2017 in History: The Cockroach and the Bee

New Year’s Eve likes to fool you into feeling cautiously optimistic.

That optimism is, of course, relative to that which we’ve waded through to make it through those twelve months previous. So on the last day of 2016, some might have thought “maybe 2017 wouldn’t be as bad as this one.”

Whoops.

I

john redwood two

Two millennia from now, the archaeologists and archivists of the hyper-intelligent irradiated cockroach people uncover evidence of 2017, and after copious analysis, come to view it as a seminal year in the coming of their Megaloblatta-Sapiens race.

From the vantage point of their compound eyes, the debates of the day, such as how many North Koreans is it morally acceptable to incinerate, or whether it is wrong to punch a Nazi (a question which reckons a priori that it’s ok to be a Nazi), seem moot or trivial. All must be incinerated, after all, to achieve the supremacy of the mandible.

Their museums trumpet the self-destruction of the human race. Adorning the 2017 gallery walls are their heroes of our age.

The paedophile judge almost elected to a Senate that steadfastly clung to the notion that they were once something more than but the guardians of a phallic ivory hierarchy. The false cowboy’s failure allowed them to delude themselves for another, fatal year, as the floor fell from under their feet.

A cabinet commemorating the orange wigs and boot polish that decorated the year’s Halloween festivities, and yet more pretty little tricksters charming their way out of the ooze – another “change” candidate.

Ah, the Britain exhibit. Sir Nick Clegg. Knighted for services to something – lost to the ages, no doubt. Sir Ringo, the great historian of tank engines, and the days folk could afford rail. Barry Gibb got one too. I suppose in the end times, you get points just for stayin’ alive.

Loyalty is valuable, but our lives are valuable too

There is much chuckling below chitin among patrons as they look back at us steaming headlong into the ravine, distracting ourselves with royal weddings, royal babies, royal Netflix, and royal racism scandals. And how dare they blame us? But for a little escapism, what joy was left us outside of the pharmacy. And lo, the greatest distraction of all, Europe. All eyes looked to the channel trying to work out what it meant to be British, whilst all eyes looked down in Kensington, avoiding the stare of those cremated in their homes because the tower block was deemed too unsightly.

Does it look better now?

Our dear patrons may then scuttle on through to a cinematic rendition of 2017’s finest quotes, courtesy of the rape apologists and baby demagogues, now widely accessible on the vast online archive humanity’s ghost left behind. According to Prof. Blaberoid the Hisser, eminent human historian, these virtual sabre-tongues mimicked the behaviour of their all-powerful leaders, who enjoyed an unprecedented period of rubbing the vomit of their impervious corruption into the faces of those who dared challenge them.

Pol. Pot. Pol. Pot. Pol. Pot. Pol. Pot.

And the wrong words make you listen

Humanity doomed itself in this quagmire, the professor explains on the latest edition of the Gregarious FM podcast. The situation reached critical mass around these figures, who sucked in all challenges, spitting out mercury and lead into the brains of all who listened. Many ducked for cover, their already-fragile minds could not stand another hit. Others chose noble hills upon which to perish, but this was no age for martyrs, and such warriors were dragged to their doom by another barrage of fascist incomprehension (or else stabbed in the back) – they lay in graves unmark’d, with legacies stolen and diluted. With their would-be challengers now scattered and divided, it was only a matter of time before these rat-king leaders turned upon one another.

The intellectuals emerged from their fox-holes, temporarily, to look aloof upon the massacre, pondering only where all the millennial poets went.

 

II

bee.png

As for me, I started the year attending the cremation of a friend, who fell because we could not break his fall, and ended it getting robbed, so you can forgive my cynical tone.

In between, I’ve been looking for something. Strength, defiance, hope. On darker days, it can feel like hopes fade into prayers or delusions. When there’s nothing else out there, that is still a great deal. At the start of the year, bereft, I looked back at the dust-covered words of Obama’s ostracised pastor Jeremiah Wright. The audacity of hope – it sometimes requires a fantastic imagination or a leap of faith. But somehow, I’ve got to stay grounded, or else I lead myself toward further disappointment.

Elsewhere, I just tried to take a moment, and make sense of it all, looking for comparisons in the past to try and understand the ostensible chaos of the present (like with Catalonia and Kosovo), or staring at the sun long enough to gain some blind understanding (“What a time to be alive”).

I’ve got to write it down, but I’m still getting educated

More often though, I’ve been trying to find strength to stand up when feeling particularly helpless or lost, in those who have done it all before. In the old punks who rocked against racism, or John Fitch, who witnessed first-hand a horrific disaster and dedicated his life to see that such things cannot repeat themselves.

There are two things that have kept me going these last few months. The first is through seeking meaning in the death of my friend, or more accurately, meaning in his life. I’ve been holding on tightly to what made him proud of me, and what I admired in him, and trying to keep it alive daily.

I’ve got to write it down, and it won’t be forgotten

The other, I remember well, was walking to work on the 23rd May, seeing all the bees. The Manchester bees. I have always called it the Bin Wasp, because before this I usually came across the winged mascot on the street bins of Manchester streets.

I did not want to leave the house that day, because I was scared. Like everybody else, I felt vulnerable that a place I knew well, a place I walked by every week, had been the scene of such horror. And like many brown folk in England that day, I feared the looks, the reprisal, the armed police, the misplaced suspicion. All I saw that day in my adopted city were bees. Rejecting the lot. That’s the way I chose to look at it, that day. People feeling vulnerable together, finding strength together, in each other. I was reminded of something I read when teaching the Freedom Summer.

“When we sing ‘We are not afraid,’ we mean we are afraid. We sing ‘Ain’t gonna let my fear turn me round,’ because many of you might want to turn around now.”

Strength in the past, strength in the present. Sometimes it’s important not to seek too much solace in history, or fear too greatly a roach-infested future. And I think about the best moments of the year gone by – teaching my seminars, going to the test match with a good friend, bidding friends farewell as they set off for new jobs, new homes, or new adventures. Spending time with the people I love, be it in the cinema, a fancy dress party, or sat on a sofa in Manchester somewhere. Whatever else next year holds, I hope for more instants like this.

For in the event, that this fantastic voyage should turn to erosion, and we never get old, we can always hold close the very best moments in even the worst of years.

(Disclaimer. I actually think cockroaches are neat)

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“In these days of evil Presidentes” – Punk and Fascism

i will be.png

Punk nostalgia is back. This age is ripe for it, as there’s a whole host of reasons for people to be frustrated and angry,  particularly for the young among us, as opportunities diminish. its the best yearsThere’s something very punk, after all, about tearing down a goading monument to those who wished you in shackles.

let fury have the hour

There’s something very ’76 about now, and it makes a lot of sense for people to draw from a moment where people were moved by art, music and fashion to stand up for themselves. In 2017 I’ve often kept London Calling in my earphones, blasting out Clampdown for inspiration, for strength.

But there’s also something in punk that embodies the mass appeal of manifest right-wing hate, which is once again loose, having bubbled for years. There’s something “punk” about donning a swastika, for shock or for awe.

Nostalgia observed through blinders can be a dangerous thing. Young(er) punks like me came to the culture at its nadir, and knew it as a scene that welcomed anyone and everyone so long as you shared its passion, its strip-it-down catharsis, and its tolerance. Its British origin story is dominated by the memory of the Pistols and the Clash – between anarchy and socialism – between the expression of ‘70s working class feeling and those who tried to channel that anger into a revolutionary riot.

Something’s missing here. The memory of this spirit of ’76 is incomplete. Punk is (and was) polarisation writ loud, a centrifugal splattering of all things, an explosion of possibilities and frustrations. It was the creation of a new voice, but it was also in its founding moments a REACTION against the tame, the overblown, and the delusionary. Sometimes wonderful things can be produced, when the centre fails to hold. You talk to the old punks now, and their recollections lack the political romance us third-gen Clash disciples ascribe to that moment.

There always was in punk a leftist appeal, and the movement quickly developed an activist wing, exemplified by the famous Rock Against Racism carnivals of ’78. Yet so much more washed through the maelstrom of punk. No punk would have been even slightly surprised when John Lydon backed Trump and Brexit.

