“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

936559_10152123470671908_1908547747_nHow to begin? Over the past day or so, across the globe, across all sections of all kinds of societies, the voice of individual after individual has paid testimony to the profound significance of Nelson Mandela’s life, and death. Crowds have gathered to sing and dance and celebrate, emulating in their actions the idea of solidarity and shared humanity that his life came to symbolise. I wonder if there is any more I can add to the general outpouring of goodwill of a scale and breadth that it is impossible to imagine any other political figure inspiring.

The death of Margaret Thatcher earlier this year prompted an immediate blogpost on my part. With no time to think it came out as an emotive stream of consciousness – it was easier to write. This time, life and work has forced a delayed response, and that delay seems to demand a thoughtful, considered approach that I don’t quite know how to achieve. Conjuring Thatcher, of course, is not just about her also having died this year, and it is not just about her also having been a towering political figure of our historical moment, and it’s not just about her having dismissed the ANC as a terrorist organisation and having opposed sanctions as a crime against free trade. And it’s not just that the absence of human empathy, which places those Thatcherite ideals of personal wealth accumulation and economic liberalism above all else, is in such stark contrast to the quite extraordinary ideals of truth, reconciliation and bipartisanship which led South Africa’s peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy. For people like me, figures like Mandela and Thatcher, and the events and moments connected with them, have somehow and somewhere along the way coalesced in our brains or our memories to forge and shape our characters, our attitudes, our belief systems, our moral compasses.

What I want to say is that for me Mandela symbolises the idea that there are some things which are so straightforwardly abhorrent that the only possible human response is to resist them. When it came to the South Africa which existed at the time I was becoming politically aware these things were not difficult to recognise – apartheid was so obviously a moral fucking outrage. It had its fair share of apologists and, of course, there were those who were happy to turn a blind eye to its atrocities in the name of making a quick buck – do we all recall Status Quo and Queen playing Sun City, Barclays Bank’s infamous investments, or indeed those of our late Prime Minister’s late husband Dennis Thatcher? But for many of us, it was clear that feigned ignorance was no possible response. We weren’t in South Africa, we weren’t facing the relentless daily degradation of apartheid. We were on the other side of the world, but their struggle felt like our struggle (I guess that’s what empathy means) and it seemed important to do something, however small. So we refused to buy South African produce. We stood vigil outside South Africa House. For years. We went on demos, we went to gigs, we sprayed slogans. Eventually history caught up with us, and when it did, and when from a cold 1990 February day in the UK we watched Mandela walk free from prison, we were moved beyond words. And proud to have been on the right side of history. And we understood the power of solidarity.

Mandela’s final steps towards freedom were accompanied by the unseen ghosts of those who hadn’t made it: Steve Biko and the countless others who had ‘died’ in custody, the children of Soweto who had been gunned down so mercilessly on the streets of their township, all those whose lives had been cut short by the regime. All those who had shown the kind of courage and dignity in their resistance that we all hope we would be capable of. We’ll never know, of course, unless we are tested. And who wants to be tested like that? We need our Mandelas to help us tell our stories and understand our histories, we need those human beings in our world who can rise beyond the ordinary to achieve the extraordinary, and Mandela was without doubt an exceptional human being. But we should not try to sanctify him, and we should remember that all of those people who gave their lives in the struggle against apartheid were potential Mandelas. When Mandela walked out of prison he carried their hopes and dreams with him.

When Thatcher said that there was no such thing as society she was wrong. There is nothing but society. None of us is self-sufficient, everything we do, or buy, or use, or think, or love is connected to someone else. It is how the human race has constructed itself. Perhaps today, in our increasingly complex and global society, it is not so easy to recognise those things that are straightforwardly abhorrent – perhaps challenging or changing or resisting them is not so straightforward. How will history judge, for example, our embracing of neo-liberal economics when every time we buy ‘competitively’ priced goods we are tacitly condoning child labour and sweatshop conditions somewhere else in the the world? These are complicated times. Let’s remember, though, that Nelson Mandela was not some kind of straightforward Christ-like figure. Yes, with his capacity for dignity and moral courage, decency and compassion, forgiveness and empathy, he has come to symbolise the best of humanity. But he was also a fighter, a thinker and a political strategist. Perhaps the best way to honour his life would be try like hell to harness all of these traits and direct them at the profound social injustices which taint our world today.

In the meantime let’s celebrate his life and take a little trip down memory lane.

