Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Ip Man and martial arts mythology

I saw the Ip Man movie the other night. Strangely I've never been a great fan of the kung fun movies genre but I found it fairly entertaining and true to the underlying myth if not the historical reality of the grandmaster of my branch of Wing Chun.

But in fact as history goes it is very much of the 'Braveheart school'. Both in the liberties taken with the narrative and in the portrayal of Ip Man as a kind of Chinese William Wallace.

It did get me thinking though about the whole question of mythology in martial arts. So much of this comes from the idea of an inspired individual 'inventing' a system or a style. Common sense, and my own experience as a historian, would suggest that this has to be nonsense.

It's a classic case of parallel development: We see all over the world, in all sorts of different societies, in different periods, the evolution of martial arts. Despite an incredible variety of traditions, nuances and idiosyncrasies they are in fact remarkably similar. This is  maybe not so surprising given the limited nature of the human armoury. Most of us are equipped with the same number of limbs, hands and feet  and there's a finite number of permutations of striking and grappling.This is born out when you look at any martial art in a practical fighting situation -  they all start to look increasing similar despite having possibly very different stylised training methods. And interestingly the more experienced the practitioner the less rigidly stylised he is and the greater the apparent convergence with other styles. Based on my own experience - in Wing Chun - in  the 'last' form Bil Jee, the principles of the previous two forms are largely discarded - it's been described as  learning how to break the 'rules'.

I have to think that martial arts are the product of a sophisticated process of collective evolution over a very long period.  They are not delivered complete by a single inspired individual - whether that individual is an itinerant holy man in the fifth century, a sixteenth century Buddhist nun  or an exceptional teacher at the time of the Sino-Japanese war.

On top of this general observation, when it comes to Wing Chun history it is doubly  difficult to sort the facts from the legend because of its underground nature . Underground because of its association  with the nationalist resistance movements  opposed to the Quing dynasty. Other styles - Japanese and Korean -  carry there own nationalist and political baggage which creates a mythology that obscures their true development.

But we can be sure that in a highly stratified and static environment such as Imperial China the propagators of the system would have to be  individuals on the margins of peasant / village society who had the freedom to travel the country. People who could  spread influence - and be influenced - wherever they went. This would seem to provide the historic basis for the legends of monks, nuns and the Red Junk Opera .

I'm sorry if any of this is heresy to any of my Wing Chun brothers but our martial arts ancestors   were clever and dedicated practitioners - seekers after the elusive perfection of technique - and truth. Enjoy the myths and traditions by all means but we  do  our respected ancestors  an injustice if we elevate these myths to a quasi-religious cult.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Tom Wintringham

A sad aspect of the fragmentation of the Left, apart from blatant sectarianism, is an ignorance of the historical contributions made by people from different political traditions. So until reading the Last English Revolutionary, I knew next to nothing about Tom Wintringham. I found something very appealing about him – a Marxist theoretician (and practitioner) of guerrilla warfare with the appearance of an absent-minded academic. That he was also a keen motorcyclist and admirer of the English radical tradition dating from the Levellers also helped.

Not so long ago I would probably have dismissed him as just another Stalinist. In fact having been expelled from the Communist Party in 1938 he was also airbrushed out of their historical pantheon. However he remained a Marxist all his life and so was never accepted into the Labour mainstream. As a result he falls between a number of Left traditions and remains a relatively obscure figure.

A brief biography should show that he deserves to be better known: Born into privilege, he served in the ranks in the Great War as a dispatch rider. This radicalised him and he was imprisoned for mutiny. After the war as a student he visited Bolshevik Russia and was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Along with a number of leading Communists he was imprisoned for sedition in the run up to the General Strike of 1926. He went to Spain and became involved in the raising of the International Brigades, and later went on to command the British Battalion. Twice wounded in action he was invalided back to Britain, but clashed with the Communist leadership and was expelled from the party. At the outbreak of war he threw himself into the war effort under the slogan of ‘a people’s war for a people’s peace’. He was a pioneer of the Home Guard and with other Spanish Republican veterans set up a school of guerrilla warfare. He opposed the wartime electoral truce and set up the Common Wealth Party. After the 1945 election he joined the Labour Party and was involved in the peace movement until he died in 1949.

At one time various organisations used to talk about ‘unconscious Trotskyists’ – it was a way of laying claim to individuals and other organisations who probably wouldn’t be seen dead with them – a bit like Mormons retrospectively converting their ancestors. Despite the grounds given on his expulsion from the CPGB – that he had consorted with a ‘Trotskyist agent’ - Tom Wintringham certainly wasn’t a Trotskyist unconscious or otherwise.

He was however a serial womaniser, and the paranoid CP leadership distrusted his affair with Kitty Bowler, a wealthy American woman with general left sympathies. Wintringham was given an ultimatum to choose between her and the party and he chose her. But nonetheless there was also a political basis for the expulsion - unlike much of the CP, Wintringham genuinely believed in the Popular Front.

He had recoiled from the insane sectarianism of the CP’s ‘class against class’ strategy which saw other left parties as the main threat rather than the Right - a strategy that was undoubtedly instrumental in allowing the Fascists to come to power. In Spain he developed his idea of a people’s war, and a broad alliance that would take in all working class organisations along with ‘genuine democrats’ from the middle class. How much he knew of  the CP’s  suppression of other Lefts – the POUM and anarchists in Catalonia – is debatable, but he was appalled at the cynical sectarianism of the CP in Spain.

Most of all he was outraged at the CP’s endorsement of the Nazi-Soviet pact, which he regarded as a betrayal of the anti-fascist cause. It was this that drove his vision of ‘people’s war’, with the Home Guard not as the comic version of Dads’ Army and Captain Mainwaring but as a highly politicised militia based on factory workers such as the union militias of Spain or the partisan bands on the Eastern Front.

