes in our gardens and yards. There are worse things, after all, than to find yourself confined to the safety of home.

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Newcastle's Town Moor. Photo: Chi Onwurah MP

Yet home is the first frontier against inequality. Contrary to the wartime rhetoric adopted by some commentators, this is a virus that discriminates – both in the pre-existing conditions and geographical factors which can make a person more vulnerable to serious illness and in the impact of self-isolation on a person’s physical and emotional health. Poorly-maintained, privately-rented property; anti-social neighbours; small, cramped living conditions and blocks of flats still wrapped in lethal cladding. It is a mental health timebomb, and with every day that passes the problem intensifies, threatening to swamp the already submerged NHS even further.

Access to the outdoors is a lifeline to so many people – people living alone, people who do not have backyards or gardens, people who need to exercise for their mental or physical health and those who face the danger of domestic violence. Since lockdown began, Refuge reported a 700% increase in calls to its helplines in a single day. Hotels across the UK wrote to the government to offer their rooms to victims of domestic abuse. At the time of writing, the government had not taken them up on their offer.

Few could dispute that we must all stay at home as much as possible and do our part in slowing the transmission of Covid-19. But the existing conditions in which so many people now find themselves prisoner cannot be allowed to go unaddressed.

In the coming months and years, as we attempt to rebuild our societies across the world, we must make this a priority. ‘Home’ should not be a word that means safety for some, danger for others. Home should be a place of solace for everyone.   

People coming together

When I reach the edge of the Town Moor, the gate closes behind me with a heavy, metallic sound. Here there are no cars, no closed-up cafes or small shops with printed statements pinned to their doors. Here there are none of the houses of surrounding affluent Gosforth, each of them a display of wealth and security. The vast expanse of the moor – larger, Wikipedia tells me, than both Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath combined – opens up around me, flat, parallel, the pages of a book cracked open. On the horizon, the buildings of the city are held at a distance: the lone chimney of the RVI, the pale skeleton of St James’ Park. 

The Town Moor has been a largely unchanging green space on the fringe of the city centre for many centuries. Not landscaped, not neatly ordered with child’s play park and paving stones and smart displays of Spring flowers, but something bleak, desolate and disordered, instead. It is an enduring landscape somewhere between a rural and urban space: a sort of ancient edgeland, connecting the different suburbs of the city like an immeasurable village green. A place of vast emptiness, it echoes, paradoxically, with years of people coming together.

In 1873, the moor hosted a demonstration in favour of universal male suffrage. Some 200,000 people attended. From 1721 until 1881, horse racing was held at the Town Moor. When the racing was moved to Gosforth Park – a location difficult for many of the poorer people living in the city centre to get to - the North East Temperance League stepped in and organised a week-long fair, instead. 1,000 of the poorest children in the city were given food. 150,000 people attended the fair and the event was deemed to be such a success that it continued as the Hoppings to this day. The Town Moor has many other uses as a public gathering place: as the host of the Northern Pride Festival, the weekly Park Run, the August bank holiday mela. Over the past couple of years, it has been host to the This Is Tomorrow festival, headlined in 2019 by Johnny Marr, whose melancholic guitars drenched the distant city streets with poetry and longing.

The Town Moor is – and has been, since it hosted the horse races of the 1700s – a highly accessible place for the people of Newcastle to visit. The importance of this cannot be overstated. By contrast, the countryside can often feel like a distant and alien place to many of us without our own means of transport. A DEFRA review, in 2019, highlighted that the National Parks were failing to attract people from working class and minority ethnic backgrounds. And yet the obvious benefits of access to the outdoors have been thrown into sharp relief by this crisis. The ‘right’ to air and exercise was enshrined in law in the Law of Property Act 1925. We have to do more to make these spaces work for everyone. School trips should encourage children to think of our National Parks as their own to explore. The benefits of the rural environment need to continue into our city centres, too: as the impact of the closures of our urban centres seems likely to topple the already precarious High Street, we have to rethink what we use our cities for, and come up with ways to make them greener.

Rebuilding the commons after the coronavirus crisis

On the moor, on an April morning, there are people: all of us drawn here by the will to see something other than the inside of our own homes. The path is wide – wide enough for two people to pass safely, but many people walk by as normal, perhaps uncertain of the safe distance, perhaps absent-minded, perhaps, even, in blatant denial that there’s any need to stay apart. I leave the path and walk across the grass, instead. The land is uneven and difficult to walk across. There are ditches and clumps of compacted grass: scars on the land from its yearly events. I head towards two large hills at the West of the moor, where a tiny figure stands silhouetted against a blossoming sky.  

Halfway across, I realise I’ve gone the wrong way. The tiny figure has descended the hill and is walking briskly towards a gate onto Grandstand Road. There is a much simpler route, here, with a well-trodden gravel path ascending the lowest slope of the hill. In contrast, I find myself picking slowly though long grass and nettles, surrounded by cows. I wonder, briefly, how often cows kill humans and then reassure myself that these cows must be safe: the Freemen have grazed cattle on this land for centuries. Later, I google this and learn that, in fact, if there are calves present – there are not on the Town Moor, thankfully - herds of cattle do kill people. In fact, the Independent says, they are the most deadly large mammal in the UK. I don’t know this at the time, and I walk straight through them, smiling as they chew mouthfuls of grass laconically, flicking tails against flies. Somehow, this feels right: the point of walking on land like the Town Moor isn’t to go the easiest or simplest way – it’s to immerse yourself in the stretch of the land around you.

Near the foot of the largest of these hills – the imaginatively named ‘Cow Hill’ - I stop and take a swig of water from the bottle in my backpack. There’s a chilling moment as I realise where I’m standing: I’ve been reading about the history of the moor, and have learnt that in the thickness of these trees, still circled by a fence, there was once an isolation hospital for Small Pox. Grainy black and white photos on Google from 1898 show a man lying in a hospital bed in a dark room, and the horse drawn ambulance cart that would have taken patients there. It’s difficult to believe that this is the site. The buildings were demolished in 1958 and there is nothing to commemorate it. No plaque, no statue: only the trees. I stand there for a while, thinking about that hospital, thinking about those people.  

Then I begin to climb the hill.

It’s hard to know how to write about this time. Online, people scramble to make sense of a crisis of global proportions unseen in our lifetimes. There are videos and lists, hints and tips and tricks and hashtags. We are a world that cannot stop talking. And yet how should we navigate discussion around a time of so much pain and suffering?

The city stretches out around me. Chimneys and trees and distant high rises. The Byker Wall squats like an alien spaceship. Rows of miniscule terraces branch away, their windows glinting in the morning sun. In every one of those buildings, a person.

There will be time and space for us to come together again. I know this, standing on the top of the hill, overlooking the city. The Town Moor invites us to think about it: about space and community, about the past and the future, about the things that are possible and the things that have been. The commons has always been a key tenet of the labour movement. Now, more than ever, their significance is vital as we look to rebuild our societies in the wake of Covid-19.

Why culture matters more than ever
Saturday, 25 April 2020 14:50

Why culture matters more than ever

Written by

Mike Quille makes an appeal for support for Culture Matters, and introduces a new series of articles on the effects of the coronavirus crisis on culture. The image is of Efa Supertramp, who was among the many radical artists bypassing the gatekeepers of cultural production by appearing at the WSO Isolation Festival on April 11. Broadcast live on Facebook, it raised more than £27,000 for food banks

How do working people achieve more personal and political freedom? In the Wages of Labour, written in 1844, Karl Marx had this to say:

To develop greater spiritual freedom, a people must break their bondage to their bodily needs — they must cease to be the slaves of the body. They must, above all, have time at their disposal for spiritual creative activity and spiritual enjoyment.

The same point was made more poetically in a poem based on Helen Todd’s speech on the aims of the women’s movement:

Hearts starve as well as bodies. Give us bread, but give us roses.

The Culture Matters Co-Operative is all about bread and roses. It has been running for nearly five years and promotes bread and roses for all — a progressive, socialist and democratic approach to all forms of cultural activities.

We believe that all forms of culture should be for everyone and that class-based divisions in society constrain, prevent and spoil our enjoyment of all the cultural activities which we need to enjoy life and be fully human. This is also recognised in the expanded references to culture in the latest version of Britain’s Road to Socialism, the programme of the Communist Party of Britain.

By culture we mean not only the arts — poetry, film, theatre and visual art — but other activities like sport which bring enjoyment, enlightenment and entertainment into our lives. And using media like the internet, TV and social media is an important cultural activity and one of the few cultural activities we’ve been able to practise under lockdown.

Digital technology also has great potential to democratise culture, allowing working-class radicals to bypass the gatekeepers of cultural production, and we use it to run a website which publishes creative and critical material on a range of topics.

Supported by trade unions — mainly Unite, the Communication Workers Union, the Musicians’ Union and PCS — we have also run a number of Bread and Roses arts awards to encourage cultural production by trade unionists and other workers that is meaningful to work and life in a class-divided society.

We've also published a range of poetry books such as Witches, Warriors and Workers, a groundbreaking anthology of poetry by working-class women, edited by Jane Burn and Fran Lock. Supported by various trade unions and trades councils, we’re also publishing a series of anthologies of radical literature.

Poetry collections from Ireland (Children of the Nation) and Wales (Onward / Ymlaen!) have already appeared and there will be an anthology of radical Scottish poetry coming out later this year. These books are all for sale on this website, see links above.

We’ve grown fast in just a few years and that’s thanks to the voluntary work of committed writers, artists and activists and to trade-union support. We’re proud that our mission has been valued by creative workers, readers and the labour movement generally.

We want to refresh and broaden the content of the website and tackle class-based discrimination in publishing by building networks of creative workers. We want too to expand our output in Britain and abroad and support the labour movement in local campaigns for cultural democracy.

To do that we need financial resources, so that we can meet the expenses of running a website and publishing operation and commission more material. You — or your union or trades council — can make donations here or drop us a message at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and we’ll supply our bank details. At the same time, feel free to suggest — or ask for help with — projects to promote cultural democracy.

Coronavirus and culture

It's inevitable that the current coronavirus crisis will affect all kinds of cultural activities, in all kinds of ways. Going to a concert, a film, a football match, a religious service, is never going to be the same again.

The virus has driven us apart. Yet, as socialists, we have always been committed to the way culture brings us together in shared and social activities. Culture gives voice to the values of solidarity, the dignity of work, concern for the poor, celebration of our strength and potential and in imagining a better world.

So how are we going to do that, now? What does a socialist response to the effects of the coronavirus crisis on culture look like? How should things change around the content, management and state support of culture? What does the coronavirus crisis means for our “spiritual enjoyment” of different cultural activities?

To help answer these questions, the Morning Star and Culture Matters will be jointly publishing a series of articles over the next few weeks. Whether we are consuming or creating culture, it’s hoped they will help the discussions and debates about “bread and roses” and how we achieve greater freedom. Please get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you wish to contribute something to the series — an article, review, poem, image or music clip.

Now what? Grieve, care, and rise with your class.....
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 24 April 2020 13:57

Now what? Grieve, care, and rise with your class.....

Written by

Fran Lock continues with the second part of her reflection on working-class resistance and beauty, caring and grieving, struggle and solidarity.

