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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.

Datblygu

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.

Datblygu

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.

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Temperature Shifts: Where’s Daddy’s Pig? (April 2013)

25 Apr

On the 24 April, Artist Taxi Driver Mark McGowan pushed a plastic pig with his nose on a journey across London, starting at 8am outside King’s College Hospital near Camberwell Green and ending that evening in Westminster, on the doorstep of Number Ten Downing Street, where he delivered a letter to David Cameron protesting at the Coalition’s enactment of a clause essentially opening up the NHS for irreversible privatisation: quite apart from being an ingeniously off the wall way to protest and draw attention to something around which what amounts to a media silence seems to have been imposed, it also seemed to me that this was the sort of thing that, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, would have pretty much instantly been the subject of broadsides and ballads for circulation in the pubs and cafes of the city. In that spirit, and considering the internet as the perfect medium for these cheap, quick and very fast turnaround responses, here’s a rough, ready and hopefully approximately sing-able set of verses to mark that absurdly epic and very important pig-pushing effort. McGowan will be showing new work at Nottingham’s Trade Gallery very soon, too.

daddys pig.

(xxv) Where’s Daddy’s Pig? (25 April)

(for Mark McGowan)

Mark McGowan pushed a plastic pig with his nose
from King’s College Hospital to the Walworth Road,
through Elephant and Castle, over Westminster Bridge,
with his nose he pushed a pink plastic pig.

Why a pig? It was caught with its snout in the trough
of a massive, unwanted health service sell-off.
That day Lords and MPs loaded with corporate shares
had taken our NHS and voted to make it theirs.

So Mark McGowan pushed a plastic pig with his nose
from King’s College Hospital to the Walworth Road,
through Elephant and Castle, over Westminster Bridge,
with his nose he pushed a pink plastic pig.

Who are these Lords? The usual useless sorts
who serve time playing at politics as if it’s sports;
as if it has nothing to do with your life or mine,
just buys a few rounds of golf and a cellar of wine.

So Mark McGowan pushed a plastic pig with his nose
from King’s College Hospital to the Walworth Road,
through Elephant and Castle, over Westminster Bridge,
with his nose he pushed a pink plastic pig.

Who heard about it? Well, those in the streets.
You’d not read much about it in the tabloids and broadsheets.
See, all those who’d happily carve up our NHS
are the very same lot who tend to own the press.

So Mark McGowan pushed a plastic pig with his nose
from King’s College Hospital to the Walworth Road,
through Elephant and Castle, over Westminster Bridge,
with his nose he pushed a pink plastic pig.

What was the use? It was a way of spreading the news
that those we didn’t elect are turning the screws,
the kind of shout-out you’d give if you saw somebody’s paws
slipped into a back pocket that wasn’t theirs.

So Mark McGowan pushed a plastic pig with his nose
from King’s College Hospital to the Walworth Road,
through Elephant and Castle, over Westminster Bridge,
with his nose he pushed a pink plastic pig.

And what happens next? Isn’t it now far too late
to start getting very, and I mean really, irate?
We can head-butt our steering wheels, kick our car doors:
what’s the point in protesting if it’s always ignored?

But Mark McGowan pushed a plastic pig with his nose
from King’s College Hospital to the Walworth Road,
through Elephant and Castle, over Westminster Bridge,
with his nose he pushed a pink plastic pig.

Know it’s never a waste when something gets done:
even the Suffragettes lost a few times before they won.
So strike your damp matches under every inflated pink arse
and keep sparking flints till a proper fire starts.

And Mark McGowan pushed a plastic pig with his nose
from King’s College Hospital to the Walworth Road,
through Elephant and Castle, over Westminster Bridge,
with his nose he pushed a pink plastic pig.

Samsung Galaxy and Lloyds TSB vs. Emergency Services (April 2013)

20 Apr

Samsung Galaxy Note billboard

Samsung Galaxy and Lloyds TSB vs. Emergency Services (April 20)

Walking home late from the studio last night, I saw a man in a grey tracksuit gesticulating towards me as I emerged from the dark avenue of the old Sneinton fruit and vegetable market and waited to cross Carlton Road. When I reached his side of the road, instead of the cigarette or couple of quid I’d assumed he was probably going to ask for, he’d said he wanted me to call an ambulance, or the police, on my phone.

I have a phone, but it’s been disconnected for outgoing calls ever since someone paid an invoice late and the bank bounced their direct debit over a month ago. Having paid that bill weeks earlier, the service still hasn’t been restored and the customer service line of Virgin Media isn’t working either, though an automated message seems to think it is, and I gave up trying to sort it out a fair while back. So, I have a phone in my pocket but know it isn’t working.