The Common Wealth Party was at the same time both a bizarre postscript to his political development and also its culmination. It was an odd alliance of Lefts discontented at Labour’s acquiescence to the wartime coalition and assorted oddballs such as the Christian socialists seeking a ‘moral revolution’. It also expressed Wintringham’s vision of a Popular Front that had a peculiarly English slant - even the choice of name revealed his vision of radical continuity going back to the seventeenth century.

Wintringham died in 1949 not long outliving the 1945 Labour landslide, after which he advocated the folding of Common Wealth into the Labour Party. Until his death he remained an eccentric and marginalised figure on the Left seeking inspiration from the regimes in China and Yugoslavia as alternatives to what he saw as an increasingly discredited Soviet Union, although he could still never quite bring himself to condemn Stalinism.

With the benefit of historical hindsight it’s very easy to condemn Wintringham’s failure to break with Stalinism. But it’s also easy to underestimate the magnetic pull that the first worker’s government had to those on the Left in the 1920’s and its ability to command continuing loyalty in the face of the rise of Fascism in the 1930’s. For people who supposedly believe that 'conditions determine consciousness' we Marxists are too often hyper-critical of people from the past who didn't arrive at a 'correct' position. I find this particularly distasteful when applied to individuals who have risked and endured far more than their critics.

It’s not necessary to have a party list of approved historical characters or to try and retrospectively appropriate   them to our own cause.  It's should be enough that we recognise them honestly.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Who brings a gun to a snowball fight ?

Humourless pricks with the authority of a badge and some sort of inadequacy complex are always depressing. Give them a gun too and they are  downright dangerous. Check this footage from a snowball fight in Washington DC.

And when you can be arrested and detained for taking a photograph of a public building or  trying to film the numbers on a copper's uniform  - there are no grounds to feel smug that it couldn't happen here ...



Friday, 18 December 2009

Some eye candy

I'm a bit bored and uninspired to write at the moment: So I just dug out some classic black and white photos - they all represent something (to me) so maybe they qualify as 'iconic'. They don't really need explanations but here they are anyway:

• Lee Marvin defined  biker culture in 1953 - it's not really changed.









• Trotsky reading the Militant. He looks  like my dad in this picture.









 • Michael Parks as Bronson. Two wheedled knight errant on a quest.













• Girl On A Motorcycle. French art-house. A girl on a bike. Nuff said.










• My Sigung: Wong Shun Leung. The bad boy of 1950's Hong Kong.










• Miners' strike 1984-5. A defining moment of my  youth.













• Easyrider. I always identify more with Billy than Wyatt.










• Steve McQueen. Simply the coolest movie star. Ever.













• Teamsters' strike 1934. For once the cops are on the receiving end.











• And finally, because I just couldn't not include this.


Thursday, 17 December 2009

We want the airwaves ...

Fight back against the forces of darkness and sign up here to get Rage Against The Machine to a Christmas Number One instead of Simon Cowell's latest product - And stop the onslaught  of cynical-plastic-manufactured-commercial-sentimental-manipulative  shite. At least for a week or two...


Monday, 14 December 2009

Tiger Woods

I grew up in the suburbs surrounded by golf courses. As a teenager I did a bit of caddying and I played  a bit of golf. Surprisingly I wasn't too bad but it was not really the game for me - I prefer my exercise a bit more vigorous.

But it wasn't this that really put me off, it was the arseholes who are magnetically drawn to golf clubs. The kind of aspirational twats who enjoy being part of an organisation that tells them they musn't wear shorts on the course or that they have to wear a collar in the bar  - and that after twenty years of kissing arse they can become the club captain. And then I found in work that golf was a social forum for 'business' - which really meant a vehicle for brown-nosing with clients or superiors. So I avoided golf much as I also avoided the freemasons and the rotary club - and haven't found my career disadvantaged.

So I'm not big on golf or golfers and I haven't followed closely, or particularly cared much, about the Tiger Woods scandal. But I can offer a couple of observations without straying into the morality of his infidelities:

Firstly I suspect that they are more about power than they are about sex. Celebrities are the new royalty - of the worst 'divine right' kind. Such is the cult that surrounds them that they feel, and most of the time the media and public go along with this, that they are above the constraints of the great unwashed. The feeling that they can shag every gold-digger that makes herself (or maybe himself ?) available becomes not only a privilege but a defining quality; and consequently almost a necessity of celebrity. It's the same sense of 'droit de seigneur' that drives pissed up footballers to pick fights in Cheshire night clubs - or worse.

And secondly, and specifically with the Tiger Woods case, there is more than a hint of racism. The underlying  feeling that black celebrities have by their very definition 'got above themselves'. Particularly so if they have conquered a WASP  bastion such as the golfing world. Particularly so if they have a glamorous  and conspicuously aryan wife. There will always be the 'OJ Simpson' factor' - the facts of the case secondary to the white establishment's delight at seeing an 'uppity' black man fail.

That's it - I promise I will never mention golf here again.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Then Came Bronson


I'm just a bit too young to have seen this first time around in 1969 - but I'm trying to catch up on 'Then Came Bronson'. They don't make shows ... or bikes ... likes this any more.

Love it:
Taking at trip ?
Yeah
Where to ?
Wherever I end I up I guess ..
Boy I wish I was you
Well hang in there ...

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Afghanistan and the reason why*

News that the 100th British soldier has been killed in Afghanistan this year. Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has cautioned us not to become distracted by the casualty rate and to concentrate on the progress 'we' have made in Afghanistan: Personally I find this far more callous than any gripes about Gordon Brown's handwriting but we will let that pass for a moment and have a look at the balance sheet:

• After two dodgy elections the people have the corrupt Karazai government

• Probably linked to this, 40% of the promised Western aid has not reached the people it was intended for.

• 77% of the population do not have access to clean water.

• In rural areas 80% of the population do not have electricity.

