Celebrating Roy Fisher (and Joe Sullivan)

October 13, 2016 at 6:13 am (Brum, culture, jazz, literature, music, poetry, posted by JD)

I’ve just attended a long overdue tribute to the great poet of Birmingham and the Midlands, Roy Fisher. Roy himself couldn’t be there, but sent greetings. Four poets who admire the man and his work – Luke Kennard, Ian McMillan, Peter Robinson and Jacqui Rowe – read and explored Roy’s poems, written over 55 years. I was pleased that the opening reading – by Ian McMillan – was Roy’s powerful evocation of a favourite jazz pianist, the now nearly forgotten Joe Sullivan. The evening closed with a recording of Roy himself playing superb jazz piano, accompanying the Birmingham singer Ruby Turner. I suggest listening to Mr Sullivan himself, before reading Roy’s poem:

The Thing About Joe Sullivan
By Roy Fisher (1965)

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,

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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Mary Poppins and pro-Nazi MacDairmid: the Scot Nat connection!

October 1, 2016 at 2:17 pm (apologists and collaborators, Beyond parody, fascism, literature, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", scotland, SNP, stalinism, war)

From Dale Street:

Just a quick reminder about the quality of Scottish-nationalist politics and journalism.

The front cover of The National: It’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the spoofs and the real thing.

I assume the connection is: Mary Poppins wanted to fly above London with a brolly; Hugh McDiarmid wanted to fly above London with the Luftwaffe:

“Now when London is threatened
With devastation from the air
I realise, horror atrophying me,
That I hardly care.

“The leprous swine in London town
And their Anglo-Scots accomplices
Are, as they have always been
Scotland’s only enemies.”

(On The Imminent Destruction Of London, June 1940)

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Review: ‘The Left’s Jewish Problem – Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-semitism’

September 21, 2016 at 4:56 pm (anti-semitism, israel, labour party, literature, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", stalinism, USSR, zionism)


Biteback Publishing, 2016, pp. 320.

By Dale Street (this review also appears on the Workers Liberty website)

Dave Rich’s The Left’s Jewish Problem – Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-semitism is not quite what its subtitle suggests it is. But that does not make the book, published a fortnight ago, any the less worth reading.

The focus of the book is not Corbyn. At its core is an attempt to provide an explanation of “how and why antisemitism appears on the left, and an appeal to the left to understand, identify and expel antisemitism from its politics.”

The antisemitism in question is not the ‘traditional’ racist version. It is an antisemitism which is rooted in “ways of thinking about Jews, Zionism and Israel”, albeit one which frequently incorporates anti-semitic stereotypes and tropes. The paradoxical result is that its proponents “believe anti-semitic stereotypes about Jews, while not feeling any visceral hostility towards them and while thinking of themselves as anti-racists.”

The historical starting point of Rich’s explanation is the emergence of the New Left in the 1950s and 1960s. The New Left, argues Rich, turned away from traditional class politics and focused instead on identity politics and anti-colonial struggles in the Third World. In its most extreme form, this involved writing off the working class as the decisive agent of social change. Instead, “Third World struggles were the new focus of world revolution”, and armed conflict was the highest form of those struggles.

Especially in the aftermath of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, this way of looking at the world increasingly identified Israel as a bastion of imperialist oppression. The Palestinians, on the other hand, were allocated a place in the front ranks of the anti-imperialist forces. Two other factors reinforced this overly simplistic and ultimately anti-semitic conceptualisation of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Firstly, the Soviet Union relaunched a massive state-run “anti-Zionist” campaign based on thinly disguised — and sometimes not even that — antisemitism. Traditional anti-semitic themes — rich, powerful, cruel, manipulative Jews — were recast in the language of “anti-Zionism”. The Soviet campaign portrayed Israel itself as an outpost and bridgehead of US imperialism in the Middle East. It was ultra- aggressive, ultra-expansionist and committed to the military conquest of the surrounding Arab states.

Secondly, British Young Liberals, trying to replicate the success of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, recast Israel as an apartheid state in which the indigenous Arab population suffered the same levels of discrimination as Blacks in South Africa. Rich writes: “The Young Liberals established an enduring template for left-wing anti-Zionism in Britain. … It is common to blame Trotskyists and other Marxists for the spread of anti-Zionism on the left. In reality, this movement was kick-started by Young Liberals and Arab nationalist activists, funded by Arab governments.”

