Roald Dahl: wonderful storyteller, vile human being

September 13, 2017 at 1:06 pm (anti-semitism, children, conspiracy theories, culture, Free Speech, Human rights, islamism, literature, posted by JD, Racism)

By Stephen Knight at  Godless Spellchecker’s Blog

ROALD DAHL FAILED ON FREE SPEECH AND THREW SALMAN RUSHDIE TO THE MOB

September 13th marks the birthday of the late and great children’s author Roald Dahl. In celebration of his prolific storytelling, the day has also been dubbed ‘Roald Dahl Day’.

Dahl’s exceptional storytelling was a huge part of my childhood. I adored his hilarious tales which were perfectly complemented by the illustrations of Quentin Blake. That’s what makes my loss of respect for him as an adult all that more regrettable. If you want to keep your rosy, Dahl infused childhood in tact, you may wish to go away now.

You may remember, or at least know of the fallout that continues to pursue Salman Rushdie to this day after he published a work of fiction in 1988 titled ‘The Satanic Verses’.

The book dealt partly with the life of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad. This didn’t go down well in the Muslim world, leading to then supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, issuing a Fatwa for Rushdie’s death.

Rushdie requires police protection and had to live for 8 years in a safe house. Fortunately, he has avoided harm so far. Others haven’t been so lucky, namely a number of people attempting to translate his book into their native language.

History will look back at those who threw Salman Rushdie under the bus during this time rather unfavourably. Indeed, if Charlie Hebdo reminded us of one thing, it’s that the moral confusion of the left has remained alive and well since the Rushdie Affair. For some reason, it seems an even more egregious transgression when coming from those that write for a living themselves.

Unfortunately, Roald Dahl was quite vocal in his belief that Rushdie’s writing was the problem, rather than the fascist mob who wished him dead for a work of fiction.

‘In a letter to The Times of London, Dahl called Rushdie “a dangerous opportunist,” saying he “must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims. In other words, he knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise. This kind of sensationalism does indeed get an indifferent book on to the top of the best-seller list, — but to my mind it is a cheap way of doing it.” The author of dark children’s books and stories for adults (who himself once had police protection after getting death threats) also advocated self-censorship. It “puts a severe strain on the very power principle that the writer has an absolute right to say what he likes,” he wrote. “In a civilized world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech.”

And for a childhood destroying bonus round, a ‘dash’ of anti-Semitism from Dahl:

‘There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity; maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean there is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.

Of course, the work of Dahl should be celebrated and judged on its own merits, but I also think it’s important to remind people which side of the argument he was on during this vital test of principles.

Stephen Knight is host of The #GSPodcast. You can listen to The Godless Spellchecker Podcast here, and support it by becoming a patron here.

  • JD adds: more on Dahl’s anti-Semitism, here

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‘Manufacturing Muslims’

September 6, 2017 at 2:46 pm (anti-semitism, conspiracy theories, culture, France, identity politics, islamism, literature, Middle East, post modernism, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", religion)

A review by Andrew Coates of what would seem to be a very important book – unfortunately only available in French at the moment.

From Tendance Coatesy:

La Fabrique du Musulman. Nedjib Sidi Moussa: ‘Manufacturing Muslims’

La Fabrique du Musulman. Nedjib Sidi Moussa. Libertalia. 2017.

In the wake of the Tower Hamlets foster care furore Kenan Malik has written of the “inadequacy of all sides to find an adequate language through which to speak about questions concerning Muslims and Islam.” (Observer. 3.9.17) This inability to talk seriously about these issues as shown in the prejudiced press coverage, risks, Kenan argues, shutting down criticism of outing people in “cultural or faith boxes” and “blurring the distinction between bigotry against Muslims and criticisms of Islam”.

La Fabrique du Musulman (Manufacturing Muslims) is an essay on very similar dilemmas about “La Question des Musulmans” in French political debate. Moussa tackles both the “box” theory of faith and culture, and efforts by those taken by the “anti-imperialism of fools” to align with the “petite bourgeoisie islamique” and form alliances with Islamist organisations starting with the issue of ‘Zionism’. In 147 pages the author does not just outline the left’s political bewilderment faced with the decomposition of the classical working class movement. He pinpoints the “confusionnisme” which has gone with its attempts to grapple with the problems of discrimination against minorities in the Hexagone – its relations with forces with ideologies far from Marxism or any form of democratic socialism.

Indigènes, Race War and the US left. 

Moussa is the binational son of revolutionaries who supported Messali Hadj in the Algerian War of National Liberation. As the offspring of those who backed the losing side in a war that took place before independence, between the Messalists and the victorious FLN, who will not be accepted as French, he announces this to underline that he does not fit into a neat ‘anti-colonial’ pigeonhole (Page 11). He  examines the roots and the difficulties created by the replacement of the figure of the ‘Arab’ by that of the ‘Muslim’. Furthermore, while he accepts some aspects of ‘intersectionality”, that is that there many forms of domination to fight, he laces the central importance of economic exploitation tightly to any “emancipatory perspective” rather than the heritage of French, or other European imperialism. (Page 141).

La Fabrique is an essay on the way the “social question” has become dominated by religious and racial issues (Essai sur la confessionnalisation et la racialisation de la question sociale). The argument of the book is that the transition from the identity of Arab and other minorities in France from sub-Saharan Africa to that of ‘Muslim’ has been helped by political complicity of sections of the French left in asserting this ‘heritage’. In respects we can see here something like an ‘anti-imperialist’ appropriation of Auguste-Maurice Barrès’ concept of “la terre et les morts”, that people are defined by their parents’ origins, and fixed into the culture, whether earthly or not. This, with another conservative view, on the eternity of race struggle, trumping class conflict, has melded with various types of ‘post-colonial’ thought. This is far from the original “social question” in which people talked about their exploitation and  positions in the social structure that drew different identities together as members of a class and sought to change the material conditions in which they lived.

