New writing

british isles route
I’ve been unexpectedly blessed with hundreds of new followers following a recent share of my poem ‘1914 and all that’. Hello to you people! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the writing.

This blog will be a little quiet for the next few months, so please visit www.searchingforalbion.com, where I publish new writing by the day. Scroll down to the bottom to follow new posts and find out what mishaps and strange stories I come across as I bike across Britain.

I also have a book out, Negative Capitalism, which comes with overgenerous praise and is available here.

That’s the sale pitch over! Thanks again, and peace to you all.

Departing

england

Last night has now eaten into this morning, and here I am with my empty bottles and missing time, making a half-hearted attempt at an audit. Let’s spare the scribbles and agree that there’s a certain pleasure in always being busy and late for things. But it’s not always that delightful. J.G. Ballard’s right: in the heat of beating some deadline, there’s a certain masochism at the source of our pleasure. Masochism, mania and melancholia are at the root of most endeavours so insane that, without rational explication, they have to be done. Beyond an extraordinary detail to dramatic scenes, there is no greater quality in the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky than a reflection on the masochistic promises of romance,  a romance that fails to deliver, and by its failure, delivers so much more.

In two months time by my reckoning I will be in Glasgow, having cycled anticlockwise around the British mainland, with lengthy digressions into the Midlands and Peak District. Sleeping in parks, pedaling up lung-bursting heights and keeping up with the heavy-drinkers of England and Scotland will no doubt reduce my capacity for wireless fidelity internet, but I will record what I can at http://www.searchingforalbion.com. The site will be a cabinet of curiosities as I pass through places, a record of what I see and hear. It will get a smaller readership than the kind of top 10 lists that represents the best of online journalism. The goal is to indicate how simple and interesting it is to travel.

I often reach for the strong stuff when I write – rousing invective, political polemic, some worthy social goal. Zzz. I’m bored with the thoughts in my own head, and with those of others. I’ve studied history and political philosophy and had prizes for my essays, yet I’m advancing little beyond the predictable views that constitute a mainstream in universities and an aloof left media out of touch with popular cultures. Most people I meet talking about the working-class and the need for revolution come across as middle-class and conservative, righteous reformers of a Methodist hue. Good intentions and reforms reflect the vanities of those that seek to justify them.

Many prefer not being told what to do. How long it has taken me to accept this.

It’s not just a London problem, granted. But I’m throwing myself out of my sphere in the aim of discovering, for once, what I don’t know. No research plan or campaign message attached. The university isn’t the best place to think about new formations of equal, just and secure democracies. Instead of churning out more elitist articles or adding more words to a thesis destined for a recycle bin, let’s see where being out in the world goes. Probably nowhere. Looks like I’ve already managed to type around 500 words of the usual self-righteous balls I go for. I leave tomorrow morning.

There is a broader political goal, inspired by Spinoza and Rousseau, up at http://www.englishpolitic.com. I had aimed to finish that today but I got distracted working at the times of the ferries in the Hebrides and planning where I’ll sleep for the next 60 days with the lightest of budgets (a lot of parks, some friends’ places, and a bit of country wilderness, in the end). There’ll be a new post when it’s ready, but the jist is up at http://www.drownedandsaved.com/an-english-politic.

Ach, it’s come out all jaded, but if procrastination’s your thing, keep an eye on

http://www.searchingforalbion.com

and in about 3 weeks, http://www.englishpolitic.com.

1914 and all that

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I travelled with a friend around northern France a couple of weeks back, cycling around Boulogne, Amiens and Lille. The Ch’tis were very friendly and accommodating with my Franglais. We met a lot of very good people and had a few adventures.

We also visited Albert, headquarters of the British during the Somme offensive. ‘Somme’ is actually the name of the whole region, with the battle itself being ‘fought’ in the fields and villages between Albert and Péronne. A little before the trip I started writing something on the looming legacy disputes. I share the finished doggerel here, ‘1914 and all that’.

It’s no succour to blind or limbless men
When historians crown the victor of a luckless war.
Trade machine gun rattle for imperial prattle.

Cabinet rooms become playing fields,
Bomb factory man smarts ‘never again’,
Great men too proud to call off the hounds.

War misery now makes the mock GCSE
Centenaries continue on over-the-hill TV
Patriotic pastorals without syphilis or gin.

This accursed heritage gloom and doom
Leaves no room for the wounds of living men,
Basra or Belfast, that lost DLA appeal.

Commemorations led by horsey royals
Whose subjects still die in today’s poppy-fields.
Victory’s paper flowers and penny change.

*

What’s left of Wipers or the Somme?
Lads swallowed whole by Flanders mud,
Devoured by the moods of distant guns.

