Posts Tagged ‘Colin Firth’

Black British Politico John Archer’s Address to African Progress Union

May 31, 2019

I think for most of us outside the Black anti-racist movements, this country’s Black history and its tradition of Black activism against racism, imperialism and exploitation is largely unknown. It’s overshadowed to a large extent by the inspirational American civil rights movements of the 1960s, and its heroes and heroines. Towering figures like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks. A few Black British anti-slavery activists from the 18th and 19th century, like Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince, are known to a certain extent, as well as the Crimean War nurse and heroine Mary Seacole. But that’s it. And I think for most mainstream Brits, Blacks and other non-Whites only entered politics and got elected to public office in the 1980s with Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and others.

But Black and Asian activism goes right back to the 19th century, and Britain has had elected BAME politicians since the early 20th century. The BBC 2 series, Victorian Sensations, mentioned two in the second episode of the series broadcast Wednesday night, 29th May 2019. Victorian Sensations is about the massive scientific, social and political changes that shook Victorian society in the 1890s. Last week’s was on scientific advances in electricity and Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays, which revolutionised medicine. The pioneers of X-ray examination, however, paid a terrible price for their research in skin cancer caused by their machines. One British pioneer ended up losing the fingers on one hand, and another arm was amputated completely.

This week’s edition was on ‘Degeneration’, and the late Victorians’ fears of racial, social and imperial decline. This covered the ideas of racial decline in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Francis Galton and the birth of the eugenics movement, aimed at preserving and improving British biological stock; the controversy over the New Woman, liberated Victorian ladies, who dared to move out of the traditional female domestic role and pursue masculine hobbies like cycling; Hans Nordau’s book, Degeneration, Lombroso’s Criminal Man, and the fears about mental illness, which resulted in entirely blameless people banged up in lunatic asylums for the most trivial reasons, like a pathetic young man, who was incarcerated for masturbation. It also covered Oscar Wilde, the Aesthetic Movement and the Decadents, including Arthur Symonds, Havelock Ellis and the first sympathetic scientific research in homosexuality. But one of the most interesting pieces in the programme was right at the end, when presenter Paul McGann spoke to a modern Black activists about two Black British activists, who came to Britain from the West Indies, and founded pioneering Black anti-racist movements. One of them was Celeste Matthews, who became a Methodist minister, and founded a Black rights magazine attacking imperialism, Lux.

Another pioneering Black rights activist, who gained public office later in the second decade of 20th century was John Archer. He was elected Mayor of Battersea in 1913, becoming the first person of African descent to hold public office in London. In 1918 he became the first president of the African Progress Union, a post he would hold for three years. This was formed to promote ‘the general welfare of Africans and Afro peoples’ and spread knowledge of Black history. There’s an extract from the speech he gave at the Union’s first meeting in Colin Firth’s and Anthony Arnove’s great anthology of British radical writing and activism throughout history, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport (Edinburgh: Canongate 2013). This runs

The people in this country are sadly ignorant with reference to the darker races, and our object is to show to them that we have given up the idea of becoming hewers of wood and drawers of water, that we claim our rightful place within this Empire … That if we are good enough to be brought to fight the wars of the country we are good enough receive the benefits of the country … One of the objects of this association is to demand – not ask, demand; it will be ‘demand’ all the time that I am your president. I am not asking for anything, I am demanding. (p. 189).

Unfortunately we really don’t know about the great history of Black activism in this country. Victorian Sensations gave a small glimpse of this on Wednesday, and I’d like to know more. Not only is this worthwhile in itself, as a piece of British history that’s been unfairly neglected, but we also need it to combat that growing racism that’s spreading across Europe and which has resulted in Farage’s Brexit party getting 36.7 per cent of the vote in the Euro elections last week.

Ken Loach Talks about Writer and Poet Kevin Higgins, Suspended for Satirising War Criminal Blair

March 3, 2019

Here’s another excellent piece from Labour Against the Witchhunt, where the respected left-wing film-maker, Ken Loach, talks about the case of Kevin Higgins. Higgins is a writer and poet, an overseas member of the party, living in Ireland. He was suspended in June 2016 for daring to write a poem satirising Tony Blair and the bloody carnage he had caused in Iraq. Loach only reads a part of a poem, as it’s rather too long to repeat in full. Before he does he jokes that as this is what got Higgins suspended, then everyone present is also going to be suspended simply for being there. So anyone who doesn’t want to be suspended should leave.

The poem is a reworking of a piece by Brecht, about a soldier, who gets shot, and his needy widow receives only something insignificant. In the part Loach reads, which I’m paraphrasing, not quoting, Blair’s ‘no longer new’ wife wonders about what she will receive from all the depleted uranium shells he had dropped during the battle of Basra, all the soldiers he had sent to meet Improvised Explosive Devices in far Mesopotamia? She got for all that white night terrors of him on trial for his crimes and the desire never again to look out the window of their fine Connaught Square House at the tree, which people said was once used to hang traitors.

Loach says of  Higgins that he guesses Higgins isn’t the only one who’s disgusted with Blair, with his illegality, the hundreds of thousands he caused to die and the millions he’s made since he left office. ‘If anyone brings the party into disrepute, it’s that mass murderer.’

He goes on then to reveal what happened to Higgins himself. He didn’t hear anything, so in May 2017 he wrote to the Governance and Legal Unit requesting all the documents relating to him to be sent to him within forty according to his right in the laws about data protection. Nine months later, no reply. The video was uploaded on YouTube on 7th February 2018. He was still suspended, as far as Loach knew.

The cineaste concludes

It is incompetent. It is inefficient. It is unprincipled. And those people should not be in charge of that disclipinary procedure.

