This book is about communal amnesia. Its author, Francis O’Gorman, believes advanced capitalism has triggered processes that detach us from the benefits of our history such as wisdom, pleasure, identity and security and we are, he says, fostering “a dedication to forgetfulness.” This leaves us with the sense that the literature, art and music of the past is valuable only as material for school and university examinations.
O’Gorman, a respected academic, is painstaking in evidencing his arguments, although there’s a digressive and free-fl owing quality to the book. A reflection on John Maynard Keynes’s notion of academic orthodoxy, for example, segues into an assessment of the educational handbook Pimp Your Lesson! which epitomises the principles of relentless “innovation” and “perfection” in teaching.
O’Gorman starts by establishing the “back-story” of forgetting, comparing the restorative power of narratives from antiquity such as The Aeneid to Christian texts, such as St Augustine’s The City of God, which blot out the past. He goes on to consider the impact of “modern forgetting” and the impact of the technology of the industrial revolution on the pace of our lives and our responses to language, literature and history.
He then tackles contemporary capitalism’s reverence of the “new” and considers the impact of the language of business planning and career development. Highlighting the way our obsessive future focus is used to justify political and economic policies, he cites George Osborne’s attempts to sell austerity in terms of delivering a “better” future for the as yet unborn. He also considers the role the concepts of clinical psychology play in alienating us from the past.
The commercialisation of academia creates a diminished sense of intellectual responsibility, an expectation of immediate gratifi cation and a lack of understanding of the effort needed to fully understand the past, O’Gorman contends, and he goes on to discuss a series of non-fiction works on the themes of place and belonging that constitute an antidote to the forgetfulness which is fostered by capitalism and modernism.
I was initially sceptical about O’Gorman’s central idea — for me, contemporary culture seems more like Mervyn Peake’s tradition-bound Gormenghast than Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which “history is bunk.” But my reservations evaporated. Yes, we do live in a Gormenghast-like museum culture, but our understanding of its rituals and texts has been deliberately erased.
While Forgetfulness doesn’t cover every aspect of culture and memory, it is an engaging dissection of an important phenomenon.
This review first appeared in the Morning Star
Copies of Forgetfulness are available post free from Five Leaves Bookshop, 0115 8373097
Naomi Klein is one of a new(ish) generation of radical writers influenced by feminism, supporters of the Occupy movement and other liberation groups, all of whom are directly exploring new forms of organisation or seeking new life within older organisations. This generation includes Rebecca Solnit, George Monbiot and Owen Jones, all superactivists as well as writers. All of them also write in accessible ways and don’t clutter their left-wing views with exclusionary language. In this book Klein makes a point in writing simply, informed but without the need to make as many references as her earlier books. There is no need to know any codes or history or be a fully-formed, clued up intellectual to appreciate her writing.
Klein lives in Canada, the daughter of Jewish-American parents who’d left their country as war resisters. She is involved in Canada with the organisation LEAP, whose manifesto appears as an appendix to this book, but primarily she writes about Trump and the current new shock politics. Her book is simply structured – How We Got Here, where she draws on her No Logo history to imagine Trump as a superbrand; Where We Are Now, which concentrates on the clear and present danger of climate change; How It Could Get Worse, which was obviously written before Trump started to threaten American football players with being nuked (I am only predicting one of his future tweets…), How Things Could Get Better, which shows how mass resistance is created by the “shock doctrine” backfiring; The Caring Majority Within Reach, which offers a conclusion.
At least one of her predictions has, thankfully, come true as on the third page she suggests that Steve Bannon will be “voted off this gory reality show… perhaps by the time you read these words”. But like in any contemporary political book, events, like sorrows, do not come in single spies but in battalions. Klein knows this, noting the speed of change in capitalism but also noting the biggest change being the book’s epigram, quoting the late John Truddle, a Native American activist, “I’m not looking to overthrow the American government, the corporate state already has”. Big Oil and Big Armaments have taken over.
Klein suggests that these people’s refusal to accept climate change is the end result of their neo-liberalism. Combating climate change means regulation, Government control, responsibility and acceptance of a common interest between those in the “Green Zones and Red Zones”. There is no such acceptance. The Green Zone and Red Zone blueprint is that of Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans. Guess which zone the poor lived in. Guess which zone was helped. Klein suggests there will be many more green and red zones locally and internationally as the super-rich plan to survive on their terms.
I wasn’t 100% convinced of this as there are divisions between capital, and if we die who will buy their things. You can see these divisions over social liberalism. Starbucks, Google, Facebook and Amazon enforce poverty by tax avoidance, but they are opposed to Trump’s anti-migrant policy and in favour of equal marriage. Christian right Trump supporters boycott Starbucks because of the company’s support for LGBT concerns. Many company leaders have sheered away from Trump because of his racism, and because identification with Trump damages their own brands.