Many of the old guard insist that punk was not a political event. I’ve seen this often in response to accusations from Johnny-come-lately historian types that punk “didn’t do enough” to oppose racism and the rising fascist tide of the late ‘70s.

Were they supposed to?

As it turned out, due to the movement’s initial actions and the turmoil of the late-70s, punk rockers had to deal with the Nazis within, whether they wanted to or not.

 

all over

So declared Strummer in the 1977 reggae-inspired track “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais”, which railed at both the punk and pop reggae scenes for ignoring the racial inequality and bubbling white supremacy in the streets of late-70s London. Its iconoclasm is a sign that Strummer felt isolated in his views within the scene, rather than an embodiment of punk ethics. Indeed, the Clash’s political articulation was inspired as much by the activist reggae – the roots, rock, rebel – of Marley, Cliff, Tosh and Marvin than elsewhere. More than anything, Strummer was moved by black activism in West London embodied in the scorched streets of the ’76 summer and the Notting Hill carnivaliants’ response to police abuse that year. In (White Man), he took aim at his punk contemporaries –

thenew groups

– and particularly targeted The Jam, who famously worked to tear down the established order by encouraging their fans to vote Conservative (a call Paul Weller later regretted).

burton

Upon whose shoulders falls the responsibility to take on the fascists?

It’s another weird quirk of history to remember that Thatcher cast herself as the “change” candidate in late-70s Britain- when the lights were going out, in millions of homes and thousands of flats, guarded by the growing garbage monuments of discontent.

going out

Then as now, the Tory presses spammed the notion that the turmoil was caused by Jack Jones and the corrupt trade unionists, and an overblown public sector protected by Jim Callaghan’s faltering government (ignore Callaghan’s significant and pioneering privatisation, that’s just Fake News). Thatcher would return order, trim the fat, get Britain working again (three million would soon be unemployed). It was a lucrative line of attack for the Tories, to paint Labour as luddites, clinging on to an overgrown, stagnant way of life, whilst suggesting that turning the clock back to Victorian England was somehow a path to progress (wonder if they’ll try that trick again). To Weller’s comparative moddish-punk mind, the Tory claim sat neatly to what punk meant to many – back to basics, to chord and melody, away from the inaccessible self-indulgence of prog’s excesses. The stars aligned.

jamservative

The Conservatives of course baulked at punk’s brashness. It was too unstable an element, made of too many unreliable parts, to conform to any confined ideology, let alone the sensitive prudishness of old-school Toryism. The Pistols had already taken good care of that before punk really took off.

god save

The Pistols were delirious gunmen, shooting wildly into a crowd at anything they could take down a notch. What politics you might gauge from this manufactured nihilism depends entirely on when you freeze the frame.

But there was plenty political about the Pistols, and the Ramones and the Dolls and this strip it down approach. Punk is challenging at its very core. It insists on denying anybody authority on knowledge. It hates lecturers, soapboxers and pedants – punk’s orators are instead conduits of feeling and frustration. It’s dimed out, all in. Like reggae, punk is a small axe. Ready to cut you down.

But first up, it was about marketing shock factor. Malcolm Maclaren, Bernie Rhodes and proto-punk’s executive vice-presidents saw fame and fortune in tearing it up in a blitzkrieg of taboo. Sid Vicious and Siouxie Sioux painted themselves in swastikas – and they were not alone. At this point, Mick Jones and Tony James had formed a proto-punk band, managed by Bernie Rhodes. Their Jewish manager sat the kids round the table, and opened an envelope full of red armbands, white circles and clockwise gammadian crosses. The band were to be called the “London SS”, declared Rhodes.

“We hadn’t thought at all about the Nazi implications. It just seemed a very anarchic, stylish thing to do.”

siioxsevec

Siouxsie and the Banshees: Source punk77.co.uk

The Thin White Duke. Source: Birmingham Mail

 

Stylish indeed. Fascism was the contemporary look of innovative, chameleonic trend-catalyser and punk inspiration David Bowie, then posing as the Thin White Duke. His Duchy was cocaine-driven ramblings, “theatrical” Nazi salutes and Hitler-loving commentaries. The Duke claimed he was “clowning”, holding up a mirror to English society. There was plenty of fascism in ’76 to reflect back upon him, after all.

Nowadays, we know Bowie was not a well man during this phase. Regardless, Nazi chique was IN, and infectiously marketed. Like teenage shoplifters, punks quickly tried to see just how much they could get away with. In the North, a band called “The Moors Murderers” came together. It is said that Chrissie Hynde briefly played guitar for them. They tried to release a song called “Free Hindley” but, thankfully, punk had found its limits on the opposing side of serial killer apologism. They were ostracised, and soon disbanded.

Soon after the Pistols triggered the Big Bang of British Punk, sub-cultures began to solidify underneath the hollow shells of the Pistols’ anarchic edgelordic imagery. The Clash took the lead as Britain’s foremost socialist rockers, whilst bands such as The Slits and X-Ray Specs carved out a forthright women’s voice in punk, joined by Crass (who usually mixed genders on vocals), especially on their 1981 LP Penis Envy (banned by HMV, and confiscated from shops by Greater Manchester Police).

Crass became pioneers of the burgeoning anarcho-punk set, drawing from, of all things, hippie counter-culture (the traitors) to make their brand of anarchy into something more than just a chaotic veneer. Anarcho-punk then fired itself back across the Atlantic, especially finding voice in the Dead Kennedys (note the name), who mixed up Southparkian college-boy shock humour with sophisticated leftist critiques and infectious hardcore energy, resulting in classic tracks like “Holiday in Cambodia” and “Let’s Lynch the Landlord.”

There is something essentially egalitarian about punk, and it rapidly drew in left-wing spirit with every breath. “When I saw the Pistols I suddenly realised I wasn’t alone in the fact that I couldn’t play…I felt inferior, but when I saw the Pistols I thought it was great, because it just suddenly struck me that it didn’t have to matter.” Punk is participatory, punk is democratic. Punk is a leveller.

crass

Crass. Source: Pinterest

Lefty punk was in full swing, but it was not alone, and was severely tangled up in punk’s other fan clubs. Although Weller quickly binned his braindead Thatcherism, and Jones and Rhodes threw out their swastikas, right-wing punk was, and still is, a massive thing. Longstanding punk rockers Misfits make no secret of their conservativism, though their efforts to organise online through conservativepunk.com (in response to Fat Mike’s 2004 punkvoter.com and Rock Against Bush) was about as successful as Moggmentum – may it never zombify.

Nazi-sympathisers quickly latched on to punk’s anger and energy and correctly saw it as a useful conduit of hate. Fascist punk was born quickly and grew quickly, its path to the off-limits nuked by punk’s pioneers. Lefty punks were guilty too – Strummer’s early celebration of black activism in London, in which he called for an extension of its spirit across Britain, was very unfortunately given the name “White Riot” (Joe would get better). Punk’s roots in whiteness were solidified by such statements, as well as those such as Elvis Costello and Jello Biafra who liberally used the n-word (I don’t fucking care how ironic you are, keep that word off your tongues). White punks still do it – nothing is off-limits, remember.

Fascism was in vogue in politics as well as in style. Enoch Powell’s shadow cast itself across the nation, and NF boots were marching in earnest. Thatcher would later herself tap into this manifestation, driven above all by the pursuit of votes. This rise was reflected in the fears and angers of leftish punk voices – Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces record was obsessed, fascinated and terrified by fascism.

elvis

Punk went centrifugal. It’s a movement that resists organisation, and embraces forceful contradiction. As the winter grew discontented, gigs increasingly saw violence overwhelmingly instigated by stormtrooper wannabes. Crass – blinded by flower power – decried the violence “on both sides” against evidence to the contrary, and with it sold much of their punk ethic down river.

The fighting at Crass gigs was happening in dive bars and music halls across the nation. The NF targeted the punk movement early on. The white working classes were finding their voice, and the fascists wished them to speak in time with the march of their boots. The way in, they decided, was Oi! – the punk of punk – a rebellion to the art school anarchists of the first wave. Oi! and its pioneers were less interested in statements, whether out of ideology or image, and more in talking about the things that went on in their daily lives. They were Saturday’s Kids, and in some ways, a punk by fans for fans.