Loach is absolutely correct. And Higgins’ suspension, simply for satirising Blair, isn’t the mark of a democratic socialist party. It’s the action of a rigidly centralised dictatorship, where the leader was, like Mussolini, always right. It’s like nothing so much as Stalin’s ‘cult of personality’ in the USSR, with the exception that Higgins only got suspended. In Stalin’s USSR, he’d have been tortured and shot, or at the very least sent to a gulag.

And Loach is definitely correct when he says that he probably isn’t the only one disgusted with Blair. Millions of us are. Over a million people marched against the Iraq invasion, including the priests at my local church. It was one of the biggest popular demonstrations in British history, but Blair and his vile cronies ignored it. And people certainly left the party and refused to vote for the grotty profiteer because of his greed, his illegality, his warmongering, his privatisation, his insistence on absolute obedience and micromanagement of party affairs. Private Eye called him the ‘Dear Leader’, satirising the smaltzy, sentimental image he tried to project, as well as his demand to be loved. The Tory party at the time stood in opposition to the War, which got a left-wing friend of mine to buy the Spectator for a time. I think that this was mostly opportunism on the Tories’ party, as there is nothing they love better than a good war. But to be fair to them, Peter Hitchens, the brother of the late atheist polemicist Christopher, genuinely despised him for Iraq and continues to loathe him, describing him as ‘the Blair creature’.

And this monster seems intent on coming back into politics. He has praised the Independent Group, which led Mike, Martin Odoni and others to ask why he should still be allowed to remain in the Labour party. It is against the rules to be a member or support a rival organisation. This was the rule the Blairites used to throw out Moshe Machover, the Israeli academic and anti-Zionist. His crime was that he had a piece published in the Morning Star, as have very many leaders and MPs over the years. Professor Machover was grudgingly readmitted to the party after a massive outcry. But Blair gives them his support, and no-one important seems to raise any objections whatsoever. The left-wing vlogger, Gordon Dimmack, says he has heard speculation that if the wretched group survives, then before long Blair will return to active politics. It’s an idea that he says gave him nightmares.

Unfortunately, I think it’s a distinct possibility. Despite the fact that his time as this country’s leader has been and gone, he was on Andrew Marr’s wretched propaganda show today. I’m glad I missed it, as it would only have infuriated me. But it does seem to bear out these rumours.

One million men, women and children killed. Seven million displaced all across the Middle East. A secular state with free healthcare and education destroyed and looted. A state where women were free to have their own careers and run businesses. Where there were no ‘peace barriers’ between Shi’a and Sunni quarters in cities to stop them murdering each other. A country whose oil reserves have been looted by the American and Saudi oil companies, and whose state industries were plundered by American multinationals.

And this creature appears on TV again, to grin his sickly smile and utter neoliberal platitudes and smooth words. But hey, you can’t criticise him, because he stands for inclusion and diversity. While parents starve themselves to feed their children, students are faced with unaffordable tuition fees and the disabled are thrown off benefits thanks to the wretched assessments and work capable tests he, Mandelson and the others in his coterie introduced.

Higgins’ poem reminds me about one of the great protest poems written back in the ’60s about another unjust war, Vietnam. This was To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam) by Adrian Mitchell, where every stanza ended ‘Tell me lies about Vietnam’. The note about it in Colin Firth’s and Anthony Arnove’s The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport states that he added stanzas later to include more leaders and more wars.

So perhaps if Blair comes back to politics we should write another: ‘Tell Me Lies About Iraq’. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book on Working People’s Environmentalism in the US

September 16, 2017

Chad Montrie, A People’s History of Environmentalism in the United States (London: Continuum 2011)

I found this yesterday in the £3 bookshop on Bristol’s Park Street. It’s clearly inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which told the story of the US as it affected ordinary working, blue-collar Americans and other marginalized groups, like Blacks and the indigenous peoples. It challenged the dominant, right-wing narrative of how America was founded by rich, White, and immensely wise Founding Fathers as a uniquely just society. Zinn has since passed away, but his book inspired Colin Firth’s and Anthony Arnove’s collection of radical British historical texts, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport. Contemporary scholarship has superseded some of Zinn’s work, paradoxically showing that in some areas such as ethnic minorities, his opinions were too moderate. But the Republicans still utterly despise him and his book. Looking at one right-wing website I found a list of books its readers hated and considered harmful to America. Zinn’s was one of them.

This book on working Americans and the environmental movement is particularly urgent now that Trump is set on trying to complete the destruction of both. I haven’t done more than glance at the book, but there’s a summary of the book’s contents by Kathryn Morse of Middlebury College on the back cover. This states that it’s

An engaging, critical synthesis of 20 years of new scholarship in environmental and labour history, this book tells a new story of the emergence and power of environmentalism as a movement forged by common people in defence of their lives and livelihoods. Countering previous arguments that environmentalism began in post-World War II middle-class suburbs, Montrie redefines environmentalism as a grass-roots, working class response to industrialization and urbanization dating from the early 19th century.

From the start, this movement included workers’ resistance to elite attempts to control nature both for profit and for upper-class leisure. Montrie narrates the growth of working-class environmentalism and its successes and failures from the textile mills of New England, to the Chicago streets around Hull House, to automobile plants of New England, to the coal mines of Appalachia, and to the agricultural fields of California, with other stops along the way. This detailed by accessible book offers a forceful new interpretation of American environmentalism and rewrite the narrative of the modern environmental movement.

The Republicans and the corporate backers fear and despise the Green movement, denouncing it as a strategy for introducing redistributive taxation and Socialism by the back door. They hate the way Greens recommend that rich, polluting industries should be taxed, and clean, non-polluting energy sources – like solar, wind and wave energy – should be developed to replace fossil fuels. These have got to go, as the Republicans and Libertarians are funded and bought by the Koch brothers and other oil and fossil fuel magnates.