Never forget the rats or the lice,
Nine in ten soldiers actually survived,
Unclassifiable degrees of disintegration.

Strictly adhering to deference and duty
Today still blinds any attempt at explaining
The necessity of perpetual and unwinnable war.

One side loses more slowly.
A game of blood-potlatch
Played out by history’s great men.

Sweet and proper it must be then
To die for abstractions, like fatherland
Or liberty, or the fallacy of democracy.

The long queues outside the labour exchange,
Memories that no will can possibly erase,
Medals of a man who once shared your name.

*

Strange hells left in Gurney’s head,
Demented choirs of wailing shells
Like Owen saw, a banal picaresque of death.

A century now since that “never again”,
One hundred busy years of the destruction of men.
Nothing we learn, nothing we forget.

Never before, so never again?
Larkin laments lost innocence then,
Innocence and obedience, time tends to bend.

Kauai

Kauai waterfall

In J.G. Ballard’s final writing — a typewritten synopsis of an unfinished project of Conversations with his physician, Jonathan Waxman — he rounds up with these moving lines:

‘nature has invented this remarkable instrument of rejuvenation, that touches almost every level of our existence.’

What might this instrument be? A vague and semi-religious sense of hope, or the comfort of family? A technological or economic faith in human progress, or the pleasures of a midday scotch and soda? The completion of the next work project, or a mobile phone upgrade?

‘It is sex to which we turn after bereavement. It is a door that is always open…..’

Etienne Balibar once wrote of Spinoza that, in his final words, a dismissal of women’s right to participate in a model democracy, seemingly at odds with his belief in human capability, he seemed to die right before us on the page. With Ballard, he fizzes out majestically, revealing the key to his generous belief in life and its joyous potential. His words also indicate what I’ve felt yet frustratingly inarticulated. It indicates the most available mystical experience for the largely secular and cynical generation I’ve grown up in.

Love in all forms can be pursued by anyone. A life dedicated to loving others cannot be wasted. It is a striving that is never completed, a joy experienced in its expression.

There is no lack or pent-up drives, forget those Freudian abstractions and plumbing metaphors. It is far stranger than ‘pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause’ (Spinoza) and far more earthly than the highest stage of being given by the primitive gods (Ricardo Reis). Where felt, it is revelatory; where shared, it is redemptive.

In providing objects outside oneself upon which to transfer one’s hopes, happiness and curiosity, it reveals that happiness cannot be a solipsistic affair. Reason is most lonely. Yet it must never be confused with the object itself, that bitter lesson of heartache. Sadness and confusion come alongside the relaxed bliss, generosity, and emotionally-charged excitement that imbues one’s life with a drama beyond anything in Ibsen or Eastenders. It is a door that is always open, provided one is willing to suspend disbelief and risk it. The heart, that most disabused compass, indicates the way. How long it takes some to risk it… It is never final or finished, and never quite clear.

Nature has made us far less sophisticated and interesting than popular culture might suppose. At times I see each of us as bundles of energy, expressing light and rhythm, rapidly expiring but, at our best — and this is what I’m now most interested in — momentarily alive in our joys. Even speaking of atoms swerving in the cosmos is another abstraction foisted on the simplicity of our natural experiences.

I am also doubting the certainty of the above words, and expect to lose, and rediscover, to infinity, the feeling and taste of these words.

On March 23rd this year, on our ten year anniversary, me and my partner Sarah were married in Kauai. It was an extraordinary and wonderful experience. I thank her for teaching me what love is, and what it can be.

L’existence est ailleurs

andre breton

I’ll be travelling through Northern France for the next few days, and to honour the journey, here’s an interview with André Breton I undertook for a recent French assignment. When I’m back I’ll be overhauling this blog and introducing some new projects, but for now, I’m off to indulge in the new sins of modern times, unproductivity and idleness.

 

L’existence est ailleurs: une interview avec André Breton

«C’est vivre et cesser de vivre qui sont des solutions imaginaires. L’existence est ailleurs.»1
– Manifeste du Surréalisme, 1924

Dans cette interview unique, nous parlons avec le romancier et poète André Breton, qui est connu aujourd’hui comme le fondateur du Surréalisme. Malgré qu’il meure en 1966, nous pouvions communiquer avec M. Breton grâce à une modification secrète de la technique de l’écriture automatique, qu’il a découverte et a développée lui-même dans Les Champs Magnétique (avec Philippe Souppault) et le premier Manifeste du Surréalisme. Nous avons demandé son opinion sur la politique, la beauté, et la vie après la mort.

