Saturday, 16 September 2017

The Outsider - Albert Camus


Camus goes for the jugular in what is probably his most famous book, The Outsider, and as everyone knows (or should?) it's all about a man who kills an Arab on a beach though of course we're talking Albert Camus here so it's not just as simple as that.
The man, by the name of Meursault, is put on trial for the murder but it soon becomes clear that he's being judged not so much for the crime he's committed but more for his attitude toward life and the meaning of it. As the prosecutor puts it, Meursault is without a soul, nor 'access to any humanity nor to any of the moral principles which protect the human heart'. Indeed, he's accused of having a heart so empty 'that it forms a chasm which threatens to engulf society'.

There's no denying that Meursault committed the murder but when trying to explain the reason for the killing, all he can say is that it was 'because of the sun'. By this, Camus is putting forward just another way of describing the state of being when everything in one precise moment is absolutely clear to the beholder. The same state of being that Sartre described as 'nausea', that William Burroughs described as 'naked lunch', and that William Blake described as 'illumination'.
Meursault is fully aware of the absurdity of life and of the human condition though there's nothing at all studied about his vision. Rather, it is as natural to him as day and night. He simply accepts it as the way things are and lives his life accordingly. Meursault's neither a rebel nor a social misfit, that is until following the murder he comes up against the mechanism of the law and comes to realise that in actual fact he's at complete odds with the 'natural order' and the games, lies and dictates that govern most other people's lives.

Ever since it was first published in 1942, The Outsider has been pored over by critics, academics, philosophers and intellectuals so who am I to add anything to the study of it? All that I can see in the book has been seen a thousand times already and debated, discussed and dissected accordingly.
I'll say one thing, however: Camus uses an extreme example - as in the committing of a murder - to illustrate his ideas regarding the condition of man. Others have used other examples and in a joining of the dots we arrive at George Orwell who once wrote 'If you want a vision of the future, then imagine a boot stomping on a human face - forever'.
The important thing here being the acceptance of the boot on the face. The acquiescence. The being content with that vision, particularly if the boot is a soft, velvety one rather than steel toe-capped. Whether ruled by an iron fist or a velvet glove, it still means being ruled.

Then with a further joining of the dots we arrive at Pierre-Joseph Proudhon who is worth quoting in full: 
'To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated at, regulated, docketed, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, weighed, censored, ordered about, by men who have neither the right, nor the knowledge, nor the virtue.
To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished.
It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonoured.
That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality'.

The common threads running between and linking the words of Camus, Orwell and Proudhon should be obvious. These are universal themes being ruminated over and it's one of the things that makes The Outsider such a powerful and thought-provoking book. And I say that with the caveat that even though The Outsider might be Camus' most famous book, I'd argue that it's not even his best.
John Serpico

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Miami And The Siege Of Chicago - Norman Mailer


First published in 1968, Miami And The Siege Of Chicago sees Norman Mailer reporting back from the American political front line of that same year where he regrets to inform us that not all is well in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
For the first part of the book he's at the Republican Convention in Miami where it's a three-pronged contest between Rockefeller, Nixon and Reagan over who will be the candidate to lead the Republicans in the upcoming Presidential election. Even in those early days, Mailer is able to sound out the appeal of Reagan and he nails him pretty accurately. Nixon, however, is a whole other kettle of fish.
They didn't call Nixon 'Tricky Dick' for nothing and Mailer spends a fair amount of thought trying to get behind the public persona. Mailer's no fan of Nixon (and indeed, is no fan of any of them particularly) but he soon comes to realise that the smart money should be laid on him to win. When it comes to Nixon finally delivering his speech to the Republican faithful, Mailer quotes it extensively and it's a no brainer. It's a brilliant speech and how could anyone fail to vote for the person delivering it?

