Archive for the 'politics' Category

Sputnik at 60

26 October 2017

Sputnik-stamp-ussr.jpg

It is the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik this month, in 1957, the moment when the Soviet Union arrived at the peak of its power and influence. It was 40 years after the Revolution, and only 32 years to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Francis Spufford, who wrote Red Plenty, captured that moment this way:

This was the Soviet moment. It lasted from the launch of Sputnik in 1957 through Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight in 1961 and dissipated along with the fear in the couple of years following the Cuban missile crisis in 1962… But while it lasted the USSR had a reputation that is now almost impossible to recapture.

John Naughton shared the front page of the New York Times on his blog.

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In the UK, The Engineer devoted more than a page to it, with a refreshing disregard of any concessions to design or layout. (You can read the whole issue here, in pdf).

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NASA added a poem by the then Democrat Governor of Michigan, G. Mennen Williams (I say ‘poem’, but it would hardly have troubled the Pulitzer Prize judges that year), in which he complained that Soviet satellites were beeping away overhead while the President was busy playing golf.

Oh little Sputnik, flying high
With made-in-Moscow beep,
You tell the world it’s a Commie sky
and Uncle Sam’s asleep.

You say on fairway and on rough
The Kremlin knows it all,
We hope our golfer knows enough
To get us on the ball.

10 years ago, to mark the 50th anniversary, NPR broadcast a piece on songs that had been influenced by Sputnik. A lot of these are really good fun, but the one I enjoyed most was “Beep Beep!” by Louis Prima.

And finally, a more recent contribution to the genre from the British band Public Service Broadcasting.

As Spufford says in his article on the USSR’s Sputnik moment:

While the Soviet moment lasted, it looked like somewhere which was incubating a rival version of modern life: one which had to be reckoned with, learned from, in case it really did outpace the west, and leave the lands of capitalism stumbling along behind.

Which didn’t happen. Which didn’t happen so thoroughly that the way the Soviet Union seemed to be between 1957 and 1964 or thereabouts has been more or less displaced from our collective memory.

 

 

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Palaces of gold

22 October 2017

The English folk and blues singer Martin Simpson is touring at the moment to promote his latest record Trails and Tribulations. That’s not a misprint, though it plays havoc with Google; he once called a record Righteousness and Humidity after over-hearing someone say it in an American bar so perhaps has a soft spot for punning titles. He’s in his early 60s now, and after 40 years in the trade he’s almost certainly the finest folk guitar player in England. The new record is, as ever, a combination of traditional songs with fine new arrangements, versions of songes he admires, and some of his own compositions. (The record is reviewed here).

I went to see him in London last night at King’s Place. On stage, he talked about the Grenfell Fire, and explained that when he heard the news of it he resolved to play at every gig Leon Rosselson’s song ‘Palaces of Gold’, written as an elegy for the victims of the Aberfan disaster, until something meaningful was done about Grenfell. By chance, Aberfan happened 51 years ago to the day yesterday, but in 1966 the 21st October fell on a Friday, so 116 children and 28 adults were killed as a Coal Board slagheap rolled down the hillside and ploughed through the village’s junior school.


On Grenfell, where 80 people (or more) died, a firefighter who worked on the recovery operation after the fire told a meeting yesterday, in the spirit of Rosselson’s song,

“Why did Grenfell have flammable cladding and no sprinklers and only one dry riser? Because it was social housing and the decision makers don’t care about the social housing tenants… The minute rich people in Kensington and Chelsea decided they no longer wanted to look at an ugly building, those tenants’ fates were sealed.”

It happens that there’s a recording of Simpson singing the song a few years ago in Edinburgh that has been uploaded to Youtube, shared at the top of this post. And here’s Leon Rosselson’s version.