When I answer him, I simplify this to ‘Sorry, I don’t have a phone’, at which point he leads me towards a litter bin beneath a gigantic set of billboards, advertising (improbably) Samsung Galaxy mobile phones (catchline: “Do Two Things At Once!”) and Lloyds TSB Bank, that’s to say, the very brand of useless phone equipment in my pocket, and the bank that had bounced the direct debit in March. A third billboard showed (not Virgin Media, sadly, though it might as well have done) but a queue for an NHS A&E facility, each member labelled with a reason why they shouldn’t be there.

The relevance of this became clear when beside the bin I noticed the twisted body of a man, probably aged somewhere between his late 20s and late 30s, his grey hooded top ridden up over half his skinny torso, showing protruding ribs and scuffed skin, collapsed or fallen, but either way, clearly unconscious, if still alive. The man who’d asked to use a phone had already tried the pub and a small queue of four or five people at a bus stop on the other side of the road, but nobody there had a phone, or so they’d told him.

Now, I didn’t have a phone either, or at least, not one of any use. A few doors along was a corner shop – Gully’s News And Booze: The Nip-In Express, to be exact – and as it was still open I asked the shaven-headed asian man behind the counter if I could use the phone, explaining the situation: the explanation went roughly like this: that (only slightly untruthfully) I didn’t have a phone, and (entirely truthfully) that it seemed necessary to call an ambulance.

The shop owner, or the man behind the counter, at any rate, among his fags and booze and confectionery, pulled out a white eighties-style land-line with big push buttons that looked tiny in his big hand, pressed 999, then handed me the plastic receiver. There were the usual questions and answers. The directions were given. I was still answering questions about the man’s condition (the answers to which were mostly ‘I don’t know, but he’s definitely out cold’, and ‘white male, 25 to 35 at a guess. He’s not looking good’) when a paramedic pulled up outside the shop in an estate car with ambulance markings.

I put down the phone, thanked the man behind the counter – maybe Gully himself, maybe someone else – and stepped outside to speak to the paramedic as he leaned from his car window, reversing slowly down to the spot I’d pointed him towards. The body was still out cold by the bin, under the billboards. The paramedic got out, followed me, leaned down to check the body then returned to his vehicle to get his kit. The friend, or other passer-by, whoever he was, the man who’d asked for the phone, was still hovering nearby, but it still wasn’t clear if he was involved, a friend of the unconscious man, or just a slightly drunk character who was concerned and trying to help.

‘Do you need anything, any help or details?’, I’d asked the paramedic, but the answer was ‘No, I can take it from here’, his tone of voice that of a man for whom this was routine stuff. The man who’d asked for the phone was worried the medic was leaving, ran after him shouting, but was reassured when the medic hauled out a bag and a small case and headed back towards the litter bin, beside which the body – or the ‘patient’, as the woman who’d taken the details had been careful to say – still lay, not having moved or changed his position since I’d first seen him ten or fifteen minutes earlier.

His fingers were clenched in a kind of lifeless empty grip position, his shoulder turned into the pavement, one arm sticking out at an odd, uncomfortably severe angle: he clearly wasn’t sleeping, but at this point I wasn’t any help, and would just be getting in the way: the paramedic was now in charge and had returned to the body, or the patient, whatever his true state was, so I said ‘OK’ to the medic, turned and carried on walking towards home, wondering what might happen next, knowing I’d probably never find out what had happened, or what would happen after I’d left.

Still, it felt like an image for the times: a man unconscious, a man desperate to call an ambulance – but not, it seemed, the sort of man who looked like someone you’d show your phone to, if his luck to that point had been anything to go by – all unfolding underneath a gigantic billboard extolling the virtues of instant communication, convenience, the connectedness of people across the globe, the myriad ways you could chat and stay in touch, even as a body lay there and someone struggled to find a way to get help; a billboard showing a picture of the mobile phone that weighed down my own coat pocket, reduced to a plastic and glass fob-watch the approximate size and shape of a bar of black soap.

