Archive for the 'politics' Category

Churchill, the last Victorian

March 1, 2014


I recently went to see the German historian Peter Alter, something of a specialist on the history of the modern British Isles, talk at the German Historical Institute in London on Churchill and Europe.

A couple of highlights. The first is a conversation between Churchill and the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1953, when Adenauer raised the subject of Britain in Europe. Churchill drew a Venn diagram on a placemat, which Adenauer kept and included in his memoirs.

He labelled the three circles ‘Britain’, ‘Europe’, and ‘USA’, and then filled in the middle segment and said that Britain was the only one that could connect all three but that it would always be on the side of Europe. (And yes, maths wasn’t Churchill’s strong point.)

Churchill had used the same concept in a speech at the Conservative part conference five years earlier, while in opposition.

Listening to this story made me realise that as Prime Minister Churchill was the last Victorian. By the time he met Adenauer in London he was in his late 70s: he had been 26 when Victoria died. (Later, he became the only person to be elected MP in the reigns of both Victoria and Elizabeth II .) He said in 1942, “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” and never really came to terms with the loss of India after the war. Peter Alter suggested that Churchill had realised at Yalta that Britain’s role in the post-war world would be marginal, but he didn’t adjust to it.

The other story Alther told was of the occasion in Munich in 1932, shortly before Hitler became Chancellor, when Churchill and Hitler almost met. Churchill was travelling privately and staying at one of Munich’s more distinguished hotels. He was approached by one of Hitler’s supporters, and eventually asked if he would like to meet Hitler. Churchill said yes, and was told that Hitler often came to the hotel in the afternoon. But then Churchill went and spoiled it by saying indirectly that he wanted to ask him about anti-semitism (which marks him out from many members of the English upper classes of the time). Hitler never showed.

Had he done so, would it have made any difference to how things turned out? I doubt it.

The image of Churchill and Adenauer is from the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, and is used with thanks.

Earning your enemies

February 1, 2014

Pete_Seeger2_-_6-16-07_Photo_by_Anthony_PepitoneIt was heartening this week to see Pete Seeger, who’s died at the age of 94, get the obituaries that he deserved after a life of radicalism. I’m not going to repeat them here, but commend Richard Williams’ towering piece in the Guardian, which underlines his influence on our music culture, Dave Marsh’s long appreciation, Billy Bragg’s short memoir, and David Corn’s note in Mother Jones, along with another video-embedded piece there.

It wouldn’t necessarily have turned out this way. Blessed is the man or woman who is lucky enough to outlive their enemies; had Seeger died in the 1950s he would have been vilified, or ignored. But his persecutors then – J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn – are now both dead and discredited.

Williams quotes the British DJ Laura Laverne as saying that it was Seeger’s destiny to be “loved and hated by precisely the right people.” But you have to earn your enemies, and Seeger understood the cost of this. He had been a member of the Communist Party, and associated with a whole range of leftist organisations, although (as The New American pointed out) it would have been easy to miss this in the media tributes. Seeger confronted the House UnAmerican Activities Committee instead of pleading either the First or Fifth Amendments, and was sentenced to a year in jail for contempt of Congress (the conviction was later quashed), and he lived from hand to mouth after being blacklisted. “He was hounded”, says David Corn. It’s worth quoting what he said to the Committee, from a profile in the New Yorker:

“I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs,” he said. “I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.”

They didn’t. What the committee members wanted was to have him say that he had been a Communist and to give them names of others who had been, and he wouldn’t. Again and again, he said, “My answer is the same as before.”

To 21st century ears a song like “If I Had A Hammer“, co-written by Seeger with Lee Hays, sounds like a cheerful and mildly progressive singalong. But in the 1940s it was incendiary, as he explained:

In 1949 only ‘Commies’ used words like ‘peace’ and ‘freedom’. … The message was that we have got tools and that we are going to succeed. This is what a lot of spirituals say. We will overcome. I have a hammer.