It is tempting to conclude that the US and British governments simply don't have a fucking clue as to what the objectives are. But that actually lets them off the hook too lightly - the strategy is both knowing and cynical.( And forget the blustering humanitarian fig leaf, by that logic British troops would be dying in Darfur).

The allies  may have gone into Afghanistan to fight Al Quaida but couldn't find them so ended up fighting the Taliban instead - but there was some grand strategic vision too. A grandiose idea of retaining influence in a zone that, judging from instability in Pakistan, was rapidly slipping away from their control. A zone of immense productive importance to them - the oilfields of the Middle East - at which the otherwise desolate region of Afghanistan stands at the gates. And of course the country also sits on top of a strategic pipeline. This is nothing more than good old fashioned imperialism.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of colonial history, or even of the Flashman novels, will know that this is nothing new. In the Nineteenth Century the competing superpowers were Britain and Russian, and it wasn't about about protecting oil fields but trade routes - again Afghanistan had the misfortune to be in exactly the wrong place. The struggle then was played with rather more sophistication, as a war of espionage, diplomacy and outright bribery of local factions. When direct military intervention was required the Western forces invariably got their arses royally kicked by local forces.

From a military point of view the current strategy is that of every imperialist power since the Romans - control key towns and strong-points and police the surrounding countryside by patrols. And from the Teutoburg Forest to Dien Bien Phu or most appropriately the 'North West Frontier' it hasn't worked. In the long run, time, logistics and geography are not on the side of empires. And neither usually is justice.

* 'Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do & die' -
Alfred Lord Tennyson - 'The Charge Of The Light Brigade'

Monday, 7 December 2009

Other days remembered 'in infamy'


In the US, today marks the start of the Second World War in 1941 with the anniversary of Pearl Harbour.  For us Brits it’s the 3rd of September when, in 1939 Britain declared war following the Nazi invasion of Poland. In Russia the same anniversary would be marked on 22nd June 1941 when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa on the Soviet Union. 

By convention and convenience the Second War is dated 1939-45. But this is a selective chronology on the worldwide struggle against Fascism – it is also a view through a specifically European lens: In 1935 Mussolini’s Italy invaded Ethiopia. In 1936’s Franco led a revolt of Spanish colonial troops in Morocco that would escalate into civil war. And in 1931 Imperial Japan invaded Chinese Manchuria.

This week in 1937 marks the fall of the Chinese city of Nanking and the start of a six week period of atrocities against surrendered troops and the civilian  population that resulted in  over 250,000 deaths and untold instances of rape and other war crimes.

 Outside of Asian communities, this ‘other genocide’ is still largely unknown in the West. Partly because the telling of the story is clouded with the propaganda of Communist China: Partly because the Japanese authorities were not as bureaucratic as their Nazi counterparts in documenting their crimes; partly because certain Japanese nationalists have, like Western Neo-Nazis, attempted to use historical revisionism to diminish and ultimately deny these crimes. But mostly I suspect that these crimes are unknown – and those in Nanking were representative of those of Imperial Japanese Forces throughout Asia – because the evidence was not right under Western noses, and because they did not affect ‘people like us’.

Ten years ago a Chinese-American, Iris Chang, wrote ‘The Rape Of Nanking’ and did in some part redress this. The book is frankly not good history. Revisionist historians have found it rather too easy to pick holes in her reliance on some questionable secondary sources. In its analysis it strays into a Chinese nationalism that sees the Japanese atrocities of the period as the inevitable by-product of a national character exemplified by the bushido code. It is uncomfortable and shocking reading told from an undeniably partisan point of view- to the extent that after writing it the author suffered depression and finally took her own life in 2004. Even so the book still justifies compulsory reading for any Westerner trying to understand the period. And much of the revisionist criticism amount to  nothing less than a nationalist-fueled blanket denial of the crimes - on a scale that no Western historian would dare suggest in relation to the Holocaust.


If nothing else it explains why in all those cheesy kung-fu movies, the karate guys are always depicted as the villains …

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Real world interlude.

A momentary change from the general smart-arsery and occasional bile that is the usual tone of this blog:

Back in the Spring I had a health scare that sent me a warning shot of mortality  - this weekend I had a similar experience with dad. He's in his 80's, increasing frail and until now the sole carer for my mum who is effectively house-bound. I got a phone call on Friday from the ambulance service to say that they were taking him into hospital as he had become confused and lost his memory. So I had a manic ride across London through the rush hour down to Kent to check that my mum was with a neighbour, and then on to the hospital.

There I found my dad, who until very recently was a local councillor, school governor and leading light in the local Labour Party, utterly disorientated and just about able to recognise me.

He had lost all recollection of where he was and what he was doing and could only just about recall his own date of birth and what he had done for a living before retiring. A stroke was suspected but then dismissed. In the course of four or five agonising hours in the A&E department, whilst he waited admission to a ward, he was given medication to lower his blood pressure. As this happened his memory and awareness gradually returned. I went back to my parents' house to check on my mum and just after midnight we had a ominous phone call. Answering with trepidation  - it was my dad's more or less normal voice speaking - more or less lucidly. I returned to the hospital the next morning to find him sat up in bed reading the Independent and talking about the news.

Having got him home, it was apparent that things cannot continue as before. So from having no support at all in looking after my mum, he now has a package from social services. I stayed with them until this support kicked-in. It's not really much more than a safety net but it will hopefully give him the all-important psychological reassurance that the burden is not solely on his shoulders.

Again, as with my own very similar experience, I am struck by the fragility of life and 'self'. Those things that define us as a person hang by such a thin thread. I'm also struck by the underlying sadness of old age - the knowledge that our world and its horizons will slowly close in around us so that planning a journey upstairs or cooking lunch becomes a major pre-occupation. I am disgusted with my  selfish panic of 'how the fuck am I going to cope with this from now on?' And I'm also struck, despite all the frustrations and delays, by the fundamental kindness of everyone in the caring professions from doctors to home-helps - and  I find it humbling and sobering in comparison with the fundamentally vacuous nature of  my own working life.

