Sunday, April 30, 2006


Albert Camus:

As usual I finish the day before the sea, sumptuous this evening beneath the moon, which writes Arab symbols with phosphorescent streaks on the slow swells. There is no end to the sky and the waters. How well they accompany sadness!


The colours one sees on the ground or in the water depend on the colour of the sky. This is especially true in the Lake District, where the sky is usually somewhere on a journey from cotton-wool white to threatening grey. But while greens and browns and reds are more vibrant under a blue sky, the ubiquitous Cumbrian clouds do not deaden colour like their urban counterparts do in London. Cumbria is never quite grey.


During my four days there last week, the weather was kind to me. The evening of my arrival was gorgeous - Ullswater was perfectly still (see the reflection above) and there was not a cloud in the sky.

Day two was murky, but I walked up Place Fell undeterred. Anybody who has walked in the Lake District will be familiar with Alfred Wainwright; he wrote seven guidebooks on the fells, each one a testament to his love for the area. 200-odd fells are covered in his books, each with a handwritten and handdrawn chapter describing its natural features, routes of ascent and descent, ridge routes and description of the view. They are all masterpieces, but they are of more use to the armchair walker (who can absorb Wainwright's poetry and dream in comfort) than to the actual hiker (who has to slog his way up footpaths which no longer exist). Wainwright's description of the ascent of Place Fell is a fine eulogy ("One cannot sojourn at Patterdale without looking at Place Fell and one cannot look long at Place Fell without duly setting forth to climb it"), but unfortunately his ascent via Grey Crag is an absolute bastard.

Nevermind: days three and four were spent doing Helvellyn and the High Street range. Helvellyn is most famous for Striding Edge. Although sheer drops descend from either side of it, the vast majority of Striding Edge is easy even for the most vertiginous walker. The only problem arises at the end, where a steep chimney of rock has to be negotiated. Unfortunately, my fellow walker had a funny turn in the middle of the ridge and his legs turned to jelly. After much coaxing and calming, however, we completed the ridge and climbed to Helvellyn's summit. After some sandwiches and a look back at the ridge which nearly killed him, he walked down to Grasmere and I walked back to Patterdale.


High Street is so named because a Roman road once ran across it. More recently, it was also the scene of a racecourse. If one was being unkind to High Street (and its surrounding fells), one might accuse them of being a little dull, and imagining gee-gees hurtling across it certainly adds interest. Actually I prefer their serenity and wildness to the likes of Helvellyn and Scafell Pike, which turn into motorways in the summer. Situated on the far eastern side of the national park, its scenery is closer to the North Yorkshire Moors than the rest of the Lake District. I walked 13.5 miles in about seven hours and did not pass more than 15 walkers (though plenty of sheep, and even one particular obstructive miniature horse, which tried to stop me climbing over a gate).

Am back in London now, so no more bucolia for a while. Here are a few more shots of my rambles:






Marilyn Monroe by Eve Arnold

Jeanette Winterson:

This is so sexy, precisely because it's Marilyn reading James Joyce's Ulysses.

She doesn't have to pose, we don't even need to see her face, what comes off the photo is absolute concentration, and nothing is sexier than absolute concentration. There she is, the goddess, not needing to please her audience or her man, just living inside the book. The vulnerability is there, but also something we don't often see in the blonde bombshell; a sense of belonging to herself. It's not some playboy combination of brains and boobs that is so perfect about this picture; it is that reading is always a private act, is intimate, is lover's talk, is a place of whispers and sighs, unregulated and usually unobserved. We are the voyeurs, it's true, but what we're spying on is not a moment of body, but a moment of mind. For once, we're not being asked to look at Marilyn, we're being given a chance to look inside her.


O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibralter as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Friday, April 28, 2006


What is good writing?

Partly, it is about style. All good writers must move and shape words to bring situations alive and convey a particular point. They will mostly do this deliberately, having learned it by trial and error and by copying other good writers; though I have come across writers who create empathetic characters without apparently realising it. Such writers mostly write in the first person and their characters are usually either neurotic or psychotic, which leads one to wonder where the author/narrator split lies, or whether it exists at all. The exception to this need for technique is potboiler fiction such as throwaway crime thrillers or romances: these may be enjoyable, but that does not mean they have any artistic worth.

Style is not enough though. One needs content too, and even these two combined may not be enough. I have come across several writers who are technically proficient, and have potentially interesting material but whose writing is nevertheless flat or unexpressive. Mostly this is because one does not engage with the characters in the text or believe their particular predicament with the outside world. What is needed is for form and content to merge and complement one another, so that the text reflects or refracts the world convincingly.

What is form? What is content?

The two terms overlap substantially, so it is impossible to define them precisely. But consider the following idea:

A man in his early twenties has a girlfriend with whom he has a loving but listless relationship. He is also involved in a psychosexual relationship with another woman. This woman treats him very cruelly, not because she is a naturally vindictive person, but because he seems to want to be treated in this way: it is his prescripted requisite for the relationship to continue. They do not have actual physical sex, but the relationship is nevertheless sexual, and each party gets their kicks from different psychological stimuli: she likes being in control and wearing the facade of 'cruelty,' he likes being the victim. She, incidentally, is in a relationship of her own, an overtly sadistic relationship wherein she is the victim. The difference is that, whereas our protagonist's victimhood is agreed consensually, hers is forced upon her. The culmination is that she eventually offers herself to him: he is so overwhelmed by this that he turns the offer down.

