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Vicious British Bullshit: A Few Known Antidotes (2014)

4 Oct

Sleaford Mods

The other week, Pieter Last from Rammel Club sent me a message to see if I’d be up for playing some Eastern Bloc vinyl records early doors and between the first couple of band changeovers at the two sold-out homecoming gigs by Sleaford Mods in Nottingham, a question to which there was only ever going to be one answer. I’d seen them play at least twice before, once in the days before Jason Williamson’s hook-up with Andrew Fearn, once after it, and the change between 2010 and 2012 had been remarkable. In 2010, Williamson’s persona, observations and potential were all there, but with Fearn on board, things had become very different. However great a joke it seems that Fearn just pushes the ‘play’ button on his laptop and stands back when they’re onstage, it’s clear that offstage, making the loops, something miraculous is at work – one after another, Fearn’s loops are so brutally memorable that it’s as though he’s hit on the dance music equivalent of The Ramones’ early catalogue of primal guitar riffs.

More recently there’s been something else, too, and that’s the energy that comes with being heard. Put bluntly, it’s hard to sustain things when your focus is chopped up by other commitments, one gig every few months, or weeks, between office jobs and the usual kinds of everyday shit the world at large dishes out. Even when that’s your subject – as it is very much Williamson’s – the energy of those two gigs in Nottingham were the product of that long struggle plus the sharpening of tools that has come from playing more gigs, getting the records out and heard – the purpose that comes with a sense that someone out there, after all the hard slog, is listening. The attention won by Austerity Dogs in 2012 has been consolidated in spades with this year’s Divide & Exit, both records full of on-point take-downs of three decades of political and pop-cultural bullshit. Songs like Tiswas and Jobseeker will make this clear to anyone who isn’t too invested in the present mess to acknowledge it.


One of the joys of witnessing Sleaford Mods in a packed small venue, in front of a home crowd, and not once but twice, was being reminded of other things I hadn’t thought about for awhile. The Welsh language post-punk of Datblygu came to mind, and if you haven’t heard Datblygu before, their 1988 masterpiece Gwlad Ar Fy Nghefn (‘Land On My Back’) is a good starting point, well worth a listen almost 30 years on from the band’s inception in Cardigan. Even if you don’t speak Welsh, the message will communicate itself loud and clear, much, I suppose, as some in the US and Germany struggle with following Williamson’s East Midlands streams of consciousness and UK specific references, even as they respond to the sheer force of what he and Fearn are doing. Looking up Datblygu last month I was pleased to discover that their mid-nineties vanishing act appears to have ended: an interview by Sarah King with core members David R Edwards and Patricia Morgan covers the band’s history, while a new documentary (in Welsh, but with English subtitles) emerged in 2012.


If the attitude and way with words of Sleaford Mods appeals, then there will be much to delight you in Datblygu’s extensive back catalogue and uncompromising stance, not least David R Edwards’ thoughts on being considered a poet. As King notes, “when I ask him if he sees himself as a poet the answer is an emphatic No. I fucking hate poets.’’ His full elaboration on the theme strikes a definite chord:

‘The Welsh national anthem says land of poets and singers. Well I’m neither. I’m not willing to put myself in one camp or the other. I like poems, I just don’t like the label poet…Creative Writing courses just keep the stupid universities open, making themselves and their professors rich and their students poor. Personally I write by observing the world, and by thinking aloud my own thoughts, via a pen, on to a piece of paper. This then reaches the recording studio which is simply a modern cave for modern cave people. I draw on the walls using modern technology. The music Datblygu create then makes a connection with other people. Large amounts of tobacco, and small amounts of alcohol, help oil the creative machinery. If I was gainfully employed, married with a mortgage, car and children, I probably wouldn’t be a writer. But I would rather be a writer than have any of that…’ It’s good to have them back.

