Things ain’t what they seem, Comrade

Things are very rarely the way they seem from the outside. ‘What things?’

‘All kinds’, I might reply with equal brevity, ‘But especially the Labour Party’. I joined it over a year ago in a bid to support Jeremy Corbyn.

Here at last was a politician I could believe in. Someone who didn’t abstain when asked to vote on the government’s controversial Welfare Bill. Someone who isn’t a warmonger. A voice of reason in a thoroughly unreasonable world. A good man in a bad land.

I naively thought my move would be met with a flurry of fanfares and comradely embraces. ‘Welcome to the fold, brother! It took you many years but you’ve finally found your home.’

How wrong could I possibly be?

Very, it seems. Especially on Twitter. ‘Entryist!’ howled a formidable Greek chorus of existing comrades, behaving as if I’d stolen their favourite sofa cushion and torched it in front of them. ‘Leftard. Trot! Idiot!’ yelled libertarians from over the pond. Charming, but what business is it of theirs?

Hopes of comradely joy were further quashed by toxic Blairites hoping to oust Mr Corbyn at all costs. This, we’re assured by both the PLP and the ‘Daily Mail’ (strange bedfellows) is because he’s unelectable. Both want to create a self-fulfilling prophesy to suit themselves. They may as well be on the same side.

While it’s true that many loyal socialists shelter under the lofty eaves of Labour’s broad church it’s apparent that the PLP is intellectually challenged. The Tories are behaving like oafs in office. Theresa May grabbed power by standing back and letting the other candidates self-destruct. A once United Kingdom looks more like the Disunited Kingdom on a daily basis.

The PLP’s response is to launch a bitter, explicitly public internecine war, openly disregarding the wishes of ordinary members. We voted for Jeremy Corbyn, and either the Labour Party is democratic, and represents people like you and me, or it does not. If it wants to reinvent itself as a club for the benefit of a chosen few, then it should at least be honest about that and go ahead.

Too many people living in the Disunited Kingdom find themselves disenfranchised. I, for example, have always thought of myself as a progressive, left-of-centre socialist. Apparently, in the context of modern Britain I’m a foaming Trotskyite. How insulting. And how utterly wrong.

If the Labour Party was a person, you’d accuse her of gross hypocrisy. ‘You claim to be something you’re not and expect no-one to notice, but we can see right through you.’ If the Labour Party was a ship, you might take to sleeping in one of its big red lifeboats and pray it doesn’t leak. Nothing is guaranteed these days, apart from treachery.

Not for the first time in my life I’ve been cut adrift by one of the few things that seemed worth trusting. I certainly trust Jeremy Corbyn, but I’m learning to dislike the Labour Party, and it’s unwise to alienate the very people who have your best interests at heart. They might learn to bite back.


Other is the mother of evil

We can handle a crisis here in Birmingham UK. Coping is in the DNA of the place, and although dreadful things happen here as surely as they do elsewhere, it’s a multicultural city and we’re good at conflict resolution. Anything less would feel like social and economic suicide.

Enter Brexit. Enter Chilcot. Enter a rudderless ship of state where the mainstream media profits from the strident, nefarious narratives of difference and division. These things challenge the delicate balance of local communities, threatening to detonate the cultural bridges people have worked so hard to build over generations. It’s a cliche, but a forest takes centuries to grow and just a few months to chop down.

Recent upheavals have created a change in our mental weather. Not long ago the outlook was sunny, but storm clouds are gathering on the near horizon, and a cold front begins to divide Remain from Leave, Have from Have-not, Homed from Homeless. More worryingly, perhaps, it divides Christians from Muslims. The apparently educated from the great unwashed. Fingers stab across the margins of society.

Some people have already stopped talking to each other and are asking, ‘Was it you? Did you do this thing?’ I thought you were my FRIEND! This is extremely dangerous. Social and economic divisions are slow, invisible poisons. They begin with the green-eyed language of suspicion and soon erupt into verbal or physical violence.

Birmingham is still haunted by the dripping spectre of the 1974 pub bombings when the Provisional Irish Republican Army, who have never formally admitted responsibility for the act, murdered 21 people. We’re wonderful when we’re pulling together for the common good. Yet do I fear our nature.

When the drums of division beat, innocents die. Those innocents rarely matter to the mainstream media or people living in the Westminster bubble, until it’s far too late.

Oh, they’ll condemn random acts of violence against ‘decent, hardworking property-owners’. Not that they’ll dress it in those terms. That would be tasteless. But not as tasteless as their tacit support for the mechanisms of social division which define so much of our lives. Red top papers, Sky News, lapdog journos on the fat payrolls of power brokers.

