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

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Exmouth Bound Soundtrack (Part 9)


Up and down the Avocet rail line, in and out of Exmouth, day in day out. And sometimes when we finish late at work our reward on our way home is the sight of the sun going down in what can only be described as a brilliantly beautiful blaze of glory...

And though we might realize it's not actually the sun "going down" but rather an illusion caused by the world spinning round, it doesn't detract any from the wonder of it all...

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Malatesta - Life & Ideas


According to writer George Woodcock, Errico Malatesta was 'the most realistic of all anarchists' and on reading Vernon Richard's Malatesta – Life & Ideas, I would tend to agree. I wonder, however, if being realistic is actually a virtue particularly when it comes to changing the world? Was John F Kennedy being realistic, for example, when he declared 'We choose to go to the moon'? Probably not but to the moon America went. 'Be realistic – demand the impossible' said the words of the prophets as written on Parisian walls in '68. There is no guilt in dreaming.

One of the main differences between Malatesta and Kropotkin was in their espousal of different methods and processes to attain anarchy. Kropotkin, forever the optimist, believed anarchy would eventually and naturally happen, aided and abetted by anarchist propaganda of the spoken and written word. Malatesta, on the other hand, whilst not dismissing the importance of propaganda accentuated the need for revolutionary violence particularly in regard to the inevitable backlash from forces on the side of and in defence of the status quo.

Malatesta understood that governments would not just whither away or relinquish any of their powers and riches without a fight and it was this fight that Malatesta insisted we need to be aware of. There would be a backlash and a violent one at that, and refusing to acknowledge this sounded the death knell for any revolution from the start. Those who only make half a revolution dig their own graves, as the Situationists of '68 advised.
Organising in preparation for that backlash was just as important as the steps needed to be taken to instigate a revolutionary situation in the first place. The importance of anarchist propaganda, said Malatesta, was in determining the revolution and influencing the direction it might take so as to ensure its success. The insurrection determines the revolution. Everything depends on what people are capable of wanting, meaning that if they want very little then they will obtain very little. And if people aren't prepared to fight and be prepared to continue fighting, then all will be lost and will remain to be so.

This is all well and good, you might say, but a revolution is never going to happen and anyone believing one might is simply deluding themselves. Which is where Malatesta comes in again. Is the world as it is all that we can hope for? Are we really unable to think beyond present conditions? Must man always remain as he is today?
'The main plank of anarchism is the removal of violence from human relations,' as Malatesta put it. Is that really too much to ask for? No, it's not – of course it's not. The problem being (for some) is that Malatesta also meant the removal of the violence of exploitation, of oppression, injustice, inequality, of religion, government and police.
'What we want is the complete destruction of the domination and exploitation of men by men,' said Malatesta 'We want bread, freedom, love and science – for everybody.' Is that really too much to ask for? Of course it's not. So why then don't we have it? Is it perhaps, as Malatesta suggested, because we are simply unwilling to actually fight for it? And until the time comes when we are willing to fight it will indeed remain an elusive dream or at best a dream that is easily quashed.

Errico Malatesta, alongside the likes of Bakunin, Proudhon, Kropotkin and Emma Goldman was one of the anarchist greats, being an exponent of anarchism in its purist form. Not for him any watering down of ideas in a bid to make them more 'acceptable', 'palatable' or 'achievable'. Not for him the rejection of revolutionary violence for being 'counter-productive' but then also not for him the embracing of violence to the exclusion of any other means. For Malatesta, both violence and peacefulness had equal roles to play. For Malatesta, the most important thing was action, and continuous action at that.

If Malatesta were alive today he would say it's actually the watering down and diluting of anarchist ideas that has led to anarchy still not coming to fruition. He would say it's moderation, the pursuit of concessions and the lack of will to act that is the cause of the blockage. And if Malatesta were alive today he would most certainly not be voting for Jeremy Corbyn...

John Serpico

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

A Rose For Winter - Laurie Lee


Fifteen years after being rudely ejected from Spain during the Civil War, Laurie Lee returns to the country that has indelibly marked him. Time and tide, however, waits for no man and the Spain to which Lee returns has now forgotten him but then could it have been any other way?
Since he was last there, of course, a number of events have taken place, not least the Second World War. Spain is now ruled by Franco though this is no longer Lee's primary concern particularly when the sights, the sounds and the smells of Spain are so intoxicating. This, then, is the focus of A Rose For Winter: The beauty and the tragedy of Spain in all its glory as seen through the eyes of an English poet.