Peter Hain, a future Labour MP but then a leading figure in the Young Liberals, played a particularly prominent role in the creation of this “anti-Zionist” template: “The world cannot allow its shame over its historic persecution of Jews to rationalise the present persecution of the Palestinians. The case for the replacement of Israel by a democratic secular state of Palestine must be put uncompromisingly.”

“They (Israeli Jews) can recognise now that the tide of history is against their brand of greedy oppression, or they can dig in and invite a bloodbath. … [Israel keeps Palestinians] in far more oppressive conditions in fact than many black South Africans live.”

By the mid-1970s the main elements of what now — and long since — passes for “anti-Zionism” on sections of the British left were already in place. Zionism was not just another nationalism. It was a uniquely evil ideology, inherently racist, and necessarily genocidal. Israel was an “illegitimate” apartheid state, a colonial enterprise equated to the dispossession of the Palestinians, and incapable of reform.

Rich goes on to provide examples of how such themes were amplified and built upon in subsequent years. If Israel was, as claimed, an apartheid state, then it was a “legitimate” target for a comprehensive programme of boycott, disinvestment and sanctions. This has now “climaxed” in the decision of some British union to boycott the Histadrut, the Israeli trade union federation. If Zionism was, as claimed, a form of racism, then it was “legitimate” for Student Unions to refuse to fund Jewish Societies which failed to disavow Zionism.

The mid-1970s and the mid-1980s saw repeated attempts to ban Jewish societies on this basis. If Zionism was, as claimed, inherently genocidal, then it was “legitimate” to equate it with Nazism — an equation which became increasingly common in sections of the left press and on placards on pro-Palestine demonstrations. And if Israel and Zionism were guilty as claimed, then a common “anti-imperialism” made it “legitimate” to ally with forces hostile to the most basic values of the left. This found expression in the SWP-Muslim Association of Britain alliance in the Stop the War Coalition.

As the ultimate example of this “way of thinking about Jews, Zionism and Israel” Rich quotes from a letter published by the Morning Star, written by a veteran reader and Communist Party member: “Israel, and all that Israel has done and is doing, is an affront to all those millions who fought and died fighting fascism before, during and after the war against fascism. … A few years ago [an Italian partisan who survived Dachau] committed suicide. He left a note saying that the good Jews were all killed in the concentration camps.”

As Rich points out, such “ways of thinking about Jews, Zionism and Israel” bring those sections of the left which espouse them into conflict with most Jews in Britain (and the world): “Israel’s existence is an important part of what it means to be Jewish today. The idea that Israel shouldn’t exist or that Zionism was a racist, colonial endeavour rather than a legitimate expression of Jewish nationhood, cuts to the heart of British Jews’ sense of identity of who they are.”

Rich concludes: “There has been a breakdown in trust and understanding between British Jews, the Labour Party, and the broader left. There are parts of the left where most Jews feel unwelcome or uncomfortable. … It’s not too late to bring this relationship back to health.”

Despite the book’s subtitle, Corbyn himself appears only spasmodically in the book. Rich rightly criticises Corbyn for various statements on Israel which he has made over the years and for his patronage of campaigns which have served as incubators for left antisemitism. Corbyn’s inability to understand left antisemitism is also highlighted by Rich. Corbyn seems to hold the view that left antisemitism is an oxymoron – only the far right can be anti-semitic – and that accusations of antisemitism are raised in bad faith to undermine criticism of Israel.

More open to challenge is Rich’s description of Corbyn as being “ambiguous” on Israel’s right to exist. It is certainly true that the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine which Corbyn supported in the early 1980s was rabidly hostile to Israel’s existence. (The campaign was set up by Tony Greenstein.) But Corbyn’s overall record has been one of backing a “two states solution”.

But Rich is not overly concerned with Corbyn’s own views on Israel and antisemitism. For Rich, Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader “symbolises” — and Rich uses the word on more than one occasion — something more profound. Corbyn’s “political home” was the New Left which spawned left antisemitism. His election as party leader means that “what was once on the fringes of the left” is now centre-stage. Corbyn’s election was “the ultimate New Left triumph rather than a return to Old Labour.”

This is true in the sense that some people around Corbyn, including ones in senior positions, espouse the left antisemitism which began to emerge in the years of the New Left and then spread like a cancer in subsequent years. But it is also very wrong, in the sense that the primary factor which galvanised support for Corbyn’s leadership bid was the fact that he was seen as, and presented himself as, the pre-Blairite Old-Labour anti-austerity leadership contender.