I shaved my hair off yesterday. Our clippers are old and pretty knackered, and the process was hardly as seamless as film and television might have led you to believe, but still, I managed it, in my own typically shambolic way. Newly shorn, I joked with friends and family that my decision was taken in homage to the imaginative sorority of anchorites around whom much of my recent reading and thinking has centred, but in truth it’s not even as complicated as that. At various times in my life I have worn either punk’s aggressively dorsal ‘Mohawk’ or chosen to go full skinhead. It’s simultaneously ‘not that big a deal’ and critically important to me.

I shaved my head for the first time at thirteen. I won’t dwell, but psychologically I wasn’t ‘in a good place’, largely because I wasn’t in a good place in a literal sense either. Since that time both individuals and institutions have insisted on seeing my shaving my head as a sign of instability, a kind of crude barometer of emotional distress. Why else, after all, would a woman or girl choose to do that to herself? This was irksome and outdated even then, but on some level broadly correct: I wasn’t happy.

However, the act was absolutely reasoned and volitional. It was also resistive. It was also joyful. Being passing-pretty in the tedious conventional sense had led to no good place for me, or the other women and girls around me, so my shaving my head was, in the first instance, defensive, my armour against the objectifying gaze of predatory men. More than this, it was a renunciation of the worldview to which that gaze and its crass aesthetic judgements belonged. I didn’t value ‘pretty’, it seemed a shallow metric for self-worth to me. I wanted to publicaly and irreversibly denounce that value system, and everything it wanted or expected me to be. It remains one of the things in my life I am most proud of.

Care for yourself

I bring this up now only because I want to stress and affirm the importance of autonomy and self-care as the necessary precursor to any kind of collective and radical action. When asking what we can do to bring about change, an important step for any woman, but for working-class women, and for working-class queer women in particular, is to begin to unpick the self-strangling, effacement and abnegation of decades.

I’m not talking here about the docile self-coddling of Instagram influencers, I’m talking about Audre Lorde, writing in A Burst of Light that: ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ It’s about survival. It’s about preserving yourself in a world that is hostile to your existence, your identity, and by extension, to your communities. In these circumstances honouring your autonomy is also about remembering that not every woman has that opportunity or freedom.

And that’s a beginning, as grieving and carving out the space in which to grieve is a beginning, but it isn’t enough. It’s hard to imagine what is. Every time I try to write intelligently about a way forward, I find myself recapitulating the old prescriptive dictates of ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’, circling a narrow and instrumentalised vision of art and culture that is every bit as monolithic and blinkered as that of the capitalist patriarchy.

I certainly have very strong feelings about the kind of art I want to engage with and produce at the present time: art that isn’t merely ‘about’ our besetting crises; art that moves beyond coronavirus, climate, or capitalism as subject and into a profound textual reckoning with their rhetorics and aesthetics. I want more than the purely topical. I don’t want poems that hoover up our daily pain as imaginative fodder in reactive or exploitative ways. I want stress and rupture on the level of language. I want damage done to theme and form. I want difficulty and discomfort.

But I also want beauty. I want John Clare and Jane Burn offering pyrotechnic prayers to nature. I want Maxo Vanka’s Pieta, and Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’. I want Szilvia Bognar singing ‘Lily of the Valley’, and Natalia Goncharova’s Liturgy six winged Seraph. I want dancing in my socks to Billie Idol with my brother. I don’t believe art is less worthy or authentic for being beautiful. And beauty, however seemingly superficial, can kindle hope, can offer us an ‘otherwise’, can say ‘it doesn’t have to be like this’, can lend us strength when everything around us feels abject, lost, or ugly. It preserves and strengthens the spirit, and I wouldn’t wish that portal shut for anyone.

What I don’t want is to temper historical injustice or present crisis with aesthetic pleasure. What I don’t want is to be beholden to some power elite’s defanged idea of beauty, beauty as palliative, as distraction, as a papering of cracks. I want art and poetry whose seeing and saying stimulates; whose seeing and saying is sharpened by experience. I want working-class beauty, beauty with the stakes raised, beauty that feels – and is – hard won. I want moments of ecstasy, flashes of brilliance. I want to read, see, hear, and feel changed.

This is something we can do in our daily lives as artists, sure; these are the issues we can choose to live in sensitised daily communion with, but the burden to produce change, to make space for these voices, shouldn’t be placed on the backs of individual creators. Working-class creators are already overburdened, and our art is integral to the machinery of our survival. You inhibit and homogenise art when you start talking about what people can and can’t make; what their responsibilities are, their sanctioned forms and subjects, the correct way to approach them. You diminish art, and you also – more importantly – damage people. Working-class women in particular have seen enough violence and silencing as it is. How then, do we drive change and speak to crisis effectively? How do we move from mere catharsis into meaningful resistance, collective dissent?

Rise with your class

Obviously, I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure I have any, and that can be frankly terrifying. If the responsibility for change lies with the seemingly impenetrable systems that administer us – the publishing cohorts, the academies, the funding bodies, etc. – then we can feel overwhelmed, impotent, powerless to act, but we are not. There is always something we can do. I’ve been thinking about that a lot these last few months. Even before coronavirus, my own life had changed in a variety of ways, good and bad, and I’d been thrown into a period of profound reflection about what comes next for me. In poetry and in the academy I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve come as far as I’ll ever be allowed to go.

This is infinitely frustrating, and there are days I feel like a failure. It helps to understand the dynamics of the system that has put me and keeps me ‘in my place’, but it is nonetheless a struggle to maintain any sense of self-worth of forward motion within a culture that seems explicitly designed to exclude me. I know I’m not the only one who feels like this because a large part of working on Witches, Warriors, Workers with Jane Burn has been about fostering networks of solidarity with women from all walks of life, many with stories to tell about their experiences of exclusion and erasure inside of cultural space. The most important lesson for me from all of those conversations has been: rise with your class, not above it.

Doing for your community raises you. It is succour and soul food in and of itself. It gives you back a sense of agency and control. Truly, this is Lorde’s vision of self-care: an outward-reaching and embracive act of love for your comrades. In practical terms this act of love can look – has looked – like: editorial attention to polyphony and difference; an active seeking out of stories and voices beyond our comfort zones and cohorts. It has been encouraging, including and furthering voices that might not otherwise have been given space. It has been reviewing each other’s work, recommending each other for prizes. It has been taking that work out into the world in unexpected ways: pushing it into elite cultural spaces, and the hearts and hubs of local communities alike.

Struggle for your community

We can do this. Even now, even from our separate anchorite cells, we can connect to the world in ways that bring these voices into focus. We can say ‘hey, this is worthy of attention’ and ‘hey, this demands space.’ This can – and has – looked like specifically foregrounding working-class women’s voices at online festivals, making working-class artistic production the subject of academic essays and conference papers. It has looked like a persistent obtruding onto the notice of publishers, magazine editors, and event organisers. It is not waiting to be invited, not asking to be included, not fretting about looking needy or stupid, but continually stating ‘here I am’ and ‘here we are’ and ‘this deserves to take up space’. It is publicaly questioning ‘why not?’ when they shut the door on you.

Never doubt this process is exhausting. It is a struggle. And here I find my attention returned to the edicts of the anchorites: to suffer without love is a waste of pain, but to understand your struggle as one in common with and on behalf of your community is to give it back purpose and dignity. This is not to make a fetish out of struggle, or working-class resilience, or to lionise it for its own sake, but to remind ourselves that we are not passive, that this pushing forward is work, a political mission.

The Ancerne Wisse (a 13th century guide for anchorites) tells the would-be ascetic to ‘gather into your heart all those who are ill or wretched’ and to remember that the privations and perturbations of secluded life are undertaken on behalf of the community, that you ‘hold up’, others through your sacrifice. This injunction had made the rounds a few times since lockdown started, and it’s easy to see its particular relevance to coronavirus and the practice of self-isolation, but it’s also a useful mantra for any of us, as activists and artists, as women in the world,Any time we’re kettled, arrested, detained without charge; any time our work is rejected, or ignored, or ridiculed; any time we are denied funding, when we are spoken over or shut out; any time we are threatened and bullied legally or physically, we are persisting, we are manifesting resistance, not just for ourselves, but for all of us.

You close the door, I open a window

And once you grasp this thought, you realise that there is so much you can do, a thousand tiny acts of everyday solidarity. My favourite of these has to do with access. By making work available for free; by disseminating art and poetry widely online, we can tip the balance of power away from the old publishing elites. Obviously, not everybody has access to the internet, and I don’t want to uncritically trumpet technology as the saviour of working-class art and literature, but it does open up possibilities. It changes what’s available to us in terms of form, what we can technically achieve. Colour can be present to a greater degree; the spatial relationships between text and image can diverge in extreme and surprising ways, and most of all, our ability to collaborate with and choreograph a variety of voices expands ten-fold.

Our implied audience changes too, because we are removing artistic production from its usual elite haunts. We are connecting to each other, we are talking to each other, deciding and refining our own tastes and ideas, not relying upon on some middle-class editorial filter to tell us what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. When cultural elites close a door, we can repurpose a window. And isolation might provide the impetus to these projects, but their staying power is potentially limitless.

When we decide we no longer need the permission of cultural gatekeepers to publish or to mediate between ourselves and our audiences, then the conversions about issues that matter to us can be kept alive long after their fads for our tokenistic inclusion have faded. This doesn’t mean we stop trying to breach their protected enclaves, but there is tremendous value in carving out space for ourselves on our own terms. Peter Raynard’s Proletarian Poetry has been offering one such invaluable space for years, and it’s time for more.

These thoughts keep me energised at a time when it’s tempting to sink into the lethargy of depression. Trapped in the house for hours every day, with the literal reminders of my failure to escape the economic and social precarity into which I was born, has been wearing. More wearing is that I have no real outlet for these thoughts and feelings. It isn’t that I’ve not been given the opportunity to celebrate my achievements, but I’ve found that those celebrations tend to minimise or outright invisiblise the unequal effort involved, in favour of some endlessly tiresome version of the self-transcending narrative: that my achievements as a working-class person are the result of exceptional individual talent or skill. And that’s wrong. If I rise at all I do so with the help of or at the expense of other working-class people. The space I occupy I had to compete with others for, and the place I attained has been granted to me through a combination of hard work, insanely good luck, and the almost extravagant kindness of those who went before me, leaning down and giving me a hand up.

This is something else that it is important to acknowledge at every opportunity. When you’re given a platform, talk about where you came from, and how lucky you are; honour those who helped you on the way, and remind your listeners how unfair it is that luck has to come into it at all. Tell the truth, even when they call you militant and shrill, even when you make them palpably uncomfortable. Know where and to whom your gratitude belongs, and know what and who has kept you back.

Without my dear friend and mentor, Roddy Lumsden, I wouldn’t be about to complete my Ph.D. I wouldn’t be publishing poetry at all. Roddy was a tireless champion not just of my work, but of any work he believed in, irrespective of aesthetic disposition, irrespective of where it came from. Roddy wasn’t narrowly political, he just wanted exciting and vibrant work to be heard because it mattered to him, he really cared, and in caring he gouged out cultural space for queer poets, BAME poets, working-class poets and Traveller poets. He furthered our reach and he taught many of us how to respect ourselves as creators, even when the outside world doesn’t want to.