Oi! was pretty masculine, and it went hand in hand with football factionalism and the resurgent skinhead movements – gigs were often a violent crossroads between punks, skins and rival firms. That’s when the NF got involved in a big way. The fascists had already started infiltrating football firms, and next stop were the skins and the punks. Oi! was their target, but for the large part failed miserably in their attempts to recruit any bands, with the latter exception of Blackpool flops Skrewdriver, who reformed in the ‘80s under the banner of White Power. Instead, they formed their own groups (household names like The Dentists and The Ventz) with the express wish to draw punks and skins into their circle of hell.

This didn’t go too well, either, so they instead tried to recruit existing fan groups. Sham 69, for a short time Britain’s biggest punk band, were top of their list. The Hersham Boys, bursting out of the deprived part of Surrey that nobody ever talks about, were distilled male youth, rage and joy wrapped in a southern snarl. Frontman Jimmy Pursey commanded great loyalty amongst his fans, and in turn he valued them dearly. They were huge among football kids, especially Hammers fans, and Sham gigs soon found themselves swamped by Nazis, seig heiling in the cauldron of noise.

This was different to Siouxie’s swastika.

The art-punk’s Nazi imagery created the initial association between punk and fascism, and the idea that the scene could be fertile terrain for NF recruitment. Now the Nazis had succeeded in wrapping Sham in far-right rhetoric, never espoused by the band or their music. Pursey himself was soon tarred with the fascist brush. He was loathe to condemn his fans, many adoring, for any dabbling in fascism. Not all Sham fans went this way, and he was to an extent sympathetic with those who found false solace in hate.

Pursey’s initial inaction led him to be seen by some as a poster boy of Nazi punk. In an interview, Joy Division (whose name originates from Nazism) defended the band’s etymology by pointing the finger at Pursey – “Everyone calls us Nazis…but compared to Jimmy Pursey, who is an out-and-out racist…Nobody can remember the beginning of Sham 69 and the things he said then.” (PS I can’t find any quotes that support this. @ me if you have some).

Others, such as Gareth Holder of the Shapes, hated him for failing to protect his fans from the fascists. “That idiot Pursey had his head so far up his own arse it wasn’t true. He just didn’t want to deal with it. He’d be singing “If the Kids are United” and the whole fucking place would be a war zone while he was doing it.”

This tactic was not shared by some of the Oi! Bands. The Cockney Rejects took matters into their own hands, by beating the shit out of the Nazis who threatened them. “We weren’t going to have it,” remembered Stinky Turner. “We just went down and absolutely slaughtered them. We declared to them that if they ever set foot where we were again, we’d decimate them.” Pursey, like Crass, wasn’t into violence. But things were getting serious at Sham gigs. Nazis were rushing the stage.

Jimmy had a choice to make, as did the whole punk movement. Where did it stand? Decision time came when Red Saunders approached him to be the face of Rock Against Racism. RAR was formed after Eric Clapton, who made millions out of covering Bob Marley, declared that Enoch Powell “was right.” RARs founders could see the infiltration of far-right ideas into pop music, they could see the Thin White Duke, Sid’s gammadia, and Costello’s n-bombs, and they saw the connection between these incidents and the trouble at Sham gigs.

rar

Rock Against Racism March. 1978. Source: UKrockfestivals.com

Saunders knew exactly what he was doing. There was no point headlining with The Clash, that wouldn’t surprise anyone. Saunders had to get to the core of the power of the anger, the essence of punk’s loud expression of strip-it-down radicalism.

It had to be Sham, it had to be Pursey. If we could get Sham to take the stage and denounce racism, it could mortally wound the NF’s entrance into the punk scene.

Pursey agreed. He took the stage at Victoria Park with the Reggae band Steel Pulse, at the end of the festival, which was preceded by a massive march through London, protesting the threat of the far-right. For this, Sham got death threats, and Pursey lost his nerve. He pulled out of the RAR sequel at Brockwell – that was, until some kid approached him on the tube and told him he’d got no balls. This one finally landed. The next day, Pursey stood up to be counted.

syd shelton pursey

Syd Shelton captures Pursey, determined, on stage at Brockwell. Source: Guardian

RAR was a big success. It was so far removed from the overblown Bono-infected live aid shite. This was a rally with direct action at its heart – a mission to root out racism from Rock & Roll, an art form rooted in African-American expression, and take on the far right in London and elsewhere. RAR went on tour to the provincial towns. From then on, the NF were never able to grasp hold of punk, retreating into the scene’s darkest corners. It held a foothold among the skins, but was barely able to transmit its voice through song.

RAR could not, however, undermine the association between punk and fascism. Perhaps punk will always house fascists, doomed by its initial “artistic choices”, or its amplification of white working-class anger, too often misinterpreted as, or reduced to, fascistic. Perhaps because punk exists essentially in tension, dancing on the volcano of human emotion and expression.

For my part, escaping to (often terrible, often class) punk gigs as a kid, I felt I was going somewhere where no-one could ever hurt me, where the well of human hatred ran shallow and dry. A place that valued thinking for yourself. For me, punk remains a place of catharsis and a source of strength to hold firm against the 2017-vintage fascists. But in this place, as within any temple of inclusion, there is a line to be drawn quickly and decisively against the creeping hatred of our age. As Jimmy Pursey discovered, there’s no time to equivocate, and no valour in it either.

Better to deal with those who wish you dead the way the Cockney Rejects did,

or Red Saunders.

Or, as Jello Biafra put it years ago,

nazi

Recognising Kosovo*

dav

On Friday, the Catalan Parliament unilaterally declared independence from Spain. Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy responded by dismissing Catalan premier Carlos Puigdemont, and imposing direct rule on the region.

It’s hard to say what will happen next, but it is very likely that Catalonia is in for a rough ride as it seeks self-determination. Rajoy has shown he isn’t afraid to spray and pepper rubber bullets along Las Ramblas. The USA, the EU, France, Germany and the UK have all said they will not recognise an independent Catalonia. The reaction of others will likely shape what place Catalonia would take if it enters the world stage, solo.

The last European country to take the plunge was Kosovo. On 17th February 2008, it announced it had split from Serbia and was now going it alone.

Catalonia is not Kosovo. The circumstances are very different. But the response of the nations of Earth to Kosovo highlights how the recognition of new nations has far more to it than the situation itself in the region in question.

 

No, Never, Not in a Million Years

Kosovo independence

Source: Telegraph

Many nations have viewed Kosovo’s declaration with vanity, fear and loathing. Might Kosovo’s audacity encourage dastardly separatists within our own borders?

WE CANNOT ALLOW THIS!

Nations with diverse regions that varied cultures, languages, religions and fortunes have been especially vulnerable to this way of thinking, as are those whose borders hid ancient tensions brushed under the rugs of history. Spain sits in both categories, and refuses to recognise Kosovo. On the record, this stance is in stern defence of international law and the UN Charter. Spain, as it showed the other week, takes such things very seriously. It is a poorly-kept secret that it is worried that Catalonia and the Basque Country might call foul on any concession to a secessionist movement outside of Spanish borders. In 2012, Rajoy even said that Spain refuses to recognise Kosovo because “it is what suits the general interest of the Spanish.”  The way things are going in the Pyrenean shadows, don’t expect a birthday card from Madrid soon, Pristina.

They weren’t alone in this. China, Argentina, Israel. Moldova, Georgia, Cyprus. Many of these ghosting characters are linked by their involvement in what some call “Frozen Conflict Zones” – geographical war hangovers – unresolved political disputes permafrosted upon land, homes, societies. They might have longstanding claims upon groups that have sought to govern themselves as autonomous, or else might be part of a geographical tug-o-war with another nation-state over the sovereignty of a region, whose own ideas of to which flag they pledge their allegiance are but a sub-plot. Imperial borders were often drawn on sand, and reinforced only by the bayonet. Sudanese or Yugoslav fractures exhibit what can happen when the coercive rug of the metropole is pulled out from under foot. A conglomerate state like China views separatism with great caution.

And the Kingdom of Spain? Founded under the marriage of Castile and Aragon. Strengthened in the inquisition and expulsion of those not bound to Christ. Made rich by Cortes’ sword that cut open golden Aztec veins, but eventually chased back into Iberia by forces that left Spain in dust. Perhaps, for many a Spanish patriot, a Catalonian schism would represent the last act in this retreat, a final nail in Spain’s imperial coffin, the confirmation that their pride in a nation past is no longer present.