In an isolated moment of clutching at straws to back up an argument, Rich even cites preposterous claims by arch-Stalinist Andrew Murray and his fellow traveller Lindsey German that the Stop the War Coalition — now little more than a rump and a website — was the decisive factor in Corbyn’s

Such secondary criticisms apart, Rich’s book is a valuable summary of the historical development of left antisemitism in Britain: not just a timely reminder of older arguments but also a source of new insights into its emergence. And no-one should be put off reading Rich’s book by the fulsome praise which Nick Cohen has heaped upon it, albeit at the expense of ignoring and misrepresenting what Rich has actually written: “How a party that was once proud of its anti-fascist traditions became the natural home for creeps, cranks and conspiracists is the subject of Dave Rich’s authoritative history of left antisemitism. … Representatives of the darkest left factions control Labour and much of the trade union movement, and dominate the intelligentsia.”

Cohen once wrote a serious critique of sections of the far left at a certain stage of their degeneration. But now he just bumbles along as a political court jester and professional Mr. Angry. Rich, by contrast, is trying to open up a political argument.

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Roald Dahl: wonderful storyteller, vile person

September 17, 2016 at 9:54 am (anti-semitism, children, fascism, islamism, jerk, literature)

By Stephen Knight
Rebloogged from Godless Spellchecker’s Blog



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.

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The Somme: In Parenthesis by David Jones

July 1, 2016 at 12:15 am (France, hell, history, humanism, literature, poetry, posted by JD, tragedy, war)


In Parenthesis – Part 7,
pages 183-186

By David Jones

It’s difficult with the weight of the rifle.
Leave it–under the oak.
Leave it for a salvage-bloke
let it lie bruised for a monument
dispense the authenticated fragments to the faithful.
It’s the thunder-besom for us
it’s the bright bough borne
it’s the tensioned yew for a Genoese jammed arbalest and a
scarlet square for a mounted mareschal, it’s that county-mob
back to back. Majuba mountain and Mons Cherubim and
spreaded mats for Sydney Street East, and come to Bisley
for a Silver Dish. It’s R.S.M. O’Grady says, it’s the soldier’s
best friend if you care for the working parts and let us be ‘av-
ing those springs released smartly in Company billets on wet
forenoons and clickerty-click and one up the spout and you
men must really cultivate the habit of treating this weapon with
the very greatest care and there should be a healthy rivalry
among you–it should be a matter of very proper pride and
Marry it man! Marry it!
Cherish her, she’s your very own.
Coax it man coax it–it’s delicately and ingeniously made
–it’s an instrument of precision–it costs us tax-payers,
money–I want you men to remember that.
Fondle it like a granny–talk to it–consider it as you would
a friend–and when you ground these arms she’s not a rooky’s
gas-pipe for greenhorns to tarnish.
You’ve known her hot and cold.
You would choose her from among many.
You know her by her bias, and by her exact error at 300, and
by the deep scar at the small, by the fair flaw in the grain,
above the lower sling-swivel–
but leave it under the oak.

Slung so, it swings its full weight. With you going blindly on
all paws, it slews its whole length, to hang at your bowed neck
like the Mariner’s white oblation.
You drag past the four bright stones at the turn of Wood

It is not to be broken on the brown stone under the gracious
It is not to be hidden under your failing body.
Slung so, it troubles your painful crawling like a fugitive’s

David Jones was an artist and poet who served in the trenches as a Private soldier from 1915 until 1918, was wounded at The Battle of The Somme, and spent more time on active service than any of the other First World War poets. Although less well known now than Owen, Sassoon and others, he was regarded by Auden, Yeats, Pound and T.S. Eliot as the outstanding poet of the First World War.

Jones grew up in London and  studied at Camberwell School of Art. His father was a printer’s overseer and originally came from Wales. From his early childhood, Jones saw himself as Welsh and developed an interest in Welsh history and literature. His poetry often draws on this and on the vernaculars of Cockney and Welsh hill farmers which Jones encountered in his regiment.

Jones began writing poetry more than ten years after the 1918 Armstice, publishing his first major work in 1937. He continued painting, drawing and writing poetry throughout his comparatively long life in between episodes of depression caused by what would now be called post traumatic stress.

In 1921 Jones converted to Roman Catholicism. He said that “the mass makes sense of everything” and much of his poetry is religious. Obviously, we at Shiraz wouldn’t agree, but that doesn’t detract from the power of his poetry.