Sarah Curtis (Snub TV, 1989)

Hearing Sleaford Mods run through Tied Up In Nottz brought another sound I’d not thought about for years back into focus, this time triggered by the loose resemblance between Fearn’s bassline and the one used on Manchester based King Of The Slums’ Vicious British Boyfriend (1989). Any resemblance is probably coincidental – it’s a pretty standard post-punk bassline, after all – and KOTS’s distinctive feature was always, anyway, the play between the distorted viola of Sarah Curtis and the tabloid-skewering lyrics of Charley Keigher. Like many late eighties bands, their recorded output is often patchy, the production doing their live impact a disservice, but there are tracks that still hint at what they were capable of. Bear With Me ventures into a strange territory somewhere between abrasive psychedelia, hypnotic rave and blunt realism: “Bear with me,/my best is yet to come,/and I am a liar/with a lot of material…/la, la, la…I got loads/la, la, la…I got loads”, sings Keigher, over and over, while Curtis merges the spirit of the Velvet Underground’s Black Angel’s Death Song with a feeling of having lived through one lost decade, just as another throws its shadow over the near horizon.

King Of The Slums (Early 90s)

How that next decade turned out has been the subject of predictably anodyne media reminiscences, a fake nostalgia neatly deflated in Sleaford Mods’ A Little Ditty, but it’s worth remembering that much has already been half lost to that reductive Britpop story of 90s UK music. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Tricky’s 1995 debut LP Maxinquaye, a record that managed the peculiar feat of being sufficiently avant-garde to feel like something we’re still trying to catch up with (if you doubt this, watch the video he and Martina Topley-Bird made to accompany Hell Is Round the Corner and consider how far ahead of the curve it looks and sounds even now) while also finding itself adopted as a dinner party soundtrack staple. “As I grow, I grow collective…till then you have to live with yourself”, drawls Tricky, aka Adrian Thaws, perfectly articulating the movements of a mind caught between political consciousness and outright paranoia: “We’re hungry, beware of our appetite…My brain thinks bomb-like, bomb-like”. All the while, Topley-Bird’s voice underscores the presiding mood of psychic fragility and potentially explosive threat.

Tricky - Hell Is Round The Corner (Video Still)

If Tricky’s Maxinquaye built its unsettling, alienated atmospherics from seductive harmonies, and found itself too often misread as a kind of hip easy listening as a result, Vent, the opening track on Pre-Millenium Tension (1996) made it clear that he wasn’t planning on letting that particular misunderstanding happen twice. Raw, abrasive, claustrophobic, like a panic attack in sound, Vent is an unequivocal nineties update of one of the founding statements of hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s The Message. Its ‘don’t push me’ refrain is transformed from the socially-conscious statement of 1983 to a cog inside an internal monologue, a phrase circling a mind that’s coming apart under pressure. Just as Williamson and Fearn articulate the internal monologues of that post-crash underclass created by a fabricated (and entirely misnamed) ‘austerity’, so Tricky articulates the psychic chaos of the years that laid the foundations for this post-crash world, with its discredited institutions, corruption and increasingly dangerous demagoguery.

Tricky with Martina Topley Bird (mid-90s)

Perhaps it felt relevant to play tracks from 1970s Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland at those Sleaford Mods gigs in September precisely because what their music describes is life, as lived at the fag end of a discredited ideology whose adherents still cling to power despite barely believing their own words, let alone expecting anyone else to. The reigning assumptions of the 2014 political conference season must feel not unlike those imposed by Party bureaucracies in the former Eastern Bloc: badly scripted rituals, determined to miss the point at any cost. The substance of a dissident essay like Vaclav Havel’s The Power Of The Powerless seems as applicable to the here and now of the UK as it did to its original context of Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s. Meanwhile, as all this plays itself out, we will be subject to increasing quantities of bullshit to defer the inevitable reckoning. Luckily, wherever there is bullshit there are antidotes to bullshit, ready to be heard if we only care enough to seek them out and listen.

Footnote: Jason Williamson played Arthur Seaton in a voice-over recorded for James Walker’s Slap and Sickle, a film essay about Alan Sillitoe’s links to Russian dissidents in the 1970s, screened as part of a link up between Nottingham Writers’ Studio and English PEN, designed to promote the national Catechism campaign on behalf of Pussy Riot on November 12 2012.