Which is where, I think, I came in, with the importance of grieving, of honouring our dead. Isolation affords us this opportunity, to think about who we are and the kind of work we want to do in the world; to remember that we are not really alone, but part of a long continuity of mutual care, links in the chain.

K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 24 April 2020 13:20

I, Anchorite: Capitalism, Coronavirus and Christ

Written by

Fran Lock writes about coping with the coronavirus crisis; resisting the material world; reading poetry slowly; and grieving, then rebelling.

‘Christ did not say you shall not be perturbed’, writes 14th century anchorite, Julian of Norwich, ‘but he said you shall overcome’. Together with Saint Silouan’s stern injunction to keep my mind ‘in Hell and despair not’, this has become a daily mental mantra.

In a sense it always was. To grow up in poverty is to be intimately acquainted with the workings of deferred gratification. How often have I fixed my sights on some speculative never-never? A victory, always imminent, yet one that has, after all these years, failed, in any meaningful sense, to materialise. We understand what it is to be ‘perturbed’. We understand what it is to tell ourselves over and over again that things will be better, that we will get through; to make a fetish of our own resilience, to wear putting up and making do like medals of honour, and to place our faith in a future that will not and cannot arrive for us.

IA 1

I was running when it hit me: this is not what Julian meant.  This is not what Christ meant either. What if perturbation, disturbance and distress were not merely to be endured or evaded, but met with: acknowledged and accommodated, mourned through? What if to ‘overcome’ was not simply to survive? What if we were not vainly and passively pinning our hopes on tomorrow and tomorrow, but anticipating praxis?

Coronavirus and the concomitant lockdown engender such reflections. Asceticism’s stock is rising, as people look to the past for ways of negotiating an unparalleled present. Because of my interest in Christian mysticism I find I am having a lot of conversations with friends and colleagues about the practice of religious seclusion, and what it can ‘teach’ us about dealing with our own contemporary experience of self-isolation. These conversations are occasionally illuminating, often hilarious, but mostly frustrating, because they stem from a botched reading of anchorism and a blindness to its radical social potential.

To begin with, the anchorites were not ‘recluses’ in the modern understanding of that word. They may have been walled up in cramped cells, but they were walled up in cells whose one tiny window faced the bustling thoroughfares of community life. They spoke with petitioners, granted indulgences, sat at the centre of a subtle and complex web of obligations. Anchorism isn’t about retreat from the world. It is, rather, a disciplined and dialectical renunciation of that world.

It is to live with a constant reminder of life’s pleasures; its temptations, its distractions, its endlessly proliferating structures of sin, its cruelties and its beauties both. It is to rededicate yourself each day to the act of turning away from those things. It is not a docile acceptance of privation, but an active embrace of this mode of life as spiritually preferable to its more worldly alternatives. My running gag in these matters is that anchorism’s lessons are not about coronavirus, but about capitalism.

We are all connected

This crisis has magnified the choices we make, has made them seem more meaningful, more loaded with consequence. They always were, of course, but people are awake to this now in ways they never were before. When washing your hands could literally save a life, we are dealing with a whole new metric of responsibility, sensitised to the ways our daily decisions impact upon others, their quality of life and their chances of survival. The anchorite mindset stays with this thought, travels the length of it to its logical conclusion: we are all connected. How we shop matters, how we vote matters, the language we use matters, where we bestow our time and our money matters, how we make that money matters.

To live in poverty is to have been ‘perturbed’ for a long time, and now we are living at a moment when personal responsibility and systemic inequality are in daily and violent collision. While the media is encouraged to castigate individuals for leaving the house in order to exercise, our Tory government use the unprecedented nature of this crisis to shield themselves from criticism over their consistent and politically motivated underfunding of the NHS, the deportation of key workers, and a handling of benefits so monumentally shambolic it left many of the country’s most vulnerable without vital resources.

But we shall overcome, which is not idly waiting for a return to ‘normal’, not a ‘riding it out’, but a resurrection, an act of radical transformation, inward at first, but ultimately outward looking and collective. Our suffering must be reckoned with; those who perpetrate and profit from it must be named and known. We must not forget. We must acknowledge too our own complicity. We must admit that we are implicated. We must choose, can choose, to turn away, in solidarity with others.

Resist the material world

These thoughts have been much on my mind of late. It’s Easter that does it, but it must also owe something to my current choice of reading. While I work on editing my own manuscript, and revise yet again for my serially delayed viva, I flit between the Taymouth Hours and  Sean Bonney’s final book, Our Death. Neither is easy to navigate. That aside, it might seem that the two texts cannot possibly have anything in common. Superficially, this is true: Bonney’s book, upon first encounter, is a wild carnival of disorder, its language is the language of a weaponised debasement turned against the sinister machinery of capital.

Whereas the Taymouth Hours is a beautifully illuminated manuscript, a precious devotional object intended for use by a single elite reader. But then, I see the leering gremlin faces in the borders of that sacred text, and I realise there is in fact a profound kinship between these two works. The myriad grotesqueries that pepper the margins of medieval religious manuscripts are profane to a purpose: their presence poses a moral dilemma, they dramatise the encroachments and temptations of the material world, and require of their reader a determined choice, a conscious and deliberate reinvestment of attention in matters spiritual.

Bonney’s work similarly recruits the paraphernalia and jargons of capitalism. Everywhere they inundate and overwhelm, puncturing and pressing in upon human relations, insidious and implicating, stupefying and seducing. How to exist, yet alone resist, under such a sustained onslaught? This is one of the central questions Bonney’s work poses. The poems ask it of both their readers and their speakers alike.

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These texts demand a level of nontrivial effort, require of their readers a singular commitment, an active resistance to the material world in its grossest aspects; its degradations, privations and soul-numbing assaults. But neither text ignores this world, they don’t gloss it or elide it; they don’t offer smug monolithic insights on how to accommodate its many barbarisms, its empty near-fatal banalities. There is no comfort here, and no catharsis, save for that which is derived from the act of resistance itself, from the act of saying ‘no’, from the development of a rigorous spiritual – for which we might also say political – autonomy.

Feel the pain

Reading Bonney’s work in particular reminds me that the anchorite’s injunction is also the artist’s: to be in the world, but to live within its rhythms at a tangent; we too are connected, we too offer prayers on behalf of our communities, whether they want us to or not.

One of the anchorite’s most important roles was to intercede for the deceased in Purgatory. This thought settled in my brain, not as I was reading Julian of Norwich, nor indeed Sean Bonney, but a short passage from radical feminist Andrea Dworkin.. ‘In her heart she is a mourner for those who have not survived.’ Dworkin writes. ‘In her soul she is a warrior for those who are now as she was then. In her life she is both celebrant and proof of women’s capacity and will to survive, to become, to act, to change self and society.’

Something about this quote still raises the hairs on the back of my neck. In common with many working-class women poets, I have often felt this act of ‘mourning’ to be integral to my practice. This ‘mourning’ is my intercession, this ‘mourning’ is my form of prayer. Only, perhaps I would not call it ‘mourning’. Perhaps I would say ‘grieving’, a making space for all that is recalcitrant and irreconcilable in loss; for a pain that will be not parlayed into consolation, that will not be assimilated, beautified, or eased.

I am not a great believer in a frictionless catharsis, in art or in life, and the notion of easy identification makes me, well, uneasy. I am not sure it’s poetry’s job to translate the pain of raw experience into some ideal of emotional expressiveness, to mould our abject losses into a readily accessible code of plain statement. I don’t select my themes to elicit an empathetic sigh from my audience. Catharsis is too much like absolution. It provides a release, it lets us off the hook. It doesn’t stay with pain, it doesn’t hold it to the light or force a confrontation. It won’t negotiate between the rage and hurt felt by an individual, and the radical collective engagement such an individual demands. It says a vague feeling of ‘empathy’ is enough. It cannot overcome.

These thoughts are with me often of late. Since the crisis began I have felt increasingly ostracised from poetry, and from the endlessly touted ‘bridge-building’ narrative espoused by creators and commentators alike: art should be about ‘connecting’ people, about ‘bringing people together’; it should ‘offer consolation’, provide a place of safety, invite a means of escape. I’ve been hearing ‘should’ a lot lately, and it shuts me out. It shuts out too all those whose art is incapable of comfort, who speak from a lived experience of grim disparity, from a place of anger, at odds with the world.

The pressure to churn out an endlessly uplifting torrent of content is enormous right now, and it instrumentalises creators in the worst possible way. Easy affirmation serves the aims of government because it folds the inequality and unfairness that are the substance of our lives into a textureless meld with the lives of others. It contributes to the illusion that we are ‘all in this together’, that corona – that capitalism – affects us all equally, which they manifestly do not.

Grieve first, then rebel

The virus has and will continue to exacerbate inequality. If the worst you are facing is boredom, you are lucky. If you have a garden, you are lucky. If you have more than one room with one window for you and your family, you are lucky. If you do not have to go outside and risk your health to work, you are lucky. If you can order your shopping online, you are lucky. If you are not confined with a violent partner, or an abusive parent, you are lucky. If you can access benefits, you are lucky. If you have no pre-existing mental-health conditions, you are lucky. If you are physically capable of taking a walk, you are lucky.  If you have the tools to communicate digitally, you are lucky. If you live in an area where you are fortunate enough to have essential services within easy reach, you are enormously lucky. And if you have access to private healthcare, well.

The idea that coronavirus is some kind of ‘great leveller’ is, as others have recently pointed out, arrant nonsense. Both the virus and the government measures put in place to contain it are impacting, and will impact the poorest amongst us first and hardest. While overcrowding and poor housing raise the risk of infection, the rules regarding lockdown and the arbitrary way those rules are enforced, further the Tory project of containment and control. As recent – pre-coronavirus – legislation has shown, this is a project directed first against refugees and immigrants, then against Travellers, and then against all proletarian bodies attempting to occupy and traverse public space.

We exist in a political climate now, where NHS workers are being coerced into silence, or gagged, banned from speaking publicly about the dangerous conditions of their job: their overwork, their underfunding, their lack of access to vital PPE. Yet at the same time the general public are encouraged to ‘come together’, to stand on their doorsteps and applaud those same NHS workers, in organised, state-sanctioned displays of gratitude. We live in a cultural climate now, where social media has become a Panopticon of performative moral correctness: didn’t you clap? Why aren’t you clapping? Did you go outside more than once today? Aren’t you wearing a mask? You inhuman monster.

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Under such circumstances, I don’t want to make peaceable art. I don’t want to ‘build bridges’ or ‘connect’ with people in ways that elide our differences, or pretend they don’t matter. Inequality isn’t a force of nature, it is an inherent and structural feature of capitalism. It is perpetrated by elites, and it privileges the few at the expense of the many. I am not writing for the few. I do not wish to ease their discomfort, or my own. Through obstacle, through difficulty, through something in the text that must be borne with and surmounted, I am trying to retune attention to suffering and injustice. I am resisting, saying ‘no’. More, I am lamenting, I am grieving. And this grief is the troublant but necessary precursor to praxis, to the revolutionary moment we are yearning for and need.