Why hang onto a nation, for nostalgia’s sake?

 

This fence I’m sitting on is really comfortable…

Artsakh – Source: news.am

The region of Artzakh is currently drawn on the Azerbaijani map. It is 95% Armenian, and its flag resembles the Armenian banner, altered by a thick brush on Microsoft Paint (RIP). Formerly known as Nagorno-Karabakh, it essentially rules itself. Azerbaijan, however, has not recognised it, and it is therefore unsurprising that it has turned a blind eye to the Republic of Kosovo as well. What’s weirder is that Armenia hasn’t recognised Artzakh or Kosovo either.

Geopolitical allegiances have a huge part to play in the recognition of nations. There’s quite a club of countries that has refused to acknowledge Kosovo out of respect to its good ol’ pal, Serbia. Some of these might be expected, such as Belarus or Cyprus. But perhaps others might surprise you. Algeria, Angola, the DRC, for example.

“We are our Mountains” – Artsakh. Source: Armenpress.am

Who knew Serbia had so many friends?

Again, we cannot forget how the very existence of Kosovo reverberates back onto so many nations with fragile pasts. Alongside, some nations may wish to tread carefully to avoid stoking Serbia’s gigantic neighbour to the northeast. Armenia, for example, publicly welcomed Kosovo’s step, but avoided granting an official welcome to the family of nations so as not to irritate Azerbaijan, Russia, or Artzakh. Better to recognise everybody at once, rather than pick and choose.

In other cases, the decision not to recognise may be guided by nowt but a noble sense of loyalty to the Serbs,
which is sweet kosovo text 1
if perhaps not the romantic gesture one would like to see in the realm of high global politics, where blind loyalty to anything can get you up all sorts of creeks.

On the other hand, some of Kosovo’s earliest friends benefited from its independence, alongside those who sincerely believed in its self-determination. The USA and the UK quickly backed it up, alongside much of NATO, having played a key part in the Kosovan war and the defeat of Milosevic.

Legacy management 101 – look! What a lovely intervention! We made a state out of it, dontyaknow.

If Catalonia goes it alone, it might find friends in odd places, and gain unexpected enemies. A lot of this may have little to do with Catalonia itself.

 

I’ll do it this afternoon!

Flags yes

All those who have recognised Kosovo.

That brings us to our last group. Those who haven’t quite got round to it yet. The most recent country to recognise Kosovo was Bangladesh, in February of this year. There has been a steady trickle of recognitions after the initial flurry of ’08. As of October 2017, 111 countries consider Kosovo a sovereign nation. This tally matters. Some nations, including Spain, have in the past often justified their refusal by noting how few nations had done the deed. The higher that figure goes, the less valid that argument has become. In recent years, some nations have recognised Kosovo declaring that they have changed their minds over the matter, or else citing that the trend has changed in favour of Kosovan independence and they don’t want to miss out before all the good yoyos have been bought.

This change has allowed Kosovo to find its feet somewhat on the international stage, helped somewhat by the backing of large swathes of NATO and the EU, and the USA. Although Serbia officially still considers Kosovo part of its territory, it has largely accepted the 2013 Brussels Agreement between the two groups and has largely normalised relations with Kosovo. This has allowed Kosovo to participate more easily in UN activities, albeit often placed with an asterisk next to its name, to give the word “Kosovo*” a dual symbolism, representing either –

the Republic of Kosovo,

or

Kosovo, a really really autonomous part of Serbia

– depending on your persuasion. Even Russia has softened its stance, although this has much to do with its activities in South Ossetia, and in the Crimean Peninsula, wherein Moscow argued that if Kosovo had the right to unilaterally declare self-determination, so too did the Crimea (which was of course, unilateral. No Russians here, what Russians, where?)

kosovo text 2Perhaps the remaining collection of nations are merely waiting for the herd to decide when it will cross the river. Perhaps they’ve got better things to do, or more important things to worry about, than recognising a diminutive, landlocked nation in South-East Europe. The weight of numbers, however, is very important in a nation’s journey to global recognition. Certain nations, such as the USA or Russia, are triple word scores.

 

Lines in the dirt

Source: World Atlas

It might all sound like a board game played on a 1:1 scale map. But the verbal barrages can so quickly beget rubber bullets, and rubber can soon itself turn to lead. Some may understandably point toward the fear that nations may continue to exponentially slice themselves in two, on ethnicity, religion, history, or economics (ever since 2008, for example, there has been talk that the Serbian-dominated North Kosovo may seek autonomy from Pristina). Is it only empire, they might ask, that forces communities to co-exist and intertwine?

Others may look at how the world is growing increasingly uncertain at the same time as it pulls itself closer together through technology and the border-sapping forces of neoliberalism. Groups may look out at the window at the gathering clouds and think, at this instance, it’s better to go at it alone.

Or maybe it’s all too facile to think that another line in the dirt, this time between Barcelona and Madrid, will necessarily lead to further divisions in a fracturing Europe. Kosovo’s ongoing journey to recognition shows that there’s a great deal going on under the surface in any separatist movement, and its burgeoning relationships with the world outside. Perhaps Kosovo shows that most nations are more concerned with what separatism might represent than what it actually causes.

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Those who have not recognised Kosovo, or are yet to do so.

Perhaps we should be less wed to the notion of the permanence of borders. Perhaps it is just as parochial to insist that the map remains the same as it looked when we were children than to draw new lines and erase others.

Some borders, such as along the shore of the Etang Saumâtre between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, change daily as the water levels rise and fall. There are many still disputed. Some are deliberately porous, others are guarded with lethal force, or else are to be marked by great walls. But even the most ancient of borders have crumbled many times. Human societies never sit still. Nearly every society in history has been host to travellers, migrants and traders, explorers and conquerors alike, who continually puncture or remodel the little barriers we like to draw between ourselves.

“What a Time to be Alive”

 

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The current Rustler’s microwavable meat advert depicts a bloke who is sat at his bland table in his bland living room, about to have dinner. He’s in the November of his years, closer to St Andrew than Guy Fawkes, and as he reaches for his snack, his life flashes before his eyes. It is a life unfulfilled and failed, where every dream is a lie, and every hope rescinds upon him, jading him ever further. Every cultural and political movement is but a moment in time, a spark of promise quickly extinguished. Beaten at school, waiting in line in soup kitchens, beaten by police batons in ‘60s peace marches, bored and jaded from then on. No other fad or movement would awaken him again. Until now. You see, it was ok that this struggle was pointless, because along the way somebody figured out that you could irradiate a soggy roll encompassing a lump of indeterminable meat to an acceptable temperature, cutting down dinner preparation time by up to half an hour. What a time to be alive.

The advert is called “80 years of torment.” I guess it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek but, after these last few months, for an activist soul it is trolling your effort, your ideals and your hope. It is telling you to GIVE UP, forget any such pretence of a better tomorrow, because the only progress is in rapid-ready snack food. Maybe pop a tub of pringles open for dessert – they are right there. What even is fruit anyway. A waste of time, that’s what. You don’t have time to prepare a proper meal, what with all the working you have to do. It’s alright though, because the politicians have your back. They are working late too, and what salt of the earth they are, they are also having a burger for dinner. No Rustler’s for them though, they have sent for a gourmet, onion-ringed affair straight from the heart of Dalston, moulded from a hand-fed beast that, before it too was sacrificed for the cause, had a bigger home than you, and a better diet to boot. It was sped to the Royal Mile through the streets of London by a brave cyclist, darting through the taxis and the tourists on her less-than-zero hours contract, risking her life and others to make sure the burger gets to the Chancellor of the Exchequer before it loses too much temperature. 

(Actually, he’s not Chancellor any more is he. He’s a tabloid hack, or a professor, or something.)

He can eat what he wants at whatever job he wants, because he is free to do so. That’s what they say they are about, freedom. They have so much freedom already, and all they want is more. They have always been mercantile, freedom is the silver in the mines of Potosi, the secret Porcelain recipe from Jingdezhen, grab it while it’s hot and hold on for dear life. You? You have to earn your freedom. As long as you live the right way, you too can have freedom. Put aside a penny a day for retirement, and you too can enjoy a microwavable burger when you are old. It’s triple-locked.

