Thursday, 30 September 2010

Amjad Ali Khan live at the BBC

In advance of a blog I am preparing for later I must share the following free mp3 file with you. You can download it here if their link is still working. It is the wonderful Tigalbandi in Rag Khamaj played in front of a live audience for a concert hosted by the BBC. With Amjad Ali Khan on sarod are his sons Amaan and Ayaan. It is spellbinding, wonderful music.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 16

Consuela (my Tejana maid) and I have switched our attention from old Westerns to the Tarzan films of the late Johnny Weissmuller.

Now here’s something I have never understood – Cheeta. Why did Tarzan have a chimpanzee called “Cheeta”? I mean, did he also have a cheetah called “Rino”, a rhino called “Ippo”, a hippo called “Elepant”, an elephant called…

… well you get the picture.

Excuse me, there is a herd of gnus passing. My, my! There are a lot of them. I can just about… yes… there’s the last of them going past now. That is the end of the gnus, now for the weather forecast.



This is the serious item in today’s blog, and it is a mulling-over of an observation on someone else’s blog.

Attending an inter-tribal powwow, the blogger was surprised to see the number of US flags being waved during the Native-American dances, to see the pro-Republican, pro-Palin bumper stickers, to hear speeches praising and blessing the USA for giving these people the right to practice their beliefs, to value their culture, and so on. Given the history of the tribal people of America at the hands of the incoming whites and their successive governments, she found this extraordinary and decided that she must examine the GOP’s policy toward Indians and see whether there is some dichotomy, some contradiction.

Certain things strike me here.

Firstly culture, no matter how continuous it may seem to superficial observation, is a living thing. There is always something dynamic to it. The powwow may have appeared in some ways to be a “museum piece” or even a “showcase” event, but culture is not as superficial as that. Culture includes ways of thought, attitudes, mental and intellectual viewpoints. These do shift. I have watched it happen here in Britain during the fifty-odd years I have been alive. Perceived certainties are nothing of the kind. Attitudes exist in the current generation that did not exist in the previous; in turn the generation before had still different attitudes. Nothing is more striking to me than the shifts in culture of the people of South Asian heritage here in Britain. I have seen one generation struggle into suits and ties, into dresses, into a kind of awkward Britishness; I have seen another generation grow up at ease with Britishness, comfortable with cockney or Glasgow accents, with lager, and with discos, picking and mixing from the languages and argots of white and black youth; I have seen yet another generation trying to recapture its ethnic roots, re-learning South Asian languages, even coming “back” to their religions with a fervour not seen since the days when their families lived in the lands of their ethnic origins.

I just pick them as one example. I could pick others. I could pick the changes in the last half-century to life in the tranquil, seemingly-unchangeable English countryside, or the way in which we now seem to have no “working class” in the way we used to. The point is that culture changes, sometimes profoundly, but often without people actually noticing. They just grow up where and when they grow up and broadly accept the things around them as being somehow “normal”, as just how things are.

Is it really, therefore, so surprising that where people are now proud of their traditions and where they wish to see them flourish and be preserved – in short in an environment and culture that is at present conservative – people should align themselves with other conservatives?

I used to rail at the USA (okay I still do, you got me there!) at the time when it opposed Apartheid in South Africa and castigated that country for setting up “Bantustans”. I used to shout in amazement, “What the hell are Indian Reservations if they aren’t Bantustans?” I still have issues with the Reservation system (is it my business?), but one thing is certain, and that is that it does foster an environment where tribal traditions can be preserved with relatively little outside influence. Note I said “relatively”.

What would the “liberal” alternative be. Okay drop the “liberal” and let’s just think of an alternative without a label. Let’s say, for instance, integrating the native peoples into the citizenry of the USA in the way that generations of immigrants have been integrated, in the land of E Pluribus Unum. Would today’s generation of dissociated Indians, along with concerned friends, perhaps now be trying to extract from the American goulash its basic ingredients in order to put them back into their various packets and jars, in an attempt – too late! – to preserve things which had been lost? Who can say?

Yes the phenomenon noted in the other blog does still seem strange to me on the surface. In particular because I believe that one of the particular tribes present was the Iroquois[*], who were surely the first people to suffer mass collective displacement at the hands of the USA, when George Washington’s administration penalized them for having fought for the Crown during the colonial rebellion. However, when I take a step outside my own mental box, things do begin to take on a new shape.

A bad ethnomusicologist (it was an ethnomusicology blog I was reading) takes on culture head-on. A good one - I know the blogger to be a good one - considers context and has at her hand a corpus of learning which includes observations made during enquiry into previous generations; there, beneath the surface, are the changed cultural circumstances.[**] Access to this corpus of learning gives insight and clarity to the process of discovery.

[*] Actually a federation of six tribes – Mohawk, Cayuga, Tuscarora, Seneca, Onondaga, and Oneida.

[**] Consider what Karlheinz Stockhausen said about change, in a different context: “New means change the method, new methods change the experience, new experience changes man.”

It occurs to me to recommend a book. The author intended it as an autobiographical account of his days as a Christian missionary in the (then-dying) West. It is Thomas C Battey’s The Life and Adventures of a Quaker among the Indians. When he wrote it he little thought that it would be a vital piece of evidence of the rituals and beliefs of the about-to-be-civilised Kiowa, Caddo, and Apache peoples. He was trusted by even the “wild” tribes whom he visited, was respected as a spiritual man, and was allowed to attend religious and celebratory occasions amongst them. He was truly fascinated by their dances and ceremonies, describing them in as much detail as he could. At the end of each long, detailed description it is as though he shakes himself, brings himself round, and thinks “Of course it’s all terribly pagan and unenlightened”, but still the fascination and the detail are there. I read this book many, many years ago. It’s style is stilted, but its contents are worthwhile.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

“Anarchists stole my toothbrush!” or “WHAT IS FREEDOM?”