In demonstrating his case La Fabrique is a critique of those opponents of the New World Order but who take their cultural cue from American enemies of the “Grand Satan” and descend into ‘racialism’.  (Page 18 – 19) In this vein it can be compared with the recent article, “American Thought” by Juraj Katalenac on the export of US left concepts of “whiteness” as a structure of oppression reflecting the legacy of slavery (Intellectual imperialism: On the export of peculiarly American notions of race, culture, and class.) No better examples of this could be found than Moussa’s targets –  former Nation of Islam supporter Kémi Séba, “panfricanist” and founder of Tribu Ka, condemned for anti-Semitism, and a close associate of the far right, recently back in the news for burning African francs, and the Parti des indigènes de la République (PIR).

The PIR’s spokesperson Houria Bouteldja, offers a picture of the world in imitation of US Black Power lacing, in her best known text, diatribes against Whiteness (Blanchité) and laments for the decline in Arab virility, more inspired by Malcolm X and James Baldwin than by the nuances of Frantz Fanon. In the struggle for the voice of the indigenous she affirms a belief that commemorating the memory of the Shoah is, for whites, the “the bunker of abstract humanism”, while anti-Zionism is the “space for an historic conformation between us and the whites”. Bouteldja is fêted in Berkley and other ‘post-colonial’ academic quarters, and given space in the journal of what passes for the cutting edge of the US left, Jacobin. (1)

La Fabrique outlines the sorry history of the PIR, highlighting rants against integration, up the point that Bouteldja asserts that the wearing the veil means “I do not sleep with whites” (Page 51). The discourse on promoting ‘race’ is, Moussa, is not slow to indicate, in parallel to the extreme right picture of ‘racial war’. He cites the concept of “social races” offered by Tunisian exile and former Trotskyist, Sadri Khiari on a worldwide struggle between White Power and Indigenous Political Power (“Pouvoir Blanc et la Puissance politique indigène”) (Pages 60 – 61). Moussa notes, is the kind of ideology behind various university-based appeals to “non-mixité”, places where in which races do not mix. One can only rejoice that Khiari has not fused with Dieudonné and Soral, and – we may be proved wrong – no voice on the left France yet talks of a “transnational Jewish bourgeoisie” to complement the picture, and demand that Jews have their own special reservations in the non-mixed world.

Many of the themes tackled in La Fabrique are specifically French. Britain, for example, has nothing resembling the concept of laïcité, either the recognition of open universalism, or of the more arid arch-republicanism that has come to the fore in recent years. The attempts at co-operation, or more formal alliances with Islamists, and the sections on various moves, between opportunism and distance of those in and around the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (MPA),  intellectuals of the ‘left of the left’,  and the ambiguities of Alternative Libertaire on the issues, though important in a domestic context, are not of prime interest to an international audience. (2) Other aspects have a wider message. The convergence between ‘Complotiste’, conspiracy theories, laced with anti-Semitism, circulating on the extreme-right and amongst reactionary Muslims, finding a wider audience (the name Alain Soral and the Site, Egalité et Reconciliation crops up frequently), including some circles on the left, merits an English language investigation. There are equally parallels with the many examples of ‘conservative’ (reactionary) Muslims who, from the campaign against Gay Marriage and equality education (“la Manif pour tous”), have become politically involved in more traditional right-wing politics, and the beurgeois, the prosperous Islamic market for Halal food and drinks. 

Islamogauchistes.

In one area there is little doubt that we in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ countries (a term in the book that jars), that is the English speaking world, will find the account of alliances between sections of the left and Islamists familiar, So familiar indeed that the names of the Socialist Workers Party, Respect and the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) are placed at the centre of the debate about these agreements, from the 2002, 2007 Cairo Conferences Against US and Zionist Occupation (Page 74), attended also by Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), to the definition of Islamophobia offered by the Runnymede Trust (Page 87).

If one can criticise Moussa in this area it is not because he does not discuss the details of the failure of the SWP and the forces in Respect and the StWC have failed to carry out Chris Harman’s strategy of being “with the Islamists” against the State. The tactic of being their footstools collapsed for many reasons, including, the SWP’s Rape Crisis, the farce of Respect under George Galloway, and was doomed in the Arab Winter not just after the experience of MB power in Egypt, Ghannouchi and Ennahda in Tunisia and, let us not forget but when the Syrian uprising pitted the Muslim Brotherhood against Assad, Daesh was born, and the British left friends of ‘reformist’ Islamism lapsed into confusion. If the Arab ‘patrimonial states’ remain the major problem, there is a growing consensus (outside of groupuscules like Counterfire) on the British left that actually existing Islamist parties and movements are “deeply reactionary”. (3)

To return to our introduction: how can we talk about Islam and Muslims? We can, Moussa suggests, do without the use of the term ‘Islamophobia’ to shout down criticism of the ‘sacred’. The tendency of all religious believers to consider that their ideas make them better than everybody else and in need of special recognition cannot be left unchallenged. They need, “libre examen…contre les vérités révélés, pour l’émancipation et contre l’autorité”, free investigation against revealed truths, for emancipation against authority (Page 143). There should never be a question of aligning with Islamists. But systemic discrimination, and economic exploitation remain core issues. It is not by race war or by symbolic academic struggles over identity that these are going to be resolved. La Fabrique, written with a clarity and warmth that gives heart to the reader. Whether all will follow La Fabrique and turn to the writings of Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Internationale situationniste to find the tools for our emancipation remains to be seen. But we can be sure that in that “voie” we will find Moussa by our side.

*****

(1) Pages 66 – 67, Les Blancs, les Juifs et nous. Houria Bouteldja. La Fabrique. 2016. In discussing Fanon few who read him can ignore his sensitive complexity. For example, did not just discuss the ‘fear’ of Black sexuality amongst whites, but the dislike of North Africans for “les hommes de couleur”, as well as efforts by the French to divide Jews, Arab and Blacks. Page 83. Peau noire masques blancs. Frantz Fanon. Editions du Seuil. 1995.