That's about it I'm afraid. Nothing original, insightful or witty to say. But at the same time not to record my feelings here on my blog would somehow seem dis-honest. I promise normal service will soon be resumed.

Friday, 27 November 2009

William Blake, Jesus and the druids

I have a soft spot for William Blake. His art is visionary and timeless. His politics were radical. And he started life as a copper-plate engraver and so would have been a member of my old union the NGA (SLADE). I'm not so sure about his poetry though. And although I have to concede that 'Jerusalem' would be a preferable national anthem to 'god-save-the sodding-queen'- it is of course complete nonsense.

Whilst I can appreciate the radical intention behind the lyrics - a vision of building an earthly paradise in 'England's green and pleasant land'; the only possible answer to 'Did those feet in Ancient Times?' is ... NO!!! However this view is not accepted by Dr Gordon Strachan, a Church Of Scotland Minister who has made a film to re-assert the old legend that Jesus did visit Britain.

The myth is an old chestnut that has been around for generations, and does  have some flimsy connection to recent archaeolgy. We now know that Britain at the time of Jesus , particularly in the South West,  was not some desolate outpost but a vibrant trading economy with trade routes that connected across the Mediterranean to the Levant. But that's about it. Mixed up with this is the legend of Joseph of Arimathea having deposited the chalice from the last supper (AKA The Holy Grail) at Glastonbury. From there on of course it is only a few short steps to the whole Arthurian circus - and Dan Brown.

But more mundanely. Joseph may have been a merchant and  he may have been Jesus's uncle - and so this leads to the speculation that he may have taken  his nephew with him on his trading  trips. All a bit thin but there is at least some semblance of tenuous logic to it. However apparently Dr Strachan is not content with the idea that Jesus may have tagged along with his uncle to pick up some Cornish tin or lead: He argues that Jesus visited the druids of Britain to swap philosophical concepts !

Ignore for a moment the improbability of an almost certainly illiterate carpenter from a small town in Palestine who probably only spoke Aramaic discoursing with celtic-speaking elders who themselves had no written language.

Not too much is known about the druids, but we can be pretty sure that their pagan belief system was simply not the kind of religion given to the calm ecumenical debate of metaphysical concepts. Travellers would  not have visited them for enlightenment like gap-year students going to see ghurus in Goa to find themselves. They would have been rather more likely to find themselves sacrificed and their heads stuck on display on the door of the chief druid's hut. Still, no matter what the implausibility, there is no end to the wishful thinking of religious believers.

I'm just waiting for someone to sign up Dr Strachan's theory for Hollywood - it can't be any worse than the fucking Da Vinci code.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

'Rights for Whites' exposed

This clip* makes the challenge to the Big Lie that lies at the bottom of all forms of racism. It's got a US angle to it of course with references to slavery and the civil war, but it's a spot-on summary of the age old divide-and-rule trap that comes up every time race or immigration is mentioned. Take the ten minutes to watch it now.

Going back to that Question Time debate: I don't know much about Tim Wise or his politics but I'd have loved to see him give it to Nick Griffin with both barrels.

* By the way I found the clip on Kurt Sutter's blog - the creator of  Sons Of Anarchy. I've raved about the show here before - although not primarily for political reasons - but if you had any assumptions about bikers and rednecks you might be surprised that the fictional MC's main enemies at the moment are a couple of white nationalist organisations. And Kurt himself is proof that liberals come in all shapes and sizes ...

 

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Bollock-speak from Labour's new prince.

I found this quote in a piece on  The Guardian website  about David Milliband -  heir-apparent to the New Labour leadership ;

"You can't stand for empowerment unless you are an egalitarian. That's the platform we then use to stand up for a strategic role of government, but also stand for decentralisation. We stand up for social mobility, and we see public service reform as critical to that, and welfare reform. We stand up for the diversity of Britain, but we know it has to be founded on strong rights and responsibilities. And, very importantly, although there's no point in pretending it's popular, you have to stand up for internationalism, and you have to stand up for the need to share power in Europe, to be influential in the world. That's basically my pitch."

???!!!??? - Meaningless and utter bollocks.

It's may only be a small example, but this sound-bite  also sums up everything that is wrong with the Labour Party : Ozzing smugness and now so utterly divorced from its working class and socialist roots that it  can only expresses itself in the bland corporate tones of a 'vision statement' - and a not very well written one at that.

In unintentional irony the Guardian positions the story next to a piece about a middle class Christian voluntary social worker who has chosen to live on an estate in Peckham and will stand against Harriet Harman in the next election as the Tory candidate. Maybe the guy is just a well intentioned eccentric with muddled ideas. But I can't help thinking that this kind of perverse thinking is made possible by the bankruptcy of ideas from Labour, the vacuum  this has created, and the lack of a pole of attraction for anyone who wants radical change.

And you can be sure that  Nick Griffin and the BNP are rubbing their hands every time they hear this kind of bullshit from the 'liberal elite'.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Rock and Roll Irony

I'm sat in work at my desk eating my lunch. I click on the BBC News site and see that Susan Boyle's new album (!?!) has become Amazon's biggest ever pre-ordered CD...

At the exact same time the i-tunes on my mac are  set to 'shuffle' and the Ramones' 'Rock and Roll Radio' comes on.

'Britain's Got Talent' ???   FUCKING  HELL !!!

Joey Ramone still puts it best:

Do you remember lying in bed
With your covers pulled up over your head?
Radio playin' so no one can see
We need change, we need it fast
Before rock's just part of the past
'Cause lately it all sounds the same to me
Oh oh oh oh, oh oh

Will you remember Jerry Lee,
John Lennon, T. Rex and OI Moulty?
It's the end, the end of the 70's
It's the end, the end of the century


Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Patriotic bike pin-ups ?