We all now know, of course, that Nixon was selling snake oil and it was all smoke and mirrors. At least Reagan was being upfront about his intentions even if delivered in that good ol' boy gee-whizz-ain't-it-grand-down-on-the-farm manner that years later would appeal to so many. And Nixon was a war criminal also, some say. Well, we know that Kissinger was but did Nixon actually do anything worse than any other President that preceded him? In the cold light of day, aren't all American Presidents war criminals to some degree?
What is apparent from Mailer's report, however, is that the Miami Republican Convention of that year is weirdness unbound, unfettered and on the rampage. It's a sure sign that things are getting strange when baby elephants dressed in tutus start to get flown in from California. A Salvador Dali garden party has nothing on it.
The significance of all this and the significance of Mailer's book to this day and age is in the way that the seeds from which today's America has grown are on full display here. They've all been planted and the packets from which they've been taken have been tied onto little sticks showing exactly what has been sown and where. As Obama pointed out, Trump didn't just come out of nowhere. He's been a long time coming. Indeed, every American President since Nixon has enabled the triumph of someone like Trump - even Obama himself.

For the second part of the book it's over to Chicago for the Democratic Convention of that same year where all kinds of back-handers and double dealings are taking place as the Democrats decide on who's going to replace Lyndon Johnson. According to Mailer, however, that decision has already been made in private back rooms and now it's just for the charade to be played out among the delegates.
Outside on the streets an altogether different election is taking place involving a pig by the name of Pigasus being nominated for the role of leader by thousands of demonstrators. It's out on the streets where the real story is though Mailer smells trouble - serious trouble - and on looking at the hippy hordes descending upon Chicago to protest the Vietnam war he wonders to himself: 'Were these odd unkempt children the sort of troops with whom one wished to enter battle?'

On the instruction of the Mayor of Chicago the police come down heavy, exhibiting a very liberal use of tear gas and baton upon protesters, the press, and celebrity spokespersons including Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jean Genet alike. The police simply don't care whom they assault because as Mailer points out, if the protesters are the voice of the revolution then the batons of the police are the voice of the counter-revolution.
The violence meted out by the police is harsh and merciless, and even at times inexplicable. Mailer relays one such incident of many that underlines this: A phalanx of police charge into a group of elderly bystanders, women, children and reporters who are standing behind police lines in front of the restaurant window of a Hilton Hotel, doing nothing more than just watching the demonstrators across the street. Terrified by the sudden, unprovoked and violent assault upon them, they fall back against the window causing it to shatter and they all tumble backwards through the broken shards of glass. The police then climb through the broken window and begin beating them further before arresting them all.

In the face of such violence, Allen Ginsberg's advice to the demonstrators to chant "Om" seems oddly insufficient. Others of a more militant bent such as Jerry Rubin and the Yippies, however, are willing to fight back and their ranks are swelled by many who having had their pacifism beaten out of them by the police see no other option but to take up bottles and bricks and start building barricades.
Of course, up against the military might of the police and the National Guard the odds are stacked against them but rather than conceding defeat and melting away into the shadows, the demonstrators return again and again day after day in their bid to march upon the Amphitheatre where the Democrats are holding their Convention. Mailer comes to recognise the bravery of the demonstrators and concedes that they are indeed fine troops, the sort that any general would be proud to have. Even braver, possibly, than the troops out in Vietnam.
Mailer also concludes that come the Presidential election he'll not be voting for anyone at all - neither Democrat or Republican - because he's ended up throwing his lot in with the demonstrators and those of the New Left. 'We may win, the others are so stupid.' Mailer writes 'Heaven help us when we do.'

