Thursday, 28 January 2010

'You can't be neutral on a moving train'*

Howard Zinn died yesterday: Along with Christopher Hill and EP Thompson, he was one of the radical historians who inspired me to study history, and more importantly to convince me that history matters.

* I love this quote - which is also the title of his autobiography - it not only sums up the study of history it also sums up the place of the individual in the march of history and in society as a whole.

Although every inch the university professor; his experiences - growing up in a working class Jewish family in Brooklyn, working in the shipyards, serving as aircrew in the USAAF, and activism in the peace and civil rights movement - were far removed from the sterility of academia.  The story that he dismissed the last class he taught twenty minutes early so that his students could attend a picket line is a great epitaph.

His People's History Of The United States has become something of a standard text - which is a shame in the sense that this status tends to obscure its radicalism. His recent People's History Of American Empire - in graphic novel form - will hopefully have the same effect on a new generation. Take a look at this presentation taken from the book:

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The Hoerengracht*

I slipped out to the National Gallery to have a look at 'The Sacred Made Real' exhibition of Spanish religious art. This wasn't some subliminal reversion to my Catholic roots. I just have a taste for that kind of gory-kitsch. Much as I have a taste for the slasher genre of b-movies. A lot of church art would equally merit the same label of 'torture porn'.

I found the exhibition had shut a few days previously - so ironically instead I had a look at 'The Hoerengracht'. This is an installation by Ed and Nancy Kienholz - although I prefer the more old-fashioned term 'tableaux' - grungily recreating a scene from Amsterdam's red light district in the 1980's with the prostitutes in their famous canal-side windows. The prostitutes are resin molds taken from real women, with the heads taken from fashion mannequins. Frames - like picture frames but actually taken from gift boxes - surround each of the models' heads. Apparently when constructing it the artists gave each model/dummy a name. It's every bit as disturbing, intriguing, sleazy and poignant as you'd expect...

* Hoerengracht means 'whore's canal' - the Dutch word for the red light district. Substitute one letter and you get 'gentlemen's canal' a fashionable and chic district close by. What a great language.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

What is it about female hair ?

A French parliamentary commission has recommend a state ban of the Islamic burqua or full veil. It's a debate that will continue to rumble through the governments of western europe.

At a  pragmatic level even the better-informed Islamophobes see that state bans will produce the  opposite to the intended effect and strengthen funda-mentalism in minority communities.

Western liberals on the other hand are in danger of disappearing up their own relativist backsides in refusing  to address disturbing issues that they would never accept in their own culture.

Here's a thought though;  each of the images  here tells a story - and  these stories are not equally valid, they are equally fucked up. I could speculate at length on the cultural, historical and socio-economic origins of the customs portrayed, and the world-views they imply.

I think it is sufficient to simply say that they each reveal some profoundly twisted shit: About property relations, about the status of women, about suppressed sexuality ... and most of all about the unique and extraordinary power of religion to get people to connive in their own subordination.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Pen-knives: Criminality and craftsmanship.

I've carried a pocket knife since I was a kid. I think my granddad gave me my first - probably to mark the start of my very short-lived career in the Sea Scouts. Since then I should think that I have used my pocket knives pretty much every other day - for any task from eating at my desk to re-wiring my bikes at the side of the road.

Along with wearing a watch and carrying a wallet, I feel naked not to be carrying a pocket-knife.  And I think this was a common attitude for generations - part of a more innocent and 'real' culture - before we gave up trying to fix stuff for ourselves or became obsessed with health and safety.

Stabbing anyone - in self-defense or otherwise - has never been on my agenda but the recent anti-knife hysteria has criminalized  this habit and  most of my collection of pocket knives is now illegal. Generally because the blades can be locked - although this is actually a safety feature to prevent you cutting your own fingers off.

I have even had two perfectly legal knives  confiscated by the authorities - one a Swiss Army knife I happened to have on me at a carnival and another  I tried to take  on the EuroStar which they like to pretend is really an airplane - presumably  they were afraid I might hi-jack it and divert the train to crash in to a public building. (On the first occasion I was given a receipt by the police so the knife could be returned but some copper must have taken a fancy to it because it had been mysteriously 'lost' when i tried to reclaim it).

So I find myself for once strangely in sympathy with the gun-lobby - 'it's not pen-knives that kill people it's angry teenagers'. And I've been on  the look out for a nice pocket-knife that is also legal - essentially a folding blade that cannot be locked and has an edge of 3.5 inches or less.

Then I saw this article about Trevor Ablett who makes such knives - by hand in the same way as has been done in Sheffield for 150 years, and at the same price you can buy a mass-produced plastic item  in the shops. Too good to resist.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Chocolate wars make you sick

Looking at the media coverage of Kraft's takeover  of Cadburys, you'd think that they were turning Westminster Abbey into a McDonalds drive-thru. The press, not for the first time, are right for all the wrong reasons. When  it comes to big business there is no place for sentimentality.