I am finding lockdown difficult. It isn’t the isolation, which under any circumstance I cherish as the rare and valuable root of my own creativity, it is the claustrophobia, and more than that, the feeling that I have nothing to offer or contribute. In lockdown my daily dilating sense of anxiety about the world, about my friends and family, sits awkwardly on top of a recent bereavement, the irreparable breakdown of a collaborative artistic partnership, and a series of crushing disillusionments with the academy and my place – as a working-class person – within it.  This against the background any of us live with, the ambient static of precarity and threat that is the texture of working-class existence in Britain. I cannot make ‘positive’ art from this. My work is perturbed, distressed and distressing. But it is not abject. It is not without hope. That it takes place in the teeth of these feelings, these places, these times, is the hope. It both imagines and manifests a model of resistance. I keep Julian of Norwich and all of my anchorite foremothers in mind as I write.

Slow poetry

Poetry is really the anchorite’s art: the reading of poetry both demands and facilitates the kind of slow, close investment of attention with which we should be approaching each other and the world; which we need in order to transform the experience of listening from a passive act of art imbibing into one of active and affective solidarity. Poetry says ‘stay with’. It doesn’t promise us comfort, but it rewards effort with insight.

We badly need this skill, to understand what besets us, and to parse the continual flow of suspect political discourse flooding across a variety of social media attack surfaces every damn day. Poetry is attentive to difference. It says ‘look’ and ‘look’ and ‘look again’. That’s what I want to read right now, work that makes a commitment to the muck of immediate history. That’s what I want to write, right now.

Expressing care for one another is important, healing is important. But healing isn’t agreeing to ignore pain. We can’t book-club our way out of crisis. We can’t cosy our way back to normal, especially not when normal, for so many of us, simply wasn’t good enough. And that’s not to say there is no room for positivity or beauty, of course there is: those Arcadias of the mind open up a utopian imaginary, a way of being otherwise, and they are so important. But we need testimony too, we need savage acts of rebarbative witnessing, we need to be made to feel uncomfortable.

And ‘community’, true ‘community’ isn’t only about mutual consolation, but is also about radical action. It is about asking what can I do, what can we do. I’m interested in how the literary communities coronavirus fosters move us from emotional support networks toward meaningful action, or at the very least, to applying critical pressure to power. There is endless hope in this vision also. This is what Christ might have meant. I think so anyway.

Class and culture in the age of Coronavirus
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 20 April 2020 14:50

Class and culture in the age of Coronavirus

Written by

Dennis Broe traces the links between class and the coronavirus, and parallels in cultural works. Plus ca change........

In many ways the rearrangement of life in the wake of the global impact of the Cornoavirus has created a brave new world. And in other ways, the arrangement has reinforced the cowardly old one.

Class differences during widespread global lockdowns and quarantines have in some ways hardened. There is a small minority of a rich class which passes this temporary isolation in comfort, having quickly evacuated the contagion of the city centres for sometimes palatial estates in the countryside. There is a sheltered middle class, many of whom are able to continue to work and earn online, though often at a diminished capacity. And finally there is an unsheltered working class, who must risk their lives in order to earn their daily bread.  

Here in Europe and particularly in France these distinctions are as profound as elsewhere, with perhaps a million people fleeing the high-contagion centre of Paris for their country homes, with new middle-class family subscribers flocking to the just opened Disney+ streaming service while cheering on medical workers each night at 8pm from their balconies.

CVCornoavirus Hospitals and Nurses

Finally, there are not only working-class nurses but also cashiers, that most unsung group of workers, 90 percent of whom are women and many of whom are from minority ethnic groups. They go to work each day and come home to crowded apartments in the Parisian suburbs, where the police are using the excuse of not having proper quarantine papers to assault these women’s children.

Europe, with its well-developed welfare state, might seem to be better equipped to combat the virus than the U.S., with its hollowed-out state folowing the Reagan-Bush-Clinton neoliberal attack. However, Europe also has experienced wave after wave of shocks and attacks on its social compact. For example, a French cashier noted that while doctors and nurses are being cheered today by both the people and the state, “Only a few months ago,” in the wake of a protest against the cutting of hospital budgets by the Macron government, “They were teargassed for daring to rally in the streets”.

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The impact of the virus echoes Daniel Defoe’s historical novel Journal of the Plague Year, written after the deadly assault of an earlier virus on 17th century London, where nearly 15 percent of the city perished. In observing the parallels, one wonders if these are because of the similar nature of each disease or because this new era of greed-take-all capitalism has hurtled us back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, where protections for workers were almost nonexistent.

Upper-Class Quarantine: Flight to the Country and Wide Open Spaces

In Defoe’s account when the plague first appeared, “nothing was to be seen but wagons and carts, with goods, women, servants, children…; coaches filled with people of the better sort, and horsemen attending them, and all hurrying away.” His comment on this exodus of the rich from the city to escape the disease is that “they spread it in the country” and had they not fled, the plague would not have “been carried into so many country towns and houses as it was, to the great damage, and indeed to the ruin, of [an] abundance of people.”

Likewise, in France, where there are three million second homes, just before the Macron lockdown, Paris trains and highways were jammed with those exiting the city. After the lockdown the health minister had to beg Parisians to stay at home, rather than fleeing to the rural areas and especially to Normandy which was relatively untouched by the virus. One Brittany resident then saw these urban visitors on the beaches “in cool outfits as if they were on holiday,” adding “Quarantine is always for other people”.

Meanwhile Monaco, surrounded by the European virus epicentre countries of France, Italy and Spain, had (as of recently) only 60 cases total and 4 deaths. This country is the wealthiest in the world, with 30 percent of the population made up of millionaires and with a state that could afford to close the casinos, turn away cruise ships, and furlough for 90 days all its employees.

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Elsewhere the French online “faschosphere” was instead quick to blame immigrants for the virus. While others across the world noticed the similarities of the situation with this year’s Academy Award-winner Parasite, with its lower-class family living in a flooded basement, “stealing” internet reception and its upper class, corporate family living in a spacious mansion surrounded by acres of green lawns.

Middle-Class Quarantine: Sheltered in Place and Working Online

The disappearing middle class is sheltered at home, many able to at least pursue some semblance of their business through Zoom, the online meeting app. The company has thrived, going from 10 million to 200 million users as have many online businesses and this has no doubt improved the connectivity of the world. However, as Shoshana Zuboff claims in her monumental work The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the secret of the internet is that its “evil design aims to exploit human weakness” by creating interfaces that “‘make users emotionally involved in doing something that benefits the designer more than them.’”

Zoom has already been accused of selling data to Facebook and recently hired a Facebook executive as an outsider advisor. The mass use of Zoom is the Holy Grail of selling user data to advertisers. For a long time, there has not been enough data on user’s emotions to match with their words to create more detailed profiles. The Zoom meetings supply that data in abundance, and will increase the quality of data sold or rented that can be used to supply more detailed consumer profiles. As Zuboff says, we grow ever closer to a B.F. Skinner-type “technology of behavior” that would “enable the application of …[surveillance] methods across entire populations.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Chinese monetization of internet traffic, for example, doesn’t just package data to advertisers. The online service Lizhi creates its revenue stream by offering users the option of buying virtual gifts in which to shower their podcast favorites, as was the case with the Japanese girl group AKB48. Ironically it is China, which does not try to match the US in the efficiency of its consumer surveillance, which is constantly accused of being a thought-control, totalitarian society.

Working-Class Quarantine: Working and At Risk 

While wealthy Parisians were fleeing the city, in poor banlieus across the Peripherique such as Saint Denis, where the cashiers, sanitation workers, and health care workers live, there is “an exceptional excess” of deaths from the virus.This is similar to the disproportionate deaths in heavily African-American populated places in the U.S., such as areas of The Bronx and in the immigrant communities of Queens.

Defoe described a similar situation where servants who “were obliged to send up and down the streets for necessaries” contracted the disease. Similarly, restaurant workers along with the delivery service carriers put their lives in danger each day to bring food to those economically above them. Just as in the present pandemic, where in the French supermarkets new recruits from the suburbs abound, so too Defoe detailed a situation where “though the plague was chiefly among the poor, yet were the poor the most venturous and fearless of it, and went about their employment with a sort of brutal courage; ran into any business which they could get employment in, though it was the most hazardous.”

CVLes Miserables

Meanwhile, the police, whose often casual brutality is detailed in this year’s Caesar winner for best French film Les Miserables, have been cited by Human Rights Watch for “unacceptable and illegal” behavior for several beatings of young men from this polyglot area. These victims were accosted because they did or did not have their “attestation,” the legal paper required for leaving the home. The middle class face a fine of 138 euros for not having their papers – the working class face state violence.

In Marseilles, McDonald’s workers, led by the local union, the Force Ouvriere, decided to distribute the company’s food to the poorest districts of that city and to use the closed-down restaurant as a central site for collecting and preparing food. McDonald’s issued a statement opposing the measure.

Similarly, at a Crenshaw McDonald’s in South Central Los Angeles – one of the poorest districts in the US – when the workers staged a spontaneous action demanding they be sent home for a two-week quarantine, the protest was broken up by the police.

Amazon, one of the companies most extravagantly profiting from the quarantine, was temporarily forced to halt its operations in France when a court ruled the company had failed to adequately protect workers. The case was heard because several employees walked off the job, citing a law that allows workers to leave an unsafe workplace and receive full pay. In response, the company criticized the union that brought the case.

CVDelivery Drivers Under Fire in Ken Loachs Sorry We Missed You

What could be more prescient in the light of these protests by a most exploited workforce than Ken Loach’s latest film Sorry We Missed You, about how a delivery driver for an Amazon-type firm is being driven to despair because of the inhuman pressure put on him and his family to produce.

The quarantine also called attention to the importance of seasonal workers in Europe in terms of harvesting crops. In France, with an embargo against non-Europeans coming into the country, 200,000 workers are needed to replace this seasonal workforce to harvest fruit and vegetables in places like the Loire and Alsace to feed the urban population. These workers come from central and eastern Europe as well as from Tunisia and Morocco and most labor under impoverished conditions and leave after the harvest. Jean Renoir’s 1935 film Toni which recounts the tragic life and fate of one of these workers coming across the Pyrenees from Spain is unfortunately still relevant today.

CVGerman builders in Bulgaria in Western

Germany uses 300,000 day-labourers a year to harvest its crops, mostly from Romania, Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Hungary. One of the films that most accurately tracks this discrepancy in income and the disdain of more affluent Germans for these easterners is Western which recounts the prejudice of a group of German workers building a power plant in Bulgaria.

To combat this problem, Portugal granted temporary citizenship status to immigrants while in the US, where the federal government is floating a measure to detain undocumented immigrants indefinitely during “emergencies,” Americans bought almost 2 million guns in March, their own Wild West solution to what they view as the immigrant problem and the anarchy they are afraid will come. The Trump administration seconded this solution, declaring weapons stores to be an essential business that should stay open during the quarantine.

Arundhati Roy’s eloquent description of workers on the roads in India where “our towns and megacities began to extrude their working-class citizens – their migrant workers — like so much unwanted accrual,” and where workers with no other resources had to begin a long walk home to their villages.  As they walked, she noted, “some were beaten brutally and humiliated by the police, who were charged with strictly enforcing the curfew” .

Readers might eerily have confused Roy’s description for Defoe’s, since they were so similar. Defoe says:

The constables everywhere were upon their guard not so much, it seems, to stop people passing by as to stop them from taking up their abode in their towns…[because of the “improbable” possibility] that the poor people in London, being distressed and starved for want of work, and want for bread, were up in arms and had raised a tumult, and that they would come out to all the towns round to plunder for bread.