Two different writers could turn this synopsis into a masterpiece and an appalling failure respectively. The content in each may be the same; it is the form which would alter. Form is not simply about deciding whether to write a poem, play, short story or novel. It is the difference (apart from the content) between a 19th century novel and a 20th century novel; between a novel by a coloniser and another by someone who has been colonised; between novels by male writers and female writers etc etc. The basic elements in, for example, medieval literature and much pomo cinema are the same - aspects of love, sexuality, gender, power, class relations etc - but the ways in which they are treated are very different.

Terry Eagleton states, in the "Form and Content" chapter of Marxism and Literary Criticism, Marx's (and Hegel's before him) observation that "artistic form is no mere quirk on the part of the individual artist. Forms are historically determined by the kind of 'content' they have to embody". Eagleton also quotes Fredric Jameson: "Form itself is but the working out of content in the realm of the superstructure."

Content will usually be arrived at through some sort of personal intervention - a relationship break-up, conversion to a philosophical idea, some sort of aesthetic awakening etc - but form is historically determined. And, as Jameson suggests, there is a strong dialectical relationship between the two. As I said before, texts are dull and worthless if they do not involve a dialectic between an ego-driven (in the psychoanalytic sense) individual and a world which he shapes and which shapes him. Jameson's observation is that it is form which takes the ego-driven content and brings it into conflict with the outside world.

There is much more to say about this, and I will post something more substantial soon. But as an open ending to this post, Eagleston also distinguishes between three forms, which all posit the character-within-the-world in very different ways:

Depicting archetypal characters who represent aspects of society in literature which draws together the "complex totality of society itself." This is fine as long as it recognises that society is indeed complex; otherwise, a crude form of political realism can lead us down the road of Gorky et al.

Whereby characters and situations are alienated from history and become disconnected. Whereas realist writers shape and are shaped by history and society, naturalism is passive in its observations.

As with naturalism, formalism depicts characters fundamentally alienated from socio-history, but it takes a subjective context. "Individuals are [...] robbed of social relations and so of authentic selfhood; history becomes pointless or cyclical, dwindled to mere duration." The ego becomes bereft of its symbolic make-up; it is nothing more than a hermit.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


Apologies for my extended absence. If you're being generous, you can blame my week of traipsing the fells in the Lake District (will post pictures at the weekend btw); if not, you can blame it on my bone idleness.

Anyway, to tide you over, here is a fantastic fable from Ambrose Bierce:

A distinguished naturalist was travelling in Australia, when he saw a kangaroo in session and flung a stone at it. The kangaroo immediately adjourned, tracing against the sunset sky a parabolic curve spanning seven provinces, and evanished below the horizon. The Distinguished Naturalist looked interested, but said nothing for an hour; then he said to his native Guide:

"You have pretty wide meadows here, I suppose?"

"No, not very wide," the Guide answered; "about the same as in England and America."

After another long silence the Distinguished Naturalist said:

"The hay which we shall purchase for our horses this evening - I shall expect to find the stalks about fifty feet long. Am I right?"

"Why, no," said the Guide; "a foot or two is about the usual length of our hay. What can you be thinking of?"

The Distinguished Naturalist made no immediate reply, but later, as in the shades of night they journeyed through the desolate vastness of the Great Lone Land, he broke the silence:

"I was thinking," he said, "of the uncommon magnitude of that grasshopper."

Monday, April 17, 2006


Had a breath of that country air this weekend. My dad and I went walking on the Suffolk coast, between Orford, site of a very fine medieval castle, and Shingle Street, where the Nazis once apparently planned to set light to the sea with oil. The Suffolk coast often seems to freak people out: it can be very bleak and wild and severe. I find it incredible beautiful - just the place to go if you have a problem that needs thinking through.

I even took some photos: the first is the stretch of the Butley River where my dad wants his ashes scattered (though hopefully not for a while), the second is the ruin of the old Butley Dock, and the third is a somewhat fuzzy view of Orford's castle and church.

And if these bucolic scenes float your boat, I'm off to the Lakes next weekend for a week of stomping over the fells. I can't wait. Enjoy the four-day week, folks.


"Viva America!"

Don't worry: I haven't suddenly turned into a patriotic American. I'm referring to Latin America where, I have decided, I am going to move to at the end of this year. Those of you who read my good friend Snowball's esteemed organ may remember that in pre-Homo Ludens days I contributed three posts on Latin America while I was travelling in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. In about six months time, my one-way ticket will take me to Buenos Aires where I will try and find work as a running dog of cultural imperialism (or an English teacher, as it's better known). From there, who knows where my nose will take me? Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela are all tempting, as is the rest of Brazil. And Patagonia. And Peru. And then why not go up to Mexico, or swim over to Cuba?

So why am I boring you with my emigration plans? One of the things I tried to talk about in my posts for Histomat was some of the political and social shifts that are happening across the continent. Unfortunately, my Spanish wasn't good enough to talk politics in any depth, though one particularly charming cab-driver did tell me that all liberals and communists were homosexuals. In lieu of more enlightened analysis, I thought it might be useful to look at a handful of Latin American countries and see if the fabled leftward shift is really accurate, especially since another potential darling of the left is, at the time of writing, favourite to become president of Peru.

