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activism Book reviews Corbyn Labour media Politics

My Christmas Homework, 2016 (or, why we still look back in anger )

Homework, set by members of my CLP 4 years ago: Read Tony Blair’s biography, and write us a piece for the young Corbynites who want to know just who this beast in the shadows is, and how, if he’s good and gone, he’s managed to leave this handful of people in key executive positions all over the party who are so damned good at out-playing the party’s every attempt to change.

I rejected the challenge as not worth the pain – but then happened to find a copy of the book in a junk shop, when we’d jumped on a train for a jolly day out shopping. Oh god! That psycho face gimlet-staring out of the cover pic! It was only 50p, so I caved in and said “oh alright then.”

Even the shop lady thought I was mad. “You won’t learn anything – he’ll only be bigging himself up,” she said, as I handed her the 50p.

First Impressions

It’s called A Journey. What with that, and the gimlet stare on the cover, I decided to discard the dust jacket on the train home. I could cope with the plain blue cover underneath – or so I thought. I nearly chickened out and left the whole book on the train when I realised it had TONY BLAIR embossed on the spine in 2-inch high letters, which fellow passengers were staring at in horror.

If ever the first line in a book was perfectly prescient, this one is. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: “When it was first suggested that I write this book, Bob Barnett, lawyer, friend and negotiator extraordinaire, expertly steered the negotiations that brought me to Random House.” There you have it – Tony Blair in a nutshell. Never mind policies, never mind principles, the one and only quality he notices in everyone and every event, is the potential for effective manipulation – for winning. I had a quick flick through. My eye was caught by the nature of the captions on the photo pages. Here’s an example:

“Clockwise from above right: some of the inner team. Peter Mandelson could tell you what people would be thinking tomorrow; Anji Hunter, possessed of a naturally intuitive political instinct: Jonathan Powell, a key operative in government; Sally Morgan, superbly attuned to the party; Philip Gould, chief pollster, and central to our strategy”

The words of praise are extraordinary – “operative”, “superbly attuned” – remember how the phrase “on message” kept turning up in political columns when Blair was “team building”? Remember how, when the 2015 Labour leadership election was a three-horse race, the three candidates were shunting and shifting, playing chess for the “winning message”, and nobody was unusually stirred… Until a forth contender came along, one who messed up the chess-game by just saying what he thought, regardless of whether it was popular, or part of a pre-agreed “message”. The membership scented truth, and they were in the mood for it. From that moment on, despite the other candidates’ attempts to adapt, taking hasty lessons in appearing unrehearsed, Corbyn was the man: too old and too relaxed to fit the conventional model but, unbelievably, unstoppably popular – because in certain circumstances, people are ferociously loyal to truth, once they’ve spotted some.

Looking at the photos of Blair’s chosen inner circle, I am reminded of a famously machine-oriented councillor I came across at the Labour South East regional party conference. He got on fine with the group he and I were both working in that was about winning council elections – some fine, efficient advice on campaigning… but he was the only one at conference who took to the main stage and advised a (largely Corbynite – as the majority of members are) audience to “stay off social media, it’s just an echo chamber.” The advice was greeted with a stony silence. We knew where and how the membership at large got one up on the Blairite machine, and why he wanted it to stop. If he noticed that manipulative tactics stick out a mile these days, he didn’t show it but then, come to think of it, he didn’t show his own feelings once, all weekend. Educated for politics, groomed, trained and funded for his position, he is a text-book example of Blair’s machine men.

Back cover text: “On 2 May 1997, I walked into Downing Street as prime minister for the first time. I had never held office, not even as the most junior of junior ministers. It was my first and only job in government.”
The back cover sports an early example of the fashion for the hubristic scorning of experience and expertise that has been a feature of every government since Blair’s: “On 7 May 1997 I walked into Downing Street as prime minster for the first time. I had never held office, not even as the most junior of junior ministers. It was my first and only job in government.”