Recurring class tensions have also broken out between states. Before it finally passed a European relief bill, the hardest-hit countries – Spain and Italy – were proposing that the EU issue joint bonds, called Eurobonds or Coronabonds, which would spread the cost of the economic damage caused by the virus among at least the 19 countries of the common currency. The wealthier northern countries, led by Austria, Germany and The Netherlands, refused. It was similar to these countries’ refusal to cancel the debt and instead impose austerity budgets on the countries of the south, after the 2008 crisis.

CVLatvian emigre in Brussels in Oleg

This disparity on a personal level is well documented in Oleg, one of last year’s best films. The film recounts the story of a butcher from Latvia who emigrates to Brussels, the EU capital and centre of its wealth and affluence, quickly loses his job, and is bullied to join the criminal underground in order to survive. Oleg’s individual path is similar to the national path of countries such as Greece.

Finally, to return to Defoe’s description of the plague, the virulence of that disease hastened the appearances of all kinds of charlatans coming out of the woodwork. Because of fear, working people ran to “fortune tellers, cunning-men and astrologers” and London swarmed with “a wicked generation of pretenders to magic, to the black art… and “to a thousand worse dealings with the devil.”

The difference in this stage of neoliberalism, where the state exists to serve the interests of financial capital – the banks, the real estate and insurance industries who the US government bailed out – is that the con-men are running the show.

Thus Trump,  snake-oil salesman and charlatan-in-chief, suggested that people take hydroxychloroquine, an untested drug that could produce fatal heart arrhythmia and that one report claimed Trump had invested in. Trump called the drug a “game changer,” and told his viewers to “Take it. What do you have to lose?”

In Defoe’s time, the King’s court fled the city and allowed lower civil servants to bear the brunt of dealing with the plague. Unfortunately, in our time, the court remains in the White House, and continues the dangerous and deadly process of urging the country to quickly re-open so that the state does not have to subsidize the people, and can continue to ignore worker unemployment and misery. 

A well-built wall, or other work of art: Alasdair Gray
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 13 April 2020 18:27

A well-built wall, or other work of art: Alasdair Gray

Written by

David Betteridge takes us along Glasgow’s Byres Road, enjoying several works of public art by the late Alasdair Gray, who died on 29 December, 2019, the day after his 85th birthday

Perhaps the best thing I could do is write a story in which adjectives like commonplace and ordinary have the significance which glorious and divine carried in earlier comedies. What do you think? - Alisdair GrayLanark

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This is a stub. Many more hands and minds besides my own would have to be set to work, to write a piece giving proper value to Alasdair Gray’s achievements. Like his admired William Blake, he was an artist as well as a writer, a lover of both the epic and the miniature, a deviser of both encyclopedias and minute particulars. He ranged over many genres, deploying details from his own life (a long one) and his own city (Glasgow), but at the same time he regarded the whole world with its many cultures and many histories as his oyster (not forgetting the cosmos in which the world has its unique place). He was, as Ali Smith wrote in an eloquent short obituary, “a renaissance man”. He was, she judged, the very heart of that revival in Scottish life to which he contributed, and from which he drew strength. 

A walk of a few hundred yards along Byres Road, in Glasgow’s West End, affords a good introduction to the man and his work. 

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 On the corner overlooking the Botanic Gardens, there is a former church, now converted to a bar, restaurant and performance area called the Oran Mor, which in Gaelic means “big song” or even, some would have it, “great melody of life”. That epithet describes Gray pretty well.

As you enter the Oran Mor from Byres Road, look down at the white and grey marble floor of the porch. There, carved into the tiles, you will see “WELCOME”, in 32 languages. Gray took great care with the lettering of this message, as with every aspect of every part of his quite substantial contribution to the Oran Mor’s conversion. For all those words of greeting that were in the Roman alphabet, he designed his own lettering, using sans serif block capitals that slightly taper away from you as you read them. This lettering he called Oran Mor Monumental.

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Go to the third floor. There, extending across the breadth and length of the ceiling, you will see one of Gray’s largest and most ambitious works: a painting that combines myth and legend, Biblical reference and astronomical lore. “It’s a song of praise to the colour blue,” wrote Figgy Guyver, after a visit she paid to view it, and also “a heartfelt, humanist plea for people to come together for a better future.” This plea is directly expressed in words, as well as art. In gold lettering, across the roof beams, we read: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” This motto, borrowed from the Canadian author Dennis Lee, has been widely adopted as a motto for modern progressive Scottish politics, thanks to Gray’s use of it. 

Looking up, you will see a cross-section of Creation boldly and beautifully represented. As in Gauguin’s famous Tahitian triptych, big questions are asked: “Where are we from?  What are we?  Where are we going?” and answers are given, if we search for them. The planets and the Milky Way give us a sense of Time and Space. The Tree of Life drives its roots into fossils and skeletons. A varied fauna and flora inhabit land, sea and air.  A naked Adam and Eve kneel, entwined in one another’s arms. A phoenix rises. 

The present day and the present city are not forgotten, either. Contemporary citizens, including folk who worked on, and work in, the Oran Mor have their likenesses portrayed here, honouring their labour. Gray’s is a democratic intellect, and a democratic aesthetic, and a democratic structure of feeling.                

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As you leave, as a companion piece to the “WELCOME” on the way in, you will see, and walk on, a set of 32 carved tiles bidding you “GOODBYE”. Many of Gray’s books end on a similarly friendly note, from his early masterpiece Lanark onwards, as if he wanted you to feel that reading the books was akin to visiting him, maybe at home, maybe in a shared public space, and he was your host. “Goodbye,” he says, as you turn the last page.  I see him as a latter-day Interpreter, as in Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. In his House, we are shown “excellent things, such as would be helpful to [us]”.

In fact, the more you immerse yourself in the print-world of Gray’s published works, the more parallels you discover between them and buildings. As you make your way through them, the books seem to have doors and windows, and rooms and corridors, and stairs and landings, with good labelling and sign-posting so you do not get lost, all in Gray’s distinctively bold, clear style.

Gray was fortunate in having Canongate as his publisher for Lanark, as for many subsequent books, as its owner Stephanie Wolfe-Murray gave him creative control over all aspects of its look, from the grand plan of the art-work to the details of line-spacing and indentation. Like William Blake or William Morris before him, Gray was enabled to work in the combined roles of artist,  artisan and author.

III

After leaving the Oran Mor, turn left along Byres Road, and very soon you come to Hillhead Public Library. It was much used by Gray in the second half of his life, when he lived at various addresses in the West End, just as, in his earlier years in the East End, Riddrie Public Library had been a favourite haunt, being almost a home from home for the inveterate bibliophile. 

In his retrospective memoir, A Life in Pictures, Gray tells of an occasion when one of his teachers at Whitehill Senior Secondary School invited him to give a lecture to the school’s Literary and Debating Society. This he did, with specially drawn illustrations projected on an epidiascope. These illustrations are recognisably by the same hand, and from the same mind, as all his later art-work, including the Oran Mor ceiling. Gray appears to have developed his skill and found his genius very young. His chosen subject for the lecture was “A Personal View of History”, no less, typically encyclopaedic. He started with The Ice Age and The Stone Age, and ended with The Industrial City and The Triumph of Socialism.

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Along this onward march, full of epic horrors, two sunnier episodes are celebrated. Babylonian priests are pictured  “recording an eclipse, having devised an alphabet and calendar that made writing history possible”. Later, the schoolboy lecturer showed his audience The Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus tells the people of the slave-based empires of the world that “every human soul was equally valued by God”. Regrettably, his art-work for that episode was mislaid, as he explains in A Life in Pictures. 

For the end-point of History, The Triumph of Socialism, he chose as example and symbol the nearby Riddrie Public Library. “I thought,” he tells us, “this well-planned, well-stocked public library was a triumphant example of local egalitarian democracy.” Here we find the bedrock of Gray’s later more developed politics. He never lost his youthful Spirit of Forty-Five. Again, as with The Sermon on the Mount, we only have his word for it, as, for some reason, the drawing of the Library “was to be”, but was in fact never actually drawn. 

IV

I started writing this short guide to Gray’s visible legacy in Glasgow’s West End shortly after his death at the very end of 2019. For inspiration, and for refreshing my memory, I followed the route that I am here recommending. Arriving at the wide inviting entrance of Hillhead Public Library, I found that I could not pass it without going in.

There, next to the librarians’ issue desk, was a display of all Gray’s books that they had in stock, and a table set aside where his fellow-readers were invited to sign a book  -  not so much a Book of Condolences, more a Book of Celebrations. Already, after only a few days of the library and the book being open after the New Year holiday, page upon  page of entries had been written. As I read through them, I became aware that “Alasdair” had been well-loved as a local worthy, a kindly man, and a great conversationalist, as interested in his interlocutors as in himself; but, at the same time, “Gray” was well-regarded as an important author-cum-artist, who had put his native Glasgow and Scotland on a world map, and also brought the world to the very streets of this city. This “fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glasgow pedestrian”, as he once described himself, had made his mark, a large and indelible one.

There is a point of correction to be made regarding Gray’s self-description as a “pedestrian”. For his final few years, after a fall that nearly killed him, he was a wheelchair user.  Undaunted, after seven months in hospital, he was to be seen again, visiting his  favourite places, going about his many ploys, and continuing his last great project, his re-telling of Dante’s Divine Comedy. How like Blake, who also immersed himself in the old Tuscan’s Hell, Purgatory and Paradise!

V

 After Hillhead Library, proceed further along Byres Road to another place where Gray’s presence is felt, namely Hillhead Subway Station.

5

Look across the entrance hall, beyond the turnstiles that lead to the platforms and trains. There, confronting you, is Gray’s final work of public art, a mural made of ceramic tiles, two metres high and twelve metres wide. “All Kinds of Folk” it is called, and so it is identified in elegant lettering to the left. Alternatively, it is called “Folk of All Kinds”, to the right. In the middle is a panoramic view of the streets and buildings of Hillhead, the busiest part of the West End. The panorama is so boldly three-dimensional that you can imagine yourself walking there. It is flanked on both sides by panels of equally bold drawings of the very kinds of folk whom Gray imagined using the subway.

He gives us Lucky Dogs and Financial Wizards, Hard Workers and Brain Babies, Lovely Mums and Bonny Fechters, Lassies and Lads, Cocky Chaps, and others. A|few beasts and fairy-tale figures are thrown in for good measure, including Urban Foxes, Fiery Dragons, Birds of Paradise, and Unicorns. The effect is to make you smile, and that was Gray’s intention, as he indicates in a bit of verse inscribed on the wall:

Do not let daily to-ing and fro-ing
To earn what you need to keep going
Prevent what you once felt when wee
Hopeful and free.

Now look below the station’s “Exit” sign. There, in black block capitals, you will read that same motto that you saw in gold on the Oran Mor ceiling, regarding early days, a better nation, and working. Those block capitals, by the way, like all the lettering here, were specially designed for this project. They are based on Gray’s own handwritten letterforms, for that reason being known as Gray Display.

