Thursday, 28 December 2017

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning - Laurie Lee


You can tell a book is going to be good when it immediately evokes memories, thoughts and feelings from the well of your being, and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee is one such book.
Just a few pages in and I'm reminded of setting off for the Stonehenge Free Festival one sunny morning and at the bottom of my street bumping into a school friend who was on his way to his apprenticeship at the local factory. "Where are you going?" he asked me as he eyed-up my rucksack and sleeping bag. "I'm going to the Stonehenge festival," I told him. And the look he gave me was one of incredulity and envy, as if to ask 'How is such a thing possible?'
I'm reminded of when I was but a boy at school and my first experience of a riot. The police had for some reason invaded the council estate where I lived and were having bricks thrown at them by local youth. I was in amongst the crowds watching the goings-on when a large brick arced through the air and landed full-square onto the windscreen of a police riot van, causing it to cave-in with an almighty bang and smash into a thousand cubes of glass. The crowds roared their approval and I suddenly thought - my god, this isn't vandalism, or a criminal act, or anything bad in the slightest, my god - this is an act of freedom.
I'm reminded of J18 in the City of London years later - pre-Seattle - and devastating the Square Mile, smashing the banks around the Stock Exchange and raining bottles and bricks down upon the police. Knowing that day we were finally free of trying to win arguments or of spreading any message and even of the whole idea of 'protest'. This time round we were simply on the attack and destroying what we hated. We were on a whole new road... to freedom.
I'm reminded of when as a teenager and living as a traveller on Crete, sleeping on beaches and on mountains, and one day talking to a Greek boy who said "I want to be like you, Johnny. I want to be free."

From his village in the Cotswolds via Southampton, Laurie Lee walks to London where he acquires a job on a building site. This, for a boy with limited experience of life beyond the confines of family and village is an adventure in itself but he doesn't stop there. When the job comes to an end he decides on a whim to hot-foot it over to Spain, choosing to go there of all places in the world because he knows the Spanish phrase for 'Will you please give me a glass of water'.
All very well, you might think but what's so interesting about a story like this? Well, it's the fact that it's based on his own life, the fact that it's beautifully written but above all, it's the fact that it all takes place in the Spain of 1935, one year before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

There's a hint of what's to come when Lee first arrives in London and the only address he knows is that of an old girlfriend from his village whose father lectures him on the theory of anarchy and the necessity for political and personal freedom. Apparently, the father is a Left-wing agitator who'd recently fled from America having been involved in 'some political trouble'. Unfortunately it's not made clear who this might have been in real life.

On arriving in Spain, Lee spends a year traversing the country on foot, encountering Spanish peasantry, fellow foreign travellers, ex-pats, vagabonds, madmen, angels, beggars and idiot savants, as well as witnessing stunning beauty and horrific poverty. It's the poverty and inequality, however, that in the scheme of things turns out to be the most important, as Lee explains:
'Until now, I'd accepted this country without question, as though visiting a half-crazed family. I'd seen the fat bug-eyed rich gazing glassily from their clubs, men scrabbling for scraps in the market, dainty upper-class virgins riding to church in carriages, beggar-women giving birth in doorways. Naive and uncritical, I'd thought it part of the scene, not asking whether it was right or wrong. But it was in Seville, on the bridge, watching the river at midnight, that I got the first hint of coming trouble. A young sailor approached me with a 'Hallo, Johnny', and asked for a cigarette. He spoke the kind of English he'd learnt on a Cardiff coal boat, spitting it out as though it hurt his tongue. 'I don't know who you are,' he said 'But if you want to see blood, stick around - you're going to see plenty'.

It's not clear whose blood the sailor is referring to and it's only later on in the book that the subject is returned to when Lee is working at a hotel and he gets to talking to his Spanish waiter friend:
'He talked about the world to come - a world without church or government or army, where each man alone would be his private government. It was a simple, one-syllable view of life, as black and white as childhood, and as Manola talked, the fishermen listened, bobbing their heads up and down like corks. Their fathers had never heard or known such promises. Centuries of darkness stood behind them. Now it was January 1936, and these things were suddenly thinkable, possible, even within their reach.
But first, said Manola, there must be death and dissolution; much had to be destroyed and cleared away. Felipe, the chef, who liked food and girls, was the pacifier, preaching love and reason. No guns, he said; they dishonoured the flesh; and no destruction, which dishonoured the mind. Everyone knew, all the same, that there were now guns in the village which hadn't been there before.'

