Tuesday, 21 July 2009

46. Ted Hughes - 'The Suitor' (1962)

To János Csokits 6 August 1967 [János Csokits was a Hungarian poet friendly with TH]

[...] The Suitor is a story of death & the maiden & is a prophecy – I wrote it in 1962, ?January, almost under dictation. The Suitor is me, the man in the car is me, the girl is Sylvia, the Stranger is death, & the situation turns me into an animal – as Gog. Also, the girl is my spirit of light, my Ophelia.'
(The Daily Telegraph, 'Ted Hughes: A life thrown into turmoil', 7 October 2007, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3668391/Ted-Hughes-a-life-thrown-into-turmoil.html)

'She's whispered to me that she might be
All things bright and beautiful tonight'
(Jake Thackray, 'Salvation Army Girl', 1967; Jake in a Box, 2006)

'And here I am, hopeful of a beginning. As yet, I have not spoken to her.'
(Ted Hughes, Difficulties of a Bridegroom: Collected Short Stories, Faber and Faber, 1995, p.126)

Now this is powerful stuff, a great modern poet crafting an almost mythical tale. The story is simple - rival suitors waiting for a girl - but is rather more than just a mood piece.

Written in 1962 and published in Wodwo (1967), it is of course productive to view from a biographical angle - see Hughes's letter above - but this should not obscure the craft and other wider resonances.

Hughes perceives himself as split into two, a powerful, seemingly repressive figure - with an official, professional air - and a solitary, game-playing youthful suitor. The tall man inspects the vistas 'officially', 'gigantic in the tricky light', whereas the youth is ever crouching, hiding or creeping around. (p.131)

It is a first-person narrative, and the youthful narrator - presumed to be fifteen, as he first encounters the girl at school, and she is said to be that age - allocates plenty of emphasis to his feelings about the man (who has, it is ambiguously suggested, left the girl in the house, imprisoned). 'He glances at me and I recognise the type of face, I recognize a familiar category of face. Ah, no! I like him less and less, in these seconds. I like what I infer less and less'. (p.130) This controlled, colloquial sounding narration indicates the unnamed youth (or young Hughes, as we might infer) dislikes the older man that he might become. Before reading about Hughes's letter, I had felt this was possibly her father, ambiguously abusive - 'She flies to the wall, as if she had been struck.' He is arguably protective of her, in that he unambiguously attacks the rival suitor, the Trilby-wearing stranger - possibly warding off her death, as he sees it?

The girl herself, the object of the story, is scarcely characterised; is more of an elemental force, who has compelled these suitors to her door. Young Hughes has walked five miles, in inapt dancing shoes, to get there; the love seems to be courtly, and can only remain so in the context of this story: 'Is she exclusively my secret? I scarcely know her. I have watched her at a distance, outstanding among three hundred others.' (p.126) Whilst never having spoken to her, she has clearly enraptured him, and is only seen through his perception in this narrative - when emerging from the older man's 'managerial' car, she is described in terms of her 'great fleece of hair'. Appropriately classical imagery used to evoke her distance from the scrupulously observed natural setting.

Here is a fascinating sound recording of Hughes, reading from Crow, his 1970 collection of poems:

Such tactile, northern vowels; just listen to how he pronounces 'fact' and 'black' - the predominant colour applied to the setting in The Suitor.

The setting brings out Hughes's clear-sighted, blunt lyricism; every part of the suitors' strange game is described as embedded within a harsh, cold, grimly romantic landscape - the same to be recognised in his poems. It cannot help but evoke Hughes's Yorkshire and the Calder Valley in particular in its archetypally northern gloom: 'A wind chopping and cutting and swirling in from all directions throws up the boughts of the elms as I pass under the rectory wall, and swipes my lapels against my cheeks, and clogs my hair with the drizzle.' There is, you guessed it, heavier rain, later, which in the true northern manner does not bother the narrator*, or alter at all the progress of the suitors' game. Such grasp of the north, and the simplicity of the situation, brings to mind the work of Jake Thackray, with his mythically prosaic Yorkshire tales.