Get Yer Hands Off My iPod (and my salary)

263515_10150229407251158_686431157_7347243_6889468_n

So, I’m heading home from work, wandering down the darkened North End Road, minding my own business, absentmindedly choosing a piece of music to listen to when, before I’ve even registered it’s happening, two motorbikes have steamed off the road onto the pavement and are hurtling towards me or, for fuck’s sake I think as it begins to dawn, at me. A punch is landed and the fist returns to make a grab for my ipod.

Of course, what these two-bit thieves on their second-rate motorbikes couldn’t possibly have known is that this particular piece of techno-chicery was a 40th birthday present and is loaded not just with music, but with memories of a weekend spent celebrating that landmark occasion. And there’s no way I’d give it up that easily. Needless to say the bike-raiders sped off empty handed.

I did my civic duty, of course, and called the cops, and spent half an hour sitting in the back of a police car on the side of the road recounting the incident with as much attention to detail as I could muster. But we all know that memory is a deceitful little thing, and twenty eye-witnesses’ll give you twenty different versions of an event so I really don’t expect those boys or girls in blue to get anywhere with this one.

When we finished with the serious stuff, one of the officers asked the final question on his checklist: ‘And have you been a victim of any other crime in the past twelve months?’

‘Well,’ I said. ‘There is that pay freeze.’

Oh how we laughed.

On a conversation in a pub

“… with Cathy and Heathcliff, you can’t empathise

They’re selfish and nasty, they cheat and they lie.”

“But they love with a passion, you don’t need to approve

Or to like or respect them, but fail to be moved?”

 

“I’m with Claire, I don’t like it at all

The characters are hateful, the story is dull.”

“And what’s with that Nelly, interfering old hag,

A gossip, a stirrer, a nosy old nag.”

 

“Are you crazy, or blind? This is love on grand scale,

Consuming and flaming, not sickly and pale.

How can you not like it? It’s raw and blood red

Besides,” she leaned forward, “Heathcliff’d be great in bed.”

 

“No!” Claire replied. “He’d be violent and mean,”

“That’s as may be, but he’d sure make you scream.”

 

Valerie downed her lager and smiled,

“The prose is laborious, the characters vile.”

 

“But remember Heathcliff, Cathy dead in his hold

His pain and his anguish, relentless and bold

Remember his plea, his piteous howl,

‘How can I live sans my life, live sans my soul?’

You’re right he is vicious, more devil than man,

And she is deceitful, a cowardly sham

And they are abhorrent and twisted and cruel

But they are in love! And this love makes them cruel.”

 

Valerie raised her eyebrows and said,

“I’d just rather read a good book instead.”

 

“Now Jane Eyre,” said Claire, “that one was good.

With characters who love, but behave like they should.

Jane I believe in. Jane I can like.

She is meek but with strength, and she does what is right.”

 

“Now don’t get me wrong here, I love the book too

But does what is right? Are you crazy? A fool?

She says that she loves him, yet she leaves him alone

To suffer his mistake, to pay on his own.

Okay, so she’s selfless, and honest and kind

But these virtues mislead her; her faith makes her blind

So he’s already married, a hurdle for sure

But, truly, he loves her, still she walks out that door.

Though in th’ end he’s redeemed, and happ’ly they live,

For leaving that day, Jane I’d never forgive.”

 

“I didn’t think much of Emma, either,” said Val

“Or that Sense and whatever, also banal.”

“Fuck’s sake, I can’t hear this! Are you crazy, unhinged?”

“Just saying I didn’t like them. Guess they’re just not my thing.”

 

“Please, please tell me that you like P and P.”

“Sorry. Not really. It just wasn’t me.”

Claire laughed and said, “I thought it was cool,

Especially that bit where Darcy dives in the pool!”

A fist hits the table, legs wobble and shake

“Fucking unbelievable, for sacrilege sake.”

 

Rebecca, I loved. No, really. No joke.”

Said Claire as she sipped at her vodka and Coke.

“I feel for the heroine. Her doubts and her fears

I’ve shared now and then, in the passing of years.”

 

“But Mrs de Winter, she’s mousy and dull.

Now Rebecca’s a woman to plague someone’s soul.”

 

Time had been called; the bar had been cleared,

Except for the table where these musings were heard

“And your lovers,” asked Claire, “are they likeable folk?”

“Not nice exactly, but intriguing I hope.