‘See ancient beauty revived’

1 October 2017

Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/

One of my 2017 calendars consists of vintage travel posters, and the image for October is this: a ‘Visit Palestine’ poster. Some light digital digging discovers that it probably dates from 1947; ‘Loeb’ (bottom right) was Mitchell Loeb, a New York based artist who designed posters in support of the idea (and later the fact) of a Jewish homeland over a period of more than 40 years.

Loeb did two “Visit Palestine” posters for the Tourist Office of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, and the other one is sub-titled “The Land of the Bible”. 1947 might not have been the best time to visit. 91 people had died in the bombing of the King David Hotel by the Zionist paramilitary group Irgun in 1946, and more than a hundred Palestinians were killed in the Deir Yassin massacre two years later, carried out by Irgun and Lehi (“The Stern Gang”), another paramilitary group. Without delving too far into that history, let’s say that as holidays go, it might have been tense.

The Palestine Poster Project has around 20 of Loeb’s images. The first, from 1916, in a classic recruiting style, is headed, “For the freedom of Palestine; Jews of America organize”. The last one, in 1960, is for the New York-based Jewish National Fund: “Progress despite crisis“. Ironies abound in these images, with hindsight. “Progress despite crisis” features a man driving a bulldozer.

Oranges, villages, green fields, the mountains, the sea. Of course this image has been adapted and remixed for our times. David Tartakower‘s version, from 2004, seen below, is subtle. The image is all but identical, but bleached out. The caption, in Hebrew, says “Another Country”.

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The image of Eretz Acheret is taken from the collection of the Palestine Poster Project, and is used with thanks. The photograph of the “Visit Palestine” poster was taken by Andrew Curry.

 

‘Eddie, they’ll arrest you’

16 September 2017


There is a fabulous snippet of cycling history in the latest edition of Rouleur, which has a Spanish theme. It profiles the former Basque rider Txomin Perurena, a Tour de France King of the Mountains winner in 1974 and twice Spanish road race champion. Perurena rode for the Basque team sponsored by drinks company Kas, and was a contemporary of the great Eddie Merckx.

The story is about a stage of the 1974 Tour that crossed the border into Spain. Perurena:

We’d taught him [Mercx] Euskera, which is even more difficult than Flemish. Well, not all of the Basque language, only one phrase: “Gora Euskadi Askatuta” (‘Long live the freedom of the Basque country’.) It was Santi Lazcano who had taught him, and all Mercx could think of doing was to start shouting it in the middle of the pack when the Tour got to Spain, a stage that ended in La Seu d’Urgell. 

“You’re crazy, Eddie”, we would tell him, “if the Guardia Civil hear you, they’ll arrest you.” … It was 1974 and Franco was still alive. Spain was still a dictatorship.

Perurena’s brother was a member of the Basque separatist group ETA and was shot on the street in 1984, a decade after Franco’s death by the Spanish mercenary paramilitaries GAL. They had been hired by Spanish police with the secret approval of the government to fight a so-called ‘dirty war’ against ETA.     

The Basques are passionate and committed cycling fans, and you see their flag on Pyreneean stages of the Tour, along with another black and white flag that supports a prisoners’ repatriation campaign. It wants those ETA members still in jail returned to the region from far-flung parts of Spain and France to serve the rest of their sentence in one of the region’s jails, so that friends and family can visit them. 

The former Basque cycling team Euskatel, with its striking orange tops, was part funded by local subscription in the region, and had a policy of hiring only riders who were born or brought up in the region. Elsewhere, in his wonderful book of stories about the Basque area, Obabakoak, Bernardo Atxaga has a story about a cyclist that stands in some ways for the loss of childhood.  

In the interview, by Carlos Arribas, Perurena tells the story of the day he lost the lead in the Tour of Spain in 1975. At the start of the decisive time trial, he was ahead by more than a minute. The time trial ended in the velodrome in San Sebastian/Donostia, in front of Basque fans. 