Then there is the house - 'a truly commonplace house, semi-detached, pebble-dashed' - which takes on a forboding aspect as the tale unfolds. And then, the people; young Hughes at one with bleak nature, almost a northern stone wall himself: 'I hug my garments to me, reshuffling my warmth. Behind me the shrubbery shudders and flinches dismally. I am a black column of patience.' (p.128) As the suitors circle the house, after the tall man has left, all of the lights in the house are out; the imagination cannot comprehend what has passed and what may pass: 'Has she gone into a dark house? Is she sitting in the dark?' (p.133)

And, the resolution? Bloody great in its lack of resolution - ending in a bizarrely existential state of stasis. The young suitor has transmogrified into a figure almost resembling Alan Bates as Charles Crossley in Skolimowski's film - from a Robert Graves short-story - The Shout (1978), and the stranger is playing notes on a flute, notes that vie with and overcome the winds.

A vivid scene of hopelessness which burns itself into your mind; here's the whole of the last paragraph:

'And now in a kind of inane ecstasy, I writhe up my features again, stretching my mouth wide, making my eyes bulge, like a man laughing at tremendous volume or uttering a battle-cry, but in absolute and prolonged silence, while the flute notes dot and carry about the black garden and climb the wall and tap at the dark window and come circling back to the bowed attentive figure here, not three feet from me.' (p.134)


Monday, 20 July 2009

45. L.P. Hartley - 'A Change of Ownership' (1948)

'Laid back, I'll give you laid back'
(Hot Chip, 'Over and Over', The Warning, 2006)

'What fun for him, after these constricted years, to come home to a big house of his own, where he has three or four sitting-rooms to choose from, each of which he may occupy by himself!'
(L.P. Hartley, The Complete Short Stories, Hamish Hamilton, 1973, p.167)

It can never be 'his' front door.

'It was locked all right; but who had locked if?' (p.169)

A real oddity this one, of English gothic vintage. This side of Hartley was discernible in the Belladonna episode of The Go Between, with all its shattering symbolism of innocence and experience, but this is a fully fledged dalliance with the Weird. Making sense of 'A Change of Ownership' is harder than most; it is in many ways a refreshingly recalcitrant read - the sort of short-story where you do have to go back at several points to grasp the underlying narrative of the main character.

Hartley establishes the rather splintered, paranoid personality of 'Mr' Ernest carefully; first, he is seen partly through the eyes of a companion, Hubert - an old friend who gives him a lift back home after they have been to the theatre. Ernest's home is 'semi-rural', a large suburban house overlooking a field on one side. (p.163) His friend's conversation illustrates Ernest's isolation, living alone in this big house (his servants are apparently away), where previously he has lived in shared accommodation: when Ernest says that he is alone 'in a sense', Hubert understandably queries, 'Queer devil you are, Ernest; you must either be alone or not alone. Do I scent a romance?' (p.164)

Hardly so, as once his friend has departed, Ernest slips into thinking about himself in the third-person, a trend that marks the rest of the narrative. He imagines himself in a strange array of guises and roles while attempting to get to grips with being locked out of his house - which has been done by mysterious means. Internal dialogues convey an authentic sense of madness, and Hartley displays an unerring command of using the present-tense to embroil the reader. The status of the narrative voice is deliberately unclear - at times, as in the epigraph above, it seems as if it is mocking Ernest.

His learning to live alone, 'like other people', is shown to involve a splintering of - or at least, an uncertainty within - his personality. Stithies Court, the house, is a forbidding place and becomes literally inaccessible to him, its presumptive owner. The word presumptive being operative there. Stithies - evocatively, choicely, named - is something of an impregnable, infernal fortress: 'it looked like a large black hat-box, crowned at one corner by a smaller hat-box that was, in fact, a tower', the only certainty and constant in this unreliable narrative. (p.164)

LPH delves into the uncanny, and this can be said to fit in very nicely in the English Weird continuum, linking M.R. James and Christopher Priest; I, Haruspex is indeed the short-story covered so far which this most resembles. It is revealed that the figure in the house, keeping down the window with his fingers when Ernest tries to get in that way, initially has a Sapphire and Steel anticipating blankness - its face 'a featureless oval, dimly phosphorescent'. (p.173) This 'simulacrum', it is eventually made clear, is no less than Ernest himself: 'This time the face did not alter. It was Ernest's own face, a hateful face, and the face of a murderer.'