Not a red cent to rub together...

The map above shows that, on the surface at least, the majority of South America's voters have decided that they wish for their countries to go in a leftwards direction. This is in some contrast to the 1990s, when governments across the continent imposed hard-line economic measures (mass privatisation of industry, reductions in public spending, steep cuts in salaries and benefits) to curb inflation.

These neoliberal policies are now widely seen as the cause of the series of economic crises which beset South America around the turn of the millennium. In Argentina, for example, the economy grew by minus 0.8% in 2001, and GDP fell by 10.9% in 2002. In the same year, 57% of Argentinians were living below the poverty line. The fact that Argentina has an abundance of natural resources, a large and skilled labour-force and a 97% literacy rate led the population to question why their country was in such dire straits. The finger, in common with the rest of the continent, was pointed at the neo-liberal USA.

In my posts for Histomat, I described how European powers were forced to decolonise during the 19th century as Latin American independence movements took hold. In 1823, the US issued the Monroe Doctrine which stated that European intervention in Latin American affairs would no longer be tolerated. In intervening years, however, the Monroe Doctrine has been used to endorse the US's own interventionist policies. During the 20th century alone, the US undermined or overthrew 40 Latin American governments. In the last five years, the US has intervened in Haitian, Venezuelan and Bolivian elections to name but a few.

The current of anti-US and even nationalist feelings in South America is thus understandable. But are those feelings analogous to left-wing politics? What does "left leaning" in the map above actually mean? And is the international socialist movement's prediction that Chavez, Morales et al will bring about 21st century socialism justified?

Post-box red?

"Left leaning" or "left wing" is, as usual, a rather elusive term. What does it mean when applied to all the pink countries on the map above?

For Michelle Bachelet, the recently elected first female president of Chile, it means attempting to use capitalism to bridge the gap between rich and poor. It fundamentally does not mean breaking with any form - even the neoliberal form - of capitalism. A little tinkering around the edges is as much as one can reasonably expect from the new Bachelet government. Although she calls herself a socialist, she has never promised anything more than very modest redistribution.


For Nestor Kirchner, who won the 2003 Argentinian election in spite of winning fewer votes in the first round than his neoliberal opponent Carlos Menem, it means taking a Peronist "third way" approach. He has distanced himself from the US and its surrogate institutions, criticising the World Bank for changing "from being a lender for development to a creditor demanding privileges," and has struck up close ties with fellow left and centre-left leaders Chavez and Lula. But he remains - as do his colleagues in Brazil, Ecuador and Uruguay - subservient to neoliberalism. As James Petras says in Counterpunch magazine, he has "maintained all privatised firms, punctually paid the foreign debt, applied IMF fiscal policies and sent military forces to Haiti to uphold a US-imposed puppet regime and repress the poor struggling to restore the democratically elected Aristide government." It is worth noting that Argentina's one-off payment of its $9,810m worth of IMF's debts were largely financed via a deal with Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela.

Which brings us to the big boys, the men in whom the left places so much faith, the leaders who many believe will bring socialism to 21st century Latin America: Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia. For Chavez and Morales, the term "left wing" means something more radical.

Both men have huge support. Morales won 54% of the vote against 29% for his closest opponent, and Chavez remains in power despite an attempted coup. Their support was garnered largely due to their anti-US rhetoric, their promises to redistribute wealth and ensure that revenue accrued from the countries' natural resources get diverted back to the people, and in Morales's case because of the support of Bolivia's indigenous populations.


The most important achievement of the Chavez government is that it is still in power. In 2002/03, the senior management of the PVDSA, Venezuela's state oil company, decided that, with the support of the Venezuelan right and the US government, they would go on strike. The idea was that a stalling of oil production would force Chavez from power. Unfortunately, PVDSA workers refused to strike and continued producing oil without their bosses. Which just goes to show how important senior managers are...

The shit that the PVDSA bosses tried to throw at the Venezuela state came right back to splat them (excuse me going all Trev 'n' Simon on you here) since the workers have now taken control of PVDSA. This is an important step, especially following the worldwide surge in oil prices, as Chavez has been able to reinvest oil revenues into social programmes, such as the "missions" described by Americo Tabata in this month's ISR. Tabata also suggests that, while the Chavez regime itself may not be socialist, it allows Venezuela's traditional socialist groups to come to the surface and grow in confidence.


Evo Morales has only been in power a couple of months, but he has already achieved some (modest) tax increases on the rich, salary cuts of up to 58% for senior civil servants and politicians (including himself!), salary increases for public sector workers, and still promises to nationalise subsoil industries (i.e. mining, but not refining). Tom Lewis, also writing in the ISR, also highlights the importance of Morales's pledge to hold elections in July to choose a new Constitutional Assembly which, he proposes, will formally end neoliberalism in Bolivia. Like Chavez, Morales's rhetoric has also been unequivocally anti-American. Morales has not quite gone as far as his Venezuelan counterpart in likening Bush to Hitler (or, even more charmingly, calling him "un pendejo"), but the US were less than enthusiastic when he was elected at the beginning of the year, and that's got to count for something.