On A Very Small Planet, Not Too Far Away (April 2013)

13 Apr

On the day of the quasi-State Funeral staged for Margaret Thatcher, and in a spirit of opposition to what it represents, here is a eulogy not to her, but to the voice, personality and values of her genuinely loved antithesis, the late Oliver Postgate, instead. Postgate is, of course, a wonderful and unique English animator whose life’s work embodies everything her policies sought (and still seek) to eradicate from our lives; a man whose values she, like her disciples in the present Coalition, couldn’t even speak the names of without visibly spitting:  gentleness, smallness, decency, beauty, tolerance, the value of useless and imperfect things.

oliver postgate

On A Very Small Planet, Not Too Far Away

(i.m. Oliver Postgate, 1925 – 2008)

On a very small planet, not too different or remote from this,
small pleasures are shared, small problems solved
in garden sheds, over small brass cups of green tea
and in a spirit that perfectly comprehends
how small the very small planet is, how close its neighbours
in their iron nests and flimsy machines
of tinfoil and springs might be; how plants that sound with dew
or the white clouds from which glass beads fall
are all to be included and understood. When a boot kicks a door in
or a house is reduced to rubble, someone will help,
the whole story will hang on this, as a boy goes in search
of missing food, a train-driver travels miles out of his way
to drop a letter through a letter-box, neither profit
nor any return in mind; when a whole shop with a dozen staff
simply mends and returns those things thought lost:
this is a gift. This is a world we might promise ourselves
and begin to build, sipping our small brass cups
of green tea in allotment sheds, on balconies overlooking
new estates; a world where small pleasures
are always shared, small problems jointly solved
in a spirit that perfectly comprehends how small we are,
how close our neighbours, how necessary that spirit
glimpsed inside these small worlds, stop-motion manifestos
for a whole new kind of exchange, not utopian,
not concerned with power, but in acceptance of this once shared truth:
that when we wake, observe the cracks in this unknown thing,
we’ll examine it, discuss it among ourselves,
work out how these fragments can be rebuilt, like new,
then, citizens of a state peopled by wood-peckers, mice, some folk musicians,
by soup-miners, chickens and marimba-leaved music trees,
by trains on uneconomic lines, by biscuit mills
pin-cushions and broken plates, by stairs of books
and vast fields of stars, by every kind of beauty and uselessness
this very small planet, not too remote from us, might yield,
we shall be awake, and yawn, and return to ourselves,
spring back from this washed-out sepia to our colour screens,
be human, fallible, content to lack any but the grandeur of small things
on a small blue planet, not so very far away from here.

Temperature Shifts: A Journal (April 2013)

12 Apr

MT on Polish TV (c.1981)

It would certainly be pushing it to say I felt sorry for Margaret Thatcher, but I think the relish at her passing has missed the key points: she lived to see her life’s work coming undone, her legacy represented by Tony Blair, David Cameron and George Osborne (men she almost certainly – and, if so, rightly – despised), with her own family disgraced and ‘abroad’ at the time of her death, with her opponents – and there are a lot more of them around than is often acknowledged – celebrating her death with street parties, and even her supporters so dementedly determined to whitewash her position in recent history that it’s a de facto admission that they know perfectly well where she stands in the national memory. You don’t have to spin this hard for credit if it’s deserved.

Churchill was a hugely divisive figure as a peacetime politician, but he’d won near-universal respect for one thing: his achievement in leading a united government between 1939 and 1945, a role he’d earned, in case we forget, by standing against a broad but now largely forgotten consensus among many in his own class and party during the mid to late 1930s: the newspaper proprietors, politicians and aristocrats, up to and including the heir to the throne, who’d thought his views of Nazi Germany misguided and ridiculous. The situation today is very unlike that surrounding the death of Clement Attlee, too, a man who could be laid to rest with an unassumingly quiet family funeral in the full knowledge that his actions in power had spoken for themselves and refuted the need for any further glorification or pomp.

The more the build up to Mrs Thatcher’s funeral continues, the more it becomes clear that the whole business (a state funeral in all but name) is less an unambiguous honour and, by itself, something of an admission by her supporters that a lot of ceremony – and how much security? – is required to even superficially suspend the toxic climate she helped to create thirty years ago. But, let’s be honest, Margaret Thatcher was never solely responsible for creating that poisonous atmosphere: she was the protege of men like Sir Keith Joseph, ideologues who simply couldn’t sell their own lunatic ideas to a public audience and seized on the presentational opportunity she offered them during the chaotic dog days of the Heath government with both hands. They were the Militant Tendency of the right, five years before the Left began its own wranglings, and they succeeded in the Conservative Party in 1975 as decisively as Militant failed in the Labour Party a few years later.