Really and truly, they’re a cowardly pair,

One won’t fight, the other doesn’t fight fair.”

 

“I like it,” said Val, “it’s a credible read.”

Said the barman, “Night ladies. Time to leave.”

Who’s Jane Austen calling a dick?

Portrait of Jane Austen

I always think it’s a bit of a shame that we tend to experience novels, unlike say poetry or films or music, only once. Perhaps it’s because the time invested in getting through a novel is so much greater than other art forms. Perhaps it’s because, lurking in the shadows, is a sense of time running out, so we devote the precious little we have to a search for something new, and shy away from revisiting. I think this is a mistake. A novel, at least any novel worth reading in the first place, in fact offers up something new each time. The reader, as much as the writer, creates the story and the reader is always new - even when she’s the same person, with each re-reading the reader is renewed.

At 14, like her students, I was enchanted by Jean Brodie; later I recognised her as a charismatic but sinister narcissist. At 15 Cathy and Heathcliff seemed full of thwarted but strangely innocent passion; later a thinly veiled mutually obsessive sadism emerged from the book’s dog-eared pages, rendering the likes of EL James, whose work has been flying off the shelves with such abandon in recent times, really very tame by comparison.

I’ve just read a book by John Williams, who I confess to having never heard of a week ago. Stoner, despite its unhelpful title, might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read. I wonder whether, at 41, I stumbled  across this novel at just the right age for it to be profoundly moving. I wonder how it will feel forty years down the road, if I make it that far. I wonder if at 20 I would have loved it so much. I’ll never know. I finished it four days ago and it’s taken every ounce of will power I possess not to go right back to the beginning and start again, but I’m determined to give it some time to breathe before I take a second swig.

So instead I’m reading Persuasion. Again. I think it’s been about fifteen years since I last read this particular novel. Recently I’ve been browsing some of Austen’s letters, and I see something of their elegant viciousness here when the narrator tells us that, “the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year.” A little later we are told that: “He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him ‘poor Richard’, been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done anything to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.”

This is perfect, just perfect. No-one wields a knife quite like Austen. With her trademark lack of sentimentality, death is no reason to go easy on a character; not for her the fallacy of dignifying in death those who are despised in life. But what exactly is she saying here? Is Jane Austen, beloved of moralists and middle England, referring to this poor dead character, as unable to defend himself against her verbal assassination as he was to prevent his fictional demise, as a good-for-nothing dick? How wonderful. I don’t remember having noticed this before. And that’s one of the great pleasures of re-reading. And also one of the gifts a reader brings to a story. The truth is, I think that in Regency England the term ‘Dick’ was an insult in as much as it described a sort of unimpressive everyman, a person of no particular note – a Tom, Dick or Harry. I think its metamorphosis into phallically associated term of abuse was yet to be achieved. But what a delight it is to bring this meaning to a contemporary reading of Austen. I have absolutely no doubt that Richard Musgrove was indeed a dick, in all senses of the word, and that had Miss Austen been writing in 2013 she would have taken great satisfaction in describing him as such.

Which side are you on?

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, died this morning. I’ve just heard the news. Strangely, I feel like crying. I was 7 years old when she was elected. I have a terrible memory, but I remember that quite clearly. I was 19 when she was finally ousted from office, stabbed in the back by her own government. I remember that quite clearly too. It’s impossible to convey the poetic justice of that moment, I can only say that if you were around at the time you felt it. In your bones. We went out into the streets and partied. By the time we finally voted the Tories from office I was 25. At last a vote I had cast had counted. In the elation of that election night, nothing could have prepared me for the betrayal that would be the New Labour government. The country I grew up in was shaped by Margaret Thatcher; my life has been shaped by a profound abhorence of everything she stood for.

Prior to becoming PM, she was renowned for ending the provision of free milk for primary school children: “Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher” we called her. Her contempt for the welfare state and her messianic embracing of the free market were never in question. She deregulated and sold off whatever she could. She took the unions on, one by one, and when she wasn’t able to use new legislation as an effective truncheon with which to clobber the organised working class, she used the police. And tore apart communities in the process. Unemployment soared and the unemployed were demonised. Section 28 was brought in on her watch – make no mistake, the effect of this was not simply to shove gay women, men and children into the darkest corners of the closet, it was a state sanctioning of homophobia. And then, of course, there was the poll tax.

