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.