The evidence suggests that Mrs Thatcher lacked the kind of imagination and empathy, and certainly the self doubt, not to have meant every word of that prayer by St Francis of Assisi she recited on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street in 1979. However hollow and bitterly ironic it now sounds to hear her voice intone: “where there is strife may we bring harmony…”, she believed rather abstractly in a natural and self-regulating social order, in the idea that money invariably found its way to the deserving, and in ‘charity’ of the Victorian sort instilled in her by a Grantham Methodist upbringing. She continued to believe in these things even as she saw her own policies prove all her instincts wrong, time after time, but didn’t have the resolve to change her mind, or reconsider her position in the light of anything so mundane as the evidence. Just occasionally she’d make a tactical shift, carry out some small re-positioning, but only to further the same prejudices, and such pragmatic turns were never admitted in public. The word for this refusal to rethink a position or policy in the light of its results is weakness, not conviction or strength, a weakness plainly shared by the current cabinet.

If there was much introspection, which isn’t certain, Mrs Thatcher must also have lived out her days in the knowledge that her public face had only ever rarely been what it seemed in the mirror of the tabloid press and media she had such a gift for exploiting where her own constituencies were concerned. The truth was that even as she gave vocal support to Lech Walesa’s Solidarity Union in Poland, and seemed to stand firm against Communist oppression on the global stage, her diplomats were being instructed to relay the message to the Communist leadership that there would be no opposition to Martial Law, which would be supported by the British government. When Martial Law was imposed in 1981, Polish coal, produced under that repressive regime, was cheap enough to be cited in support of the idea that UK pits were uneconomic, then imported and stockpiled during the 1984 strike. Poland’s coal also plugged the gaps in supply caused by the closures of pits once the NUM had been defeated: small wonder that Mrs Thatcher defended General Jaruzelski, the architect of Martial Law, long after the fall of his regime in 1989.

But the myths all prove largely false on close examination: she increased public spending, enormously, but created the illusion of thrift by letting public services decline while squandering the money elsewhere: on tax cuts, subsidies to fatten public assets for privatisation, to underwrite fire-sale prices on strategic infrastructure. She increased the size and reach of the state and centralised its powers, but directed it not towards the public interest, but to re-shaping private behaviours and directing personal choices into their present market-led ruts. She linked freedom of choice to income, excoriated Europe, demanded sovereignty, but her governments negotiated the terms of entry to the Single European Market defined by the Maastricht Treaty and signed it, and, via the purchase of Trident Missiles, made Britain largely subservient to US interests in most significant matters of foreign policy.

She was, it’s emerging as the years pass and ever more of her government’s early papers are declassified, neither the resolute national saviour of right wing myth making, nor the implacable evil of left wing nightmare – just another grubby politician who happened to be very lucky electorally and gifted tactically (if we consider winning elections an end in itself) but who – like her successor, Tony Blair – achieved little of real value for the long term (if a week is a long time in politics, thirty years is a mere blip in history). Recently, it’s felt like another transitional point is on its way, and when that change arrives, the seemingly implacable state of things today will be overturned like a rowing boat on a tidal wave: whether any impending change will be for the better or worse remains to be worked for and is up to us.

The truth is, I don’t think we need to hate her, not now, and the last thing we should be doing is letting her win a final victory over us, turning us, in the end, into her own mirror image: it was her taste for enmity and conflict that carried her ideology to its own fleeting ascendency in the first place. And I did say fleeting: what Clement Attlee and his colleagues built will outlive her legacy because it’s still valued by the vast majority of the citizens of this country, and her successors’ sabotage and barely-veiled, entirely un-mandated, privatisations can and will be reversed – their own hubristic setting of legislative precedents may ironically help to make this easier. What Thatcherism has temporarily corrupted is an old idea, of tolerance, fair play and eccentricity, an unrealistic but potent Ealing Comedy and Sylvia Townsend Warner version of the national identity that may only have a tenuous basis in reality, but is still what we imagine when we think about ourselves.

We will return to our whimsical thought of building Blake’s Jerusalem in this green and occasionally still pleasant island, with the help of whoever wants to join us, because both of our totemic 1945 victories, in war and peace, were won collectively and for a shared cause. The divisions Mrs Thatcher and her successors exploit should now be buried with her, the political aberration she represented set firmly aside. This will be achieved not by dancing in the streets but by returning to the project of becoming the kind of people she seems to have instinctively loathed. As Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote earlier this week, it was “the England of Milton, Blake, GK Chesterton and Oliver Postgate” that she set herself against: can we now prove that, despite appearances, her efforts made no more than a temporary dent on that nation’s resilience and purpose?