Retro bikes. Retro pin-ups.  What's not to like ?

Well actually this  latest campaign from Harley Davidson ...

Apparently the MoCo have declared this 'Military Appreciation Month'.

I know there's  a tradition in the US that's very different to the UK. Patriotism is a different thing there - no 'queen and country'  but instead 'a nation indivisible' and all that.

Back in the '60's the Hells Angels in California stomped the hippies  protesting the war and Sonny Barger volunteered his boys for 'special service' in Vietnam. But there was an equally strong class aspect  to that, a  resentment of privileged students who could evade the draft whilst working class kids hadn't that luxury of choice.

Nowadays the bikers' Patriot Guard finds common cause with gay activists to preserve the dignity of service-men's  funerals against  the protests of  some Christian 'mentalists who see the soldiers' deaths as god's punishment for sexual tolerance.

I know that it's possible to oppose the war whilst still  supporting the troops on the ground  - but even so I'm very uneasy about the automatic association of bikers with support for the military.

My favourite redneck radical, Steve Earle, puts it best when he says 'it's never, ever unpatriotic to question anything in a democracy, no matter what and no matter what's going on in the world'. Maybe we could work that slogan into some motorcycling eye-candy.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Art in whose community ?

A very rainy Saturday afternoon saw us visiting the annual 'open studios' event at the Chocolate Factory. This is a labyrinth of small studios converted from the once derelict Bassetts' (as in Liquorice All Sorts) factory in Wood Green N22. It can be found by following the laughable-to-anyone-who-knows-the-area road signs to the "Cultural Quarter". Paris' Left Bank it is not.

I really want to like the event and the thinking behind the arts centre. Fuck knows this part of North London could do with a bit of culture other than the Wetherspoon's pubs and the multiplex cinemas. And doubtless the intention behind the organisation that runs The Chocolate Factory, Collage Arts, formerly Haringey Arts Council, was to address this.

Sadly though, from what I saw on Saturday, as is so often the case with subsidised support for the arts, it seems to be the middle classes who have benefited most.

80% of the work I saw, with some honourable exceptions, ranged from the entirely predictable to the downright crap. Quite a bit of it looked like something from an 'A' level art student's portfolio - and if the artist had come from the local community that is probably where it would have stayed.

But most of the artists were a million miles away from the local community - in fact there was a general air of middle class smugness about the studios: From the mulled wine being handed out, to all those piercing home counties accents, or the restaurant with fish and chips and aioli for a tenner.

Damian Hurst was in the papers this weekend, amongst some other staggeringly arrogant things he had to say about conceptual genius (such as his own ?) versus merely learnt technique (such as Rembrandt !), he did hit on something when he went on to say that success in art was primarily down to self-belief and persistence.

These are two values which are apparently particularly strong amongst the chattering classes, facilitated by the cushion of family money - and encouraged by a well-meaning community arts organisation.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Hawkwind: space rock warriors of the counter-culture


There was some debate about Hawkwind in our household the other night. I fucking love them in all their trippy trance-metal prog psychadelic daftness.  Strangely not everyone agreed.

It's been a while since I've seen them though I am sure they will be playing in some muddy field somewhere next Summer.  For a few self indulgent minutes enjoy them in their glory days.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Martial arts & religion


Chewing the fat the other night at one of those all-important having-a-beer-after-training sessions, the conversation turned to why a couple of students had recently left – in both cases it was a question of religion.

The first was one of our very few female students – a hippy / New Age type. She left because she thought we weren’t spiritual enough: She had asked why we didn’t have anything to say about chi. We said that we just don’t go there – it’s not necessary to explain how Wing Chun works. We only talk about perfecting body mechanics not releasing inner energy.

It’s not that we have anything against chi – we still know so little about how the nervous system works that it is quite conceivable that the concept of chi is just an ancient expression for some sort of energy impulse that medicine is yet to articulate.  It’s just that we don’t need to promote it in the teaching of what we do. As for the student who left because of this omission - we have heard since that she has converted to Islam, so presumably she is not too keen on chi herself now.

The other student was a senior with many years of mileage on him – and experience working as a doorman. Then he became a born-again Christian. His pastor told him that he was practicing a ‘pagan art’. The evidence cited for this was a couple of things found on the internet about techniques known as ‘the half prayer to Buddha’ or ‘the five prayers to Buddha’. These are not the technical names of the techniques – they are effectively Chinese slang that maybe made sense in a society with a Buddhist culture. We don’t even use them in our kwoon – and we don’t use the traditional Chinese yin-yang salute either, believing that a handshake or a bear-hug are more meaningful Western-equivalent gestures of respect and brotherhood.

It’s sad to lose  students for such stupid reasons. It’s also kind of amusing to see how religious belief systems are so mutually-repellent. (Although I should add that we do have some students who are devout Muslims or Christians and manage to reconcile this with their training). Personally as an atheist/Humanist/freethinker/whatever I find martial arts not only compatible but absolutely complementary with my own worldview:

Martial arts training is so essentially ‘promethean’ with much of the training counter-intuitive and aimed to condition new reflexes. It takes short, tall, skinny, fat, timid, aggressive, uncoordinated people, or more rarely natural athletes and scientifically allows them to make themselves into something else. It is about rational enquiry – looking behind the seemingly amazing feats of strength, speed or endurance and breaking them down into perfected physical techniques. And in the long run, more than the physical it provides psychological benefits like stress management and the cultivation of calm. You can call that spirituality if you must but I think that’s just shorthand for mental well-being.