So does this make Chavez and Morales revolutionaries? Or even socialists?

Americo Tabata makes the following important point in his article "An unconscious socialist revolution":

Effectively, for many people in our [Venezuela's] poor communities, having a doctor in a neighbourhood, almost a family doctor, has become a revolutionary demand, when it should be a basic right for everyone. It's that way because in capitalism, the most elemental and basic rights have become "revolutionary" gains for working people. Nevertheless, health care, education, and the right to work continue being democratic - and not specifically socialist - demands."

With this in mind, we must admit that neither Chavez nor Morales are socialists. Tom Lewis notes that, following Morales's victory, his wellwishers included business leaders and Paul Wolfowitz. This should give us pause for thought. So should Chavez's assertion that "socialism is not in contradiction with economic development nor with private property."

Shortly after the 2005 insurrection which forced his neoliberal predecessor from power, Morales sanctioned the privatisation of the MUTUN iron mining field, which also contains 70% of the world's total magnesium reserves (for one field to contain that much is beyond this unscientific mind's ken) - in fact, he even overturned a decision to suspend tendering for contracts. Even his plans for nationalisation are modest: they will only affect subsoil industries, and they will not be retroactive. Not surprising, perhaps, that business leaders have welcomed him with relatively open arms.

Morales, incidentally, played no part in either the 2005 insurrection or the 2003 insurrection. Both of these insurrections had revolutionary potential, but Morales rejected these opportunities and instead went down the parliamentary road. Chavez has turned down opportunities for radicalism too: the attempted management strike of the PVDSA provided ample grounds for wresting control of other industries out of private entrepeneurs and into the hands of the state. Instead, he has persevered with a series of private-public-partnerships.

Keep the red flag flying?

The success of Chavez and Morales, and the international left's excitement over the situation in Latin America, is understandable. After the so-called "end of history" and the rise of the neos (liberalism and conservatism), there has been precious little for the left to cheer about in recent years. And the left should cheer about what is happening in South and Central America: these new regimes are making the neocon US government's position ever more isolated, and are giving the poor renewed confidence. As Tariq Ali has said, one must gain power first in order to enact social change. Morales and Chavez are both canny politicians who know they must practice some pragmatism in order to maintain their presidencies.

The two leaders' close ties with Cuba should provide hope for the international left as well. When Castro dies, it will be important to have a strong left-wing movement in Cuba which enjoys foreign support in order that the inevitable democratisation of the country does not lead to it becoming another American satellite.

So the left should indeed continue to give the governments of Bolivia and Venezuela (and, more measuredly, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay) its support. But it should be conditional support: the condition being that Chavez and Morales must always side with the poorest sections of their countries, and must always fight for their rights, and never side with the multinationals and the imperial demands of the West. When these leaders of the left fail to meet these conditions, we should not hesitate to criticise them, pile on the pressure, and support the ordinary men and women who got them there in the first place.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


"Their vocal harmonies are unsurpassed ... I think Brian was a French Horn, Carl was a flute, Al Jardine a trumpet, Dennis a trombone, and Mike Love a baritone sax, before their incarnation as the Beach Boys."
Eric Carmen on the Beach Boys

So your challenge for the Easter wochenende is this: complete the reincarnated orchestra using only popular singers (OK, Montserrat Caballe will do if yr struggling). Your starter for ten: Billie Holiday was a cello in a previous life.


BREATHING STONES (a short story)

Sam and his family sat with supper on their laps. It was Sunday evening and, as usual, they sat watching BBC television. Mr and Mrs Parkes were an excitable couple who bounced and strutted through life as if on springs. Their eldest daughter Mary, 15, was lively too, though her zest for life was tempered by erratic hormones and a voice that was half an octave too deep. Sam, 10, was the youngest of the children, and also the quietest. He was bookish and somewhat precocious and had already learned the Periodic Table up to Iridium. Under duress, he nibbled his way through a cox’s orange pippin and gnawed inhumanly at the core while he watched the local news. A reporter stood on Trafalgar Square in front of a column with no statue at the north-western corner, reading a Mayoral press release from the autocue.

“The Mayor today announced that the decision of who should join George IV, Havelock, Napier and Nelson as the permanent residents of London’s most famous square will be decided by the public. The winner will have their name inscribed on the commemorative plaque alongside that of their hero or heroine. BBC London viewers can vote by going to our website at…” – and the reporter gave out the details.

The Parkes looked at each other. Sam picked at the tight skin of a clementine.

“They once suggested Christ,” said Sam’s father.

“But people said it was too religious,” said his sister.

“You can’t get much more religious than Christ,” said Sam’s father thoughtfully, which was true.

“I bet they’ll get some wacky suggestions!” said Mrs Parkes, to which Mary emitted a snort.

“Yuh – like, I don’t know, pop stars” – she spat out the words – “or supermodels.” Mr Parkes thought about saying something mannish about supermodels, something that might impress his boy, but he couldn’t think of anything. He smoothed his moustache with his forefinger.

“What do you think Sam?” The family looked at him as though he might be the source of some eternal truth. After a grave pause, he said “I don’t know” and left the room.