When the Five Leaves’ book group discussed No Is Not Enough the other main criticism was that, while accepting the book was about the USA, there was little international connection. In particular the coincidental rise of other strong and disastrous leaders – Modi, Erdogan, Netanyahu, Kaczynski – in illiberal democracies or semi-democracies. Trump is simply the worse of a bad bunch. All of whom want to be his friend.
I was also a little confused as to how change will come – sure, from the bottom up, sure with alliances between organised labour (or labor, since we are in America) and environmentalists, but surely also with some movement within the Democrats, for who else, in local authorities and in individual states, will be able to implement change.
Despite these criticisms – no, not criticisms, discussion points – this book is important and should be read.
Copies of No Is Not Enough are available for £12.99, post free, from Five Leaves Bookshop, 0115 8373097
This book is a prescient amalgam of reportage of the inspiring campaign to elect Jeremy Corbyn, but is also a celebration of a confident grassroots espousal of a renewed socialism with real Labour values, free at last from the torpor of what Tariq Ali called the “extreme centre”. The Left in Nottingham was among the first to give impetus to the Corbyn campaign. It is therefore fitting that the text begins with Corbyn’s speech at the first Nottingham meeting and the contribution of two young participants at the second.
These contributions are a breath of fresh air, cleansing the fetid atmosphere of defeat and conformity that has become the hallmark of residual New Labour placemen.
Part two of the book concentrates on the nuts and bolts of the campaign and its beginnings in a Facebook page of Red Labour. The online social media campaigning became a tsunami of digitised activity. All this is described in Ben Sellers’ piece, entertainingly entitled “#JEZWEDID“. Chris Williamson, former Labour MP for Derby, places the campaign in its historical context, describing how the acceptance by Labour of the neoliberal austerity agenda paved the way for the restitution of the Tories into government in 2015. He explains how the Tories twisted the rescue of the banks by the Labour Government into a rallying cry, accusing the Labour Government of incompetence. He tells how Ed Miliband made a sally at Blair’s legacy but seemed incapable of drawing the obvious conclusion that before Labour could move forward, it had to ditch the neoliberal austerity-lite legacy of both Blair and Brown, with their virtual acceptance of bi-partisan accommodation. The writer concludes with a verse from Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy and an appeal to the Labour movement to rediscover “the spirit of 1945”.
Christine Shawcroft and (Sherwood’s) Adele Williams both write of the need for the democratic nature of the institutions and practice of the Labour Party to be restored. The writers wish the era of the “focus group” mentality and the stage-managed annual conference, with its adulation of the leader, to become a thing of the past. They wish to see the local Labour Party, and the labour movement in general, integrated into the local community. New institutions such as the People’s Assembly have a vital role to play in such involvement. The media campaign against Corbyn assisted by parts of the Parliamentary Labour Party was, and is, vicious, inaccurate and calculated to offend. But in spite of all this Corbyn has been able to retain his equanimity. Abi Rhodes (who works at Spokesman) charts the campaign against Corbyn and his labelling as “unelectable”. The fact that he scored a majority vote in all three electoral colleges belies this. She notes the efforts of the media to smear Corbyn because of his espousal of socialism, which is supposedly anathema to the British electorate in any form.
Corbyn’s campaign rallied thousands to a socialist agenda and showed that there is an undercurrent of profound dissatisfaction with the austerity agenda of the “extreme centre”.
The final section starts with a demonstration of Corbyn’s firm belief in the continuing exploitative domination of the developing world. The text in question is the Foreword he wrote for the reprinting of the classic work, Imperialism by J.A. Hobson, published by Spokesman, and much admired by Lenin. And it is Corbyn’s internationalism, opposition to war in general and his hostility in particular to that vehicle for mass murder, Trident, that Tony Simpson discusses. His contribution deals with the Syrian debate, but also mentions Corbyn’s long-term oppositional role both in and out of Parliament on such issues as Palestine and the plight of the Kurds. The final text is one on Workers’ Control by Tom Unterrainer. This is a cause, again always supported by Corbyn, which is surely one of the most important strategies to engage people and stimulate the question of democracy in the workplace and in the wider world. The book concludes with the text of Corbyn’s “Campaign policies”.
As the Introduction points out, this book represents no particular line of march, other than a generalised commitment to radical social change. It does, however, stand as a record of events to which I suspect few of us, certainly in its initial stages, would have given credence. It will surely help to bring about the changes so necessary in our society.