What goes around comes around. Swings and roundabouts. The world has changed since 1968, for sure, but on reading Mailer's book it's apparent how the battles remain the same. In a way it's almost a valuable lesson in that we're stuck in a vicious circle that some might even say is becoming ever more vicious. There's no obvious way out, it would seem. Not through the ballot box, not through mass actions and street protests and not through individual 'terrorist' action. After decades of peaceful protest and innumerable violent actions the same power structures remain, the same wars are waged, and the same lives crushed before they even start. What to do is the million dollar question and the answer (or at least today's answer - tomorrow's might be different) is to do what you can, if you're so inclined. It's really as very simple as that. Probably.
John Serpico

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Street Art Exmouth Style (Part 19)


Not so much street art Exmouth style but art all the same and in Exmouth. There's a fellow who goes down the beach and he spends ages building towers of pebbles and rocks. Slowly and very carefully balancing the pebbles on top of one and other in full knowledge that come the end of the day when the tide comes in his sculptures will be washed away.
I was watching him doing this and I was thinking: 'This is art and this man is an artist.' And I thought: 'That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to build my own pebble sculptures. Physically and metaphorically.' And I thought: 'That's what I'm going to be when I grow up. I'm going to be an artist.'

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Class Warfare - Noam Chomsky


You can't really beat a good clenched-fist salute, can you? Power to the people and all that. Che Guevara? Power to the people! Wolfie Smith? Power to the people! Noam Chomsky? Power to the people! Jeremy Corbyn? Er...
The thing about Noam Chomsky is that for the past forty years or more he's been the holder of the crown for the world's foremost heavy-weight political thinker and whenever anyone steps up to challenge or criticise him they're fully aware of this. Or they should be. For this reason any critic or challenger is almost always going to be viewed as trying to make a name for themselves on the back of defeating Chomsky in an argument or even as a contender for the title.
In a lot of instances it's patently obvious that the challenge being made to Chomsky's political analysis is purely for the kudos in throwing a hat into the ring, so as to somehow prove the challenger or the critic is not intimidated by Chomsky and that they are, in fact, Chomsky's equal if not intellectual better. Apart from this there's nothing really to be gained from having a go at Chomsky. There's certainly nothing to be gained politically, which means the challenge or the critique is only being made as a bid to shoot Chomsky down.
Whenever Chomsky is in a position to be able to offer a reply (particularly in live situations) he will very calmly draw a pen from his pocket, tap it on the table, and in his typical mild manner, very politely tear the challenger or the critic apart like a Samurai warrior drawing his sword and cutting down a would-be assassin. More often than not, the challenger/critic is left hapless and exposed by Chomsky as the intellectual pygmy they always turn out to be. See Chomsky's interview on YouTube with BBC journalist Andrew Marr as a perfect example.

In Class Warfare, Chomsky touches upon this subject and admits that it worries him: 'There's a real invisibility of left intellectuals who might get involved.' he says to David Barsamian "I'm not talking about people who want to come by and say, okay, I'm your leader. Follow me. I'll run your affairs. There's always plenty of those people around. But the kind of people who are just always doing things, like whether it was workers' education or being in the streets or being around where there's something they can contribute, helping organizing - that's always been part of the vocation of intellectuals from Russell and Dewey on to people who are doing important things. There's a visible gap there today, for all kinds of reasons.'

Another problem he highlights in the book is the 'personalization' involved in the public talks he gives and the gap between the huge audiences that attend the talks and the follow-up, as in the far lower numbers actually physically getting involved with things politically.
This is evident with events such as the annual Anarchist Bookfair in London where thousands of people pass through the doors of whatever venue it's being held at but when it's all kicking off the following week or whenever, they're nowhere to be seen. All those thousands of people never seem to make an appearance on the street. You see some, of course, and you subsequently get to know them but for the vast number, you never catch sight of them again - until the next bookfair.

Not that Chomsky is infallible at all, as evidenced only recently with the social media kerfuffle following Chomsky's remarks about Antifa being a "major gift to the Right, including the militant Right, who are exuberant." Such a comment would be par for the course from most other quarters but because it came from Chomsky it was immediately controversial. Just search the Internet for the arguments it caused. As a caveat, however, Chomsky does always say "Don't believe anything I say. Go out and find out yourself."