The Message

Pondering this, my eyes strayed to the page opposite the photos, where Blair is describing the role of Foreign Secretary, and explaining why it’s the job everyone wants. “…you basically spend your time with people who are polite to you…generally dispensing goodwill and opinions to those who seem relatively keen to receive them.” Sounds like the queen’s job to me – aren’t politicians supposed to be doing important, responsible things? Not the Foreign Secretary apparently – “…Not for you the horny handed sons of toil badgering you over fuel prices, or complaining about the government’s clearly ill-motivated refusal to spend money on this service or that, the minutiae of road schemes…” Is that, then, the root of the resentment Blairites hold for the Corbyn/McDonnell movement? Is it that they hold the people and their need for services in such total contempt they resent Corbyn’s expectation that all politicians lower themselves to actually running the country and providing services?

Asked at a dinner what was her greatest achievement. Thatcher replied: “Tony Blair and New Labour”.

Not getting off to a very good start, this book review of mine, is it? Let’s see how Tony’s getting on: INTRODUCTION “Most such memoirs are, I have found, rather easy to put down. So what you see here is not a conventional description of who I met or what I did…” That, Tony, is pretty much what the lady in the bookshop said. “There is only one person who can write an account of what it is like to be the human being at the centre of that history, and that’s me.” Well okay, on the subject of Tony Blair’s experience of being Prime Minister, I suppose he has a point but is he going to keep the idea under control, and not write as if he is god of the real world? “I describe, of course, the major events of my time, but I do so through the eyes of the person taking the decisions in relation to them…”The person? Doesn’t this sound a tad like the memoir of a dictator? – “…I hope it is fair.” I doubt it, old son.

The Truth

I will try to be fair. But that’s my problem, not yours. You need not read the whole book with me, I’ll just tell you what was going through my mind while I laboured (sorry!) through the pages. The point is, if “truth” is the agreed, polished, message of the establishment, then it is in trouble. It has been struggling since the early days of newspapers. For most of our history since the invention of printing, the right to print and distribute was strictly controlled. From the 1700s onward, business people agitated increasingly loudly for a right to print news and politics – they scented big profits – but statesmen were initially quite open about their horror of the idea. How could they keep people “on message” if their own doings and sayings in government were passed around freely? You can see some stunning examples of this argument throughout the 1800s if you look for histories of Stamp Duty Law, which is where a lot of the attempts to control newspapers appear and get debated. One of the more recent examples comes at the end of the first world war, where a British politician is on record as congratulating the editor of the Guardian for keeping “on message” during the war. “The British people,” he said, “would never have stood for it if they’d known what was really going on.”

After the shameless drive for profit, technology was the next phenomenon that threatened “the message” of the ruling minority. Popular radio and then television, ease of travel, with roving reporters turning up everywhere, began to be a regular embarrassment to business leaders, politicians and royals. The British Royal family did their very best to keep behind their camouflage but have lost bags of face and loyalty in the last generation or two, largely thanks to the press and the media spreading the shabby reality of their being typically human, only richer.

A feature of technological progress is that new inventions quickly become available to larger numbers of people. That’s what happened to publishing and communications technology. Soon, everyone could do what a few decades back only the professional investigative journalists could. Corporate law would stop ordinary people getting rich by using it, but it could not stop them using it. Even disaffected US soldiers could communicate and publish stuff – and so, via Wikileaks, we received Bradley Manning’s truth, and then even wars started losing the support of a controlled “message”. That was the moment we saw Tony Blair’s tower really starting to crumble.

People’s Truth

People in general have never been particularly insistent on truth. Most of the time, a good story will do but the demand for “truth” arises when people feel conned, or when they’re having a hard time and, with the rise of social media, there are now millions, rather than thousands, out there angrily looking for their truth. George Michael dies, a tabloid paper immediately prints spread after spread of “how we loved George” and an army of social media punters hit back by sharing archive posts of that same newspaper’s “Pits and Perverts” front page at the time of the miners’ strike, and memes with messages such as “Tabloid papers told us Jimmy Saville was a force for good and George Michael was a pervert. They’re still trying to tell me stuff now.”