It is, overall, a continually discomfitting, confounding tale, written in an unusual, intriguing style; another fine advertisement for home ownership! Hartley, often facilely bracketed as English Heritage, is indeed, far from that; this is anti-heritage in almost all senses, being concerned with deeper things. As with his great 1953 novel, tradition and hierarchies are destructive; in this case, the old English house itself takes on particular malignance:

'In an old house like this, of course, the floor-boards do contract and expand; they have seen a great deal; they have something to say, and they want to get it off their chests.' (p.168)


Sunday, 19 July 2009

44. E.M. Forster - 'Ansell' (1903)

'We were feeding on the past, and I knew that we could not live by that alone.'
(E.M. Forster, The Life to Come and Other Stories, Penguin, 1975, p.29)

Subtle links with the Bates story, with literature the focus instead of music; the unnamed 'I' in the Forster being analogous to Bates's gifted, yet unhappy, main protagonist, Clara.

Forster has a succinct, emphatic way of expressing the difference between having a traditional, presumably Oxbridge, education, and not. He explores this in the relationship between the verbally articulate 'I' and the manual worker and title character, Ansell. They were relatively on the level when introduced at age 14, Ansell proving a playmate, albeit one distracting 'I' from what his parents see as his serious destination: 'The sound of our whoops and shrieks as we jumped with abandon on one another's hats penetrated even into the smoking-room, where my father was arguing with my cousin as to the respective merits of Eton and Winchester as a school for me.' (p.28)

A future mapped out, and bound to lead away towards the sort of conveyor belt identified by one of the three posh-schooled boys in Granada's Seven Up series (the one who broke out of it by going to Durham, and then became a BBC producer, pointedly not taking part in the series beyond age 21).

He returns to the Hall where Ansell works when now are both 18 and have taken drastically divergent paths in life, and then again at 23, where the main action takes place; Ansell is now a type who anticipates Ted Burgess in L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between (1953), presumably many in D.H. Lawrence and even Tom Seaton in When the Boat Comes In. A man defined by work, practical and taciturn, who often comes into contact with the 'higher orders' by virtue of his work.

The narrator identifies the distinctions; physically he himself is inept, out of shape in comparison: 'But I had forgotten how to rest, and preferred reading to outdoor amusements.' (p.28) But he consoles himself with his presumption of higher intelligence, which are represented not by himself but by his books: 'After six years of a student's life I was perfectly inured to attacks on my implements.' Forster undermines this by the way in which it is revealed that he does not contain the requisite knowledge to complete his dissertation in his noggin, but has to rely overly on his notes and annotations (admittedly something I can sympathise with to some extent!). Also, in a key passage, his greater learning is revealed to be more of an insecurity; his reflex is simply to speak to cover any awkward silence, even making quotations that are not strictly relevant to deflect the idea that he might be wrong in any way.

Forster speaks volumes about what university means, socially: 'But to educated people silence matters: it is a token of stupidity and lack of invention. I racked my brains for some remark that would serve to keep my self-respect, but could find none.' (p.29) This expresses how people are judged socially, and have to adapt to survive, within the sophisticated world of academia. The academy develops the ability to fill gaps in conversation, but not necessarily to communicate meaning; talk may be superfluous, redolent of an untrustworthy verbosity. Forster is clearly ambivalent about this, being of this world himself, not necessarily trusting it and grasping for something more. 'unless I speak I cannot go on thinking' - amply expressing the way thoughts come through a constant articulation in the intellectually self-confident.

The picture at the top of this entry is one of my own, taken from the room at Jesus College I stayed in during the first of my two return visits to Cambridge last year - one in a professional capacity, the other to receive the absurdly difficult to explain (or justify!) Cantab MA. These visits, within the space of three months, brought back the Oxbridge experience in all its ambivalence; there was the space and context to 'get on', as Jack Ford would have it, almost too much to handle. It is a truth that Oxbridge gets better results due to fundamental factors such as the student : lecturer ratio, as well as that expectations, from parents, society and background are greater than they are for someone going to Sunderland or Northumbria University, say. It is a foreign country, compared with up north; a confident, increasingly secular and well-read middle-class enclave, in which the average record shop customer in Fopp was buying distinctly non-mainstream music and cinema. Of course, there's a great potential for smugness there, that you may not get in the more mixed areas of bigger cities like London or Newcastle. Yet, revisiting Galloway and Porters, for example, Clowns cafe, conversing with old faces at the MA reunion, it seemed, once again, an attractive world, if not quite mine, all the way. Part of me will always be there, part will always be at the old Roker Park (with perhaps the modern analogue of the Raich Carter Centre, Sunderland and the 5-a-side team I play in); part to Newcastle, though obviously never to its football. Owen Hatherley captures the city's contradictions well in these pieces:

It is set up better than most to be a European city (YES, indeed, regarding the metro system, and its fine architectrual mix), but is held back by too many living up to the Viz-documented Biggmarket lairiness and unpleasantness. This has definitely been corroborated by several friends who live there, who tend to agree with me that Ouseburn, east of the city centre, is where to go. Civilised, and yet far from smug; as beautiful in its distinct way, as Cambridge, so long as they don't spoil it with over-development - the seemingly eternal, and depressing, fantasy of yuppie flats and their implied end of history. The Cumberland Arms forever. http://www.thecumberlandarms.co.uk/

(Anyway - barely related digression over!)

The two young men's past escapades - making birdlime from a Boy's Own Paper recipe - cannot sustain an easy conversation in the present. An inter-dependence only comes apart through the jeopardy they are thrown into - and indeed, 'Them Books' quizzically referred to by Ansell, end up saving his life. The cart carrying both of them and the narrator's books pertaining to his dissertation becomes overturned and the weight of the box of books saves them - going into the river before they do.

In this situation they literally save lives, but they ruin, or at least drastically alter, the narrator's assumed passage in life: he is looking to become an academic and requires successful completion of his prized dissertation to achieve that end. With Ansell's and others' help, he recovers several books, including the 'cover of an Artistotle', but his in-progress dissertation and annotated notes are lost forever - effectively ending his career before it had even truly begun. (p.34)

Intriguingly, Forster's The Longest Journey (1907) - made much of by Michael Bracewell in his England is Mine exploration of English cultural trends - also contains a character named Ansell. It will definitely be the next Forster I read; I regret to say that I have read no further than A Passage to India (1924) - and that was as a requirement as part of my BA course. 'Ansell' is a well crafted tale, especially impressive considering EMF's youth at the time; he is indeed remarkably adept at conveying what it is like to be 23 and 'educated'.

'Well, there's other things but books', Ansell reflects.

'If I met with one sign of sympathy I should break down'.


Saturday, 18 July 2009

43. H.E. Bates - 'A Christmas Song' (1950)

'A little snub worked wonders with these stupid girls, though, really, she had to admit that Joan's devotion was less revolting than the so-called normal attitude that Tim Prosser and the others professed so loudly, a normality that apparently classed human beings with pigs.'

'It was the most wonderful Christmas Eve, just like a fairy story.'
(Angus Wilson, Such Darling Dodos, Penguin, 1960, p.113/118-9)

'Instead there was almost always rain and long columns of working-class mackintoshes floating down a street that was like a dreary black canal. Instead of singing Mozart to the snow she spent long hours selling jazz sheet-music to factory workers and earned her reward, at last, by being bored at the Williamsons' party.'
(H.E. Bates, Love in a Wych Elm and other stories, Capuchin Classics, 2009, p.135)

Well, there will be something of a theme for this new week's short-stories; they will all be from English writers, arranged alphabetically by surname. Fittingly, there is link with the last one I read; the Muriel Spark, because there is a Christmas theme.

H.E. Bates seems to have been off the radar for a long time in blighty; I cannot remember exactly when the successful TV version of The Darling Buds of May was on, and his books are scarcely in print, it seems, and like Angus Wilson's, do not seem to be accorded the merit of new editions by Penguin. There was, I suppose, the mention in Withnail and I (dir. Bruce Robinson, 1987), and a Peter Tinniswood-involving Uncle Silas TV-adaptation but his work seems to have slipped from public memory in the last 15-20 years or so. Many other major English writers born in the 1890-1914 era seem to have slipped from view somewhat: L.P. Hartley and Anthony Powell (barring Simon Barnes's regular allusions in The Times) do not have the profile of Waugh or Wodehouse, say.