Cadburys is not a struggling family firm of artisan chocolatiers - it is a huge (not quite as huge as Kraft) multinational that got big by swallowing up other household names like Frys, Bassetts, and most recently, Green and Blacks. It is not especially British either  - it operates in sixty countries and employs eight times the number of staff abroad that it does in the UK. Nor is it a more 'caring' business than any other - the days of the philanthropic Quaker Cadbury brothers building a 'new model' town for their workers and donating to the hardship fund of striking engineers are long gone.

The real reason that the Cadburys sell off is depressing is not sentimental at all, it is a salutary reminder that under capitalism the only moral imperative is to maximize the value of a business for the shareholders. As Todd Sitzer, the Caburys' executive who negotiated the £11.9 billion  sale said; he was sorry that there might be job losses but his ultimate duty was solely to his shareholders. Whilst trousering some £12million for himself in the process.

The two groups who don't figure in this equation are of course the Cadburys workers and the customers.

Much has been made of Cadbury's Somerdale factory being saved from closure by the takeover. We'll see. Multinationals like Kraft do not generally take over other multinationals in order to save jobs. Given the £7billion debt incurred by the deal for the already debt-heavy Kraft, it is not surprising that they have declared that they are looking to 'make significant savings'.

As for the consumer, the drive to cut costs, as it has in every  other sector, will only dilute quality - a process already under way when Cadburys started adding vegetable fats to their chocolate. I suspect this particular race to the bottom will only accelerate now; the new owners  already manufacture a variety of some of the most disgusting foods know to man ...

Monday, 18 January 2010

Aspirations ?

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the US. The commemoration of someone who articulated the hopes and dreams of so many seems like an apt time to reflect on the lack of inspiration from our current leaders.

Labour firmly nailed its electoral colours to the mast the other day when it apparently staked out (again) the middle classes and middle England as its natural constituency. After dabbling in past weeks with some class politics, in the 'Cameron-is-a-toff-shocker,' and then the 'maybe-class-is-now-more-important-than-race-revelation'; they have decided to fight the election on an 'aspirational' platform.

I hate their mis-appropriation of the word 'aspirational'.

Martin Luther King telling us that he had a dream is aspirational - wanting a bigger car, a bigger house, a plasma tv and a flashy holiday is not - it's just materialistically and socially ambitious.  Of course there's nothing wrong with that -  and the working class are just as entitled to want any of  these things as the middle class - but it does not constitute a political vision.

Or if it does, then it is a euphemism for a  mean-spirited individualist vision where inevitably 'better'  means not better than you have now, but better than the family next door. It's tempting to call  it post-Thatcherism but it is much older than that - Guizot's 'enrichez-vous' rallying call to the wannabe middle class pre-dates the 'Essex man' phenomenon by a century. Then as now it  wasn't about getting 'on', but getting 'above'.

There's no problem with being aspirational but how about aspiring to something a bit more worthy as the grandiose vision of a political party ?  A decent education for all, the very best free health care from cradle to grave,  proper and affordable housing, real jobs and careers for young people, and dignity and care for the elderly. Just for starters.

Ambitions that are a  bit less like  Guizot (and Thatcher, and Blair) and a bit more like  Scottish Socialist John Maclean 'rising with our class not above it'.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Haiti - apparently Jesus hates black self-emancipation & anti-imperialism

Yes you heard that right from the mouth of former Republican candidate, TV evangelist and general bigoted fuck-wit Pat Robertson: God has punished Haiti with an earthquake because two hundred years ago they made a pact with the devil when fighting against French colonialism and slavery.

Apart from a seriously sick and fucked-up twist on divine vengeance and human suffering Robertson displays an unsurprising lack of historical knowledge around Toussaint L'Ouverture and his inspirational struggle for freedom: This was waged not as he seems to think against Napoleon III, but sixty years earlier against the distinctly 'un-godly' Jacobins of the French Republic. He's also a bit confused as to why Haiti and the Dominican Republic are two separate countries. (I suspect though he was trying to make some reference to Voodoo - but who knows ... or even cares). Cunt.

For a rather saner and more compassionate analysis of the tragic situation in Haiti, have a look at this piece over at Socialist World. Disasters such as this tend to be presented as being 'above politics' - but politics are at the heart of the suffering. I suggest you read the piece to understand the context - and then do something practical to help the situation by donating here.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Our Silver Non-Wedding

Today it's the 25th anniversary of  Mrs Journeyman and myself not actually being married.

The more Catholic part of my family have done some mental acrobatics to pretend that we've been married all along - as if having had a wedding that they weren't invited to is the lesser of two evils in comparison to having 'lived in sin' for all this time.