(2  La Fabrique du musulman » : un défaut de conception. Alternative Libertarire. Droit de réponse : « La Fabrique du musulman », une publicité gratuite mais mensongère. Alternative Libertaire.

(3) See on the history of the period, Morbid Symptoms. Relapse in the Arab Uprisings. Gilbert Achcar. Saqi Books. 2016.

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Clancy Sigal: RIP

August 1, 2017 at 5:49 pm (culture, good people, Human rights, literature, mccarthyism, posted by JD, RIP, solidarity, workers)

Clancy Sigal, author of the mining classic Weekend in Dinlock. Born 6th September 1926. Died 16 July, 2017.

By John Cunningham

The author of possibly one of the best novels about British coalminers and their communities, Clancy Sigal, was a Chicago-born Jew who came to Britain during the McCarthy period having previously been an organiser for the United Automobile Workers. The author of numerous novels and a prodigious journalist Sigal travelled to South Yorkshire and made a number of visits to various pit villages particularly Thurcroft, about 10 miles north east of Sheffield. Here he befriended the miners and wrote about their lives and in 1960 his novel based on this experience, Weekend in Dinlock, appeared (published by Secker and Warburg).  He developed a close, if somewhat rough and ready, friendship with a miner called Len Doherty who became a source for ‘Davie’ the main character in the novel although Sigal insists both Davie and Dinlock were composites of people and places he had encountered while in South Yorkshire. Doherty, himself an accomplished writer and one-time member of the Communist Party, went on to work for the Sheffield Star and is best known for the novel The Man Beneath (published in 1957 by Lawrence and Wishart). Davie, by no means an idealised ‘hero’ is often cantankerous, drunk and never backs down from a punch-up. Yet he is also a brilliant painter and is torn between moving to London to establish himself as an artist or to stay with his community in Dinlock (in the end the latter wins out). Although the novel occasionally lapses into cliché – tough Chicago Jew shows he’s as hard and boozy as any Yorkshire miner – Weekend in Dinlock nevertheless shows a world which had been rarely expounded in literature, at least since a short-lived boom of writing about mining life in the 1930s with the novels of B. L. Coombes, Fred Boden, the poetry of Idris Davies and others.

Weekend in Dinlock was much-discussed at the time of its publication, particularly in the New Left Review where it received mixed comments but was clearly seen by all as an important publishing event at the time. Kim Howells, in his obituary of Sigal in the Guardian, states that that the British left pooh-poohed the novel dismissing it as exaggerated. Howells, the clapped out cultural ambassador of Blairite philistinism, doesn’t mention any names and in fact this, by and large, didn’t happen. Even those who had reservations about the novel took it seriously. Weekend in Dinlock appeared at the same time as the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ or ‘social realist’ novels such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Allan Sillitoe) and Room at the Top (John Braine) were shifting critical and cultural attention from London and the south east to the industrial north. Unlike both these novels however, Weekend in Dinlock was never adapted for the big screen, although it may have had some influence on Ken Loach’s film Kes and his TV drama The Price of Coal. Sigal went on to write a number of other novels, including Zone of the Interior (1976), The Secret Defector (1992) and a memoir of his mother A Woman of Uncertain Character (2006). Eventually, he returned to America and ended his life as a screenwriter in Hollywood, never abandoning his maverick, hard-hitting left-wing stance. It is highly likely, given the author’s death, that Weekend in Dinlock will be republished. If so go out and buy it; this is a classic. I re-read it just last year and despite some rough edges it has stood the test of time and although the novel describes people and places now receding into history, this is a history that did much to shape our world.

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Orwell, Fake News, Alt-Right, Alt-Left and … Skwawkbox

July 24, 2017 at 7:59 am (Andrew Coates, blogging, conspiracy theories, intellectuals, literature, media, men, Orwell, politics, populism, publications, socialism)

Comrade Coatesy has an important piece over at his blog (posted 22 July) and I know he doesn’t mind his stuff being republished here at Shiraz. We should also acknowledge the fact that we’ve used material from Skwawkbox in the past (having checked its accuracy), but like Coatesy and others, have become increasingly disturbed by its apparent preference for sensationalism over fact-checking.

Image result for Orwell essays everyman

Orwell and Fake News, Alt-Right, Alt-Right.

George Orwell never ceases being cited. These days he more often appears for good reasons than for bad ones.

Recently people have had recourse to Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes in Salvador Dali (1944) in order to defend his ability as a “ good draftsman” while being, “a disgusting human being”. That qualified support highlighted, few share the judgement that the Surrealist’s “Mannequin rooting in a taxicab’ as “diseased and disgusting”. The important idea, one, which Orwell repeats about Dickens as Bechhofer Roberts published an early version of what much later developed in the account of the Other Woman, Ellen Ternan, is the distinction between public work and “private life”. In this instance Dali’s alleged infidelity, and the search for his DNA to prove paternity, is irrelevant to the merits or otherwise of his products.

A more weighty issue is taken up in yesterday’s le Monde (Relire « 1984 » à l’ère de la post-vérité). Stéphane Foucart discusses Orwell as a reference in the era of “post-truth” (post-verité). He quotes Looking Back on the Spanish War (1942), “..for the first, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary life.” Life in Republican Spain was portrayed as “one long massacre” by the pro-Franco British press. Orwell went on to imagine a future in which “the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only he future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event “it never happened” – well it never happened. If he says that two and two are five – well, two and two are five.”

English speaking readers are more familiar with this passage, a premonition of the theme of 1984, than French, who, to Foucart, only began to register that dystopia in the 1980s, with intellectuals such as Michael Gauchet dismissing it. More recently there are those who have taken Orwell to their hearts, for his “common decency”. The idea that the over boiled cabbage and Thought Police of Ingsoc, and a planet divided into three rival Party-Oligarchies, has relevance today may seem to stretch a point.