Moi: Dans votre roman Nadja de 1928, vous avez écrit que «La beauté sera CONVULSIVE OU ne sera pas.»2 Ces mots ont inspiré des générations de jeunes romantique à poursuivre une expérience plus intense de la beauté c’est impossible, qui ne peut pas être réalisé, sauf à travers une transformation profonde dans l’esprit, qui déstabilise les normes sociales restrictives dans l’expression de son désir. Se souvenir de ces mots quatre-vingts ans plus tard, je me demande si une telle idée de la beauté est possible dans cet âge anxieux et hyper-numérisé?

Breton: Non, l’idée est toujours possible, même aujourd’hui. Pour moi, le surréalisme est un engagement de l’esprit à l’expérience de la meilleure partie de l’enfance, de ce désir illimité pour explorer tout ce qui nous intéresse. Sans égard pour les obligations de politesse. Cet engagement à la liberté sera toujours politique, à toutes les époques, et en particulier à la vôtre.

Moi: Avez-vous des regrets?

Breton: Je ne regrette rien. Mais, je regrette que ma génération n’ai pas réagis plus catégoriquement contre l’autoritarisme, qu’il soit fasciste ou stalinien. Notre inactivité et manque de prévoyance a eu un impact dévastateur sur l’imagination politique depuis. Je regrette le sort triste de mon ami et collaborateur Leon Trotsky.

Moi: Décrivez-nous la vie après la mort.

Breton: Je peux la comparer seule à la poésie de Paul Eluard ou les divagations du Marquis de Sade: improbable. Je suis maintenant totalement persuadé par la philosophie de George Berkeley, que tout ce qui existe sont les esprits et les idées. Hier, j’ai pris un café avec un Walter Benjamin, qui a pris la forme d’un chat euphorique. Aujourd’hui, je méditais sur la texture du Saturne fondée sur une photo de visage d’une femme par Man Ray. Si ces choses se sont produites dans la réalité, ou ont été imaginées par mon esprit, n’est plus importante.

Moi: Qu’est-ce que vous pensez des écrivains aujourd’hui, par exemple Michel Houllebecq, qui traitent de sujets similaires de désir et la culture populaire dans leurs livres, mais dans un but moins politique et plus cynique?

Breton: La vénération des racistes radins et narcissique comme Houllebecq démontre la nécessité de maintenir une recherche collective de la beauté, sous toutes ses formes imaginaires, impossibles et oniriques.

Moi: Certaines personnes accusaient votre œuvres de sexisme, en considérant les femmes comme des objets sexuel, qui sont souvent présentes comme un « l’Autre», qui sont chassés par un protagoniste masculin triste. Comment voulez-vous répondre à cela?

Breton: Ma vie, je vivais comme une provocation, pour découvrir et réaliser la liberté de l’esprit sous tous ses formes. Je ne vais jamais m’en excuser.

Moi: Autre chose?

Breton: une fois, il y a plusieurs décennies, j’ai écrit que «Tout porte à croire qu’il existe un certain point de l’esprit d’où la vie et la mort, le réel et l’imaginaire, le passé et le futur, le communicable et l’incommunicable, le haut et le bas cessent d’être perçus contradictoirement.»3 Je peux vous dire aujourd’hui, hier, et demain, la vérité de ces paroles. Je découvrais la nature fictive de ces frontières. Il est ou n’est pas, ou à être ou ne pas être, et alors? Si la vie est un rêve ou une réalité elle est aussi pertinente qu’un conte de fées, charmante et absurde.

 

Références
1. Manifeste du surréalisme” in Œuvres complètes, tome 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), p. 346.
2. André Breton, Nadja. Texte intégral, dossier par Michel Meyer (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), p. 161.
3. Breton, Manifestes du surréalisme, (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), pp. 76-77.

This house is a sham

Claude Monet, "Sun Breaking Through the Fog", 1904

Claude Monet, “Sun Breaking Through the Fog”, 1904

I want to briefly talk about the need for a new kind of parliamentary democracy.

Nearly eight hundred years ago, in a field twenty miles west of here, the arbitrary and unjust rule of King John was forcibly restricted by a group of rebellious barons. The Magna Carta established the basis for a regular parliament, with powers to limit the king. It established a law of the land, giving every free man the right to due process, to fair legal treatment against the arbitrary violence of the state.

It began a line of thinking that would lead to parliamentary democracy. When we ask now, what should a parliament do, and I want to ask everyone – what should our parliament do? – we think of impartial representatives who speak up and make sure that the welfare and basic rights of the majority, of the collectivity, are the most important basis of all the state’s actions.

You’d think that in 800 years we might have come closer to realising some model of parliamentary democracy. True, there’s now universal suffrage for all men and women that our ancestors fought and died for. Yesterday’s terrorists are today’s democratic heritage. But today this right to vote doesn’t matter. Young people are deserting politicians in droves, in the UK and elsewhere. This right to due process, to fair legal treatment, is being fatally undermined by successive Tory-led and Labour governments with cuts to legal aid, and with legislation that exploits the fear of terrorism with a terrorism of its own, subjecting everyone to total surveillance and making it possible to arrest and detain people without charge.