We must all do something to challenge the corrosive language of otherness before it overtakes and destroys everything we hold dear. A storm is brewing.

Are your Brexits sore?

True, we’re all heartily fed up to the back teeth of Brexit, but discussing our options now that Leave ‘won’ the debate (quotes are deliberate) is strangely addictive. And, as you know already, highly speculative.

No-one has a clue what will happen next, but I’ve done some reading around the issue and I have a very rough idea. Forgive the lack of hyperlinks and evidence. This is a blog article, not an academic treatise.

Legal commentators have already stepped in to offer their views, and some of their ideas are frankly unreadable to someone like me, with a non-legal mindset.

What’s clear, however, is that it’s quite hard to press the big red Brexit button without involving a Parliamentary debate, repealing the 1972 European Communities Act, and possibly introducing new legislation to incorporate the terms and conditions of our brave new world.

This referendum was entirely advisory, meaning that the government doesn’t have to pay any attention to it. Hordes of Twitter trolls descended on me when I mentioned this, asking:

‘Would it still be advisory if Stay had won, you leftard faggot?’

Thereby confirming my suspicions that Leave voters aren’t very bright. Or maybe the clever ones are far too clever to comment. I wouldn’t be surprised. Clearly the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’. Referendums are often advisory, and my views have precisely nothing to do with that. It’s just a bald fact.

In any case, new legislation is likely to lead to a Parliamentary vote, possibly kicking the Leave vote into the long grass or saying, ‘The will of the people has prevailed, so we’re definitely going.’ That’s one scenario, and I’ve already written to my MP asking her to vote Stay in this eventuality.

It’s also possible that an incoming PM will invoke Article 50 independently of Parliament. I didn’t know this was an option until a few days ago, but it may be risky given the lack of solid data showing a wide range of impacts. ‘No further debate is needed, we’re leaving.’ It could happen, but there’s a third scenario which legal geeks seem to be ignoring.

Member states could see the Leave vote as an automatic trigger for Article 50, and they may simply evict us from the EU, citing their stability as more important than our long term well being. The Order of the Boot would further diminish our status as major players in the global arena, and we’d probably never manage to claw our way back into the EU, even if we wanted to. Which, apparently, we don’t.

Whatever happens next, it’s pretty obvious that one vote leads to another. The UK Parliament’s sovereignty will be brought into question if our next Prime Minister acts independently. This is ironic, given that sovereignty was part of the reason the referendum was called in the first place.

Remembering Jo Cox

Photos taken at the memorial site for Jo Cox MP at Parliament Square in London.

Photos taken at the memorial site for Jo Cox MP at Parliament Square in London.

Remembering where you were when some dreadful event happened is almost a cliche. I was in bed when I heard about John Lennon’s assassination, and with hindsight the mundane details of one’s life often throw such things into terrible relief.

I was watching England play Wales in Euro 2016 when I heard about the attack on Jo Cox. I didn’t know who she was or which political party she belonged to. A friend of mine seemed glued to her phone and all she said was, ‘Jo Cox has been stabbed’. I shifted uneasily in my chair thinking, ‘This can wait until later’. Avoiding emotional overload seemed important, and I reinforced my jaded view by sluggishly eating yet another slice of pizza and moaning about professional fouls.

But later as the day unfolded and England’s football hopes got brighter, the full horror of the attack on Jo struck home. This was a very public murder, and an affront to our assumptions about the stability of modern Britain. In a way, it was an assault on our collective right to simply go about our business and be ourselves.

Inevitably, Jo and her family were dragged into the so-called Brexit debate, and people were accused of making political capital out of it. But nothing happens in isolation, and the Leave campaign rapidly escalated a toxic narrative, fracturing deep fault lines across an already disgruntled nation.

Suddenly, the far right, rudderless and disorganised for so long, has been re-energised. We could argue all day about whether or not Jo’s assailant is mentally ill or not but unquestionably, he set out to deliberately destroy an innocent women because of her ideology. Hers, a dialogue of inclusiveness, hope and love. His, a diatribe of Nazi inspired hatred and blind destruction.

The fog of war stirred up by Brexit obscured the dreadful reality of Jo’s assassination. Britain is a divided nation now, factionalised by different belief systems. Rich against poor, In against Out, Right against Left. The gates of Hell are wide open, and a gaggle of foolish Etonians are responsible for pranking open the lock while neatly allocating blame elsewhere. Responsible adults who dare to point out the error of such a move are labelled ‘negative’ or ‘doom-laden’, but we are only speaking the truth. Truth is always the unspoken casualty of conflict, but Britain’s media is no longer capable of suppressing what is blindingly obvious to any thinking person. We have all been royally conned.