No great idea in its beginning can ever be within the law. How can it be within the law? The law is stationary. The law is fixed. The law is a chariot wheel which binds us all regardless of conditions or place or time.
Emma Goldman.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Preamble to the Constitution of the United States

I was recently asked by an American friend what my definition of freedom was, she having quite rightly noticed that I use it a lot in my serious writings. This particular friend was nostalgic for her time spent in Europe, and for the freedom she enjoyed there to discuss leftist politics, which for one reason or another she does not enjoy at home in the USA. This present blog is the result, and it has not been easy to construct. If it appears to offer a critique specifically of an American view of freedom, it is because the original question came from that direction.

The problem with freedom is that it is a word which is appropriated by groups of all shades of opinion and defined according to their own bias. Think, for example, of the Scottish National Party for whom it means little more than independence from the United Kingdom; of the right-wing Freedom Party in Austria for whom it means an idealistic view of the nationalistic “freedom values” of the 1848 revolts against the Hapsburg Empire, and in particular now opposition to the accession of Turkey to the European Union. Consider the analysis I made in my blog about gun control, about the different concepts of freedom, as I saw them, in the USA and the UK. Google, if you will, for quotations about freedom, and you will find everyone from Ronald Reagan to V I Lenin, everyone from fascists to anarchists, everyone from poets to statesmen to rock stars. Even though many of the quotations sound remarkably similar, and are in some cases little more than empty rhetoric from people whose actions and policies belie the sentiments expressed, it seems almost as though there are as many concepts of freedom as there are individuals using the word.

I could, if I wished, drill down further than mundane definitions and look at the whole subject of perceptions, consciousness, etc., but that opens up a further field of intellectual enquiry which could fill several books before the concept of freedom is even touched upon. Instead I shall have to accept a whole raft of givens.

I noted with interest that a blog I read regularly (on the subject of ethnomusicology) recently linked to a timeline related to that subject as a field of study. The timeline began with the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. There is a coincidence here inasmuch as I have been looking recently at the work of the anarchist theorist Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, whose most famous scientific work is Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, in which he explored the widespread use of cooperation as opposed to competition as a survival mechanism in human societies. The latter is a theory, or rather an interpretation of observations about human evolution and sociology, which I have constantly drawn to friends’ and others’ attention for about as long as I can remember. I have done so because I am very aware of the linguistic nonsense which has been made out of the phrase “survival of the fittest”, from which people wrest an interpretation which echoes Alfred Lord Tennyson’s line “Nature, red in tooth and claw” (In Memoriam A H H, Canto 56). The nonsense is the interpretation of “fittest” as “strongest” instead of “best able”; the best able might, in some circumstances, indeed be the biggest, strongest, fastest, but there will be other circumstances where the best able will be the most adaptable, the most gently resilient, or indeed the most cooperative. If all that happened in nature was that dog fought dog, then they would fight to the last dog and die out. The competitive theory of evolutionary survival and development is one which appears to me to have fuelled the concept and conviction that there is some kind of “natural order” in capitalism to the level of a religious or mystical belief, and is seen by many in America as going hand-in-hand with the American concept of freedom.

Within a few hours one way or another of thinking about Kropotkin and seeing the ethnomusicology timeline, I watched an episode of the US television show NCIS (yes, I confess I am a fan), in which a member of the cast who was born an Israeli citizen becomes a citizen of the United States by the recitation of the oath of citizenship:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

Despite the fact that the words of the Oath may be modified on certain grounds of conscience[*] (to take account, for example, those forbidden by belief from taking anything termed an oath, or from bearing arms, or from mentioning the name of God), it is a declaration which, even if I wanted to live and work in the USA, my own conscience could never allow me to make. Why? Because it would oblige me to give my allegiance to not my fellow-humans but to a state[**]
[*] I see nothing ironic in quoting here one of the founders of the USA, Thomas Jefferson: “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” In fact I intend to quote widely from him as this blog progresses.
[**] By “state” I do not here mean one of the constituent states of the USA, but what one would usually call a “country”; and I use the term throughout this blog with such a meaning. I do so in particular because I speak of the concept of “statism” as defined by Mikhail Bakinin, and including both despotism and exploitation. To me any allegiance, coerced or voluntary, to a state is an acceptance of despotism. “Exploitation” I take to have its common meaning, and in the context of this blog I use it with particular reference to capitalist exploitation.

I would have particular objection to swearing allegiance to a constitution, for a constitution, no matter how noble in concept and utopian in ideal it might once have been, will become the Law of the Medes and the Persians in effect (see Esther 1:9, Daniel 6:8,12, and 15). It will become an enshrining of conservatism and a stumbling block to progress even as it seeks to maintain liberty, and therefore it will quickly defeat its own purpose. It will do nothing more efficiently than set the state in stone; and as Emma Goldman says - “The State is the altar of political freedom and, like the religious altar, it is maintained for the purpose of human sacrifice.” This is especially true in a case where an individual is bound to defend such a state and/or its constitution against those it perceives to be its enemies.

I defend the likening of it to the Law of the Medes and the Persians. One only has to look at the struggles (not over yet, by far) of African-Americans simply to be included in that which should have included them from the beginning! I acknowledge that the US Constitution has been amended, and that its amendments have had important results, but it remains a monolith and a servant of (small “c”) conservatism rather than of progress.

I acknowledge I have been spending a lot of time in defining what I believe freedom is not. I will need to spend more such time, if I am to put in context what I believe it is.

Freedom is in no one else’s gift. Our autonomy is ours, no one else’s. If we find we do not have it, even if we have in our ignorance given it away, then those who keep it from us or to whom we gave it have no right to look hurt if we take it back.

Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Martin Luther King Jr
(Cf James Arthur Baldwin, Franklin D Roosevelt, Malcolm X, and others)

“Freedom” which depends on ignorance is not freedom. It is not enough to demand open government when the lies and secrets of corporations remain unchallenged and concealed.

Freedom of speech can never be the freedom to lie. Untruth binds us to untruth, and untruth is slavery of the mind[*]. To put this again in an American context one should be free to say: “For this reason or that I do not like President Obama and I do not like his policies”. One should not be free to say “Obama is a communist” – that is not fact, and it is not even opinion based on fact, because in no public or private conversation, as far as we know, has that man said he believes in state control of the means of production – quite the reverse in fact – and the “worst” charge that can be leveled against him is a small number of broadly utilitarianist policies. One should not be free to say “Obama is a Muslim” – that is not fact, and it is not even an opinion based on fact because although he might believe in God he has never expressed belief that Mohammed is God’s last prophet, has no declared intention of visiting Mecca, does eat and drink during daylight hours during Ramadan, and does not pray five times a day facing Mecca. One should not be free to say “Obama is a monkey” for obvious reasons. I cite these things because these are current expressions of “freedom of speech” in the mouths of certain vociferous protesters currently in the USA.
[*] Personal interpretation of the facts is not at issue here; disagreement is never untruth – the worst it can possibly be is intellectual myopia.

While I am on this particular tack let me again quote Thomas Jefferson, for whom I actually have a great deal of respect: “A government afraid of its citizens is a Democracy. Citizens afraid of government is tyranny” (and in passing let me say what remarkable similarity there is in wording and concept between that statement and the declaration of the Zapatistas in the part of Mexico that they hold[*]: “Aqui manda el pueblo y el gobierno obedece”.) I believe it is demonstrable that what the Tea Party and the demagogues that inflame them are suffering at the moment is not fear of a tyrannical government but actual paranoia. Paranoia is not a legitimate factor in either side of Thomas Jefferson’s equation. It is a disorder. Communism, Islam, and monkeys in this context are chimeras of their own making rather than real terrors and enemies. The effect of the success of their campaigning would be to neuter the government rather than to make it function as it ought under the system that they have. Their hysteria will carry and elevate the demagogues that feed their paranoia to positions of undue influence, and the mainstream politicians who overtly or covertly endorse them to such positions of political power as there are in a country enslaved by the unaccountable, unelected, undemocratic power of corporations. Again I quote Jefferson: “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country”, and “Merchants have no country. The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains.”
[*] Personally I might say “… that they have liberated”.

Freedom is never an easy option, because if you fail to exercise it you lose it; if you turn over your autonomy to anyone else, you lose it; if you accept any authority or structure over which you have no control, you lose it. Thus it is never going to something you can simply sit back and enjoy, never something in which you can allow others to make decisions in a matter in which you should be involved. It is not something that can be imposed, defined, or worked for by someone else; if you don’t work for your own liberation you won’t achieve it. It is something you won’t have if someone else doesn’t have it also, because it is not partial in any sense of the word. It is not something you can impose on anyone else by invading their country, or by any other form of coercion, and by setting up something which conforms to your own concept of liberty. Yet it is something with universal standards nonetheless; it exists if no one is disadvantaged, no one is oppressed, no one is exploited. It is curtailed, denied, destroyed, annihilated by the search for private wealth, by corporatism, by the supremacy of the state, by self-interest, by capitalism, by institutional religion, by bourgeois democracy, by hierarchies, and wherever any individual or group is unaccountable. It is created, upheld, nurtured, and defended wherever there is the flattest possible structure, where there is no domination by corporation, by party, by political class, or by state, where mutual aid is practiced, where cooperation is practiced, where equality is realized. It is democracy without the machinery of bureaucracy and power, it is communism without the monoliths of state and party, it is libertarianism without greed. It is, above all, NOT an easy option nor a handy slogan!

To achieve it there needs to be a mass awakening, a realization that the things we have defined as freedom up to now have been little more than a cheap trick to conceal our slavery. When this awakening happens and people begin to act on it then the oppressors will reveal their hand even more strongly than they do now. Capital and self-interest will flood the media with denunciations; states will send in their gendarmes, their National Guard; fascists will appear, with the national flag over their shoulders, the Bible (or the Quran, or the Torah) in one hand and an apple pie in the other. The political class and their appointees will howl that the supremacy of this law or that constitution is being overturned. Things will get bloody hot! I’m not saying that they should or that they ought to, I am saying that it can’t be avoided, and that it will be the forces of oppression who will attack those awakened to freedom. Jefferson again: “We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed.” It is for the people themselves to decide how to meet that attack – there are good examples of both armed resistance (the EZLN, the Black Army of the Ukraine) and passive resistance (Mohandas K Gandhi, the Civil Rights movement in the USA). I am not here to advocate either. As Errico Malatesta said: We anarchists do not want to emancipate the people; we want the people to emancipate themselves.” (L’Agitazione, 18th June 1897)

That is about it. Do not object that I have used quotations by Thomas Jefferson (a plantation owner who also “owned” six hundred slaves, and one of the fathers of an inherently conservative country and system) seemingly to justify anarchism. Bourgeois theorist he may be to me, nevertheless I respect him as a profound thinker on the subject of liberty and as a necessary source for anyone who considers the subject. Unashamedly I admit that I have used his quotations to show that there is a concept of freedom within American thought which might not conform to the current and common conceit. I think that is a legitimate use, and I defend it.