VI

I had got this far into writing my piece, when Covid-19 closed down everyday life as we are used to living it. The three places that I have described above  -  the Oran Mor, the Library, and the Station  -  are now in lockdown, as is a fourth place that I would have directed you to, namely a restaurant and bar in a lane off Byres Road, the Ubiquitous Chip, the decor of which, on a lavish scale, was Gray’s work. (He was paid for doing it, it is said, by the promise of free dinners for ever.) 

It was my intention to illustrate my conducted tour with photographs taken specially for it, but that cannot now be done until Glasgow and the world return to the old normal, for good and ill, supposing that is possible. What with “self-isolating” and “social-distancing”, and shutters being up, it is as if we are suddenly inhabiting a nightmarish or dystopian or purgatorial or infernal scene of a kind that Gray might have included in the “Unthank” chapters of Lanark. You can, however, find plenty of already existing photographs online, and so compose your own visual commentary for the itinerary.  You might well begin here and then progress to Gray’s official website, and then delve into his publisher’s website.

My thanks are due to Canongate for giving me permission to enliven my text (above and below) with illustrative material from their files. Maybe, post-Covid-lockdown, I will be able to return to my tour of Gray venues and take photos of my own, for splicing  in.

How, then, are we to leave this inconclusive ramble? There is no better way than in Gray’s own words. In an interview that he gave in the year before he died, to Gutter magazine (Spring, 2018), he remarked on the pleasure he took from being able to work and create, even in old age and ill health; in fact, especially in old age and ill health. At the time, he was putting the finishing touches to the “Heaven” part of his Divine Comedy, “Englished in prosaic verse”, as he put it, after Dante. In words that reveal a great deal about himself, Gray concluded the interview as follows:

Everyone who makes something that survives them has overcome death to that extent: especially if it is another human being.  It may also be a well-built wall or other work of art.

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VII

ENOUGH TO LIFT MY EYES TO

An imagined meeting with Alasdair Gray,
in a Glasgow street

“There’s not a street in Glasgow,
Anyplace, or Purgatory that I don’t know.
I’ve sojourned here for all my years,
studying the root and consequence
of the world’s good and the world’s ill,
watching both succeed, pondering
how the one can let the other grow.”
Looking up intently from his wheelchair,
like a tree’s last stubborn leaf
lit by a late sun, in a winter’s wind,
not torn, not shaken even,
he held my attention as he spoke.
I thought of the Ancient Mariner,
as for a long moment he had me
in his close focus there.
We were like two islands in a flow
and counter-flow of passing folk.

Untitled 7

“For self-protection,” he explained,
“or, if hurt, self-heal, I carry with me
images and words that speak truths,
some from the past, some being formed.
Reviewing them can feed them present life,
and make them for a moment real.
“Whoever harrows any kind of Hell
must do the same. But…” -
he cautioned with a work-worn hand -
“know this: there is no certain Paradise
at journey’s end, perhaps no journey’s end;
but I have seen, for sure,
occasional glimpses of a far-off hill,
part-grey, part-green, chequered bright.

“It is not the steep slope
that Dante wrote of in his Purgatorio.
Rather, it is some high point,
beyond our city’s boundary,
that catches now and then whatever rays
there are of the day’s light.
It is enough for me to lift my eyes to.”
Then, "Look!" he cried,
and gave a sudden whoop of joy,
pointing across the street to where,
in a park, a chestnut tree stood tall.
“Imagine,” he said, “imagine playing there,
swinging on a knotted rope,
collecting conkers, being Tarzan,
being a dryad, trying not to fall.”
Studying that tree, we saw -
he made me see - a rain of golden orioles.
As if so many falling meteors,
as if directed by a hidden hand,
in a swoop, they cascaded to the tips
of the bare boughs.
There they perched for a short while,
overlooking the neighbouring ground.
Talismans, they flashed forth
against the evening’s blue.
I see them now, transfiguring
the landscape of my mind’s-eye view. 

'Eat The Rich' becomes 'Let The Poor Die': Corona Culture and the New Normal
Wednesday, 25 March 2020 23:26

'Eat The Rich' becomes 'Let The Poor Die': Corona Culture and the New Normal

Written by

Dennis Broe writes from Paris about some of the effects on culture of the coronavirus

Europe is being called the epicentre of the disease and particularly Western Europe where the responses have varied from the new Socialist-Podemos coalition in Spain nationalizing the country’s industry, to a total quarantine in France by the neoliberal Macron, criticized for being three weeks too late.

Life is shifting online and as it does the American entertainment behemoths have, with pressure from the EU, acknowledged their oversized share of internet bandwidth with Disney delaying by two weeks the opening of its streaming service Disney+, Netflix halting streaming in HD, and YouTube also employing a lower bandwidth. The moves are necessary with the coronavirus pandemic forcing so much commerce to be done online at home. They call attention to the monopolization of the internet by American firms, with YouTube boasting 2 million users worldwide and Netflix having tens of millions of European subscribers.

There is a kind of constant tension between whether xenophobic nationalist solutions to the problem will reign, where the predominant way of fighting the disease which the US president Trump labelled a “foreign” virus, is to close borders or whether the European Union will come together to combine its forces to fight this battle.

There is controversy also about the origins of the virus with one Chinese official claiming that the virus was manufactured in US army labs and could have been delivered to its first point of outbreak in Wuhan province by the American delegation to the Military World Games, held just weeks before the outbreak. This theory recalls the parasite hatched in a US lab in South Korea that develops into a monster in The Host, Boog Joon Ho’s allegory of the US destruction of that country. 

Meanwhile, Texas senator Tom Cotton, in a theory bandied about by Trump former advisor Steve Bannon, has turned this conjecture on its head and accused China of developing the disease in its labs, while the Wall Street Journal apologized for using a phrase that recalled former imperialist ideology in labelling China “The real Sick Man of Asia”.

Some of the European responses are telling glimpses into the minds of the continent’s neoliberal leaders. Angela Merkel claimed that in Germany possibly 70 percent of the population would come down with the virus.This Malthusian response, which essentially is a predictor if not a welcomer of widespread death and destruction, does indicate elites harking back to the 18th century where Malthus himself predicted war, pestilence or natural disaster as ways to curb an ever-surging and dangerous population growth from below. 

Boris Johnson’s initial reaction in England was similarly to have the virus cure itself through “herd immunity,” meaning it passes through enough people that the country develops its own natural vaccine by being infected. Johnson’s solution involved 60 percent of the population, around 40 million people stricken by the virus and an estimated 250,000 deaths. This solution was being promulgated in a context where the poor are much more vulnerable to infection and epidemics. Is a sweeping pandemic the neoliberal solution to the coming loss of employment through automation? If so, we are now closer to Jonathan Swift’s anticipation of Malthus’ thesis in “A Modest Proposal,” where the poor are served up as a source of nutrition and fine dining. The old '60s slogan “Eat the Rich” has morphed in neoliberal parlance into “Let the Poor Die.”  

In Italy, decisions on triage and intensive care, given the limited number of beds, are being made based on who is most likely to survive, meaning younger patients are being chosen to be saved over older ones. In Western Europe, the two countries hardest hit are those whom years of austerity budgets have weakened, Spain and Italy. Germany meanwhile has been as unyielding in this crisis as in the housing and banking crisis of 2008.

The European President Ursula von der Leyen called for unity and understanding but her words were quickly belied by the head of the European Central Bank, ex-IMF head Christine Legarde who, from her headquarters in Frankfurt, claimed that it was not the ECB’s job to close the 60 point difference between Italian and German bonds. On the day Italy lost $68 billion in savings in a stock market crash, she simply labelled the country “the elephant in the room.” The treatment reprised the EU's humiliating treatment of Greece in the wake of 2008, detailed in superb fashion in Costa-Gavras’ film version of the Syriza finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’ literary description of this intimidation in Adults in the Room.

Not one European country responded to von der Leyen’s call. Germany banned the export of masks and protective gear to Italy at the same time that Austria closed its borders to Italians. Not the European Union but China, which has now stemmed the tide of transmissions, came to Italy’s aid, promising 31 tons of supplies which included ventilators as well as 300 intensive care doctors. 5 Star Foreign Minister Luigi di Miao, amid quarantined Italian citizens playing and singing the Chinese national anthem from their balconies, said Italy would not forget who responded to the call for aid and who did not. 

Here in France and especially in the capital Paris, the intensity of the lockdown has increased. All restaurants are closed except for delivery and the cafes are boarded and shut, a situation that did not even occur under the Nazi occupation in the 1940s. In order to be on the street, to exercise, work or shop, each citizen needs a written “attestation” swearing they are outside for a legal purpose, else they can be fined 138 euros. This is a drastic measure and comes also amid the closing of two of France’s most prominent promenades, the banks of the Seine and Nice’s water walkway The Baie des Anges, subject in less turbulent times of a Louis Malle New Wave movie with Jean Moreau where the hapless condition was that of gambling not of lives endangered by years of cruel government policies.

Macron is being hailed, at least by his own party, as having made a transition from “the president of the rich” to a now stalwart republican who puts the country’s welfare before financial gain. However, the imperious style of the decree, issued by the prime minister Edward Philippe on a Saturday night outside of the weekday media cycle, recalled a similar decree issued two weeks before that arbitrarily passed without a vote the gutting of the pension system, termed pension reform. This was the most contentious piece of legislation in the history of the 5th Republic since the last time the Macron government used the arcane article 49.3 to equally arbitrarily pass the labour “reform” law which has led to increased precarity, as more and more workers now are employed under short term contracts and all contracts can be more easily cancelled.

Indeed, the way of enforcing the lockdown is in typical corporate bureaucratic Macron fashion. The attestation is simply a paper saying the person swears they are outside for legal reasons. It can be printed from the government website but must be reprinted each day one goes out. So it is simply a tax on the poor, on those who do not have a printer because it is not relevant in their work or cannot afford one and who now are subject to a fine.

As the lockdown continues perhaps the cheeriest respite is to recall that when Shakespeare was “sheltered in place” because of the plague, he wrote both King Lear and Macbeth. Both were critiques of power gone mad in his day in a time of a catastrophe and both couldn’t be more relevant today.

To watch any Trump press conference on the virus--including his flying off the handle with a reporter who asks him if he thinks Trump’s precautions are too lax-- is to recall Macbeth’s mad banquet scene where he is tormented by the ghost of his conscience Banquo who he has ordered assassinated. Likewise, watching the camera lingering after Trump’s address to the nation and catching him exhausted and drawing breath at his effort to care about the welfare of the country as a whole, cannot but summon up the image on the moor of Lear equally going mad, “mewling and puking” like a little babe.

 

Ten books to turn 2020 upside down
Friday, 07 February 2020 09:18

Ten books to turn 2020 upside down

Written by

Want to turn the world upside down in 2020?  Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman has found ten books to help us on the way

 MP1

 1. On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, by Naomi Klein

 The issue that should have dominated the 2019 General Election, but didn’t, the climate emergency. Despite this it’s not going to go away, the Australian bush fires are simply the preview of long hot summers that will come Europe’s way, along with ever increasing risks of floods. Naomi Klein wears Trump’s ‘prophet of doom’ badge with honour and in her new book On Fire is unafraid to map out a planet on the verge of a breakdown, together with a plan to do something about it.