Marine: A Story in Eight Objects (Nottingham Castle)

23 Jul

“The oceans are a great swirl of changeable currents. In this element, where serendipity governs all, nothing can be guaranteed or truly possessed for more than an instant. Rules are installed by force to bring certainties to the volatile flows of trade; laws are carried to new lands so that an investor can consider his paper certificates absolute proof of ownership of some place he has never seen, or some mountain of goods he will never use, only buy and sell then buy again. In a walnut bureau near Fleet Street or St Paul’s, all the opium of Bengal, the coffee of Jamaica, the tobacco harvests of Virginia, might still be held captive by an ivory lock and brass key any child could break. Stocks and monopolies, gunships, conscripts and lawyers: these direct the circulation of all things in the interests of that mysterious substance, money, which is itself alike to an ocean, though an ocean that neither exists, nor truly serves any man subject to its brute operations in the world. Despite all this, and sooner than we think, all our histories, all our symbols and artifacts, must slide inexorably into footnotes then disappear, like sea-molluscs from the smooth chambers of their shells.”

Sir Henry Whitehorn: Journals (1836)*

Marine (Nottingham Castle, 2013)

There’s definitely been something very wet in the air this weekend, and I don’t mean the massive and impressive thunderstorm that’s just passed over Nottingham. Rather, I mean that on Friday night a new exhibition curated by Deborah Dean and Yasmin Canvin, Make Believe: Re-imagining History & Landscape, opened at Nottingham Castle, and included the launch of a new publication, film and installation under the title Marine: A Story in Eight Objects, in which the sea looms large. The same night, Aquatopia, an exhibition stuffed full of oceanic images, artifacts and sounds, opened at Nottingham Contemporary.

The reason for the coincidence is obvious, given the importance of the sea in trade and human history, but it’s odd that it hadn’t occurred to me at all during several weeks of writing, recording and editing material for the Castle exhibition and only hit home when walking into the Contemporary’s galleries on the night of the opening. Whatever the reason for this sudden appearance of the ocean all over Nottingham (there’s a fake beach in Market Square at the moment as well) the resulting publication (designed by Joff + Ollie) is available from the Castle, and the film remix of that text can be seen installed alongside the eight objects that inspired it, and a related collage work, Biological Camouflage: New Zealand (1978), by the fictional artist Robert Holcombe.

Make Believe also includes work by Susan Collis, Alan Kane, Debbie Lawson, Mark Dixon, Shane Waltener and Jason Singh, and it runs at Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery until September 29, 2013. Here’s a bit of information from the gallery information panel:

Marine takes its cues from items displayed in the Every Object Tells a Story gallery of decorative arts and crafts. The objects in question are: an American Plains Indian bear-claw bag; a Lambeth Delft bleeding bowl; a majolica plate; a gaming set carved from bone by a French prisoner of war; two wooden panels showing fish; a miners’ guild ceremonial axe; a Victorian porcelain plate showing butterflies and beetles; and a sample packet of Hawaiian bark papers brought back from the islands by the botanist Andrew Bloxam in the 1820s. Sometimes, the objects themselves appear in the publication and film. More often, the places, times and historical forces that made them guide the material. Sometimes, the text is fiction: sometimes it is non-fiction.

The central thread, concerning the deaths of King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamâmalu of Hawaii in London in 1824, and the voyage of HMS Blonde to take their bodies home under the captaincy of George Anson Byron, successor to the title of Lord Byron from the poet himself, are genuine historical events: the facts are real but their re-telling should not be taken as entirely reliable. What really connects these objects is the sea and the circulation of goods and people around its surface; and perhaps there’s also a feeling I wanted to explore that the history we think we know is not carved like an epitaph on a gravestone, but is a fiction constantly remade from the jigsaw puzzle of facts and objects it has left behind for us. I like to believe there’s something liberating in this.

*FOOTNOTE: Unlike most of the facts and stories on which the published text and the approximately 13m looped film that make up Marine are based, the quotation above, which claims to be from the 1836 Journal of Sir Henry Whitehorn, is entirely fictional. Neither he nor his journal exist.

An Open Address to Iain Duncan Smith (April 2013)

3 Apr

Francis Quarles: Emblems (Book 2, Emblem 1) 1635

An Open Address to Iain Duncan Smith (April 3, 2013)

“Blow wind made strong with spite;
When thou hast puft the greater light,
Thy lesser spark may shine, and warm the new-made night.”