But in 2009 we have a Capuchin Classics collection of his short stories, spanning the whole of his career; the back refers to Graham Greene's comparison of Bates with Chekhov, considering him the best short story writer of his generation. It is also perhaps his provincialism - refusal to court acceptance in London, or move there - that counts against him for some. And his being perceived as an avuncular ruralist.

Like Angus Wilson, he stands as a significant post-WW2 writer born before WW1 and who does not fit easily into today's packaging of the past, which prefers to believe that there was nothing before rock 'n' roll and the Angry Young Men. Or, nothing between WW2 and Elvis. You get a sense in this story, as in early Wilson, of the curious place that Britain was, after the war but before Macmillanite consumerism had won the day. They are sensitive writers, dissecting the pulse of a nation that was changing, moving towards socialism but not quite. 'A Christmas Song' may be compared with Wilson's story from the same year: 'Christmas Day in the Workhouse', a wartime tale set in a Bureau. In that, the young, highly proficient and refined Thea repulsed by a perceived new vulgarity, which she sees as manifested in architecture and people, as captured in Wilson's sly prose:

'Despite the freezing wind that blew across the dismal meadows, where each month saw less trees and more concrete buildings, the atmosphere in the canteen with its radiators and fluorescent lighting was stiflinf. The white coats of the waitresses were splashed with scraps of food and gravy stains; around their thickly lipsticked mouths, their cheeks and chins shone greasy and sweaty. The young technician who sat opposite to Thea spat fragments of potato as he talked to his girl friend. She pushed aside her plate and decided to leave before the roof of her mouth was completely caked in suet. What a prelude to a Mozart concert! she thought. Nothing in her education had ever allowed her to bridge the gap between the material and the cultural.' (SDD, pp.113-4)

There is something of the unease Losey and Pinter captured in their 1963 film, The Servant (itself an adaptation of a 1948 novel), with Bates emphasising the dissolution of an out-of-touch upper crust in society - though in the fictional Evensford the rug is yet to be definitively pulled from under their feet.

The quietly anguished Clara - or "Good Old Clara!" as she is to the absurd Freddy Williamson - is the central character, who is delicately sketched in comparison to the broadness of her sister, the more social Essie, and the Williamsons: 'The Williamsons were in leather; they were very successful and had a large early Edwardian house with bay-windows and corner cupolas and bathroom windows of stained glass overlooking the river.' (p.136)

Clara dreams hopelessly of Christmas snow which might transform the drab Evensford into a more romantic, or Alpine, European town; the epigraph to this post indicates how she sees herself as distinct from both the unsophisticated, increasingly prominent working-class and the rich, represented by the ghastly Williamsons. She is a decidedly pre-pop culture sort of heroine, not assertive in accepting or rejecting the overtures of Freddy, but just not responding to them. The contrast is provided by the 'shy ardent' young man who cannot recall any of the song he wants to buy from the shop. She takes to him with all of his sensitivity and embarrassment - he clearly gets the emotion of the song he is seeking, in contrast to how the Williamsons raucously respond to her habitual Christmas Eve performances.

The song turns out to be, as she had suspected, a piece by Schubert - 'Standchen' (1828) in particular - and this impresses her, presumably in contrast to the endless jazz dance band songs she has to help people buy. There is a wistful gentility in the untapped, unspoken romance that cannot but remind one of Brief Encounter (dir. David Lean, 1945), a sort of Englishness that has in many senses been crushed by left, right and most of all, by consumerism.

One should not easily pigeonhole Bates, at least on this evidence, as a purveyor of cosy, middle-class consensus; there is a restlessness about conventional class-based society that you find everywhere from the finest work of Innes and Stanshall ('Postcard', 'Sport (The Odd Boy)', 'My Pink Half of the Drainpipe') to Bennett and Potter. Those who are cultured and sensitive are not necessarily going to fit in anywhere, seems to be the message. The function of the Schubert is almost entirely what the Al Bowlly songs are within Dennis Potter's work - incantations that transport the protagonists beyond the humdrum and everyday, or emphasise the melancholy contrast between the ideal and the reality. Wilson's Christmas story actually includes a part where 'Paper Doll' (used also in The Singing Detective, IIRC) is playing, chides Thea and her dreams of escaping from her isolation: 'I'd rather have a paper doll to call my own' the crooner sang, 'than a fickle-minded real life doll.' (SDD, p.125)