All this talk about liberty and they don’t even know what it is – they think it cannot be created, only taken away. So that’s what will happen next, now that they have purchased popular consent. Trickle down. The poor don’t want opportunity, they want stability, an unchanging, uncompromising dourness on the face of the Commons. A two-track broken record is comforting, when your work status is precarious, your rent fluctuates with the seasons – waiting for the eviction notice – “I’m sorry, we want families and young professionals to move into your dilapidated, ladybird-infested bedsit” – or the fire alarm. You never quite know who is waiting for you around the corner, these days. Do you feel safe? Not me. The promise of further change? Well that’s just terrifying. A microwave is reassuring, you know exactly when the beep will chime, you know exactly when your meal will reach lukewarm bliss.

It was a question of taking Britain back to the ‘70s, or maybe to the Age of Empire. Bring back the workhouse. Restart the Crusades, at a push. It would be good if everybody stopped time-travelling for a moment and looked outside the window. Capital looks after its initiates, the rest of us make their coffee and bring banquets to the door of another Junior Vice President. It’s in the nature of service. I love microwaves after long days, rip off the plastic and away we go. Technology isn’t simply there to improve our lives, but to make it possible to get more out of our bones. Afternoon tea allowed fourteen hour shifts, smartphone order apps allows two hour delivery. A paper-over-cracks health service allows a higher retirement age for those who haven’t spent their time living the right way, with chronic conditions as colleagues because ATOS said so. What a time to be alive.

You don’t get it, do you? Your grandparents never had a microwave. They had steady work, though. And here you have a smartphone. They aren’t for the poor, so you must be rich. Clive of India didn’t have a smartphone, and he never complained. Benefits aren’t for everybody, so they should be for nobody at all. People dressed in grey with grey countenance under miserable skies only see the world in blacks and whites, with us or against. A toasted Panini costs more than a week of mobile service, wealth has always been relative, dumbass. Thank you Rustler’s for feeding the people, one coronary at a time, relieving the pressure on our darling NHS. The population is exploding, and you want to keep people alive? You monster.

This is a time to celebrate. Haul your arse to the hypermarket (it might even be on offer), or your friendly neighbourhood food bank, take your meal from the shelf, remove all packaging, and wait for the beep. Take a seat, pick up the damp luxury that greets you, and eat every last bite. Don’t you dare complain you precious little soul about your life of diminishing returns, and remember the immortal words of Harold MacMillan – “you’ve never had it so good.”

 

“This is the Past That’s Mine:” Manic Street Preachers Play Everything Must Go at the Royal Albert Hall, 17th May 2016

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“See this watch she gave me, it still ticks away, the days I’m claiming back for me.”
Eels, The Medication is Wearing Off

Into the Royal Albert Hall on a sticky Tuesday evening, to watch the Manic Street Preachers play Everything Must Go, 20 years after it was first released. This was their second anniversary tour in as many years. Last time out they reprised The Holy Bible, to commemorate the two decades that had passed since Richey James Edwards had disappeared, his car abandoned near the Severn Bridge.

I’m suspicious about bands playing albums live – usually it’s a money-spinning, pusheaded indulgence into their past but the Manics, as I wrote of the Holy Bible tour, are not the sort of band to partake in such hollow reprisals of now-irrelevant back catalogues. Instead, The Holy Bible’s resurrection was a scathing reminder of how Richey’s rebuke of End of History triumphalism remains dishearteningly pertinent.

My first reaction to hearing about the EMG tour was excitement – it’s one of my favourite albums, and I have often turned to it in moments of grief. I gave my ticket in knowing I was in for a great show, but I wasn’t quite sure why the Manics were dragging their 1996 kicking and screaming back into the present. It made sense, somehow, that if you bring back the Holy Bible you have to follow it up with Everything Must Go. But whereas the Holy Bible externalises anger to rip down the hypocrisy of those who benefit from a violent society, Everything Must Go is an internal struggle that finds the band wrestling with the pain of Richey’s decline and disappearance. After a twenty-year journey in which the bereft Manics have marked a new path as a trio, why had Nicky, James and Sean decided to revisit the raw emotion of this schism? Surely, it wasn’t just to go through the motions, in a pale sequel to last years’ tour?

Far from it.

There was a (very) small part of me afraid that without the enduring pertinence of the Holy Bible Tour, and the album’s association with mid-90s Britpop nostalgia, the EMG reprisal could fall short and end up an overweight, out-of-date impersonation of a moment that was no longer there. At the NEC in Birmingham (yes, I was there too – long story), there was a sense that the band themselves were concerned that it would be read this way, and on more than one occasion James thanked the crowd for coming to listen to them, and hoped that “this hasn’t ruined the memory of the album for them.” This uneasiness was itself an echo of last year, where the Manics were hedging themselves, eager to explain that to play the Holy Bible was a personal (and difficult) necessity, but still far removed from self-indulgence.

However, in the Royal Albert Hall, I found this fear to be grossly misplaced. Everything Must Go was, in 1996, a journey taken by the trio downwards toward the darkness that had enveloped their friend, alongside the upward steps toward the sun within which is held the strength to live in grief. In this way, it is the thematic as well as the chronological successor to the Holy Bible.

Richey posthumously provides five lyrics to Everything Must Go. His words in the Holy Bible were fuelled by anger – railing against the violence of humanity, the music and the lyrics jettisoned his anguish. But there were warnings, noticeably in Die in the Summertime (“scratch myself with a rusty nail, sadly it heals”), that this was only a temporary solution, the last flares of a dying star before it collapses in upon itself. The EMG songs that come from Richey’s pen find the lyricist in a concerning empathy with the victims of the societal cruelty he documented in the previous album. What unites his characters on EMG is their fate – they are trapped, consumed by their own hand or by that of others. If “man kills everything,” these are its victims, the Removables, or those who are caved in by the reality that surrounds them. The Elvis Impersonator who opens the album with limited face paint can rise no further from his life as a Blackpool sideshow, existing only in the drunken eyes of Lancashire nightlife.

“It’s so fucking funny, it’s absurd.”

Small Black Flowers that Grow in the Sky, seeing through the bars of the decrepit, caged zoo, sympathises with the captive chimpanzee, who has nothing but a tyre swing to entertain the masses that rattle her cage, the Simian cousin of the Blackpool impersonator. The Girl Who Wanted to be God nods to Sylvia Plath, “spat out” by Faster’s protagonist, but now a touchstone for our tortured lyricist in his final moments. Track 3 talks of the life of photographer Kevin Carter – a true story of the man who won a Pulitzer Prize for his voyeuristic photograph of a malnourished black child being stalked by a vulture, who took his own life – unable to live with the terrible things he had sat and watched, like an ecologist, waiting for the right moment to capture for his fortune. Richey’s characters are trapped in a cycle of pain, and death forms the only escape.

For Nicky Wire, staring at a blank piece of paper in 1995, his friend vanished, he had to attempt to grasp the darkness that had taken Richey, and from there forge a path for himself and his band out of their grief. How do you comprehend a suicide? To attempt to empathise with this agony is to plot a journey toward the pain that overwhelmed a loved one. In his songs Nicky is often his own protagonist. In Australia, Nicky finds himself subsumed by a rising tide of depression as he tries to make sense of the past few months – “I don’t know if I’m tired, I don’t know if I’m ill” – and he responds by fleeing, as far away from everything as he can possibly get, to recover. Live in Birmingham, he confessed that while he was writing this lyric, he only made it as far as Torquay.

Nicky’s songs are filled with determination in the face of this pain – there is a growing understanding that he cannot run forever, and an acceptance that if he is to be alive, he must live with the chronic pain of losing his friend to suicide. In Enola/Alone, he concentrates on the comfort provided by the simplest of actions, walking on the grass, and taking in every moment of being alive, finding the strength to look at an image of his lost friend and hold on to a better memory. The title track has James screaming the line – “Just need to be happy” – like a tortured mantra, if he sings it with enough feeling, it *might* just come true.

Interiors gives us the story of the artist Willem de Koonig, who continued to paint as Alzheimer’s overtook him. It is the keystone of the album, of a man who, through all his suffering, held on to the very fabric of being alive for as long as he possibly could. As the final solo of the album rang out through the hall, a ticker tape explosion fell upon us. Red, white and green. On the screen appeared the Stanley Kubrick quote “however vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” James later appeared with his acoustic guitar, and played his cover of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, the first thing he recorded after Richey vanished, in a final act of defiant existence. The crowd all knew what this meant.