Sam stayed up most of the night, and sat on the edge of his bed with the lights off. He could hear Mary in her bedroom next-door talking to herself. She imagined she was in a hospital bed recovering from a car accident and surrounded by friends. She asked herself how it had all happened and replied to her own question in detail. “I thought I was going to die,” she said, over and over. “I’m to stay in bed and the doctor will look after me.” Sam spent a couple of hours leaning on his window-sill, the curtain drawn over his head. It was pitch black and he looked down the garden, wondering who or what might be down there at three o’clock in the morning. When it began to get a little light, shortly before dawn, Sam drifted off to sleep.

Sam had circled the closing date for the competition on his calendar. He spent all his spare time in the following two weeks designing his north-western statue, writing elegant prose about his chosen subject, even going down to Trafalgar Square one Saturday afternoon while he parents shopped to get a sense of size and scale. He had planned that his statue would be proportionally one eighth taller and one tenth broader than George IV, Havelock and Napier. Nelson, who was seventeen feet tall and only stood taller by virtue of a one hundred and seventy foot column, Sam viewed with utter disdain. Right up until two days before the closing date Sam was perfecting his design, adding then removing a pair of winged boots from his subject’s feet, changing a modern haircut to classical curls, and changing the line of sight from Westminster Bridge to St. Paul’s; finally, with nine hours to go, Sam scrapped his previous drafts and started anew, submitting his final master copy to the BBC with ninety minutes to spare. The Parkes left him mainly to his own devices, interrupting only to make helpful suggestions and offer cox’s orange pippins or plates of mash. Sam responded by learning the Periodic Table up to the Lanthanides and by being unpleasant until the day when the Mayor of London announced that the winner of the Trafalgar Square competition was Sam Parkes, 10.

On the day of the unveiling, the Parkes family stood proudly on St Martin’s Place. In the weeks since the announcement of Sam’s triumph, the story had provoked some considerable debate. Newspapers wanted a piece of ten year old Sam Parkes, and they asked him what he liked doing, what his favourite colour was, whether he had a girlfriend, where he took her for dinner, and – in one instance – who his artistic influences were (he mumbled something about Earle and Adams because he had read about them in a book).

He had got the dimensions all wrong. He had planned to be twelve feet tall and three feet broad, but in fact he was only four feet eleven by eighteen inches. Still, he stood calmly on his plinth and looked down at the crowds who had gathered to look at him. Workmen in bright orange coats scurried around beneath him carrying various stonemasonry tools. A precise man in a waistcoat chipped away at a plaque, etching “SAMUEL PARKS” in a medium sized Times Roman font, along with Sam’s date of birth and a brief biography. A kind quiet man called up to Sam.

“You ready to be installed?”

It was the kind of clean winter’s day when smoke rises directly upwards from chimneys and light and damp hang suspended in the air. A bright sun shone down on Sam. The crowd below had turned quiet and they waited for Sam to become public property.

The kind man raised a massive iron mallet up over his head and brought it crashing down on to Sam’s right foot, driving a large steel nail through his metatarsals to the stone below. His view of London paused, motionless, as if the shutter of a camera had clicked over it. Sam felt a jet of pain sail upwards, like a missile cruising through water, slowly and inexorably. As it flowed through his bloodstream, past knees, groin, stomach and chest, London shrunk to the size of a postage stamp, framed by a dense black frame. Sam heard cheers from young boys his own age and from patriotic older women and from his own mother and father. And as the pain reached his forehead and London was a small pinprick in his head, everything stopped. Everything was quiet. Sam tried to move and couldn’t. The kind, quiet man smashed another nail into Sam’s other foot, less cleanly this time, causing bone to shatter. As another bolt of pain soared through Sam’s body, London grew bigger, louder, and faster so that within thirty seconds the crowds had packed up and gone home and the streets were empty. Sam looked down Whitehall. Beside Banqueting House he saw Field Marshall Montgomery who winked at him. A little further down, on Parliament Square, Churchill was having one of his days and looked gloomy and drunk. Lord Nelson had turned on his heel and looked at Sam reprovingly. Sam tried to turn on his heel but found he could only move his neck.

“Hello Samuel,” said Nelson in a friendly voice.

“Hello Nelson,” replied Sam. “Why can I only move my neck?”

“Don’t ask me, Samuel – you designed yourself. And it appears, you’re no Baily.” George IV, Havelock and Napier giggled.

“Well, what am I supposed to do?”

“Samuel. Whatever body movements you may or may not be able to perform, you are nonetheless rooted to your plinth. Even if you could touch your toes, or lick your elbow or some such, you would still be stuck here. And don’t be won over by the celebrity this has brought you. You will soon be forgotten. The other three have.” George IV, Havelock and Napier grunted in agreement.

“So what do you do?”

“I preside, Samuel; preside over my square. It’s thanks to me that this little patch of concrete is not, as you might say, en France. And Monty and Churchill do the same in Whitehall, as it is thanks to them that that quarter mile is not im Deutschland. But you have read your history books, Samuel, so none of this will be news to you.”

Sam had been thinking; he couldn’t feel his feet. He looked down Whitehall again. Monty was waving at him.

“Why does Field Marshall Montgomery keep winking and waving at me?”

“Because he’s a bad man, Samuel. A true hero, but a profoundly bad man. Heroism and evil are not infrequent bedfellows.”

“And what about Churchill? He’s swaying about dreadfully.”