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Mohammed Ali: a hero of the twentieth century

June 4, 2016 at 6:39 am (Anti-Racism, black culture, celebrity, civil rights, good people, history, literature, media, posted by JD, RIP, sport, United States)

Muhammad Ali has lost his last fight, but he went down with the courage that characterised his entire life. He is now mourned and celebrated as the athlete of the century and a hero by the media and politicians in the United States and throughout the world – very often the same people who in the 1960s and ’70s villified him for his opposition to the Vietnam war and for his radical black politics. He died a celebrity, and he richly deserved his fame. But it is a bad habit of our age merely to celebrate celebrity.The late Mike Marqusee‘s Redemption Song (Verso, 1999) is by far the best book dealing with Ali’s social and political significance. Marquesee wrote:

We should look at how his celebrity was established and what it means. And I do not believe that his fame rests only on what he achieved in the ring – although if you are a sports fan you have to be awed by that. More important was what he achieved outside the ring.

We must re-insert Ali in his historical context, and that means principally his relationship to the great social movements of the 1960s. The young Cassius Clay was very much a typical patriotic, Cold War chauvinist. Representing the US in the Rome Olympics of 1960, at the age of 18, he won a gold medal in the Light Heavyweight division. And to commemorate the victory he published his first poem:

To make America the greatest is my goal,
So I beat the Russian, and I beat the Pole.
And for the USA I won the medal of Gold.

A crude start for someone who would travel a long way in the next few years. The key to understanding Ali’s movement away from this unexamined national chauvinism is the impact of the civil rights movement of the first half of the 1960s. In the years between 1960 and 1965, hundreds of thousands of young black people from precisely Muhammad Ali’s background – from working class homes in Southern American cities – took to the streets to challenge Jim Crow, America’s version of Apartheid, and to challenge a century of institutionalised racism of a type we can barely imagine today.

At one point it was estimated that 60% of all black college students from across the South were directly involved in this mass movement. And a terrible price was paid – some were murdered, many were beaten, huge numbers were arrested. It was one of the great battles of our era. Ali was driven by the same social forces which drove his contemporaries into the streets; but he was driven in a different direction. His response to all-pervasive racism was different because – after his Olympic triumph – he met the Nation of Islam (NoI) in the streets of Miami.

Over the next few years, as a promising Heavyweight contender, travelling around the country, fighting his way up the ladder, looking for a title shot, he met many more Muslims. Most famously he met Malcolm X and formed a friendship with him. Through the NoI, this young, quite uneducated man encountered the tradition of black nationalism whose origins go back to the beginnings of the twentieth century and which flourished under Marcus Garvey. Black nationalism had enjoyed a kind of underground existence up to this point and when Cassius Clay encountered the NoI in the early ’60s it was the longest standing, wealthiest, best-organised black nationalist organisation in America (albeit a nationalism of a peculiar kind). Clay kept his interest in the NoI secret – if it had become public he would never have become the Heavyweight champion, he would never have had a chance to face Sonny Liston in the ring and we would not be discussing him today.

He got a title shot in 1964, in Miami, against Liston, who was said to be unbeatable. To the world’s surprise, at the age of 22, Cassius Clay did beat Sonny Liston and became the World Heavyweight champion. Instead of going to a big party at a luxury downtown hotel, as was expected of newly-crowned champions, Cassius Clay went back to the black motel, in the black area of Miami – at that time, effectively a segregated city – and had a quiet evening, without any drink, discussing what he would do with the title he had just won, with his friends, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, the great gospel and R&B singer, and Jim Brown, a famous US football player who later became an actor. The next morning, after these discussions, Cassius Clay met the press – which in those days was exclusively white and male – and told them, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be, I’m free to be what I want.” In retrospect that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but, at the time it was earthshaking. Firstly because sportstars, and particularly young black sportstars, were expected to be what they were told to be; secondly because what Cassius Clay wanted to be was a public member of the NoI – probably the most reviled organisation in America at the time. And at his side was Malcolm X – probably the most reviled individual in the US at the time. In announcing his embrace of the NoI Cassius Clay was repudiating Christianity, in a predominately Christian country, at a time when Islam was an exotic and little know faith in America. He was repudiating the integrationist racial agenda, in favour of a separatist agenda, at a time when the Civil Rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, for whom “integrationism” was a central shibboleth, was at the height of its prestige and power. So Cassius Clay angered both the white and the black liberals – and, most importantly, he was repudiating his American national identity in favour of another national identity, that of a member of the Nation of Islam, a nation whose borders had nothing to do with the borders of the US.