And once people start doing that, the first response is the “post-truth era” idea – they have just discovered they’ve been conned, so they think “truth” died quite recently and shout about its tragic death. But once you start looking, you can’t find the start of it. Tony Blair may have been a pinnacle of message-over-truth but he didn’t invent it. Take the “Pits and Perverts” incident. People who aren’t currently on a truth mission, still believe the media version of the government-versus unions battles of the 1970s but people who are currently “off message” can quite easily find the archives, look at the history and discover, for example, that the vast majority of those nasty, aggressive miners who ended up in hospital had wounds to the backs of their heads – clobbered by police swinging long truncheons from horseback as they ran away.

Next, the amateur researcher will find that the famous BBC footage of the “battle” at Orgreave was doctored by the BBC (whether with or without government instruction is still being investigated). The police drove miners into a dead end, corralled and beat them, and then furious, cornered miners started throwing stones. The BBC chose to crop the film and show the stone-throwing first, then the police charge, with the obvious effect. Once your amateur researcher knows this, they know they need to adjust most of what they’ve ever been told.

The Post Post Era

Of course, there is a kick-back. The establishment minority know that one game is up, and serious moves are now in evidence to curb social media and the technology that has allowed so many to start down the path of re-adjusting what they thought they knew – but communications technology is a hydra now. It’s going to be a hard job getting every filming, recording and dissemination device back into the hands of the minority. The only alternative is to oppress the majority into silence by starving them of services, homes, health care etc

But – when do people go after truth? When they’re desperate, when they’re cornered and when the stories aren’t working any more. When people are hungry, they’re hungry for truth. Once they start feeling that, you get movements like Occupy, People’s Assemblies, the Anti-Austerity  Movement, the Corbyn-McDonnell movement: fresh, new, up-to-date forces demanding truth and its partner, fair play. They aren’t the first and they won’t be the last but, win or lose, they are proof that truth isn’t over, any more than history turned out to be over when Fukuyama wrote its obituary. It’s still there, it just goes in and out of fashion according to how people are faring, and how well the stories are working.

The era of using the word “post” to dismiss inconvenient things is over. It’s time we started giving our history a serious place in our thinking.

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Book reviews book shops Circaidy Gregory Press

Books in times of lockdown

Well, here we are in lockdown again and among the trials and tribulations, our beloved bookshops are closed once more. If you’re in Hastings, please remember Bookbuster and Printed Matter still have ordering systems in place, and other shops around the town – and everywhere! – are offering their titles through online stores.

Here’s a selection of Circaidy Gregory Press non-fiction books currently available to buy online at bookshop.org

This Damn Puppeteer 

This Damn Puppeteer by Brian Charles Harding - cover pic
Brian Charles Harding’s
story of life on the street

“I know everything about alcohol – except how to stop” – Brian’s book is a work of art and philosophy a story of the after-effects of child abuse and the realities of life on the street. It touches all of us.

You can read all about the book, the play and Brian’s doings in Hastings on the blog here You can buy Brian’s exraordinary biography online at bookshop.org here

Fish-heads, Fire-raising and Force-Feeding

Ann Kramer’s extraordinary tales of
suffragettes in Hastings and St Leonards

Women’s fight for the vote in Hastings and St Leonards

You can buy Turbulent Spinsters online at bookshop.org

What’s the Story?

Printmakers: Artists talking about original printmaking

Superbly illustrated accounts of their lives and works by local original print makers – you can by What’s the Story? online at bookshop.org

It’s not just about the planets

Composer Michael Short tells the story of Holst’s life, his socialism and his music.

A treasure-house of information, an absolutely indispensable guide – Tony Palmer

Mr Short’s book is a landmark among tributes. – Anthony Burgess, The Observer

More info on the blog here

Buy Gustav Holst: the Man and his Music online at bookshop.org

If you are looking for other Circaidy Gregory titles while the shops are closed, please drop us a message on the blog contact page here

Good luck, look after yourself, and don’t forget there’s still a world of books to explore!