Monday, 9 November 2009

A different German anniversary today

Amidst all the 20 years-on 'where were you when the Berlin Wall came down?' coverage this weekend, a snippet of news got buried: In Dresden a synagogue has been daubed with Nazi graffiti. This weekend is the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

The facts of Kristallnacht are, or should be, familiar. Nominally in response to the murder of a Nazi diplomatic official by a young deported Jewish man in Paris, members of the Stormtroopers or SA, dressed in plain clothes to give the impression of spontaneous popular riots, attacked Jewish homes, business and places of worship throughout Germany and Austria. As a result 90 Jews were killed, and 250 synagogues and 7,500 business were destroyed. In the immediate aftermath the authorities deported 25,000 people to the concentration camps.

The plan for the 'Night Of Breaking Glass' was that of propaganda minister Josef Goebbels. It did not mark the start of the Holocaust - it could be argued that lay in the Nuremburg Laws of 1935 when Jewish Germans were stripped of their civil rights - but it was a turning point. After it the work of repression would become more systematic, more bureaucratic and ultimately more 'industrial', culminating in the genocide of the Final Solution. And it would be entrusted to the more reliable and professional SS rather than the beer hall thugs of the SA.

It was no accident that the pogrom sprang from the mind of the Nazi's propaganda genius - or spin doctor in modern parlance. Essentially Goebbel's idea worked - baring a very few isolated incidents where ordinary Germans took the side of their Jewish neighbours - generally they either stood back and watched or cheered from the sidelines. In some cases they joined in.

The actions of the SA had succeeded in establishing a racist consensus; that there were dangerous and undesirable 'others' in the midst of German society. And here lies the relevance of Kristallnacht to the threat of the Far Right today. We are not going to see uniformed Fascists goose-stepping down our streets. That isn't the objective for any but the most boneheaded of Neo-Nazis. But they can generate a climate where 'others' are seen as the enemy within - this escalates to the occassional attack on a corner shop, and before you know it, to entire communities being hounded out of estates.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Hardcore troubadors - Steve & Townes

There's only one artist that I religiously follow these days - waiting for each new album to be released and then buying it straight away - or having to see the show whenever there's a UK tour - and that's Steve Earle.

So this week I took my other daughter (not the Green Day one) to see him at The Barbican. The venue is about the worst atmosphere for a gig like that - far too reverential for something that belongs in a bar or a coffee house and the audience seemed elderly to me so fuck knows how old them seemed to my thirteen year old. But a Steve Earle gig is a Steve Earle gig and I loved it nonetheless.

In fact this Steve Earle gig was just as much a Townes Van Zandt gig as much of the material came from the latest  album 'Townes'. An album of Steve's covers of his friend and mentors' work. I'm not too familiar with Townes Van Zandt - but it says something that I am now inspired  to go off  and buy some of his back catalogue this lunchtime.

Here's a clip of the gig - this time playing one of own:

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Guy Fawkes - 17th Century 'mentalist.

Another year and again the universal misappropriation of the memory of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Much as I love the work of Alan More and his creation of ‘V’ -  the anarchist avenger in the dis-utopian ‘V For Vendetta’ continues the mistaken mythology of the plot to blow up parliament as something worth celebrating.

In fact Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators could not have been further from   anarchist revolutionaries, or any other sort of radical. A more appropriate contemporary parallel would be Al-Qaeda or any other group of reactionary religious ‘mentalists.

In a period of general ‘Catholic-phobia’ – Catesby's conspirators  aimed at blowing up a large section of the Protestant ruling class, all conveniently assembled at King James’s state opening of parliament ceremony. This was to be the signal for a Catholic uprising that would seize power and install the nine year old (Catholic) Princess Elizabeth with a (Catholic) council of state effectively ruling as her regent.

There was no manifesto for the proposed  new regime  – but for the average English Protestant at the time  - familiar with the despotic and theocratic regime in Spain - the prospect of such a regime was probably about as appealing as that of a Taliban government is to us today.

Just as 9.11 hardened attitudes of Islamophobia – the Gunpowder plot succeeded in fanning the flames of anti-Catholicism. And in an ironic parallel, also created a myth for the conspiro-loons that the whole thing was a set-up by sinister state forces with Sir Robert Cecil and his proto-secret service cast in the role of the CIA or Mossad.

The Gunpowder Plot definitely has all the ingredients for a rollicking historical costume drama: Shadowy conspiracies (on all sides); fanatical bravery (the horrific torture of Guy Fawkes; farce (the planned uprising ended as a bodged shoot-out at Holbeche Hall); and irony (the plot was uncovered when the conspirators tried to warn a Catholic Lord to stay way from the opening ceremony).

But I’m afraid there’s nothing remotely radical in the story. Given the  current expenses scandals and the low public esteem  of parliament and MP’s  blowing the buggers up may have more appeal now than ever  - but we’re going to have find inspiration elsewhere.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Poppies - or not ?

As I am most Novembers, I feel conflicted about wearing a poppy.

It's not that I don't care about remembrance. It's a subject that's featured on this blog several times previously. In fact history and family history have intertwined to make it one of the things that have shaped my political ideas.

This year I have settled on the contrary solution of putting money in the collecting tin but not actually taking the poppy to wear.

I'm familiar with the argument that supporting any charity in some sense perpetuates the very problems that the charity is trying to solve - by letting the state, the system and society as a whole off the hook. But equally looking the other way and spending the same money on a double de-caff soya latte instead isn't the answer either.

Just as I will reluctantly throw some money in the buckets collecting for kidney machines, so I am prepared to give to the Poppy appeal. Even though if ever there was a cause that should be supported by the state rather than charity it is the care of those who risk life and limb in its defence. The woeful treatment by the government of injured servicemen and their bereaved families is enough to overcome any quibbles I may have.

But at the same time I don't want to wear my support on my sleeve: Like it or not, the British Legion's appeal inevitably seeks to justify the conflicts that have produced the victims it exists to support. This is seen in the constant emphasis on 'sacrifices made on our behalf' and 'our glorious dead'.

