Friday, 21 September 2018

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury


Oh that Tower of Babel they knew what they were after. They knew what they were after.
Patti Smith – Land.

When in 1953 Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, little could he have known at the time but he was touching upon something of significance. Alongside the other great future dystopia novels like Brave New World and 1984, Fahrenheit 451 unexpectedly stands as being the most accurate vision of how the world might one day be.
What Bradbury was doing was presenting a future vision that today is actually very recognisable. You can ignore the whole aspect of it regarding firemen going out and setting fire to houses found to be containing books because essentially that's just a plot device to carry forward the main idea. No, the real story is in his depiction of a society where wall-to-wall entertainment is constantly at hand so as there to be no need to think about anything else.

There's a telling paragraph half-way into Fahrenheit 451 where the fireman, Montag, rants at his wife about the jet bombers crossing the sky over his house: '”Jesus God,” says Montag “Every hour so many damn things in the sky! How in hell did those bombers get up there every single second of our lives! Why doesn't someone want to talk about it? We've started and won two atomic wars since 1960. Is it because we're having so much fun at home we've forgotten the world? Is it because we're so rich and the rest of the world's so poor and we just don't care if they are? I've heard rumours: the world is starving, but we're well fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we're hated so much?”'
This one paragraph in itself can easily be translated to today's world where there is never-ending war in the Middle East, a clown narcissist in the White House constantly on the verge of setting off World War Three, constant economic doom and gloom, and massive inequality both locally and globally with nobody ever asking 'Why?' or 'How did this all come about?'

Instead, we are all kept constantly distracted by any and all kinds of entertainment be it sport, television, the Internet, music, etc, etc. Everything to a degree is entertainment, of course – even books, but when the news is also being presented as entertainment – even tragic news – then something is clearly not right. It's all one big show keeping us all equally occupied and equally happy it would seem. Everybody's happy nowadays, to quote Huxley from Brave New World but to paraphrase Orwell's Animal Farm: We are all happy but some are more happier than others.

In Bradbury's book the entertainment is represented by a sort of inter-active television system that 'talks' to the individual viewer. Giant plasma screens are built into the wall of the home (or all four walls if it can be afforded) which show a constant stream of soap operas, game shows and advertisements. Even when asleep, a 'shell' can be inserted into the ear to keep up the same constant stream.
Essentially, Bradbury appears to be predicting the advent of the Internet but at the same time he highlights the fact that none of it is imposed from above as a form of oppression but sanctioned, endorsed and lapped up from below.
Anything that might potentially counter the entertainment and subsequently jeopardise people's happiness – such as books, for example – is made less and less welcome until it's eventually banned. Bradbury's firemen are simply the guardians of society's happiness and therefore burn books for they contain nothing but the destructive seeds of unhappiness.

Montag, the main protagonist, however, starts to have doubts. There's something in the way the world is that isn't right, he feels. Why do people never talk about anything of interest, he wonders? Why doesn't anyone listen anymore? Why would someone choose to burn themselves to death alongside the burning of their books? Surely, there must be more to life than this?
But for Montag there is nowhere to go to for answers apart from, perhaps, the very things he has spent his whole adult life destroying: Books.

'”It's not books you need,” an old English professor advises him, however “It's some of the things that once were in books. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it's not books at all you're looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”'

And that's the nub: Why do some people still desire and look for that magic while so many others don't? Why do some people choose to read books in a quest for that magic while so many others choose not to look for it anywhere at all? Why do some people take the time to read a book while so many others just want the summary or the soundbite? Are books actually still of any value in today's world or are there other things, other receptacles that have taken their place? If so, are these other receptacles of the same quality? Do they still convey the magic? Are books still worth the effort? Are people bored with books? Are people bored of reading?
More pertinently, why are people more than happy to scroll past hundreds of Facebook posts but can't be bothered to read a longer post on a blog?

There's a scene in Mike Leigh's film, Naked, where the anti-hero, Johnny, rants at his girlfriend: “Was I bored?” he asks her “No, I wasn't fuckin' bored. I'm never bored. That's the trouble with everybody - you're all so bored. You've had nature explained to you, and you're bored with it. You've had the living body explained to you, and you're bored with it. You've had the universe explained to you, and you're bored with it. So now you just want cheap thrills and like plenty of 'em, and it doesn't matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it's new, as long as it flashes and fucking bleeps in forty different colours. Well, whatever else you can say about me, I'm not fuckin' bored.”