And when the Republicans and the corporate paymasters aren’t foaming at the mouth about environmentalist ‘socialism’, they’re claiming that it’s another form of Nazism, because the Nazis were very keen on protecting the German environment. Well, they were, and this had been a major part of the German racist, volkisch movement since the 19th century. But this doesn’t mean that environmental per se is simply Nazism under another form. Where it appeared in Britain and America, it was an attempt by working people and the authorities to protect the environment and allow ordinary people to live clean, healthier lives and enjoy the beauty of the countryside in which their ancestors had lived and worked.

Hitler would have liked the Nazis to have been a party of the working class, but he hated organized labour. The first thing the Nazis did when they seized power was smash the German trade unions. But as this book shows, after the War American trade unions played a major part in the Green movement in the US. Which also explains why the Republicans go bug-eyed about the Greens and Socialism. The environmental movement and its connections to organized labour and the American working people marked a challenge to capitalism and the power of big corporations, not just to exploit the environment, but also to exploit the blue-collar, working women and men, who claimed their rights at work and to enjoy America’s great scenic beauty.

Another strand of their ideological attack on the environmental movement is to claim that it’s pagan, and so Christians should have nothing to do with it. It is true that much modern, Neopaganism is centred on the worship of the earth mother, and that pagans have been particularly environmentally conscious since the emergence of Green movement in the 1960s. But Christian writers were describing the beauty of the natural worlds and the wonders of its creatures as evidence of God’s providential handiwork from at least the Middle Ages onwards, and I’ve seen absolutely nothing to suggest that caring for the environment in itself is at all antichristian. Indeed, some theologians have pointed to Jean Calvin’s belief that as God has given human stewardship of the Earth, they have a duty and responsibility to protect the environment.

I haven’t really had time to read the book properly yet, but I will have to. Trump and the big corporations which control him are a real, present threat to the environment, working people, and indeed the future of the Earth and humanity, just as the Tories and their paymasters are over this side of the Pond. We have to protect both in order to create a better future and preserve the planet.

Vote Leave’s Lies about the EU and the NHS Funding

June 9, 2016

I just caught a bit of Vote Leave’s referendum broadcast earlier this evening. It was broadcast around about 7 O’clock, just before the One Show. I didn’t see all of it, as I was busy here, putting up article, but just managed to catch a snippet where they claiming that the £350 million they claim we spend every week on Europe could be used to build hospitals in the NHS. They then claimed that the EU therefore was undermining the Health Service.

They then went on to scaremonger about immigration, raising the dire spectre of what might happen when Albania, Macedonia and Turkey all join the EU. There were large, scary arrows from those countries running across Europe to Britain, rather like the diagram of the Nazi advance in the titles of Dad’s Army. Which is actually what I’d much rather be watching, even in the recent film version, than the Brexiteers and their wretched propaganda. But they made, the claim, so let’s filk it.

Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Farage (and Johnson, Gove and Ms Patel)

First of all, the claim that Britain spends £350 million every week on Europe has been refuted again and again. Yes, we do spend that money, but we get over £100 million or so of it back. So in net terms, no, we certainly don’t spend that amount. See Mike’s articles about this over at Vox Political.

Then there’s that guff about funding the EU diverting money away from the NHS. This is rubbish. What is undermining the NHS is the stealth privatisation carried out by Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care bill of 2012. This has opened up the NHS to further privatisation by private health care firms, such as Virgin, which under law must be given contracts. This has frequently gone against the wishes of the patients using the NHS. The reforms included forcing local authorities responsible for some NHS provision to contract out at least 3 medical services from a list of eight sent down by the government. Furthermore, the remaining state-owned and managed sectors of the NHS are being deliberately starved of funds as part of the campaign to privatise the whole shebang. See Jacky Davis’ and Raymond Tallis’ NHS SOS, particularly the chapters ‘1. Breaking the Public Trust’, by John Lister; ‘2. Ready for Market’, by Steward Player, and ‘7. From Cradle to Grave’, by Allyson M. Pollock and David Price.

It’s a lie that the NHS is being starved of funding due to Europe. It’s being starved of funding due to Lansley and the rest of the Conservative party and their purple counterparts in UKIP. If Vote Leave were serious about the funding crisis in the NHS, then Johnson, Gove, Patel and the other xenophobes and Little Englanders would have voted against Lansley’s bill. They didn’t. They supported it.

‘Bloody Foreigners, Comin’ Over ‘Ere!’

Let’s deal with the threat of people from Turkey, Albania and Macedonia all flooding over here in the next few years. This too, is overblown and pretty much a lie. Turkey would like to join the EU, but the chances of it actually qualifying to do so are presently remote. Critics have suggested that it’ll only reach the point where it has developed sufficiently to be admitted in about 30 years’ time. So the Turks are hardly likely to come flooding up from Anatolia in the next few years.

As for Albania and Macedonia, I’m sceptical about the numbers that will come from those nations due to the open borders policies. Mike’s posted up pieces reminding us all how millions of Romanians and Bulgarians were supposed to be ready to inundate Britain, and in the event only a small number arrived. Mark Steel, the left-wing activist and comedian, in one of his newspaper columns, republished in Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove’s The People Speak: Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport, attacked the inflated claims of the threat of uncontrolled immigration by pointing out that many of the Poles, who were supposed to flood in, had in fact gone back to Poland. So while it’s certainly possible that a vast number of Albanians and Macedonians may want to come to Britain, it’s also possible that few in fact will.

And in any case, why would they all want to come to Britain? The impression given by the Brexit video tonight was that Britain was a tiny island under siege, and that the first country that the Turks, Albanians and Macedonians would all head for was Britain. But why? Britain’s social security system and welfare state – or what remains of them – are much less generous than some parts of the rest of Europe. Britain does have more cache, apparently, than some of the other nations, but Britain is by no means the sole destination for migrants, as we’ve seen.

Vote Leave’s video tonight was little more than right-wing scaremongering. What I saw was mostly speculation, and when it wasn’t speculation, as on the piece on the NHS, it was a distortion compounded with lies. There are problems with Europe and immigration, but leaving the EU isn’t the solution. Indeed, voting for Johnson, Gove, Patel, Farage and their cronies will only make the situation worse. They want to privatise the NHS, just as they want to remove the EU human rights legislation and social charter that protects British workers. The anti-EU campaign is part of this programme to grind down and deprive working people of their hard-won rights at work and for state support in sickness and unemployment. Don’t be taken in.

Mark Steel on the Press’ Hypocrisy over Polish Immigrants

April 4, 2016

Much of the debate about immigration is now dominated by concerns about the mass influx of asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East, rather than about migrant workers from the rest of the EU. However, concerns about the rise in immigrants from eastern Europe were extremely prominent a few years ago, and my guess is that the same fears are still present and underlie much of the debate about Brexit, although on the surface much of the argument is about the potential harm to the British economy and industry.

I found the following piece by Mark Steel attacking the British press and media for stirring up fears about EU migrants, and specifically the Poles, in the collection of radical tracts and writings, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport, edited by Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove (Edinburgh: CanonGate 2013). It’s taken from his weekly column in the Independent for 9th September 2009.

The Poles Might Be Leaving But the Prejudice Remains

Over the last few years it’s become one of our quaint English traditions that on any day following the announcement of immigration figures, certain newspapers display headlines such as ‘TEN MILLION OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT POLES TO SWARM INTO BRITAIN LIKE PLUMBING LOCUSTS!!! And they plan to BUGGER OUR KITTENS!!!’

These newspapers would compete with each other until they seemed to insist the number of Poles coming was more than the number of Poles in the world, but even then they’d have replied, ‘Yes-well, that’s because they[‘re planning to bring ten million of their dead, to make use of our soft-touch spirit welfare scheme.’

But the latest figures, released yesterday, have spoilt this game becaue it turns out half the Poles who came here have gone back to Poland. Presumably these newspapers will get round that by screaming ‘Poland on brink of disaster as it’s invaded by millions of Poles!!!’

‘Our hospitals simply can’t cope with the numbers coming in,’ said an unnamed doctor. ‘I’m not racist but we’re already full up.’

Like all panics about immigration, the anti-Polish version has created an almost artistic level of irrationality. A landlord of a pub in Lincolnshire who seemed otherwise charming and eloquent told me, ‘The trouble with Poles is they walk in groups of four on the pavement, so you fall in the road trying to get round them.’ I said, ‘I’m sure just as many English people walk in groups of four on the pavement.’ He said, ‘Yes, but at least they do it in a language I can understand.’ Which at least is an original way to be annoyed, to snarl: ‘I don’t mind falling in a puddle, as long as it’s with the right mix of vowels and consonants, but when it’s with three or even FOUR Zs it’s time we took a stand.’

Now that more are leaving than coming, the anti-immigration newspapers have to revert to more traditional complaints. For example, one paper told us that, ‘One immigrant is arrested every four minutes.’ But they must have been short of space, because they left out how the average for the whole population is one arrest every THREE minutes. Now they’ll print a story that: ‘Immigrants are refusing to adapt to our way of life by only being arrested once every four minutes. If they don’t want to follow our customs they should go back to where they came from.’

Even then it turned out these figures were taken disproportionately from London, where the immigrant population is higher than across Britain, and anyone arrested for murder who didn’t fill in the box marked ‘nationality’ was assumed to be an immigrant. Because say what you like about a British murderer, at least they have the manners to complete a form in full afterwards.

But the most peculiar side of the obsession with foreigners coming over here disturbing our population figures is they have little to say about the British citizens living in other countries, the number of which has now passed five million. And yet they often have features about finding the perfect retirement home abroad: ‘Judith and Roger eventually settled on their delightful rustic cottage in the heart of the Loire, complete with two acres of arable pastures and a goat, from where they could suck dry the overstretched resources of the long-suffering local council. “I’m a stranger in my own bleeding village,” said one fed-up neighbour.’

There are 760,000 of us living in Spain, one-twelfth of the population of Cyprus is now British, five per cent of New Zealand and so on. And we can hardly claim that on our travels we ‘adopt the customs of the local community’, unless the travel companies claim: ‘Our popular party game of seeing who’s first to drink a bottle of absinthe and puke in an egg cup topless is not only lots of fun, but also a tribute to an ancient fertility ritual here in Crete, and as such enhances the tourists’ understanding of regional history and culture.’

Most of the apocalyptic warnings of Eastern European takeover could be traced back to the organisation MigrationWatch, quoted uniformly by the most hysterical anti-immigration papers. But now the Poles are going the other way: Instead of issuing a statement reading, ‘Whoops, sorry,’ they’ve declared the UK population is still destined to rise to an unsustainable 80 million in the next forty years, because millions are coming here from Africa. That’s it – Africa, BILLIONS of them, and they’re bringing Mount Kilimanjaro because of our soft-touch summit payments, and all their giraffes and the Sahara desert…’