Categories
Book reviews book shops Circaidy Gregory Press young fiction

Have *you* ever heard of the Froggicorn?

Giants, unicorns, mermaids, dragons… They’re very famous, everyone knows what they are, even though (shh!) they may not quite… exactly… er… exist.

But no-one has heard of the Froggicorn. Why is that, when the Ancient Teller of Stories thought the Froggicorn was The Loveliest Mythical Beast of them All?

I read this every day for a week in my class. It was super fun. The frog is best.

– Girl, aged 6

I liked all the monsters. The dragon is the best.

– Boy, aged 6

36 full colour pages, beautiful, intricate illustrations throughout – from fantasy artist Katy Jones

“A finalist and highly recommended
– Wishing Shelf Awards, 2016

Buy The Froggicorn online from bookshop.org

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Book reviews book shops Uncategorized

Beauty is still dying

When I read Sheri S Tepper’s ‘Beauty’ back in the early ‘90s, I thought she had done me an injury.

I enjoyed it, but the Ending (not the ending of the book, The Ending) was just too dark. Not fair.

I just read it again, here in 2020 and, when I got to the bit about the Ending (which she places in the 21st century, round about now) I just thought yes, fair enough – but she left out the climate crisis.

Sheri S Tepper’s ‘Beauty’ offers hope, inspiration, and a tremendous call to action. It’s rich, it’s complex and – ooh, I don’t often use this word – it’s seminal. Next time I find myself looking at one of the more recent popular fantasies – Terry Pratchett perhaps, or J K Rowling, I’ll enjoy seeing the star-fire flashes of Tepper’s ideas in them.

Read ‘Beauty’, and remember – a fantasy book is as good or as bad as the ideas and the actions it inspires. Read it, then – as Ursula K Le Guin was fond of saying – go do the next thing. It may well be a better thing than the one you would have done if you hadn’t read ‘Beauty’, and you can’t say fairer than that.

Find out more here

'Beauty' by Sheri S Tepper - cover image
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activism Book reviews book shops Earlyworks Press Election flash fiction media Poetry Politics Short stories Uncategorized

In the Absence of Hard Evidence

In the absence of hard evidence of a divine engineer in the sky, I’d say the patterns in your mind are who you are.

This is my thought for the day because it became necessary to clean and decorate the back room, and to do that, it was necessary to move two wallfuls of books, including the poetry and the political sections.

It isn’t a chore. If you’re one of nature’s librarians (ie, your childhood created bookworm patterns in your mind) – if that’s your story then you’ll know that moving and sorting books is the third best thing in the world, coming after reading them and helping to make new books happen (for me, that’s publishing – for others, it’s writing, or buying, or borrowing, or reviewing, or forming clubs around discussing…) books.

Are books better?

Funny thing is, most people don’t read books. In a recent survey among some schools, kids were asked who reads books. “Old people and people with no friends” was a common answer. How much they are missing! To all those who say ebooks are as good as books, or browsing the internet is as good as any kind of book, I say – look to the patterns in your mind. Does bouncing around on the internet, slipping from link to link and forgetting where you started, really lay down a strong, comprehensible and retrievable pattern in your mind? How much do you remember of the stuff you clicked through yesterday, last week, last month? Can you flip to-and-fro, contemplate and come to know an ebook the same way you can a book on your shelf (not just when you’re reading it – all the time).

How gullible are you, how confusable are you, how well do you know your history, your environment, yourself? I suggest to you, along with David Didau, that people who read books have better lives – and the reason for that is the quality and retrievability of the patterns in their minds.

From Ely to South America and Back

While I was moving the political section (remember, we’re clearing out the back room so we can decorate) a hundred and one worlds opened their doors in my head, and reminded me of the richness of the forest in the mind. Here’s one: When I picked up The Open Veins of Latin America, I remembered a beautiful bookshop in Ely. It was a day of beautiful things – the cathedral, the river, the teashop with the samovar and the gunpowder tea – and this bookshop. And this book which, I confess, I picked up because the colours on the cover caught my eye long enough for me to notice what a startling title they presented.