Up till this time, no black sports star or celebrity had attempted to do or say anything like this without being crushed – as had Paul Robeson and WEB DuBois in an earlier generation. This stand was widely seen as a terrible tragedy for the young fighter. After all, he had the world at his feet and here he was, embracing an unpopular cause, thereby narrowing down his appeal. Or so it was thought. The reality is that by joining the NoI and redefining who he was, Clay was walking into a new world – ultimately presenting himself to an international constituency – which changed what he meant to people all over the world and which changed his destiny inside and outside the ring.

Shortly after the fight he went to New York and was seen everywhere with Malcolm X. But only a week later Malcolm X announced his departure from the NoI, his famous break with Elija Muhammad. Ali chose to stick with the NoI, and renounced his friendship with Malcolm. Why Cassius Clay did this is an interesting question. Malcolm was moving in a more political direction, away from the conservative and quietistic side of the NoI, towards a direct battle against racism. Ali – who had just been renamed as Ali by Elija Muhammad – was looking for a refuge from racism, and that was what he had found in the NoI. Ali was, ironically, trying to avoid political engagement by sticking to close to the NoI and staying away from Malcolm.

But the 1960s did not allow Ali the luxury of avoiding politics. As the years went by he was drawn deeper into political controversy. Ali went to Africa in 1964, at a time when no American sportstar – of any colour – had even noticed that continent’s existence. He went to Ghana where he was greeted by the President, Kwame Nkrumah, famous anti-colonialist and founder Pan African movement. Nkrumah was the first head of state to shake Ali’s hand. It was to be another eleven years before a US President would deign to shake Ali’s hand (since then, of course, they all want to shake his hand). In Ghana tens of thousands poured out to welcome Ali. They chanted his new name. Observers on this trip say that this was the moment Cassius Clay really became Muhammad Ali. Why did so many Ghanaians came to greet him – after all very few spoke English, almost none had access to a television? Why did they come to see Ali? First, boxing was popular there.

The Heavyweight championship of the world was a pretty transparent idea and people were pleased that such an eminent figure had recognised their newly independent country. More importantly, Ali was a an African American world champ who had repudiated his American identity and taken on an Islamic name and embraced his African patrimony. The Ghanaian masses knew that this was something new and exciting. They understood the meaning of this transformation long before it became apparent to American commentators.

The impact of this trip on Ali was tremendous. It was during this trip that Ali came to understand that he was accountable to a broader, international constituency, a constituency of the oppressed, and this new sense of accountability was to guide him over the next turbulent decade.

The test of his new identity came over Vietnam. By early 1966, the US was finding it difficult to impose its will on the Vietnamese and the draft call was expanded; the Heavyweight champion of the world was reclassified as 1A, eligible for military service. Ali was told the news at a training camp in Miami and, badgered all day by the press, he came out with the line: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” It may have been a spontaneous remark, but he stuck to it over the following years and even turned it into a poem:

Keep asking me, no matter how long,
On the war in Vietnam, I’ll still sing this song:
I ain’t got no quarrel with no Viet Cong.

At the time the critics asked: what does Muhammad Ali know about Vietnam? Read the rest of this entry »

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The snob theories about Shakespeare

April 23, 2016 at 6:09 am (class, conspiracy theories, literature, posted by JD, theatre)

.Credit: PA

This week marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare. Just as with his birthday, the exact date of death is a mystery. It is widely believed that he died on April 23rd 1616, but no official record exists. However his funeral took place two days later.

In an article first published in Solidarity (Feb 2012) Sean Matgamna examines the motives of those who seek to deny that “the Stratford man” really authored the works attributed to Shakespeare:


Many years ago I read with riveted fascination a big book on the history of the “who wrote Shakespeare” controversy: Shakespeare’s Lives, by S. Schoenbaum.

The controversy has more than a little interest for citizens of a socialist movement that has reduced itself to a sprawling archipelago of self-sealing, self-intoxicating, self-blinding sects.

The dispute about “Who wrote Shakespeare?” has raged for well over 100 years now and rages still.

Shakespeare wrote “Shakespeare”, you say? Very little is known about William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon. What little is known about “the Stratford man” deepens the mystery that must attach to “Shakespeare”, whoever he was. How could anybody be so universal, know so much about so many different sorts of human beings and human situations?

Those who believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon did not write the works of “Shakespeare” are called the “anti-Stratfordians”.

How, they ask, could the small town petty-bourgeois, with at best a grammar-school education, have known courts and palaces and the secrets of the princely exercise of state power? How could he have known the things which the author of “Shakespeare” knew, and knew so amazingly well that plays he wrote about the politics of a different world can still talk to us — Richard III, or Hamlet, or Macbeth, or Coriolanus, for example — about the essentials of our own political world, 400 years later?