As the book ends, the Civil War begins in earnest only for Lee to be whisked back to England by a Royal Navy destroyer sent out from Gibraltar to pick up any British subjects who might be marooned on the coast. The Spanish villagers whom Lee has been living with all urge him to go with the ship, viewing it as the King of England himself sending for Lee and that he was the most fortunate of men for this.
On board the ship, Lee sees a German airship passing over in the sky above, a swastika black on its gleaming hull. Back in England, looking at the Civil War from the outside in he begins to understand the scale and the implications of the war, with Germany and Italy lining up to militarily support Franco and the Spanish Fascists whilst England and France busied themselves by advocating appeasement and non-intervention. The Spanish anarchists and their fellow citizens that Lee had come to know so well during his travels were being hung out to dry by the democratic powers and left at the mercy of the Fascist powers.
For Lee there is only one thing to do, and that is to return to Spain to join the International Brigades. And there the book ends with Lee crossing the Pyrenees and re-entering Spain - with a winter of war before him.

The Spanish Civil War has been called "the first battlefield" and can now be seen as a rehearsal for the Second World War where the triumph or defeat of conflicting ideologies was at stake. It was one of the few times in history that Anarchism and a genuine will to freedom lived and flourished only for it to be crushed by the superior fire-power of the supporters of Fascism.
If only that freedom had been supported and defended by Britain and France in the same way that the Fascists were supported and defended by Germany and Italy then the course of the world could have been altered and the blood bath of World War Two perhaps averted.
Ultimately, the lessons of the Spanish Civil War are glaring and relevant even to this day and age. Particularly, even, to this day and age.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is about freedom; the dream of it, the sense of it, the quest for it, the grasping of it, the fighting for it, and the defending of it. It's about the idea of how life could and should always be. It's about other worlds that are not only out there already but other worlds that are not out there but are possible.
Laurie Lee had no other choice but to return to Spain because within him already was a flickering spark of freedom that he fanned by him upping sticks and walking to London but which then burst into fire by his travels through Spain. And once that flame was lit there was no extinguishing it.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is a very beautiful and very special book indeed.
John Serpico

Monday, 18 December 2017

Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative - Cohn-Bendit


What has May '68 got to do with anything these days, you might ask? Where exactly is the significance? Well, if you have to ask you'll never know, as they say. The Paris Commune of 1871? The Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917? The Spanish Revolution of 1936? The Hungarian Revolution of 1956? Are these all just meaningless dates and events to you?

Daniel Cohn-Bendit and his brother Gabriel were two of the great agitators around the events of May 1968 in France and their report from the front-line - Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative - written shortly after those days makes for essential reading for anyone who takes their revolutions seriously.
There are lessons to be learned here, for sure. The first being who not to trust at times of great social upheaval, that being - as famously demonstrated during the Spanish Civil War and the Russian Revolution - political Parties of any stripe but particularly those who profess to be the vanguard. Remember Krondstadt? There are always those who in the name of revolution will betray the revolution, and that's pretty much what happened in France.

The students had taken over and occupied their factories (as in their universities) and were urging the proletariat to do likewise - and the proletariat were taking heed. The country had ground to a halt, the barricades were up, and the Gaullist government was on the ropes. It wasn't just a pay rise or some such similar demand that was being sought at the time either. No, the students of France were seeking the complete overthrow of the capitalist system - and the proletariat were agreeing. They were being reasonable - they were demanding the impossible for they knew that under the paving stones lay the beach and that those who make half a revolution dig their own graves.
But then into the breach stepped the French Communist Party and the assembly of Trade Union leaders who brokered a deal leading to all the workers abandoning their strikes and heading back to work. Without the support of the workers, the student revolutionaries were left isolated and soon the whole uprising crumbled. The streets were swept of the rubble thrown during the riots, the universities were reclaimed, and much to the relief of the bourgeoisie, life returned to as it was.

So, another lesson to be learned from the Cohn-Bendit book is that for any revolution to succeed it must be a many-headed hydra so that if one head is cut off, there would be others in its place. The students knew that without the support and participation of the working class, their own struggle would be brought to heel, being either crushed or bought out with concessions.
It's here, however, that a paradox comes into play. Cohn-Bendit insists that revolution can only spring spontaneously from the proletariat and cites the failure of Trotsky and the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution of 1917 to keep pace with the masses as a good example of this. Cohn-Bendit argues that Trotsky was actually one step behind the proletariat when the revolution was instigated and only once the masses had started to move of their own accord did the Bolsheviks take over.
Trotsky, of course, would deny this and say that the revolution didn't come from nowhere and that it was his Party's influence that started the whole ball rolling: "Those nameless, austere statesmen of the factory and street did not fall out of the sky," as Trotsky put it "They had to be educated." By his Party, obviously.
With the Bolshevik take-over, the revolution was centralised leading to every subsequent action being for the benefit and preservation of the Party rather than for the actual furtherance of the revolution. The masses were hamstrung and any attempt at reigniting the original aims of the revolution such as by the sailors at Krondstadt and by Makhno's army in the Ukraine was repressed with extreme force.

The failure of the revolution of May '68 is laid firmly at the door of the French Communist Party and the bureaucrats of the Trade Unions. It was they, argues Cohn-Bendit, who cut off the head of the proletarian uprising. It was they who betrayed the will of those they were meant to represent. The problem being, however, that if the proletariat are the only ones able to instigate and drive forward a revolution, then they are also the only ones able to allow that revolution to be taken over by those who would ultimately betray it. Why then in France (and in Russia too) did they allow the supplanting of one hierarchy for just another whose concern was to preserve a system maintaining (for them) either political, administrative or economic domination - or even all three? Why, after going for revolution were the proletariat unable to take the next logical step: to run the economy by themselves as free and equal partners. To run their own lives without bosses and bureaucrats. Or as Makhno put it: to live without authorities, without parasites, and without control. Or as written on the walls of Paris: to live without dead time.

Cohn-Bendit goes on to say that what might appear to be ideological submissiveness and servility in the proletariat must not be condemned, which serves no purpose, nor deplored, which helps to engender a moral superiority, nor accepted, which can only lead to complete inaction - but that it be fought by an active and conscious assault, if necessary by a minority, in every sphere of daily life. Confidence must be engendered but as a proviso adds: "The revolutionary cannot and must not be a leader. Revolutionaries are a militant minority drawn from various social strata, people who band together because they share an ideology, and who pledge themselves to struggle against oppression, to dispel the mystification of the ruling classes and the bureaucrats, to proclaim that the workers can only defend themselves and build a socialist society by taking their fate into their own hands, believing that political maturity comes only from revolutionary struggle and direct action."

In other words, the revolutionary must encourage the workers to struggle on their own behalf and show how their every struggle can be used to drive a wedge into capitalist society. The revolutionary must act as an agent of the people and not as a leader.
As Marx declared: "The emancipation of the workers must be brought about by the workers themselves."
And that, comrade, is the truth as shared by Cohn-Bendit in this book and the lesson to be learned.
John Serpico

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Suspect Device - Edited by Stewart Home


He's joking, right? He's got to be fucking joking. Someone please tell me that he's joking. I'm talking about Stewart Home, the person responsible for editing this collection of short stories published under the title of Suspect Device.
The cover's eye-catching and the title's good also, bringing to mind Stiff Little Fingers and their song of the same name, of course, and that's no bad thing. The contents, however, are a whole other kettle of fish that leaves something to be desired to put it politely. I mean, for fuck's sake. Did Home actually get paid for compiling and editing these stories? Did the publisher Serpent's Tail actually give credence to Home's judgement regarding what qualifies as 'hard-edged fiction'? Is it just me? Is it just that I don't recognise great, cutting-edge writing when I read it?

So what have we got? Well, it starts with a story entitled Blind Date about being bound up in rubber and fucked up the arse, and then progresses from there really. Bound up in rubber and fucked up the arse? Hmmmm, nice idea, you might think? Except when it reads as though it's been written with all the wit, flair and insight of a thirteen year-old boy.
Then there's some horse shit of a story entitled Vegan Reich, about a Khymer Rouge-style group of eco-terrorists who kidnap a bunch of bands at a music festival and ceremoniously burn them alive like in the end scene of The Wicker Man. Hmmmm, yummy, you might think? Same as before, however, except this time it reads as though it was written by a sixteen year-old? Maybe it was?
Then there's The Suicide Note, about some bloke who climbs down into a sewer to kill himself with an overdose of whisky and codeine, and it's at this point I just about give up on the will to live myself. Like the trooper I am, however, I persevere thinking it can't get any worse, can it?

'At last he'd found something that could approximate the alienation he felt from late capitalist society' it declares in the story Zyklon B Zombie, regarding the story's main protagonist. And that was? Throbbing Gristle's Second Annual Report LP. Really. And then the story Tradesman's Entrance which as might be guessed involves more anal sex but with added vomiting.
Fuck it. Out of twenty stories in total they can't all be rubbish can they? And indeed they're not. Law of averages, I guess. Three of them (to my mind, at least) are actually quite good and I'm happy to name them: St Andrew's Arena by Berholt Bluel (which I suspect might actually be Iain Sinclair writing under a pseudonym), Pig! by the late, great Steven Wells, and Last Train Home by John King. I must admit also that bits of Stewart Home's own piece are quite amusing as well.

The thing about Stewart Home is that the Richard Allen books of the 1970s that he emulates and parodies are actually far better than his own books. When they were first published, Allen's pulp chronicles of skinheads, boot boys, knuckle girls and suedeheads found their way out onto Council estates throughout the country where they were eagerly devoured by working class kids. So popular were they and so controversial at the same time that schools banned their pupils from reading them, or at least bringing them into school and reading them. Home's books have never found their way out onto Council estates in the same way and we all know they never will.
Richard Allen's books didn't pretend to be anything other than what they were. Stewart Home's books, on the other hand, are Richard Allen parodies with a wink, as if to say "Yes, we know this is sub-pulp fiction and because we know, it means it's art".
Richard Allen's books, though written in a supply and demand manner, were honest. Stewart Home's books (or if not all then a fair number of them) are dishonest because they're pretending to be something that they're patently not. They're trying to be brutal, they're trying to be extreme, and they're trying to be clever all at the same time but they fail and miserably so. As do seventeen of the twenty stories Home has selected for publication in Suspect Device but then I guess that's no surprise because if Home's own work is a reductive imitation of Richard Allen's, then any story emulating Home is going to be nothing but a pale shadow of that reductive imitation. Which means they're going to be even worse than Home's own stories. And that's the case (as I shake my head despairingly) with this book.
John Serpico

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Kiss This - Gina Arnold


On the 14th January 1978 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, Gina Arnold's universe suddenly opened up. It was the Sex Pistols' last ever gig and Gina was there in the audience and - as she describes in her book, Kiss This - it was like the moment when you learn to read, or when Dorothy steps out of her house in the Wizard Of Oz.
For the next 17 years years Punk Rock ruled her world until 1996 when it dawned upon her that Punk had become by then a meaningless philosophy; her epiphany being the announcement that the Pistols were to reform. So begins Gina's reckoning with the forces that had once so inspired her.

To Finland she flies to catch the Pistols on the first date of their comeback tour, then on to London and the Finsbury Park concert where she sees them being welcomed home like prodigal sons. Back in America, Gina considers Lolloopazola and various other mega-festivals where sponsorship deals are the order of the day. Beer companies, chewing tobacco companies and snow boarding companies are all chasing the young, white male market and there are no ends to where they'll go and what they'll do for it, from sponsoring concerts and festivals to sponsoring established and even unsigned bands.
Where did it all go wrong, Gina ponders, as she casts her eye upon the remnants of the Grateful Dead fan base still cluttering Haight Ashbury and all still buying into a lifestyle that is well past its sell-by date? Bought out, sold out and burnt out by capital and the death pickers of corporate America. Punk, in Gina's eyes, has gone exactly the same way as has Grunge and every other off-shoot of supposed teenage rebellion.
'History repeats itself,' she quotes Marx as saying 'The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.'

From here, Gina goes on to contemplate Green Day, Rancid, the 924 Gilman Street project, Bad Religion, and the Epitaph label; and if these names mean less than nothing to you then her book is obviously not for you but then this begs the question: Just who exactly is Gina's book for? Who exactly is she talking to? Well, I would suggest that Gina is essentially just talking to herself, that Kiss This is just one long navel gaze more suitable for an essay or an article rather than a whole book.
Essentially, there's nothing startlingly original or insightful about any of her concerns and there's nothing much really to be gained from her observations. For example, suggesting that Rap music is more DIY and in many ways more punkier than Punk is hardly an original thought. A turntable and a microphone are in all likelihood going to cost less than a guitar and an amp, and are going to be more accessible to a teenager in the Bronx or in Compton than all the paraphernalia required for starting a band.

So is Rap better than Punk in terms of what it has achieved? I suspect it might be but at the end of the day we're talking about musical taste, style and form, and it's what you choose to do with and and use these things for that actually counts. If turning a profit is the aim then whether it's through Rap, Punk, or Albanian nose-flute playing it doesn't really matter as it's all just means to an end. The same goes for more loftier aims such as, for example, creating a political or cultural stir, or even if the aim is simply to provide entertainment. Style and form are just ways and means and not ends in themselves. The medium is not the message.

Gina then goes on to cite Homocore as the only true form of radical Punk being made at the time of her writing, which is a debatable point. Whilst an openly gay Punk Rock band such as Pansy Division are brilliant, I fear they might mostly be viewed more as a novelty band than anything else. Not that there's anything wrong in being a novelty band, of course, but it doesn't make you a Punk Rock saviour as what Gina seems to suggest. And whatever Pearl Jam get up to in their spare time certainly doesn't make them Punk Rock saviours either, which is what Gina suggests also. The same goes for the Fastbacks who Gina declares to be 'the best Punk Rock band in America', and it's at this point that I lose interest. After 198 pages of wavering and shooting off at tangents, the point of her book has somehow been lost and has ended up as a Fastbacks tour diary. 'The best Punk Rock band in America' indeed. Ahem.

Listen, I used to believe that Punk was the most special, the most brilliant thing and I'm sure I'm not the only one who felt like that. My perception of the meaning of Punk evolved and changed over the years though it didn't take me too long to understand that it had very little to do with a style of music or a dress code but more to do with an attitude and a state of mind and even then it was a multi-faceted state of mind - like a diamond.
Who was I to dictate, for example, that Punk wasn't about getting drunk and falling over (and believe me, I witnessed an awful lot of that and in fact it even seemed at one point as though this was what it was all about and nothing else) but then I also knew that anyone can get drunk and fall over whether they were Punk or not.
No, Punk contained an idea, a notion that no other movement, genre or scene possessed. There was something unique within Punk though for all the talk of Year Zero I later discovered it had been inherent within Hippydom as well. I admit that for a while I did indeed believe Punk was an end unto itself and it took some time for me to realise that it was instead and in actual fact a stepping stone or a springboard to other things. An important and special springboard but a springboard none the less.
Inspiration gave them the motivation to move on out of their isolation, as a young Anarcho Punk Rock poet once wrote. Punk was an inspiration, an energiser, an urge, a way of saying 'No' where we'd always said 'Yes'; and in saying 'No' we were subsequently saying 'Yes' to a better life and the possibility of a better world.

Is Punk now dead, as Gina asks in her book? I don't really know but then nowadays - who the fuck cares?
John Serpico

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Play Power - Richard Neville


If any magazine could be said to be seminal then it would surely be Oz, the hippy Underground publication brought to the attention of a mainstream audience due to it being at the centre of a controversial prosecution case in 1971. Oz was a thing of beauty; its multi-coloured, psychedelic pages incorporating text, photography and innovative graphic design in a genuinely unique and inspiring fashion. Unlike a lot of other Underground papers and magazines of that same period, Oz wormed its way into the hands of an eager readership previously unbothered by such publications, introducing a whole slew of radical ideas and attitudes to virgin minds.
Was it the sex, the drugs and the rock'n'roll that caught the attention of a wider audience? Most probably but these were essentially trojan horses used to smuggle and convey concepts of flower power, black power, gay power and what editor Richard Neville termed 'play power'.

'Revolution must break with the past, and derive all its poetry from the future,' Neville quotes from the International Situationists. And then from John Sinclair, of MC5 and the White Panthers: 'Our programme is cultural revolution through a total assault on culture, which makes use of every tool, every energy and every media we can get our collective hands on... our culture, our art, the music, newspapers, books, posters, our clothing, our homes, the way we walk and talk, the way our hair grows, the way we smoke dope and fuck and eat and sleep - it's all one message - and the message is FREEDOM.'
So Neville takes us by the hand and through his book, Play Power, leads us on a guided tour from the beginnings of hippy culture to the heart of the vision of the new world that Oz was very much a part of.

Pop! Bang! Pow! The words and names come thick and fast, conjuring up images, thoughts and ideas like a grand firework display lighting up the sky. Many of the sayings, words, and ideas he recites are old hat nowadays, of course, and many as might be expected are positively antiquated as viewed from a 2017 perspective. Many others have been forgotten with the passing of the years and come as a joy to exhume:
'Carry on motherfuckers!' - What does that conjure up nowadays? Barbara Windsor with a tommy gun?
'Youthquake' - So that's where Pete Burns of Dead Or Alive got the name for his album.
'The militant poor' - Plebeians on council estates, high on a heady cocktail of Sixties idealism, Eighties radicalism and Noughties existential austerity.
'A gathering of the tribes' - Memories of free festivals before everything turned a little too corporate for a lot of people's liking.
'Growing your own' - Allotments?
'Doing it in the road' - Tarmacadam burn?
And so on and so forth.

It's probably unfair to read and judge Play Power from the vantage point of 2017 but then how else is it meant to be read? It's a bit difficult not to, really. The problem being, is that it highlights a lot of huge clangers of political and social acceptability. For example, at one point Neville writes 'It's time traditional Marxists realised that their textbook revolutionaries - the workers - are inevitably reactionary, conformist and authoritarian because they are sexually repressed.' Which is a bit of a generalization, to put it mildly. Maybe back in the late Sixties and early Seventies there was some evidence to base such a claim on but if so, then surely the same could be said of the middle and upper classes?
For sure, from my personal experience there has always been a swathe of 'workers' who (in public, at least) are indeed sexually repressed. They're fully liberated (and far more liberated than other classes) when it comes to an issue such as violence, for example, or when it comes to speaking their minds but when it comes to something like pan-sexuality, you might as well be talking about something only fit for aliens from another planet. For some, monogamy is the only order of the day and the man should always be on top. Having said that, however, some of the most weirdest and perverse sexual antics I've only ever heard tale of (ahem) on council estates. And I don't mean the kind of things that Richard Neville lets slip about himself in the book regarding fourteen-year-old 'chicks'.

And there's a thing: the word 'chick'. It's a word I've always had a problem with because of its demeaning and sexist connotations but a word fully associated with hippydom just as 'man' is. It's always made me wince and still does whenever I might hear it being used to this day.
Maybe it's due to the time that Play Power was written in but it's interesting when Neville writes about the Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park following the death of Brian Jones that he doesn't bat an eyelid when recounting the part about master of ceremonies Sam Cutler ordering the press section down by the stage to be emptied out a bit.
'There isn't enough room for everyone,' Sam Cutler announces 'So chicks will have to leave... Angels (as in Hells Angels), get rid of them.' From a 2017 perspective, of course, such an announcement is staggering in its sexism but for someone as so say liberal as Neville it goes unnoticed. And not because he's unaware of women's issues either, because he's by that time already read the SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas though he admits that what the manifesto asserts is 'hopefully a minority viewpoint'.

For all that and for all its other faults, the hippy vision that Neville describes in Play Power has its positives that actually out-weigh the negatives. In describing Paris '68, for example, he writes 'For thousands, one night behind the barricades proved a more effective political education than fifteen years in the library.' And he's absolutely right. Just as he is when describing Abbie Hoffman's and Jerry Rubin's Youth International Party - better known as 'the Yippies' - and the battle of Chicago in '68: 'A chimera without any political tradition or ostensibly, any coherent philosophy, operating from a dilapidated New York office, without financial resources, without a network or even a branchline of brother organizations, without a master plan or a master - helped mobilize not only the thousands who poured into Mayor Daley's city in August, but indelibly branded the imaginations of millions who experienced Chicago second hand. The secret weapon? Understanding media. Unlike most radical groups, eschewing the press or issuing them with dry facts and pompous resolutions, later wondering why they're not published or complaining of distortion if they are, the Yippies relied upon that distortion, and exploited it; comprehending its myth-making potential and resolutely weaving a seductive spell of fiction and fantasy which, by the very act of publication, gained a compelling credibility.'
It's a lesson that years later groups such as Class War would come to learn and demonstrate and one that any present day revolutionaries - no matter that we now have social media - would do well to learn also.

Richard Neville passed away in September of 2016. Hippydom went on to splinter into a million different ways of life and careered off down a thousand different roads, one of them being Punk that itself subsequently splintered into another thousand different ways of life. Who now might be the holder of the torch and where next it might flare up is anyone's guess but if history teaches us anything it is that the torch will without any doubt flare up at some point again. What potential benefits might be derived from it when it does can only be speculated on but one thing that can be for sure is that if we fail to remember the past... then we will be condemned to repeat it.
John Serpico

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Madcap - The Half-Life Of Syd Barrett - Tim Willis


Was Syd Barrett a genius? Well, the terms need to be defined, really, but if someone has Aspergers exasperated by copious drug use and then has a nervous breakdown, is it a recipe for genius? Is it a recipe for Syd Barrett?
According to Tim Willis, author of Madcap - The Half-Life Of Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd's Lost Genius, the answer is a most definite 'Yes', Syd Barrett was a bona fide genius and he's at pains to prove it. He compares him to the poet Rimbaud, that other boy genius who blazed so brightly whilst young before turning his back on his art to become a gun runner in Ethiopia. The comparison is fair enough but sometimes Willis overdoes it and comes across as if he's clutching at straws in his attempt to present Barrett as the instigator of various cultural shifts.
According to Willis, Barrett was using cut-out, blackmail-type lettering years before Jamie Reid came along and used it for the Sex Pistols' album cover. Apparently, Jamie Reid and Malcolm McLaren tried to contact Barrett to ask him to produce that same album. Apparently, Ziggy Stardust was based on Barrett as in "He came on so loaded, man. Well hung and snow white tan". Apparently, Barrett was using the cut-up method of writing (in a booklet he produced called Fart Enjoy), years before William Burroughs started using it. Apparently, it was even Barrett himself who first planted the seed of the idea of him being replaced by David Gilmour ages before Pink Floyd had even formed.

There's no question over the genius of Barrett's songs and music, whether it's his nursery-rhyme freak-outs lasting 40 minutes each or his English psychedelic vignettes. That's never been contested. No, it's Barrett's mental health that has been the subject of a debate that still to this day is ongoing. Is Barrett viewed as a genius because of his mental health problems? Were it not for his mental health problems would he still be as canonised as he is?

I don't know about anyone else but I actually want my pop stars to be unhinged. I want them to be of interest, to have something to say for themselves if not through their music then through their personalities. If they can do it through both then all the better but I want my pop stars to be fat and bloated Elvis Presley style, shooting at the television with a golden pistol whilst overdosing on qualludes. I want them locked in permanent childhood Michael Jackson style, riding their own private rollercoaster at midnight and having sex with their pet monkey. I want them fading away before our very eyes a la Karen Carpenter. I want them in full-blown fucked-up mode a la Sid Vicious; heroin tracks down their arms, on stage with a bloody nose and 'gimme-a-fix' carved into their chest. I want them blown away into oblivion by massive consumption of hallucinogenics a la Syd Barrett. And if the myth doesn't match the truth, I want the myth. And when it comes to Syd Barrett, there are certainly a lot of myths.

"Where are you going, Syd?" a friend calls out to him after seeing Syd striding down Oxford Street. "Far further than you could possibly imagine," comes the reply. Syd's on an epic trip, is the implied meaning. Trip, of course, being of the LSD kind.
On another occasion, Syd is spotted by some friends standing on the kerb of a road in Cambridge. "What are you up to, Syd?" he's asked. "Waiting for a lift," he replies. "Well, you've got one. Hop in." he's told. They all then go to a nearby pub where Syd doesn't say another word.
Syd visits a King's Road shop, tries on three pairs of trousers in different sizes, then buys the lot.
Syd's in a studio with Robert Wyatt during the recording of Madcap and he's asked what key he's in? "Yeah!" comes Barrett's reply. Songs in the key of Yeah!
Roger Waters takes Barrett to visit psychiatrist RD Laing but when they get there, Barrett refuses to get out the car. "What can you do?" asks Waters. Barrett and RD Laing. Can you imagine?
Photographer Mick Rock visits Barrett at his Earl's Court flat to take some pictures for the Madcap album sleeve and finds him there with a naked Eskimo. He's painted the dusty, unprimed floorboards alternatively blue and orange - literally painting himself into a corner.
Barrett is hammering from inside his lavatory, "Get me out! Get me out!" It's explained to him through the door that he would have to release the catch. An hour later Syd works it out and emerges sweating and trembling like he'd had a fit. Or an acid flashback, even.