Seeger was phlegmatic about the UnAmerican Activities Committee, though with hindsight he could afford to be. As he told NPR in an interview in 1985,

It feels, as I felt, that these people didn’t love America so much as their own particular version of America, which was somewhat limited, shall we say. And so those who cooperated with the committee wish they could forget it all. Those who stood up to the committee, as Lee says, if it wasn’t for the honor, he’d just as soon not been blacklisted. It was an honor.

Billy Bragg writes that,

Pete believed that music could make a difference. Not change the world, he never claimed that – he once said that if music could change the world he’d only be making music.

His music was inseparable from his activism, and as an activist, he never quit. I’ve blogged here before about his campaign to clean up the Hudson River, and at the age of  92 he was recording Dylan’s “Forever Young” with a group of kids he’d mentored. And in many ways the America of today is unrecogniseable from that of the 1950s.

People today can’t realize, though, how much America has changed as a result of the civil rights movement and one thing after another, the women’s movement. We didn’t win all the victories we hoped we would win, but we won some victories, and maybe that’s the way the world moves forward.

Bruce Springsteen takes some credit for helping Seeger regain the reputation he deserved, both in his high profile recording of Seeger’s songs, and also his part in ensuring that Seeger played at Obama’s inauguration, where they sang together the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land”, Seeger as ever engaging the audience in the politics of the song by getting them to sing along.

By chance I once heard Seeger talk about “This Land Is Your Life” on the radio (and I won’t be able to find this). When Guthrie first played it to him, Seeger told him the song didn’t work because it was too simple. It was only later that he realised that he was wrong; it’s simplicity was exactly the reason it worked.



The photo of Pete Seeger at the top of the post was taken by Anthony Pepitone in 2007. It is published on Wikimedia Commons under a  Creative Commons licence.

The blues and the whites

December 13, 2013

Watching a fine documentary about the blues guitarist Bill Broonzy on BBC4, I realised for the the first time how political he was.

Two examples. Invited to play in the Spirituals to Swing concert at the Carnegie Hall in 1938 with jazz and blues luminaries such as Count Basie, Joe Turner, Jimmy Rushing and Sonny Terry, he sang a version of “Just a dream” in which he imagined, in front of a well-heeled largely white audience, of being invited to the White House to meet the President. At a time when much of the US was still segregationist, this was incendiary stuff, in the same way that ‘Only in America’ was flammable 30 years later. But he saved himself from lynching by the construction: it was ‘just a dream’.

Broonzy served in the US Army in World War I but like other black soldiers who served (in both wars) he returned to the US to find that nothing had changed, that America was as racist as ever. His response was to write “When will I be called a man”:

When I was born into this world, this is what happened to me
I was never called a man, and now I’m fifty-three
I wonder when,
I wonder when,
I wonder when will I get to be called a man

To a whole people used to being routinely addressed as “boy” throughout their adult life, the meaning would have been obvious. As indeed it was when Dylan wrote that innocuous-sounding line – innocuous, at least, to British ears – about “How many roads must a man walk down before they’ll call him a man”, 40 years later.

Given how well schooled Dylan was in the history of American folk and country blues, it seems unlikely that he didn’t know he was quoting from Broonzy. I’m not the first person to make this connection. And as I’ve mentioned here before, “Blowing in the wind” ended up being an inspiration for Sam Cooke to write “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which in turn opened the way for a whole generation of black political music during the 60s and 70s. Culture’s always flowing, finding a way to make its own connections.

On Ernest Cole

December 28, 2012


Over at The Futures Company’s blog I have a short end-of-year piece on the South African photographer Ernest Cole. It seemed a good idea to share a version of it here.

I thought I knew the political and cultural history of the anti-apartheid struggle well, having followed it closely during my teens and twenties. But I realised at the Barbican’s sprawling exhibition of ’60s and ’70s photography that I knew nothing of Ernest Cole, the black photographer who was the first to document the petty humiliations and the institutional cruelty of South Africa’s legalised racism. Cole changed his name and his history to qualify as “Coloured” rather than “Black” under South Africa’s Pass Laws, which gave him the freedom to travel. In the early ’60s he became the country’s first black freelance photographer, filming – often illicitly – life under apartheid; his work was published as a book, House of Bondage, in 1967.