On the day of her strangely North Korean-style funeral, with that purpose in mind, I might find myself re-reading some Shelley or getting down my old Virago copy of Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead. I might watch some films by Jeff Keen and Derek Jarman, listen to a few tracks by John Betjeman and Linton Kwesi Johnson, put on a BBC Radiophonic Workshop LP and – just to rub it in – do something that’s not for money or status, but entirely for its own gloriously useless sake, unproductive by any measurement or criteria her ideology would cement into every corner of life. That will be the appropriate tribute, the best method of resistance to this doomed entrenchment of a game that’s been well and truly up for years already.

[A Eulogy to Oliver Postgate]

A Simultaneous Translation (10 April, 2013)

10 Apr

The language of propaganda is interchangeable, regardless of the ideology perpetuating it. In this sequence, written while surrounded by media hagiographies of Mrs Thatcher and her divisive period of rule, and on a day when William Hague felt it justified to recall Parliament so that its members could perform a grotesquely partisan memorial debate with no clear purpose other than to propagandise for his own party’s programme of attacks on the working poor and those pushed into poverty by its own policies (all at a direct cost to the taxpayer of £3,750 in expenses for each MP who attends) made me curious to compare the atmosphere surrounding Mrs Thatcher’s passing with events that had been heavily criticised elsewhere by the very people now perpetuating them here, in only slightly different clothing. What follows, then, is a series of 14 manipulations of texts taken from a single Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) press release documenting a series of “strange natural phenomena” it claimed had occurred and been neutrally witnessed in North Korea around the time of Kim Jong-il’s death on December 17, 2011. That the increasingly belligerent Stalinist regime of North Korea and the Free Market (semi-) elected Coalition running the UK are peddling such closely matched exercises in political distortion comes as no surprise, but that doesn’t mean we should let it pass as normal.

Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia (Propaganda Display)

(x) A Simultaneous Translation (10 April)

(i)

Today we stand in the glow of cleansing propaganda
while peculiar natural wonders are observed
on Mt. Paektu, Jong Il Peak
and Tonghung Hill in Hamhung City,
in the transparent glare of white light shining
from the stones of Parliament Square and Westminster.

(ii)

Today, we hear of a Parliament recalled
at some great and unexplained expense to citizens
so that memory might be trussed for sacrifice
at the feet of Our Leader’s statue
on a day when all the people are mourning
the continuance of Our Leader’s work
in bitterest sorrow.

(iii)

On the morning of April 10
layers of ice were broken on Lake Chon on Mt. Paektu,
on the Serpentine in St James’s Park,
among the roses behind Temple Bar.
The lake, the city, the water,
all shook with big noise.
The cameras did not draw back from the edge
but continued turning.

(iv)

The Group for Comprehensive Exploration
of Lake Chon on Mt. Paektu
and The Group for Comprehensive Maintenance
of St James’s Park,
both announced it was the first time
such a big noise was heard
from the ridge of Janggun Peak and the lake,
from the junction between Whitehall and Trafalgar Square.
All the exposed film in our cameras turned white.

(v)

The temperature on Mt. Paektu
and around the trees of St James’s Park that day
registered 22.4 degrees Centigrade below Zero.
There was strong wind
accompanied by a snowstorm
which travelled through the atmosphere
at a speed of 18 metres per second.
All this was measured by Our Leader’s research staff.

(vi)

The snowstorm stopped blowing
all of a sudden
from the dawn of Tuesday
and heavy clouds
were seen hanging around Hyangdo Peak
and above the River Thames.

(vii)

At 8:05am the sky began turning red
with sunrise on the horizon.
The peaks of the waves on the River Thames
and Hyangdo Mountain
looked like pictures, wide and glowing.

(viii)

Our Leader’s autographic writings
speak of a “Steadfast Doctrine to the West and North”
as the Manchurian crane might fly
in a solitary, undeviating line
above “Mt. Paektu, holy mountain of revolution”
to alight months later
on one span of Westminster Bridge.

(ix)

“When a Great Leader is taken from our midst
we must bow our heads in gratitude
set all remembrance of deeds aside.
We must accept the justice of that Leader’s rule:
only then is proper respect shown
and Our Leader’s Greatness made Our Truth.”

(x)

The stones around us glow brightly.
This phenomenon lasts until 5am.

(xi)

This glow in the stones at 5am was seen atop Jong Il Peak
and lasted for more than half an hour,
on the peaks of The Palace of Westminster from 4:50pm
where it remained for a whole day.
The nation was shocked
by the news of Our Leader’s demise.
This was the first glow witnessed in the dozens of years
since our observations of the area started.