Sorry but I can't feel that any war this country has waged since 1945 has been on my behalf - however much I may feel sympathy for those who suffered. Whether  it was in Korea, Aden, Malaya, The Falklands, The Gulf or Afghanistan - servicemen died and suffered for various political purposes at the time - but not for me. And I see precious little glory worth celebrating in any of those campaigns.

I also resent the fact that in this St George's flag waiving era when populist nationalism  has been rehabilitated, the wearing of a poppy has become an acid test of citizenship. To the point that anyone appearing in public without one - especially on television - is virtually declaring their pariah status.

And I can’t bring myself to wear the white poppy of the Peace Pledge Union either: I am not a pacifist - my anti-militarism is political not moral. I might respect  the stand of indivdual conscientious objectors but I can't sympathise with their ideology. Pacifism smacks too much of moral absolutism  and sanctimony  - and is implicitly judgemental of those who have no choice but to fight. 

So until there is some socialist symbol of remembrance, I am stuck with my contradictory but pragmatic solution.


Thursday, 29 October 2009

Death of a klansman

Coincidentally a week after Nick Griffin defended his relationship with ‘an almost totally non-violent’ leader of the Ku Klux Klan – it is the anniversary today of the death of in 1877 of one of the Klan’s founders, General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The original Klan – formed in Tennessee in 1865 in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War – is sometimes contrasted with the modern Klan ‘re-founded' in 1915. It is true that it was only at this later stage that its racism was elevated into the pseudo-philosophical and grandiose belief system of modern white supremacists. The original Klan just had more mundane and practical objectives – primarily intimidating the newly emancipated and enfranchised black electorate in the Southern states, along with their Reconstructionist white supporters.
Forrest’s experience as a brilliant general of cavalry raiders and irregular troops stood him in good steed to lead this campaign of intimidation. The Civil War in the Western theatre had frequently been conducted in a particularly brutal guerrilla-fashion, especially in disputed ‘border’ states such as Forrest’s home state of Tennessee. And Forest’s raiders had been very successful exponents of this – and unusually for a general of the time Forest himself revelled in personal combat and claimed a tally of more than thirty ‘kills’. As a commanding officer he was responsible for the notorious massacre at Fort Pillow in 1864 when surrendered Union troops – significant half of them from a black regiment – were slaughtered.
If the patrician image of General Robert E Lee has come to represent the supposedly chivalrous and benevolent face of the Old South, Forrest without a doubt represents the Confederacy at its ugliest and meanest. Unlike the ‘aristocratic’ Lee who uneasily inherited his estates and slaves and after the war denounced racism and urged reconciliation, Forrest was born into poverty. He went on to become one of the richest men in the pre-war South largely through his involvement in the slave trade - killing his first two men at the age of 20 in a business dispute.
Arguments about the Civil War and the Confederacy still understandably run strong in the ‘states – rather less so over here. But I would suggest that rather than claiming Winston Churchill as a proto-member of the BNP, Griffin could have more appropriately retro-adopted the memory of Bedford Forrest.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A taste of Wing Chun

I don't really like to do technical posts about martial arts. They mean little to those who aren't into it - and for those who are - they are very suseptible to mis-interpretation. And the internet is already full enough of malicious web-warriors who spread flame wars from behind the safety of their keyboards.

So here is a clip of my Sifu talking - not 'performing' or demonstrating. It gives a nice flavour of what the man and the art are about.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Punk's not dead - a father & daughter moment

I went with my daughter to see Green Day at the O2 on Saturday night. And I surprised myself by rating their performance as one of the best live acts I've seen.

I couldn't really imagine that punk-pop works in a 20,000 stadium but Billie-Jo Armstrong has got the same crowd-engaging energy to create a communal event on that scale the I have only ever really seen before in Bruce Springsteen. Which is really just a pretentious way of saying that, like Bruce, he can't hide the fact that he is fucking loving every minute of it - and that is highly infectious. And asking if there was a drummer, bassist and guitarist in the house and then pulling three kids out of the audience and handing over the bands instruments for a number was genius.

Most of all it occurred to me how lucky I am to have grown up after the social watershed of the 1960's. Much as I love my parents I can't imagine them - children of the Blitz* - coming with me to Motorhead gigs when I was my daughter's age.

* Just realised that would be a great name for a band !

Friday, 23 October 2009

'BNP's Griffin in bigoted fool shocker'

After last night's Question Time, the BNP's spin doctors should be wondering if the old adage about 'better to keep your mouth and have others think you're an arse than to open it and confirm the fact' would not have been a better strategy. But actually I suspect they are rubbing their hands this morning.

Nick Griffin dug himself into all the predictable holes you would expect - holocaust denial, islamophobia, homophobia and of course racism and... more racism. All this in spite of the ineptitude and bankruptcy of the major parties representatives' in trying to out tough each other over immigration controls.

Bonnie Greer did make Griffin look like the bigoted fool we know him to be - but I don't think any arguments about the migration of early man out of Africa following the end of the ice age, or the multi-cultural nature of Dark Age Britain (a subject close to my own heart) will win over any wavering BNP voters in Barking or Burnley.

Surprisingly I thought that one of the most telling points was made before the broadcast by Diane Abbott: She spoke about going on Question Time twenty five years ago as the first black woman MP. Nobody could remember what she said but everybody knew by her mere presence that the political landscape had changed. The same could be said of Griffin's appearance last night.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

No such thing as bad publicity?

I wish I could take delight in the BNP’s home goals this week:

Just days away from their much sought opportunity to join the mainstream on this week’s Question Time they have their membership leaked (again), their party constitution is ruled in breach of human rights law, leading generals condemn them and their mis-appropriation of military iconography – and Griffin responds by likening the same generals to er…Nazi war criminals.

The trouble with this is that it plays to the ‘nobody likes us we don’t care’ siege mentality that the BNP are trying to build in the white working class heartlands. In fact the more the opposing voices come from elites - whether they are Tory-leaning army bigwigs or the liberal intelligentsia – the more it feeds their whining persecution complex.