I am aware that a critic from the right will say, “Yes, all very good in theory, but it won’t work. Human Nature will soon take over.” The argument is familiar, and I have mentioned it above. I will however cite examples from the past and present which have incorporated some elements of the principles I have given. Amongst them are failures, and not necessarily failures of the principle – some were obliterated by the force majeure of other interested parties, others failed because they never managed to expand their base, or because disillusioned members gave up, or for other reasons – but amongst them are some which continued with the experiment. Where such things fail we should remember Samuel Beckett’s advice: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

  • The early Christian Church in Jerusalem
  • The Diggers in 17c England
  • The participatory democracy of the Six Iroquois Nations
  • The Paris Commune
  • Pre-Bolshevik Ukraine
  • The Kibbutzim of Israel
  • Revolutionary Catalonia in 1936
  • Hutterite colonies
  • Hippie “communes”
  • The EZLN-controlled areas of Chiapas, Mexico
  • Las Abejas
  • The Federation of Egalitarian Communities in the USA
  • Zendik Farm
  • other egalitarian and communitarian groups...

Friday, 24 September 2010

The self-destruction of the Left in Britain

My attention was drawn yesterday to a brief TV interview with Neil Kinnock, former leader of the Labour Party. The programme was only tangentially to do with him; it was in fact a semi-serious autobiographical documentary by comedian and actor Alan Davies (best known for his role as Jonathan Creek) dealing with his teens and 20s when he was “a bit of a rebel”.

For several years there had been an internal struggle between the left and right of the party, in particular a left wing faction known as “The Militant Tendency” which was accused of being entrist and a “party within a party”. From 1964 onwards this faction published magazine called Militant, and publicly stated that its policies were in the tradition of and its agenda was towards the furtherance of the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. The faction abandoned the Labour Party in 1991, declaring that Labour had lost its working class base and had become a wholly capitalist party.
 One of the pivotal moments at which the right of the party and the self-styled “Modernisers” began to tip the balance was Neil Kinnock’s 1985 speech, when he took on the left head-on. It was a courageous and vigorous speech, typical of Neil’s style – whilst admirers of his oratory found him stirring, others thought of him as “The Welsh Windbag” – and if you came into it in the middle when he is talking about his Welsh Labour roots you might not guess that his target was the left of his party. Though it was courageous and though he held his ground, the left have always considered him nothing more than a class traitor.

I think his courage can be seen in the way he stood up to the reactions in the conference hall. Derek Hatton, Leader of Liverpool City Council, repeatedly barracked him with loud shouts of “Liar! Liar!”  Veteran Labour MP Eric Heffer walked out. Dennis Skinner, one of the most entertaining “old Labour” MPs sat shaking his head. Arthur Scargill, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, sat stony-faced throughout. There seemed to be as many boos as there were cheers.

In the run-up to the 1987 election the Labour Party was 7 points ahead in the opinion polls. With a few days to go they held an election rally with almost-American razzamatazz. A beaming Neil Kinnock at the podium shouted “We’re all riiiight!”, to cheers. Again’ “We’re all riiiight!”. Cheers. A third time, “We’re all riiight!”. Cheers.

Next day the Tory press crucified him, and the electorate bought it. It was as though everyone had said “Ooh, I’m not voting for him – he’s silly!”, the poll lead evaporated overnight, and Margaret Thatcher won a third term as Prime Minister.

Two things happened subsequently, one a seeming victory for the left, the other a victory for the right. The first was that Militant Tendency spearheaded the resistance to Margaret Thatcher’s imposition of a “Poll Tax” on the citizens of the UK; demonstrations were so fierce that many became riots, and ordinary citizens – not just left wing opponents – refused to pay. This resistance is thought to have led to the downfall of Mrs Thatcher as PM. The second was that the Labour Party won the general election in 1997, but it was an unrecognizable Labour Party. Under Tony Blair it had ditched most if not all of its socialist principles and was, as one of my friends puts it, “a Thatcherite party with an irritating gloss of ‘political correctness’”. That seems to have been a vindication of the Militant Tendency’s 1991 analysis of the state of the Labour Party.

Back to the short interview last night. Neil Kinnock referred to the left wing of his party with the words “an infantile disorder”.

“Good grief!” I thought. “He’s quoting Lenin!” and indeed he said in an aside: “Know who said that? Vladimir Illyich Lenin!”

I think he must have been unaware of the irony. Lenin’s creation in Russia was a one-party oligarchy which crushed all opposition, demonized the Kronstadt mutineers and the free soviets of the Ukraine, annihilated its dissidents, and paved the way for an easy slide into Stalin’s reign. I shake my head when I read Trotsky’s assessment of Stalin – the gravedigger of the revolution – when earlier Bolshevism had already dug that grave, when Trotsky himself had overseen the liquidation of opponents.

I am not going to say who are the white-hats and who are the black-hats in the Labour/Militant struggle. I think they all lost. I think the days of left-wing politics in parliament are over and that opposition to capitalism and to right-wing parties will have to begin again from scratch and be a movement of ordinary people resisting outside conventional politics. The prerequisite for this will have to be a re-awakening. It will have to be spontaneous, and not led by the cadres of some “party” saying “Comrades, let us think for you!”. Therefore it will have to come about in the teeth of our existing culture which convinces us that there is no better political way than that we have already, and of the power of the press, which is still overwhelmingly right wing. We’ll see. No rallying cry from me. Not today.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 15

Okay I am now following DeAnne Smith. I think that’s the right word, though I wish that blogspot had a term that didn’t sound quite so ominous – like I’m stalking her or something. Also I wish she would update her blog more often. DeAnne is Canadian, which can’t be helped I supposed, does a great line in stand-up, and according to Consuela (my Tejana maid) is the love-child of Daniel Radcliffe and Andrea Gibson. Now I come to think of it, I wish that I had a term better than “does a great line”. Consuela has just told me how the words “doing a line” can be interpreted. Really, Consuela? Jings! I didn’t know that. Well, you learn something new every day.