For all that, Class Warfare as the title for this book is a bit of a misnomer as it hardly touches the subject at all. In fact, the only time Chomsky actually mentions 'class warfare' is when describing corporate propaganda: 'The U.S. has a much more class-conscious business community, for all kinds of historical reasons. It didn't develop out of feudalism and aristocracy. So there weren't the conflicting factors you had in other places - the highly class conscious business community, very Marxist in character, vulgar Marxist, fighting a bitter class war, and very aware of it. You read international publications and it's like reading Maoist pamphlets half the time. They don't spend billions of dollars a year on propaganda for the fun of it. They do it with a purpose. For a long time the purpose was to resist and contain human rights and democracy and the whole welfare state framework, the social contract, that developed over the years. They wanted to contain it and limit it. Now they feel, in the current period, that they can really roll it back. They'd go right back to satanic mills, murdering poor people, basically the social structure of the early nineteenth century. That's the situation we're in right now. These huge propaganda offensives are a major part of it.'

Apart from this, it's business as usual with Chomsky being questioned about the manufacturing of consent, American government policies, Indonesia, and the Middle East. One of the most interesting parts is when he talks about an address he'd made at an anarchist conference in Australia where he'd spoken about how he'd like to strengthen the federal government: 'The reason is, we live in this world, not some other world. And in this world there happens to be huge concentrations of private power which are as close to tyranny and as close to totalitarian as anything humans have devised, and they have extraordinary power. They are unaccountable to the public. There's only one way of defending rights that have been attained or extending their scope in the face of these private powers, and that's to maintain the one form of illegitimate power that happens to be somewhat responsive to the public and which the public can indeed influence. So you end up supporting centralised state power even though you oppose it.'
The relevance of this in the wake of Brexit and the backing of Corbyn by a lot of anarchists in the last General Election is glaring.

The best bit in the book, however, is probably what appears to be almost an aside that Chomsky makes, when he says: 'The question that comes up over and over again, and I don't really have an answer is: 'It's terrible, awful, getting worse. What do we do? Tell me the answer.' The trouble is, there has not in history ever been any answer other than: Get to work on it.'
And that's as good advice - if not better - as any that could be given.
John Serpico

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Faithfull - Marianne Faithfull


The last time I saw Joe Strummer on a stage I thought yes, that's a genuine living legend up there. A rock'n'roll icon personified. I had the same feeling when I saw Johnny Cash, that yes, we should be humble in this man's presence. It's like when you see a Van Gogh painting in real life or a wonder of the world like the Statue of Liberty; it's confirmation that beauty and greatness and true art and soul actually exists and that you know it's true because you've seen it with your own eyes.
A similar accolade I would bestow upon Marianne Faithfull who, when I first saw her live on stage practically filled the venue with the history she carried. It was like watching an eclipse of the sun. Some are born to sweet delight, some are born to endless night, as William Blake put it. Marianne Faithfull is one of those born to sweet delight though of course, it's not all been plain sailing.

First published in 1994, Faithfull is Marianne's autobiography and it's very good indeed. It's no holds barred. A big, healthy dose of sex, drugs, rock'n'roll and suicide a-go-go.
Cast as the quintessential English rose by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog-Oldham, Marianne immediately puts that myth to bed and reveals something a little more stranger. She is, in fact, the daughter of an Austrian-Hungarian refugee who married an English eccentric so as to escape the tumult of post-war Germany. To boot, her mother's great-uncle was Leopold Baron von Sacher-Masoch whose novel Venus um Pelz gave rise to the term masochism, which in turn inspired the track Venus In Furs by the Velvet Underground. Marianne's own grandfather was a sexologist who had run off with a circus dancer and who had invented a proto-orgone accumulator called the Frigidity Machine.