Is this how the world now stands? Are the rants of Johnny in Naked and Montag in Fahrenheit 451 approximate depictions of the world today? Bored to death but enthralled to a vacuous tawdriness that flashes and bleeps in forty different colours? Built upon a funeral pyre of books?

Fahrenheit 451 isn't a masterpiece of literature by any means but it's certainly interesting, particularly so for anyone with an appreciation of books. French film director Francois Truffaut obviously thought so as well because he made a film of it in 1966 starring Julie Christie. The title, of course, has now entered into common language and that in itself marks it out as being worthy of attention – it being the temperature at which paper burns. The irony being that Fahrenheit 451 is also an entertaining read...
John Serpico

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Moments Of Reprieve - Primo Levi


Woody Allen once said that life is divided up between the horrible and the miserable. The horrible being those with, for example, a terminal illness and the miserable being everyone else. So you should be thankful if you're miserable. You're lucky to be miserable. Which kind of brings us to Primo Levi and the subject of Auschwitz.
Having survived the horrors of the Nazi death camps and the gruelling trek back to his Italian homeland after the Second World War came to an end, Primo Levi made it his mission to ensure the story of Nazi Germany and the concentration camps was made known to the world. To that end, from being a chemist he took up writing as a means to pass on his message.

In 1987 Levi was found dead at the bottom of his stairs at his house and his death was pronounced as suicide. It seemed that the experience of Auschwitz had finally caught up with him. It would make more sense, however, if his death was actually an accident and that he fell down the stairs rather than throwing himself down them. If suicide had been his intention, as a chemist he would have known far easier and far more efficient ways of killing himself through poison rather than the clumsy method of hurling himself down some stairs, potentially not dying in the process but merely ending up seriously injured.

Primo Levi wrote a number of books on the subject of the Nazi concentration camps, Moments of Reprieve being one of them. Essentially it's a collection of memories and thumbnail sketches of some of the people he encountered at Auschwitz. The thing is, very few of these people he writes about survived, which means that Levi's stories are like flowers laid at the graves of those now passed .
If it was the intention of the Nazis to dehumanize their prisoners before erasing their very presence from the earth, then by failing to remember those prisoners we are giving succour to that intention. By remembering the victims of the death camps we are keeping alight an eternal flame that in its own way helps to keep the darkness of totalitarian fascism at bay.

In one of the stories, entitled The Quiet City, Levi writes about a German Nazi collaborator who like himself was a chemist, the difference being that whilst Levi was a prisoner at Auschwitz, this particular German worked there willingly, turning a supposed blind eye to the atrocities going on around him.
Years later after the war, Levi writes a letter to him telling him that 'if Hitler had risen to power, devastated Europe and bought Germany to ruin, it was because many good German citizens behaved the way he did, trying not to see and keeping silent about what they did see.'
It's a brilliant, pertinent and very important point that stands today as a warning to mankind.

Moments Of Reprieve also contains a story entitled Rappoport's Testament that Chumbawamba once based a song of the same name on. It's an inspiring tribute to defiance whereby a fellow prisoner tells Levi that in spite of everything, he has not given up: 'If I meet Hitler in the other world, I'll spit in his face and I'll have every right to,' he says 'Because he didn't get the better of me.' 
Rappoport is one of those who didn't survive.

Auschwitz is a horrible subject but in its own very unassuming and quiet way, Moments Of Reprieve is a very good and very, very important book. 
John Serpico

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

A Multitude Of Sins - Hugh Cornwell


There is life's rich tapestry and there is Punk Rock's rich tapestry and now and again they are both one and the same. There are also, however, anomalies. The Stranglers position in the tapestry of Punk Rock was always a contentious one with them at times being ostracised and at other times loved. When they first started out in 1974 they had been deemed too young and not good enough musicians to be accepted into the pub rock scene alongside the likes of Dr Feelgood and Eddie And The Hot Rods. But they were then deemed too old and too good musically to be accepted by the Punk scene though they were happy to be called a Punk band by sections of the media as it gained them publicity and ultimately secured them a record contract.

