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.

Exposés 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 – jobs, 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.

Friday 9 October 2009

We're all in it together

Except some of us are clearly more in 'it' than others. Certainly everyone I know is considerably more in 'it' than David Cameron who along with his wife is apparently worth £30 million or George Osborne worth a mere £4.3 million but who stands to inherit much more from the family business along with a baronetcy.

It's the mirror image of when that other 'great' patrician MacMillan told the working class in the 60's boom that they'd never had it so good' - when in fact some had 'it' considerably better than others. It's one thing for the vast majority of us to have to endure the cyclical effects of a capitalism system we have no control over ... and another to have our noses rubbed in it by the tiny elite minority who manage to come up smelling of roses no matter how deep the shit the rest of us are in.

So it was fantastic timing that in the same week as we had to listen to those pampered baby-faced toffs at Tory Party Conference lecture us on tightening our belts, we also saw 'When Boris Met David', the TV drama capturing their formative years at Oxford. Funnily enough at the same time in the 80's that David, George, Boris and the rest were up to their hi-jinks at the Bullingdon club, I was at Cambridge and had a chance to witness at first hand their equivalents there. We had a name then for those kind of people at the time - arrogant, obnoxious, over-privileged cunts.

I have a long memory and bear a grudge - so I hope does anyone else who can remember the Tories last time round.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Hope I die before I get old ?

I saw an interview the other day with Richard Wilson reminiscing about the nation’s favourite curmudgeonly pensioner, Victor Meldrew. The actor pointed out that Victor was not actually a pensioner at all but had been forced by redundancy into early retirement - and that this was a major part of his general frustration at the world.

There was once some kind of a social-democratic consensus which held that as an individual progressed through life’s journey they would progressively experience the benefits of social justice. So the gap between those children born into poverty and those born into privilege would be eroded by a meritocratic education system that provided the gateway to equal opportunity. Along the way social housing, medicine and ultimately old age provision would narrow the gap.It was a blueprint for something like socialism - to be achieved by stealth over a few generations. It might well have been bollocks but it kept much of the Labour Party going for years.

Now George Osborne says that the Tories will increase the retirement age to 66 in seven years’ time, trumping New Labour’s own long-standing objective to do the same in seventeen years - ultimately rising to 70. By then final earnings, inflation-linked or even a basic state pension that you can actually live off, will all be distant memories. In effect old age will be privatized, thereby finally reversing the social-democratic consensus - as we get older we can now look forward to inequality (and life) actually getting worse.

At the same time we hear a lot of bullshit about the ‘third age’ and the ‘silver economy’. It’s one thing to be a grey-haired captain of industry working into your 70’s or to cash in on your good fortune on the property lottery and take early retirement in sunny climes. Or come to that, to pontificate about having a portfolio of flexible skills because we cannot expect continuous employment any more.

But in the real world most people will find in their 50’s that the skills they have built up over a career have become obsolete with little chance of re-training. They will then probably have to fill the next 20 years of employment with low paid part-time work just to keep their heads above water. They’d also better keep their fingers crossed that when they do finally stop working that they don’t need (almost certainly private) care.

And for their children they might get a small window of respite when they are in their 30’s; a few years in-between paying off their student loans and starting to support their own children ... and then their parents.

Monday 5 October 2009

Artists above the law

The chattering classes rushed to defend convicted paedophile Roman Polanski from extradition to the US for long over-due sentencing. Tracy Emin says she is moving to France if New Labour go through with their plans to raise the tax rate for those with incomes over £150,000pa. To me it’s just two sides of the same coin in the argument that creative people are not like the rest of us and are worthy of special consideration.
Personally I don’t give a toss whether Polanski directed The Pianist or not; if he was an unemployed welder who had groomed and drugged a 13year old girl in order to have sex with her, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. If Tracy Emin, who bores at the drop of a hat about her working class roots, had built up a successful plumbing business that took her into the highest tax bracket nobody would suggest that she shouldn’t cough up like anybody else.
Funnily enough France features in both these stories. In the Polanski case because supposedly they take a more ‘lenient’ view of artists’ peccadilloes. In Emin’s case because supposedly their tax regime gives better breaks to the arts.
In fact we’re not talking about different cultural nuances of sexuality - paedophilia is no more legal in France than anywhere else. And we are not talking about subsidies to community arts projects in the inner cities, I’m sure young artists struggle in France much as they do everywhere. We are actually talking about whinging luvies that have now established themselves as very successful brands and celebrities and want some sort of special treatment.
This isn’t an argument for philistinism – I can admire ‘The Pianist’ or ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995’ (well actually I can’t but that’s another story) without reference to my approval or otherwise of the artist. George Orwell wrote about this in ‘The Benefit Of Clergy – in relation to Salvador Dali “a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being”. I agree with him - a talented arsehole is still an arsehole.

Thursday 1 October 2009

Sons Of Anarchy

It didn't get the exposure over here in the UK that it deserved when series 1 aired earlier this year but I'm a big fan of Sons Of Anarchy.

Written by Kurt Sutter who brought us The Shield - it's been described as The Sopranos on two wheels with a bit of Hamlet and Macbeth thrown in for good measure. And for once it shows some proper custom bikes not OCC bling-machines, has a killer soundtrack, and features Maggie Siff and Katey Sagal... what's not to like? I've just found that you can watch series 2, currently showing in the US here.

It did occur to me though that there is nothing new under the sun - just have a look at Lee Marvin as Chico in The Wild One, and then compare with Ron Perlman as Clay in SoA: