Saturday 25 May 2024

The Art Of Travel - Alain De Botton


Firstly, what exactly does it mean to 'travel' and what exactly is the art of it? As Alain De Botton points out in his book The Art Of Travel, if you say 'He journeyed through the afternoon' it's never quite as simple as that. It's never a straight, uncomplicated going from A to B, from one place to another. It's all the things in-between, all the unacknowledged if even tedious things that are done along the way whether it be on foot, by car, train or aeroplane. It's the showing of tickets or passports, the stopping off for a rest, a snack or for the toilet. It's the swatting away of a fly, an irritable itch, the sighting if even only briefly of faces and objects. Cursory glances, fleeting comments during brief encounters, and no end of thoughts, dreams and reveries passing through your head.
Then when you arrive at your destination, what is so very different about it from where you have left? Is it all just a shuffling of chairs, a movement of furniture and a change of temperature? As again De Botton points out when describing a holiday to Bermuda: 'I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.'

I'm not sure if it's still the same nowadays but when at the age of seventeen I set off on a trip around Europe and then down to Greece (a country then considered to be the half-way stop between the West and the East more than being European) it was whilst living on the island of Crete that I first came upon the notion that there was a difference between a traveller and a tourist. A tourist would typically have a date in mind as to when they'll be returning home, whilst a traveller had no such date and often no home to even return to. Would De Botton be aware of such a difference?

Alain De Botton is very well read and what he does in The Art Of Travel is to write about such people as John Ruskin, van Gogh, Wordsworth, Flaubert, Edward Hopper and Baudelaire in regard to their thoughts and relationships to travelling and then he applies his own thoughts and experiences to it. It's all good stuff without any question but there seems to be a certain element missing from it all and that's the lived experience of being a traveller rather than a tourist.
Has De Botton ever hung out with the hippies of Katmandu, or slept in the caves at Matala, or pitched up in Amsterdam looking for a squat to stay at with just the hope that it won't be too drug-devastated? Of course he hasn't. Not that there's any intrinsic value in these experiences but when you're writing about travelling rather than cheap holidays in other peoples misery then it probably counts for something at that point if no other.

De Botton has a background of wealth and privilege behind him alongside a healthy trust fund which means most of his life would have been a physically comfortable one. This doesn't of course make him exempt from having inner demons, in fact it's pretty apparent he has an abundance of them although one advantage of this is that they drive his writing. They're the engine behind his curiosity of the kind that gives him cause to wonder why he has a fascination with service stations, motels and airports? He finds an answer in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Why does the idea of travelling appeal? He finds an answer in Gaustave Flaubert. Apart from inner demons, what drives a curiosity about other places? He finds an answer in Alexander von Humboldlt.

A good education gives access to the art and the writings of such people whom De Botton discusses. A good education points you in the direction of where to look to both enhance or satisfy a curiosity. For those without that privilege, however, there is but the public library of old (or nowadays in more likelihood the Internet) and maybe a weeks holiday in Majorca to explore the world, sold by a picture seen in a brochure or on a web page of a palm tree on a beach. Or else there's the option of simply throwing yourself into the world to see what happens when you land. If you ever actually do land?

On reading The Art Of Travel, 'throwing yourself into the world' is something that may well have benefitted Alain De Botton far more than all the books he has read and all the paintings viewed. Or better still, to have combined both: For him to be well-educated, well-read and then to throw himself into the world with abandon. Letting go of his security and his metaphorical lifeboats. To sink or swim.

The Art Of Travel is a decent enough read but it's scraping the bottom of the barrel pickings when it comes to philosophical insights - and philosophy  is meant to be De Botton's forte. It's an assemblage of notions that aren't particularly earth-shattering, hung out and strung together between musings from various writers and poets and De Botton's interpretations of them in relationship to his own life. If travel is meant to broaden the mind then either De Brotten isn't doing enough of it or he's doing the wrong kind.
I'd suggest it was the latter and that he needs to shake off all this jetting off to the Sinai desert 'in order to be made to feel small', or driving down to Provence to spend a few days with friends in a farmhouse because he's not really getting much out of it when it comes to validity. Instead he should perhaps try a bit of hitch hiking, navigating the sexual advances of hairy lorry drivers and spending a few nights sleeping under hedges after nobody cares to stop to give him a lift when standing at the edge of a road at midnight. That would give him something to write home about, for sure.
John Serpico

Tuesday 21 May 2024

It's The Truth - Making The Only Ones - Simon Wright

The Only Ones were a quintessential English rock'n'roll band and whilst vocalist Peter Perrett was so obviously influenced by Bob Dylan, that influence was thoroughly rinsed through deep layers of Englishness. In Simon Wright's book It's The Truth - Making The Only Ones, Perrett is quite open about his Dylan influence but he also mentions the influence of the Velvet Underground and their first album, on which Heroin is the first track on side 2...
Do you know those moments in conversations when there is sometimes a pregnant pause? Those moments when eyes meet and for a second lock on to each other as if the subtext of the conversation has suddenly been revealed and eyes are fleetingly meeting in recognition of this? Peter Perrett mentioning the Velvet Underground's first album with the first track (on side 2) being called 'Heroin' is one such moment. A moment when time suddenly stops and everything hangs suspended in mid-air. It's only ten pages into the book but it's almost as if the book should end right there.

When you think of The Only Ones you can't but help thinking of heroin and Peter Perrett's long love affair with it. The Only Ones were a functioning drug band with their most famous song, Another Girl Another Planet, being one of the most splendid odes to heroin ever recorded. Typically, Perrett denies the song is about heroin but then so did Lou Reed about Perfect Day and Hugh Cornwell about Golden Brown, although Perrett is happy to cite drugs as being the problem that led to The Only Ones breakup. Whatever. 
Heroin isn't cool, heroin isn't clever and taking heroin certainly isn't romantic but there's no denying that drug bands of certain denominations occupy significant places in the pantheon of rock'n'roll, and when it comes to The Only Ones their position is a pretty prominent one. 

Wright's book focuses on the formation and early days of The Only Ones up until the release of their debut album. It's a fan book, essentially, written by a fan for fans. I'm not sure, however, if it's been fully thought out as it comes across as not quite knowing where it's going and what its point is, though it does tend to make some interesting points and raise some interesting details.
Wright admits rather weirdly that the debut album on which the book focuses isn't even his favourite Only Ones LP and in his opinion the second album, Even Serpents Shine, offers a better selection of songs. So why not write a book covering all their output and the whole of their career rather than only up to the debut album? 

But back to the drugs. Prior to The Only Ones, Perrett played in a band called England's Glory whose debut album was made possible primarily due to the funds generated by Perrett's rapidly developing drug dealing business. So even before forming The Only Ones (inspired after witnessing the Sex Pistols at the Chelsea School of Art in December 1975) Perrett was not only a habitual user but an established dealer. 
Like calls to like, as any Zen Buddhist would know, and in their very early days The Only Ones caught the attention of Keith Richards who was particularly taken by their song 'Prisoners'. On hearing that Keith Richards rated them, Johnny Thunders paid them a visit and became friends with Perrett due to them 'sharing the same interests'. Richards was apparently interested in doing some production work with The Only Ones in the studio but in the end nothing came of it. Perrett did, however, go on to work with Thunders on his debut solo album, So Alone, providing guitar and backing vocals on some of the songs including You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory.
Keith Richards, Johnny Thunders, and Peter Perrett. A near-holy trinity of a very particular kind.

Whenever it comes to writing or talking about The Only Ones, the question always arises in regard to why they never achieved far greater commercial success than what they did, particularly with a song like Another Girl Another Planet in their roster? A song, of course, that some consider to be one of the greatest of all time. Simon Wright doesn't come up with any specific answers although in contrast to what Perrett says, he's in agreement with guitarist John Perry's assessment in that it had nothing to do with drugs. In comparison, he cites the Pretenders who have a variety of similarities with The Only Ones including not least the use of heroin within the band. Guitarist James Honeyman-Scott OD'd and bass player Pete Farndon was sacked for drug-related unreliability but this did nothing to deter or impinge upon the massive success the Pretenders achieved.
So why did The Only Ones split? John Perry suggests it was more down to maladministration, which is a bit of a boring reason but probably close to the truth. For all that, however, The Only Ones' legacy is a good one. Near-golden, in fact. Flawed but genius.
John Serpico

Thursday 16 May 2024

The Many-Headed Hydra - Peter Linebaugh & Marcus Rediker


In the preface to Peter Linebaugh's and Marcus Rediker's The Many-Headed Hydra (and to give its full subtitle - The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic) its stall is laid out immediately as to the reasoning behind the title. During their research as Professors of History, the authors kept coming upon a huge variety of references to the myth of Hercules doing combat with the many-headed Hydra, where Hercules was the hero always on the side of those who in victory get to write the history whilst Hydra was always the enemy to be fought and vanquished. Over time, for Linebaugh and Rediker what began as a metaphor became a concept and a way of exploring vast class struggle. The sites for this struggle are posited as being the commons, plantations, ships and factories whilst the main players - as in the dispossessed - are awarded the description of being 'hewers of wood and drawers of water' as this is what the rulers of the world at that time deemed all those they ruled to be fit for.

'For the African, European, and American hewers of wood and drawers of water in the early seventeenth century, work was both a curse and a punishment,' the authors state, and it's a really good and important point. 'These workers were necessary to the growth of capitalism, as they did the work that could not or would not be done by artisans in workshops, manufactories, or guilds. Hewers and drawers performed the fundamental labors of expropriation that have usually been taken for granted by historians. Expropriation itself, for example is treated as a given: the field is there before the ploughing starts; the city is there before the laborer begins the working day. Likewise for long distance trade: the port is there before the ship sets sail from it; the plantation is there before the slave cultivates its land. The commodities of commerce seem to transport themselves. The result is that the hewers of wood and drawers of water have been invisible, anonymous and forgotten, even though they transformed the face of the Earth by building the infrastructure of 'civilization'.

The book begins with the story of the Sea-Venture, one of eight vessels sailing from Plymouth to Virginia in 1609 that is shipwrecked upon the island of Bermuda. Rather than trying to escape and to carry on with their voyage, the sailors along with all the other passengers decide to stay, it not taking them long to weigh-up their choices: To live in freedom and harmony on this island of unexpected abundance or to continue on to the wretchedness, labour and slavery awaiting them in Virginia and the tobacco plantations there. It was a no-brainer.

Based on this incident, William Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, with Caliban the slave, Trinculo the jester, and Stephano the sailor representing the 'motley crew' of the sailors and passengers. 'Misery acquaints a man with strange bed-fellows', Shakespeare has one of his characters say, this applying not just to Shakespeare's cast but to those washed-up on the shore of Bermuda and indeed to great swathes of people back in England and throughout the world. These are the people of the many-headed Hydra, the likes of which being what others would call at the time 'the dregs of the earth': Dispossessed commoners, felons, indentured servants, religious radicals, pirates, urban labourers, soldiers, sailors, African slaves, beggars and vagrants.

Hercules, on the other hand, was a representation of the venture capitalists of that time, the landowners who had fenced-off the lands and ejected the commoners, the merchants, the bankers, the manufacturers, the royals, the rich. It was these who were the architects of the Atlantic economy; a Herculean task of building trade routes, colonies, and a new transatlantic economy involving the production and transportation of sugar, tobacco and various other commodities. In Hercules they found their symbol of power and order whilst in the many-headed Hydra they found their symbol of disorder and resistance, and a threat to the building of state, empire and capitalism.

In such fashion the battle-lines were drawn and the battle joined, echoing down through the ages.

Come the end of the seventeenth century, tens of thousands of men, women and children from Ireland, West Africa and Virginia were being dispossessed by the mercantilist state and forced into servitude, making slavery the foundation of Atlantic capitalism. All kept in check by the constant terror of and punishment from flogging, hanging and gibbeting. Resistance and rebellion like hope, however, sprang eternal and The Many-Headed Hydra relays no end of stories of individuals and groups who would challenge the status quo and the quashing of freedom and the rights of the individual world-wide.

These are stories and interpretations of events that if not wiped from the history books have been altered to suit the narrative as dictated by those who have gained the most from their side of the story being the dominant one. This is history from below as opposed to history from above and the importance of these stories cannot be overstated.
It is the stories of pirates running their ships in a far more egalitarian and democratic fashion than the British Navy ever did at that time.  It is the stories of the Levellers, the Diggers, the New Model Army, the Anabaptists, the Ranters, and the Muggletonians. Stories of individuals such as Gerrard Winstanley, James Nayler, John Bunyan, Thomas Rainborough, Robert Lockyer, Edward Despard, Robert Wedderburn, Thomas Spence, and William Blake. Stories of Masaniello and the rebellion of Naples of 1647, the mythical land of Cockaygne, the New York conspirators of 1741, Tacky's Revolt and the Jamaican slaves rebellion of 1760, the Spa Fields riots of 1816, and the anti-pressgang riots in both England and America throughout the 17th Century.

These are stories that when collated together in bookform such as in that of The Many-Headed Hydra act not so much as a lifting of the veil to reveal hitherto unknown truths but as a reminder of what we already know but had perhaps forgotten? A reminder of that which we have always known.
The Many-Headed Hydra is in a way many books within one, so is actually a many-headed Hydra in itself. From the subject matter and the concept of which the authors write, they have created a model of that same concept. A representation of it in the form of a book. It's quite an achievement. And whether it be by complete accident or by design, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker have written, created and given us something very special.
John Serpico

Sunday 5 May 2024

Master Of The World - Jules Verne


First published in 1904 just one year before his death, Master Of The World by Jules Verne is of interest specifically because we are now able to read it from the perspective and vantage point of 2024. At the time of its publication it was probably received as another story of mystery and suspense from the master storyteller, the genre of 'science fiction' in which it now falls at that point not yet being fully defined. 
Is Master Of The World a science fiction book? I guess so but only because of one aspect of it, that being the invention of a machine - a vehicle - that can travel on land, sea and sky at speeds hitherto unknown. A bit like Transformers. And remember that date 1904, and remember that the first sustained flight by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk had only taken place just a bit earlier in December 1903.

The main body of the book involves the investigation by a US government agent into strange goings-on amid the mountain ranges of North Carolina, and reports of sightings of cars and boats travelling at great speeds in other States. Could all these things be connected, the agent wonders? Sure enough, they are. It's all the same vehicle, one that acts as a car, a boat, a submarine and an aeroplane. The invention of such a vehicle is a game changer and the US government want its engineering secrets for with the possession of such knowledge would come great power and huge military advantage. The chase is then on to find the inventor.

Master Of The World is essentially a metaphor and what it's saying is that who owns the science, owns the power. Militarily this has always been pretty obvious, borne out by any number of new inventions being adopted and adapted for the purpose of war be it land vehicles, boats, submarines or planes, all the way to atomic energy. Did the Wright brothers foresee that with their victory over flight that it would one day lead to the destruction of Guernica, Dresden and Hiroshima? Of course they didn't. Such things was not the prize in their eyes but to others it would have been. In fact it would have been their first thought.

And what of today's science and technology? What power does it bring? Well, you only have to look at the rise of such people as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg to see the shift that has taken place in recent years in regard to where power lies nowadays. Power is no longer in the hands of governments who in the past have always had leverage and control of the systems under which people live. Power has now been privatised and the end result of this is that there are new masters of the world who though having no control over production, have control of the marketplace. They are the landlords to whom we all pay rent. They are essentially feudalists by default and their yoke under which we all now live is a form of feudalism, aptly described by Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis as technofeudalism.

Jules Verne's Master Of The World is a decent enough read. It carries you along and it makes you want to find out what happens in the end, although that end is wholly inadequate. Not that it really matters because the point of the book nowadays is that it serves - whether intentionally or not - as a metaphor. A metaphor that's worth thinking about.
John Serpico

Sunday 14 April 2024

Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers - Tom Wolfe


It's January 1970 and world-famous composer Leonard Bernstein and his wife are hosting a party in their Manhattan penthouse duplex, and it's the kind of party you'd be silly to decline an invitation to. Not everyone is there, of course. There's no Mia Farrow, Jack Nicholson or even Salvador Dali but that's only because they're not in Leonard Bernstein's immediate circle of friends and neighbours. Those who are there, however, are extremely rich and in their own ways significant movers and shakers. They are people of influence. People who form a strata that could be called 'jet set'.

Hosting such parties is a 'thing'. It's a form of socialising and networking that is as far from jelly, cup cakes and sausages on sticks as you could get. Abigail's Party and playing Demis Roussos on the record player these parties are not. Rather, there are maids and butlers to wait upon the guests, serving them exquisite and expensive snacks and tasty morsels with the most delectable wines. These are elite parties for elite people where part of the entertainment comes with gathering around the piano to soak up some classical sonata performed by whatever world-class composer might be in the room. Which all begs the question in regard to Leonard Bernstein's particular party: What is Tom Wolfe doing there? Whether he's been invited or has gatecrashed isn't really clear and whether Leonard Bernstein is aware of it or not, Wolfe is taking notes and recording the evening's events.

Some who have genuinely been invited and are, in fact, guests of honour are a contingent of Black Panthers including Don Cox, the Panthers' very own Field Marshal General. He's there to talk about and to raise funds for the defense of the Panther 21 who have been in jail for the past year awaiting trial for supposedly conspiring to blow up the Bronx Botanical Gardens. Just why anyone would want to blow up these Gardens is anyone's guess but that's the charge.

Everything and everyone is very sincere, very serious, very purposeful and very 'right on'. The only person there who seems to be taking a somewhat dim, critical and sarcastic view of it is Tom Wolfe who from this party and other similar ones has coined a phrase that encapsulates and sums up the whole scenario, the whole trend and the whole scene where white guilt meets the rage of the oppressed. That phrase being 'Radical Chic'.

Nowadays, the kind of people attending such a party might be called 'Champagne socialists' but Tom Wolfe got there first by identifying the phenomena and labelling it, rather than labelling the participants. Times have now changed, of course, and lessons have been learned particularly by the rich and by those possessed of political nous. In fact, it could be said that the world has now been turned upside down though not in the way Gerrard Winstanley might have imagined but more in the way that Martin Luther King Jr once called it out as being 'socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor'. The rich nowadays - and very blatantly so - rather than being at each others throats are all nods and winks and I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine, whilst the poor have been given a world of dog eat dog and then thrown to the dogs. The world as it is today is a special brew. An alphabet soup where the scum still rises to the top whilst the main body boils and ferments into weird new flavours that seem to have an addictive quality about them. And it's maggot infested.

Tom Wolfe was a perceptive writer whose particular skill was in being able to read between the lines and in doing so enable him to see what was going on and to see what was coming. He got there first in regard to the emerging hippy movement by latching on to Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, he identified the 'Me Decade' in an essay of the same name, and defined a form of writing called 'New Journalism'.
Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers is actually the titles of two separate essays published in one book, with both essay titles coming to form the title of the book. If that makes sense? The Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers essay is almost frivolously racist, concerning itself with the hustling of anti-poverty programs in San Francisco. The Radical Chic essay is the one in which the Black Panthers are the evening's entertainment at Leonard Bernstein's duplex and to be fair, the Panthers don't come out of it too badly. It's obvious they're only there to secure some money from the hosts and their guests, and who can blame them? How else are they meant to raise funds for the Panther 21 trial where even the bail for each person has been set at a ludicrous $100,000?

Don Cox is given free rein to explain the Panthers' cause with Tom Wolfe quoting him liberally, and he makes a good case. It's the hosts and their other white guests who are tied up in knots and it's this that Tom Wolfe observes. There have been other similar parties hosted by other rich socialites before this one, raising funds for such people as the grape workers of California, the Chicago Eight, Friends of the Earth, Ramparts magazine, even Irish civil rights leader Bernadette Devlin. The Black Panthers, however, are somewhat different. They are, essentially, Maoist revolutionaries and are considered to be 'the real deal'. Also different is that this time Tom Wolfe is present with his eye on the pulse and his finger on his pen to record the whole spectacle - and spectacle it is.

The term 'hoisted by their own petard' comes to mind though it's not one that Wolfe uses himself. Instead, Wolfe simply records everything and allows Leonard Bernstein's saying of 'Right on', for example, in response to Don Cox to hang there and subsequently speak volumes about the ridiculousness of it all. He records vividly and in detail the surroundings of Bernstein's home and all the accoutrements and luxuries that come as a direct result of the same system that oppresses the black community and other members of the working class. The dichotomy is glaring.

Much less kind about the Black Panthers than Wolfe is the New York Times that in an editorial piece two days after the party rubbishes the notion that the Panthers are in any way representative of the black community, and accuses Bernstein and his fellow 'Beautiful People' of 'elegant slumming'. Bernstein obviously is insulted. It wasn't a party, he insists, it was a meeting - and he's never been a member of 'the jet set' in his life. The mud, however, sticks. None of which, moreover, is helpful to the Black Panthers at all as it almost immediately puts paid to anyone else wanting to host any such similar party for fear of ridicule and the wrath of the New York Times, subsequently shutting down an avenue of fund-raising and starving the Panthers of money.
The American Establishment, clearly, were out to put a halt to the Black Panthers activities by any method at their disposal. Or as Malcolm X would put it: By any means necessary. Proving at the same time that unfortunately, though a very good writer, Tom Wolfe for the FBI and their Counterintelligence Program was nothing more than a useful idiot.
John Serpico

Wednesday 27 March 2024

Anarchism In Bristol And The West Country To 1950 - Steve Hunt


Another radical pamphlet/booklet from the Bristol Radical History Group and if I had my way I'd happily read the lot of them but unfortunately the world we live is not yet a perfect one so I read them instead in dribs and drabs on the basis of when one happens to fall into my hands. This particular one by Steve Hunt entitled Anarchism In Bristol And The West Country To 1950 piqued my interest because Bristol - much to my delight but much to the chagrin of such people as Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees - has a reputation for being a radical city. A reputation for some for even being a city of rioting anarchist mobs storming police stations and pulling down statues of benefactors in a bid to wreck havoc upon its cultural heritage. It's true, these things have happened though not nearly as often enough as I personally would like to see. There's also another slant, of course, on Bristol's radical reputation as being a city of 'woke' nightmares where same sex toilets without doors are the norm and where if you don't identify as being gay then you're just plain weird. Or something like that.

How to write seriously about something that's beyond parody? Like the anti-vaxxers during the Covid lockdown who would protest, saying they wanted their freedom back. Freedom for what, exactly? To go shopping? To go back to how it was before lockdown when everyone and everything was so very free? Like the Brexiteers saying they want their country back. Back to those happier times when England ruled the waves? When there were just three black-and-white television channels, pubs closed at 10.30 and jolly policemen would give scallywags a clip 'round the ear for stealing apples?

It's all to do with perception, really. Perception and hegemony and how that bleeds into everyday life. If you believe for example that England is ruled by a Left-wing Deep State cabal and that the BBC is its main arm of propaganda then apart from Liz Truss you're on your own, as others edge slowly away from you in the same way they'd edge away from a knife-wielding lunatic. If you think freedom is defined by how good your shopping experience is then you're the perfect consumer - and that's your lot in life. If you think there's no longer such a thing as free speech isn't what you mean that you can't say things anymore without being potentially challenged? Or as comedian Stewart Lee put it: 'You can't even be a Nazi nowadays without being accused of being a Nazi. It's woke gone mad.'

So, to Bristol and its reputation for being a radical city. There was a time not so very long ago when Bristol's public profile was managed by Bristol City Council and the city's local newspaper, the Bristol Evening Post, working always in conjunction with each other within pretty strict and somewhat conservative parameters. For the Evening Post, news was just stuff to fill the spaces between the advertisements because ultimately it was all to do with revenue. That news was supplied by the City Council's press office and by the police via their press office, supplemented by the Evening Post's own roving reporters reporting on cats stuck up trees and other such items of interest.
Of course, anything coming from any press office is going to be slanted, biased and one-sided, and if printed verbatim or rinsed through a conservative editorial policy then essentially it's all the equivalent of propaganda for the authorities and the status quo, presented as 'news' in 'The paper all Bristol asked for and helped to create'.

The only answer to this monopolization of how the public and private spheres are depicted is to somehow present and offer an alternative view but by default because that view is going to fall outside of the consensus it's going to be classed as 'radical' even if it's nothing of the sort. And as we know, from 'radical' to 'extreme' is just a very short jump.
When trying to present an alternative you use whatever tools and means available be that public meetings, pamphleteering, the publishing of newspapers and books, etc, etc. Anything to challenge the 'common sense' values and politics of the dominant culture. It's a contest that has been raging since time immemorial and in hindsight its quite inexplicable how the power to define the world and dictate its values has been controlled for so long by the conservative Right. 

In Bristol, that power has always been concentrated in just a few albeit very strong institutions all channeled through its local media. There's been many challenges to that power over the years but all deftly dealt with by cutting them off at the head though in the last few decades - whether by accident or design it matters not - there's been a change of tactic with more of a 'many-headed Hydra' approach coming into play. It's still an on-going process with no end in sight as of yet but this new approach involving music, film, physical media, the Internet and social media has without question upset the apple cart leading to Bristol's current 'radical city' reputation.
It goes without saying there's going to be distortions, exaggerations, plain untruths and counter attacks where any alternative is going to be misrepresented and cast as the proverbial 'woke nightmare' but the important thing with all this is that it's in motion. The hand is off the brake. The genie is out the bottle. The cat is out the bag. The train has now left the station and as an old friend of mine would often put it, it's now full steam ahead through the shit.

Which brings us to the Bristol Radical History Group and the part they have played - and are still playing - with their slew of publications. Anarchism In Bristol And The West Country To 1950 admittedly starts on rather shaky ground by suggesting modern anarchism was started by Edmund Burke whose statue can be found on Broad Quay, in Bristol. It's stretching it a bit and the author probably knows this but it makes at least for an interesting claim, particularly as by doing so it puts Bristol at the centre of all things anarchist. Burke was a Bristol MP in the 1770s but it wasn't until Pierre-Joseph Proudhon proclaimed himself an anarchist in the 1840s that the actual history of anarchism is said to have begun. Up until Proudhon's declaration, the term 'anarchist' was an insult, used to disparage. Proudhon, however, tied his name to the mast proudly.

It wasn't until the 1880s that an explicitly anarchist movement started to appear in England so that's quite a leap between Burke, Proudhon and such people as William Morris visiting Bristol in 1885 to give a talk at the City Museum that the Evening Post amusingly dismissed as 'pernicious nonsense'. No change there then from the Post. A meeting was also attended in 1889 at St James' Hall in Cumberland Street in Bristol by none other than Peter Kropotkin. This is really all the evidence needed to show that for anarchist ideas during this period it was the lift-off point.

Steve Hunt traces a line from Bristolians such as Edward Carpenter, Helena Born and Miriam Daniell, Gertrude Dix and George Barrett all the way to the one-time 'most dangerous woman in America' Emma Goldman visiting Bristol in 1925 to give talks at Bristol's YMCA and the Folk House, on Park Street, staying at a house in Redland. This lineage that Steve Hunt traces is an important one as it's people who over the course of Bristol's history have in their own way all added to how Bristol is today. 

Of course, these people have by and large been ignored by those who have always plotted and recorded the history of Bristol, or when not ignored have been cast by the powers that be and the powers that have been as 'pernicious' or 'extremist'. Rather than having them remain as denigrated figures Steve Hunt raises them instead to their rightful positions, that being as heroes one and all, and in the process providing a valuable and important service to the city.
Anarchism In Bristol And The West Country To 1950 isn't a definitive book on the subject but it's a good stepping stone for the curious of mind to investigate further. And stepping stones are what it's always been about, be it the potential stepping stone of a guest speaker at a public meeting, the potential stepping stones of writing a pamphlet, a book or an article, the potential stepping stone of singing a song, or even the definite stepping stone of a full blown riot. All stepping stones to somewhere over the rainbow.
John Serpico

Saturday 23 March 2024

A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess


There are some who cite A Clockwork Orange as being their most favourite of books and there are others who have written whole academic texts about it, analysing its meaning and its relevance to the modern world. Myself, I concur it's a special book for a lot of reasons not least due to its enduring appeal to academia since being first published in 1962. A Clockwork Orange sits alongside other great dystopian novels such as Brave New World and 1984 so is therefore very much a classic but unlike these others that it shares the same shelf space with it sits there almost reluctantly like a truculent child forced against its will to share its toys. Arguably, unlike Brave New World and 1984, A Clockwork Orange still seems to have the power to provoke and incite reaction which is why it's worth revisiting and potentially revising.

One of the interesting things about Alex - 'your humble narrator' of the book - is that he's only 15 years-old and that after a night of drug-laced milk drinking and mindless sex and violence he has to be up the next morning to go to school. And then the two girls that Alex picks up in the record shop are aged just 10. With this in mind, the dynamic of the book changes somewhat and rather than imagining the characters as depicted by Kubrick, it reminds us that these are children that Burgess is writing about.

The violence that Burgess describes as enacted by Alex and his droogs is nasty and near-touching evil but it's also very theatrical and almost comically slapstick. It's like the violence of a cartoon - like Tom and Jerry - brought to life but with a sense of unreality about it, the only real thing being the victims of it. The whole sense of theatricality is elevated to an almost majestic level, of course, by the language. If the world is a stage then Alex is one of its greatest thespians, treading the boards like a master, his every utterance orated in a very wonderful Shakespearian manner saturated in Russian-based slang. Alex's speech is an art-form in itself. In fact, the language and the style in which Burgess has written A Clockwork Orange is the key to it being such a great book. If Burgess had written it in normal English language all we would have would be the bare bones. Burgess's linguistic inventiveness gives it flesh.

The question of violence is obviously central and very early on in the book Alex shines a light upon it: 'But what I do I do because I like to do' he tells himself during the visit to his home by his social worker (or Post-Corrective Adviser, as Burgess calls him) following the previous night's ultra-violent escapades. And right there is the nub of it. Alex is intelligent, curious of mind and cultured as evidenced by his love of Beethoven. He has awareness, insight and can when required be quite philosophical. On the question of modern youth (Alex being a representative of that) the problem is not his but of society's and its twisting of morality alongside a profound misunderstanding and denial of self. According to Alex, that is.

According to the government, society needs protecting from the likes of Alex and his droogs but rather than just continuously filling the already overcrowded jails a new solution called the Ludovico Technique is put forward, it being basically a chemically-advanced form of aversion therapy. Another solution though made less light of in both book and film is to recruit the likes of Alex as police officers.
The new method of drug treatment to cure the will to violence sits unhappily with some, however, who view it as a step towards totalitarianism. 'A man who cannot choose ceases to be a man' as one of the critics put it. That same critic being the same writer whose home Alex and his droogs had invaded two years earlier and attacked him and raped his wife.

But everyone knows all this already, or at least they should if they've read the book or watched the film. The question is: Has anything changed in our understanding and perception of A Clockwork Orange over the years? Did Burgess's vision of the future come true or has it already happened and we're way beyond it?

The book and the film have slightly different endings and the film has to some extent muddied the meaning of what Burgess was originally saying. That is, that there will always be violence in the young and that the night will always belong to them. Night time as a playground for youth will always be the case but the violence within youth is but a phase that will be grown out of. The violence of the State, on the other hand, is a whole other matter. 

State violence is violence in perpetuity and much greater and far more dangerous than the oftentimes mindless violence of youth because State violence is calculated and used in a very matter-of-fact way. State violence comes in many forms and is ultimately a means to have the individual and society as a whole to bend, submit and succumb to the State's will. And what is the State? Well, the State is a collection of institutions whose power is near-unassailable, where only the representative's faces change whilst the actual power remains steadfast, unshakeable and unmovable through any democratic means.

State power cannot be voted away, only the people (and then only up to a point) who represent and wield that power at any given time. What Burgess is questioning then in A Clockwork Orange is the morality of power, the morality of violence, and ultimately the morality of State power, State violence and consequently State control. A subject that nowadays is hardly ever questioned, hardly ever challenged and hardly ever even thought about let alone discussed.

So is A Clockwork Orange of any relevance nowadays? Interestingly and arguably it's probably not but only because I would hazard a guess that nowadays the book is read (and the film watched) for entertainment only, with the most entertaining part being the first chapter where we follow the exploits of Alex and his droogs as they terrorize, fight and rape their way through the city after dark before sloping off home for a good night's sleep to be up for school in the morning. What follows for the other two thirds of the book though still entertaining is decidedly less so even though it's the most important.

A Clockwork Orange is social commentary through science fiction and to its credit has not actually dated much at all. The real world has changed, of course, and is probably harder to comprehend nowadays than it was when Burgess wrote his book in 1962. Whether youth violence has increased, decreased or remained the same since then is hard to tell. Personally, I'd say it's decreased due mainly to there being a lot more distractions available. State violence on the other hand I would say has increased but only through the shifting of the terrain upon where it's conducted. It's a lot more subtle nowadays, a lot more nuanced but still with the same purpose, that being to bend the individual to the State's will. To forge a compliant, unquestioning and obedient society of happy consumers. A society of clockwork oranges.
John Serpico