However you look at it, there is, as well as a dearth of hard fact about the man, an awe-inspiring mystery about the genius of Shakespeare. It is the same sort of mystery as you confront in Mozart, but far greater and with no obvious solution.

From early childhood Mozart produced a wonderful profusion of musical patterns, as if he were a medium for some force outside himself. But Shakespeare dealt with character, situations, history.

Where Mozart can, perhaps, be explained by the qualities of a unique but more or less self-sufficient musical-mathematical mind trained from infancy by his musician father, Shakespeare did not deal with patterns in his own mind, or only with patterns of sound, but with patterns in society, psychology and history. How did he know? How could he know? Where did he learn what he knew? What experiences shaped and instructed, honed and stocked that wonderful mind about the world and its inhabitants?

For now, the mystery of Shakespeare is irresoluble, and maybe it always will be. We simply do not know. And that not knowing is very unsatisfying.

Enter the anti-Stratfordians. Their game is to find the most likely “alternative Shakespeare” from among public figures who were Shakespeare’s contemporaries, men about whom, unlike “the Stratford man”, much is known, and who had a background that might explain Shakespeare’s knowledge of power, people, kings and cabals.

Was “Shakespeare” the Jacobean pioneering philosopher of science and one-time Lord Chancellor of England, Francis Bacon? Or Christopher Marlowe? Marlowe died more than 20 years before Shakespeare — but can you prove that he really died in a tavern brawl in Deptford? Maybe he, a sometime government spy involved in plots and political intrigue, went into hiding on the continent and there wrote “Shakespeare”?

Or was it, perhaps, the Earl of Oxford? Or of Southampton? There are other “alternative Shakespeares”, among them Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare outlived her by a dozen years. But if you know, with burning conviction that “Shakespeare” couldn’t have been Will Shakespeare, you won’t let petty details like that clutter up your theory. They are easy to explain away.

Sects have formed around favoured candidates — Marlovians, Oxfordians, Baconians. All of them try to prove the unprovable, sometimes by way of sifting through texts for secret encrypted messages from the “real Shakespeare”.

Rejecting chaste scientific restraint, and the unsatisfying, “I don’t know”, all of them have gone on from the paucity of information to passionate conviction, even to certainty taken to the point of obsession. But they have only subjective grounds of intuition, inclination, sympathy and antipathy on which to mount their conclusions. It is probably no accident that one of the founders of the first, Baconian, school of anti-Stratfordians was named… Delia Bacon.

The anti-Stratfordians, inevitably, depend on the suppression and arbitrary selection of evidence, and on an impatient dismissal of what science tells them or, to the point here, what it can’t tell them, and on special pleading for their own candidate. They fill the void in what we know and can hope to know with fantasies and projections, thrown up arbitrarily and subjectively.

And thus, over more than 100 years, the anti-Stratfordians have created a paranoid sub-culture of warring sects that parallels and overlaps with both religious and political sectarian formations, of which they are, I suppose, a hybrid specimen.

One of the beauties of the game is that anybody can play. All you need to “know” is that “Shakespeare” could not possibly have been the man fools have called “the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon”. After that. your opinion is as good as that of anyone else. Sigmund Freud was an anti-Stratfordian; so was the arch-Tory, Enoch Powell. Anybody can play!

One man, a once-prominent Tory, Duff Cooper, wrote a whole book about it — he was an Oxfordian — after it came to him in a flash of intuitive knowledge, one day in a World War I trench, that that yokel Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have written those plays. Class snobbery, rampant class conceit, seems to be a prime component of all the anti-Stratfordian schools — the gut conviction that “Shakespeare” couldn’t have been that pleb from the hick village in Warwickshire.

In his own time, Shakespeare was sneered at by some of his university-educated rivals — whose denunciation survives — as a mere grammar-school upstart crow trying to steal the plumage of his betters. The anti-Stratfordians are their still-snobby descendants.

Unlike kitsch-Trotskyist groups, which begin, or whose political ancestors began, as rational political formations, the anti-Stratfordians are not subject to the brutal but health-regenerating blows of experience. They start by discounting the only available “experience” — the evidence, such as it is — and take off from there.

Impervious to criticism, riding their intuitions, sympathies, antipathies, narcissisms, obsessions, as witches in Shakespeare’s time were said to ride their broomsticks, they can go on forever, for as long as Shakespeare is read and performed. And they probably will — “stretching out to the crack of doom”!