We now face the break up of the United Kingdom, fiscal ruin, job losses and the looming possibility of another global recession. As individuals we are shocked by Jo’s death, but collectively we have learned precisely nothing. This is a time for unity and bold decisions but there is no-one in office capable of making it happen. We owe a good woman no less.

The joy of commuting

I’ve been commuting in the West Midlands since 2001, and before that I traveled between Leicester and Birmingham for nearly a year. It’s not a happy experience, and it eventually bends you out of shape.

My day starts at 7:15. I catch a bus across the city, walk to the train station and attempt to catch a local services train to my destination. All told, the entire round trip takes two hours … and oh, what fun I don’t have. Most people are fine, but the unwritten Commuter’s Manifesto states every bus or train must contain at least one of the following

  • someone with extreme body odour
  • people eating noisy smelly food
  • a lone crazy person – preferably shouting obscenities or exhibiting strange behaviour
  • a threatening individual who might attack you (I’ve been physically assaulted a few times)
  • ‘sodcasters’ with loud portable devices
  • someone making a series of loud, ostentatious phone calls. It’s tempting to think there’s no-one on the other end
  • a bawling child
  • raucous ‘we’re the salt of the earth’ types, daring you to say otherwise
  • people who turn public transport into mobile offices: ‘Thank you, James. Here’s the situation, going forward, as I see it …’
  • an over-friendly drunk
  • a con artist
  • the walking dead

A further category is the obese person who crushes you against the window under cascading layers of adipose tissue. Such people can be militant, so watch out. ‘It’s my RIGHT to be fat. I’m HAPPY this way. DON’T get funny.’ Thanks for the lecture.

Fascinating hybrids of the above are more than possible, and there are infinite combos of mutant traveler for you to share and enjoy. I guarantee that you’ll encounter all of them if you use (especially urban) public transport for any length of time. Of course, there are nice people too. Just not enough of them and anyway, how can you tell?

After all, if you try a conversational gambit on a bus you might, from the other person’s perspective, turn out to be one of the above. Worse still, if you’re a man you might be a perv with a prearranged hard-on. Cross-gender chats take a lot of trust these days. You can’t force the issue. Sensing this, few people try anymore, though if you meet someone who does it’s nearly always worth it.

Into the cultural void leap people made of straw

ImageI was chatting to a young friend of mine, born and bred in Birmingham as far as I know, who was educated in Aberystwyth. He can be forgiven for looking so cool and feeling on top of the world at the moment because he’s in love with an Estonian woman – she’s about his age and he describes her as ‘Cultured, man! She’s read Kerouac, Herman Hesse – the lot. When did you last meet an English girl like that?’

Probably, to answer his question, the last time I had a steady girlfriend; which is now more years ago than I care to remember. And then there’s one of the barmaids in my local pub: she reads everything. In her own words, ‘I’m not educated, John, but I still like to read. I go to plays but my boyfriend’s not interested and says he gets bored.’ She was referring to an abortive attempt to get her man to appreciate Macbeth: not the Bard’s biggest box office hit even when it was freshly minted. The girl loves Camus, but knows little about poetry. I count her as a friend but she doesn’t know about this blog…

I live near the centre of Birmingham, here in the UK, and meeting a smart, interesting educated women is about as common as finding a tightly rolled wad of £20 notes wrapped in silver paper with a purple ribbon around it. This was where our conversation took us: if you have intellectual pretensions (as they are acidically called) you can forget about finding peace of mind here in the Midlands. You will be deemed undatable, ‘weird’ (a ‘fuck you’ word if ever there was one) and more to the point, you will wake up one morning wondering what the hell you’re doing here!

Although there are a few small theatres nearby I can’t summon up much enthusiasm for endlessly revisiting ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’. I studied the play at school and I saw it in Norwich many years ago. Where do I go to see new performances by local playwrights? Where, thinking musically, are all the exciting new unsigned bands? Where is the ‘vibrant urban culture’ I keep reading about in glossy magazines – funded by even glossier adverts – but never experience?

It doesn’t exist. Even my 20-something Birmingham friend says so, and he’s about as cutting edge as they come. Most British cities seem to be built around service industries, suits and most of all, popular culture. They don’t cater for independent thinkers or creatives. If you listen to Rhianna and watch The Voice, you’re in. If you read (and love!) poetry and don’t have a TV, then you’re a ghost.