That we know that the past is both so obviously not there, yet is worthy of objective inquiry in ways that other ‘not theres’ are not, is an old metaphysical difficulty. That the standard of objectivity was weakened by what used to be fashionable in the old days of ‘post-modernism’ is well known. But that there are different ‘truths’, a liberal, in the American sense, rather than a conservative principle has become less about controlling history than the present. Was the telly screen a rudimentary form of the Internet asks Foucart? Are Trump’s efforts to purge the Presidential archives of documents challenging his view on climate change? ‘Alternative facts’, reports that bear no relation to truth, have, with the sacking of the White House’s Sean Spicer is now a topic which has made the news.

The Media and State Power.

Orwell was concerned not just with Red Atrocity reports in the Daily Mail. He also wrote of the potential totalitarian effects of government control of the media, in his time the Radio. He defended freedom of expression against all forms of censorship, including the suppression of critical reports about the USSR which he believed was taking place post-war in favour of “uncritical admiration of the Soviet Union” (The freedom of the press – Animal Farm. 1945). As Orwell later wrote, “If you do not like the Communism you are a red-baiter, a believer in Bolshevik atrocities, the nationalism of women, Moscow Gold and so on.” (In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus. 1947. Intended for Tribune, not published…)

The Trump administration has power. But there is nothing resembling an effective state broadcasting monopoly outside of North Korea, despite accusations against the People’s Republic. Trump supporters have their networks, their web sites, the loud media outlets. The British right has the dailies, the internationally influential Mail, the declining Sun, the poor old Telegraph, the ageing Express and the Star, which few get beyond the front page to read. Its media imitations of the American alt-right, languish in obscurity. In Britain if these forces are capable of manufacturing truths, from the endless drip drip against migrant workers and Europe to scare-stories about left-wingers, and have an effect on opinion, they took a jolt at the last election. As the laughable Election Day front page of the Sun demonstrated so well.

The Alt-Left and Alternative Facts. 

Come the arrival of the ‘alt-left’. In Britain this means enthusiastic pro-Jeremy Corbyn people. Sites such as The Canary may not be to everyone’s taste but have a readership. But the debate over alternative facts has spread inside the left. Is it justified for Skwawkbox to engage in its own war of attrition with the arms of sensational, scaremongering, stories. The best known at the moment is their recent ‘scoop’ that claimed that everybody on disability benefit transferred to Universal Credit , who did not find a job in two years would be subject to sanctions? That is that they risk losing a large part (if not all) of their income?

This story has been demolished by Disabled People Against Cuts. (1)

Is their mealy-mouthed justification for running the tale acceptable?

They continue to publish wild stories.

That the Daily Mail has attacked the site with its own falsehoods does not give the author a free-pass when it comes to truth and accuracy. 

The writer of 1984 did not live in the age of click-bait. Nor of self-publishing on an industrial scale. But some things have not changed. It would not be to misuse Orwell to cite this, “the controversy over freedom of speech and of the Press is at bottom the desirability, or otherwise, of telling lies. What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully. Or as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer necessarily suffers.” (The Prevention of Literature. 1947)

***
(1) The 2 year job rule for disabled people on Universal Credit is not true!

Disabled People Against Cuts.

Thank you to Gail Ward who put this together.

In the last few days it has been widely reported by various bloggers that those disabled claimants claiming Universal Credit are subjected to finding a job within two years or face a 1 year sanction. This is utter fabrication and feeding many claimants fears which could potentially cause harm. So today I called Welfare Rights, who called DWP while I remained on the phone, they denied that this information was correct and was downright alarmist and dangerous. That doesn’t mean I trust DWP and have submitted a FOI too given 7 years of shenanigans. So you see folks, you can take the fear project and destroy it with Facts!

All Orwell references in Essays. George Orwell. Everyman’s Library. 2002.

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The late Roy Fisher and the real Joe Sullivan

April 30, 2017 at 5:30 pm (good people, jazz, Jim D, literature, poetry, RIP)

 Roy Fisher, once described as ‘Britain’s greatest living poet’, in his garden at Earl Sterndale, Derbyshire. Roy Fisher in his garden at Earl Sterndale, Derbyshire. Photograph: Jemimah Kuhfeld

I have only just heard that one of my favourite poets, Roy Fisher, died last month. There were obits in the Graun and the Telegraph (of which more in a bit), but  – evidently – I missed them.

Anyway, as well as being a poet, Roy was an accomplished jazz pianist who’d accompanied Bud Freeman, Wild Bill Davison and the soul singer Ruby Turner. One of his finest poems was a tribute to the great, but latterly neglected, Chicagoan pianist Joe Sullivan.

Dave Gelly, writing in the present issue of Jazz Journal, takes up the story:

Our resident pedant writes…
Why do people who go to great pains to avoid showing their ignorance of painting, literature or classical music blithely drop dreadful clangers when mentioning anything to do with jazz? The Daily Telegraph recently carried an obituary of the poet Roy Fisher, who, as you may know, was also a semi-pro jazz pianist in the Midlands. (He was proud of having once been the “token white” in Andy Hamilton’s Caribbean Combo.) Anyway, one of his poems is The Thing About Joe Sullivan, and the obituary goes into some detail about it. Unfortunately, the writer (Telegraph obits are anonymous) makes the elementary mistake of referring to “the imaginary pianist Sullivan”.

Now, you don’t expect literary folk to know much, if anything, about jazz, but you do expect them to do a bit of basic checking. It would have taken less than a minute to Google Joe Sullivan and ascertain whether he was a real person or a figment of Roy Fisher’s poetic imagination.