Consuela and I have been looking at TV and movie cliché lately. Like whenever there is a character on British TV who is a young Chinese woman she is inevitably called “Soo Lin”. All the way from Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) to Spooks, without fail, a Chinese girl will be Soo Lin. Any of you out there actually know anyone called Soo Lin? You do? Oh.

Well, on to movies then, and in particular to old Westerns. I am a fan of the late Jay Silverheels, who is most famous for having played Tonto opposite Clayton Moore’s eponymous Lone Ranger. His lines in the role were never too taxing, and consisted manly of “Him bad man, Kemo Sabe”, and “Me do”. Although the part must have bankrolled him for quite some time he once complained wryly to the effect: “I’m supposed to be this Indian super-scout who can track buffalo ten miles away, but every week someone creeps up behind me and hits me over the head with a pistol butt – I’d have terminal brain damage by now!”

One thing Jay Silverheels suffered from was what I call all-purpose Indian casting. He was a Mohawk from Canada, but one of his first larger roles in Holywood was in Key Largo as a Seminole. Really you couldn’t get much further South from Canada without taking your socks off and swimming…

He’s not alone in suffering from this. Think of a Native American actor – Will Sampson, Chief Dan George, Graham Greene, Rodney A Grant – they’ve all had this. A casting director needs a Native American, so apparently he calls Dial-an-Indian and picks the first one on the list like he was a taxi cab. You might have been born and raised a Navajo, but if the script calls for anyone from Tlingit to Mataponey or from Mescalero to Onondaga that’s where you got to go!

Wes Studi, the well-known Cherokee actor (no, not the fake WS who is currently spying on me from a nearby hilltop, I mean the real WS) has been seen as history’s most famous Apache (Geronimo), literature’s most famous Huron (Magua – a role he just owned!), a Pawnee, a Shoshone, and heaven knows what else.

Would we do the same for European actors?

Okay I need someone to play a Greek fisherman. Who’ve we got? Who’s next up? Ewan MacGregor? Yeah he’ll do fine, cast him!

Some more thoughts about old Westerns. These aren’t original thoughts – I heard them somewhere – and if I could give due credit I would, but they have stuck in my mind and I thought I would share them.

The black-hat’s six gun only ever has five shots while the white-hat’s always has seven. When the black-hat realizes he has run out or ammo what does he do? Yeah, that’s right, he looks at his gun and keeps pulling the trigger – “Damn! Out of bullets again! I don’t believe it – that’s the fifth time this week! And it’s not as though I don’t count them as I load them. I do it religiously – I go one, two, three, four, six, just like that!”

Then he throws his gun at the white-hat. “This should work, like it didn’t for the four other white-hats I tried to bushwhack this week…”

Of course the white-hat still has one or two bullets left in his gun. You or I would just execute the black-hat on the spot – heart and head – in order to save any further trouble. But what does the white-hat do? He throws his gun away and closes with the black-hat for a fist fight.

We all know what’s going to happen next. The white-hat fights by Queensbury Rules, the black-hat fights dirty, throws sand in the white-hat’s eyes, grabs a length of chain or a piece of wood and swings at him. For nine tenths of the fight the black-hat is winning; he has slugged the white-hat in the jaw so many times it’s a wonder that the white-hat isn’t in need of radical dental surgery. But suddenly the hero scores one to the villain’s jaw, and the tide of the fight changes. Two more punches and the black-hat is on the ground, cowering, glowering, wiping blood off his lip with the back of his hand…

There are more clichés. The truncated curse for one. No one ever finishes a curse:

“Why you…”

“What the…”

“Well I’ll be…”

The late Tom Mix saying (silently) “Why you…”

An actor in a Western will go all around the houses not to say “God-damned”:

“You gold-durned, dad-blamed, gosh-darned, doggone, dang-blasted, ornery sidewinder. Why, dag-nabbit, if I had my shootin’ irons…”

There are a few musical clichés in Westerns too, but this medium doesn’t lend itself to illustrating them. I will however mention one, which is the three tits and three bums. Imagine the scene in the fancy saloon – not a spit and sawdust joint, but one with pretentions, because it has a stage, limelight, and a small orchestra. On stage is Dolly Malone the Prairie Canary, pretty but feisty Yankee Soprano, legs all the way up to her bustle and beyond. She sings a popular ditty, first verse and chorus, and then come the three tits and the three bums from the orchestra – the cue for the audience to join in with an extra chorus, thus:

DOLLY: “… and it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out at the old ball game!”

ORCHESTRA: tit-tit-tit  BUM  BUM  BUM

OMNES: “Take me out to the ball game, take me out in the crowd…”

Sadly we will never see the like of this again.

Now you’ll have to excuse me. Consuela and I are getting into our camo gear. We’re going to sneak up on the neighbouring hillside and see if we cam get to the bottom of this faux Wes Studi business once and for all.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 14

I have been teaching Consuela (my Tejana maid), whose English is very fluent, the rudiments of the guid Scots tongue. She came to me with a question the other day:

"At what point in the scale of increasing severity does a stooshie become a stramash?"

I considered for a while and replied:

"At the point at which the storm outgrows the teacup, and the point at which a hill ceases to have any relevance for a mole and starts to have relevance for a mountaineer."

I don't think she was wholly convinced by that, and I foresee another philosophical discussion occurring soon. Well, I only have myself to blame - I did advertise for a "maid/philosopher".

"March of the Weavers" by Kollwitz. 1897
no reason.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Свобода або Смерть (3)

A rare picture of Agafa (Galina), Yelena, and Nestor Makhno.
The pictures interspersed in this post will focus on the iconography of Makhno.

My peering into the life and character of Nestor Ivanovich Makhno has grown arms and legs, and the more it goes on the less I am able to grasp hold of truth, the more he becomes a wisp of smoke, a man whose legend seems more important than his reality. That reality retreats into iconography – can it be recaptured?