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2. The Case for the Green New Deal by Ann Pettifor

A small group of economists have been working on a ‘Green New Deal’ since the mid 2010’s . The idea was revived and made popular first by the U.S. Democrat Party’s Alexandria Ocasio Cortez early championing of the idea on her election to Congress in 2018, and then once more last as the highlight of Labour’s 2019 general election manifesto. Ann was one of that original small group, and The Case for the Green New Deal serves to inform and inspire a politics of alternatives to the otherwise forthcoming destruction of our planet. 

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3. Now We Have Your Attention, by Jack Shenker

 While it is absolutely right to seek to establish a commonsense understanding that the Climate Emergency changes everything, this won’t happen by ignoring the fact that for most life goes on, because there is no other choice.  Now We Have Your Attention by Jack Shenker is a guidebook to this stark reality. The precariat, hollowed out communities, a debt-ridden generation, but also day-to-ay resistance by casual workers, renters’ unions, and grassroots Labour members. A book to both make sense of - and change - the world.

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4. Hostile Environment : How Immigrants Became Scapegoats, by Maya Goodfellow

 There’s not much doubt that the 4 years of the Brexit Impasse has ramped up a resurgent, populist racism. That’s not to say Brexit is a racist project, but too much of the discourse around it is. And that in turn was built on the legitimising of racism via government policy to create, remarkably in its own official words, a ‘hostile environment’. Maya Goodfellow’s Hostile Environment expertly unpicks the background of how contemporary racism has been framed by this process and the widespread failure to challenge the basis of it.   

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5. The Fall and Rise of the British Left, by Andrew Murray

 It might be thought in some quarters publishing a book on the eve of the 2019 General Election entitled  The Fall and Rise of the British Left  would mean only one thing in 2020 - the remainder bins.  But Andrew Murray comes from the school of thought that takes the long view. We are where we are, but that doesn’t mean that’s where we’ll stay. His account starts in the early 1970s to track this fall and rise through to the eve of the election. The downs are of more immediate relevance right now - the ups might have to wait.

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6. The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-War Britain, by Daniel Sonabend

 For an inspiring take on the art of the possible, Daniel Sonabend’s We Fight Fascists cannot be bettered. The largely hidden history of the Jewish ex-servicemen who on their return to Britain from the war witnessed Oswald Mosley’s attempted comeback and set out to stop it. They did this by any means necessary, but mainly through hard-faced, well-organised, physical confrontation. Not for the politically faint-hearted - have a milkshake handy whilst reading.

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7. Antisemitism, The Party and Public Belief, by Greg Philo, Mike Berry, Justin Schlosberg , Antony Lerman, and David Miller

 What would the 43 Group make of the Labour Party being portrayed as an antisemitic party? The rigour of the approach by the academic authors of Bad News for Labour cannot be faulted, there is a wealth of detail here. But what is lacking is a broader political perspective - there should be no ifs or buts, no need to qualify or contextualise our opposition to all forms of racism, and that includes antisemitism. Even - and arguably especially - when those victims aren’t allies of the Left on the question of Palestine. The really bad news for Labour is that too often, too many have appeared to fail that simple test. 

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8. Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy

 OK so strictly speaking this is not a book, but a quarterly journal. However add four issues of Renewal together in the course of a year and you'll have the most up to date, debate and analysis of  Labour politics from a left social-democratic standpoint. Which given the current trials and tribulations of the Labour Party, the shallowness of the debate therein, and the uncertain direction of the party thereafter, makes Renewal uniquely placed to provide an indispensable read in 2020. 

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9. Steal as much as you can: How to win the culture wars in an age of austerity, by Nathalie Olah

 Steal as Much as You Can has to be the runaway winner of the best book title for essential 2020 reads. Nathalie Olah has written an  effortless traversal of the terrains of politics and culture, unpicking their mutual reconstitution in the grip of austerity and neoliberalism. A book that never surrenders to left miserabilism, instead offering the kind of manifesto of generational hope that 2020 demands. And along the way unafraid to pay off its intellectual debts, to Stuart Hall and Mark Fisher in particular. What’s not to like?

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10. Island: How To build a radical culture beyond the idea of England, by Alex Niven

 As soon as Rebecca Long-Bailey inserted the words ‘progressive patriotism’ into  her pitch for the Labour leadership, all ideological hell was let loose from that part of the Left that holds dear to the idea that ‘there’s nothing progressive about patriotism’.  Alex Niven is deeply suspicious of the idea of inserting ‘Englishness’ into all of this, yet ironically in New Model Island he reveals a keener sense of England than most.  What he favours is a resurgent regionalism, to let a thousand ‘Englands’ flower, and create what the book proclaims is a ‘dream archipelago.’  As Britain stands, post-Brexit, on the verge of a constitutional breakdown, New Model Island is the essential guide to the troubled year ahead.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction', aka  Philosophy Football.

 

Resolutely democratic and socialist: Remembering Bill Sutherland
Friday, 17 January 2020 09:54

Resolutely democratic and socialist: Remembering Bill Sutherland

Written by

David Betteridge remembers the poetry of Bill Sutherland. With drawings by Owen McGuigan

1

Readers who are familiar with the lower reaches of the River Clyde will recognise Dumbarton Rock in the drawing shown above. 

We are looking down on the river from a hilly slope, from a position behind a pair of lovers, or so we presume the two figures to be, who are standing in front of us, pressed close. Grass and flowers are at their feet; trees cluster beyond, on both banks of the river. The lovers are so positioned that they might easily and joyfully jump off the hill, and fly like birds or paraglider pilots, and so get a closer look at the scene in front of them. 

The upper half of the drawing is darker than the bottom half. It presents a crowded urban area, overhung by four clouds of smoke, each one hanging heavily over a different part of a town. That town is not Dumbarton exactly, but an artist’s re-imagining of it, as it was in the past, busy with shipbuilding and other industries. If you explore the drawing further, you will see ships on the river, and graves.

The drawing is the work of Owen McGuigan, well known as a photographer and a Clydeside archivist. His website is a magnificent treasure hoard of material relating to Clydebank and its environs, present and past. Never has the term “People’s History” been more apposite than when applied to this Gramscian labour of love that Owen has committed himself to.

Owen’s drawing is his interpretation of a poem by a Dumbarton writer, Bill Sutherland, dead regrettably, at a young age. Once a teacher, and a dedicated one, he was later employed as an oral historian at the Denny Maritime Museum in Dumbarton. He was a member of the Workers' City group of authors. Some of his early poems appeared in their Workers' City anthology of 1988. The poem illustrated here was published shortly afterwards, in a collection called A Clydeside Lad.

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The poem starts by conjuring up the idyllic scene shown in the bottom half of  our drawing. We hear the voice of a “lad” addressing his “lass”:

Come tae the high fields, love, wae me
faur fae this stoory, summer toon
an there like eagles lookin doon
Ah’ll teach ye aw ma hert cin see.

Fae crags, Ah’ll show ye, lass, the green
o five bright, bonnie Scottish shires,
fae Glesga’s reeky, shimmerin spires
doon tae Loch Lomon’s blinnin sheen.

Ah see great ships oot on the Clyde
thit ply fae here tae Timbuctoo
an shipyerds glintin in the blue,
Ah see sich beauty an sich pride.

Ah see tae lasses bright is May
and women kinely is the earth
an men whose jokin hides thir worth
an lads is honest is the day.

Suddenly the mood turns dark, as the speaker’s head takes over from his heart. Innocence gives way to Experience, as happens for instance in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and as happens all the time, of course, in real life.

Bit lass, aw lass, ma heid well knows
the truth ma hert fur love denies
this lan’, ma floor o paradise,
is bit a poor an cankert rose.

Fur, lass, Ah look an plain Ah see
men fat upon thir brother’s sweat,
the slums, the warrant-sales, the debt,
oor drunkiniss, oor bigotry.

Sae if up ther ma hert shid sink
fae seein ma lan’ too truthfully,
fae thinkin o it honestly,
then haud me, lass - don’t let me think.

How much meaning has been packed into this poem, showing both political and personal awareness! How well the contrarieties of Innocence and Experience are managed! How beautifully a complex scene is described and dramatised! How skilfully a vernacular Scots is put into stanza form! 

The same qualities are to be found in Bill’s other poems, which he crafted with great care during his short life. There are scores of them, many available only in handwritten or typewritten form. They are archived by the National Library of Scotland. You can access them by citing the reference Acc.14020.

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Here is another of Bill’s poems from A Clydeside Lad:

Her mooth wis fuul o chuckie stanes -
“God bless this ship and all who sail...” –
an we wir laughin wild is wains
it muck on oor yerd-owner’s tail
fae where he’d slipt on ile an fell,
the day we launched the San Miguel.

The botil smashed. There came a hush
sae lang an wide it felt like noise,
sae wee Joe yellt, “It wants a push!”
Then, like it waited fur his voice,
the Giant edged oot fur the swell,
the day we launched the San Miguel.

A roar rose up sae strang an fierce,
loud fit tae crack the cranes above,
and many throats choked many tears
bit nane cid hide the powerfa love
thit burnt in aw, is in masel,
the day we launched the San Miguel.

Pride ran sae deep it near wis pain
an me, ma fethir bae ma side,
watched whit oor hauns hid built, oor ain.
The ocean noo take fur its bride,
an take fae us pert o oorself,
the day we launched the San Miguel.

Ther’s men drag coal up oot the mine,
Ther’s men drag rhymes up oot thir soul,
Ther’s men build buildins, taw an fine,
bit in this big, crule, sweaty hole
we bult a beauty oot o Hell,
the day we launched the San Miguel.

 Picture2

 “We built a beauty oot a Hell...” There, in that single little paradox at the end of his short drama-in-verse, Bill gives us a succinct expression of his understanding of the syntax of working-class experience: first, the plural and collective subject “we”; second, the active verb “built”; third, the direct object of that act of building, “a beauty”; and fourth, the adverbial “oot a Hell”, defining the harsh circumstances out if which the “beauty” - a great ship, as ambitious a project as any cathedral - was conjured. The poem, as indeed the whole of A Clydeside Lad, is packed with similarly well-wrought phrases. They are its building blocks, with not a wasted or a clumsy line. Their articulate energy jumps out at us.

As in all his vernacular poems, Bill transcribed his Scots in such a way that we get the very sound of it, just the way he spoke it and heard it. His poems are from and for the spoken word. (Some might argue that all poems worthy of the name should answer this same description.) Eye-reading on its own is not recommended. Get the taste and sound of Bill’s lines on tongue and ear!

4

A Clydeside Lad begins with an in-depth Introduction, the work of the then Literary Editor of the Glasgow Herald, Chris Small, who tutored the Dumbarton Writers Group that Bill Sutherland attended. A key passage made in this Introduction contains the following insight:

Bill Sutherland’s collection of poems belongs firmly to a place, a speech, a community and a way of thinking and living...  He knows the reality behind the “economic terms”, and his knowledge enters his poetry with indignation and compassion... 

Bill’s “way of thinking and living” was resolutely democratic, socialist, and in step with the complex realities of everyday life. He saw things in the round, and with a binocular or 3-D vision, so to speak, of a moral kind, seeing both the good and bad, the light and dark. There is a second key passage from Chris Small’s Introduction that helps us read Bill’s collection of poems as it was intended, that is to say as a whole, with a narrative shape to it:

The scope [of A Clydeside Lad] is wider than a single view.  It extends, with imaginative empathy, into other minds, and it moves backward and forward over more than one generation...