And then, as I look at the book, more and more doors open in my head as I remember reading this tragic history, and how it led me to watch a film about Hugo Chavez, and how I learned that socialism must, and can only ever be, international socialism (act local, think global) because socialism is about people, not flags.

Socialism relies on ‘class analysis’ and you just can’t do that by the kinds of hats people are wearing, these days. Who is the ‘them’ in ‘them and us’ these days? Isn’t it the international corporations? Is it not the case that the ‘them’ we are up against are the world champion border-jumpers? If they can put the cause and the effect of their actions in different countries. And hoover the profits into their (global) banks while you’re watching the misery and chaos on the national news and wondering what it all means, they have already won. You’ll probably end up losing everything, and all the while looking around the neighbourhood for someone who looks a bit different to you to blame it on.

Narrativium – the drug of the post-truth generation?

And then another set of doors opened, and I remembered the more recent discovery that the author of The Open Veins of Latin America had expressed some regrets in later life, that he’d got caught up in what Terry Pratchett called narrativium, that if he’d  had time to write it again, he would have written it differently.

That doesn’t mean the book is wrong, or bad, it means that a story can have the same start and a thousand different endings, depending what lines the author gets a-running along. But sometimes, like the author of that book, you need to retrace your steps, and take a look at some of the things that got lost along the way.

And that opened another, more recent set of doors, about all the things from recent years that are beginning to be forgotten in the daily click-fest – I remembered writing an essay for my CLP, explaining the theory of the ‘Overton Window’, of how the movement that gathered around Corbyn was steadily leading us back to socialism, to caring about others and our environment, caring about the truth – but they really didn’t need my essay – a tide was flowing our way. It isn’t now – and that brings me right back round to today, and reminds me how I need to talk to our local socialist group about the importance of getting that report properly investigated, so the truth will be known properly, and the size of the victory of the anti-austerity movement will be seen, despite the loss of that election, and so that we remember who the enemies were, which brings me to the importance of getting down to some serious political education so that our local socialists don’t forget that socialism is, and always must be, internationalist, analytical, and founded on strong, joined-up ideas – which requires an enormous bookshelf and/or regular, good-quality political education.

And that’s just one book, on one shelf. Going to go move the poetry books now. I wonder what’ll happen to the patterns in the mind then.

Think global, act local

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Many of our Circaidy Gregory and Earlyworks Press books are now available to buy online at bookshop.org

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activism Book reviews book shops Politics prejudice Uncategorized women

The Problem with Wilful Blindness

There was a time back in the last century, when I gave credence to the idea of ‘colour blindness’ as a way of solving racism. It turned out to be a way of convincing yourself it had been solved – if you happened to be white British, that is. While we were being virtuously, wilfully blind, assuming everything was going to be rosy from now on, Liverpool was in turmoil, and school kids were passing around those “Boot Boys” novels. Many of us had completely blinded ourselves to the renaissance of fascism.

It doesn’t work because we don’t have a level playing field. I can see that you are black and act as though it doesn’t matter, but you can’t see that I’m white and act as though it doesn’t matter. I can pretend we’re the same colour, and the problems disappear – from my view. Not from yours.

But now, we have another form of wilful blindness to deal with. Understandable, and well-intentioned, a horde of would-be progressive academics, activists and politicians – to give a random sample: Dawn Butler, Philip Pullman, Owen Jones – and now Margaret Atwood apparently – are pretending to be sex-blind.

As with race, the problem with pretending to be sex-blind is that women have very real, very practical problems that can’t be catered for and can’t be funded unless our sex is recognised. The police, pretending to be sex-blind, record cases of ‘women’ committing violent and sexual crimes, and every time they do it, the statistics that women’s services depend on for their funding get hazier until they become worse than useless; women’s health and wellbeing groups are trying to get by without using any of the words that clearly denote the female condition, and as a result, the grounds for their funding and the efficiency of their outreach go down and down; and teaching on sex and gender has gone the same way – now so far from reality that we have a generation of young people who really cannot tell sex from gender.