In the wake of my two recent blog posts (here and here) about Makhno a dialogue opened between myself and Ukraine-born Canadian writer/musician Dmitry Berger. Dmitry is originally from Nova Kakhovka, not a long drive from Huliaipole. His grandmother actually met Makhno, as did many other people Dmitry knew.

These are some of his initial observations, made via a third party: 

Marie Marshall tries in earnest to understand the phenomenon of Makhno and anarchism. There is no point in disputing or agreeing with her points. She had to do with what is available on the net and most of it falls into the narrow narratives of preconceived notions or misconceptions on all sides. I myself fell for the Hollywood swashbuckling angle of Makhno’s story before realizing how much more prosaic and tedious and real it was. But I have an unfair advantage. I was born in Tavria, met people who knew Makhno, lived in those villages, worked in the wide open steppe without which it is hard to understand what those Makhnovists felt inside. I had a chance to feel Makhno. My Jewish grandmother actually saw and respected him.

Makhno iconography 1: statue in Huliaipole

Yet Marie comes up with some quite splendid observations. Unfortunately the slogan “Freedom or Death” and the banner on the photograph are not really Makhnovist but close to Makhno’s sensibilities, which underlines how complex and interwoven the situation was then. German colonists, despite their professed Mennonite persuasion, did not hesitate to raise arms when felt like it. Religion was not very big in those times. We tend to see things through the prism of our time.

“Nine lives of Nestor Makhno” is a very bad film. Historically, ideologically, artistically and simply logically. A very lazy thinking on the part of its creators.

This is my open reply:

Dimitry is right, of course, inasmuch as I had to make do with what material there was. Even though I was writing something short-and-sweet, or so I hoped, for the benefit of an American friend who has lived in Germany and missed the ease with which Europeans could discuss leftist politics – no such ease exists in (her) America – I found myself ploughing through a large amount of material, most of it speculative and almost all of it highly partisan, and doing so in a short time in order to make a thumbnail portrait with as much accuracy as I could. The bulk and diversity of the available information is actually an interesting phenomenon in its own right, because it shows how the legend of someone like Nestor Makhno can be made, and legend-making is as interesting a phenomenon as the search for historical truth. Each site or blog I looked at had its own view of Makhno. For example some anarchist blogs (and I speak as an anarchist at heart myself) had an impossibly misty-eyed view of him. The communist blogs were dismissive, relying very much on the attitude of Lenin’s famous Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder to debunk anarchists and anarchism and Makhno in particular. I even found what I took to be a Soviet film from 1942[*] which portrayed Makhno as a wizened, gnome-like character, with a twisted grin, staring eyes, and a face that looked a good fifteen or twenty years older than he was during the Civil War. Equally the Mennonite sites had a legendary picture of Makhno, but this time as an evil monster; interestingly theirs were the only sites I could find which referred to primary sources – to the statements of Ukrainian-German Mennonites who witnessed the events – certainly sources which were partisan in their views but primary nonetheless. They left out any mention, however, of there having been any possibility of armed resistance by Mennonite colonists; their own self-image is as one of the traditional “peace churches”, and that’s that. One has to look elsewhere for mention of their lapses of pacifism. In the end I had to leave out a lot in order to concentrate on selected aspects of my subject. If I wanted to do more then maybe I should write a book. Or maybe Dmitry should.
[*] This was possibly the film Aleksandr Parkhomenko, and the actor playing Makhno was possibly Boris Chirkov, but I haven’t been able to confirm this yet.

I am used to this kind of thing of course. I live in a country which has made a legend out of an equally intangible figure – William Wallace. Like many people in Scotland who have a trace of an English accent, I was subject to abuse at the time that Braveheart was released, as the film raised Anglophobic sentiment. The film created its own legend; in Stirling a statue was raised to Wallace, in Mel Gibson’s likeness, with the word “Freedom” written large upon the pedestal (now there’s a word which has been appropriated, misused, and abused by every political and national movement!); on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile tourists can be photographed next to someone dressed as “Braveheart”; I have seen Scottish soccer fans tramping through a railway station, kilted, adorned with blue face-paint, chanting “We f*cking hate England, we f*cking hate England, we f*cking hate England”. Interesting though William Wallace is, I realise that when I consider him to be an ethnic cleanser who did not care whether he slaughtered men, women, or children, I am looking at him through the filter of my modern sensibilities. However, the fact of his civilian massacres is one thing I do fling in the teeth of many of my compatriots who would make some kind of saint or proto-Che out of him. Makhno is far from being the only historical figure to be mythologised, canonized, made into a kind of deity.

Makhno iconography 2: Makhno’s grave in Pére-Lachaise cemetery –
as much a place of pilgrimage as any other famous grave.

One thing we owe to people of the past, and in particular to people’s heroes and villains, is to be as honest as we possibly can be. We have to recognize and understand the cultural context of anything which is written about them, whether that context is contemporaneous or more contemporary. In a way we have to respect the bias of the writer, but in another way we have to try to penetrate it. The same goes – sorry Dmitry – for you. I think your view of Makhno is principally that – yours. You too make do with what you have. In your case, I admit, you have much more than I do, having connections with the place and time which I lack(ed); indeed your view expands greatly what I can see and I thank you for that. However it would have been good to see actual quotations from the speeches and writings rather than simply reading of their qualities; you knew people who met Makhno – it would have also been good to read what you recall of their words about him; you are intimately acquainted with “Tavria” where both you and Makhno were born and raised – it would have been good to read of what your direct experience of the landscape, people, and culture tells you about what made the man – you are a writer and a poet, you could make us feel it.