This is very relevant, because the papers that do report the migration crisis in such terms are exactly the same that have encouraged their readers to travel abroad and buy homes there. And while it seems to have died down recently, it is a serious problem. I read a piece a little while ago – I’m afraid I can’t remember where from – but it said that there was a problem with rich people from northern Europe buying homes and colonising the poorer areas in the south, such as Greece. And thirty years ago, when I was at school, I can remember reading a story in the Sunday Express about protests in either Greece or Crete about the way Brits were buying up the available homes there. The local politicians were objecting to it and attempting to pass measures against it on the grounds that it was more British imperialism. I haven’t heard of anything like that since then, but if it did recur, then they would certainly have a point. As opposed to the Express, the Heil and pretty the whole of the right-wing press, which has long ago lost any decent reason for its existence. Except possibly to provide sources of outrage and comedy for writers and broadcasters like Mr Steel.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Republicans Blocking International Disabled Rights Legislation

March 30, 2015

This is another piece of news from America, which is also relevant over here. In it, the left-wing news anchor and political commentator Rachel Maddow discusses the Republicans’ refusal to ratify an international treaty promoted disabled rights and accessibility worldwide. The treaty is itself based on legislation, which George Bush SNR signed was back in 1990. Maddow describes it as making the American laws stipulating public access for disabled people the ‘gold standard’ around the world. It had large, bi-partisan support, and was being promoted by the both the leaders of the Democrats and Republicans. This included John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate, who addressed the senate from his wheelchair.

It was, however, turned down and blocked by the Repugs for what Maddow describes as ‘tin-foil hat’ reasons, that she said she wouldn’t dignify by repeating. If it’s like other international legislation that has been voted against by the Republicans, then my guess is that it involved fears about loss of sovereignty. Almost a decade ago, when the American Right was loudly denouncing Islam for the practice of Female Genital Mutilation, they refused to support an international motion in the United Nations to ban it around the world. Why? The reason appears to me to be the same reason that America has never signed up to the Human Rights court to try war crimes in the Hague. There’s a deep, pernicious fear amongst Republicans of allowing foreign nations reciprocal rights over the US. It contravenes the deep feelings of American exceptionalism in the party. This demands that America should have the freedom and power to enforce its moral standards around the world, but should never have to submit to legal constraints or judgements from other countries. This piece of news shows how far this attitude seems to go, right up to the point where it actually contravenes an American initiative to promote their standards as that of the world’s on a social issue.

I also decided to put this up because of the brief background information it gives on the disability rights movement in the US. Or at least that part of it, which campaigned for mandatory access to public transport. It came from a group called ADAPT – Americans Disabled for Access to Public Transport, which was set up in Denver in 1983. They staged a series of campaigns where they tried to get on buses en masse, despite being turned away and arrested, as the video shows. Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove include a piece by the Bristolian disability activist, Liz Crowe, ‘Catching Buses’, in their anthology of radical historical texts, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport. In it, Crowe describes her campaign to get disabled people access to public transport. The piece is from 1999, nine years after George Bush made it law in America.

Radical Balladry and Prose for Proles: Tom Paine on the Evils of Aristocratic Rule

May 20, 2014

Common Sense Cover

One of the pieces collected by Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove in their anthology of democratic, republican, Socialist and radical texts, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport, is an excerpt from Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Paine was a committed democrat and revolutionary. He was born in Thetford, and made his living from making ladies’ stays, before emigrating to Pennsylvania in 1774. IN 1776 he published Common Sense, attacking British rule in America and demanding a revolutionary, republican government. He became a firm supporter of the French Revolution when it broke out, writing the Rights of Man in 1791 to answer the criticisms of the Revolution made by Edmund Burke in his Reflections of the Revolution in France. He was arrested and imprisoned as a suspected counter-revolutionary for arguing against the execution of the king. He was eventually released, and moved back to Britain.

Rickman, Paine’s friend, described him in 1819 was

In dress and person very cleanly. He wore his hair cued with side curls and powder like a French gentleman of the old school. His eye was full brilliant and piercing and carried in it the muse of fire.

The Rights of Man is the first complete statement of republican political ideas. In the passage included by Firth and Arnove, Paine argues against aristocratic rule and a House of Lords:

Title are but nicknames, and every nickname is a title. The thing is perfectly harmless in itself, but it marks a sort of foppery in the human character which degrades it…

Hitherto we have considered aristocracy chiefly in one point of view. We have now to consider it in another. But whether we view it before or behind, or sideways, or anyway else, domestically or publicly, it is still a monster.

In France, aristocracy had one feature less in its countenance than what it has in some other countries. It did not compose a body of hereditary legislators. it was not ‘a corporation of aristocracy’, for such I have heard M. de la Fayette describe an English house of peers. Let us then examine the grounds upon which the French constitution has resolved against having such a house in France.

Because, in the first place, as is already mentioned, aristocracy is kept up by family tyranny and injustice.

2nd, Because there is an unnatural unfitness in an aristocracy to be legislators for a nation. Their ideas of distributive justice are corrupted at the very source. The begin life trampling on all their younger brothers and sisters, and relations of every kind, and are taught and educated to do so. With what ideas of justice or honor can that man enter a house of legislation, who absorbs in his own person the inheritance of a whole family of children, or metes out some pitiful portion with the insolence of a gift?

3rd, Because the idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges, or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureate.

4th, Because a body of men, holding themselves accountable to nobody, o8ught not to be trusted by anybody.

5th, Because it is continuing the uncivilized principle of governments founded in conquest, and the base idea of man having property in man, and governing him by personal right.

6th, Because aristocracy has a tendency to degenerate the human species.

(Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport (Edinburgh: Canongate 2012) 108-9.)