Catholicism taught me that marriage was a 'sacrament' - just like holy orders and the last rites. So my reaction to my religious upbringing was  a major factor for me in choosing not to get married.

Another was the history of the institution of marriage: It only really caught on with the  establishment of Western Capitalism, property rights, and the ruling class forcing their own social conventions  into the private lives of the rest of us.  Before then, for those of us who weren't property owners there was a much more flexible attitude to marriage -  without  estates and  inheritances to worry  about - official 'legitimization'  didn't matter that much.

Trial periods of pre-marriage co-habitation were accepted, and many of the poorer sections of society simply couldn't afford to marry. In fact even the medieval Catholic Church recognised 'de-facto marriages' without a wedding ceremony. All  this is is the origin of the modern misnomer of the 'common law' marriage - before it was decided that everything had to be done by the statute book - and officially recorded.

And personally I just had a natural  reaction that my love life was none of the state's business . I think this was a pretty common attitude amongst those of us who grew up post the 1960's social revolution. It was Thatcher's children growing up on Posh & Becks and the  OK magazine wedding phenomenon that revived marriage amongst a younger generation.

This week just  one look at  the vocal pro-marriage lobby is enough to confirm my opinion: Whether it's Cameron promising to bribe us with tax breaks to bring back Tory family values or the exposure of the hateful and  hypocritical  First Minister and First Lady of Northern Ireland - the Robinsons.

I prefer to take Bob Dylan as my guide: ' 'to live outside the law you need to be honest'. I'm grateful for what we have - it seems to work - and bollocks to the inland revenue.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Fashion for bikers (yes really)

Given that my eldest daughter recently described my dress sense as that of a 'homeless hillbilly' I may be an unlikely person to blog on anything remotely to do with fashion.

Much as we would hate to admit it - bikers - like any other sub-culture have a dress code. And it changes over time so you could call it fashion. For example when I started out back in the 80's mullet haircuts, leather jeans with thong-lacing down the side and tassel-fringe jackets were perfectly acceptable - nowadays they are definitely not. And much as we would like to claim that it's all about function not form - it isn't - otherwise we'd all go around dressed like couriers in sensible day-glo armoured  jackets and rubber derry-boots.

Personally I like vintage things -  planes, trains, automobiles, books, watches, furniture, buildings  - and bikes. And I like vintage-ish clothes.  In  biking terms this tend to mean  anything that is practical for motorcycling but isn't actually purpose-made for motorcycling: Traditional work boots, dark jeans, plaid shirts and a variety of jackets. Leather, canvas, cotton, wool - not  nylon, gortex or plastic. Throw in some old-school accessories, like chain-wallets and bandannas and, however much it might be embarrassing  to admit, we have a distinct look.

I like to think that there is something  serious underlying this  general vintage thing ; a  harking back to a more innocent  age of craftsmanship when things were built to a standard rather than a price. Maybe it's a subconscious rejection of a throwaway consumer culture. In specific biking  terms an age  when motorcycling was an everyday activity done in everyday clothes not a 'leisure activity' that you had to dress up specially for.

Or maybe it's just because it looks cool.

Anyway I've had a quest for the ultimate vintage jacket for a while. Now thanks to ebay I've got an A2 flying jacket, a Schott leather jacket, a replica tankers' jacket and an original US navy deck jacket. I've decided that my preference is with the last one - which I got a few weeks ago - it's warm, almost waterproof and just about knackered enough. The only thing is that it's slightly too snug a fit over a big jumper.

So I have just extravagantly brought another slightly larger one on ebay - for £15. I'm happy  - but the rest of the family think I'm bonkers. 

(Disclaimer: Sadly I  look nothing  like Paul Newman shown wearing the same jacket).

Monday, 4 January 2010

New Year Dishonours

When sad old aging rockers /variety acts - like Rick Parfitt and Francis Rossi of Status Quo  - are included in the New Years' Honours List then it is easy to dismiss the whole thing as  farcical and comic. At worst yet another instance of our antiquated state - quaint if increasingly irrelevant.

But when Cressida Dick is included - the senior police officer in charge of the Charles De Menizes shooting scandal - there is something downright fucking outrageous going on. The inquiry may have exonerated her from criminal responsibility but it still found that the whole operation was mismanaged - so it is difficult to see in what possible sense an award could be merited.

In fact it is impossible to conclude that this is anything other than the state sticking two fingers up at its critics - in the most insensitive and offensive way it can.

It's ironic that the concept of 'honours' is involved at all: If 'honour' had played any part then Dick should have very publicly  fallen on her sword (or possibly truncheon ?) - even now she could have  quietly declined the award. The front-line CO19 officer  tasked with pulling the trigger at least had the decency to break down whilst giving evidence at the inquiry. Meanwhile Dick who directed the operation from the safety of a command room merely tried to worm her way out of  responsibility ... for which she now has the Queens Police Medal.