The image at the top of this post, of Africans having to risk their lives crossing railway tracks to board their poorly signed and vastly overcrowded trains, is described by a commentator in the exhibition as being the single photograph which expresses the ugliness of apartheid.

Speaking truth to power comes with a price: the book was banned in South Africa and by the time it came out Cole had exiled himself in the United States, where he died in poverty in 1990, living just long enough to see Mandela released from jail. But thanks to his white South African contemporary, David Goldblatt, also represented at the Barbican exhbition, many of his originals have been rescued from the vaults.

On a related theme, I fulfilled a small ambition this year to make a video of Robert Wyatt’s version of Peter Gabriel’s song ‘Biko’. It’s on YouTube.

The Ernest Cole picture at the top of this post, ‘Train Staton’, came via the blog (Notes on) Politics, Theory and Photography. It is used with thanks. There is more (and some great links) at Colin Penter’s excellent blog, and is used with thanks. The exhibition, ‘Everything was moving‘, is at the Barbican in London until January 13th.

The last rotten borough in England

December 7, 2012


One of the virtues of Occupy at St Paul’s was that it shone a welcome light on the workings of the City of London Corporation, which is the last rotten borough in England. As the poster – photographed in the City recently – demonstrates, the City of the London Corporation is the only place in the country where people get an extra votes because of where they work, and businesses get to vote as well. Of course, when the rest of the country’s electoral system was reformed in the 19th and 20th centuries, for some reason the City of London was excluded so that its ancient Saxon electoral system (opens pdf) could be preserved.

And of course, the City Corporation has other privileges, including its own police force, its own ‘observer’ at the House of Commons, and exemption from the Freedom of Information Act. Sounding awfully Starbucks it insists that “it abides by all laws and publishes all accounts and decisions it is required to.” Of course. At least in this coming election a group has been created to challenge the way the Corporation works. (The City maintains the fiction that everyone stands for election as an independent; the City Reform Group is offering support to candidates who are willing to sign up to a series of promises for more openness.)

As a colleague said to me, we’ve given the City its own government, its own police force, its own lobbyist, its own laws, everything it’s asked for, and all it’s done in return is bankrupted us. As with other demanding and selfish children, it’s probably time to put some limits in.

The picture at the top of this post is taken by Andrew Curry and is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Ahkmatova’s Requiem

September 22, 2012

It’s impossible to be in St Petersburg for any length of time, as I was recently on holiday, without engaging with Anna Akhmatova’s long poem Requiem. It was written out of her experience of Stalin’s arrests and purges of the 1930s, and in particular of going to the Kresty prison, where her son Lev was detained, in the hope of getting food to him.

As she writes in her own preamble to the poem,

One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’. On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear (everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that something like a smile slid across what had previously been just a face.

Requiem was mostly written between 1935 and 1940; one sequence is dated later. In the climate of the times, it was impossible to publish such a poem in the Soviet Union, and in fact it was too dangerous even to be found with drafts or fragments of the manuscript. (Akmatova’s first husband was shot in 1921, her second arrested several times and eventually died in the gulag.) Her rooms were bugged by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, after 1946. So Akhmatova would be visited by an actress friend, and the poet would write lines of the poem in the margins of a newspaper, while making small talk. These she would pass across, and as the actress memorised each one she would write another to be remembered. And then, before the end of the meeting, the newspaper would be burnt in the stove.

This reminded me of the “human books” that are part of (small spoiler alert) Ray Bradbury’s story Fahrenheit 451.

And of something else. The picture of women petitioning authorities, in many countries, for information about relatives who have been arrested or disappeared is a defining image of the 20th century, in Chile, in Argentina, in Russia. Akhmatova was writing of the USSR and Stalin, but the story she told in Requiem – as with so much of her work – is a universal one.