Pete Waterman once said there were only two great English pop bands, The Beatles and The Stranglers. It's an opinion (and a soundbite) though not one that very many people would probably agree with. The Stranglers were decent enough. The aggression in their music was always of interest though their sexism and sometimes even misogyny irked, to put it lightly. And when the two were married together and they came across as being aggressively misogynist it was just repellent, basically, because it was done without even a sense of humour.

Hugh Cornwell, of course, was the lead vocalist and guitarist in The Stranglers and A Multitude Of Sins is his autobiography and it's a curious affair. Essentially there's something at the heart of it that seems to be missing. A dimension to it that's just not there. It's like he's holding back on something and because of this it comes across as being pedestrian. It's almost as if it's been written by rote, as if writing his autobiography is the thing to do at this stage in his career rather than the thing he feels a need to do.

There are some interesting bits in it, of course, but then there's bound to be given the history of The Stranglers. Hugh tells us of a gig in early 1976 at Walthamstow Town Hall where they play support to Kilburn And The High Roads, this being the last gig played by The High Roads before their vocalist Ian Dury quitting the next day to form The Blockheads. Bottom of the bill is a band dressed in demob suits going by the name Sex Pistols. This extraordinary gig, Hugh tells us, was seen by the grand total of about thirty people.
When The Stranglers support Patti Smith at The Roundhouse in '76, backstage after the gig Joe Strummer bursts into tears in Hugh's arms and screams “My band is shit, Hugh! I want a band like yours!” The following week Joe disbands the 101ers and very soon afterwards goes on to form The Clash.

According to Hugh, the unsung heroine of the Punk era is Shirley Bassey because if she hadn't been selling huge amounts of records in the mid-Seventies, United Artists Records would never have been able to sign The Stranglers, Dr Feelgood, 999, Wire and many others. Apparently, Shirley Bassey was the 'cash cow' of Punk and has never realised it.
Hugh claims responsibility for starting the trend of spitting at Punk gigs, and apologises for it. He says he was also approached to produce the first Psychedelic Furs album but was too busy so Steve Lillywhite stepped in - and the rest is history (for Psychedelic Furs fans). Oh, and he confirms that Golden Brown is about heroin.

Hugh talks quite openly about sex and drugs but again it's all a bit pedestrian. He admits to taking practically every drug under the sun apart from ketamine (horse tranquillizer, basically) and Ecstasy, which is funny because both used to be eaten like food where I come from. He also seems quite pleased to have taken part in threesomes but again where I come from it's considered weird when you're not having sex as a threesome. His only celebrity affair, he tells us, was with Hazel O'Connor but again that's quite amusing because who hasn't had Hazel O'Connor?

I'm joking, of course, or at least partly, but it's all that can be done to derive some enjoyment from Hugh's book. And actually, the funniest bit is when he mentions the ice cream van The Stranglers used to drive around in to get to gigs, though I should add that it's not intended to be funny. Can you imagine? The men in black? Aggressive. Bad attitudes. Bad motherfuckers. Drug fiends. Misogynist. Turning up in an ice cream van?

A multitude of sins? Not really...
John Serpico

Friday, 10 August 2018

Poor Cow - Nell Dunn


My only problem with Nell Dunn is that she was upper middle class writing about the working class and this has never sat comfortably with me because I've always believed the working class should be writing about themselves, not having it done by others. That said, with Nell Dunn all is forgiven because essentially she was an observer and her observations are very truthful. Unlike most other writers from different backgrounds writing about the working class, she's neither condescending, patronising, mocking or critical but rather supportive, sympathetic and participatory.

Poor Cow was Nell Dunn's second book following the success of her début, Up The Junction. It was published in 1967 and with that in mind it's a surprise in just how adult it is in its subject matter and how ribald the language is.
Actually, the subject matter isn't so much 'adult' just unexpectedly honest, open and unflinching. There's no pretension, no coyness, no shame and no agenda just a refreshing transparency in saying how it is whether it's regarding sex or crime or the nuts and bolts of everyday living.

Poor Cow is a series of snapshots of a young girl's life, living in London and bringing up a baby alone. Life, however, is never a straightforward narrative from A to B but more like a ball being flipped around a pinball machine with the bells and the buzzers and the flashing lights adding not only to the delight but to the frustration.
Poor Cow is a patchwork quilt of monologues, plain storytelling, letters (complete with spelling mistakes), snippets of songs, anecdotes and memories. The whole creating a tapestry of working class life described by one of the characters as having one foot in the grave and the other in the gutter.