More than 200,000 copies of the Rights of Man were sold in England, and Paine denounced by the authorities. The book was banned and its printer arrested. Nevertheless, the book continued to circulate underground, especially in Ireland and Scotland. It even inspired a hornpipe tune, a Scots version of which was included by Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band, in his collection of folk melodies, English, Welsh, Scottish & Irish Fiddle Tunes (New York: Oak Publications 1976). Here it is:

Tom Paine Hornpipe

Paine’s arguments are clear very relevant today, when reform of the House of Lords is very much on the political agenda following Tony Blair, and with a cabinet of Tory and Tory Democrat aristos, like David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne, and Iain Duncan Smith, who have no knowledge of and absolutely no sympathy for ordinary people. They seem to see us very much as their ancestors did: as proles, peasants and ‘rude mechanicals’, to be exploited, whilst government should be very firmly held in the hands of an aristocratic elite.

An edition of Paine’s Common Sense, edited and with an introduction by Isaac Kramnick, was published by Penguin Books in 1976.

Radical Balladry: John Clare, the Enclosures and the Destruction of the Environment

May 18, 2014

Ballad Seller pic

Jess also posted up this poem by John Clare, the 19th century poet and agricultural worker, in her comment to one of my pieces on radical working class music and poetry, as another piece that continues to speak to modern needs and issues today from over a hundred years ago. In this instance it’s the threat to the environment from intensive commercial agriculture.

The Mores

Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centurys wreathed spring’s blossoms on its brow
Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity
And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist the horizon’s edge surrounds
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave
And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now
The sheep and cows were free to range as then
Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men
Cows went and came, with evening morn and night,
To the wild pasture as their common right
And sheep, unfolded with the rising sun
Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won
Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain
Then met the brook and drank and roamed again
The brook that dribbled on as clear as glass
Beneath the roots they hid among the grass
While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along
Free as the lark and happy as her song
But now all’s fled and flats of many a dye
That seemed to lengthen with the following eye
Moors, loosing from the sight, far, smooth, and blea
Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free
Are vanished now with commons wild and gay
As poet’s visions of life’s early day
Mulberry-bushes where the boy would run
To fill his hands with fruit are grubbed and done
And hedgrow-briars – flower-lovers overjoyed
Came and got flower-pots – these are all destroyed
And sky-bound mores in mangled garbs are left
Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft
Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow large as garden grounds
In little parcels little minds to please
With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease
Each little path that led its pleasant way
As sweet as morning leading night astray
Where little flowers bloomed round a varied host
That travel felt delighted to be lost
Nor grudged the steps that he had ta-en as vain
When right roads traced his journeys and again –
Nay, on a broken tree he’d sit awhile
To see the mores and fields and meadows smile
Sometimes with cowslaps smothered – then all white
With daiseys – then the summer’s splendid sight
Of cornfields crimson o’er the headache bloomd
Like splendid armys for the battle plumed
He gazed upon them with wild fancy’s eye
As fallen landscapes from an evening sky
These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho’ the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go
Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade goodbye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came
And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes
Have found too truly that they were but dreams.
John Clare
http://ecohist.history.ox.ac.uk//readings/clare-poems.pdf

Firth and Arnove include it in the section, ‘Land and Liberty’, in their The People Speak, as an example of popular protest against the Enclosures, which saw thousands of tenant farmers and agricultural workers forced off their land as they were enclosed and developed by the landlords.

Historians now take the view that before the rise of the Romantic movement, and particularly before Shell published their motoring guides to the British countryside in the 1920s and 1930s, people had a much more utilitarian attitude to the environment. Rather than seeing it simply or primarily as a place of beauty, it was seen instead as a working environment, valued by the people who lived there for the resources they could exploit.
This changed when Shell published their motoring guides, which opened the countryside up to city dwellers, who were now able to travel by car into the countryside to enjoy its beauty and quaint, historic buildings.

I’m not entirely convinced by this. While people I know who’ve come from a farming background have said that the farming and agricultural community does have a much less romantic attitude to the countryside, and does indeed see it in terms of what can be used, people down the centuries have always celebrated it’s beauty. You can see it as a far back as one of the Viking romances. There is a tale where a Viking warrior decides to leave his home due to harassment from other, hostile warriors. Travelling on the road away from his farmstead, he takes one last look at it. He is struck by the beauty of the sun shining on his farm in the valley, and so changes his mind. He turns back, determined to fight for his land and his home.

And of course there are all the songs and poems written during the Middle Ages about the beauty of the countryside in spring time.

As for modern attempts to preserve the environment, these date to the late nineteenth century, when Ruskin and others up and down the country started a movement to preserve the local countryside from development so that local people could continue to enjoy it, over two decades before the Shell Guides appeared. The enjoyment of the countryside, not just as a place of work, but also as a place of leisure and beauty, goes back a long way.

Union Action for the Unemployed: The Invasion of the Ritz and in the 1980s

March 16, 2014

Unemployed Union pic

One of the pieces contained in Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove’s selection of radical and democratic texts from British history, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport, is Jack Dash’s account of the invasion of the Ritz Hotel in 1938 by himself and other members of the National Unemployed Workers Movement. Dash (1907-89) later became a docker and trade union leader. He said at one point that his epitaph should be ‘Here lies Jack Dash/ All he wanted was/ To separate them from their cash. His account runs as follows:

We decided to invade the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly. Everything was well planned. The press – that is, the London and national newspapers (and in those days before the swallowing up of the little fish by the big ‘uns under free enterprise there was quite a number of them) were all informed in advance. At the appointed time about 150 of our unemployed members, all dressed up in such remnants of our best suits as had escaped the pawnbroker, walked quietly into the Grill and sat down. This did not have the quite hoped-for effect, for due to a mistake – the only organizational mistake I can remember on the part of the campaign committee – we had overlooked the fact that the Grill was never open in the afternoons, only in the evenings. However, we continued as planned, took our places at the tables which were being set by waiters in readiness for the evening, and then pulled our posters from beneath our coats, with slogans calling for an end to the Means Test and more winter relief for the aged pensioners.