When the panellists sit down at the table with Griffin tomorrow night conspicuous by its absence will be opposition to the BNP from the point of view of white working class socialists.

So a favourite parlour-game at the moment on the Left is ‘who would you choose to face Griffin on Question Time?’ Personally I like the suggestion of Bob Crowe as one of the few nationally known figures on the Left who could pull the rug from under the feet of the self-appointed fascist champions of the abandoned white working class – by force of argument and an ‘impeccable’ demographic. But it’s not a serious suggestion and it’s not going to happen.

Anyway the rise of the Far Right will not be staunched in the manner of a debating society no matter how effective the participants in the debate. But the Bob Crowe suggestion does highlight a more fundamental point in the question of how to take on the BNP.

Expos̩s and marginalising of the fascists have their place - but they also have their dangers if they turn the BNP into persecuted martyrs of a disenfranchised working class. There is absolutely no substitute for taking them head-on on those issues that effect the daily lives of ordinary people Рjobs, housing, education and health.

And of course just occasionally taking time out to confront them when they make a show of force on our streets, and to ridicule their in-built propensity for contradictions and shooting themselves in the foot.

Monday, 19 October 2009

More historical ink

I returned to the tattoo shop for some more work at the weekend. In keeping with the theme of the rest of my decoration, I added the Sutton Hoo helmet in one of the few gaps left on my upper arms.

As a 'birthday treat' earlier this year I was indulged with a day out to Sutton Hoo. It's a National Trust site these days and amidst the tea-rooms and elderly couples clad in beige it's easy to be lulled into a cosy picture of our past - but the helmet, probably belonging to Raedwald of East Anglia, is nothing less than a piece of Dark Ages gangster-bling.

Raedwald was not a king in the modern sense of how we understand the term - he was bretwalda or overlord in the region having clawed his way to the position of top dog by a combination of military ruthlessness and political cunning. This included a tactical conversion to Christianity - although to keep his Pagan wife and family happy he sensibly hedged his bets and built twin Christian/Pagan altars.

The helmet was based on a Roman design and decorated with what would have been lavish ornamentation. At this time very few warriors would have had any armour at all, and the helmet would have been both a practical defensive piece and a status symbol that marked out the wearer as somebody very special. (In fact only four helmets from this period have ever been found in this country). With its face-mask of life-less human features it would also have left a pretty intimidating impression on any lesser person who had to face it in anger.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Two Worlds Collide


The same week that JP Morgan Chase announce that their profits have soared some 75% since the dark days of Autumn last year, and that it's happy days all round with ludicrous bonuses for the red-braced parasites: In what I would consider to be the real world things are very different - Harley Davidson yesterday announced a 21% fall in sales - with production of the Buell range stopping at the end of this month, 180 jobs going with it, the sale of the recently acquired MV Augusta brand and a question mark over the future of the plant in York Pennsylvania.

Much as I admired the classic Italian sports bikes, MV Augusta seemed like an odd bed-fellow to HD, the only thing that they had in common was a long heritage and a premium price tag. Buell on the other hand is a great motorcycling story - Erik Buell started a cottage industry building performance bikes using HD parts that was so successful that he sold up and became one of their chief designers. Ironically it might have been the reflection of his involvement in the latest 'performance' Sportster, the XR1200, that put the nail in the coffin for the Buell range. I never had one myself, but I can see how the thinking behind the Buells was a modern updating of the concept of the Sportster fifty years ago.

That's very much a European view though; in the heartlands for HD sales, blue-collar America, the drying up of easy 'sub-prime' credit for lower income consumers is the real reason for the current problems. There's always been a tension between the image of Harleys as a middle class toy and the icon of a 'real' bike for the working man and I for one would hate to see the balance now tip the wrong way. HD are now talking about concentrating on core product - I hope they remember that this means motorcycles not branded aftershave.

And if things get worse for HD it will be interesting to say if there is the same willingness to bail out the Moco with government intervention as there was with the banks. If the Obama administration shies away from this it would be a scandal given that the last time that a US government took such a 'socialistic' measure to help the quintessentially American company was under Reagan.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Cultural Interlude

I have to confess that theatre (along with opera, ballet and poetry) is a bit of a black-hole in my cultural life. When I went to see ‘Mother Courage And Her Children’ on Saturday I also admit I went in knowing more about the 30 Years’ War* than I did about Bertold Brecht.
Actually my knowledge of 16th century history was of no real use at all. The play – as I subsequently found out Brecht would have intended – was staged in a way that represented no specific period at all, and all periods. Although I did get a distinct sense of the recent wars in the former Yugoslavia.
To call it is an anti-war piece is an over-simplification - the play suggests that war is in fact the natural order. It seemed to be more concerned about the universal need for ordinary people to simply survive – and their ability to do so. Watching it I was reminded of Hasek’s novel ‘The Good Soldier Svejk’ - and then I found out afterwards that Brecht scripted that novel for the theatre.
I also later found out something about Brecht’s dramatic theories: What often puts me off theatre – and I am conscious of quite how philistine this sounds – is the ‘staginess’ of it. Having grown up on film and television – stage drama can easily just seem too hammy. Particularly so when it is trying to be realistic: In fact the less hard it tries this the more ready I am to accept it – so I will happily sit through Shakespeare but struggle with something that it supposedly more accessible like 'Look Back In Anger'. Brecht’s theory and technique of alienation actually tackles this head-on, and it works. Which is why I found that three and a half hours of fairly heavy-going drama flew by and I was thoroughly engaged.
* It is no coincidence that Brecht chose to reference the 30 Years' War when he wrote the play in 1939. The period 1914-45 - a parallel time of protracted and devastating Total War in Europe - has been called the second 30 Year's War.