All that the main character wants is that which she only deserves but life is a perpetual struggle so happiness when it comes is grabbed at with both hands only for it to always slip through her fingers like sand. Her only constant source of joy is from that which she never asked for – her child.
On the one hand, Poor Cow is a depressing tale though on the other hand it contains a lot of humour ('Every bloke I've been with has bin very, very clean that's my main interest – if someone doesn't look clean I won't have anything to do with him – well I'll give him a wank, I'm not that selfish.') and the kind of lust for life that can only come from those with the odds stacked against them. Laughter in the face of adversity is a tool for survival used not only to smite the high and mighty but also wife beater husbands, men in general, nosey neighbours, and anyone really who might be the cause of grief. Tellingly, the main character uses laughter constantly against herself from start to finish.

Nell Dunn isn't what you might call a brilliant writer as such but she is a brilliant observer and Poor Cow is a very good example of this as is Up The Junction. Poor Cow is like the book form equivalent of having the words 'love' and 'hate' tattooed onto a pair of knuckles...
John Serpico

Saturday, 4 August 2018

The Death Of Grass - John Christopher


It was during the summer heatwave as I watched the fields turn yellow, the reservoirs deplete, and swarms of insects emerge from the earth sending seagulls into a feeding frenzy that it became ever more clear how close society actually is to major disaster. Just four months earlier the snows had come bringing towns and cities to a grinding halt and the shops running out of food after a couple of days. How close exactly are we to the edge, I wondered?
Only recently when talking to one of the soldiers stationed at the army training camp close to where I live, the conversation turned to the worst case scenario from a no-deal Brexit. Current austerity might be a walk in the park compared to what could happen. Might there be major riots? Might the army be sent in to help restore order? He seemed to think so. It was discussions that soldiers at his camp had already held and not idle chat but serious debates.
Would you shoot me, I asked? Of course, he replied. Would you shoot your own mother, I asked? Too right, he said, she'd be the first...

The Death Of Grass by John Christopher is a book that had been out of print for years with original hardback and paperback copies being sold for silly money on the Internet. In 1970 it was turned into a film called No Blade Of Grass that likewise hasn't been shown on television or been easily available for years. Written in 1956, it's a cult classic that details the rapid disintegration of society when a virus wipes out all forms of grass; which means not only your typical green grass but also rice, wheat, corn and barley etc. This leads, of course, to there being no more sheep or cows etc due to there being nothing for them to graze on.

The story is relayed via the experiences of a typical middle class family and the effect the epidemic has upon them. It's not really the most thrilling of premises to view mass starvation through the eyes of the middle class but the way John Christopher handles it is quite brilliant. The first mention of the virus is when it's casually dropped into a conversation during a pleasant afternoon walk through a countryside pasture:
'There's such richness everywhere. Look at all this, and then think of the poor wretched Chinese.'
'What's the latest? Did you hear the news before you came out?'
Apparently there is mass starvation taking place in China, Peking is in flames, and the starving millions are swarming to get into Hong Kong to gain access to food. In India, Burma and the rest of Asia it's a similar story. It's anticipated that the swarming hungry will be machine-gunned to keep them at bay and if that fails then napalm will be dropped on them. All this stemming from a virus that kills grass.
Just as casually, it is then dropped into the conversation that the virus has now reached England.

It's the casual acceptance of multi-millions of starving people in the world that John Christopher highlights with this. The normalization of it. The concern that lasts for 5 minutes before the conversation moves on. The passive acceptance of there being nothing to be done about it. The passive acceptance of there being nothing they can personally do about it. Leave it to others is the accepted line. Leave it to the government.
Even when they know the virus is in England they sweep aside a frisson of fear because after all, this is England and they are English and they do things differently from the Chinese and other foreigners. The stiff upper-lip, the moral codes, the standards and the ethics are but a thin veneer, however, as they very rapidly break down to reveal the core sense of self-preservation at all costs.

As soon as the father of the family the story centres upon is confidentially informed that the virus is proving to be indestructible, that global mass starvation is pending and that the British government have hatched plans to bomb major British cities in a bid to cull the population so that some, at least, may stand a chance of surviving; all his middle class sensibilities are discarded and he turns into a lying, robbing, looting, ultra-conservative killer. Without a moment's hesitation he also then derides the altruism of others as being naïve and the displaying of basic human decency as being weakness.
Amusingly, in today's terms, the father could be called 'alt-right' and those he derides be called 'snowflakes'.