“On entering the velodrome and hearing the silence that greeted me from the fans, I knew I hadn’t succeeded. In the end I lost by 14 seconds, half a lap… I’ll never get that silence out of my head… That’s how I lost the Vuelta in front of the home fans.” 

The Septembers 11th

11 September 2017

Lentes_Salvador_Allende
It’s been many times observed that the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 fell on the anniversary of the overthrow in 1973 of the Allende government in Chile, in which the CIA was deeply complicit.

The two events echo around each other. I found an old notebook in which I’d written about reading on the same day both Ariel Dorfman’s book, Exorcising Terror, on the detention of Pinochet in Britain, and articles in Le Monde Diplomatique on the American export of terror.

The engagement by the CIA in the Chilean coup, according to some of the accounts of the torture which followed it, sounds like a set of early rehearsals for the treatment of the detainees in Abu Ghraib prison. And probably in quite a lot of other places in between. The Agency, it would seem, does as much as it thinks its political masters will be willing to turn a blind eye to.

In the same notebook, I also found a quote which offered a different, if related, perspective from the Pakistani-born/British-resident writer Nadeem Aslam, in a short review of Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday:

A novelist votes every time he writes a sentence. Ian McEwan’s Saturday is a lovely and profoundly serious act of engagement with our age. The collapsing of the Twin Towers on 9/11 gave many people – including, I feel, Saturday’s protagonist Perowne – their first glimpse of another kind of world that had been existing alongside ours for some time. It is almost as though the Towers had been blocking a view.

The image at the top of the post is of Salvador Allende’s glasses, recovered from outside the Moneda Palace after his death. It was taken by Roger Espinosa and is published here under the GNU Free Documentation Licence.

The dangers of snap elections

2 June 2017

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Stewart Wood worked with Gordon Brown in late 2007, when as a new Labour party leaders, and therefore a new but unelected Prime Minister, he dithered about calling a General Election, and then decided against. The financial crisis evaporated his poll lead, and he never recovered politically from that.

Wood posted a series of tweets reflecting on that moment through the lens of the difficulties Theresa May is having with her equivalent election, which are worth sharing so they don’t get lost in the Twitter firehose.

Five years on from Brown’s decision not to call with an election, Brown’s spin doctor Damian McBride wrote up the day-by-day inside story (in the Telegraph) of how an apparently inevitable decision to go to the polls became a decision not to.

On the other hand, we all should be grateful that Brown was Prime Minister in 2008; he held his nerve, and used his knowledge of economics and history, to make sure that the British banking system didn’t collapse, and helped stiffen the resolve of the  world’s leaders at the height of the crisis. People forget that we were hours away from a collapse of the banking system.

As Aditya Chakrabortty wrote:

What sticks out about that period is how Brown and Alistair Darling were not only acting without a roadmap, they were driving with Cameron and Osborne right on their bumper telling them to do a U-turn. The diagnosis that British banks were dangerously low on capital was correct – but it was the opposite of what most bankers were saying.

Had Brown called an election, and not won, the thought of Cameron trying to make those decisions is frankly terrifying.

The image at the top of the post shows Brown arriving at No. 10 as new Prime Minister in 2007.

The Liberation Music Orchestra in London

26 November 2016

Obviously the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra isn’t quite the same without Charlie Haden, who died two years ago. But equally, as Alan Shipton of Radio 3 noted before the start of their concert at Cadogan Hall last weekend, right now we need it more than ever.

The Orchestra was created in 1969, at the height of the protests against the Vietnam War, as a vehicle for Haden’s politics and music, and has toured and recorded off and on ever since, notably in the 2000s as a protest against the invasion of Iraq. The current band, under the leadership of Haden’s long-term collaborator Carla Bley, has just released a record on ecological themes, Time | Life, which was a work in progress when Haden died. The concert included material from this and from their 2004 recording Not In Our Name.