Counterpointing the poignant encounters between Clara and the shy ardent young gent are her forced encounters with Freddy Williamson. She is entrapped by this grotesque's persistent advances, which she can only seem to avert by agreeing to attend the yearly ritual that is the Williamson Christmas family party. Her reveries are bound to be broken by this actively reprehensible chap - often referred to as like a dog. His fatuous demand for kisses and attention - 'Come on, let's have one for Christmas' - cannot ultimately be rejected. (p.140) Freddy is rather like one of Angus Wilson's grotesque types, vividly painted in his malignance: 'He smacked at her lips with his heavy, dog-like mouth, pressing her body backwards.' (p.141) He also uses phrases like 'Whizzo'...

Christmas is bound to be appropriated by the Freddys; her cultivated, European dreams are ever at bay. There are clear analogues in 'A Christmas Day at the Workhorse'; Major Tim Prosser for Freddy, Stephanie for the ardent shy young man in terms of oblique romantic longing: 'A few minutes later Stephanie had slipped away, and Thea stood by a window, gazing out on to the wet shiny asphalt paths as though her dreams were reflected in their mirrored surface.' (SDD, p.122)

Underlining the resolution is a quintessentially English sense of doors being shut, of opportunities sadly slipping away: 'She felt the frost crackling under her feet. She grasped at something that was floating away. Leise flehen meine Lieder - Oh! my loved one - how did it go?' The inability to precisely remember the words mirrors her inability to escape the world of the Williamsons and find romance.


Songs of the year - so far...

1. Pet Shop Boys - 'Legacy'
2. Camera Obscura - 'My Maudlin Career'
3. Passion Pit - 'Sleepyhead'
4. Calvin Harris - 'I'm Not Alone'
5. Dizzee Rascal & Armand Van Helden - 'Bonkers'
6. Charles Spearin - 'Vanessa'
7. Malcolm Middleton - 'Red Travellin' Socks'
8. Belbury Poly - 'A Great Day Out'
9. Manic Street Preachers - 'Jackie Collins Existential Question Time'
10. Toddla T. ft. Roots Manuva & Siobhan Gallagher - 'Sunny Money'

#3 and #7 were on the recommendation of a particularly discerning student.

Ten from the past:

Long Fin Killie - 'British Summertime'
Basil Kirchin - 'I Start Counting'
Clifford T. Ward - 'A Sad Cliche'
Duncan Browne - 'The Ghost Walks' (though frankly any on his magnificent 1968 LP)
Aztec Camera - 'Mattress of Wire'
John Barry - 'The Persuaders'*
The Legendary Pink Spots - 'Government Health Warning' (much else from them too**)
The Passage - 'Xoyo'
Janet Jackson - 'When I Think of You'
Michael Jackson - 'Rock with You'

* Well used by BBC Parliament to underscore the opening to their Fall of the Callaghan Govt. night.
** A discovery made by chance, as he was being interviewed with career overview on Resonance FM not too long ago, which I happened to be streaming via iTunes...

Thursday, 16 July 2009

non-aligned lefties for left unity

A broad-based alliance is proposed, to unite against and supplant the systems of neo-conservatism and free-market capitalism. It should and must combine the following groups, to have any chance of working:
  • The Green Party and all environmental groups (barring any affiliated to the far-right).
  • All socialist, anarchist and communist organisations / small parties.
  • Anyone involved in public services, with an interest surely to have a system orientated towards public service ideals, e.g. those in health, education, local government, &c. A fair few areas of the country have 35-40% of the workforce who are in the public services - though obviously areas like Catterick or Colchester may not be so fruitful!
  • People in the Arts already facing cuts from Blue Labour and much to lose under the Tories.
  • Musicians, filmmakers, artists &c.
  • People who with 'Old' Labour values and those remaining in working-class occupations such as manufacturing and heavy industry. All ordinary, working people.
  • All students, of whatever age. Whether going to Cambridge, Sunderland or the Open University, you should be with us. A new left will be seriously dedicated to education.
  • The poor and those who have particularly lost out from the boom and bust of capitalism and its philosophy.
  • Small and local businesses - see above point.
  • Campaigners against war, prejudice and inequality.
  • All Pro-Europeans.