The photograph at the top of the post, of the image of Ahkmatova outside of her former house, now museum, in St Petersburg, was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence.

‘Up from the depths’

August 29, 2012


I’ve been reading Vassily Grossman’s book The Road, a collection of stories and reportage. Grossman may have been the finest war correspondent of the Eastern Front, a Soviet Jew whose mother certainly died at the hands of the Nazi Einzatzgruppen in the Ukraine.

This fragment of ‘The Old Teacher’, a story from The Road, seemed to be worth sharing here. The moment: The German army is 20 kilometres away and is likely to arrive in the village in only a day or so.

The night was dark from because heavy clouds had shut out the sky and covered the light of the stars. And it was dark from the darkness of the earth. The Nazis were a great falsehood, life’s greatest falsehood. Wherever they passed, up from the depths rose cowardice, treachery, murderousness, and violence against the weak. The Nazis drew everything dark up to the surface, just as a black spell in an old tale calls up the spirits of evil. That night the little town lay stifling, gripped by something foul and dark. Something vile had awoken; stirred by the Nazis’ arrival it was now reaching towards them. The treacherous and the weak-spirited had emerged from their cellars and gullies and were ripping up letters, Party cards and books by Lenin; they were tearing down portraits of their own brothers from the walls of their rooms. Fawning speeches of disavowal were taking shape in the hearts of the poor in spirit. Thoughts of revenge – for some chance word or some market place quarrel – were being conceived. Hearts were being infected by callousness, pride and indifference.
… And so it was in every town – large and small – where the Nazis set foot. Murk rose up from the beds of lakes and rivers; toads swam up to the surface; thistles sprang up where wheat had been planted.

The picture of The Road at the top of this post was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence.

Spies and danger

August 28, 2012

Eric Ambler’s critical reputation seems secure – several of his novels are published as Penguin Modern Classics, and both Graham Greene and John le Carré paid tribute to his influence – but his popular reputation seems to have faded, at least to judge from bookshop shelves. I was reminded of Ambler by an endnote in Andy Croft’s rollicking verse novella 1948, where he acknowledges that he borrowed one of his characters, Tamara Zaleshoff, from the thriller writer, and since then I have read a couple of his pre-war novels, Epitaph for a Spy and Uncommon Danger (US: Background to Danger).

Ambler set out to subvert the thriller genre when he started writing:

I intended to make fun of the old secret service adventure thriller as written by E. Phillips Oppenheim, John Buchan, Dornford Yates and their cruder imitators; and I meant to do it by placing some of their antique fantasies in the context of a contemporary reality.

Indeed, in his introduction to Uncommon Danger, Thomas Jones of the LRB observes of the thuggish Mailler in Uncommon Danger, the nastiest character in the book by a good margin, that “it’s tempting to see him as a satirical portrait of the archetypal hero of the moribund thrillers that Ambler was so determined to supersede, unmasked and revealed for the cryptofascist brute he really is”.

In the place of the firm-jawed heroes of Buchan and Yates, Ambler’s stories instead feature ordinary men (mostly men) who find themselves caught up in events outside of their control which they don’t fully understand. As Tom Watson puts it an engaging blog post,

There is always a moment in the Ambler novels when the dupe – a novelist, a salesman, a teacher and the like – realizes with sinking fear that they’re not in a movie or an Agatha Christie tale; that the danger is real and outlook fairly grim.

In Ambler’s world, both crime and politics (and there is always politics) is a dirty business. And as his central characters try to work out what to do, they are often wrong. As they stumble through, they find themselves used, but try to do the right thing nonetheless.

All of this may make them sound a little earnest, but Ambler’s plotting is precise, if sometimes as complex as Chandler’s, his judgment of pace exact, his cliff-hangers frequent, his writing a pleasure. (Mailler, for example, is introduced as being “at one time the only professional strike-breaker in America with an English public school education”.) Several of his books were made into films, and Ambler worked in Hollywood after the war.