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John Chilton: gentleman and scholar of jazz

February 26, 2016 at 10:29 pm (good people, history, jazz, Jim D, literature, music, RIP)

When I was a lad first getting into jazz I wanted a copy of Eddie Condon’s biography, ‘We Called It Music’, which I’d heard was an informative and entertaining read: but how to get my hands on a copy? The old memory’s not all it might be these days, so I cannot recall how I got the idea, but somehow I learned that a jazz trumpeter called John Chilton ran a bookshop in Bloomsbury, London and so I sent the shop a book token I’d been given, with a note asking if they had a second-hand copy. The book arrived a few days later, plus a friendly note from John and postal order for the change I was owed! That was my only direct dealing with John Chilton, who has died aged 83.

I did, however, get to hear John play on several occasions, starting with a Sunday lunchtime session at a rather grotty pub in Clerkenwell called the New Merlin’s Cave, and then at a number of rather more prestigious venues where his Feetwarmers were backing George Melly. In fact, the Feetwarmers became Melly’s backing group and John his de facto road manager and musical director from the mid-70’s until the early 2000’s.

But John had a parallel career as a jazz historian and writer. His seminal ‘Who’s Who Of Jazz’ was described by Phillip Larkin as “one of the essential jazz books” and his biographies of Coleman Hawkins, Louis Jordan, Sidney Bechet  and (together with Max Jones) Louis Armstrong won many awards and remain indispensable works on their subjects.

He also happened to be, by all accounts, a very decent and generous human being – well, he did, after all, send me that postal order.

Revisiting his ‘Who’s Who Of Jazz’ for the first time in a while, I’ve just noticed this forward by one Johnny Simmen of Zurich., which I think stands as a good, brief, epitaph:

“Rex Stewart, Bill Coleman, and Buck Clayton were the first to mention the name of John Chilton to me. They all said that he was a fine trumpeter and led a good band. ‘That boy is amazing’, Rex told me, ‘and I mean it’, he said, emphaising the point. Later on, when Bill and Buck expressed similarly flattering opinions, I concluded that Chilton had to be a pretty exceptional musician. I finally managed to hear a few of his solos and realised at once that they had not exaggerated one bit.

“Some time later, I received a letter from England, turning the envelope I saw to my surprise that the sender’s name was John Chilton. Perhaps he wanted me to investigate the possibilities of an engagement in Switzerland? No, there was no mention of this, but John – he had received my address from Bill Coleman – that he was in the process of writing a dictionary of American jazz musicians, from the very beginning up to the inclusion of musicians born before 1920. He asked if I had any information on doubtful points.

“From the tenor of the letter, I could tell at once that John is as deeply involved in the history of jazz and the men who play ‘the real thing’ as he is in his playing and arranging. Having gradually got fed up with phoney ‘jazz journalists’ over the years, I was glad to find out that John Chilton is an entirely different proposition. He has the ability, perseverence, and enthusiasm to tackle and finish such a demanding work. It is my opinion that this is one of the truly valuable books on jazz musicians. It is the work of a musician whose knowledge of jazz and love and devotion to ‘the cause’ is unsurpassed.”

Below: John on trumpet with the Bruce Turner Jump Band in 1961 (the still picture shows trombonist Johnny Mumford):

NB: Telegraph obit, here

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Harper Lee’s great novel of civil rights and social justice

February 20, 2016 at 9:15 am (Anti-Racism, civil rights, literature, posted by JD, poverty, Racism, RIP, United States)

Nelle Harper Lee: April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016

Megan Behrent wrote this in 2010 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Harper Lee’s  To Kill a Mockingbird. The article first appeared in the US  paper Socialist Worker (nothing to do with the British SWP):

AS NEW debates erupt about racism, provoked by the bigotry of the Tea Partiers and the rush to judgment about Shirley Sherrod, this summer marks the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which is being celebrated around the country with festivals, re-enactments, book clubs and even “mocktails.”

While the celebrations are in part a commercial gimmick to sell more books, they’re also a testament to the lasting legacy of a novel that is among the most read (and most loved) books of 20th century American literature. Lee’s only novel [prior to the controversial publication in 2015 of Go Set A Watchman – JD] earned her a Pulitzer Prize, has sold over 30 million copies, is taught in 75 percent of U.S. high schools, and has been titled “our national novel” by Oprah.

According to the BBC, its appeal goes beyond borders, beating the Bible (although not Pride and Prejudice) to come in fifth in a British poll for World Book Day. Among British librarians, it was the number one book they would recommend.

