Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

On Monday I alighted onto the cracked, worn platform of Kirkgate station, Wakefield,  having completed the first short leg of a journey from West Yorkshire to Plymouth, Devon’s most south-westerly point. A strange sight in these austere times met my eyes – builders at work. The once noble-looking Victorian station, unmanned since the nineteen-eighties and left to wrack and ruin, is suddenly being restored, if only modestly. It isn’t any great mystery. One word will probably suffice; tourists. The acclaimed Hepworth Museum  is little more than a stone’s throw away.

It could be reasonably argued that the station should never have been allowed to fall into such a wretched, ghostly, intimidating state of disrepair. Let’s not go into that; reasonable arguments never seem to carry much weight. And anyway, my thoughts had drifted to the far grander revival.

For most of my life I’ve lived just a few miles down the road from Wakefield, the city where I was born. For much of that time the place was exposed to all of the problems of industrial decline and government neglect. People don’t stop loving and living, of course. Or partying. Woops! Nights out too often turned into a collective, violent drowning of sorrows. You staring at me? Pap-pop pollution wafted from hostile bars as if a sickly soundtrack to every kick in the teeth out on the street. Happy people don’t do this. People who’ve had the pride and hope sucked out of them might. Confused, full of drink, they want to take something back. For some the  only route to  self-respect is through their fists and tattoos.

That’s not the whole story – nothing ever is – but it’s a part of it.

Night becomes day. People shuffled or scurried rather than strode through unsmiling, endlessly rainy streets. I too moped through the sodden crowd every working day for a while, on the way to some underpaid, meaningless post.

More drizzle and drivel.

When they said the economy was doing well on the television, you knew the Wakefield district wasn’t on the TVland map. Wealth trickled down a capital bound road, winding up in off-shore accounts, doubtless. The economic tsunami of the times had left Wakefield washed up and awash with the tackiest Day-Glo trappings of consumer culture, courtesy of Poundland. Stock, Aitken and Waterman were massive, and unwittingly sum it all up. We were told it was fantastic, but you had to be a raving idiot or blind drunk to believe anything of the sort. The condemnatory images of wealth-starved communist regimes brought to us by TVland news programmes were in danger of comparing favourably to some quarters of the city. Classy. Jump on the 150 out of here.

Fast forward a couple of decades and it would be a special kind of blindman who claimed that the underlying problems had ever really gone away. And what’s going on in the wider world suggests that, in a far from wealthy city, things could get a hell of a lot worse again. Yet, unmistakably, for the moment at least, the very ambience of  Wakefield has changed, and so much for the better.

Some might say there’s a reek of superficiality to it. So what if arty new stalls and a state-of-the-art shopping centre replaced the decrepit marketplace? It’s just playing to  TVland illusion. And it never did anything for us. The promise of the advertisements never lasts – it isn’t meant to – and who’s got the brass for shopping sprees, anyway?  The new hospital, college and bus station are vast improvements, but, by ‘eck, we’d paid our taxes and they were long overdue. Wages haven’t risen beyond the bare minimum. People were never really much better off in their day-to-day living. For a while they could access mega rip-off mortgages and credit cards and then…

Despite the approaching, threatening spectre of charity shop domination (once again), Wakefield is much improved. Its relative salubrity has far more to do with rediscovering some identity, reconnecting with its people’s achievements – regional pride if you like – than shopping mall chrome and polish, Cineworld, miscellaneous multinational McJunk, licks of paint and trendy coffeehouses. Wakefield has realised it has some spirit, heritage and standing. For miles and miles around, for decades and decades, the people’s unrewarded toils fuelled Britain’s development in times of peace and its defence in times of war. Just nip to the National Coal Mining Museum on the edge of the city. With a bit of luck and thought, you’ll get a few clues as to who really made this country.

But it isn’t all about the black stuff or dark satanic mills. There’s light and colour, too. The rise of The Hepworth and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park as international attractions attest to the area’s newfound pizzazz (sheep shit included in the case of the latter). The contours of its countryside and strident industrial vistas immutably shaped the visions of major, world-renowned artists, Yorkshire born and bred. What nearby Haworth is to literature, Wakefield – and its satellite town, Castleford – are to sculpture. And more. All those red brick back-to-back terraces can and might evoke something else. Use your imagination.

Many already knew it, but now Wakefield is doing it – boasting about its significance like every other place clamouring for attention and visitors. ‘Hey, we’re a big deal.’ In a world where image is everything, it counts. London? Paris? Madrid? If you haven’t done Wakefield and ‘one of the finest contemporary art museums in Europe’, you ain’t done it all, all of a sudden. And it’s free. Jesus, the local kids might suddenly aspire to something other than little roles, neatly packaged and boxed-in with readymade fantasies containing the ‘mysterious’ property X. I only said might.

Hmm, the government’s feverish drive to neglect the arts in state schools. Anybody would think they wanted kids to share the tunnel vision of nineteenth-century miners, slaving in the dark, hour upon hour, just for a crust. Not that art is ever the answer in itself, as something else with Wakefield connections quite horribly points out.

As I waited on Kirkgate’s drizzly platform, preparing to travel in the same general  direction as Hepworth when she moved away from Yorkshire, I had in my bag a novel written by a man who, via London, also  journeyed from Wakefield to the south-west. George Gissing, born in a yard just up from Wakefield’s other train station, Westgate, struggled financially as a writer in London before moving to Devon in early 1891, the year his classic New Grub Street was published.

New Grub Street had been on my ‘to read list’ for years. I first encountered the title as a teenager when I read that Orwell – a perennial first-stop for ‘serious’ young readers – had dismissed his own Keep The Aspidistra Flying for being a pale imitation of Gissing’s tome. From then on Gissing’s title periodically cropped up, always venerated but, so it seemed, seldom read by the modern world. I finally got round to owning a copy after some kind people presented me with a book voucher for my birthday (following my own less illustrious move to the south-west). Orwell, not always the unimpeachable authority some regard him to be, was, in this instance, bang on. His novel, which remains  highly readable nonetheless – and which confronts life as grubby as that found on Gissing’s literary street – lacks the panoptic, crushingly-poignant scope of the Victorian masterpiece.

New Grub Street devastatingly exposes the impact of mass-production and commercialism on the literary world. Based largely on its author’s experiences, Gissing painstakingly documents the desperate privations,  niggling  jealousies, nasty rivalries,  frustrated ambitions, failures and dubious or trivial successes of the hacks and the artists who were involved in literary production in the late nineteenth-century. The last man standing is rarely the best man; good women are always disposable pawns in the push and shove for personal gain. Talent? Does it matter? Those with wealthy families will succeed.

With no desire to keep up literary pretences,  a naturalistic, curiously unobtrusive and yet humane omniscient narrator – hard-edged and genteel all at once – reveals how the commercial world slowly crushes those with a genuinely artistic temperament. And anyone else whose face doesn’t quite fit. The pages quietly bleed with so many bitter ironies that the naturalistic narrator cannot always remain aloof, occasionally reacting against  injustices with cruel sardonicism – a chapter entitled ‘Reardon becomes Practical’ relates  the excruciating death of Reardon, a formerly uncompromising artist burnt out by the pressures of  poverty, just hours after his young son’s demise. In no time at all ‘Chit-Chat’ – grandparent of modern glossies – is conceived to profit from the quarter-educated proles. Even then we are invited to wryly contemplate Biffen, a hopelessly impractical, decent sort whose impossibly avant-garde, unsellable novel, ‘Mr Bailey, Grocer’, forms the meaning of his life until unrequited love and grinding poverty drive him to drinking poison.

Conventional Victorian society shared with our mainstream society a need for happy-ever-after endings, which Gissing’s novel provides and perverts, of course.  New Grub Street generates considerable power in the way that it illustrates, with nerve-grating precision, an inevitable narrowing of possibilities, the upshot of which is that happy endings are fully dependent on discarded personal ideals and morals. The very ideal on which Victorian society thrived, however, respectable marriage, is replaced by malnutrition, suicide and death by disease for those who dared to challenge the boundaries with transgressive behaviour. From this angle, commercialism is a tyrant as ruthless as any the world has encountered.

In life Gissing’s  ‘aristocratic’ artistic sensibility quashed his youthful revolutionary fervour (not that he lived to become an old man). Modern readers might sense and baulk at a related tension in New Grub Street – artistry is elitism, scornfully polarised against popular culture, quite peculiar for a writer whose early novels primarily addressed working-class life. That aside,  New Grub Street  is  a sort of ghost-text; a dark, slow-burning, deeply absorbing artefact of the past that is able to communicate on an eerily contemporary level (despite all of the technological and cultural advances and changes in the intervening century). Gissing’s major theme touches all aspects of our world. We call it marketisation, and it is now so prevalent that – leave the arts aside – even the idea of universal healthcare  is being threatened by it. New Grub Street, which betrays all of commercialism’s ugly realities, is an illuminating historical document on more than one level.Image

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Shelley’s Sonnets

Posted: October 30, 2012 in Art, Politics
Tags: , , ,

The great Romantic poets frequently experimented with, developed and revitalised conventional poetic forms. The sonnet had been largely out of favour for over a hundred years until Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley revealed their innovative prowess with the rigorous, fourteen-line structure. Shelley, the revolutionary writer of A Defence of Poetry and the propagator of the idea that poets are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’, composed immaculate, poignant gems by using the genre to condense and intensify his ideas. Shelley’s best attempts compare to those of past masters such as Petrarch and Shakespeare. ‘Ozymandias’ (reproduced below) is probably Shelley’s most renowned success with the form. This reading of ‘England in 1819’ ably demonstrates Percy Bysshe composed other great sonnets.

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said – ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Sonnet: England in 1819

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through the public scorn, – mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th’untilled field;
An army whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless, a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed –
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

Rhetorical questions. Some people claim they suck. Nonetheless I’ve got a few of ‘em this morning.

Ready?

Recovery. The powers that be expect us to be cock-a-hoop because our economy has grown from the bottom of an abyss by a measly pointblahblahblah per cent. Meanwhile it is reported that around five million of our workers do not earn a wage that sustains a basic standard of living. Given that the gap between the rich and the poor has dramatically increased in both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ times’ ever since neoliberalism stole our world, who stands to benefit from so-called ‘economic growth’? Should we therefore demand that society aspires to more than just ‘economic growth’? Is it really enough?

Yup. You might say I’m not at my sharpest this grey, cold morn. Still,  why do I feel such questions need asking?

Twitter. I created a Twitter account a hour or so ago. My first impression is that it is predominantly a tool for vacuous celebrities who wish to spill out their empty brains for the benefit of, erm, whoever. And quite a lot of folk seem happy to lap up the dashed dull grey matter. Hmm, it’s too early to think about zombies, and anyway, first impressions are not always the best impressions.

I haven’t deleted my Twitter account. Feel free to add me. @Billybibbit123Image

March Against The Criminals

Posted: October 21, 2012 in Politics

Has the ‘March For A Future That Works’ achieved anything? Will it achieve anything? Was it even relevant?

Considering at least twice as many people attended the event  than they did any Premier League game (on a weekend when Manchester United were at home), unless we’re suddenly arguing that the national sport is of little cultural significance, then the vast crowd that turned up to make a noise from The Embankment to Hyde Park –  and not forgetting Glasgow and Belfast – were the weekend’s real deal.

But it won’t make the government change course. So what was the point?

‘March For A Future That Works’ let all those people who can see through the austerity scam know that they’re not isolated, despite what Tory TV and the rabid right’s papers tell us. We’re not alone, even if we’re not all in it together. Everybody got a chance to meet up and to peacefully let off steam. Everybody got a chance to take stock. To build?

One thing that strikes me – after travelling home from London and reading several comments posted under various articles quickly floating down the misinformation highway – is that, beyond a few sound bites, the members of the public who are pro-austerity  are very, very confused. After making a few inarticulate points about ‘tightening our belts’ and bonds, they soon reduce themselves to irrational, hate-filled tirades against ‘scroungers’. Meanwhile, those in positions of power want us to unquestioningly accept anything they say. No surprise there, then.

Austerity is a crime.

Cut back several years to the financial crash and subsequent meltdown. Global capitalism’s elite, having believed their own hype about their infallible, godlike qualities, spectacularly screwed up. They proved that the deregulated, neoliberal system was never anything more than a catastrophe in-waiting.

Yet, while greed-driven, fraudulent dealing had become a constituent part of a hopelessly corrupt system,  the ultra-rich criminals did not ‘Go Straight To Jail’. Of course not. They’d so utterly monopolised power they could simply ‘Pass Go’ and collect a whopping handout, otherwise known as a bail-out, courtesy of the taxpayer. They never intended to pay it back. International con-artistry is great work if you’re privileged and immoral enough to get it.

But they also had to get away with it. Enter the criminal conspiracy a.k.a austerity.

Boiled down to the bare bones, it’s easy enough to understand. And the bankers,  free-market fiddlers,  right-wing politicians and media magnates really are all in this one together. Shame on the BBC for supporting the New Aristocratic Order.

What does the scam involve?

Well, in this country at least, when they couldn’t convince enough of the public to vote for their madness – and make no mistake the Tory party exist solely for the capitalist elite’s benefit –  they made backroom deals with a lesser, insincere political party, desperate for a few minor cabinet posts, chauffeurs and big black government motors. They used fear. Rumours. Lies. And they used their pals who own the mainstream media to convince enough frightened  members of the public that there is ‘no alternative’ to such a drastic plan. Pretty bog-standard Machiavellian stuff, some might say.

Whatever. The backroom deal rolls into action. State institutions that were originally intended to tackle inequality are sold off to racketeers, while the people’s democratically won rights and benefits are trampled underfoot…

Wait on. If everybody is so skint, who can afford to buy institutions like the NHS?

The same casino capitalism conmen who  received massive state handouts or the greedy multinational wretches who have avoided paying any real amount of tax for decades. The very same class who screwed up is to emerge owning everything.

Like all great criminals, the capitalist elite know the importance of keeping the actual scam simple. Just keep moving wealth to the already rich. That’s it. It’s the cover story that they attempt to complicate so as to bamboozle their victims, throw them off the scent, and reduce resistance. Make victims feel like they’re being saved.

That’s austerity. A whopping, evil crime.

20 October 2012 has given all those opposed to the crime of austerity a chance to regroup, individually and collectively.

It’s not an argument about whether some cuts are more viable than others. It’s about making the masses realise they’ve been targeted by ruthless international criminals.           Image