“Samuel, my boy, there are some things in life from which a boy of your tender years should be shielded, and Mr Churchill’s intemperance is one of them. But Winston is a good man, Samuel, and we must love him.”

“Does he never fall off his perch?”

“You make him sound like a budgerigar.” Field Marshall Montgomery’s winking was
getting on Sam’s nerves and he remembered that, during his last minute alterations to the statue’s design, he had stated that he wanted to be able to see all of London at any one time. Sam wanted to see his family and he began to stretch his neck. Before very long, he had stretched his neck well above Nelson’s head. Continuing his ascent, he looked northwards towards Hampstead and saw a little house with a light on outside and every room illuminated. The stretch of his neck stopped its upwards course and turned with a right-angle towards his home.

Sam took the scenic route to Hampstead, floating over the ponds and the zoo and the canal in Regent’s Park before turning right to make his descent into the Parkes’s back garden where his head came to rest on the birdbath. He looked up to the bedrooms upstairs. All the lights were on. Sam guided his head up to the sill outside his own room. He looked inside. There was a map on the wall of the Kings and Queens of England since olden times when Alfred and his men, and other such tribes, took England, or parts of it, and reproduced and fought until the invasion of the French. There was a Periodic Table which went right up to Lawrencium and a map of the heavens. There was a boy asleep in the bed.

He moved on to his parents’ room. They were talking, but Sam couldn’t make out what they were talking about, or why they were even trying to talk at two in the morning, or why they couldn’t talk with the lights out. They weren’t even looking at each other. They were wasting electricity. Mr Parkes, keen on military men, was watched over by a thumbnail portrait of Field Marshall Montgomery who gawped at Sam with a silly smile.

Sam moved on to the final bedroom, his sister’s. She lay in a high-raised bed with a metal frame. Her foot kind of hung in the air, supported by a kind of winch, but then again it kind of lay flat on the bed. She wore a bandage round her head which covered a gash she had sustained in a car-crash. A gang of people sat round the bed wishing her well. The people all wore very nice clothes which all smelled freshly laundered and sweet. They all asked the same questions and Mary gave lengthy answers and none of them had faces, just blank spaces where eyes, nose and mouth should have been. Sam rested on the window-sill. There were photos of Mary on top of the wardrobe, framed photos, which revealed her winning a swimming gala. She wore a burgundy swimsuit which was either too big or too small. One of the imaginary friends had been staring at Sam for some time, and she approached the window, opened it and slapped Sam round the face causing his neck to recoil. He withdrew his neck and made the descent back across Regent’s Park and back down to his plinth to join his feet and legs.

There had been an incident. Havelock was being blamed. Napier was dead and George IV had fled to a nook in Soho. Nelson was on the warpath with a snivelling Monty in tow. Sam looked at his feet. The polite man was unfastening the nails. The men in orange jackets helped Sam down and began smashing away at him, splitting his head in two. The right side of his face watched his foot shatter while the left side was loaded into a truck facing away from the square. When the men had finished loading his body parts in the truck, they drove out of Trafalgar Square at high speed and careered down the Strand. Sam’s faces looked at up at the stars. He recognised some of them from a constellation map in his room. The three stars in a row were Orion’s belt. Orion was a hunter who was blinded but who recovered his sight by looking at the sun. Then he was killed by Diana, goddess of the moon, and turned into a constellation of stars. As chunks of Sam were tipped into the Thames, he tried to look at the sun but it was shining on the other side of the world and the moon had gone in behind a cloud. A chunk of his head had rolled downwards and he could see the night sky twinkling in the river. He looked in, yearning to drown amongst the stars. He felt the last piece of himself fall into the water and sink sadly down to the riverbed, and there he stayed for a week or two before swimming eastwards to the sea.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


I picked the winner of yesterday's Grand National almost immediately. After a cursory glance at the statistics of each runner and rider, I settled on Numbersixvalverde, and sent an obliging friend down to the bookies with my £5 safely in her mitty. Just as she was opening the front door to leave, however, I had a sudden change of heart. "No," I shouted. "Scrap Numbersixvalverde - go for Lord of Illusion."

Lord of Illusion fell at the 17th fence. Numbersixvalverde won. Piss and bollocks, as they say.

Still, on the plus side, I did learn translations for two Italian insults (rather appropriate since today is the election day of a particularly offensive campaign). They are:

Go fuck yourself with those four broken chair-legs you have at your house


In your arse is your entire dead family.

Saturday, April 08, 2006


"A far off country of which we know little" was Neville Chamberlain's explanation of his inaction over Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. No doubt the EU Commissioner for Fisheries has a similar thought in mind as he prepares to sign away the fish reserves of Western Sahara.

Most people are probably not even aware that Western Sahara exists - I only really knew about it through music. The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara is a cliched but nevertheless excellent place to start discovering the music of this area. It is also a cliche to say that rock and roll started in Africa. Of course, being a cliche, it is pretty much true, but most people think of the music of sub-Saharan Africa as being the genesis of modern pop music. It is therefore surprising to hear the similarities between the songs of the Tuareg or the Songhai or the Saharawi and American blues music.