The philosophical arguments you introduce, in particular the question of the nobility of a bullet in the brain above the degradation of prison, are very interesting, requiring the reader to think outside the box of his or her own sensibilities, and that challenge is the kind of approach to the philosophy of historical study that makes me sit up and notice. It is startling and eye-opening to see Makhno the revolutionary likened to Jesus (in the eyes of the followers of each), his uncompromising ideals likened to Islam, his character described speculatively as “Mahatma Gandhi with a machine gun, the Dalai Lama with a sabre”. Nevertheless it was an analysis to which I directed readers of my blog without any comment (except “controversial”) or judgment on my part, for the plain reason that it is an analysis I greatly respect, and an argument in which I see a lot of power.

A word or two on some smaller issues raised. I wanted a short, snappy title for the piece. I seized upon the slogan Свобода або Смерть because of its brevity. I did not claim it to be Makhno’s slogan, as you can see from the footnote to the first half of my piece. In fact there is no documentary evidence for any such slogan. Where I got it was, as I said, from the Russian words Свобода или Смерть on a banner seen in the TV film The Nine Lives of Nestor Makhno. As for the larger banner, it existed in a photograph which looks contemporaneous with the Black Army; again in my piece I didn’t connect it directly to Makhno. However a facsimile (surely not the original, or is it?) of that banner hangs in the town museum at Huliaipole, and is displayed near a bust of Makhno and a Black Army tachanka.

Some of Dmitry’s reply direct to me is below, with a scattering of my answers as footnotes:

Of course if I were to write my comments regarding your article on Makhno directly to you, I would choose a slightly different approach and would measure my words more wisely. You are such a wonderful poet, you know how important words can be, you feel then the way others cannot. So, when I said I felt Makhno it was exactly in the same sense you feel language. It just happened and through no fault of my own.

I have always loved history, even worked a few seasons as an archaeologist, but am more interested in sieving through historical research and personal memoirs looking for gems to be used in my writings, than in merely compiling another list of verified and unverified quotations. You know they would be biased, I know would be biased, and therefore would posses little value as historical evidence unless scrutinized in a thick and dull scientific volume none of us would be willing to read in the first place. [1]

What would this story tell you: an old man in the village of Prishib, told me, “Right here, in this place the Red Latvians shot my father in 1920.”
“What for?” I asked expecting anything but the following answer.
“For being an elected chairmen of the local Soviet.”
To me it spoke volumes. To others, I suspect it would require a much wider context. [2]

That is why I have been writing a movie script for the last six years, in order to let others share my feel for the man and the events around him. A discovery of another Makhno, who now appears to be not some Braveheart reincarnate but rather Tomas Jefferson, a statesman without a state if you will. [3]

The problem with Makhno is that he became a legend almost instantly, his (in)fame boosted by the friends and foes alike, the way it stays now. As in the 60-s and 70-s the Beatles became synonymous with rock music (at least for us, the Soviet kids deprived of its richness), Makhno in his time became synonymous with various unrelated groups resisting the intrusion by the big government of any stripe.  [4]

You cite the museum in Huliaipole as a source [5]. But as they say in Russia (and Ukraine) history is the most unpredictable, so those in power invest much in ideological interpretation of history.

I do not see Makhno as a religious figure, I just point out that those who followed him sometimes did. And he is no less worthy such following than other religious figures. But personally I could not care less. I could be a religious figure. Anything to avoid working. [6]
But I do have my personal artistic vision, not view, of Makhno. It is reflected in the songs “Ballad of Liberty” and “Paris, 1934” from the CD “Red House Blues” on my website, or almost any anarchist site.

[1]  I think even the best historical works cannot avoid quoting from biased sources. Certainly the books on Stalin, Trotsky, Mao, and Mussolini that I have read do so. That didn't make them unreadable - no way!

[2]  That spoke volumes to me too, believe me!

[3]  Again a startling comparison, and I am not sure I can “buy” it right off. Famously Thomas Jefferson said “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty”. Whilst this instantly reminds me of the Zapatista slogan "Esta usted en territorio Zapatista en rebeldia. Aqui manda el pueblo y el gobierno obedece", that is, I believe, where obvious similarities between Jefferson and any anarchist figure seem to end; Jefferson was a landowner (unlike Makhno), a slaveowner (obviously unlike Makhno) who had twinges of conscious but did not free his own slaves, an educated man (unlike Makhno), a theorist (unlike Makhno), a believer in statehood (unlike anarchists), a relative conservative (inasmuch as he was an American constitutionalist, the founding principles and great documents of the United States seem to embody, more than anything else, a kind of reformed-yet-conserved… England! Was Trotsky right, then, and did the anarchist of the Civil War actually want to preserve the state in some way, by "not touching it"?). Perhaps you can expand on your comparison of the Makhno and Jefferson – there’s a comment box below!

[4]  You almost make them sound like the Tea Party!

[5]  Actually I don’t cite it as an authoritative source – I just say that’s where you can see a banner like the one in the old photo. The actual significance of the banner, the bust, and the tachanka there is another matter.

[6]  I see no evidence of either of us avoiding working, Dima – we both seem addicted to it!

Makhno iconography 3: a bust in the Huliaipole Museum.
This bust reminds me greatly of the old Soviet “socialist realism”.
Makhno’s long hair seem to blow in the breeze…
 … like the tails of Lenin’s coat in countless Soviet statues.
His eyes are on the horizon, like the workers and peasants
in Maoist posters, or…
… like the idealized, retrospective portrait of the young Stalin.
Perhaps artists are still a little trapped in that era’s artistic mindset?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 13

Many correspondents want to know how come the inside of the teepee is bigger than the outside. Sillies! Do you think Doctor Who has no basis in scientific fact?

Others who have made the connection ask me whether the teepee can travel through space and time. No, it’s a teepee, you pack it on a travois. For goodness sake!