What we need to know

Black people can’t escape the problems of being black unless we sort out our institutions and our racist cultural heritage, and we can’t do that unless we see, and talk about, the realities of colour.

It is not wrong to talk about, learn about, and formulate rules about, colour – in fact we need to.

Women can’t escape the problems of being female unless we sort out our institutions and our sexist cultural heritage, and we can’t do that unless we can see, and talk about, the realities of sex.

It is not wrong to talk about, learn about, and formulate rules about, sex – in fact we need to.

Like many people, I’m busy reading up on anti-racism now, because I realise we really, really need to talk about it and sort out the injustices going on around us. I was hoovering up Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race” and agreeing with every word… but I ground to a halt on page 181. Feminism, she tells us, must work to liberate everyone. Yes, in a sense. I do believe that if we can deal thoroughly with sexism, we will all be living in a better, healthier society – but, to revert to my first example, does that mean we should be yelling “all lives matter” when black people have something to say? I don’t think so.

Eddo-Lodge says that feminists should be thinking about “disabled people, black people, trans people, women and non-binary people, LGB people and working class people” – well yes, but am I allowed to add “if they’re female”, or is she doing the “all people matter” thing at feminists?

Reality matters

Having included absolutely everyone in the worklist for feminists, Eddo-Lodge then illustrates her statement by saying feminism will have won when we’ve ended poverty, and when women are no longer required to do two jobs by default (meaning the care and the emotional work as well as the money-earning – true, but that’s about female people, isn’t it?). Feminism must combat sexual violence (that is, almost always, males attacking females). Feminism must combat the wage gap (because females earn less). And it must be class conscious (true, absolutely, unequivocally true). And she says feminism must be aware of “the limiting culture of the gender binary”.

And she’s lost it. Feminism is, and has always been, grounded in challenging the social rules and practices based on ‘gender’ – that is, the social constructions that tell us how males and females should behave and should be treated – constructions that are different in different cultures, but that have some commonalities (based on sex). But like many commentators, she’s translated that into telling us we must also disregard sex – wrong. Then she slips from ‘sex’ to ‘sexuality’ and tells us feminism must recognise that sexuality is fluid – well, that’s a whole nother argument and I’m not going to go into that one here but the key point is that reality matters.

Eddo-Lodge tells us that feminism, like anti-racism, has to be “absolutely utopian and unrealistic, far removed from any semblance of the world we’re living in now”. And here, at last, we have the key to a clash that’s been causing endless pain and furore in recent years. Yes, we must deconstruct race and racism. But colour won’t go away, because people are different colours. That’s reality. We must deconstruct GENDER and sexism – but we can’t deconstruct sex, because biology won’t go away. That’s reality.

Rejecting reality in order to be wilfully sex- or colour-blind means blinding yourself to problems that need our attention. If you want to help find solutions, please don’t do either.

Reality matters. Sex matters.

Racism, sexism and classism are the errors to be corrected.

Do please read Eddo-Lodge’s book – it’s excellent, except for page 181. We need to think about, and act on, what she’s saying.

And if you haven’t already, do please go to J K Rowling’s website and find out what she actually said about sex. It is exactly what we need to be saying, and exactly what women are being repeatedly punished for saying.

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Book reviews Poetry Uncategorized women

Farewell to Caron Freeborn

A tribute by Mandy Pannett

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Book reviews book shops Circaidy Gregory Press Earlyworks Press flash fiction Poetry Short stories Uncategorized

Words from before the world went quiet

Here comes the new anthology!

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Book reviews economics Hastings Politics Uncategorized

Can we spaff some more money up the wall, please?

I’d forgotten, after the blandly destructive Cameron days and the robotically dysfunctional May days, just how it feels to be viscerally repulsed by one’s Prime Minister.

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Book reviews book shops Uncategorized

Of Migrants and Distressed Gentlefolk

Holiday Reads aren’t always big fat novels. These are the books that grabbed me in Buxton bookshops, on my holidays this year…