“What’s the point of always looking back?”

In some ways, the Manics were, this night, once again replenishing an old album from the past into the present. “We’ve brought it back from the brink,” James explained, by which he meant from the brink of falling into the dustbin of Britpop history. Nicky recalled in the Guardian that Richey used to love the confusion of it all. And he of all people would have appreciated the contradiction of the Manics finding mainstream success with this record. It wasn’t the intention to sound like Britpop’s cousin – A Design for Life was in fact a response to songs like Parklife that hollowed out and vulgarised British working class life. Yet for a band attempting to confront a friend’s suicide head on, to be “co-opted into Britpop,” placed into the same bracket as nonsensical Noel Gallagher lyrics must have smarted. Bringing EMG “back from the brink” is a personal necessity for the Manics, so that the grief they express in this record is not diluted or whitewashed.

Everything Must Go did not need salvage in the same way the Holy Bible did – there is no social criticism it provides more scathing than was given in 1996. But it needed to be played this night, and played in full, all the same. In many respects this is the true anniversary of Richey’s passing, the moment when the band accepted his disappearance, and to wrench open the scars left by the nihilism of the Holy Bible requires Everything Must Go to restart the process of patching up old wounds.

Everything Must Go is a triumph – for Nicky, James and Sean – and for all of us who have been wrought by bereavement and ploughed on nonetheless. But this album is not a moment of happiness, and it is not only Britpop association that threatens its meaning. To scream that “everything must go” is not to heal yourself of grief, rather it is to accept that time cannot heal old wounds, it only numbs. Further Away – “feel it fade into your childhood,” was this night adorned with images of Big Pit, eroded Welsh beaches, and eroding colliery towns. “The further away I get from you…the harder it gets.”

This acceptance that grief never disappears, but only fades, adds to the tragedy of the record with each passing anniversary. This is why they bring Everything Must Go into the 21st Century. To reprise the immediacy of bereavement is to defy the numbing of time, and to recall the pain they felt in losing a friend is to recall why they loved him in the first place.

“I’ve been here for much too long. This is the past that’s mine.”

Strangely, there was comfort in this message. This was not misery tourism, but healing. Many in the audience empathised with this pain – I don’t mean those old enough to miss Richey too – but those who knew you carry grief with you, wherever you go, and in some form this is a way you can keep the love you had for that person alive. There is comfort in sound, as another Welsh band – Feeder – proclaimed when they lost a band member to suicide. That night, there were lighter moments too – in the joy of Show Me the Wonder, and Nicky’s eccentric liner notes between songs. “This is not the only anniversary we are celebrating. Ten years ago, I Killed the Zeitgeist.”

In the Albert Hall, the music rolled through the floor, bounced off the roof of the auditorium, as, after the album was played and passed, we all belted out Roses in the Hospital, in tribute to Richey and to David Bowie, in a punk rock Last Night of the Proms, where the Welsh dragon was draped over the balcony in lieu of the Union flag.

That night, the chords were loud and simple, the melodies catchy yet plain, not in mimicry of Britpop, but in contrast to the nuance of the Holy Bible – it is raw, emotive music, contradictory yet plain – no surface and all feeling. Catharsis needs simplicity.

I Never Died, Says He: Tayo Aluko in “Call Mr. Robeson”

This blogpost is about a Performance by Tayo Aluko in Call Mr Robeson that I saw at UCLAN’s Media Innovation Centre on the 14th April 2016 (but this isn’t a review). More info of Aluko’s shows can be found here. GO SEE IT!

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Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen. Nobody Knows My Sorrow.

Most people know of Paul Robeson in passing. They know the actor, the singer – Paul Robeson the performer. But less is said of Paul Robeson the socialist and the activist. This is a huge part of the story of this most famous of American early-20th Century performers, and it is this element of Robeson’s story that has seen the legacy of this artist erased from our collective historical memory.

Tayo Aluko is working to correct this. From Carnegie Hall, to this little Conference room in Preston where I watched him perform, Aluko has taken his one-man show, Call Mr Robeson, across the world.

“Call Mr Robeson” – the announcement blares from the back of the room, as the voice of McCarthy’s cronies call us to attention in the courthouse pews. Mr Robeson stands in front of us, proud once more, to defend himself against the charges of communism and un-American activities.

We are with him, adopted Welsh miners, trade unionists, forerunners of civil rights, fans of his music – we witness this trial alongside him with a solidarity Robeson sorely lacked in his own life. For over an hour we watched Robeson take us through his life, in a scene that became his living room, decorated by portraits, trinkets, records, a flag of the International Brigade, the Stars and Stripes, and a Welsh flag reminding him of the Valleys where he felt most loved. We nod along as Robeson answers each silly charge with blissful defiance, because we now know where he had come from, and why he stood before us today in the courthouse.

 

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night, Alive as You and Me

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The Stage is (blurrily) set for “Call Mr Robeson.”

Aluko isn’t a diminutive man, but on this makeshift stage he grew into the mighty stature of Robeson, the son of a Minister born into (and escaped from) the chattels of slavery, the only black footballer at Rutgers, sacked on his first start by both sides, who stood up and carried on.

Robeson, the star of Show Boat, the Emperor Jones, Othello and Toussaint Louverture, fell afoul of those who saw him as coalescing with the enemy as well as those who wished to keep him down. Marcus Garvey saw him as little more than a minstrel, but Aluko crafts a different figure, too subversive in his patriotic turns and too captivating upon the stage to be regarded as anything less than a powerful exponent of black excellence.

Offside, stage right, stood the imagined presence of Eslanda Robeson (née Goode), Paul’s manager and wife. Essie had no lines in the one man show, but she stood over Paul at all times, initially supporting him financially, reminding him where he had come from, urging him to stay firm, challenging him to be more than just Paul Robeson, the performer. It was a tumultuous relationship, and Aluko refused to shy away from Paul’s frequent affairs and troubles within his marriage. Essie’s journey, although silent, was very much a part of the performance – the peaks and turmoils of this tale were, after all, felt and moulded by Essie as much as by Paul.

Robeson performed Ol’ Man River throughout his career – and he and Essie tinkered with the lyrics as they slowly divorced the song’s association from Show Boat and made it a Robeson standard. As Todd Decker has written, the lyrical alterations change the feel of the song from resignation to defiance, from a song of longing to a call to action.

“You get a little drunk and you land in Jail” becomes “You show a little grit and you land in jail,”

“I must keep on struggling until I’m dyin’” becomes “I must keep on fighting until I’m dyin’.”

 

Sing it Loud, Sing it Proud

Where did you hear of Paul Robeson? Was it in the booming rendition of Ol’ Man River? In echoes of his celebrated turn as Othello that shook through London theatrical circles? Unless you are of mining stock, you are less likely to be familiar with Robeson the socialist and tireless, unapologetic activist for global equality, and for dignity for black Americans. Aluko was asked, after the event, how he came to create Call Mr Robeson. He tells us that as a younger man he sung in front of a Merseyside audience in his powerful baritone, reminding one audience member of the star of Show Boat. The listener approached Aluko, asking him if Robeson had influenced him and if he sung any of his numbers. This, Aluko tells us, was the first he’d heard of the man. Later on, a book on the life of Paul Robeson found its way into Aluko’s hands at Liverpool Library, and that was that.

Myself, I knew of Robeson from a young age, mainly because my dad would occasionally break out spontaneous renditions of Ol’ Man River. I knew nothing of his social activism until my friend sent me an mp3 of “Let Robeson Sing” by the Manic Street Preachers. It’s the best song by a long way on a pretty terrible album, and quickly tells the story of Robeson’s “voice and vision” and his suppression by the House Commission for Un-American Activities, who confiscated his passport, placed FBI agents within his shadow at all times, and embarked upon a campaign of ostracism until Robeson became all-but-forgotten.

It may seem a strange way for someone to learn of Robeson, but as Aluko told us, among groups such as the Welsh miners and trade unionists, for whom Robeson did so much, he was never forgotten.