Francis Quarles: Emblems (Book 2:i) 1635

So, this idiot with a face like a baby’s arse
trims the thin candles of an imaginary skiving class
to douse the fires under his own accounts.
For what could inspire us more, or make work pay,
better than eight hour shifts ending in poverty?
Your Argos catalogue might inflame weak desire
but your storeroom’s empty and the debt climbs higher.

See, your unthrifty bonfire of our dignity and pay
consumes all the growth you’ll need one day –
in cutting others’ rights, you’ve spent out your own.
But like a masturbator, telling us all to stay clear of lust,
you’ve loaded your laptop with hard-core smut,
spunked more on tissues than you’d have spent on life.
Take your pleasures, then, and have your laugh.

Go wantons, hypocrites, arse-faced baboons!
You’ve got newspaper headlines playing all your tunes,
might keep it dark yet for a year or two more.
But you’re mortal, and knowing how things can change
we note all your wealth’s held in frail currencies:
stand under all the gilt chandeliers you please,
the warm light you’re thieving is basically ours.

Join hands, David Cameron, Tony Blair, IDS,
style your hair and nails neatly, Mr Clegg, George Osborne.
We all know how soon your breaths will expire
and trust the mess you’ve made won’t be spreading far.
We know laws can be changed and shit-stains washed,
stair-wells made steep and arseholes pushed:
we pray you’ll live to see this toilet flushed.

Till then, please relish that long Stygian Night
you’ve bodged together from cardboard by candle-light.
You’ve pissed on one taper, held up your own,
found it too feeble to make any useful flame,
belched this fog instead, where you’ve carved your names.
Jimmy Savile, Ceaucescu, both rich big-shots once,
now lie in their graves, exposed as foul runts.

But your hands look busy as they sign off the deeds
downgrading flower-beds to fields of weeds,
pretending a thorn bush is a comfortable bed,
spinning sewers of intention from that moral high ground
where your place in history won’t be found.
So blow your hot air, fill the very sky with this shit:
we all know there’s a future: and you aren’t in it.

Note: More on the bottomless pit of idiocy and incompetence that is Duncan Smith’s DWP is now live at Fit For Work: Poets Against Atos (edited by Mark Burnhope, Sophie Mayer and Daniel Sluman). Recommended.

A Short Catalogue of Words and Phrases That Need to be Placed Under a Moratorium (2013)

2 Apr

Вот! Свободный рынок ликвидирует нашу историю! (99)

Award-winning: When used in reference to an artist as a synonym for achievement, this phrase combines debasement (artists who aren’t award-winning now seem perversely rarer and more valuable, on the whole, than those who’ve won at least one prize of some sort) with abdication of critical responsibility. If you’re intent on telling me the artist you’re describing is worth my time and attention, then surely it’s best to do more than make a vague hand-gesture in the direction of some former good fortune to indicate why their work might appeal? If I wanted to convince you of the business genius I sadly don’t possess I’m not sure pointing to a one-time lottery win would be the way to go about it.

Brilliant: When almost everyone and everything is said to be brilliant, as they invariably have been in reports scattered across social media for several years now, users might consider that the implicit tone quickly slips from admiring or complimentary to something suggestive of routine politeness, then, at the hyperbolic extreme, into a kind of unintentional sarcasm. Brilliant is probably best reserved for reports on light intensities until it’s properly rested and manages to regain some of its original lustre.

Career: In some respects, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s just notable that it began to replace ‘work’ and ‘job’ to describe what we do to earn money at the very same point that actual careers – that is, ways of earning money over a lifetime that show a logical and progressive development – became increasingly rare, and former careers were being transformed into casualised, low paid work, as in academia, journalism and a host of other professions now run on a succession of short term and zero hour sessional contracts. This gives career a distinct whiff of Orwellian double-speak, its purpose being to extend the illusion of more people becoming middle class and having careers at a point when the reality is that former professions are being redefined with terms and conditions of employment formerly known mainly to dockers, piece-workers and navvies in the 1930s.