The main characters in the book are middle class and whilst John Christopher rips away the facade of their civility to expose the cold-bloodedness beneath, the story could just as easily have focussed upon a family from any other class. The difference being that the middle class family have the means and the connections to make a bid to escape to a sanctuary (in their case, an isolated farm in the north of England) and in that sense they can be lumped in with members of the government, the Royal Family, and other VIPs who are reported as having fled the UK to a sanctuary in Canada.
Those from any other class without the means and without the connections are simply abandoned and left to cope for themselves. They can go hang, take a hike, go to hell, or as writer Whittaker Chambers once put it: 'To a gas chamber – go!'

The Death Of Grass serves as a warning shot – a distress flare – signalling how close society actually is to total collapse. It serves as a reminder that come the time, if the ship should begin sinking that our leaders and our so-called 'betters' will leave us to drown if not firstly shooting us dead beforehand and then simply throwing our bodies to the sharks.
As Martin Luther King once pointed out, it's essentially socialism for the rich and dog eat dog turbo-capitalism for the poor. So when next there are food shortages, or when next the riverbeds run dry, there is really no room for us to complain. We can't say we've not been warned. Ultimately, we have only ourselves to blame...
John Serpico

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Street Art Exmouth Style


Looks like I'll be dining out tonight then...

Friday, 20 July 2018

Sabate Guerilla Extraordinary - Antonio Tellez


When the dream is over, what to do? When the music's over, do you turn off the light? When the rave has ended, must the dancing stop? When the war is lost, do you give up the battle?

Following the victory of Franco in the Spanish Civil War a wave of repression was unleashed against the Republicans; with anarchists, socialists and communists alike being rounded up and thrown into jails or simply handed the death penalty, put up against the wall and shot. Neighbouring countries (not least of all, England) turned a blind eye and continued to declare that it was an internal affair to Spain even as thousands of refugees fled into France to escape the persecution.
Whilst some chose to remain to act clandestinely against the Franco regime, a large number of the anarchist trade union, CNT, went into exile also as Spain buckled beneath the Fascists. For many, the fight had been knocked out of them by the experience of the Civil War and all they wanted was to be left in peace not only by Franco and his Fascist dictatorship but by former Republican comrades. An exception to this, however, was people like Francisco Sabate.

Antonio Tellez's book, Sabate Guerilla Extraordinary, as translated by Stewart Christie tells the tale of Sabate's life and ultimate demise under a hail of bullets. It's the story of an anarchist fighter who refused to capitulate to the forces of oppression; who chose not to run away from his enemies but rather to run at them – always suitably armed it should be said, with a Thompson submachine gun, a pistol and a couple of hand grenades.
In Spain to this day, the exploits of Sabate are the stuff of legend and his name has come to symbolise unrelenting resistance and never giving up. La lotta continua, as they say. And talking of the stuff of legend, as the reporter in John Ford's western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance said: 'When the legend becomes fact, print the legend', and this is exactly for good or bad what Antonio Tellez's book does.

It's a double-edged sword, however. On the one hand, much respect is given to Sabate who was undoubtedly a very brave man but at the same time there's not a shred of criticism offered about anything Sabate ever did and unfortunately some of his exploits deserve very much to be criticised, particularly regarding the bank robberies he committed and the terror inflicted upon innocent bystanders during these heists.
There is also the question of the knock-on effect of some of his actions and the way that all they did was to prompt the further ramping up of oppression by Franco and the harassing and jailing of known anarchist sympathisers within Spain.

Antonio Tellez's book is incredibly well researched though there's obviously a large amount of fiction in with it also, as well as stretches of the imagination accentuated in such lines as 'It would be no exaggeration to say that between 1945 and 1946 Sabate got to know almost every tree in every village and mountain in Catalonia.' No exaggeration? Really?
More pertinent than this, however, the two main points the book raises are interesting ones. Firstly, the question of what to do when the dream is over? In Sabate's case, of course, meaning the dream of freedom. Secondly, the question of truth over legend or legend over truth?
Sabate Guerilla Extraordinary, for all its enthusiasm and cheer-leading, unfortunately fails to really answer either of them...
John Serpico