Lee waxes lyrical and sings the praises of everything Spanish, finding beauty and eternity in even the most lowliest of beggars. On his first trip there as described in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, he had been little more than a beggar himself, earning pesetas and food primarily from playing his violin in market squares.
When last he was there as described in A Moment Of War, it was as a youthful idealist, come to join the International Brigades in a bid to halt Franco and the rise of Fascism. This time, however, he's essentially a tourist but though it's unspoken, it's obvious he also has a few ghosts to lay to rest.

This aspect of A Rose For Winter is an interesting one, particularly as it's unspoken though clearly there between the lines. But what does it benefit a man to revisit his past? Is there ever anything there to be found? After all, if the past is a foreign country then does that not mean it is full of strangers? It would appear so, as this is exactly what Lee finds. All his friends from his previous sojourns through Spain have now long gone and even the locals still there left holding the fort are unclear as to where.

After the events of the Spanish Civil War, truth and in particular the truth about the past is unendurable and only the memory and the tricks played by memory remain. No more so is this illustrated than when Lee enquires about the poet Lorca and the circumstances surrounding his death. Every story Lee is told is different, except in its effort to prove that Lorca's killing had not been political. Regarded as a communist in the Franco-dominated city of Granada where he lived, Lorca's death, however, was clearly nothing but political.

Near the end of the book, Lee meets an ex-captain of the Republican Army who had fought against Franco during the Civil War. Whilst his comrades in their thousands had been executed, he had been thrown into jail under sentence of death but then forgotten about. Having managed to escape, he was now condemned to living as a fugitive, unable to ever return to his family.
All we wished for,” he tells Lee “Was an honest life. A life of clean breath and happy conscience. We wished to raise ourselves a few steps from the dust only. Why were those in the high chairs so terrified? We in Spain were the first victims of that fear. Hired gunmen were sent against us, and they slaughtered the best of us. Why did none of you stop this thing? It was the beginning of evil. All the world is a prison now. And the spirit of man is polluted.

If the killing of the poet Lorca is the guilt of Granada, Lee surmises, then the lack of help and support from the West for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War is the living shame of the world. The consequences forever echoing down the ages.
A Rose For Winter is a lament, a paean to all that was, all that could have been and all that is left of a dream called 'Spain'. It is a hymn to life and to the living but also an elegy to death and to the dead but perhaps more so to the ghosts of the dead and to the ghost of a dream...
John Serpico

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Thomas Chatterton selected poems


Thomas Chatterton – suicide visionary. Bristol boy poet. Petulant anti-hero. Dark angel. The marvellous boy, according to Wordsworth. The poet's poet.
“Hey, Chatterton! What are you rebelling against?”
“What've you got?”
Thomas Chatterton, the poet whose death as immortalised in Henry Wallis's painting is better known than any of his actual poems. The poet whose statue stands (or rather, sits) at Bristol Harbourside, though his works remain unread and unknown by most who pass by it. Thomas Chatterton, one of Bristol's most famous sons though few know very little about apart from him being a suicide.

'What is war and all its joys? Useless mischief, empty noise.
What are arms and trophies won? Spangles glittering in the sun.
Rosy Bacchus, give me wine. Happiness is only thine.'
From Chatterton's poem A Bacchanalian, written in 1769 when he was just 16 years of age. Make of these lines what you will but if nothing else they tell us a little something about Chatterton that pulls him away from the grip of academia.
And so too the following lines from his poem The Defence:
'If in myself I think my notion just, The Church and all her arguments are dust.
Religion's but Opinion's bastard son, a perfect mystery, more than three in one.
Happy the man whose reason bids him see, Mankind are by the state of nature free.
Who, thinking for himself despises those, that would upon his better sense impose.'