I love big bands, and the Liberation Music Orchestra is a big band: bass, drums, guitar, tuba, French horn, trombone, two trumpets, alto sax and two tenor saxes. Most of the musicians have been playing with the Orchestra for years. And then there’s the elfin figure of Bley, now 80, perched at the piano, standing from time to time to bring a song to a tidy close, or transition into a new one.

They are Carla Bley’s arrangements—Haden’s wife, Ruth Cameron, who introduced the band, said that Charlie could never imagine anyone else arranging the Liberation Music Orchestra’s work—and she has an unmatched ear for the timbres and textures of the jazz orchestra, in the same league as Gil Evans.

Some of the material on Time | Life goes back to the ’60s—Haden’s Song for the Whales and the Bley composition, Silent Spring, a response to Rachel Carson’s path-breaking polemic, both of which were part of the set at Cadogan Hall. There’s also a fine version of Miles’ Blue in Green, which the band opened with.

It wasn’t just me who found the material from Not In Our Name the most compelling on the night, with the scars of the recent Presidential election still fresh (Richard Williams’ review is here). The title track shares with Mingus’ Fables of Faubus the notion that protest should have a spring in its step and a smile on its face. Bley’s arrangement of Amazing Grace restores the simple power of the original. And the high point of the evening, without doubt, was the long medley of America The Beautiful/Life Every Heart And Sing/Skies of America, with drummer Matt Wilson shifting into a military mode in a long solo before the band returned to cacophonous discord. If it was designed to convey the idea that America has lost its way, it worked.

The band: Carla Bley, piano, conductor; Tony Malaby, tenor saxophone; Chris Cheek, tenor saxophone; Loren Stillman, alto saxophone, Michael Rodriguez, trumpet; Seneca Black, trumpet; Vincent Chancey, French horn; Marshall Gilkes, trombone; Earl McIntyre, tuba; Steve Cardenas, guitar; Darek Oles, bass; Matt Wilson, drums.

The concert was recorded for transmission on Radio 3 during December. 

Now’s the time

18 January 2016

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I collected a small print of Basquiat’s picture Now’s the time from the framers at the weekend. I’d bought it at the Guggenhein in Bilbao in the summer, when I visited the  exhibition of his works there. It was displayed there with a loop of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, made at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. He uses the phrase as a recurring motif in one of the most important passages in the speech (my emphasis):

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

Both Basquiat and King, of course, were drawing explicitly or implicitly on a famous track by Charlie Parker, recorded in 1945. Yes, the image is of Miles Davis, who also played on the session.

In his Parker biography Bird Lives! Ross Russell describes the track.

“Now’s The Time” is catchy and unforgettable, yet difficult to repeat. It has the extra-dimensional quality that distinguishes master works, however small. It is timeless. Its three minutes seem much longer. Ot is perfectly balanced, perfectly logical, haunting, eerie, the finest achievement of the boppers to that point. [p196]

There are other versions, but what for me connects this first recording to the MLK speech is the insistent piano at the the beginning, which demands the listener’s attention in the same way that King demands your attention as he repeats the phrase in that passage.

And one of the things I like about it is that part of that demand comes from the way that King breaks the so-called “rule of three,” and uses the phrase four times. Just when you think he’s going to move on, he insists that you hear it again. One more technical note: the use of a triad implies a completeness in the idea, but King’s rhetorical point is that the Civil Rights movement has not completed its work. He spells this out in the next paragraph of the speech (again, my emphasis):

This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.

“Now’s The Time” was recorded by Parker on 26th November 1945, and as far as the record label Savoy was concerned, this was the session at which the bebop sound clicked. (“The definitive session”, says Ross Russell.) This was despite the chaotic start to it. By Russell’s account, Thelonious Monk was supposed to play piano, but didn’t show, and Argonne Thornton, who happened to be in a nearby cafe, was drafted in. Gillespie was under contract to someone else, so he played uncredited. Miles Davis was nineteen, still at Juillard. Parker was late, and when he did arrive his reeds developed a squeak and a messenger was sent to midtown to get hold of spares.