Our parliament is a sham. It has failed to respond to the crises of the last few years. It has done nothing to prevent another banking crisis, nor punished those who caused the last. It has casually awarded itself pay-rises and generous expenses whilst the living standards of most people, particularly the poor, plummet. Look around. Insecurity is the new normal. Food banks; police spying, lying and killing of unarmed people; the career-insecurity, exam stress and huge debts that now dictate life for most young people; the decline in skilled and dignified employment; the lack of a long-term solution for our energy needs and environmental problems; where the working classes, the unemployed, and the disabled, have been made out to be a modern-day vermin. Many more, I won’t go on. Because of these failures, the word ‘politician’ has become a term of hatred second only to ‘banker’. Unpopular politicians are democratically illegitimate.

Some people think that the Labour party can be reformed. I disagree. The next government, quite possibly a Labour one, will bring in many of the same Oxbridge-educated people who formed the last one. Its leader has repeatedly praised Margaret Thatcher! I wonder, how many of tomorrow’s MPs will come from state schools, or without a university education, or without experience in business, law and PR, or without being the child of an existing MP? How many people are in the House of Lords because of their political allegiance to the government, or for donating to whatever party’s in power? Piecemeal attempts at reform cannot overturn this. Corruption is at root and branch. This is not a parliament fit for the majority of the British people.

What’s the answer? I’m not entirely sure. Unlike politicians, I don’t claim to be right, to have a monopoly on the ever-changing truth. But reactionary policies and a slavish pursuit of good media coverage and a few swing voters by Ed Milibot isn’t the answer. What will he actually agree to do if elected? I’m not sure, nor is he accountable if he does not. There’s nothing I’ve heard that suggests that this House will try, through policy, to tackle the long-term problems of housing, poverty, work, the environment, energy, of retaining a free national health service. More of the same stalling, mutual blaming and inaction. More fiddling and diddling.

I think instead that for anyone committed to equality, justice, and liberty, which I think most of us are, we need to start the fight for a new kind of parliament. One without political parties, without jeering public school boys, without the possibility for mega-rich party donors to dictate state decisions. Where it is impossible for five families to have more wealth than the poorest 20% of this nation. A parliament for the people, made up of people from all walks of life in its lower chamber, perhaps selected in a way similar to jury service, and made up of experienced and impartial experts in all fields in its upper chamber. With an elected, not hereditary, head of state. Accountable and transparent. With a codified constitution to prevent police violence and political corruption. With a set of civil rights to prevent the vulnerable dying when their benefits have been unfairly stopped, and from so many working people living under the daily anxiety of debt and hardship. With regular opportunities for direct democratic and proportional representation, beyond the 5-year first past the post shambles.

It is possible. I don’t think I’m being entirely utopian here. I’m expressing the same kind of ancient ideas that led to the formation of a jury, of a right to due process, of equality in law between rich and poor, of the right of all adult citizens to vote, of a welfare system, of free universal education up to the age of 18, and a national health service. Each puts the welfare of the majority at its centre. Not through words, but through democratic institutions.

I’m not a fortune-teller, but I’d bet that 2015 will see a low voter turnout, particularly among the young. Why vote, when there’s nothing to vote for, when the difference between major parties is little? British politics is facing a crisis of legitimacy. This house is a sham. Let’s start thinking about a new parliament of the people.

 

* The above is what I said at the People’s Parliament at the House of Commons this week.

Capitalism makes us anxious

Francis Bacon, 'Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne', 1966.

Francis Bacon, ‘Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne’, 1966.


Want to hear a joke in bad taste? Here goes:

Four people are on an airplane when its engines fail: an investment banker, an economist, a pensioner, and a student. The hull catches fire, and there are only three parachutes. The banker grabs one and says “this plane is my property, it’s my right!” and jumps. The economist grabs the second and says “without smart men like me, the world would collapse!” and jumps. With few moments to spare, the pensioner says “you take the last one, I’ve had a good life”. The student replies, “no, we’ll jump together”. Confused, the pensioner replies how. “Well, the smartest man in the world took my school bag”.

How does that relate to the stress felt in heart or head? Who knows. I tried with this recent popular article for Roar Magazine, and I did try hard, as we always, delusively, strive so well to do. Judge me there: http://roarmag.org/2014/03/neoliberal-capitalism-anxiety-depression-insecurity/

Good things x 2 to follow though….

Heckle me tomorrow as I talk with some way more interesting people at Parliament tomorrow on the poverty of ideas in politcs, tickets + info here: http://thepeoplesparliament.me.uk/themes/zero-books/