Chatterton was a nonconformist. A dissenter, a freethinker, a free spirit, a misfit, and an outsider. Chatterton was a rebel. Born into poverty in 1752, at the age of 8 he was put into one of Edward Colston's charity schools where by all accounts the pupils were treated no better than criminals in a prison. At the age of 10 he began to write poetry. At age 15 he left the school and was apprenticed to a local attorney where he was tasked to copying legal documents.
Chatterton had hated the oppression of the school and the teachers there and likewise he hated the oppression of his workplace. No wonder then that according to his biographers he felt something of a grudge towards society and in particular towards figures of authority.

His only solace was in reading and writing though being so young of age and from an ill-educated background, nothing he ever wrote was going to be taken seriously though it was plain to see he was in fact in possession of a rare intelligence. Even perhaps, a rare genius? No wonder then that he took to forgery, passing his writing off as being written by a fictitious priest of the fifteenth century called Sir Thomas Rowley.
And this, subsequently, is what Chatterton became known for: as being the master faker. The forger supreme of poems.

At age 17, Chatterton set off for London to earn his living as a writer. Six months later he was dead by his own hand, poisoned by arsenic. His body found sprawled out on his bed in his attic room in Holborn, torn up fragments of manuscripts strewn across the floor.

Nowadays there are two schools of thought regarding Chatterton's death, both of which actually have very little foundation. Indeed, because the records of the inquest have long been lost there is very little evidence of anything. Even his unmarked grave has been lost to time.
One of the schools of thought says that Chatterton took his life due to him not making any headway in London as a writer and him not wanting to return to Bristol as a failure. It was pride that did for him. The other school of thought says that Chatterton's death was in actual fact an accident, brought about by him self-subscribing arsenic to himself to help cure a dose of gonorrhoea.
To these, however, I would add a third thought: Chatterton's suicide was intentional but committed as a final and ultimate act of defiance against all that he'd been born into.

Chatterton would have known full well that suicide was viewed by the Church, by his teachers at his school and by his employers, elders and betters of Bristol as an act of wickedness. As blasphemy. As a sin. An ultimate sin, even. All his life he had been mistreated by authority, offering him nothing but drudgery, hypocrisy and disrespect. Through his forgeries he had shown them all to be fools and no better than him in any way; the difference being that they were wealthy and he was penniless. Through his poems he had lambasted the morals and beliefs of the day, as well as individuals such as Horace Walpole whom Chatterton had once approached for patronage but who had refused him in no uncertain terms.
What better way to cock a snook at the world than by removing himself from it? What better way to express how little he cared for the values of the world by refusing to take part in them? Self-destruction – suicide – was the ultimate, big fuck off to the world, to everyone in it and to everything held dear by everyone in it.
“Hey, Chatterton! What are you rebelling against?”
“What've you got?”
Thomas Chatterton – suicide visionary. The marvellous boy...

John Serpico

Friday, 18 May 2018

Guilty Pleasures (Part 18)


A pale imitation of a shadow of the Bee Gees is better than no Bee Gees at all, as they say. And like God, if the Bee Gees didn't exist they would have to be invented. Which brings us neatly to Jive Talkin' who, according to the Wakefield Express are the 'original and best Bee Gees tribute act in the world'. And who would dare argue with the Wakefield Express?

The Bee Gees, of course, were once anathema to a generation incubated in the white heat of Punk Rock and suckled on the flaccid teats of everything alternative when the word actually meant 'alternative' and not just the same old shit covered in a layer of talcum powder.
Oh, how we laughed at those who took the Bee Gees seriously and who saw them even as role models. Saturday Night Fever was in no way the soundtrack to our lives as we vandalised the Council estates in which we were born. Far from it. The Bee Gees were bereft of sex and drugs and revolution and therefore held no meaning or appeal to us in the slightest.

When the mode of the music changes, however, the walls of the city shake. The wheel of the world keeps on turning bringing everything eventually full circle and here we all are now and just look where we're at. Nowadays it seems the alternative to the 'alternative' is a Bee Gees tribute act playing at the Exmouth Pavilion for £18.50 a ticket. Who'd have thought?
And will I be there? You bet! With my Cuban heels, my feather boa and my open-neck shirt I'll be dancing my clogs off and strutting my stuff til the break of dawn and the sun is shining on the cow shed.
See you on the dance floor...