 

The Freedom Train

Back in Preston, we cannot turn away from any moment of Robeson’s life – we are there in the front row of his performances, and we are there with the marooned performer in the years of his lowest ebbs. Aluko takes us through the most difficult moments of Robeson’s existence, his exclusion, his attempted suicide, and the loss of Essie to cancer, with visceral intensity. On a rainy evening in Preston, we are witness to the tragedy of Robeson’s life as we are to his spine-tingling vocals and world-conquering successes. We watch as the ageing Robeson comes to terms with his anonymity as the Civil Rights Movement accelerates in the 1960s. Malcolm X is gunned down, and Dr. King follows. A young reporter traipses around Harlem asking the “man on the street” for their thoughts of their activism, and in this moment Robeson becomes just another black New Yorker.

“Looks like I’ve been assassinated too,” the old singer quips.

Aluko later tells us of the theory that Malcolm was assassinated just as he began to consider international socialist ideas. As Martin’s dream increasingly took on notions of black liberation through economic redistribution alongside cultural anti-racism, he was taken out too. As the great pillars of American civil rights began to speak back at the infiltration of institutional racism within every aspect of American society, they became more dangerous than ever before. “In a way, they became too much like Paul Robeson,” Aluko explains. The McCarthyists had already taken care of the old singer – gagged by passport restrictions, discredited to his allies, dogged by the disintegration of his mental health in the face of this ubiquitous ostracism, Robeson had been silenced.

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Aluko receives a standing ovation.

But in Call Mr Robeson, he takes his place as one figure in the pantheon of anti-racist activists. The Freedom Train comes zooming along the track, gleaming in the sunshine for white and black, not stopping at no stations marked colored nor white, just stopping in the fields in the broad daylight. It’s a journey that has been carried part of the way by Toussaint, by Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Dubois, Rosa Parks, Medgar, Malcolm and Martin and so many more. In this moment, Paul and Essie Robeson became once again a part of this great tradition.

 

The Ol’ Man River, Just Keeps Rolling Along

Robeson’s most (in)famous concert performance was at Peekskill, New York, on the 4th September 1949. The event had been cancelled the previous week, as gangs of white supremacists and anti-Semites had laid siege to the venue, tormenting concert-goers and lynching effigies of Robeson from nearby branches. The following week, Robeson arrived, himself protected by one human chain composed of trade unionists of all races, the crowd perimetered by a second ring. Years ago, Aluko recalls Paul Robeson Jr. was asked, of all his father’s renditions of Ol’ Man River, which was his favourite. It was here, he said, as the police helicopter that had hovered on the horizon approached toward the concert stage, whirring ever nearer as the song kicked into its concluding crescendo. As the drone grew louder, so did Robeson’s voice. The Ol’ Man River kept rolling along, not to be dammed.

This night, as I watched this concert performed in front of me, as the helicopter came closer through some unseen speaker behind me, I sat on the edge of my seat (and I was not the only one.) Robeson watched above him nervously – I knew that this concert was not Robeson’s end, but would a sniper in the helicopter take a shot at him? Maybe there was some gap in my knowledge on his life, maybe he was shot once and recovered. I suddenly didn’t know how this moment played out. The helicopter grew so loud, but so did Aluko’s voice, and like Robeson’s son all those decades ago, I was captivated.

Paul Robeson, it is said, was the first to perform at the Sydney Opera House. Before construction was complete, Robeson stood beside the site and sung for the construction workers as they slowly pieced together this Australian icon. Aluko dreams of one day being able to perform Call Mr Robeson within the Opera House. It would be some event to hear Robeson sing once again on the shores of Sydney Harbour.

A Jury for the 96

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“The interests of justice must be served … The facts must be investigated and re-analysed in a fresh inquest when, however distressing or unpalatable, the truth will be brought to light. In this way, the families of those who died in this disaster will be vindicated and the memory of each victim will be properly respected.

“That is now our task; to investigate the facts, to reveal the truth in a public forum and to reach conclusions on the basis of the evidence presented. It will be a full and thorough investigation.”

– Lord Justice Goldring, 1st April 2014.

 

I was 3 days old when the Hillsborough Disaster occurred. On the 15th April, 1989, 96 Liverpool fans died from injuries sustained during the FA Cup Semi-Final against Nottingham Forest, crushed in the overcrowded central pens of the Leppings Lane terrace.

Nearly 27 years later, families of the victims have still not received a proper answer as to why their relatives died. After a wealth of new evidence was revealed by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, a new inquest into the disaster began in 2014, headed by Lord Justice Goldring. After the longest case hearing in British legal history, On Wednesday the jury was finally dispatched to determine the cause of the crush, and whether the deceased were “unlawfully” killed due to gross negligence on the part of South Yorkshire Police.

The ten nine jurors have been given a 31-page questionnaire, containing fourteen questions to be answered. After hearing 276 days of evidence over two years, the jurors’ responses will establish a new official account of Hillsborough, and specifically decide “by what means and in what circumstance did the 96 people come to their deaths.”

 

Write your answer in the space provided

The questionnaire has been made publicly available (I found it on this Guardian page), and the Coroner for South and West Yorkshire has provided specific instructions for the jury to follow. Point 9 leaps out at me.

9. When considering what should have been done on the day of the Disaster or beforehand, please bear in mind the following points.
(a) You should apply the standard of conduct of the time. So, when deciding whether individuals should have acted differently in 1989, you should apply the standards of 1989, not those of today.
(b) You should consider what those involved could and should realistically have done in the circumstances which they were facing.
(c) You should not make judgments which are based on hindsight, but should consider what those involved could reasonably be expected to do at the time.

Legally speaking, what point 9 asks of the jury is necessary – an action that may be considered ‘gross negligence’ today could have been seen as standard practice in 1989, just as said action could have been considered ‘unlawful’ then as of now. Yet difficulties arise from this instruction, due to the nature of this inquiry, its origins, and its purposes.

The primary purpose of the Goldring inquiry is to establish a history of the Hillsborough Disaster, to reconstruct, to the fullest possible extent, an account of the tragedy, in response to an increasing amount of new evidence previously unavailable to old investigations. The official nature of the jury’s task lends their conclusions an authority over the matter of historical truth, yet what becomes history is constructed from impartial evidence, and efforts to fill in the gaps to create a narrative are affected by prejudices. According to the late historian Michel Rolph-Trouillot, what is viewed and preserved as ‘evidence’ is itself selected through the workings of power. In the case of Hillsborough, evidence attained has been largely sought from (and provided at the discretion of) South Yorkshire Police, the emergency services, and Sheffield Wednesday football club.

 

3:06pm, 15th April 1989.

For the jurors, to send their thought processes back to 1989 holds major difficulties when tackling the standards of the day. Let’s unpack this. As established by the Taylor Inquiry of 1990, the crush occurred after congestion outside the Leppings Lane End led to an unmanned “exit” turnstile being opened to allow fans into the ground, leading them into pens already near-full capacity. In desperation fans attempted to climb up to the top tier, or scaled the fence between them and the ground. After six minutes the game was halted. Hundreds were injured, and 96 died as a result of the crush.

Immediately after the Disaster, South Yorkshire Police began to distance themselves from any hint of blame, instead  suggesting that the crush was caused by the behaviour of the Liverpool fans. Police Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, who had given the order to open the turnstile against previous precedent for matches at Hillsborough, initially claimed that the fans had forced the gate open. South Yorkshire Police subsequently emphasised observations of fans drinking, and suggested that many had showed up late and without tickets, planning to rush the gates to gain access.

 

“The Truth”

The idea of Liverpool fans as culpable chimed with the contemporary popular imagination, fed by a decade of images of violence in football, especially those of the Heysel disaster of 1985. During the European Cup final in Brussels, a group of Liverpool fans rushed the adjoining “neutral” section of the ground, comprised mostly of Juventus fans, and the subsequent flight of fans from the area put too much pressure upon a wall in the rickety old ground, causing a collapse that killed 39 fans, mostly from Italy. The following day UEFA observer Gunter Schneider declared that “only the English fans were responsible,” and Margaret Thatcher agreed, requesting that English clubs be barred from subsequent European competition. Just five days after the match, the ban was put in place. Subsequent analysis of Heysel suggested that along with the aggressors (of which fourteen would be found guilty of manslaughter), police and organisers were also culpable, but the prevailing attitude in 1989 was that Liverpool fans were dangerous. This was only exacerbated by class and regional prejudice against working-class Liverpudlians – Middle England has long held the stereotype of the Scousers as vandals, thieves and arsonists. To many in 1989, a person from Liverpool was seen as an inherent criminal.