Can you imagine the looks on the faces of the waiters! They stood still in their tracks. Up rushed the management supervisor demanding to know what it was all about. He was politely told by our elected speaker, Wal Hannington, that we would like to be served with some tea and sandwiches because we were very tired and hungry, but he was not to be anxious and could present the bill which would be paid on the spot.

When the supervisor regained his breath he said, in a very cultured, precise Oxford-English voice: “I cannot permit you to be served. You are not our usual type of customer. You know full well that you are not accustomed to dine in an establishment of this quality. If you do not leave I shall have to send for the police.” (This had already been done.) In reply our spokesman informed him that many was the Saturday when wealthy clients of the Ritz would drive down to the East End workmen’s caffs in their Rollses and Daimlers and have a jolly hot saveloy, old Boy7, what! Slumming, they called it, and they too were in unusual attire and frequenting establishments that were not accustomed to such a clientele; nevertheless, said our spokesman, these gentlemen were treated with courtesy and civility and nobody sent for the police. The Ritz, he added, was not a private members’ club but a public restaurant ; he requested the supervisor to give orders to the staff to serve us with the refreshments we had asked for.

The appeal might just as well have ben addressed to the chandelier which hung from the ceiling. The supervisor stood there with a look of scorn, waiting for the police to come and throw us out. We refused to budge, insisting on our right as members of the general public, with legal tender in our pockets, to be served with what we had ordered. Meanwhile Wally had mounted the orchestra platform to address us; waiters and kitchen staff stood around dumbfounded at our temerity. But our speaker was incensed and in good form, and the issue of class privilege was clearly put. I noticed several of the staff members nodding their heads as the speaker touched on salient points. His speech was never finished, however, for the Grill was soon surrounded by the police. A couple of inspectors came over and consulted our organizers; we were ordered to leave, and did so in an orderly manner. As we filed out several of the waiters came up to wish us luck in our campaign, and pressed money into our hands.

‘Jack Dash, The Invasion of the Ritz Hotel (c.1938)’ in Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport (Edinburgh: Canongate 2012) 296-7.

The invasion of the Ritz Hotel was also featured a little while ago in a previous episode of the One Show on BBC 1.

The authors of Socialist Enterprise: Reclaiming the Economy, Diana Gilhespy, Ken Jones, Tony Manwaring, Henry Neuburger, and Adam Sharples also note the establishment of centres for unemployed workers in Brmingham, Coventry and Sandwell, as well as the establishment of a Birmingham Trade Union Resource Centre and support given to a Workshop in Coventry to support unions campaigning against the closure of their firms. West Midlands County Council also had an Economic Development Unit had a trade union liaison officer. It also produced a ‘Jobs at Risk’ information pack for workers whose companies were either in difficulties or about to close down. (p. 59).

I’m sure there are organisations like the National Unemployed Workers Union campaigning for the unemployed. Unfortunately, the trade unions have been decimated by Thatcher and successive administrations, while local authorities have found their spending savagely attacked. No doubt part of this was to prevent Left-wing councils spreading such subversion by empowering the hoi polloi. We could, however, do with a few more very visible protests and campaigns to raise the profile of unemployment, and just how savage, degrading and inadequate current welfare provision is. Pointing out that IDS’ reforms are leading to deaths of 38,000 per year, so that no-one can claim ignorance, would also be an immense help. I do wonder if a mass march on Chipping Norton, or invasion of the Carlton Club following the example of Jack Dash and the Ritz wouldn’t do any harm, either.

Blackadder, Patriotism and the First World War: Michael Gove Repeats ‘The Old Lie’

January 6, 2014

Anzacs World War1

Anzacs at Passchendaele, 1917, the battle described by A.J.P. Taylor as ‘the blindest slaughter of a blind war’.

I’ve reblogged two of Mike’s articles on Vox Populi on Michael Gove’s latest attack on history and the received view of the First World War. In an interview in the Daily Mail, Gove criticised shows like Blackadder and the film, Oh, What A Lovely War!, for presenting the wrong view of the First World War and denigrating the courage, honour and patriotism of the men who fought there. It is, he said, the fault of left-wing academics, and seems particularly incensed at the cynicism and rejection of patriotism in the above TV series and film.

Now, Gove does have something of a point here. Recent scholarship within the last 30 years has criticised the old view that there was a profound gulf between the officers and the working-class men they led, and pointed out that there was more mutual comradeship, acceptance and respect between the two groups than previously considered. I was also told by a very left-wing friend, who has absolutely no time for the Tory party, that the amount of cynicism and bitterness generated by the War has been overstated. Of the men returning from the War, 1/3 bitterly hated it, 1/3 thought it was a good adventure, and 1/3 had no strong feelings about it one way or the other.

The same friend also told me that on the Western Front, the death rate was actually lower than in contemporary Edwardian factories. His comment on this was simply: ‘It’s sh*t.’ This does not exonerate the mass carnage of the First World War so much as show you how immensely cheaply life was held by the Edwardian factory masters. As for courage, George Orwell freely admitted in one of his essays that this was amply demonstrated by the numbers of the titled aristocracy, including dukes, knights and baronets, whose lives were ended in that savage conflict. He called the militaristic anti-intellectual upper classes ‘blimps’, and had nothing but scorn for their conduct of the War, but he did not doubt their courage.

The same friend, who knows far more about the First and Second World Wars than me, also told me that he felt that much of the cynicism about the First World War was a projection of the feelings of bitterness and alienation felt by many people after the Second, when the horrors of War and the Nazi regime seemed, to many, to discredit completely European culture. I dare say there is something in this, but, while the extent of such alienation after the First World War may have been exaggerated, the point remains that it was there.