A whole gamut of topics, incidents and events are covered by Marianne but then seeing as she's lived through the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, this is only to be expected. One obvious topic is the Rolling Stones and her relationship with them, and Marianne duly delivers along with unique insights and interpretations of Dylan and The Beatles.
Dylan's Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands is apparently about her, as is the Stones' Let's Spend The Night Together. Under My Thumb and 19th Nervous Breakdown are about Jagger's then girlfriend, Chrissie Shrimpton. Dylan's Just Like A Woman is about Allen Ginsberg. Were we all meant to know these things already, I wonder?
Brian Jones: No Godstar he, as Psychic TV once declared but rather 'a mess - neurasthenic and hypersensitive... a self-indulgent and brittle monster', made worse by copious consumption of LSD.
Keith Richards: Everything you've heard about him, everything you've read about him, and everything you imagine about him is true. On top of this, for Marianne, the best night she's ever had in her life was the night she had sex with him.
Mick Jagger: Mild mannered and middle class. Not a huge drug taker (compared to most) but with two sides to his personality, revealed to Marianne during LSD sessions with him. Bisexual rather than polymorphous and a bit tight with money. A narcissist - surprise, surprise.

A significant episode that Marianne expounds upon is the police raid upon Redlands, Keith Richard's manor house in Sussex, from which Jagger and Richards faced jail sentences for possession of drugs and Marianne became forever associated with Mars bars. It's obvious from reading her book that if the Mars bar incident was in any way true then she would be candid enough to confess to it. After all, if she's candid enough to confess to a tryst with Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins then there's not really much left to be shy about. The fact that she denies it begs the question 'How did the Mars bar myth come about?'.
Well, according to Marianne it came from the police as a way of destroying her, the Stones and subsequently the culture the Stones were part of - or the British annexe of it, at least. All brought about through collusion between the Establishment and its Home Office minions, MI5, the police and quite probably the CIA. But it doesn't make sense, you might say, why would the Establishment be bothered about a few hippies taking drugs? After all, Marianne Faithfull was only a silly pop star and the Stones just a stupid rock'n'roll band. And you wouldn't be wrong. At the time, however, they were all being viewed as the harbingers of the collapse of Western civilisation. Enemies of the State, even.
According to Marianne: 'While the Stones did, in one sense, represent anarchy in a much more concrete way than the Sex Pistols ten years later, the whole thrust of their rebellion was far too disorganized (true anarchy!) to have been any real threat to anybody. But what is a revolution, even a revolution in style, as ours was, without stepping a few feet over the line? It was the symptoms of something beyond their control that bothered the little men in frock coats. Blatant hedonism, promiscuous sexuality, drugs, mysticism, radical politics, bizarre clothes and, above all, kids with too much money! It was all trundling in its own feckless way towards destruction of the status quo without even actually intending it, and the standard bearers of this children's crusade were the Rolling Stones. And there was I behind them all the way, urging them on.'

Rather than being self-styled street fighting men as perceived by the old men of Eton, the Stones et al were more the children of William Burroughs with drugs being their true forte. This too was the arena in which Marianne excelled to sometimes tragic but often comic effect. At a party in Kensington she's offered cocaine, a drug she's never seen before. Six large lines are laid out by the host and Marianne's given a hundred dollar bill.
'What do you do?' she asks. 'You put it in your nose and you snort it,' she's told. 'I knelt down and snorted all six lines. His face was a scream: half amazed that I'd done it all and half appalled. I didn't know the drug etiquette. I quickly learned.'

Her new found hobby led to the song Sister Morphine, Marianne's attempt at making art out of a pop song that subsequently became - if not a pop hit - her signature tune. For all that, it was Anita Pallenberg who starred alongside Jagger in the film Performance, rather than Marianne, which is the point that signalled the end of Marianne's and Jagger's relationship: 'Performance changed everything,' as she puts it.
The album Broken English was Marianne's piece de resistance but before recording it she had spent two years sitting on a wall being a junky in Soho but even this episode is of interest: 'Out on the street I began to see how kind and compassionate people could be. It was junkies and winos who restored to me my faith in humanity. People think that my time with Mick was this glorious moment in my life because of all the money, fame and adulation and, while it's true I do like a bit of glamour now and again, I knew that the life Mick and I were leading wasn't reality; real life is what's happening on the street.'
These were the Punk years, and whilst Jagger was getting the door to Malcolm McLaren's shop slammed shut in his face by Johnny Rotten (or so the legend goes), Marianne was sharing the same drug dealer as Sid Vicious and inviting Rotten and the Punk 'elite' to her wedding. Though even then she wasn't entirely safe from barbed criticism as shown by when Vivienne Westwood visits Marianne in her mansion-like squat: 'So this is how you old hippies live is it?' Vivienne sneers.