And it’s by no means the first time this sort of thing has happened. A particularly choice instance occurred in 2000, when the American play Side Man, by Warren Leight, was staged at the Apollo Theatre, London. It’s about a trumpet player who, according to the review I read in (I think) The Spectator, idolises an “imaginary figure”, called (wait for it) Clifford Brown!

JD: I suspect the Telegraph obit may have been written by Ian McMillan, who made precisely the same error at an event last year in Birmingham in honour of Roy: I should have corrected him, but feared coming across as a jazz bore. For the record, here’s the real Joe Sullivan on TV in December 1963, followed by Roy’s poem:

The Thing About Joe Sullivan

The pianist Joe Sullivan,
jamming sound against idea

hard as it can go
florid and dangerous

slams at the beat, or hovers,
drumming, along its spikes;

in his time almost the only
one of them to ignore

the chance of easing down,
walking it leisurely,

he’ll strut, with gambling shapes,
underpinning by James P.,

amble, and stride over
gulfs of his own leaving, perilously

toppling octaves down to where
the chords grow fat again

and ride hard-edged,  most lucidly
voiced, and in good inversions even when

the piano seems at risk of being
hammered the next second into scrap

For all that, he won’t swing
like all the others;

disregards mere continuity,
the snakecharming business,

the ‘masturbator’s rhythm’
under the long variations:

Sullivan can gut a sequence
In one chorus-

-approach, development, climax, discard-
And sound magnanimous,

The mannerism of intensity
often with him seems true,

too much to be said, the mood
pressing in right at the start, then

running among stock forms
that could play themselves

and moving there with such
quickness of intellect

that shapes flaw and fuse,
altering without much sign,

concentration
so wrapped up in thoroughness

it can sound bluff, bustling,
just big-handed stuff-

belied by what drives him in
to make rigid, display,

shout and abscond, rather
than just let it come, let  it go-

And that thing is his mood:
A feeling violent and ordinary

That runs in standard forms so
wrapped up in clarity

that fingers following his
through figures that sound obvious

find corners everywhere,
marks of invention, wakefulness;

the rapid and perverse
tracks that ordinary feelings

make when they get driven
hard enough against time.

 

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Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1932 – 2017)

April 15, 2017 at 6:41 pm (Guest post, humanism, literature, poetry, Russia, stalinism, USSR)

 Yevgeny Yevtushenko seen in January 1972, as he arrives at JFK in New York during a four-week tour of the US.

Yevtushenko, January 1972. Photo: Dave Pickoff/Associated Press

Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1932 – 2017)

By John Cunningham

I can’t exactly remember when I bought my first copy of the Selected Poems of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Soviet/Russian poet who died two weeks ago. It must have been in the late Sixties. I think it was the first poetry book I ever bought and the main poem in that collection, Zima Junction, has stayed with me over the years and I have regularly returned to it. Somewhere between moving to the USA and living in Hungary, I lost my copy. A few years ago I bought a new one. Zima Junction was first published in the Soviet Union in 1956, three years after the death of Stalin and reading the poem today it is difficult to see why it caused as much controversy as it did; maybe it was because the small town, homey, messy reality of the world it portrayed did not conform to the neat, tick-the-box unities of Stalinist (and post-Stalinist) social formulae. Zima Junction (which translates as ‘Station Winter’ –Stantsiya Zima) is in Siberia, a few hundred miles from Lake Baikal, where the poet was born and in the poem he returns there from Moscow where he is a student. He revisits his old haunts, meets old friends and is feted by his family but he is torn between this old, comfortable world where everything has its place and time and the new world he has embraced in Moscow. Eventually he settles for the latter.

Some commentators have described Yevtushenko as a loyal oppositionist, not a dissident. He believed that the Soviet Union could be changed for the better and in this was he joined by people like the Soviet filmmaker Elim Klimov and the composer Dimitri Shostakovich. He can be considered naive; a loyal opposition to the Soviet bureaucracy was never going to be able to achieve much but Yevtuschenko ‘came of age’ – he was 20 – in the wake of the death of Stalin. The desire for and expectation of change was understandable. Things appeared to be shifting as Stalin’s eventual successor, Nikita Krushchev, introduced reforms and prisoners were released from the Gulag. It would be only a few years before Sputnik was launched putting the Soviet in front in the space race.

Yevtushenko’s most notable work was with Shoshtakovich on his 13th Symphony Babi Yar. Using Yevtushenko’s poems as its basis, the symphony recounts the horrors of the Nazi massacre of thousands of Jews near Kiev. He continued to write poetry and his A Precocious Autobiography appeared in 1963 much to the outrage of the Soviet authorities. An excellent novel, Wild Berries, was published in 1993. In all likelihood Yevtushenko’s international fame prevented the Soviet authorities from stifling his voice and he was a consistent critic of many aspects of Soviet and later Russian policy, not least the war in Chechyna.

Looking back I’m not really sure why Zima Junction made such an impact on me, one that has stayed with me all my life. Maybe it is the final section of the poem and the last seven words:

And the voice of Zima Junction spoke to me

And this is what it said.

‘I live quietly and crack nuts.

I gently steam with engines.

But not without reflection on these times,

These modern times, my loving meditation.

Don’t worry, yours is no unique condition,

Your type of search and conflict and construction,

Don’t worry if you have no answer ready

To the lasting question.

Hold out, meditate, listen.

Explore, explore. Travel the world over.

Count happiness connatural to the mind

More than truth is, and yet

No happiness to exist without it.

Walk with a cold pride

utterly ahead

wild attentive eyes

heads flicked by the rain-wet

green needles of the pine,

eyelashes that shine

with tears and with thunders.

Love people.

Love entertains its own discrimination.

Have me in mind, I shall be watching.

You can return to me.

Now go.’

I went, and I am still going.

