Posts Tagged ‘The Levellers’

Two Books By Tony Benn

January 4, 2019

I hope everyone’s had a great Christmas and their New Year is off to a good start. May the shadow of Theresa May and her wretched Brexit be very far from you!

Yesterday I got through the post two secondhand books I’d ordered from Amazon by that redoubtable warrior for socialism and working people, Tony Benn. These were Arguments for Socialism, edited by Chris Mullin (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1979) and Fighting Back: Speaking Out For Socialism in the Eighties (London: Hutchinson 1988).

The two books differ slightly in that one is written from Benn’s perspective at the end of the ’70s, while the other was written nine years later at the end of the 1980s. In both Benn tackles the problems of the day, and lays out his radical, democratic socialist plans to revitalise the British economy and industry, strengthen and broaden democracy, and empower working people.

The blurb of Arguments for Socialism simply runs

Tony Benn, the most controversial figure in British politics, outlines a strong democratic-socialist approach to the most crucial issues in our political life over the next decade.

It has an introduction, and the following chapters, subdivided into smaller sections on particularly topics. These are

Section 1., ‘The Inheritance’, is composed of the following
The Inheritance of the Labour Movement
Christianity and Socialism
The Bridge between Christianity and Socialism
The Levellers and the English Democratic Tradition
Marxism and the Labour Party
Clause IV
The Labour Movement.

Section 2. ‘Issues of the 1970s’
Labour’s Industrial Programme
The Case for Change
Opening the Books
Planning Agreements and the NEB
Public Ownership
Industrial Democracy
The Upper Clyde Work-In
The Worker’s Co-ops
The Lessons of the Workers’ Co-ops
Democracy in the Public Sector

3. ‘Energy’
North Sea Oil
The Debate over Nuclear Energy
Windscale
The Fast Breeder
A Future for Coal
Alternative Sources of Energy
Conclusion

4 ‘The EEC’
Loss of Political Self-Determination
Loss of Control over the United Kingdom’s Industry and Trade
Unemployment and the EEC
After the Referendum

5. ‘Democracy’
Technology and Democracy
The Case for Open Government
How Secrecy Is Maintained at Present
Leaks and How They Occur
Conclusion

6. ‘Issues for the 1980s’
The Arguments
The Argument in Outline
The Present Crisis of Unemployment
Adam Smith and the Birth Capitalism
Lessons from the Pre-War Slump
Three Remedies on Offer
1. Monetarism
2. Corporatism
3. Democratic Socialism

7. ‘Jobs’
The Pension Funds
New Technology
Growth
The Trade Union Role in Planning
Workers’ Co-ops
A New Relationship between Labour and Capital

8. ‘The Common Market’
Three Criticisms of the EEC

9. Democracy
Open Government
The Unions
The Armed Forces
The Media
A New Role for Political Leaders.

Fighting Back’s blurb runs

With crisis after crisis rocking the country throughout the Eighties, the formation of new parties, divisions with in the old, mergers, reconciliations – British political life is at a watershed.

Tony Benn, in speeches on picket lines, at Conferences at home and abroad, in broadcasts, in the House of Commons, has been a consistently radical campaigning voice: for equal rights, for democracy and for peace against the increasingly brutal politics of monetarism, militarism and self-interest.

Fighting Back brings together for the first time in one volume the best of Tony Benn’s speeches from 1980 to 1988. Few poeple will have heard more than brief snippets of proceedings in the House of Commons given by television, radio and the press, so the most important debates are included here – the Falklands War, Westland helicopters, Fortress Wapping, Zircon and Spycatcher – as well as some lesser known concerns, from the ordination of women, to the politics of singer Paul Robeson.

Throughout the difficult years in Opposition, Tony Benn has played a leading role in defending and regenerating the socialist tradition. But Fighting Back is more than simply a personal testament: it is also an exciting and accessible handbook to the turbulent Eighties, whatever one’s political convictions.

After the introduction, it has the following chapters and subsections:

1. The Stalemate in British Politics
-Fifty Years of Consensus Rule
-The Party and the Government
-From Defeat to Victory
-Parliamentary Democracy and the Labour Movement

2. Prophetic Voices
-Positive Dissent
-Thomas Paine
-Karl Marx
-Paul Robeson
-R.H. Tawney
In Defence of British Dissidents

3. Fighting Back
-The Falklands War (April 1982)
-The Falklands War (April 1982)
-The Falklands War (May 1982)
-The Falklands War (December 1982)
-The Miners’ Strike (June 1984)
-The Miners’ Strike (September 1984)
-The Miners’ Strike (February 1985)
-Gay Rights
-Fortress Wapping (May 1986)
-Fortress Wapping (January 1987)
-The Irish Struggle for Freedom
-After Eniskillen
-Privatisation of Gas
-Legal Reform

4. British Foreign and Defence Policy
-The Case for Non-Alignment
-Who is Our Enemy?
-A New Agenda for the International Labour and Socialist Movements
-Some Facts about Defence
-Towards a Permanent New Forum
-Paying for Apartheid

5. Work and Health in a Green and Pleasant Land
-The Unemployment Tragedy
-Trade Unionism in the Eighties
-Full Employment: the Priority
-The Common Ownership of Land
-The Case Against Nuclear Power
-Nuclear Accidents
-The Nuclear Lobby
-Evidence Against Sizewell B

6. The Arrogance of Power
-The Case of Sir Anthony Blunt
-The Belgrano-Ponting Debate
-Westland Helicopters
-Surcharge and Disqualification of Councillors
-The Ordination of Women
-The Zircon Affair
-Spycatcher
-Protection of Official Information

7. Disestablishing the Establishment
-Power, Parliament and the People
-The Civil Service
-The Crown, the Church and Democratic Politics
-A Moral Crisis
-The Disestablishment of the Church of England
-Television in a Democracy
-Televising the House

8. Light at the End of the Tunnel
-The Radical Tradition: Past, Present and Future
-Staying True to the Workers
-Aims and Objectives of the Labour Party.

The Books and their Times

Arguments for Socialism comes from a time when this country had nationalised industries, strong trade unions and an efficient and effective planning apparatus. It was also when unemployment and discontent were rising, and the country was facing the threat of Thatcher and her monetarist agenda. The speeches and articles in Fighting Back come from when Thatcher had seized power, was busy privatising everything not nailed down, smashing the unions and trying to silence any dissent. This included attempts to prosecute civil servant Clive Ponting for leaking documents showing that the Argentinian warship, the General Belgrano, was actually leaving the Falklands warzone when it was attacked and sunk. Thatcher also banned the publication of Peter Wright’s Spycatcher over here, because of the embarrassing things it had to say about MI5. This turned into a massive farce as the book was widely published elsewhere, like New Zealand, meaning that foreign readers had a better understanding of the British secret state than we Brits did. It was such a ridiculous situation that Private Eye’s Willie Rushton sent it up in a book, Spythatcher.

Benn’s Beliefs on Socialism and Democracy

Benn was genuinely radical. He believed that British socialism was in danger not because it had been too radical, but because it had not been radical enough. He wished to extend nationalisation beyond the utilities that had been taken into public ownership by Attlee, and give working people a real voice in their management through the trade unions. He also fully supported the workers of three firms, who had taken over the running of their companies when management wanted to close them down, and run them as co-ops. On matters of the constitution, he wished to expand democracy by bringing in a Freedom of Information Act, strip the Crown of its remaining constitutional powers and have them invested in parliament instead, and disestablish the Church of England. He also wanted to strip the office of Prime Minister of its powers of patronage and give more to MPs. He was also firmly against the EEC and for CND. Socially, he was on the side of grassroots movements outside parliament, fully embraced gay rights and the ordination of women within the Anglican Church.

Not the Maniac He was Portrayed by the Press

He was and still is vilified for these radical views. The press, including Ian Hislop’s mighty organ, Private Eye, presented him as a ‘swivel-eyed loon’, at best a mad visionary of hopelessly unrealistic ideals. At worst he was a Communist agent of Moscow ready to destroy this country’s ability to defend itself and hand it over to rule by the Soviets.

He was, it won’t surprise you to learn, anything like that.

He was very well respected by his constituents in my part of Bristol as a very good MP and brilliant orator, and was respected even by his opponents in the city. One of the leaders of Bristol’s chamber of commerce said that he was always rational and his opinions clearly thought out. I’m a monarchist and a member of the Anglican church, and so don’t share his views on the disestablishment of the Church of England. But his arguments there are interesting.

Disestablishment of the Anglican Church

Recent calls for disestablishment have come from atheists and secularists, and Benn does use the secularist argument that privileged position of various Anglican bishops to sit in the House of Lords is unfair to those of other faiths, Roman Catholics, Protestant Nonconformists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. But this argument actually comes at the end of the main body of his pieces. His main points are that the bishops shouldn’t be there, because they’re unelected, and that parliament and the prime minister, who may not be Anglicans or even Christians, have no business appointing the denomination’s clergy or deciding doctrine. It’s an argument primarily from within the Anglican church, not from someone outside, jealous of its position.

The Prime Minister against the Church and Its Members

One example of how the Prime Minister abused their position to override or impose their views against the wishes of the Church itself was when Thatcher got stroppy with the-then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Robert Runcie. After the Falklands War, Runcie had preached a sermon saying that we should now meet the Argentinians in a spirit of reconciliation. This is what a Christian leader should say. It comes from the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the peacemakers, and all that. We’ve heard it several times since by great leaders like Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But Thatcher didn’t like it because she wanted something a bit more triumphalist. This section is also interesting because it has an interesting snippet you and I south of the Border have never heard of, except if you’re a member of the Church of Scotland. That august body at its synod overwhelmingly voted in favour of nuclear disarmament. I hadn’t heard anything about that before, and I doubt many other people outside Scotland had. And it obviously wasn’t an accident. The Tory media really didn’t want anyone else in Britain to know about it, in case they thought it might be a good idea.

It wasn’t just the Church of Scotland that were against nuclear weapons. So was a leading Roman Catholic prelate, Monsigner Bruce Kent, now, I believe, no longer a member of the priesthood. One of my aunts was a very Roman Catholic lady, who was also a member of CND. She found herself on one march next to a group of Franciscan friars. So kudos and respect to all the churches for their Christian witness on this issue.

CND, the Unions and Media Bias

On the subject of CND, Benn talks about the blatant bias of the press. All kinds of people were members of the Campaign, but when it was covered on television, what you got were a few shots of clergy like Monsignor Kent, before the camera zoomed in on the banner of the Revolutionary Communist party. CND were part of Russkie commie subversion! Except as I remember, they weren’t. The Russians didn’t like them either after they criticised their maneoevres in eastern Europe.

Benn states that the media’s bias is peculiar – its somewhere to the right of the Guardian, but slightly to the left of Thatcher. This was the attitude of the establishment generally. And it was extremely biased against the trade unions. He cites the work of Glasgow Media Studies unit, who looked at the language they used to describe industrial disputes. The language used of the trade unions always presented them as the aggressor. They ‘demanded’ and ‘threatened’, while management ‘offered’ and ‘pleaded’. He then asked hsi readers to turn the rhetoric around, so that a union asking for a pay rise of 8 per cent when inflation in 10 per cent is ‘pleading’.

The Ordination of Women

His stance on the ordination of women is equally interesting. He was obviously for it, but his arguments as you might expect were very well informed. He pointed out that women had been campaigning to be ordained in the Church since the 1920s, and that other Christian denominations, like the Congregationalists, already had women ministers. As did other Anglican churches abroad, like the Episcopalians in America. It was blocked here by the Anglo-Catholics, who fear it would stop re-union with Rome. But even here, he noted, this may not be an obstacle, citing movements for the ordination of women within Catholicism. Again, it’s an argument from within the Church, or from someone genuinely sympathetic to it, than from an outsider frustrated with the Church’s stubborn refusal to abide by secular social values, although that is also in there.

Government Secrecy

And back on the subject of government secrecy, the Zircon Affair was when Thatcher banned the transmission of an edition of the documentary programme, Secret State. I’ve put up that documentary series a few years ago on this blog, because it showed the extent to which Thatcher and others had been using the Official Secrets Act to suppress information that was embarrassing or uncomfortable. Like the fact that in a nuclear war, this country would suffer massive casualties and the obliteration of its major population centres.

The book actually contains any number of interesting snippets that definitely weren’t reported, or else were only given very tiny coverage, in the mainstream press. Like details of various incidents at nuclear plants that could have led to serious accidents. He also talks about the ‘Atoms for Peace’ programme. In this international project, we sent our nuclear material over to America, where, we were told, it would be used for peaceful purposes generating power in American reactors. Well, it was used in American reactors. They refined it into the plutonium, that was then put in American nuclear warheads and sent back over here to the US nuclear bases on British soil. He also pointed out that the agreements covering the use of Britain as a base by US forces in the event of a nuclear war also contravened our sovereignty.

Ted Heath and the EU

Loss of sovereignty was also a major part of his opposition to the EU. But he also makes the point that our entry into the Common Market was also undemocratic. Ted Heath simply decided the country was going in. Parliament was not consulted and did not vote on the issue. I do remember that there was a referendum afterwards, however.

Intelligence Agencies Smearing Labour MPs

The intelligence agencies are another threat to British democracy. He cites Peter Wright’s Spycatcher memoir on how MI5 was spreading rumours smearing the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, as a KGB spy. This, like much of the rest of the material in the books, has not dated. The problem of the security services smearing left-wing politicians is still very much with us, as we’ve seen from the Integrity Initiative. They’ve smeared Jeremy Corbyn as a Russian spy.

Books Still Relevant in 21st Century

I’ve only really skimmed the books so far, just reading the odd chapter, but so much of it is directly relevant now. I think if he were alive today, Benn probably would have voted ‘Leave’, but his arrangements for leaving the EU would have been far more sensible and beneficial to this country’s ordinary folk than that of Tweezer and her band of profiteers. And he is absolutely right when he writes about expanding democracy in industry. He states that the workers’ co-ops on the Clydeside and elsewhere were attacked in the press, because suddenly the British capitalist establishment were terrified because it showed that there was a genuine alternative to capitalism, and that workers could run companies.

The individual sections in these books chapters are short, and the arguments clear. He also gives point by point party programmes on particular issues, such as making this country more democratic.

Benn Democrat, Not Authoritarian Communist

And it’s this concern for democracy that most definitely marks Benn out as being a democratic socialist, not a Trotskyite or Communist. Those parties and their various sects were run according to Lenin’s principle of ‘democratic centralism’. Put simply, this meant that the party would hold some kind of open debate on issues until a decision was made. After that, the issue was closed. Anybody still holding or promoting their own opinions faced official censure or expulsion. And the Communist parties of eastern Europe would have been as frightened of Benn’s championing of democracy as the British establishment.

Conclusion

As I said, I take issue with Benn on certain issues. But his reasoning is always clear and rational, his points well argued and based in fact. Furthermore, he is impressed with the British radical tradition and how much British socialism is squarely based within it. We lost one of our greatest parliamentarians with his death.

His ideas, however, are still very relevant, and have been vindicated with time. He was right about monetarism and corporatism, about unemployment, about the need for unions, about media bias. His support of women priests and gay rights were ahead of their time, and have now become almost a commonplace, accepted by all except a few die-hard reactionaries. And he’s right about nationalisation and worker empowerment.

These are books I intend to use for my blog and its attack on Tweezer and the Tories. And I won’t be short of useful material.

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Pat Mills Talks to Sasha Simic of the SWP about the Politics of 2000AD

September 15, 2017

This comes from the Socialist Workers’ Party, an organization of which I am not a member and which I don’t support. But this is another really great video, in which one of the great creators of the British comics for over forty years talks about politics, social class, the role of capitalism and women and feminism, not just in 2000AD, but also in comics and publishing generally, and the media.

Mills was speaking as part of annual four day convention the Socialist Workers hold on Marxism. Simic introduces himself as the person, who gets the annual geek slot. As well as a member of the party, he’s also a convener of USDAW. And he’s very happy in this, the centenary of the Russian Revolution, to have on Pat Mills.

Mills starts by saying that as he was growing up in the 50s and 60s, he read the same books everyone else did – John Buchan, Ian Fleming, Dennis Wheatley, Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Pimpernel. But there was something about it that made him angry, and it was only looking back on it that he came to realise that what infuriated him was the fact that these were all authors from the upper and middle classes, who created heroes from those class backgrounds. He makes the point that these were good writers, but that some of their work was very sinister the more you go into it. Like John Buchan. Buchan was the major propagandist of the First World War. Mills says that Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s infamous spin doctor, had nothing on him. He promoted the First world War, for which he was rewarded with the governorship of Canada.
He states that he doesn’t want to go too far into it as he’ll start ranting. Nevertheless, he’s glad to be able to talk to the people at the SWP’s convention, as it means they have a similar opinion to him, and he doesn’t have to censor himself.

He makes the point that there are very, very few working class heroes, and believes this is quite deliberate. It’s to deprive working people of a strong role. When the working people do appear, it’s as loyal batmen, or sidekicks, and there is an element of parody there. And it’s not just in comics and literature. In the 1980s he was contacted by the producers of Dr. Who to do a story. He wanted to have a working class spaceship captain. He was told by the script editor that they couldn’t. They also didn’t like his idea to have a working class family. It was only by looking back on where this hatred of the heroes of traditional literature came from, that he came to realise that it wasn’t just that he didn’t want to have any generals in his work.

He also talks about how it’s easier to get away with subversion in comics, as comics are treated as a trivial form of literature, which nobody really cares about. The profit motive also helps. So long as it’s making money, comics companies don’t care what’s going on. And this explains how he was able to get away with some of the things he did in Battle. He states that the way he works is by pretending to write something mainstream and inoffensive, and then subvert it from within. An example of that is Charley’s War in Battle. This looks like an ordinary war strip, but in fact was very anti-war. Even so, there were times when he had to be careful and know when to give up. One of these was about a story he wanted to run about the entry of the Americans into the War. In this story, a group of White American squaddies are members of the Klan, and try to lynch a Black soldier. Charley wades in to help the Black guy. The management rejected the story on the grounds that they didn’t want anything too controversial. Mills decided to draw in his horns and bite his tongue at that point, because he had a bigger story lined up about the British invasion of Russian in 1919, when we sent in 20-30,000 men. It was, he says, our Vietnam, and has been whitewashed out of the history books.

He also makes the point that subversion was also present in the girls’ comics. Even more so, as there was a psychological angle that wasn’t present in the boys’. For example, there was one story called ‘Ella in Easy Street’, where a young girl reacts against her aspirational family. They want to get on, and so the father has two jobs, and the mother is similarly working very hard to support their aspirations. But Ella herself is unhappy, as it’s destroying what they are as a family. And so she sets out to sabotage their yuppie dream. Mills says that it’s not all one-dimensional – he looks at the situation from both sides, pro and con, but the story makes the point that there are things that are more important that materialism and social advancement, like family, comradeship. He says that such a story could not be published now. It’s rather like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, where the hero, in the end, throws the race as a way of giving the system the finger.

Mills reminds his audience just how massive girls’ comics were in the ’70s. They were bigger, much bigger, than the boys’. 2000AD sold 200,000 copies a week in its prime. But Tammy, one of the girls’ comics, sold 260,000. This is really surprising, as women read much more than we men. These comics have all disappeared. This, he says, is because the boys’ took over the sandpit. He has been trying to revive them, and so a couple of stories from Misty have been republished in an album.

This gets him onto the issue of reaching the audience, who really need it. In the case of the stories from Misty, this has meant that there are two serials on sale, both of which are very good, but in a book costing £17 – odd. The only people going to read that are the mothers of the present generation of girls, perhaps. To reach the girls, it needs to be set at a lower price they can afford. This is also a problem with the political material. If you write something subversive, it will receive glowing reviews but be bought by people, who already agree with you. He wants his message to get further out, and not to become a coffee table book for north London.

He talks about the way British comics have grown up with their readership, and the advantages and disadvantages this has brought. British comics has, with the exception of 2000AD, more or less disappeared, and the readership of that comic is in its 30s and 40s. People have put this down to demographics and the rise of computer games, saying that this was inevitable. It wasn’t. It was our fault, says Mills. We fumbled it. Games workshop still have young people amongst their audience, while the French also have computer games across the Channel, but their children are reading comics.

Mills goes on to say that it’s easier writing for adults. Writing for 9 and 10 year olds is much harder, because if they don’t like a story, they’ll say. He says to his audience that they may think the same way, but they’re much too polite to say it at conventions. And they had to respond to their young readers as well, as the kids voted on it every week. They’d tell you if they thought it was a bad story, even if you thought it was the best one so far, and asked yourself what was wrong with the little sh*ts.

He also talks about how difficult it is to break into comics. He has friends, who have been trying for decades to get into 2000AD, and have been unsuccessful. His advice to people trying to do so is: don’t bother. There’s nothing wrong with you, it’s 2000AD. And this also effects text publishing. All the publishers have now been bought up, so that HarperCollins have the fingers in everything, such as Hodder and Stoughton. And their politics aren’t ours.

The way round this is to get into web publishing. Here he digresses and talks about pulp fiction, which is a close relative of comics. He was talking to a guy at a convention, who writes pulp fiction and puts it on the net. It only costs a few pence. The man writes about a zombie apocalypse, but – and this is true, as he’s seen the payment slips – he’s pulling in £3,000 a month. Mills says that this is important as well. He wants to get his material out there, but he also wants to eat. This shows you how you can make money publishing it yourself. Later on in the video, after the questions and the comments from the audience, he goes further into this. He mentions some of the web publishers, one of which is subsidiary of Amazon, which will allow people to publish their own work. He also talks about self-publishing and chapbooks. He found out about these while writing Defoe, his story about Leveller zombie killer in an alternative 17th century England. Chapbooks were so called because they were cheap books, the cheap literature of the masses. And this is what comics should go back to. He says that everyone should produce comics, in the same way that everyone can also make music by picking up an instrument and playing a few chords.

He also praises some of the other subversive literature people have self-produced. Like one piece satirizing the British army’s recruitment posters. ‘Join the army’, it says, ‘- like prison, but with more fighting’. Mills is fairly sure he knows who wrote that as well. It was another guy he met at a convention, who was probably responsible for the anti-war film on YouTube Action Man: Battlefield Casualties. He enormously admires this film, and is envious of the people, who made it.

He also talks about some of the fan letters he’s had. One was from the CEO of a school, he talks about the way reading 2000AD opened up his mind and changed his moral compass. The man says that everything he learned about Fascism, he learned from Judge Dredd, everything about racism from Strontium Dog, and feminism from Halo Jones. He and his headmaster, whom he names, were both punks and he’s now opened a school in Doncaster. The most subversive thing you can do now is to try to create an open-minded and questioning generation of young people. The letter is signed, yours, from a company director, but not an evil one, and then the gentleman’s name.

He concludes this part of the talk by describing the career of James Clarke, a member of the Socialist Labour Party, the Communist Party, a lion tamer and conscientious objector. During the War he ran escape lines for British squaddies in France. And people say that pacifists are cowards, Mills jokes. How much braver can you be than sticking your head in a lion’s mouth. He wrote a pamphlet defending a group of comrades, who tried to start the revolution by following the example of the Irish Nationalists and blow things up with a bomb. The pamphlet argued that this was wrong, and that if the working class wanted to gain power, they should concentrate on confronting capitalism through direct action. He also wrote poetry. Mills describes Clark as being a kind of Scots Tom Baker. One of these is a biting satire of Kipling’s If. The poem begins by asking if the reader can wake up every morning at 5 O’clock, or 4.30, and then labour at their machines, and see their wives and children suffer deprivation while those, who haven’t earned it take it all the profits, and describes the backbreaking grind of hard working life for the capitalist class in several stanzas. It ends with the statement that if you can do all that, and still be complacent, then go out, buy a gun and blow your brains out.

Clearly, I don’t recommend any actually do this, but it is a witty and funny response to Kipling’s poem. I found it hugely funny, and I do think it’s a great response to what was voted Britain’s favourite poem by the Beeb’s viewers and readers a few years ago. Can you imagine the sheer Tory rage that would erupt if someone dared to recite it on television!

Many of the comments are from people thanking Mills for opening their eyes and for writing such great stories. They include a man, who describes how Mills’ works are on his shelf next to his copy of Das Kapital. Another man describes how he used to buy 2000AD just after going to church on Sunday. So after listening to some very boring sermons, he came back from Baptist chapel to read all this subversion. One young woman says that the zines – the small press magazines, that appeared in the 1990s – seem to be still around, as she has seen them at punk concerts. Another young woman says that although comics are seen as a boys’ thing, when she goes into Forbidden Planet near her, there are always three girls in there and two boys. She also talks about how many young women read Japanese manga. Mills states in reply that manga stories generally are light and frothy, and so not the kind of stories he wants to write. But as for women in comics, he says that he spoken several times to students on graphic novel courses, and each time about 75 per cent of them have been women, which is good.

He also talks about Crisis and Action. The Third World War strip in Crisis was about the politics of food, and was set in a world where food production was dominated by a vast multinational formed by the merger of two of today’s megacorporations. Mills states that when the strip covered what was going on in South America, that was acceptable. However, at one point he moved the story to Brixton, finding a Black co-writer to help with the story. At that point, the White Guardian-reading liberals started to be uncomfortable with it. There was also a story in which Britain leaves the EU. This results in the rise of a Fascist dictatorship, and the EU responds by invading Britain. Mills says that he’s been trying to get Crisis relaunched, but the company are stringing him along with excuses, probably because it’s easier than arguing with him.

Mills obviously did the right thing by finding a Black co-writer. Marvel suffered a barrage of criticism with some of their attempts to launch a series of Black superheroes, like the Black Panther as part of the Blaxploitation wave of the 1970s. The Black Panther was particularly criticized. The creators were old, White dudes, who didn’t understand urban Black culture, even if the comics themselves were sincere in presenting a sympathetic view of Black Americans and combating racism.

He also talks briefly about Action, and the controversy that caused. What really upset Mary Whitehouse and the rest was ‘Kid’s Rule UK’, a strip in which a disease killed everyone over 16, and Britain was inhabited solely by warring street gangs. Mills used to take the same train from where he was living at the time with Mary Whitehouse. He said he was editing a Hookjaw script at the time, and notice Whitehouse over the other side of the carriage looking daggers at him. So he put in more carnage and more arms and legs being bitten off.

One of the most interesting questions is about the politics and morality of Judge Dredd. Dredd is a fascist, and in one of the strips it seemed to take the side of authority over subversion with no irony. This was in a story about the punks taking over Megacity 1. At the end of the strip, Dredd gets hold of the leader, and makes him say, ‘I’m a dirty punk.’ Mills actually agrees with the speaker, and says that there are people, who take Dredd as a role-model. He’s had letters from them, which he doesn’t like. He doesn’t know what these people do. Perhaps they have their own chapterhouse somewhere. He went cold inside when he heard about the story. It wasn’t one of his. It was by John Wagner, who isn’t at all political, but is very cynical, so this has some of the same effects of politics. But 75 per cent of Dredd comes from Mills. Mills states that it’s a flawed character, and that can be seen in why the two Dredd films never did well at the box office. Dredd was based on a particular teacher at his old school, as was Torquemada, the Grand Master of Termight, a genocidally racist Fascist military feudal order ruling Earth thousands of years in the future. They were both two sides of the same coin. That was why he enjoyed humiliating Torquemada. But it isn’t done with Dredd. Yet it could have been different, and there could be instances where people have their revenge on Dredd without losing the power of the character. He states that it was because Chopper did this in the story ‘Unamerican Graffiti’, that this became the favourite Dredd story of all time.

It’s a fascinating insight into the politics of the comics industry. The zines and other self-published small magazines he describes were a product of the Punk scene, where people did start putting together their own fanzines in their bedrooms. It was part of the mass creativity that punk at its height unleashed. As for the web comics, he talks about a couple that he finds particularly impressive, including those by the author of the dystopian science fiction story Y – the Last Man, set in a future in which all the men in the world have been killed by another disease. A number of my friends used to publish their own small press magazines in the 1990s, as did Mike. Mike started his own, small press comic, Violent, as an homage to Action when it was that comics anniversary. Mike was helped by some of the artists and writers from 2000AD, and so some of the tales are very professional. But probably not for delicate, gentle souls.

Amongst SF fandom, chapbooks are small books which another publishes himself. And they have been the route some professionally published authors have taken into print. Stephen Baxter is one of them. I think his Xelee stories first appeared in a chapbook he sold at one of the SF conventions.

Looking back at Kids Rule UK, this was my least favourite strip in Action. I was bullied at school, and so the idea of a Britain, where everything had broken down and there was nothing but bullying and juvenile violence really scared me. Action took many of its strips from the popular culture of the time. Hookjaw was basically Jaws. One-Eyed Jack seemed based very much on the type of hard-boiled American cop shows, if not actually Dirty Harry. One of the SF movies of the late sixties was about an America in which teenagers had seized power, and put all the adults in concentration camps were they were force-fed LSD. One of the four Star Trek stories that were banned on British television until the 1980s was ‘Miri’. In this tale, Kirk, Spock and the others beam down to a planet occupied entirely by children, as all the ‘grups’ – the adults – have been killed by disease. Kids Rule UK seems very much in the same vein as these stories.

Mills’ story about Dr. Who not wanting to show a working class family, let alone a spaceship captain, shows how far the series has come when it was relaunched by Russell T. Davis. Christopher Eccleston basically played the Doctor as northern and working class, wile Rose Tyler’s family and friends were ordinary people in a London tower block. As for not wanting to show a working class spaceship captain, that probably comes from very ingrained class attitudes in the aviation industry. A friend of mine trained as a pilot. When he was studying, their tutor told the class that the British exam included a question no other country in the world required, and which was particularly difficult. He stated that it was put there to weed out people from working or lower middle class backgrounds, as they would fail and not be able to retake the exam, as their competitors from the upper classes could.

It’s great to hear Mills encourage people try to produce their own work, and not be disheartened if they are rejected by mainstream publishers. I’m also saddened by the absence of any comics for children. They offered me when I was a lad an escape into a whole world of fun and imagination. And at their best, they do encourage children to take an interest in real issues like racism, sexism, bigotry and exploitation. I hope some way can be found to reverse their disappearance.

The Bad Man Blog: Q & A with Comics Legend Pat Mills

October 3, 2016

Borag Thungg again, Earthlets! Pat Mills, one of the Britain’s leading comics creators, and the script robot behind the Nemesis the Warlock, ABC Warriors, DeFoe, and Slaine strips in 2000 AD, and the classic Charley’s War in Battle, as well as Marshal Law, is featured in The Bad Man Blog in an entry for the 5th April this year, in which he answers 10 questions. The Bad Man introduces him with the words

If you want to know where the edge in modern comic books comes from, whether that be the inception of DC’s 80’s Vertigo line, the Image creator evolution of the 90’s, right on up to the Indie Artist ripe market-place, vying for a spot amongst the giants in modernity, then perhaps turn your head back to the late 70’s and the birth of 2000AD.

2000 AD Creator Pat Mills wanted to write working class comic books that shook the establishment and reached out to an angry youth with a subversive message that spoke to them through sci-fantasy. He succeeded with a revolution in British comic book storytelling that’s been oft imitated but never replicated.

Mills talks about the difficulty of writing for a disenfranchised generation, both then and now, without sounding too preachy or ‘David Icke’, and his regret that he couldn’t hit the establishment harder. He talks about how his opposition to the establishment was a product of his upbringing, and particularly his experience with the Roman Catholic Church and the Masons. He gives advice to budding comic creators, and lists the writers, who have been the biggest influence on his writing. Among literary giants like Wilkie Collins, Graham Greene, Dennis Wheatley and Rider Haggard, and modern crusading journalists and polemicists like John Pilger, he also includes Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle for the Molesworth Books, and for Searle’s St. Trinian’s cartoons. In answer to the question of what motivates him to write, he states that it’s a kind of catharsis and a way through strips like Slaine to explore his own psychology. And he also states that its a way of paying tribute to his heroes, like the Levellers. He continues

Defoe is a Leveller – they were great men who schools deliberately do not teach kids about because they stood for freedom. If the Levellers had won it wouldn’t be Charles 1 alone on the scaffold. They’d have got rid of all privilege. And there’d be no Charles 111. How our country allows an idiot with a disturbing, troubled and suspicious private life to take the throne of Britain is beyond me.

He also urges aspiring comics artists and writers to take up social activism and issues in their work, saying

Challenge society, change society, widen perspectives outside the mental straitjacket the media would put us in. E.G. By acknowledging Britain was probably one of the most evil Empires the world has ever known (and it’s still pretty dirty when you look at Iraq and Syria,) it sets us free. It’s not self-flagellation, it’s actually taking pride in the true Britain of characters like Defoe and the Levellers, soldiers like Charley in Charley’s War, wild Celts like Slaine and so on.

He discusses more history you don’t and won’t read about in answer to the Bad Man’s question of what he would do if he could go back in time. Mills’ answer is straightforward: Shoot Lord Milner. He explains that Milner was part of a conspiracy that started the First World War. He states that Belgium was in a secret alliance with Britain and France at the time, and it’s only in Britain that we’ve been taught otherwise. Mills goes on to explain that E. Morel, who exposed the Congo atrocities, also revealed Milner’s role in igniting the War, but his work is simply dismissed as ‘wrong’ by historians today. He recommends that for further information people should read McGregor’s Hidden History, which is available online, Milner’s Second War, and E. Morel’s pamphlets. He explains

If Milner had been assassinated, in 1912, it could have just stopped Armageddon and opportunist characters like Churchill and Lloyd George might never have come to power with the terrible consequences for the people of 1914 – 1918 and beyond. With some areas of history, I’m still a student, but I’ve been studying WW1 since I was a kid and there is no doubt Britain was responsible.

Not something you’re likely to read about in school books or the mainstream media where Max Hastings and Paxman reign supreme, alas. As you can see, I feel strongly about this because we owe it to our ancestors that the truth gets out there. Not the ‘noble sacrifice’ bullshit of Cameron and co. The WW1 generation of young soldiers were murdered by the British establishment in conjunction with other forces, notably the bankers and merchants of death.

He ends the session by talking about the strips he’s working on at the moment.

See: https://therealbadman.wordpress.com/tag/nemesis-the-warlock/

Mills clearly has some very controversial opinions, especially about the Roman Catholic church, and that Britain is occupying Northern Ireland. That clearly isn’t the way the Loyalist community see it. Nevertheless, regardless of his views on the legitimacy of British rule in Northern Ireland, he is absolutely right about there having been a ‘dirty war’ there. Lobster has published a series of articles discussing the collaboration of the British state with loyalist paramilitaries in containing the IRA, and how secret SAS units were embedded in regular army units to assassinate leading Nationalists.

As for the Roman Catholic church, unfortunately he is right in that there is a problem with corruption in Vatican and the Church hierarchy, and this has left many Roman Catholics feeling betrayed. The many scandals around the world about child abuse by priests and clergy has led to many believers leaving the Church, particularly in Ireland and in Germany. Many German Roman Catholics left because of the last pope’s perceived reluctance or inability to tackle the issue and make proper reparations.

Mills also makes a very good statement about the misuse of power in local communities, when he says that in the small town where he grew up, everyone in power knew everyone else, and used their power in very negative ways. Dad and others had the same experience of the power of the local business community in Taunton, and the same abuse of social and economic position and authority still continues in Britain today.

It would be very interesting indeed to read and hear more about Britain’s responsibility for causing the First World War. This is not a view I’ve ever heard before. Quite the opposite. Just about all the historians I’ve ever read have blamed the Germans and Austrians. German historians argue in contrast that the War broke out almost as an inevitable accident, brought about through the web of alliances and the extremely volatile nature of the Balkans. Together, these caused the nations of Europe to ‘drift to war’. The German view, from what I’ve read, is not only rejected by British historians, but seen as something peculiar to Germany. It seems to me that it’s implied in British historians’ criticism of the German view of the origins of the War that the Germans are somehow trying to exculpate themselves from their responsibility for starting it. After reading Mills’ brief statements about the issue, the conventional historical view of German culpability no longer seems at all certain.

His is an extreme view, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. And he’s right about contemporary historiography of the war, at least at the popular level, being dominated by establishment figures like Max Hastings, the former editor of the Telegraph, and Jeremy Paxman. I like Paxo, and think he did a good job when he was on Newsnight, at least of irritating the Tories. But that doesn’t mean he’s telling the truth as an historian. Indeed, Private Eye a few weeks ago pointed out the many mistakes he was making in his latest excursion into literary history. He was trying to argue that a number of literary genres were in fact the creation of British writers in the 19th century. One of these was detective fiction. In fact, the first detective novel is usually considered to be Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mysteries of the Rue Morgue. Mind you, as with so many things, it can also be argued that the Chinese got there first. The Chinese also independently developed the novel, including tales of detection featuring Judge Dee. A number of these were translated by Van Lustgarten, who also wrote a story of his own using the character. So perhaps Paxo probably isn’t the most reliable guide either to literary history, or that of the Great War.

And as extreme as his view is, I don’t think it should be immediately dismissed because of the care Mills took in researching his stories. Charley’s War is a classic because it movingly portrays the reality of the War for the ordinary Tommy, and I’ve no doubt Mills did considerable research when writing the strip and subsequently after. He has said in another interview, a few years ago, how he broke with the traditional, very low view of comic writing when he started on 2000 AD. It was an SF comic, so he bought four books on science to research the subject, and invoiced IPC for expenses. Which left them shocked with the idea that anyone should do something as basic as that. Clearly, 2000 AD and its characters are Science Fiction and Fantasy, not fact, and in many cases very obviously are far from conventional scientific or historical fact. But the fact that Mills is prepared to research carefully the background of the strips he writes does make me wonder whether he’s right about this issue as well. But go and read what he says for yourselves, and make your own minds up.

Splundig Vur Thrigg!, as Old Green Bonce would say.

Radical Balladry and Tunes for Toilers: Diggers’ Song

May 26, 2014

Digger Song

This is another tune from Roy Palmer’s A Ballad History of England. Like the others I’ve posted up, I don’t the words for it. Its place amongst the other ballads, which I copied from Roy’s book, suggests that it comes from the seventeenth century. So, I wonder if it’s about the Diggers, the Civil War Communist movement, that attempted to set up an ideal community on common land at St. George’s Hill in Surrey in 1649. They were inspired by Gerrard Winstanley, a cloth trader and farm labourer, whose Communist ideas were based on his radical mysticism, in which he hailed Christ as ‘the head Leveller’. The Digger movement was eventually suppressed by the local landlords, who destroyed the colony’s crops.

They and the Levellers still exert a certain influence on British Socialism and radicalism today. There was a drama documentary about them made by one of the radical British directors in the 1970s. This is still available on DVD from the British Film Institute, I believe. I have seen copies around in various record and DVD stores, so it’s definitely still around, if you’re interested. More recently, the British film, A Field in England, was released the other year. Set in the Civil War, it was about the debates over society, politics and religion of the period through the perspective of the local characters debating what they should do over a particular field. Possibly not one of the most exciting ideas for a film, it was nevertheless praised by the critics for its ability to create drama and tension through skilful direction and camera work. I’ve also got a feeling that amongst the great British thesps starring in the movie was Sean Bean, best known as ‘Sharpe’ from the series of books and TV series set in the Napoleonic Wars.

An excerpt from Winstanley’s A New-Yeers Gift for the Parliament and Armie of 1650 is included in the collection of 17th century political texts, Divine Right and Democracy: An Anthology of Political Writing in Stuart England, ed. by David Wootton, (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1986) 317-332.

On the other hand, the tune could simply be about people who have to dig for their living, rather than the radical political movement. In which case, it’s still interesting as another document on working class life from that period.

Radical Balladry, and Songs of Protest, Folk and Punk

May 17, 2014

Ballad Seller pic

I posted a few pieces this week on Rob Young’s Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (London: Faber & Faber 2010) and radical and Socialist British folk song and verse, including examples from the 19th century. This started an interesting debate between Untynewear and Jess over the nature of radical folk song, its influence and its appeal today compared to other genres.

Untynewear commented that the folk music he tried after reading Young’s book was largely too twee for his tastes, and was too middle class, ‘nice music for nice people’, for which he blamed the very middle class folk music collectors like Cecil Sharp. It’s a fair point, as after the raw energy and nihilistic rage of punk, some British folk music can indeed seem safe and twee, celebrating an idealised bucolic idyll that never existed except in the minds of Conservative Romantics and urban city dwellers. You consider all the jokes about Morris dancing. The new masses of the rapidly expanding Victorian towns reacted against the horrors of the new mass industrial society while unaware of the grinding poverty and squalor that also existed in the countryside, and which forced their parents and grandparents to move to the city to find work in the first place.

In response, Jess pointed out that some of the folk bands and artists did recover and perform the angry, radical songs of the past. She recommended in particular Ashley Hutchings’ Albion Band, who had ‘recorded ‘Battle of the Field’ a couple of years before punk, but inspired many later bands such as the Levellers and The Men……”

And his ‘Kicking Up the Sawdust’, 1977, with Bob Cann, though not overtly political, can hold its own in any musical company.’

She also points out that there was a considerable difference at the time between the point of view of the collectors of the songs and dances, with some being far more radical in their beliefs and the material they collected. She writes:

As Gergina Boyes points out, there was quite an ideological battle went on within the ;’collectors’ (one that paralleled the arguments between the Jacobin John Ritson and tory Walter Scott in the 1790′s) . If you look at the work of Frank Kidson you will find an entirely different attitude to the music and the people who made it than the one held by Sharp and his cohorts.

She also pointed out that the people composing and performing the music were largely ignored by the middle classes and the music industry:

Despite the polite interest from above, the people who made the music, just carried on doing so. Fortunately some of it was recorded (try Veteran CD’s) , though not much made it onto the airwaves, let alone the jukeboxes.
Try http://www.veteran.co.uk/Veteran%20Catalogue.htm

She also traces the influence that this radical music has had on modern pop through Lonnie Donegan, whose interest in music was inspired by an American folk artist.

Donegan, she writes, started off as an aficionado of Josh White an American folk singer whose music reached this country through the airwaves of the BBC, courtesy of a slightly left wing (Labour) presenter called Charles Chilton.(we will meet Charles in another context, another time)

Unable to find the records he heard over the airwaves, he found them at Collets Book shop in Charing Cross Road (Formerly Hendersons, a syndicalist bookshop). The end result, as someone once said was ‘the Beatles’

Untynewear championed punk as the modern music of protest that appealed to him, as well as the music of the British West Indian community that emerged at the same time, like Steel Pulse and Linton Kwesi Johnson. He particularly recommended Johnson’s ‘Inglan’ is a Bitch’ and ‘Wat About Di Workin Class?’ Johnson has a sizable following, including many writers and bloggers for his left-wing music attacking racism and capitalism. Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove include ‘Inglan is a Bitch’ in their anthology of radical, democratic and socialist texts, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport. Untynewear gives the lyrics to ‘Wat About Di Workin Class’, which goes

‘From Inglan to Poland Every step across di ocean
The ruling class is dem in a mess, oh yes
Di capitalist system are regress
But di Sovjet system nah progress
So wich one of dem yuh think is best
When di two of dem work as a contest
When crisis is di order of di day
When so much people cryin’ out for change nowadays
So what about di workin’ claas? ??
What about di workin’ claas?
Dem pay the cost, dem carry the cross
An’ dem nah go forget dem ??
Dem nah go forget dem plans’

While this seems very dated after the Collapse of Communism, in the 1950s and ’60s, it should be remembered, the Western ruling class was very definitely in a mess because it looked like the Communist bloc would overtake the West in affluence and material prosperity. See the book Red Plenty for a partly novelised account of this period from the point of the view of the Soviets. Buddyhell over Guy Debord’s Cat has also included Johnson’s ‘Reggae fi Peach’, protesting against the murder of Blair Peach by a member of the SPD at an anti-racism demonstration.

This isn’t an either/ or situation. The idea that folk music is somehow a unique expression of a nation’s essential nature, somehow isolated and different from the music of other nations and cultures, as viewed by some of the 19th century Romantic folklorists, has been rejected. Writers and researchers on folk music have pointed out that folk music has always drawn on international influences since at least the 16th and 17th century. A German writer then described how musicians from all over Europe, including England, toured the Continent and the fairs of Germany to pick up the latest tunes, which they then took back with them to their own countries. Sea Shanties are a particularly mixed genre. One book I read said it was impossible to work out from which country’s musical tradition the genre as a whole developed from, while noting that there was a distinct African element to the music. Which is pretty much what you’d expect from an industry, whose very nature was international trade and the transport of goods and people. And the influence of other nation’s culture and the adoption of their musical forms continued in the 19th century. One type of music that entered British folk music in the 19th century was the Polka, which originally came from Poland.

And far from being the anonymous expression of a nation’s collective soul, some folk music was written or composed by distinct individuals, whose identities are known, or entered the tradition from Broadside Ballads. With this in mind, it’s entirely fair to regard modern radical pop artists, like Johnson and the politically engaged Punk bands, as forms of modern folk, even though some of the artists themselves may have reacted against being lumped in with the genre. Jess herself agreed with Untynewear about the quality of Johnson’s music. Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove, in The People Speak apart from Johnson, also include songs by The Clash, ‘Know Your Rights’ and Elvis Costello, ‘Shipbuilding’, along with folk songs like Hamish Henderson’s ‘The John Maclean March’ and ‘Freedom Come-All-Ye’, Frank Higgins’ ‘The Testimony of Patience Kershaw’ as well as anonymous 19th century ballads like ‘Hunting A Loaf’. They’re all songs of popular protest and attacks on social injustice, with the same roots in the experience of the poor, the working and lower middle classes, and the marginalised and oppressed, like many ethnic minorities.