There's so much relayed in Marianne's autobiography that it's impossible to convey how good it is. Practically everything she writes about is of equal interest and of equal importance. As a document of the Sixties and Seventies it's invaluable because not only was she there in the thick of it but because it's also from a woman's point of view rather than from another member of the boys rock'n'roll club. Those that only know of Marianne from her d├ębut single As Tears Go By may well be quite shocked by her confessions but those who also know the re-recorded version and even view it as the superior one will be mightily satisfied, as will those who love the track Why D'Ya Do It?

As an end note, Marianne now lives by herself in Paris. She's still with us. She's survived. And above all - she's happy.
John Serpico

Friday, 4 August 2017

Songs Of Innocence And Of Experience - William Blake


There's Blake's Songs Of Innocence And Of Experience... and all the rest is propaganda.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Guilty Pleasures (Part 17)


I saw Status Quo in Exmouth last Sunday. Or at least they purported to be Status Quo. They didn't fool me, however, because they looked nothing like them and even the name wasn't quite the same. They called themselves Quo-incidence, and they were playing at the Exmouth Cider Festival.
There are some things in life that go hand-in-hand, isn't there? Fish and chips, Morcambe and Wise, er... night and day, um... love and hate, ... er... Status Quo and cider! They were onto a winner straight away, really, playing this gig.

I was watching them and I was thinking 'If I was on drugs or pissed out of my brain then they'd be really good. I could tune-in to their 12-bar blues extended jams and groove away into infinity. I could circle the world and square the circle, turn reality back in on itself and turn cartwheels in the snow storm of my mind.'
Alas, as it was only 4 o'clock in the afternoon and not being a northern industrial imbiber, I was stone-cold sober, which meant rather than being 'really good' Status Quo were instead merely 'good'. Looking at the rest of the audience, they seemed to be treating the concert as a rather sedate affair with very little nodding of heads let alone full-on head-banging. On closer inspection I realized it was because they were all too wrecked to even move. On the outside they may have looked like strangely beautiful Easter Island statues but on the inside they were in the delirium of a cider-fuelled frenzy. You could see it in their eyes. They were in rapture and Status Quo were the heavenly choir.

It begged the question, actually: How come Status Quo aren't as revered as say, the Ramones? Both bands led long and distinguished careers, both being globally (and fabulously) famous. Both produced seminal and unquestionably classic songs and albums and both went equally astray over the years, producing some pretty ropey rubbish. Both stuck to an almost rigid formula and both laid down a gauntlet of examples to follow and to most definitely avoid.
So how come Status Quo lack the same critical respect as bestowed upon the Ramones? How come wearing a Status Quo t-shirt is decidedly uncool whilst wearing a Ramones t-shirt is moderately hip, even when purchased in Primark?
Such are the mysteries of the Universe.

For all that, I would have preferred a Ramones tribute band over a Status Quo one but such is life and you can't always get what you want though sometimes you might find - as someone once sang - you get what you need. Do the Ramones go hand-in-hand with cider? Is a Status Quo tribute band what we need? Are there even any Ramones tribute bands around nowadays?

And by the way, if anyone thinks Bristol and Somerset are good for cider then I should let you know that there are people down here in Devon whose whole lives are one big, never-ending cider festival with the soundtrack to their lives being Status Quo's Paper Plane. And there's nothing wrong with that in the slightest, I might add.