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I Am Not Your Negro

April 7, 2017 at 2:55 pm (Anti-Racism, black culture, cinema, civil rights, literature, posted by JD, Racism, United States)

Essential viewing:

In his new film, director Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished – a radical narration about race in America, using the writer’s original words. He draws upon James Baldwin’s notes on the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. to explore and bring a fresh and radical perspective to the current racial narrative in America.

“One of the best movies you are likely to see this year.”
– Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

  • Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review here

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George Szirtes: The Immigrant at Port Selda

April 2, 2017 at 4:55 pm (anti-fascism, Anti-Racism, democracy, Europe, Human rights, identity politics, immigration, internationalism, literature, Migrants, poetry, populism, posted by JD, Racism, reactionay "anti-imperialism")

Picture by Clarissa Upchurch

George Szirtes was born in Hungary and emigrated to England with his parents—survivors of concentration and labor camps after the 1956 Budapest uprising.

George’s address to the recent symposium at Southampton University, ‘The legacy of Brexit and citizenship in times of uncertainty’  is posted here with his permission:

I must confess I have no qualification for speaking on this subject and am keenly aware of speaking to those who do. I can only speak in my character as an unwitting child refugee to these shores, a poet and translator, and as an occasional writer of articles in the press, on, among other things, the issue of Brexit: about the campaign itself, the impact of the campaign and its likely future impact.

On that last, of course, I can only speculate. We are not out yet, we don’t know anything about the terms of disengagement, and we have no clear idea of how this or that set of terms may impact our lives.

I did in fact campaign for Remain but my role and experience was very minor. In asking Leavers why they intended to vote as they did the two answers I repeatedly got were: ‘So they won’t tell us what to do any more,’ and, ‘Things were better before’. These words will be familiar to most people here and seemed to me to be perfectly rational responses to the two major arguments of the Leave campaign regarding sovereignty and free movement of people. The way those arguments were presented elicited precisely these responses.

As I have already said I am not qualified to address those questions because I am not an expert in any of the relevant areas and because I am, by birth, parti pris on one side of the question, in that I am a foreigner and therefore one of those factors in things somehow being better before my arrival.

I don’t want to caricature the Leave campaign. I don’t want to call those who voted differently from me stupid, or simple, or racist. Life is far more complicated and I did have some intelligent conversations with people who wanted to leave the EU, particularly those on the Chomskyite left of the political spectrum, whose arguments centred on globalisation, capitalism and high finance as expressed, occasionally, in terms of sovereignty.

I don’t want to caricature the Leave campaign but the day after the referendum there was an incident in Norwich, a city that had voted to remain in a region that had voted to leave, in which a small Romanian supermarket was firebombed. Students at the university from which I had retired immediately set up an appeal to raise £500. By the next morning it had raised over £20, 000, so the field was not altogether lost. Despite what we are continually told about the clear will of ‘the people’ there were enough people willing to raise money for a minor indirectly demonised enterprise.

I don’t think demonisation is too harsh a word, in that Leave rhetoric called forth certain demons, or rather that it quite consciously opened the trapdoors where such demons were hiding. It legitimised them. It called forth the firebombers. It called forth those who immediately set upon elderly widows of French and German birth who had lived in the country for decades and taunted them by asking when they were going home. It called forth the teenagers on the Manchester tram who demanded a black American get off it. It called forth the murderer of Jo Cox.

By the time that happened a certain madness had set in. All the Leavers rushed to distance themselves from the murder, of course. This was nothing to do with them. None of those xenophobic incidents, and there have been and continue to be plenty of others, had anything to do with them. It was nothing to do with their presentation of sinister foreigners in Brussels, and sinister gangs of Albanians hanging round Dover and Boston, or with the sinister cheap labour of mushroom pickers and chicken packers who were taking much-coveted jobs from true Brits. No! they protested. That was not what they meant. They had nothing to do with encouraging the taxi driver we met who had moved from Kings Lynn because there were too many Lithuanians and Poles there, foreigners whose rather marvellous supermarket down a side street was, as he put it, ‘taking the place over’.

Perhaps I could go back in time and take a more personal line in order to think about what it is that might make one properly British or, more problematically, a foreigner.

2
My family of four, along with some 200,000 others, that is one-fiftieth of the population, left Hungary in the months following the defeat of the 1956 Revolution. I am not entirely sure why we left. My parents had taken no part in the fighting and were unlikely to be arrested in its repercussions. My father, as the leader of a department within the Ministry of Building, would have been exposed in the revolution itself, as much as a Jew as a member of the apparatus, but I think he would have stayed. It was my mother who insisted we leave.

Why did she do so? I don’t think it was for ideological reasons. Neither my mother nor my father hoped to feel more comfortable among free-market liberal capitalists than in a restored post-Stalinist state. They were both of the left, my middle-class mother further to the left than my working-class father who actually worked in a ministry. Ideology would, if anything, have kept them at home. They lived quite well in the given context and weren’t economic migrants.

The truth is that my mother was afraid, not so much for herself as for us, her children. She had survived two concentration camps, my father had survived forced labour. They had history gnawing at their nerves. Neither of them could have demonstrated that their lives were in immediate danger. Instead they took the dangerous impromptu risk of walking out of the country at night in wholly arbitrary party of a dozen or so, across the Austrian border, arriving there with one suitcase of clothes and nothing more. At that stage I had just three words of English — A A Milne’s AND, BUT, SO as read in my bilingual copy of Now We Are Six. We also had a bilingual edition of Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. In this poem based on the memory of crossing the Hungarian-Austrian border by night, Milne’s characters — the owl and the ass in the hundred-acre wood — serve as forms of familiarity.

My father carries me across a field

My father carries me across a field.

It’s night and there are trenches filled with snow.

Thick mud. We’re careful to remain concealed

From something frightening I don’t yet know.

And then I walk and there is space between

The four of us. We go where we have to go.