The quartet shown at the top of this post represent some of the differing types who really ought to get together; more that unites than divides, surely. And yet they vote for, or represent, four different parties; there ought to be one organisation that could accommodate all four, or at the very least unite them in a coalition. There is to be a north-east meeting of Non-Aligned Lefties tomorrow evening, which may follow up some of the points from the first London meeting in May: http://www.cinestatic.com/infinitethought/2009/05/report-of-first-meeting-of-non-aligned.asp

There was a longer piece I was planning on this topic which is included below, as a draft; it was originally penned in late June, reflecting upon things as the dust was settling after the European Elections.
Future Politics and Coalition Building

23 June 2009

Good piece by Owen Hatherley on Bob Crow here:

I am beginning, finally, to engage myself in some political activity - after a long slumber, or disillusion, call it what you like. I joined a grouping set up by Hatherley, Non-Aligned Lefties for Left Unity; an impulse that fully accords with my views: that the left must work on a united programme, and work together on providing a future for our country and world. Petty divisions and splintering purism must be put aside; there must be compromises, clarifications and generally just the willingness to agree to disagree over some philosophical or issue-specific differences.

This attempt to coalition build* involves numerous small leftist parties, the Greens and the 'Labour' Party. It is quite right to target disaffected Labour voters and areas because the BNP are tending to fill the vacuum in these areas. The position ought to be: we support a Labour candidate only if they propose a progressive, left-wing platform, i.e. Cruddas, McDonnell and all too few others. They wouldn't even debate Robin Cook's legacy at a recent Labour Conference. Cook - the one man who might have been a genuine coalition builder, broadening Labour's support with the left and non-Tory centre, in stark contrast to Brown's dwindling, leaky 'tent', his .

The European Elections showed that Labour itself is finished, unless it adpots some principles and purpose - it no longer represents its own people in any meaningful sense, it continues to represent the bankers, the media barons and the tabloid press. (given succour by real people only in the sense of focus grouped 'consensus')

I still cannot see one party I would join; the LibDems do not propose much more than mild reforms to capitalism; Labour is decimated by 12 years of gutless governance, pandering to the British people's worst instincts; and the SLP . The Greens are maybe the closest, Monbiot and others articulating a cohesive, workable agenda that is close to Labour at its most left-wing but without the emphasis on class politics or manual labour. But then again, the Greens can tend to come across as patronising and aloof, being indelibly university-educated and middle-class - they will find a lot of votes in Brighton or Norwich or Oxford, but hardly in Oldham or Copeland or Sunderland...

A member of Bob Crow's NO2EU - Yes to Democracy alliance - a fair few small left-wing parties, plus his trade union - acknowledged to me that the naming of this party was not ideal. One might give this the benefit of the doubt - oh, it is the sort of populist gambit that might get more working-class voters on board - but then one should not. Crow - in the interview Hatherley links to - claims to be an internationalist and a pro-European, rightly saying he would support French Trade Union action. So why so crudely attack the EU when what should be attacked is the sort of capitalism that underpins it at present? A reformed EU would clearly serve out interests better than withdrawing from it, which would only leave us even more exposed to our own 'Anglo-Saxon' capitalist excesses.

I won't go in for further recriminations; there is a lot in Crow's agenda (and his connection to locality and history) that is invaluable. He is perhaps the one man - along with Jon Cruddas - who can potentially take on the BNP in Old Labour areas and win with a left-wing agenda. You cannot see Iain Sinclair or George Monbiot doing it, can you? Seemingly, the opportunistic name is to be shed, which can only aid co-operation.