I can’t say much more right now. I can’t think straight. I have news streaming on websites as I type, the radio blaring in the background, and facebook bleeping its updates as word of her demise makes its way across the social network. Maybe I’ll come back to this topic when I’ve had time to reflect and gather my thoughts. Maybe I’ll write something coherent, and detailed about those Thatcher years and the bleak legacy they’ve left us. But for now, all I can think about is our current government. Helmed by Tories and, so the rhetoric goes, held in check by the Lib-Dems, this Coalition, through its cynical and systematic attacks on our health service and welfare system, is doing what Thatcher could only have dreamt of. Perhaps that’s why I feel like crying. But then I remember the poll tax. And I remember a population stopping dead in its tracks and taking democracy to the streets, and saying loudly, unequivocally, No. In the end it was the poll tax that did for Thatcher. Or, to be more precise, our refusal to pay it. Our collective refusal to pay it. Our refusal to quietly refuse to pay. And then I think of the bedroom tax, which came into force a week ago, and wonder if it isn’t just about time to take to the streets again.

 

 

Shivers down your spine

Español: BASA ANTARTICA ARGENTINA SAN MARTIN

Antartica. 14 million square miles of cold. 90% of the world’s ice. Blizzards like nowhere else on earth. Land of magnetic attraction to heroes and fools alike. Land of no return: “I am just going outside and may be sometime.” Antartica has no indigenous population – but it does have scientific bases dotted across its vast land mass, staffed at any one time by between 1000 and 5000 thinly spread workers. And there is no government. There are a few treaties of course, a lot of goodwill, and a fair amount of plain hope that none of the temporary inhabitants will go stir buggin crazy in all the white light. And maybe set out about a cabin fever killing spree. Or that in the vast expanse of nothingness, mysterious activities are not afoot. Waiting to catch you. When you’re all alone.

The perfect backdrop, wouldn’t you say, for a psychological thriller. Or even better, a hammy horror. You wouldn’t be the first to think this, of course. B-movie directors worked this out some time ago and gave us, perhaps most notably, The Thing in 1982. You’ve gotta love a bit of John Carpenter.

 

And then, unfortunately, gave it to us again, in prequel form, in 2011.

Now, it seems some folk with their hands on a movie camera have gone one step further and actually shot a film in Antartica. The first feature set in the great white wilderness to have also been filmed there. The logistics of this would be unthinkable for any ordinary outfit. But this film, South of Sanity, was made entirely by workers on a research base: writer, director, cast and crew alike. Isolated workers on an isolated research base. Playing isolated workers on an isolated research base.

 

Ok, so it might seem a little amateurish, but I’d like to catch a glimpse of this little work of art anyway. If I was holed up on an Antarctic base right now I might be just a little bit creeped out. I might be looking over my shoulder. Watching. Listening. Waiting. For life to imitate art…

Stop your messing around

 

Pauline Black. It’s official. I’m in love. Saw The Selecter live for the first time last week. You might think it’s thirty+ years too late, but really, it’s not. This is one slick outfit. They brought the house down. Having spent a lot of time lately ranting about the absence of fictional female heroes on our movie screens, it was nice to see a real-life one strutting around on a stage. Pauline Black. The voice of 2-Tone. Cuts a dash in a fedora. And takes no crap: she changed her surname from Vickers to Black so that people would have to call her black.

And as I looked on, and listened, and danced and sang, and laughed along with the crowd, I couldn’t help but take a little trip down memory lane to where ska and reggae smashed up against punk and a healthy dose of working class irreverence and created a peculiarly British sound. And an oh so stylish look. (Perhaps a little of the very British mod found its way in too.) I really don’t go in for patriotism, I’m not full of rose tinted affection for a Blighty that never existed, but if there’s anything that could at least make me feel glad to have been born British, glad even to have been born in the 70s, it could just be this sound. And if there’s something that can make me believe that, in the end, the harder they come, the harder they’ll fall it might just be this sound.

Come reminisce with me:

 

Have a laugh at this hilarious video (I’ve only just noticed that this is all filmed around my manor. It’s not Coventry…) Be amazed, or horrified, or enraged at how relevant this track sounds today:

 

OK, so there’s a theme brewing. Insert name of your choice:

 

I’ll leave you with Too Much Pressure. You know what happens when there’s too much pressure, don’t you? Eventually something explodes…

 

All videos linked from YouTube. None are my work. Thanks to all who posted them there.