Did I dream it all, this ghostly scene,

The hundred-acre wood where the owl blinked

And the ass spoke? Where I am cosy and clean

In bed, but we are floating, our arms linked

Over the landscape? My father moves ahead

Of me, like some strange, almost extinct

Species, and I follow him in dread

Across the field towards my own extinction.

Spirits everywhere are drifting over blasted

Terrain. The winter cold makes no distinction

Between them and us. My father looks round

And smiles then turns away. We have no function

In this place but keep moving, without sound,

Lost figures who leave only a blank page

Behind them, and the dark and frozen ground

They pass across as they might cross a stage.

We might well have been moving into extinction. My parents would never again be what they had been and what they might have become. Once in Austria the process of unbecoming became relatively easy. Refugee services were waiting for us, both in Austria and, a few days later in Britain, after we had been offered a flight there. Reception was efficient and kindly. We were regarded as victim-heroes of a failed but heroic Uprising against the Cold War enemy. Sentiment was with us.

So was our historical baggage. In Metro, the longest poem of my career, there are a couple of verses in which I try to sum up what we had left behind in Budapest. The physical city described in it stands in for history: the empire of the living becomes the empire of the dead.

[Metro 2 2/3]

The empire underground: the tunnelling

Begins. The earth gives up her worms and shards,

Old coins, components, ordnance, bone and glass,

Nails, muscle, hair, flesh, shrivelled bits of string,

Shoe leather, buttons, jewels, instruments.

And out of these come voices, words,

Stenches and scents,

And finally desire, pulled like a tooth.

It’s that or constancy that leads us down

To find a history which feels like truth.

That baggage of old coins, components, bits of lace and so forth is the kind of thing any refugee brings with them. It is an emblem of the real baggage of those who leave without much deliberation or calculation simply because of what appears as a pressing necessity. The children and teenagers in the jungle at Calais carry something similar. They bring their foreignness with them to squat in the mud of an alien port.

England was not our intended destination. That was Australia where my father had a cousin: we had no one in England. But Australia rejected us because of my mother’s health so we had to remain. Altogether some 28,000 Hungarians chose to remain in the UK.

What did we offer our kindly hosts?

My father had some English before we came. The rest of us — my mother, brother and I — had none. The English my father possessed made him useful in helping to process other refugees, which is what he did while we spent four months along with those others in various off-season boarding houses in or near Margate, attending English classes. My father interpreted for fellow refugees who were sent off to jobs in Wolverhampton or Luton or wherever their skill and experience would come in handy. My father’s particular skill lay in plumbing, heating and ventilation at managerial level so they found him a first job in London and, remarkably enough, enabled us to put down a deposit on a first house there. Starting from zero that was nothing short of a miracle, a remarkable act of generosity that was enough to make life-long anglophiles of us all. Meanwhile my mother, a press photographer, found work in a photographer’s studio and shop in Oxford Street.

Having settled in we set about assimilating. First of all we were to speak English, not Hungarian at home. We would never go back, very few people in the world spoke Hungarian so the language would be redundant and only slow down the rate at which we, the children, learned English and made a go of school. Budapest was no longer home. My father anglicised the pronunciation of his name to Surtees, as in the racing driver, even altering the spelling for strictly work purposes when visiting building sites to make life easier for foremen and site managers. His face and accent did not accord with the adopted name of course, and the accent was thick.

But it was a reasonable, relaxed ambience. By the time we began our English school careers there were other immigrant issues to think about. The Notting Hill Riots of 1958 for example and, ten years later, Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech. Then, just four years after that, in the wake of Idi Amin, came the Ugandan Asians. We might have been foreign but at least we were white.

And because we were white and less conspicuous we did not experience the resentment that met West Indians or Asians. We took the mild if diffident benevolence of England for granted. We had melted in hadn’t we? And the country into which we had melted was a stable, powerful force in the world, a safe place, ever less powerful now perhaps, ever less imperial, but still safe.

In 1984 I returned to Hungary for the first time as an adult. And kept returning. In 1989 my family and I spent almost the whole year there watching the state fall apart. Ten years later, after several books I changed publishers for the second time and my work to that date was sorted into two distinct volumes: The Budapest File (2000) dealing with work that had a Hungarian interest (by which time I had written a good deal on that) and one titled An English Apocalypse (2001), that dealt with settling in England and simply being here. In this way my work — and self — was neatly divided for public consumption.

An English Apocalypse was chiefly written in Ireland while I was a fellow at TCD, Dublin, and contained many memories of the seventies but also registered what I sensed was a mounting crisis in English identity and self-confidence. There were five apocalypses at the end of the sequence. This is one of them.

Death by Deluge

I have seen roads come to a full stop in mid-

sentence as if their meaning had fallen off

the world. And this is what happened, what meaning did

that day in August. The North Sea had been rough

and rising and the bells of Dunwich rang

through all of Suffolk. One wipe of its cuff

down cliffs and in they went, leaving birds to hang

puzzled in the air, their nests gone. Enormous

tides ran from Southend to Cromer. They swung

north and south at once, as if with a clear purpose,

thrusting through Lincolnshire, and at a rush

drowning Sleaford, Newark, leaving no house

uncovered. Nothing remained of The Wash

but water. Peterborough, Ely, March, and Cambridge

were followed by Royston, Stevenage, the lush

grass of Shaw’s Corner. Not a single ridge

remained. The Thames Valley filled to the brim

and London Clay swallowed Wapping and Greenwich.

Then west, roaring and boiling. A rapid skim

of Hampshire and Dorset, then the peninsula:

Paignton, Plymouth, Lyme, Land’s End. A slim

line of high hills held out but all was water-colour,

the pure English medium, intended for sky, cloud, and sea.

Less earth than you could shift with a spatula.

Something important began in the seventies that more-or-less coincided with the time of Britain’s EU entry: a process that involved the fuel crisis, the three-day week, the winter of discontent, and the rise of Margaret Thatcher which was followed by the destruction of old mass industries that had sustained stable communities and provided social cohesion. Britain had become the sick man of Europe. And despite an economic recovery through the later eighties and nineties, the cohesion had vanished. The economic body was no longer sick, but the social soul was.