Narrated by Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, an articulate 6-year-old, Mockingbird covers two years in Maycomb, Ala.–from 1933 to 1935. Dismissed by some as simply a children’s book, the novel is far more than a simple coming-of-age story in the old South. For Scout, her brother Jem and friend Dill (based on Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote), growing up means being increasingly at war with the world of the Jim Crow South.

It’s as an anti-racist novel of the civil rights movement, with its deep commitment to social justice and full equality–this is what earned it such a wide appeal. While the limits of the novel’s politics have often, with good reason, been the focus of debate among scholars and critics, it’s because it stands against racism and for social justice that Mockingbird is listed second among “books that have made a difference” to one’s life, according to ABC News.

Set in the 1930s and published in 1960, the novel straddles both periods and can best be understood, as Patrick Chura argues in the article “Prolepsis and Anachronism: Emmett Till and the Historicity of To Kill a Mockingbird” in the Southern Literary Journal, “as an amalgam or cross-historical montage.”

Through her depiction of the fictional town of Maycomb during the 1930s, Harper Lee exposes the poverty and class inequalities that plague the town, while introducing the reader to the segregated world of the Jim Crow South. Published just five years after the Montgomery bus boycott and the brutal murder of Emmett Till, it’s clearly a novel inspired by the civil rights movement despite being set 30 years earlier.

While Lee has stated that no one trial provided the inspiration for the trial of Tom Robinson that dominates the second half of the novel, it’s clear that two cases in particular left their mark on the novel. In 1931, in Scottsboro, Ala., nine men ranging in ages from 12 to 19 were arrested and falsely accused of rape and assault. A lynch mob of hundreds gathered around the prison, forcing the National Guard to intervene.

Over the next decade, the “Scottsboro Boys,” as they became known, were national symbols of criminal injustice in the segregated South. An all-white jury convicted all nine men, with no due process and virtually no defense. Their case would later be taken up by the Communist Party, which helped bring it to national attention, mobilizing a campaign that put the Southern criminal justice system itself on trial.

In 1955, Emmett Till’s brutal murder became a lightning rod in the nascent civil rights movement as a symbol of the barbarism of Southern “justice.” Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, was tortured and murdered while visiting Mississippi for the alleged “crime” of whistling at a white woman.

The trial of the two men responsible for his murder made front-page national news, as an all-white jury took just 67 minutes to exonerate Till’s murderers. The foreman noted, “It would have been a quicker decision…if we hadn’t stopped to drink a bottle of pop.”

Both cases galvanized a generation of activists and provided the political impetus for Harper Lee’s novel. In Mockingbird, Tom Robinson’s trial doesn’t spark a mass movement, but it nonetheless leaves an indelible print on the children’s changing consciousnesses, making it impossible for them to ever see their town–a microcosm of the South as whole–the same way again.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE FIRST half of the novel chronicles the adventures of Scout as the town and its social relations are introduced. The oppressive weight of Southern society and the alienation it produces are most clearly expressed through the unforgettable character of Boo Radley, the juvenile rebel turned adult recluse, one of the novel’s “mockingbirds,” who is the object of the children’s fascination.

Maycomb is a segregated Southern town where racism is unquestioned, poverty is everywhere, and one’s last name determines one’s place in a narrow-minded society. Being a Haverford “is synonymous with being jackass”; being a Cunningham means you’re poor, but refuse to take charity (i.e. the “good” poor); and being a Ewell means you don’t bathe, don’t go to school and do as little as possible except for signing relief checks (i.e. the “bad” poor).

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The last time a semi-fascist came close to winning the US presidency

January 19, 2016 at 2:37 pm (anti-semitism, apologists and collaborators, BBC, conspiracy theories, fascism, history, Jim D, literature, populism, Racism, Republican Party, United States)

Johnathan Freedland’s always excellent Radio 4 programme The Long View, today compared the loathsome Donald Trump with three previous “outsider”/”celebrity” populists who, at various times, seemed to be potential contenders for the US presidency: William Randolph Hearst, Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. All were extreme reactionaries, anti-semites (though there is some evidence that Hearst belatedly changed his attitude towards Jews), and islationists. At various times, all three expressed admiration for Hitler.

In fact, only Lindbergh got anywhere near to being a serious political force, and in his brilliant book The Plot Against America Philip Roth creates a convincing alternative history in which Lindbergh won the Republican nomination in 1940 and went on to defeat Roosevelt in that year’s election.

Freedland reminded listeners that a recording of Lindbergh’s September 11 1941 Des Moines anti-war speech can still be heard. A terrifying forewarning of what Trump now parades before the American people and the real threat he poses to the whole world:

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