Anyway, Red Pepper, in an excellent article this month, calls it Africa's last colony (the article is not available online, but I would strongly urge you to buy a copy). After the end of Spanish colonial rule in the mid 1970s, expansionist Morocco moved in for the kill, its eyes on the territory's rich mineral reserves. Since then, despite UN recognition that Moroccan colonial rule in Western Sahara is illegitimate, the 165,000 Saharan refugees remain under occupation. Why? Because it is in Europe and the wider world's interests to keep Morocco on side. This is somewhat ironic given the west's condemnation of the lack of stable and democratic governance in Africa:

Whilst western states impose 'good governance' elsewhere, they continue to overlook the claims of the Saharawi, who have achieved democracy in these most difficult of conditions. James Baker, the former UN envoy to the territory (and secretary of state under Bush senior), has summed up this paradox with surprising frankness, claiming that Western Sahara was a society that the west should be championing 'from a strictly human rights standpoint', if only it wasn't so important to 'maintain close relationships with Morocco'.

But the Saharawi's stubborn determination to build a state where their children get educated, their elderly and sick are provided for, and their democracy is stable counts for very little in the eyes of the west. Throughout the 1990s, the UN tried and failed to implement a peace deal. The plan was that the Saharawi would be allowed to vote in a referendum between independence or integration with Morocco. If they had had that opportunity, it is not difficult to see which outcome they might have preferred. But they did not get that opportunity. Morocco, with the tacit support of the west, insisted that its settlers should be allowed to vote in the referendum as well. Western Sahara's government, the Polisario, and its nearest ally Algeria refused, and the plans were scrapped.

And now the EU is stepping in. Joe Borg, the EU Commissioner for fisheries and maritime affairs, is currently finalising a deal with Morocco which will allow European fishermen to fish in waters off the Moroccan coast. The catch, of course, is that much of this water is not Moroccan at all - it is, or rather should be, Western Saharan:

Commissioner Borg protests that the agreement doesn't even mention Western Sahara. But that's exactly the point. By failing to define Morocco's southern border, it allows Morocco to decide where to apply the agreement, knowing full well that they will apply it to Saharawi waters. El Ayun, Western Sahara's capital, alone accounts for 40 per cent of Morocco's total fish catch, by far the largest proportion from any port.

Will this make poverty history? Of course not. It will plunder the fish reserves of the Saharawi people, and exacerbate the lie that Western Sahara does not exist. The victors will be European and Moroccan fishing corporations. Quelle surprise.

But, as Red Pepper points out, it is not too late. You can campaign against the EU-Morocco Fisheries Partnership Agreement by going here and emailing here.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Exploitation exploitation exploitation.


"I can't believe he's gone," said a colleague this week upon hearing that another colleague had died suddenly. Whenever a person dies suddenly, there is an almost tangible absence which remains. Every room in which you regularly saw that person has a person-shaped hole in it. In this respect, it is indeed almost impossible to believe that someone has gone. They remain in the room, their voice continues to be heard, their scent lingers in the air until, eventually, these characteristics are forgotten, and the person becomes a memory rather than an actual presence.

The converse of this is being unable to believe that a person is not gone. Late one evening this week, it suddenly occurred to me that a girl with whom I fell in love last year and then was very suddenly cut off from, was - at the very instant I was thinking the thought - alive and well and going about her daily business not too far away. In the aftermath of our last-ever meeting, I tried various strategies for "getting over her" which worked as well as such strategies ever can. And in getting over her, I subconsciously killed her off. Hence my surprise at realising that she was not, after all, dead.



Keeping one's distance. - Positivism reduces the detachment of thought to a reality, that reality itself no longer tolerates. Cowed into wanting to be no more than a mere provisional abbreviation for the factual matter beneath it, thought loses not only its autonomy in face of reality, but with it the power to penetrate reality. Only at a remove from life can the mental life exist, and truly engage the empirical. While thought relates to facts and moves by criticizing them, its movement depends no less on the maintenance of distance. It expresses exactly what is, precisely because what is is never quite as thought expresses it. Essential to it is an element of exaggeration, of over-shooting the object, of self-detachment from the weight of the factual, so that instead of merely reproducing being it can, at once rigorous and free, determine it. Thus every thought resembles play, with which Hegel no less than Nietzsche compared the work of the mind. The unbarbaric side of philosophy is its tacit awareness of the element of irresponsibility, of blitheness springing from the volatility of thought, which forever escapes what it judges. Such licence is resented by the positivistic spirit and put down to mental disorder. Divergence from the facts becomes mere wrongness, the moment of play a luxury in a world where the intellectual functions have to account for their every moment with a stop-watch. But as soon as thought repudiates its inviolable distance and tries with a thousand subtle arguments to prove its literal correctness, it founders. If it leaves behind the medium of virtuality, of anticipation that cannot be wholly fulfilled by an single piece of actuality; in short, if instead of interpretation it seeks to become mere statement, everything it states becomes, in fact, untrue. Its apologetics, inspired by uncertainty and a bad conscience, can be refuted at every step by demonstrating the non-identity which it will not acknowledge, yet which alone makes it thought. If, on the other hand, it tried to claim its distance as a privilege, it would act no better, but would proclaim two kinds of truth, that of the facts and that of ideas. That would be to decompose truth itself, and truly to denigrate thought. Distance is not a safety-zone but a field of tension. It is manifested not in relaxing the claim of ideas to truth, but in delicacy and fragility of thinking. Vis-a-vis positivism it is fitting neither to insist on being right nor to put on airs of distinction, but rather to prove, by criticism of knowledge, the impossibility of a coincidence between the idea and what fulfils it. The passion for equating the non-synonymous is not the ever-striving toil that at last attains redemption, but naive and inexperienced. Thought has known and forgotten the reproaches of positivism a thousand times, and only through such knowing and forgetting did it first become thought. The distance of thought from reality is itself nothing other than the precipitate of history in concepts. To use them without distance is, despite all the resignation it implies or perhaps because of it, a child's affair. For thought must aim beyond its target just because it never quite reaches it, and positivism is uncritical in its confidence of doing so, imagining its tergiversations to be due to mere conscientiousness. A transcending thought takes its own inadequacy more thoroughly into account than does on guided by the control mechanisms of science. It extrapolates in order, by the over-exertion of the too-much, to master, however hopelessly, the inevitable too-little. The illegitimate absolutism, the allegedly definitive stamp of its formulations, with which philosophy is reproached, derives precisely from the abyss of relativity. The exaggerations of speculative metaphysics are scars of reflecting reason, and the unproven alone unmasks proof as tautology. In contrast, the immediate proviso of relativity, the modesty that remains within whatever conceptual area has been marked off for it, denies itself by its very caution the experience of its limit, to think which is, according to Hegel's superb insight, the same thing as to cross it. Thus the relativists are the real - the bad - absolutists and, moreover, the bourgeois, who need to make sure of their knowledge as of a possession, only to lose it all the more thoroughly. The claim to the absolute that overleaps its own shadow alone does justice to the relative. By taking untruth upon itself, it leads to the threshold of truth in its concrete awareness of the conditionality of human knowledge.