I knew Bob Cooney in Aberdeen, and interviewed him once for Aberdeen Peoples Press about the Spanish Civil War. I can’t find my copy of the interview but do remember that our meeting did not go well. Bob was an unreconstructed Stalinist and I was a young libertarian socialist. The local Young Communist League worked well with the libertarians, both then strong in Aberdeen, sharing a similar view of the Tankies, as they were called. Bob was one of nineteen volunteers from Aberdeen who joined the International Brigades, five of whom were killed in action. This book is based on a manuscript written by him in 1944 and never before published.
I am not and never have been a Trotskyist, but I found the opening chapter of Bob’s book hard to stomach. That he called his opening chapter “Fascists and Trotskyists” is something of a trigger warning, but when he says that “Trotskyists … served as the lieutenants of fascism within the labour movement” and “… time and again the Spanish Trotskyists under the cover of left-wing phrases gave active assistance to Franco…” I was tempted to go no further. Some years ago my late friend (and Five Leaves’ author) Walter Gregory – who is mentioned in passing in this book – mentioned that in Spain the Trotskyist-influenced POUM put up graffiti saying “Dondo Nin? (were is Nin?) referring to their missing leader Andres Nin. The CP replied with “Ask the fascists!”, but the POUM knew that their leader had been taken by the communists. He was murdered by them. Walter remarked that people were fooled. Oddly, however, in Bob Cooney’s book the anarchist union CNT is mentioned favourably.
It’s a pity that these outrageous remarks start the book as it is a remarkable record of the war, particularly of Bob’s long journey back to the Ebro as the Republic was forced to retreat. Of the 500 men who started with him only 20 were left to cross the Ebro. He describes the night marches, the lack of food, the torn footwear and the desperate attempts to hold the line or cover the retreat. Friends steadily fall in battle.
Even when not in retreat the situation was desperate. In the campaign to take Hill 481 “Lieutenant John Angus was in command. He fell seriously wounded in the chest. His successor, Lieutenant Walter Gregory, got a bullet in the neck [though survived]. Sergeant Bill Harrington took over, till he too was seriously wounded and Corporal Joe Harkins …. assumed command. Harkins fell, mortally wounded, just before Lieutenant Lewis Clive, the original company commander, returned from hospital. Clive was killed on the following day.”
Cooney was lucky. He was captured prior to this battle, with Joe Harkins, but in the heat of the combat they were able to escape. He was hit by one bullet, but though “red hot” it was spent and did him no damage. As a record of the war, this is worth reading, though we know that the Republic, starved of arms, had little chance of surviving against Franco and his German and Italian supporters.
The book is also worth reading for Bob’s account of street battles with homegrown fascists on the streets of Aberdeen. This section included a great story of him infiltrating an identity parade with a CP leaflet in hand to ensure he was picked out by fascist “witnesses”. Except he had not been at that particular incident so his being picked out effectively discredited the testimony against his arrested comrades and they got off.
Meet Nigel (Farage, that is … just in case the slightly satirical Martin Rowson cover art didn’t tip you off): he’s head honcho of a political party enamoured of the tub-thumping xenophobic John Bull rhetoric so beloved of the BNP, EDL and Britain First … only he’d like you to believe that UKIP is libertarian. Farage is a privately educated millionaire ex-banker who used to be a Tory fund-raiser and is on the record as describing himself as the only politician in Britain keeping the flame of Thatcherism alive … only he’d like you to think of him as a beer-quaffing friend to the working class. His party’s ranks are tumescent with racists, misogynists, homophobes and the downright stupid (“what happens when renewable energy runs out”, anyone?) … only he’d like you to rationalise their rampant bigotry as the laughable gaffes of a few eccentrics who somehow slipped through the screening process.
Another title for Harry Paterson’s new book might have been Making Sense of Nigel. There are massive contradictions between Farage’s public persona and his background; likewise between his undoubted appeal to a largely underprivileged demographic and the entitled elitist attitudes espoused by the phalanx of ex-Tories, be they embarrassments (Neil Hamilton) or defectors (Douglas Carswell), who fill key UKIP positions. Just as there are massive inconsistencies in the grab-bag of pre-election promises that constitute the “mission statement” on UKIP’s website. As Paterson points out on more than one occasion, with less than a month and half until the general election, UKIP has yet to publish anything resembling a manifesto.