(xii)

A natural wonder was also observed
around the statue of the President
standing on Tonghung Hill
and near the statue of Churchill
in Parliament Square.
At around 9:20pm on Tuesday April 8
a Manchurian crane
was seen flying round the statue three times
before alighting on a tree.

(xiii)

The crane stayed there for quite a long while
in the branches of that bare tree
with its head drooped
and its wings lowered like flags
when the wind slows then falls away.
It flew in the direction of Pyongyang
from Parliament Square
at around 10pm.

(xiv)

Observing this
the director of the Management Office for the Hamhung Revolutionary Site
said in unison
with the temporary leader of the British Conservative Party
“that even the crane
seemed to mourn the demise of Our Leader:
a crane born of Heaven
who flew down here at the dead of cold night,
unable to forget.”

Temperature Shifts: On Hearing of the Death of Margaret Hilda Thatcher (April 2013)

8 Apr

The news of Margaret Thatcher’s death, at the age of 87, was announced during the morning of April 8, 2013. There were various attempts at a written response before this version seemed to coalesce around a final couplet and felt appropriate.

Grimethorpe, South Yorkshire 1984 (Credit - John Sturrock)

(viii) On Hearing of the Death of Margaret Hilda Thatcher (8 April)

Is it cold, any colder than these two degrees
that keep the ground above freezing

when I walk across a deserted square,
to admit, in the hours since I heard the news,

I’ve felt only the absolute indifference
of knowing nothing has even slightly changed?

Her death, like the end of any human life,
deserves its dignity, to be marked somehow,

but I ask: must the grieving now she’s dead
intrude on that for what she did?

Temperature Shifts: The Ecuadorean Dancers (April 2013)

7 Apr

An oddly compelling low budget pop video, Dulce Veneno’s Por Ti Llorando, filmed in Ecuador in 2006, last week came to my attention, via a circulated online link sent by the artist Bruce Asbestos. And it is very likeable, despite (or maybe because of) the cheesy song with its fake-sounding, but probably real, accordeons and trumpets, the four girls’ oddly half-hearted efforts to mime the kinds of moves popular among US R’n’B artists last decade (and still fairly ubiquitous now), all the while communicating a sense of determination to get the moves down that is not to be denied. There’s no way this would have been written about normally, but given the point of this series – one journal entry in some kind of draft poem format each day during April – well, it’s now found its place and (who knows?) may be further developed at a later date.

Dulce Veneno (Ecuador)

(vii) The Ecuadorean Dancers (7 April)

(for Bruce Asbestos & Lucy Folkes)

This is what you want to see, four girls
somewhere in Ecuador seven years ago
half-heartedly performing a dance routine
as though in a friend’s room before going out,

a booty shake or cheerleader squad’s big finale
looping back in time. In life, the girls age:
here, each lapse in co-ordination, every wrong move,
unsynchronised line, cycles round again.

Dulce Veneno, they call out, Sweet Poison,
before the trumpets and accordeon lines kick in,
before the spell’s cast, before the fringed
tassels waver unsteadily around their hips.

A pause before the routine begins:
then feet stamp, hands run over breasts and ribs,
dark hair’s shaken out over faces
concentrating so hard on each planned move

the effort shows far more than the style
they’re going for. Costumes change, we cut away
to a girl in a doorway singing plaintively;
three girls mime synchronised bunny hops

on a flight of steps outside a summer house…
Five minutes in these girls’ lives,
five minutes seven years ago, in Ecuador,
when someone planned this, bought the tapes,

drove out on an overcast day to get it done,
booked the afternoon in an edit suite
and dubbed on the song: Por Ti Llorando,
nobody’s proudest day in sound

for all the melancholy of its party vibe,
its perfect mirror to imperfect moves.
The world still unconquered, it gathers views,
one by one, thirty million and rising,

yet remains unknown, like a revolution
gaining momentum below the poverty-line
in a city ruled by lobbyists and businessmen
who’ve been in power far too long

to remember how it’s lost. When the link arrives
you watch it once, then again, again,
knowing it’s hardly profound, or even good,
drawn by what’s known to a failed attempt,

a zero budget, that any success will always miss:
that to be fallible has its own appeal,
can be loved forever where perfection bores:
finds its way, like water, through any wall.

Seven years on, these girls are still here,
getting the moves wrong, their lip-syncs off,
holding wrong expressions in every frame
from start to end of their own film: Dulce Veneno.