Monday, April 03, 2006


"Liberal Communist" seems to be the mot juste making its way around the blogosphere and the wider media at the moment. I'm not sure if it originated with this article from the LRB, but its purpose is to describe those philanthropic capitalists who get stinking rich through the exploitation of others, and then decide they will give a thin slice of their cake back to those people who, were it not for these so-called-altruists' merciless profiteering, may not have needed their patronising charity in the first place.

Anyway, liberal communists are apparently very keen on the Paris Revolution of 1968, or rather on the protagonists of that uprising who went on to get stinking rich through the exploitation of others etc etc etc. Unsurprisingly, they are not so keen on the current demonstrations in France. Of course they're not: if the protestors have their way, these capitalists will have a major source of fleeceable labour denied them.

Personally, I'm an 1871 man. These theses, written by some of the architects of the 1968 revolution (none of whom, I am pleased, became a capitalist, but at least one of whom did shoot himself in the head sometime later), explain why.

And here's Baudrillard on the current fightback against the French political classes, written after the uprising last October, but before the current protests.

Sorry, not the most inspiring of posts - am in need of sleep. More and better stuff is on its way later in the week though. Good night.


Choice quote no 1: Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian, describing the surprising electoral success of the Israeli pensioners' party:

Their victory press conference was like a TV sketch: they had to ask the reporters to keep the noise down, because they didn't hear so well. One activist in his late 50s was asked what he was doing there. "Every party has a youth wing," he replied.

Choice quote no 2: Robert Gordon in MOJO, describing Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel":

In 2006, it still sounds like phone sex on outdoor speakers, more akin to stop-time striptease music than established pop hits.

Choice link from anally fixated Kate Bush fan: this from Stoney's Zone.

Saturday, April 01, 2006


Arto wuz robbed! And XTC! And all those other people who got into my top 10 albums since MOJO began who were never going to get into MOJO's own top 100. Here's the top 20 (you'll have to buy the magazine for the rest - and no, I don't own shares):

1. Jeff Buckley, Grace
2. Johnny Cash, American Recordings
3. Radiohead, OK Computer
4. Bob Dylan, Time out of Mind
5. Oasis, Definitely Maybe
6. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin
7. Radiohead, Kid A
8. The White Stripes, Elephant
9. Nirvana, Unplugged in New York
10. Beck, Odelay

Jeff Buckley, the thinking man's Julian Lennon, once described his art thus: "Sensitivity isn't being wimpy. It's about being so painfully aware that a flea landing on a dog is like a sonic boom." What a prick. Still, he is at least better than his dad.

The only album in MOJO's top 10 which I can get excited about is the Nirvana one, and even then I prefer In Utero. Still, it could be worse - and it's fantastic to see Tinariwen's The Radio Tisdas Sessions in there at 79. (Guess which bunch of stockbrokers get in at number 82?)

And since we're doing music news, Scott Walker was interviewed by the very lovely Verity Sharp on the Culture Show the other night promoting his new album, only his third in thirty years. His last two, 1984's Climate of Hunter and 1995's Tilt have a reputation for being difficult and austere. Well, Climate of Hunter isn't that difficult at all (in spite of apparently being Virgin Records' lowest selling album ever), and you would do well to buy the newly remastered version pronto. Tilt is admittedly more demanding, but when I fancy a bit of avant-garde housework, it's often one of the first records I turn to. His new album is called The Drift, which coincidentally is the name of my first novel. Scott and I are obviously on the same wavelength. Check here for release details.