Subject Farage and UKIP to any degree of scrutiny and they’re almost beyond satire. But, as Paterson notes in the opening chapter, Farage is merely employing Boris Johnson’s deliberately bumptious self-deprecation routine, albeit on a far more populist level. Buffoonish as Johnson is, he still looks and sounds upper class; Farage tempers his version with a regular-bloke-down-the-pub immediacy. And while many of his generals are pitifully stupid (Godfrey Bloom and Julia Gasper in particular demonstrate a committed disinclination to cerebral activity), Farage himself is no fool and Paterson rightly warns that it would be disingenuous to underestimate him. However thin his chances of actually gaining Number Ten may be, there can be no doubt that Farage has almost single-handedly reshaped the contemporary political landscape; and with both mainstream parties attempting to “out-Farage Farage” instead of challenging the UKIP mindset, the dangers are self-evident.
Harry Paterson’s last book for Five Leaves, Look Back in Anger: the Miners’ Strike in Nottinghamshire, took a scalpel to three decades of lies and distortion surrounding what was arguably the most important socio-political act of resistance in post-war British history. In Making Plans for Nigel, that same scalpel cuts clean and true through spin, confusion and media hyperbole. Paterson lays bare all that is rotten in the house of UKIP (and there is plenty of rot), as well as firing a broadside against the ineffectuality of Ed Miliband’s Labour. Chances of Ed reading this book and having a “road to Damascus” epiphany? Probably slim to none, but one can hope. In just a few weeks we go to the polls. Making Plans for Nigel could not be any more timely.
I came to adulthood just after the 1960s, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and like many of my generation regret having just missed out on the 1960s. Though I was fined £1 in Glasgow for flyposting against the war, which still raged, the main countercultural changes in the USA, the draft resistance, the Civil Rights Movement, flower power were all over.
Not that I’d like to live through a war like Vietnam again or to have to fight segregation and there were terrible things within the counterculture – another Ed Sanders book was about The Manson Family. In this book he gives his take on the 1960s, a detailed history. Sanders was, with Tuli Kupferberg, the main character in The Fugs, a political rock’n’roll band, and a poet. He was the proprietor of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the editor of Fuck You magazine, a friend of everyone from Janis Joplin to Allen Ginsberg. And when he came to Britain he visited Stonehenge with the poet Michael Horovitz, who I know, which makes me only two steps of separation from Janis Joplin!
Ah, the 60s. This was a period, under Johnson’s Great Society when he introduced “Medicare, Medicaid, the Freedom of Information Act, the Voting Rights Act, a law setting aside millions of acres of public land as permanent wilderness, and [his] executive order on affirmative action. … At the same time Johnson started up a ground and air war in Vietnam – with napalm, Agent Orange, fragmentation bombs… ” In response The Fugs tried to levitate the White House with the chant “Out, demons, out”.
Ed Sanders lived through it all, but more, in that he was a living link between the Beat generation of Jack Kerouac and the hippie era. Unfortunately, from this bookseller’s point of view, his promised history of the Peace Eye Bookstore is missing. Though the shop is constantly referred to we are left no wiser about what it stocked, other than at one stage he turned the shop over “to the community”. On his next visit he “noted that there were a lot of books in the garbage cans out front.” He was told that “the needed the wall space for psychedelic designs” and the floors were covered in mattresses as “what the community needed was space to crash”. Never anyone suggest Five Leaves is turned over to the community… At least he mentions a book party for the launch of Abbie Hoffman’s Revolution for the Hell of It.
Apart from campaigning against the Vietnam War and trying to make a hit record Sanders campaigned for the legalisation of marijuana. Drugs were important to him and campaigns for legalisation took up much of his time. That had its dangers – the poet John Sinclair got ten years for supplying a couple of joints “to an undercover cop in Detroit who was pretending to be a volunteer from the Committee to Legalise Marijuana”. The drug parts of the book reminded me of the tedious parts of the counterculture, in Sanders case also hanging round with people who injected harder drugs and who used amphetamines. In my day I was partial to the odd joint (who wasn’t?) but making it the centre of your life seems pretty boring.
Having not read much about the counterculture of late, what is also striking is the awful, awful sexism of the men. Save for his comments that he would not have been so positive about the use of needles in the Fuck You artwork – Sanders reports what happened, often in great detail and with lots of archive and fugitive material, without judgement. I found it hard not to be judgemental. I’m glad I read the book but will not be rushing out to find his nine volume verse history of America.
It is 30 years since the end of the Miners’ Strike in March and looking back, for those of us who were involved, has been a mixture of being amazed by what happened during that year and being angry when we look around at the state of Britain in 2015.
Lisa McKenzie’s family were part of that struggle. She grew up in north Nottinghamshire, part of an honourable tradition of the mining community: she is from a family where generations were miners and during the 84/5 strike her mum was chair of the Women Against Pit Closures. In her new book she tells the story of the St. Ann’s Estate where she went to live as a single parent. We get an insider’s viewpoint of what life has been like for her community over the last 20 years.