And it attracted awful reviews. The jazz magazine Downbeat reviewed “Now’s The Time” together with “Billie’s Bounce”:

These two sides are excellent examples of the other side of the Gillespie craze – the bad taste and ill-advised fanaticism of Dizzy’s uninhibited style. Only Charlie Parker, who is a better musician and who deserves more credit than Dizzy for the style anyway, saves these from a bad fate. At that he’s far off form … This is the sort of stuff that has thrown innumerable impressionable young musicians out of stride, that has harmed many of them irreparably. [Ross Russell, p197]

Downbeat’s practice was to rate records on a scale of four down to one: the reviewer refused to rate “Now’s The Time”. But for his part, almost twenty years on, King knew his jazz. A year after the Lincoln Memorial speech he was at the Berlin Jazz Festival as the guest of Willy Brandt, then the mayor of West Berlin, and wrote an essay for the programme:

When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument. It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by jazz musicians.

Basquiat came back to Parker as a subject repeatedly during his short career, as explained in a fine post on the blog The Genealogy of Style. Here’s another picture, made two years before Now’s The Time, which celebrates that 1945 Savoy session.

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The Basquiat exhibition had mixed reviews: Griselda Murray Brown in the Financial Times found it “a fine retrospective,” while Jason Farago, reviewing it for The Guardian in Toronto, thought it sometimes patronising and over-interested in celebrity. Brown liked the used of the King recording; Farago hated it. For my part, I realised that I’d skimmed too many glossy magazine articles about Basquiat and his work, and assumed (wrongly, I now realised) that he was a street artist who had lucked into some ’80s New York radical chic. Instead I found work that was both edgy and relevant, unlike the Jeff Koons retrospective running elsewhere in the Guggenheim, which was about as interesting in 2015 as the work of Edwin Landseer.

One final note. King, of course, was assassinated at 39, five years after the speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Basquiat died of an overdose at the age of 27, three years after he made the “Now’s the time” image. Parker, who sold all the rights to the song for $50, cash in hand at the session, died at 34, nine years after the session. For all of them: now was the time.

Dying together

20 December 2015
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Poster for COP-21 in Paris, by Occupy Design.

For all the small spliters of optimism from the Paris COP-21 talks (and symbols and rhetoric do matter), the whole process reminded me of Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Swansong,  published earlier this year in The Guradian. Brecht wrote it about the long shadow of nuclear war, but physics has multiple ways of dealing with hubris.

 Swansong, by Bertolt Brecht

      Let the last inscription then run
      (That broken slab without readers):

The planet is going to burst,
Those it bred will destroy it.

As a way of living together we merely thought up capitalism.

Thinking of physics, we thought up rather more:
A way of dying together.

(Translation by John Willett)

The image at the top of the post is from the Brandalism project, and is used with thanks. It hacked Paris poster sites at the start of the Paris conference and replaced the posters with new images. 

The Village Against The World

22 August 2015

  
Dan Hancox’ The Village Against The World (Verso, 2014) is an account of Marinaleda, the anarcho-syndicalist village (my label) in Andalusia that has remade itself through 40 years of intense political battles with the Andalusian authorities. It turns out to be refleftive rather than uncritical, listening to the less sympathetic witnesses as well as the admirers. 

But there is a lot to admire. Some 20 years of smart and relentless political activism won the village enough land to farm, and, later, investment in processing plants. There is cheap co-operatively owned housing and good social facilities. The unemployment rate is a fraction of the rest of Andalusia. Sancho Gordillo, the mayor for 40 years, is the central figure in this process, is clearly an astute and principled politician, and an interesting theorist, who could have played on a bigger stage, though would likely have achieved less. 

Along the way there is some rich insight into the state of post-Franco Spain.

Will the village and its ideals survive Gordillo, who’s now in his 60s? That’s an open question, with which the book ends. Recommended.