And his surprises are many, for Ambler is usually one step ahead of both his readers and his central characters. In Uncommon Danger Kenton, wanted by the Austrian police, spends much of a coach journey as he runs for the Czech border by turns patronising and being dismissive of the English salesman Hodgkin, who is also on the bus. At the last moment (small spoiler alert) Hodgkin points Kenton at the path for the border, before listing all the mistakes he’s made during the day that could have been his undoing.

Eric Ambler was a leftist, and his pre-war books are overlaid by the rise of fascism across Europe. In his world, unlike Buchan’s, capitalism, or at least capitalists, were likely to be at odds with democracy. As Jennifer Howard writes of his novels in a good introduction in Boston Review,

They can also feel alarmingly contemporary, especially when they tackle the dangers of mucking around in other countries’ political affairs—cautionary tales for their own age that haven’t lost their relevance in ours.

Unlike the black and white world of the earlier secret service thrillers (or of some of the Cold War thriller writers who followed him), Ambler’s novels are permeated by shades of grey tinged with darkness. As Kenton reflects in Uncommon Danger, as he ponders going to the police,

It was all very fine to say that Right triumphed in the end, that Justice sought out the guilty and punished them. In actual practice, Right and Justice were far from infallible. Stupid, honest and blind, they blundered in pursuit of their quarry. The innocent sometime crossed their paths.

Or again:

The Foreign Ministers of the great powers might make the actual declarations of their Governments’ policies; but it was the Big Business men, the bankers and their dependents, the arms manufacturers, the oil companies, the big industrialists, who determined what those policies should be. Big business asked the questions that it wanted to ask when and how it suited it. Big Business also provided the answers.

Thomas Jones writes of Ambler that he “was simply several years ahead of his time”. As we lurch into another era where business interests decide on politics while politicians play populist games, he seems further ahead than ever.

I borrowed the picture from an excellent post on the subject of Ambler’s writing at Tom Watson’s blog, and it is used with thanks.

Heroes and villains

June 30, 2012


Earlier this week I facilitated a workshop for a company in their ‘Lennon’ meeting room. Lots of companies have such room names – they’re easier to remember than say, 1G, and are supposed to convey some sense of inspiration at the same time. Although I can’t help but think that I haven’t come across many ‘Lenin’ rooms, which is maybe surprising when you think how much the modern corporation obsesses about ‘focus’, ‘execution’ and ‘delivery’.

The best story I heard about such room names came from someone who worked for the subsidiary of an American company in London. Someone had decided to call one of their meeting rooms after the American diplomat Henry Kissinger. (When Kissinger shared the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in ending the Vietnam war the satirical singer Tom Lehrer said that political satire had become obsolete.) “The trouble is that half of the company don’t know who he is”, I was told. “And the half who have heard of him think he’s a war criminal”.

The image at the top of this post is “The Connections (Kissinger)” by the Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi, whose work “explores the intersection between politics and popular culture”. It is used with thanks. You can find out more about the work and the artist at Artspace.

The song of John Ball

May 26, 2012


I’ve been listening to Chris Wood’s version on his Trespassers CD of the song ‘John Ball’, written in 1981 by Sydney Carter (who also wrote ‘The Lord of the Dance’) to mark the 600th anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt in England. Ball was a radical Lollard priest who had been expelled from the priesthood and jailed for asking questions about equality in the eyes of God, and he gave the sermon to the peasant army as it was camped on Blackheath, overlooking the City of London.

His sermon started with these words:

“When Adam delved, and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”

This sentiment would have chilled the beneficiaries of England’s hierarchical and feudal society. After the revolt had been put down – its leader, Wat Tyler, tricked into negotiations – Ball was arrested and hanged, drawn and quartered as a traitor.

But the phrase, and the radical idea embedded within it, has echoed down the centuries, to the Diggers, to Tom Paine, to the Chartists, to William Morris, even, it seems, to the Occupy Movement. We still remember him, more than 600 years on, and have long forgotten those who had him killed.

The picture at the top shows John Ball addressing the rebel Peasants on Blackheath. It is published by Wikimedia Commons and is used here with thanks.


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