Already in the 1920s there were complaints from British officers about left-wing propaganda about the War being spread by ‘acidulated radicals’. The film, Oh, What A Lovely War! is written from a left-wing perspective. It was based on the stage play, Journey’s End, which in its turn was based, I believe, on the experiences of First World War soldiers. The Fascist movements that sprang up all over Europe after the War, including Oswald Moseley’s BUF in Britain, were formed by ex-servicemen unable to adapt to civilian life, and who believed they had been betrayed by a corrupt political system. Martin Pugh in his book on Fascism in Britain 1918-1986, repeats that Moseley himself represented and kept true to the servicemen, who had fought and suffered in the War, and now had little to look forward to on their return to Blighty. I’m not so sure. Much of the conventional view about Mosely put out by Skidelsky’s biography has since been demolished. Rather than being a misguided, but at heart decent man, Moseley himself now appears very firmly as a cynical political manipulator all too eager and ready to jettison Mussolini’s ultra-nationalist, but originally non-racist Fascism, for the Nazis and Hitler. Nevertheless, the point remains: the First World created widespread bitterness, of which European Fascism was one expression.

As for Blackadder, this can be compared to the grim reality and the gallows humour with which British squaddies and their officers faced it in the pages of the Wipers Times. This was the servicemen’s newspapers, which took its name from the British mispronunciation of ‘Ypres’, where it was published. Private Eye’s editor, Ian Hislop, last year published a book and appeared on a BBC documentary about it. The Beeb also broadcast a drama about it. Hislop stated that it was full of very, very black humour, and was very much like Blackadder. You could hear the same sentiments expressed in the trooper’s songs of the period. Everyone remembers ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, but there were others with much less patriotic view of the War. A year or so ago I came across an old songbook, Songs that Won the War. Published about the time of the Second, it collected the songs sung by the troops during the First. Amongst the various patriotic ditties was ‘We Are Fred Karno’s Army’. Fred Karno, remember, was the Music Hall impresario, who launched the career of silent move stars like Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops. The final verse imagines how the British army will be greeted by the Kaiser when they finally reach Berlin. It has the Kaiser looking at them in horror and saying, ‘Vot, Vot! Mein Gott! Vot a shabby lot!’ Somehow, I don’t think that one has been played much at Tory party conferences.

Civilian music hall stars also shared in the deep disillusionment felt by the troops. In a programme on the Music Hall broadcast several years ago on Radio 4, the programme’s presenter, a historian of the Music Hall, noted that after the War variety stars became much more sombre in appearance. Before the War there were stars like ‘The One-Eyed Kaffir’, a White man, who blacked up for his act except for one eye, which was kept as a white patch. After the War, such grotesque make-up vanished. The presenter felt that this was part of a general, more sombre mood throughout British culture engendered by the War. This mood was felt most bitterly by some of the Music Hall stars, who had sung patriotic, jingoistic songs to encourage young men to do their bit and join up. One such singer became very bitter indeed, and stated that he felt personally responsible for the men, who had been maimed and murdered as a result of listening to him.

The bitterness about the War has been expressed most famously, and most movingly, by the great war poets, such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and others less well-known. One of the books in my old school’s sixth form library was Up the Line to Death, an anthology of poetry from the First World War. As well as poetry, Sassoon wrote a letter, ‘The Declaration against War’, in 1917, during his convalescence after being wounded in France. Rather than risk the scandal of a court martial, Owen was declared to be shell-shocked and hospitalised. His declaration is one of the piece anthologised in Colin Firth’s and Anthony Arnove’s The People Speak: Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport. Here it is:

‘I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purpose for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the contrivance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise’.

The last line sounds very much like a condemnation of the invasion of Iraq and the Neo-Con ‘chickenhawks’ – men who had themselves never seen active service and who indeed had shirked it – that demanded it. And I’ve no doubt whatsoever that it’s applicability to this situation was one of the reasons Arnove and Firth selected it.

As for Owen, I can remember we did Owen’s poem, ‘Gassed’, in English. This describes the horrific state of squaddies left dying and blinded by mustard gas in conflict. It ends with words attacking and repudiating ‘the old lie, ‘Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”, a Latin motto meaning ‘It is sweet and right to die for one’s country.

So there it is, Gove, a rejection of patriotism because of the carnage and suffering it caused, by two extremely courageous men, who fought and were injured in the War. I believe Owen was himself killed just before Armistice. Oh, you can argue that Blackadder is based on the prejudiced view of left-wing academics, but they based their views on fact – on what those who actually fought in it actually felt about it.

Yes, historians modify their views about the past all the time, as new research is done, and new arguments brought forth, new topics emerge and techniques used. And that means that some of the bitterness about the War has been revised. Yet there is no doubt that the War did result in mass bitterness amongst former combatants and the civilian population, and feelings of betrayal by the old society and elites that had sent so many to their deaths. Blackadder is fiction, and throughout its four series and numerous specials often took wild liberties with the facts. Yet Blackadder goes forth and its cynicism was based on fact, and I found, as someone who simply watched it, that the final moments of the last episode, in which Blackadder, Baldrick and their friends go over the Top to their deaths, actually a genuinely moving and respectful tribute to those who did die in the muck and trenches.

Way back in the 1980s the Observer wryly remarked that the Tories were now ‘the patriotic party’. This followed Thatcher’s vociferous trumpeting of patriotism as the great British value. ‘Don’t call them boojwah, call them British!’ screamed one headline from the Telegraph supporting her very class-based, politicised view of Britishness and patriotism.

Well, a wiser man, possibly, the great Irish wit, dear old butch Oscar (pace his description in Blackadder) once described patriotism as ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’.
In this case, it is. And so is Gove.