To test this “wider than a single view” point, I made a list of the characters who make an appearance in the course of the book, people with whom the poet empathises, though not necessarily agrees.  They include: his Mother and Father; a big priest; Ann, “aye sae thin, a deid wain o only three”; Miss McLeish, a teacher given to fierce punishing; Kate McGraw, a free-spirited classmate; a posh woman officiating at the launching of a ship, whose voice we have already heard; St Peter, God, and a succession of malodorous politicians, all in the same poem; Pat, a passionate singer, dying of cancer; Mike, a boozer, a boaster, and a bampot; a wife-to-be, who “made me wan wae aw thit aches tae grow”; and a Socialist orator from Glasgow, who made a winter’s night warm, and inspired the young poet:

He curst the chains o ignorance
in whit oor bosses thrust us;
he spoke o human dignity,
o britherhood, o justice...

This cast of characters helps drive forward the plot of A Clydeside Lad, which is the drama of the poet’s growing-up. 

5

Regrettably, Bill and his poems have slipped over the years into a limbo of neglect, remembered by friends and established readers certainly, but making few new contacts along the way. The reason is simple: his works are out of print, and hard to come by, even on the second-hand market. Bill himself had some thoughts on the subject of availability and accessibility.  In an interview that he gave to a local journalist, Rory Murphy, he said:

I’ve had a lot of help from my local councillor, Geoffrey Calvert.  He’s been pushing hard to have my books sold through the local libraries...Wouldn’t it be a good idea [to have] a corner which had all our local authors’ books on view, and for sale? I mean, all of them, not just a chosen few...

It would be like saying to ourselves,“Yes, we are creative people; yes, we should take pride in ourselves; yes, and if these writers can do it, maybe I could do it too.” It would be a great big Yes to ourselves as a community...

Picture3

Bill Sutherland, in his home-town of Dumbarton

Right now on Culture Matters, as a constructive small step, we can give Bill and some of his poems a certain afterlife online; and we can hope that other websites do the same. Maybe, seeing Bill’s work, some publisher will come along and re-issue A Clydeside Lad, and other writings, too. Maybe librarians and booksellers will make shelf-space for them. Maybe some singer-songwriter will add a memorable tune to some of Bill’s already memorable words, and thus give them an added chance of survival, on the folk-club scene. Maybe educators will include a selection of his poems in a school anthology, thereby slipping them into the carrying stream of a common curriculum. 

Such initiatives - and face-to-face workshops, as well, of the Workers City kind, which helped Bill get from writing privately to publishing and performing - contribute to the fleshing out of an essential eco-system of letters. That eco-system, in turn, contributes to the growing of our essential Left counter-culture, without which our political advances falter. 

In the 2019 General Election, the Labour Party went down to a bad defeat, even in its traditional heartlands. The defeat can be explained, I believe, in large measure in cultural terms. “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Bill Sutherland knew the truth of this proverb, and his poems embody it, expressing in heartfelt words the heart of the heartless world.

6

A poem may serve as a summary rounding-off, arguing against neglect and oblivion, and in favour of keeping our culture going, fighting across a wide front:

Seedcorn

Seeds For the Planting Shall Not Be Ground Up:
so Käthe Kollwitz called a picture
that she made.

It shows three children hugged within the circle
of their mother’s arms; the mother fiercely
and with vigilance looks round,
their guard.

Such love the wise extend to more than family
and seeds.

Thoughts for our thinking shall not be let
to slide;

values for our saving shall not be lightly held,
nor scorned;

books for our reading shall not be pulped,
nor put in skips, nor left
in dead files or bottom drawers,
nor thrown in furnaces and burned.

kk

Seeds For the Planting Shall Not Be Ground Up, by Käthe Kollwitz, 1942

You’re great, just don’t get too big for your boots
Friday, 17 January 2020 09:14

You’re great, just don’t get too big for your boots

Written by

Roaa Ali explains why you don't see many black and ethnic minority faces in cultural spaces, how race and class operate in tandem to marginalise minority ethnic groups – and what happens if you call out the system

Have you ever been to the theatre, looked around, and thought about how predominantly white the audience is? Does the same impression come to mind when visiting museums? If it does and the answer is a resounding yes, then you’re not alone. There is a major problem in Britain’s cultural industry and it’s time we all took a hard look at why.

For years now, there has been a growing recognition of the ethnic inequalities in the creative sector. Arts Council England found it to be prevalent and persistent, particularly in theatres and museums: 12% of the workforce in national organisations in the council’s portfolio were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and just 5% across its major partner museums. In positions of leadership, this fell to only 9% of chief executives and 10% of artistic directors in national portfolio organisations. On executive boards at partner museums it was 3%. A recent survey showed that 92% of top British theatre leaders were white.

In TV, a report from communications regulator Ofcom showed that ethnic minorities were also considerably underrepresented. It highlighted “a cultural disconnect between the people who make programmes and the millions who watch them”.

This is all despite a number of leading institutions introducing action plans and policies to improve their diversity. While Arts Council England launched the Creative Case for Diversity in 2011, to emphasise the importance and value of diversity in the arts and its significance in enriching artistic practice, leadership and audiences, leading broadcasters the BBC and Channel 4 have ramped up efforts to increase diversity. Yet change of the status quo seems to be minimal and in some cases static. The cultural sector remains steeped in ethnic inequality.

Failing Strategies

There are many factors for why Britain’s cultural sector appears to be circumscribed by whiteness in ideology and practice, production and consumption. Diversity strategies seem to be failing so far, partly because “diversity” itself is a problematic term that can often dilute the problem and depoliticise the issue of racial discrimination. In the creative sector, it has morphed from an aspiration to tackle racial inequality into a drive for better business and economics – a rationale that downshifts the social impact of ethnic inequality, as film studies fellow Clive Nwonka argues.

The business case for diversity can help campaign for ethnic equality, but using it merely as a business tool can mask discriminatory practices and shift focus away from deeper issues of structural racism – for example, in embedded attitudes about art production, its consumers and its exclusivity; attitudes that enforce creative hierarchies that align with racial and class hierarchies.

Myths about high art and its audience

Many a myth still exist about cultural creation, what constitutes high or low culture, and the attitudes of ethnic minorities towards cultural participation. Commonly held opinions include, for example, that audiences from black and ethnic minorities are hard to engage – a view that ignores the lack of ethnic representation in the sector, among other realities pertaining to education and class.

In 2014, and in response to calls by actress Meera Syal for theatres to cater to Asian audiences, distinguished actor Janet Suzman was staunchly criticised for claiming that theatre was a “white invention”, that “runs in their [white people’s] DNA”. Consciously or not, statements like these contribute to a segregation of culture, and a hierarchy of cultural production.

In What is this “black” in black popular culture?, Stuart Hall articulated how the ordering of culture into high and low serves to establish cultural hegemony:

It is an ordering of culture that opens up culture to the play of power, not an inventory of what is high versus what is low at any particular moment.

Take grime

Ethnic and racial hierarchies get reproduced through cultural hierarchies. For example, grime music is tolerated, even celebrated, as long as it remains an ethnic genre, confined to a black experience, and so subject to hierarchical cultural positioning.

The outrage that a number of public figures (such as presenter Piers Morgan and academic Paul Stott) showed towards Stormzy when he recently affirmed that racism exists in the UK, appeared to stem from their sense that the grime artist has succeeded courtesy to whiteness, its tolerance and patronage, as a tweet from Stott suggested:

It all starts with education
 
Attitudes about culture are also produced and reproduced through education. Theatre departments are probably one of the first and most essential blocs in the chain of supply for the theatre sector and cultural industry in general. Yet a predominantly white curriculum continues to be the norm in arts and theatre subjects – that is because for the most part, the canon has been constructed in the image of whiteness. As a consequence, most theatre students will study the works of Shakespeare and Bertolt Brecht, for example, but not many will consult the plays of Nigerian Nobel Laureate writer Wole Soyinka, or Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous.
Wole Soyinka: we don’t know either. jdco/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Black and ethnic minorities are underrepresented as students, academics and authors on reading lists. As one notable report put it: although a welcoming environment, the discipline remains monocultural in terms of both its staff and curricula.

The few taught modules that focus on non-white theatres texts are offered as part of an optional stream, to add “flavour” rather as part of the core canon. This reproduces the hierarchy of knowledge with whiteness on top, and ethnic contributions valued through their proximity to whiteness. It also exoticises and exceptionalises non-white modules, created to appeal to non-white students. While these texts, and those who consume them, are both kept part of and inside the institution, they remain outside its frame of cultural influence and power.

Some scholars and activists are taking bold actions to decolonise the discipline from within. Campaigns such as Why is my curriculum so white challenge the lack of diversity in UK universities and the dominance of white eurocentric teaching materials.

Yet attitudes towards cultural production remain set within a frame of mind that centres whiteness as the custodian of high art. When the principal of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama was asked about quotas as a potential way to boost diversity in 2018, his concern for the school’s standards and reputation implied that black and ethnic minorities might not possess the finesse required to meet such “standards”.

Others, such as the Black British Classical Foundation, aim to nurture interest and participation in art forms often seen as exclusionary.

It plays out in institutions

Our representations are created in cultural institutions, and it is within their daily operation, structures and processes that ethnic inequalities are either perpetuated or mitigated.

For the last two years, my colleagues and I have been researching how institutions reproduce or mitigate ethnic inequalities in cultural production. Throughout our research and interviews, the idea of exclusivity has been reiterated again and again by both majority (white) ethnic and minority ethnic staff.

Although some institutions have introduced diversity initiatives, progress seems slow and tied up to arts funding structures that are temporary and one directional – ultimately serving the institutions rather than the ethnic minorities they seek to engage. Organisations may gain funding by appealing to funders’ diversity agendas, but their engagement with ethnic minority communities and artists is rarely sustainable or lasting, leaving creatives feeling exploited and perhaps further marginalised.

Bafta: still struggling. Lorna Roberts/Shutterstock

Many theatres and TV production companies also aim to increase representations on stage and screen, but that really only serves as window dressing. Ultimately, creators, writers, producers, senior management and commissioners remain mostly white. The stories they tell are therefore also mostly white. The lack of diversity in the 2020 Bafta nominations is an example of a film culture that struggles to produce, represent or celebrate ethnic minorities.

Of course, class plays a major factor in perpetuating ethnic inequalities in the cultural sector, but it is also sometimes used to camouflage structural racism in its institutions. Race and class can work in tandem to marginalise ethnic minorities in cultural spaces, but racism in cultural spaces has a direct link to racism in social spaces and that has an impact on how the nation imagines itself – dictating who belongs and who doesn’t.

There is a silver lining, though. New modes of cultural production and consumption via avenues like Netflix, YouTube, and Instagram are changing traditional cultural production practices. Netflix’s large investment in original content and its subscription model means that the network is commissioning diverse content to cater for and further attract a receptive diverse audience. Such trends may yet force institutions to properly address their lack of diversity.

A cultural sector that is able to represent Britain’s diverse communities and respond to new digital means of production and distribution cannot happen without a diverse workforce, institutions that conceptualise diversity as a core strength, and funding bodies that facilitate long-term ethnic equality in the sector rather than short-lived diversity initiatives.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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