And that’s the heart of the matter: pop culture has wiped out all attempts to generate a truly dynamic and exciting cultural scene in English towns. Arts Council funding is being silently slashed on a yearly basis, and all that remains is a hollow vessel full of marketing ‘messages’, attempting to sell our towns and cities as wonderful places to be. They have, in fact, become endlessly tedious places to be having had the heart and soul ripped out of them years ago. In short, if you want to see an interesting play, go to London – and good luck paying for your train fair and your hotel, because you will be fleeced into financial oblivion.

British culture has become an oxymoron, because the truth is it can only thrive if people are truly committed to it. Not so in England where the arts are – in a detatched kind of way – considered airy-fairy and useless. Unlike, of course, a multi-million pound call centre which is ‘useful’ and ‘provides jobs.’ Great. Some people (like our current Prime Minister) are so interesting they might as well disappear up their own fissures. They will make you fissures of men…

I will be 49 this year and I have given up any heartfelt hope of meeting a soul mate. Smart Midlands women don’t discuss poetry or art. They drive fast cars, dream of trips abroad and pay their mortgages. They chase promotions and talk about soap operas. They visit chic bars which I cannot enter without bursting into flames. Or perhaps I watch too many vampyre movies. To be ‘clever’ is always extended into being ‘too clever by half’.

You may well read this and accuse me of negative gender stereotyping. Fair dos, but I have no such goal and I’m only speaking about my everyday experiences based on observation. That this has somehow become a cultural taboo means we are all much poorer for our loss of soul and collective denigration of spirit – but I least I know where Estonia is.

Shakespeare and company

The new Globe TheatreThis post may turn out to be a hastily written mish-mash of literary potato salad, but I’m all fired up with Renaissance zeal after reading a Penguin paperback called Shakespeare and Co. by Stanley Wells.

The book takes an indirect look at the Bard, by discussing the life and times of the people he would have worked with on plays like Timon of Athens (an unfinished piece), eventually leaving us with a very good idea of what the rigours of theatrical life would have been like in Elizabethan England.

I had no idea, before reading this, that dividing plays up into five acts would have been an alien concept in Shakespeare’s early career. It seems that plays were originally performed all the way through (imagine rushing to the ‘jakes’ for a pee!), and that five act divisions were introduced to enable candle wicks to be trimmed.

As for the rigours of performance, professional actors had to remember vast swathes of scripts in time for doing around 4-5 plays a day. The potential for cock-ups must have been huge. Acting was, and is, intensely physical – and Wells’ book tells us that actors had to be able to fence, fight, dance, sing, remember lines, (perhaps) play a musical instrument and generally be a Jack of all trades.

The towering genius of Ben Jonson emerges from this book, reminding us that Shakespeare wasn’t the only kid on the block when it came to writing gargantuan plays. Jonson was an accomplished classical scholar, a roaring self-publicist and, but for his decision to collect his life’s works into a single volume, we could well have lost Shakespeare’s entire back-catalogue of plays forever. The idea of compiling an entire literary output in this way was Jonson’s alone – it was, after all, a time of firsts and experimentation.

I will not list all the people mentioned in this wonderful little book, because that would be both tedious and beyond the scope of my blog. However, I’ll pause to mention that Thomas Middleton’s plays deserve more attention than they currently receive, and we must not forget the influence of Christopher Marlowe.

What a strange man Marlowe was! By turns a brawler, contrarian, forger and spy, the man managed to write some mighty fine plays which, I must admit, I’ve barely looked at. Doctor Faustus? Certainly – but I have yet to read (or see) Tamburlaine the Great or The Jew of Malta. Blame sheer indolence or, perhaps, a sneaking feeling that plays are meant to be heard rather than read… and I can’t always make it to Stratford.

When I finished this book I was all over YouTube looking for further Shakespearian nuggets – because once you’ve got the bug it’s hard to stop! I found a handful of broadcasts by the historian, Michael Wood who once went in search of the elusive Swan of Avon and his career.

Particularly interesting were theories around Shakespeare’s early ‘missing’ years… about a decade between becoming a parent at the tender age of 18, and appearing as a fully fledged London playwright at 28. Ideas abound, but it’s quite possible he lived in Lancashire for a while, working as a school teacher. This is probably more likely than it sounds.

Time to visit a theatre and experience some of this for myself. Shakespeare and Co. is a timely reminder that no artist exists in isolation, and that creativity reflects the world around us. It is not some floaty, abstract thing loosely associated with reality, but rather an interpretive reflection of our present day life and times.