It was no surprise, that the English press, long-time peddlers of such filth and nonsense, exacerbated the narrative that found the fault in the victims of Hillsborough. Underneath The Sun’s famous headline, “The Truth,” lay  lurid, false claims that Liverpool fans, “drunken,” had pickpocketed the dead, and urinated on the police. Scousers no longer buy The Sun, but other publications such as the Sunday Times also insinuated blame, highlighting the popularity of the opinion. It went all the way to the top – UEFA president Jacques Georges immediately blamed hooliganism for Hillsborough, characterising Liverpool fans as “beasts,” before later retracting the claim.

the truth

“The Truth.” Source – Wikipedia

The Lies

Such ideas have remained strong from 1989 to the present-day. The Hillsborough Independent Panel of 2012 noted the endurance of the narrative of fan aggravation as cause. Just last month in their Europa League match at Anfield, a few Manchester United fans taunted their opposition with a chant saying The Sun were right, you’re murderers. I’ve spoken to too many people who dehumanise the victims of Hillsborough as “typical violent scousers,” rather than attempting to find any sympathy with those who died simply for attending a football match.

The point is that to “apply the standards of 1989” is a historical, as well as a legal, exercise. In 1989, the idea that Liverpool fans were dangerous was commonplace and it was capitalised upon by South Yorkshire Police. Yet fans, relatives of the victims and victim solidarity groups have always rejected this widely-held and powerfully-backed notion. The Taylor Report, examining the available evidence, placed the primary cause of the Disaster on a breakdown of police practice as opposed to fan action, yet saw these failings as existing in poor administration rather than in negligence. The official verdict was, and remained, “accidental death.”

Yet as more evidence surfaced, in no small part thanks to the efforts of tireless Hillsborough justice campaigners, many of the claims made by Duckenfield and South Yorkshire Police have unravelled. The notion that the crush was caused by ticketless fans was placed in doubt by the Taylor Report which highlighted that the stand as a whole was still under-capacity at 15:06. Duckenfield’s claim that fans broke through the Exit gate was shown to be false, and as further observations were collected (and heard), levels of drinking by the standards of the day were generally seen to be much lower than would be expected.

Over the past ten years momentum has slowly built up as those who campaign for Justice for the 96 have continued undeterred, and found increasingly sympathetic voices in positions of power. The Hillsborough Family Support Group (led by Trevor Hicks, father of two of the victims) had pressed for the release of documents previously disclosed, arguing that their release could greatly change the public memory of the Disaster. The Hillsborough Independent Panel was formed in 2009 to investigate this claim, and three years later released its findings along with 450 000 pages of documents relating to the crisis. It concluded that Liverpool fans held no responsibility for the tragedy, but its findings were damning for South Yorkshire Police.

It found that 164 witness statements had been altered, of which 116 had been changed to remove negative comments regarding police behaviour. It found that police had conducted an active search for information to smear the victims, and had run blood alcohol tests on the bodies (38 of the 96 were children). It found that the Sun’s “The Truth” article had been sourced from false comments by the Conservative MP of Sheffield Hallam, Irvine Patnick. Its most chilling conclusion was that up to 41 of the deceased still had sufficient heart and lung function at the time the emergency services reached them, and perhaps might have been saved were it not for failings in an emergency response previously exonerated by the Taylor Report. The Independent Police Complaints Commission has since uncovered a further 55 altered statements. This evidence caused such a stir that it led David Cameron to apologise to the victims on behalf of the government, and in the resulting fallout it was decided a new official inquiry should take place.

 

The Historical Sorcery of a Legal Judgment

Therefore when our jury is instructed to ignore hindsight in its verdict, it is required to remove from its considerations two decades of historical sorcery conducted by South Yorkshire Police and those in the media and parliament who sought to protect them. This suggestion of a cover-up, beginning on the afternoon of the 15th April 1989, is at the very least evidence that Duckenfield and South Yorkshire Police were aware that their failings that day were far greater than a system failure.

Once again, I wish to express sympathy with the legal thinking of Point 9, yet the primary aim of this inquiry is to establish an authoritative historical account, inspired by the quashing of the original “accidental death” verdict and the subsequent acceptance of later findings as admissible evidence following the HIP investigation. An inquiry that refuses prior acknowledgement of the two decades of gagging histories of Hillsborough that dissent from the SYP narrative must continually compete with ideas of fan culpability. Subsequent to the findings of HIP and the IPCC, Our questionnaire is designed to assess responsibility in various groups including and beyond SYP, including the emergency services and Sheffield Wednesday Football Club.

Question 7, however, asks the jury to consider whether there was “any behaviour on the part of football supporters which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles,” and recommends that the jury consider “whether or not some supporters at the Leppings Lane turnstiles behaved in a way which was unusually forceful or resistant to police control.” To answer said question without hindsight, in light of what has become apparent since, is not only counterproductive to an inquiry that was launched specifically in response to ‘new’ evidence previously withheld, but also an incredibly difficult task given the events of the last few years.

leppings lane

Leppings Lane turnstiles. Source – Liverpool Echo

 

Duties of Care

Question 6 is the most important question to be answered.

“Are you satisfied, so that you are sure, that those who died in the Disaster were unlawfully killed?”

It comes with two pages of guidelines, importantly explaining that a juror “must be sure that Chief Superintendent Duckenfield owed a duty of care to the 96 people who died in the Disaster.” This too is a question difficult to answer using the “standards” of 1989. The 1990 Taylor Report, for example, wrote that “hooliganism at and associated with football matches has strongly influenced the strategy of the police.” The report deems this strategy “understandable and indeed commendable,” but notes the subsequent “imbalance” in police duties between “the need to quell a minority of troublemakers and the need to secure the safety and comfort of the majority.”Therefore, to ask whether Duckenfield owed a duty of care to those who died in the first place is to ask a complicated question.

If he did, by the standards of 1989, hold a duty of care to the Liverpool fans then the idea that killing could be described as unlawful due to gross negligence immediately gains strength. However, if one doubts that Duckenfield did not owe a duty of care, a possible scenario when judging the “lawfulness” of their actions, a juror thus opens the sinister historical question as to what the true purpose of the presence of South Yorkshire Police was that day.

Through this logic one might conclude that, whatever the answers to the other questions, the Goldring inquiry consequently endorses the notion that because of the dominant (though never universally-held) opinion that Liverpudlians were criminals and hooligans, the true purpose of South Yorkshire Police was to guard the rest of the world from Liverpool fans. This position would, historically speaking, implicitly legitimise institutional violence based solely on the modal attitudes of a period. Even if the inquiry finds the SYP and Duckenfield at fault for the Disaster, to answer question six in the negative would legally exonerate them. The question of “duty of care” is loaded with historical and legal meaning. 

 

Historical justice needs legal justice

Gramsci wrote that “truth is always revolutionary.” In history, truth is always multiple and contestable due to the partial and subjective nature of the archives, and what is known as history is so often affected by the workings of political and social power. The revolutionary truth of Hillsborough can be attained by shattering the decades of myths and manipulations that have distracted attention away from failings in the response and accentuated the actions of the victims. That requires the use of “hindsight.”

Can this inquest provide that truth? It is certainly possible, especially in the investigation of individual times and circumstances of death that can highlight potential failings in the emergency response, and in the reconsideration of evidence previously redacted from previous inquiries. Much depends on the ten nine jurors and their interpretation of the questionnaire guidelines and of Point 9, and in what manner the fourteen questions are answered.

However, the legal, moral and historical questions posed by the Hillsborough Disaster are so intertwined that if the actions of the South Yorkshire Police are not deemed unlawful it will be difficult to demolish the two-decades of historical manipulation to the benefit of the SYP, yet without the latter, legal justice for the 96 may prove difficult. It may prove beyond the scope of the jury’s decision to achieve this lofty task, but its conclusions will carry a weighty authority, and in this moment there is a chance that the Goldring Inquiry could yet bring vindication for the victims of Hillsborough and those who survive them.

They’ve been waiting for twenty-seven years.