Somebody had to be blamed for all this and the EU was the easiest scapegoat. If Britain was falling apart by 2001 in the way An English Apocalypse suggested that can’t have been Britain’s fault, can it? Who took away our pounds and ounces, our twelve pence to the shilling and our pride? Our image of sinister, faceless foreign bureaucrats — so beloved by the right wing press — conjured our own long resentful demons. The foreigners kept coming. They were after our jobs, after our benefits, after our houses, changing our ways of life, the ground of our very being. These foreigners were not all the result of the EU’s free movement policy, more to do with globalisation beyond Europe, with the disasters of wars or famine, with Britain’s own colonial history.

The concerns associated with large numbers of immigrants were masked by what people — and increasingly the popular press — called ‘political correctness’ (Political Correctness Gone Mad) by which they meant the control of language and manners, and in some cases of law, of the means of even beginning to address the concerns. That was seen as repression and, in some ways, for the best of reasons, so it was.

What I am suggesting is that that which was successfully suppressed after Notting Hill in 1958 was inarticulate and still struggling for manoeuvre in 2016 when it finally found an outlet in the referendum campaign. The end of empire had found its cry. Hence the fury. Hence the demons.

Two or three years ago I was chairing a small literary festival in the small Norfolk town where we live. In order to publicise the event we decided to read poems in the marketplace on market day. That was fun. Somebody there decided to read John Betjeman’s A Subaltern’s Love Song, that begins: ‘Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn / furnished and burnished by Aldershot sun…’, a poem that wonderfully conjures an England of the 1930s. After the event the sweetest and nicest person on the committee said to me, ‘I don’t suppose you will ever fully understand that poem, George’.

Maybe he is right. Maybe, even to the nicest of men, a foreigner can never be truly of the atavistic tribe. That wouldn’t be peculiar to the English, of course: that is, I suspect, a general truth about specific historical moments when tribes come under pressure. Maybe the English tribe is ay such a point and has decided to wash its hand of foreigners. I started out by saying that I am not, for now, directly affected by Brexit and the tide of emotion it has loosed. But the conversation with the genuinely nice man who pointed out that I could never truly understand the heart of Englishness in the Betjeman poem — and he may be right, of course — is a salutary reminder that, in subtle ways, I remain a foreigner. Maybe the door to Brexit is the door out for some of us.

I will finish with a short poem titled Port Selda. There is a much loved popular poem by the Anglo-Welsh poet, Edward Thomas, titled ‘Adlestrop’ In Thomas’s poem of 1917, it is a sunny day during the war when his train makes a brief unscheduled stop at a tiny station, Adlestrop, by an empty platform where no one gets in or out. It seems quiet there until suddenly the poet hears “all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire”. What we know, as readers, is that the poet himself was very soon to die in the war. For many people this poem this represents a sense of England at war, England as the elegiac quiet place sensed as if by accident.

My title, Port Selda is in fact the word Adlestrop spelled backwards. It is about the beauty of the country and the inevitability of rejection. Many of us are at Port Selda now.

The Immigrant at Port Selda

I got off at Port Selda and looked out for the harbour

but it was quiet, nothing smelled of the sea,

all I saw was a station by a well-kept arbour

with a notice pinned to a tree.

It said: Welcome to Port Selda, you who will never be

our collective unconscious nor of our race.

This is the one true genealogical tree

and this the notice you will not deface.

It was beautiful there. It was Friday in late

autumn and all the birds of the county sang

their hearts out. I noted down the date.

The sun was shining and the church-bells rang.

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Derek Walcott RIP

March 17, 2017 at 8:48 pm (Jim D, literature, poetry, RIP)

Derek Alton Walcott, poet: born (Castries, St Lucia) 23 Jan 1930, died 17 Mar 2017


Sea Grapes

Sea grapes are a type of grapes indigenous to Caribbean Sea that has particularly bitter and sour taste. The title of this poem is obscure in terms of the connection between the content and the title. However, the important message or the theme of the poem lies within the sour taste of sea grapes. Furthermore, Derek Walcott was born and raised in the Caribbean, and his experiences around there inspired many of his writings. Walcott was engrossed in Greek mythology, and mentioned about it frequently in his work, comparing and contrasting it with the present situations and problems. This poem, “Sea Grapes,” written by Derek Walcott, illustrates that conflicts between obsession and responsibility must be solved, weaving them to ancient Greek myth and the hero by using allegory and metaphor.

Guardian obituary, here

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Hungarian Right destroying and remaking history

February 20, 2017 at 1:31 pm (anti-fascism, history, Hungary, intellectuals, literature, Marxism, philosophy)

 Image result for picture Budapest statue of Georg Lukács

On 25 January the Metropolitan Council of Budapest decided (by 19 votes to 3) to remove the statue of the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács from the 13th District and replace it with a statue of King Stephen, the founder of the Hungarian nation. The proposal was put by a member of the neo-fascist Jobbik Party, Marcell Tokody. Last year, despite opposition, Lukács’s house which has served as an open archive since his death in 1971 was closed by the authorities. The fate of the documents in the archive, many of which have yet to be translated in languages other than their original Hungarian or German, is unclear.

In the history of 20th century Marxism Lukács is a central figure. He is certainly not without his critics but some of his writings, particularly History and Class Consciousness, are seminal works of Marxism and have stood the test of time. We should not standby and allow the barbarians of the Hungarian right, and their odious leader Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, to destroy his legacy.

Please sign the petition:

www.petition24.com/protest_against_closing_down_the_lukacs_archive

John Cunningham

(the author of these few words lived in Hungary from 1991 to 2000 and is currently working on  a full length study of Lukács and his legacy)

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