We are correct to target Labour, but I would also include the Liberal Democrats, whom, for all of their faults, are in many areas of the country positioned to the left (if not always dramatically) of Labour on civil liberties and the public sector. They gained a lot of what I might term the Stephen Fry Vote at the last election - students, intellectuals, graduates, based in London, Cambridge, Durham, York, Oxford, Brighton, Norwich. They gained many ex-Labour voters, Neil Tennant and myself included (a simulacrum of an ex-Labour voter, having never voted for them in a national election! But i was Labour in my pre-life, and my parents always were). http://www.musicomh.com/music/features/pet-shop-boys-2_0309.htm

In addition, the sort of solid Labour people who cannot seem to bring themselves to vote for another party; they either hold the nose and vote LAB or do not vote at all - there were probably a million or so of these in the EU election, if you compare the 2004 and 2009 votes. These people may be public-sector workers (education, health, the arts), with perhaps the most to lose from a Conservative government if one thinks about the cuts that are likely; they should be an ideal group to vote Green / Left, or left-wing Labour.

My suggestion to voters would be: consult the voting record of your MP; if their record is broadly in line with your principles, vote for them whether Labour or LibDem - if not, vote for Left / Green. Likewise, the Greens and other Left parties should not field candidates against MPs who have consistently stood up to free-market capitalism or stood for our civil liberties.

So, this coalition should include Bob Crow, George Monbiot, Stephen Fry and The platform would be pro-EU, but against the harmful aspects of it. More emphasis should be put on cooperation between European people and states, defining a positive, secular culture.

Whether it could include Polly Toynbee (whom should come under the dictionary definition of 'vacillating', with her 12 year long marriage to New Labour, supposedly thinking she has credibility on the strength of persistent, but unfulfilled, flirtation with other ideas) would be a matter for

* Something that was done to all of our costs, of course, in the 1980s, with Thatcher expanding the blue collar, working-class Tory vote, and changing the culture to gain an ever-growing home ownership vote. The left needs to get itself organised and united behind if not one party then one agreement, seeking to build a broad base of support with many different types of people. Diammetrically opposed to Thatcher in what is being argued for, but like her and unlike Blair in that it would be a movement based on principles.

Jackson preliminaries

Ghost at the feast, A. That is what one tends to feel like regarding the bizarre, enthralling and disturbing Jackson and the number of intriguing pieces of writing about him and what he may have represented:

K-Punk: http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/011204.html


Hatherley: http://nastybrutalistandshort.blogspot.com/2009/06/we-are-only-world.html

Carmody: http://in-the-cage.blogspot.com/2009/06/michael-jackson.html


Carlin: http://garbocathedral.blogspot.com/2009/06/and-though-you-fight-to-stay-alive-your.html

Morley: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jun/28/michael-jackson-death

http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/interactive/2009/may/14/paul-morley-michael-jackson (including languid thoughts from people such as Traceyanne from Camera Obscura. Swoon.)

I only came upon him in the Dangerous-and-onwards period, and few can surely pretend he was the same. So many projections, so little of a man there by the end. A media grotesque, an embodiment of celebrity / corporate culture and how it can corrupt. It was not the case in 1979, but then that was pre-Reagan; Funkadelic and Chic were mainstream, incipient hip-hop promised so much.

I will do a piece on Jackson's work, bringing in some of the wider context - not hoping to math the other articles above, just hoping to give my own necessarily partial assessment of the entire back catalogue. I feel I should know it more, and this is an ideal opportunity to explore it in more depth.

Draft impressions / prejudices / hypotheses:
  • Off the Wall the early pinnacle.
  • Heal the World and other follies
  • 'Stranger in Moscow' is great - worthy of the Pet Shop Boys as I think someone else once said.
  • Bad the most 'pop' album - an epitome of where he was at when at his biggest
  • Thriller over-exposed; I'm a bit bored by it, frankly. And it marked the crossover into corporate 'icon' and artist-as-advertisement to be projected all around the world.
  • Did he work well with Jam and Lewis? If not, who or what was to blame?
  • Is Janet not better? Surely nothing matches Control. Does his control go post-'Billie Jean', quality and artistry-wise.
  • His Chaplin fixation - compare and contrast his own career with Chaplin's.
  • Buying the Beatles's back catalogue - why?
  • Jarvis Cocker incident - hubris punctured...? Sets himself up as God, attacks the way the world has become but proposes no answers - the projection cannot break out of the system.
  • Why did he never attempt some proper techno madness? Or even something as out-there as Bablyon Zoo's 'Spaceman'?
  • He is not one of the great pop artists*, because he is bigger than that - he practically *is* pop culture itself, in all its complexity. (*e.g. Prince, Kate Bush, Abba - who clearly are)