“It is a story from the inside, but also one that aims to challenge the simplistic and uncomplicated way that council estate life is often represented.”
Like many working class people, including myself, she was brought up with a belief that she was just as good as anyone else; “I knew I was working class, and I had been taught that we were the backbone of the country, strong and proud, and it never occurred to me that ‘others’ did not think the same.”
Lisa left school at 16, became a single parent at 19, and later on went onto an Access course at the local college. “Like most working class women I wanted to do something more worthwhile with my life – I thought I could do more than make tights in a factory….I wanted to work in my community, to give something back.”
It was while she was at University she found out that her estate had been the subject of research in the 60s by Ken Coates and Bill Silburn (Poverty: the Forgotten Englishmen, 1970) and this led to her changing her study from social work to social policy. In 2010 she completed her PHD and in 2015 she published this book. “This book is the outcome of nine years’ academic research; it is the fruits of that labour, and the fruition of my goal, to tell my own story of council estate life.”
Today council estates are seen as the epitome of everything wrong in society and as Lisa points out: “The council estate appears to have become the symbol of the Conservative Party’s vision of what ‘Broken Britain’ looks like.”
She shows how the reality is that it is the consequences of long term disadvantage and inequality that has affected the lives of the poor and working class in neighbourhoods such as St. Ann’s. It is not just about the economic dimensions of inequality but the cultural dimensions of how people are looked down upon and the effect that this has on their lives.
The St. Ann’s estate is north of Nottingham. Nottingham has been until recently a thriving industrial city:built on the wealth of coal mining, manufacturing and engineering it attracted a new proletariat to work in the mills, factories and mines. New Town, or as it is now called St. Ann’s, was the place where these people went to live. Over the years it attracted people from all over the country, as well as immigrants from eastern Europe. Ireland, and Jamaica. Lisa says; “Very rarely is a city’s history mapped through the everyday lives of those who have gone unacknowledged for generations, and who are still barely acknowledged today, and even then only through reports showing their “lack of ” everything from education, employment, culture and morality.”
Getting By is a fascinating book because we sit with Lisa as she talks to individuals and groups of women and men about their lives on the estate. We discover what it has meant to women and men who are the descendants of Irish and Jamaican families, we learn about the lives of the men who no longer can be part of the workforce and how they deal with it, and the problems of money and drugs.
She has no problem in defining where the problem is – and it is not the people of St. Ann’s;
“What does exist here, in Nottingham, and within communities across the UK, where the poorest people live, are hardships caused by the consequences of structural inequality, a political system that does not engage those who have the least power, disenfranchisement relating to the notion of fairness regarding their families and their communities.”
Lisa is proud of her working class credentials and her academic career but she is firmly on the side of her community. In the General Election she is standing against Ian Duncan Smith, Conservative Party Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, one of the chief architects of the ongoing war against some of the poorest members of society. Let’s hope he knows what he is up against!
Bernadette Hyland (subscribe to her weekly newsletter – Lipstick Socialist)
I confess I did not buy this as a book, but as the £3.00 programme for the play just ended at the Royal Court in London. This relatively new form of programme is so much better than the empty and overpriced brochures full of ads for posh preparatory schools and makes publishing playscripts much more economic. And if you have a train journey home you can read the playscript of the play you saw the same day. Which I did, and was surprised how many changes were made in the play compared to the playscript – including dropping and adding some lines and entire mini-scenes. The performance was fresh in my mind so I could spot the changes. In this case, save for the very last line being missing from the play the changes were improvements. But it is still a good playscript.
The story is of how a set of councillors in a small, working-class northern town copes with the government cuts, responds to a community campaign to save a day centre before deciding whether to make a grand gesture by refusing to set a budget, and stepping out into the unknown. And the cuts are awful. Says Sanwar “Hart Council in Hampshire, the least deprived local authority – net loss of these cuts £28 per person – while in Liverpool District B, the most deprived local authority – net loss £807 per person. How does that not make you want to tear someone’s throat out?” The interlinked personal lives of the councillors form the backdrop of the story, with other characters being an adult with learning difficulties whose day centre is at risk and a former council leader who believes that “Idealism is dead. Solidarity is dead. It’s been destroyed by pragmatism and hatred and shame.” It might be in many, perhaps most, Labour councils throughout the land – other councils are barely mentioned – but here are a group of honest men and women trying to work out what to do for the best. It’s a good play, and a good playscript, and should be read by every Labour councillor or anyone, and that should be everyone, who cares about how local democracy and functioning local economies can continue to work under the onslaught.