Creative: As a very reliable rule, it should be considered a given that any person, business or institution that uses the word creative to describe itself, isn’t. [See also: Innovative]

Digital: In this case, it’s the use of the word rather than the word itself that needs consideration, particularly in the tendency to designate digital as the future in publishing, cinema, retail, and pretty much everything else, rendering anything outside its own realm ‘obsolete’. There’s no question that the development of the internet has been important and transformative and little doubt that over time it will evolve to facilitate new forms. The problem is that this potential has been conflated with its current condition, which is mostly as a conduit for many kinds of old media – text, radio, music, film, images, games, graphics, animations and personal communications  – which find a new means of distribution rather than take any radically new form. The economic effect has nothing to do with digital itself, which in fact changes very little of fundamental importance, and everything to do with a wider tendency to devalue labour in markets heavily skewed towards the interests of rent-seeking and ownership. What is paid for is essentially rent: access, via subscriptions to technical networks, and terms of trading online, rather than content. As in the real world, the model seems unsustainable mainly because it relies on near-monopolistic positioning and the devaluation of the material distributed in order to generate significant income for key platforms. Like globalization, but less transparently, the invocation of digital as a justification for this devaluation of labour leverages Neoliberal outcomes. The real potential of digital will only be known when wider economic and social factors are brought into the calculations about its longer term sustainability.

Edgy: The word of choice in fiction, film, comics and theatre for one of two very different things. The word ‘edgy’ invariably signals either that the work in question includes some vaguely plausible descriptions of poor people, preferably in cities, and is being read or viewed by extremely sheltered [see Lovely] audiences, or it is a gambit by someone determined to gloss their cheap formula exploitation tropes, usually murder and torture with sexual aspects, in a context of courageous and daring social critique. The former use is commonplace in the worlds of literary fiction and arthouse cinema, the latter more prevalent with reference to blockbuster cinema and mainstream media.

Excited/Exciting: Another social media mainstay, casually dropped into tweets and status updates to justify some friendly spamming. Excited is at fault mainly for being so widely deployed, almost always in the same formula, that it long ago began to convey its precise opposite. When typing a formulaic phrase like “we’re very excited” or “I’m so excited about…” the user indicates that they’re reduced to reaching for a stock phrase rather than feeling sufficiently inspired to coin a fresh one, which is the polar opposite of exciting. [see also: Thrilled]

Emerging: A fine and useful word when used to describe, say, a badger emerging from its set, but becomes problematic in its recently acquired application to artists. It seems to be a management-speak usage designed to make a situation (being at an early point in terms of public recognition) into a dynamic process: to pretend, in short, that an undesirable situation is a desirable one, and that being unknown and struggling is, in fact, being on the way up. The use of emerging in this sense is also ludicrously imprecise, being used to mean pretty much anything from ‘still at college’ or ‘under-35’ to ‘well on the way to a Nobel Prize or Tate retrospective’, all at once. When something’s this inelegant and so loose as to be mostly meaningless, it’s probably best that it does the opposite of emerge and hide itself away until a badger, rabbit or earthworm comes along and justifies using it in its original sense.

Grab: Widely used on social media, and intended to generate a sense of urgency around an event, publication or product for which payment is being sought, as in: “last few tickets – grab yours now!”. Grab tends to suggest both greed and desperation while aligning an activity, publication or event with the worst excesses of late capitalist marketing-speak. This means it can seem particularly odd coming from some of those quarters where it’s now routinely used. When we get to “Grab your tickets for the Occupy Marxism Conference” we’ve passed too far beyond parody to contemplate a return.

Innovative: Generally, this is deployed as a diluted synonym for inventive or original, and this usage tends to suggest that what is described as innovative is not sufficiently inventive or original to justify using the stronger terms. Innovative, then, signals a desire to project an aura of fresh thinking and inventiveness without having to go so far as to think in an original way or actually reinvent anything. In business, innovative is generally a question of rebranding and justifying Market Reforms [see: Markets] by, for example, making use of technology to reduce labour costs, or redesigning and repackaging products to reflect current fashions. In poetry, innovative has come to be used of a range of approaches, often rooted in academic theory and American models of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ultimately, as with the business use of innovative, the application of the word to poetics is largely an issue of branding, signalling a desire to appear (by the self-conscious adoption of a recognised set of stategies arbitrarily designated innovative) rather than be genuinely exploratory or original. [“Those who claim to be innovative would do well to note that if innovation is already labelled and its desirable characteristics are known, then any chance of actual innovation taking place will be remote.”]