For all this, the question still remains: Was Syd Barrett a genius? Well, if someone has Aspergers exasperated by copious drug use and then has a nervous breakdown, is that a recipe for genius? Is it a recipe for Syd Barrett?
John Serpico

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen


The immediately striking thing about Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen is that it was first published in 1970 then reprinted in 1973 with an added introduction lamenting how little had changed over the intervening years. Reading it now in 2017 what is immediately striking is how still very little has changed. The landscape has been renovated, of course; from the cities, the towns, the suburbs and the estates but this has not been accompanied by any noticeable human advance among the poor.
Throughout the whole of the UK the poor are still with us, and even though they might now be fortified by consumer goods and living in houses considerably better than those of the past, their problems still remain. Material advances in living conditions have been negated by eternal economic uncertainty and the sheer cost of being able to simply function in society. In real human terms, it could be said that poverty has become even more severe, deprivation even more manifest, and hope even more elusive.

There was once a fashion of blaming poverty upon the individual, that it was their shiftlessness, low intelligence or their incapability to budget that led to their economic position. As poverty was mostly found among the working class, the blame was laid upon the so-called 'problem family', or the 'multi-problem' family, even. There are still some, of course, who hold this opinion, particularly those of a conservative bent though nowadays it is more widely accepted that the problem of poverty is actually rooted in the economic and class structure of society. Poverty, it could be said, is an inevitable if not intentional result of economics and a cornerstone on which the whole class system is built.

According to Bono of U2, that well-known defender of the poor and the oppressed, in the eyes of those who live hand-to-mouth there is no difference between the wealth of a white collar worker and Bono's own vast wealth. Meaning, both the white collar worker and Bono can eat well, can afford medicines, have time off, and don't have to worry about their children. This, however, is a very one-dimensional if not very wrong interpretation of what poverty is. It's an interpretation used and cited not as a way to help the poor in any way but to defend and justify the privileged.

Poverty is absolute and poverty is relative. There is no defining poverty line that can be drawn though many still to this day insist upon one. Poverty doesn't just mean to be without the essentials of life such as food, heat, water and shelter. If you have these essentials, for example, but then can't afford the bus ride to get to work to pay for them, where does that leave you? In poverty. If you can afford the bus ride but then once after paying for the essentials you can't afford other necessities as determined by the society you live such as laundry, cosmetics, hair-dressing, clothes, etc, etc, where does that leave you? In poverty.

Being unable to function properly in the society you live due to the economic position you're in inevitably means a lack of power as compared to that held by the more privileged. Which is the point at which Marx comes in: "If the income of the worker increases with the rapid growth of capital, the social gulf that separates the workers from the capitalists increases at the same time," as Marx pointed out "The power of capital over labour and the dependence of labour on capital increases at the same time."
So, if in a capitalist system poverty means loss of power, this not only means that people are in want but that they're also ill-placed to complain effectively about their condition. Which is the point at which the likes of Bono steps in to speak up on behalf of them - or some of them at least.

There are a lot of important, thought-provoking ideas raised by the authors Ken Coates and Richard Silburn in this book, and whilst their study is focussed upon the St Ann's area of Nottingham, what comes out of it is just as relevant to any other part of the country where poverty flourishes.
One of the most important things to be said about poverty, they declare, is that the main cause of it is not indolence, nor fecundity, nor sickness, nor even unemployment, nor villainy of any kind but is, quite simply, low wages.
Is there a culture of poverty, they ask? The answer is a most definite 'Yes', one aspect of that culture being acquiescence with the normalization of poverty. The normality of poverty? Is it really normal to be poor? Is it right for the poor to just accept their lot? Is it normal and right that some are rich at the expense of others? Do they not owe us a living, as the saying goes?
Which all leads to the most salient point in the book, that being when the authors talk about those who draw their influence and power from a willingness to impose poverty and the normalization of it on others. Which is the point at which - for the reader - anger comes into it. Or it should. And if it doesn't then it would suggest just how deeply and comfortably the acquiescence has actually sunk in to us all.
John Serpico

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Street Art Exmouth Style (Part 20)


Another typical night of depravity down at The Exmouth Arms...

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