Ah, morning coffee brought by Consuela (my Tejana maid). Muchas gracias, Consuela


Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 12

It’s a peculiar time of year for me. Whilst I love rambling around picking my own “black gold” (blackberries) from the brambles and briars, conversely I begin to feel withdrawal symptoms at the end of the Cricket season.

However, Consuela (my Tejana maid) has already started to come alive in a sporting sense. She is a devotee of Soccer or, as we call it hereabouts, fitba. Not that she actually goes to any matches – no, she swings on her hammock downstairs and watches them all on her HD television (we have had cable installed at the teepee).  I can often hear her shouts while I recline on my chaise longue, and although they interrupt my appreciation of Mozart I smile indulgently because I can hear that she is truly getting to grips with the language.

“Handball… Aw ref, are you blind… Dive… Jings man that was never offside… Middle it… Och you dirty wee…”

I once asked her what so attracted her to the sport, which I consider to be a heathenish aberration where twenty-two bad-tempered, over-paid, usually-foreign jessies chase a beach-ball round a park (I also use a sexual analogy which I shall not shock you by repeating). To my surprise she told me that she had fallen in love, when she arrived in Scotland, with the names of the soccer stadia.

To her they were like the names of stations on a long-closed branch line, where now rose bay willow herb and monkshood grow from the cracks in the platform, the paint peels on the ornate, Victorian woodwork of the awnings, and the cast-iron girders of the footbridge are the nesting-place of jackdaw and doo… TannadiceIbroxTynecastleMcDiarmid ParkPittrodieCappielowAlmondvaleMosset ParkOchilviewBorough BriggsGalabank… One could almost add Tannochbrae and Levenford, so much is there an echo of A J Cronin in these names.

Also, Consuela confessed, there was romance in the names of the teams. Queen of the South seems to recall an ancient visit to Caledonia by, say, Cartimandua of the Brigantes or Boudicca of the Iceni. Raith Rovers could almost be another name for Tolkien’s "Nazgul". Heart of Midlothian is just Sir Walter Scott all the way, as is Kirkintilloch Rob Roy. Hamilton Academicals is what the Strathclyde Police get you to say when they think you’re drunk in charge of a bicycle. Then there there are the various Thistles of Buckie, Partick (aka The Jags), and Inverness… and the indescribably romantic sounds of Cowdenbeath (a minor character in the… er… Scottish Tragedy by Shakespeare? “Fair cousin Cowdenbeath, get you to Croy, the thane thereof to tell of our intent…”) and Clachnacuddin.

Consuela is fascinated by the extremes of these teams and places as well. Did you know, for example, that the largest stadium in terms of capacity is Celtic Park in Glasgow which can hold over sixty thousand, and the smallest is Cliftonhill in the town of Coatbridge, home of the lowly Albion Rovers, which holds about twelve hundred souls (if there’s naethin’ guid awn the Grace Kelly!). Then there is the issue of where some of these stadia are located. The ground of the Inverness Caledonian Thistle team is so close to the A9 Edinburgh to Thurso road that an injudicious punt by a player could well clear the stands and cause a pile-up. Similarly East Fife’s Bayview Stadium is uncomfortably close to the dank and unused basin of Methil Docks – many a wayward booting from a visiting fullback has been greeted by the cry of, “Haw, Jimmy… can you swim? Awa an’ fetch it!” The grounds of rival teams Dundee and Dundee United (Dens Park and Tannadice) are right next door to each other, and more than once a fan who got blootered before a match has found himself on the wrong set of terraces.

I allow Consuela to tell me tales of fitba, even though I have heard them all before. Here are a couple for you.

Inverness Caledonian Thistle – Cally for short – were at home to the mighty Glasgow Celtic in a league match once. The Celts were off-form, and the highland team trounced them. A Scottish tabloid newspaper headlined the match thus: “Super-Cally-go-ballistic-Celtic-are-atrocious”. Shortly afterwards the same two teams were drawn to play in a cup match, and once more Cally were all over Celtic like chicken pox. The same tabloid ran another headline: “Super-Cally-go-ballistic-Celtic-are-atrocious… again!

On the 12th of September 1885 (I know, it sounds like the beginning of a poem by William Topaz McGonagall) the team then known as Dundee Harp beat Aberdeen Rovers in the First Round of the Scottish cup. The match referee recorded thirty-seven goals for the home side against nil for the visitors. The Dundee Harp captain, in sportsmanlike manner, said that he had only counted thirty-five. The referee accepted the revised figure of thirty-five, and the Dundonians went off to celebrate their record-breaking win. Little did they realise what had been happening eighteen miles away…

As the result of a clerical error, an invitation meant for Orion FC to play in the First Round against Arbroath had been sent instead to Orion Cricket Club. They accepted, and fielded a side under the name Bon Accord without football strip, playing in their street shoes and shirtsleeves. The field of play was muddy so they were unable to run, turn, or even stay upright, and by half-time they were fifteen goals down. By full time the total against them was thirty-six. Due to their fair play, Dundee Harp never held the record for the biggest win in professional football, and the score-line of “Arbroath 36 – Bon Accord 0” has remained a soccer legend to this very day.

The Arbroath team of 1885


I have to say that there are times when, despite fitba, the dreich winters do get to Consuela. I know that she is depressed when I hear her softly singing:

Oh tierra del sol!, suspiro por verte
ahora que lejos yo vivo sin luz, sin amor;
y al verme tan solo y triste cual hoja al viento,
quisiera llorar, quisiera morir de sentimiento…

Sometimes she will whimper in the middle of the night, and I have to hoist myself into her hammock (not easy) and we snuggle together for comfort, like a pair of chimpanzees. We stop short of picking parasites out of each other’s hair.


By the way, I now have Die Wacht am Rhein on my brain. Damn.