Lovely: Mainly used to non-commitally describe anyone and everyone met at an arts event, and used with a particular frequency and insistence about the people met at book launches and at literary festivals and events. Like exciting, there’s probably nothing inherently wrong with lovely, as a word in and of itself, but it might be noted by its users that it does carry a more than trace aura of exclusionary self-definition for a very particular social demographic: that class of stalwart types on the arts scene that tends to be educated, comfortably-off, well fed, at ease with itself and most likely white and middle class in everything but its taste in wines, where robust reds made by swarthy artisan peasants might be favoured. Lovely people display their common touch by tweeting about Bake Off heats and Archers storylines, seem disproportionately involved in poetry and writing generally, and in those contexts like to signal their Edgy credentials by using the word ‘edgy’ to describe anything that falls outside the confines of a quiet garden setting. [See also: Edgy]

Markets: Also referred to as Free Markets and in the formulation Market Reforms, this is a word deployed mainly by politicians over the past thirty years as a cover for a return to the kinds of Crown Patronage that granted monopolies to businesses like The East India Company in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These monopolies granted by patronage and decree (The East India Company was founded in 1600 and ran a private empire under licence from the British government until 1874) were the targets of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, not their recommended models: for Smith, the ideal market was defined by equality between the actors within it, ranging from producers and suppliers to labour and the holders of capital, all of whom must establish their worth by a constant ongoing negotiation facilitated by trade. This, ultimately, means the Free Market demands that asymmetries in wealth, power and position are equalised at the outset of trade if it is to function, making the concept of the Free Market as idealistic and utopian as the Communism formulated by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Once this fact is recognised, it is immediately clear that the Free Market as conceived by classical economists can only exist in conditions where there is no inherited wealth or position, and where no inequality between labour and capital, producer and consumer, is permitted to distort the pure flows of trade between the parties involved. Once asymmetries of wealth and skewed entitlements enter the picture, as when Market Reforms sell heavily subsidised monopolies in privatised state concerns, or laws restrict the rights of labour to organise in defence of its own interests, the resulting system is not a Free Market at all, but a return to the very system opposed by Adam Smith in the 1770s, even as his name is invoked to justify the process. When the word Market is used by Neoliberal politicians and their advocates, we can be sure that their intentions are not remotely aligned with the ultimately utopian equalised system imagined by their chosen figurehead, but a regressive cover for a return to patronage.

Opportunity: Ubiquitous weasel word for something unpaid and/or that charges a fee to enter or attend, with a hint of blackmail. There’s always a slightly toxic suggestion that refusal to comply or pay up might have negative effects on your future CV and employability. Avoid, unless you’re Iain Duncan Smith and that’s exactly the impression you’re setting out to create.

Practice: In its sense of “my practice”, as used by artists, practice is under suspicion of being a Neoliberal imposition for its transparent attempt to justify the escalating costs of obtaining the newly necessary qualifications to gain employment in a previously more open field – writing, visual arts or performance, say – by eliding these fields with other kinds of middle-class professional career traditionally closed to outsiders, such as law and medicine. Perhaps it’s worth noting that if you make, do or are something, it’s indelible and yours: if you “have a practice” you’re operating under an implied permission that can be revoked. (This, of course, may be precisely why this usage of practice has achieved ubiquity in the years since tuition fees were introduced in higher education, just as degrees at all levels became both essential and economically devalued for the purposes of gaining employment in most of the previously more open fields that now use it).

Talented: Like brilliant, talented is used a great deal by organisations about the artists they’ve been working with, or by artists in reference to their students and audiences, but in both cases to a level of ubiquity that gives the impression that saying someone is talented means about as much as complimenting them on an ability to watch TV. This over-use of talented seems benign but is so cheaply bought that it begins to look non-committal and feel like something of a back-handed compliment: [“I want to be nice, but can’t be arsed to commit to anything specific”].