Resistance As Its Own Reward
Interview by Andrew Stevens.
3:AM: Bending the Bars is of the prison memoir genre but stresses the ‘story’ aspect as if to detach it from the “personal testimony” (as Stewart Home remarks in his Mute review), more a book about jail rather than a book about your time in jail. How far would you agree with this? As he also notes, your criticism of the Tom Vague Angry Brigade history was that it forced you to consider a past you found painful but didn’t regret. Is that why you opted to write about incarceration rather than what led to it, as opposed to Stuart Christie‘s recent books? Or do the two perspectives complement each other?
JB: Stewart Home’s review of Bending the Bars was both generous and, dare I say it, astute. At the same time, it is in many ways rather a clumsy mix. It was nearly all written in the last year or so of my sentence some 30 years ago, and I’d like to think that one improves as a writer, that if I was doing it now the structure would be more coherent. I mean that it is a mix, often clumsy, of memoir which is mostly at the beginning of the book, and of story. The ‘story’ form was as Home says aimed at creating ‘distance’ and giving both a sense of jail as a whole and of the time. This last was especially important in two ways. For one thing, though it is in perverse form prison life is not in a historical vacuum. In its own distorted ways it reflected social and political changes on the outside.
It was also a time when, up until 1975-6, like a lot of other people, I still believed that capitalism and the state were not having it all their own way, that “resistance was still getting its own rewards”. This too was reflected in the ‘balance of power’ in the maximum security prisons themselves, in attitudes, and what was talked about.
There is probably too much hindsight in the way I’m looking at the ‘clumsy’ structure now, but the ‘memoir’ bits were intended to be honest about being a lower middle class boy for who prison was never part of the life path. And also, later, moments of terrible grief, weakness, self-doubt. There would have been a lie of omission if I’d left that out.
In fact what made it easier to be a prison greenhorn was the fact that within a short period of being inside, there was a wave of prisoner militancy in many prisons, and the remand part of Brixton was no exception. In this I was in my element.
It wasn’t just this that made it easier to be ‘accepted’, nor that in my case, a police computer had been bombed, it was the times. The cons I was soon knocking about with were young ‘working class’ guys with whom I shared a culture of music, drugs and disrespect. It was not intended in the writing, but I hope now that I did manage to convey that this way of life and attitudes was NOT one exclusive to middle class bohemians who were in fact fairly peripheral to the mood of joyful creativity of those times.
This is one reason why I was pleased to finally pleased to have the book published some 25 years after it was written despite my misgivings which were to do with prison life being much harder in the present day, and not wanting to give any false impression. What did feel relevant was precisely trying to reclaim the mass nature of “60s” exuberance, from the standard way in which it is dissed. Relevant because New Labour and its lickspittles have played the same lie for years, i.e. that the only opposition to its assault on citizen rights and liberties are from the ‘chattering classes’, effete comfortably off folk living in Islington (shows how much they know about Islington) who can afford to be blasé about crime and threats to security. It is a lie and was shown to be so quite clearly by a look at voting patterns in the last General Election.
The book, as stories, was intended to portray, and celebrate that generation of young cons, their wit and their sense of pragmatic solidarity. But the idea of writing stories was directly inspired by short pieces about life in Long Kesh prison/prisoner-of-war camp, that appeared in Republican News under the by line “Brownie”. These were both funny and purposeful. The wind-ups, foibles and the crack of prison life were economically conveyed.
I should give this some context. Starting around 1974 a more self-consciously political group arrived in the max security system. These members of the Provisional IRA argued for political prisoner status, and slowly became an important factor in what I’ve called the balance of power in the jails. We ourselves were in part beneficiaries of the Parkhurst riot of 1968 which had terrified screws and the authorities. The determination and togetherness of IRA prisoners helped maintain the relatively good conditions of the time for many prisoners, though they themselves suffered a wide variety of penalties and beatings.
Their gradual disappearance from the system as the peace process began was, I believe as important as harder line political policies in the definite worsening of conditions described by Mark Barnsley for example. Prison architecture and planning have also contributed to this retrogression. There is a present wave of media/screw concern about the power of gangs and Islamic political prisoners in the max security system. There is no one to beat screws when it comes to whinging, but if they really are concerned, it may make conditions better for other prisoners.
It was through the IRA prisoners that I got to read Republican News and those “Brownie” stories. I did not aim to copy them, the politics implicit in them was more specific and purposeful than anything I intended., but they made me think it was possible to get a sense of wholeness in describing daily life, learning to live in close proximity to a lot of people, the everyday politics of the time and, broadly speaking, a shared culture which included with ease, those militant IRA prisoners.
I have not written anything autobiographical about what lead me being into jail. It had spoken for itself, regardless of its lack of dramatic effect. Besides, it was in the jail that my real political education began. I read a lot of Marx, was greatly influenced by the Italian autonomist movement, tried to keep up with what was going on outside and wrote lots of letters in tiny cramped handwriting on prison issue letter forms to a variety of comrades. But most of all I learned how to express some of this, but also to be an active part in what I’ve called the everyday politics of the place. In that sense, the book was also written to the political world I knew of outside, too much of which was controlled not so much by middle class people, as by middle class attitudes; by what one said being more important than how you lived.
3:AM: How about other depictions of the era, Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions, for instance? What else do you remember of it?
JB: I haven’t been able to bring myself to read My Revolutions, something its writer, Hari Kunzru who has been helpful to me with my own writing, could well understand. He had also quite deliberately not met either me or anyone else involved with the Angry Brigade when writing it. But despite this, the fact that it describes an imaginary group doing similar things to the Angry Brigade and at the same specific time, would make it close to impossible not to be, likely as not, affronted by the representation. So I haven’t read it. People I know who have, made me still less inclined to read it, complaining that the hero/anti-hero is far too stupid not to have sussed out the grass; have little engagement with the politics of now; and most of all, to have been too dour. A short review of the book by “Judge Mental” in the Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library comments: “So inevitably bodies pile up along with the rhetoric: these are not people who ‘spent a lot of time having a good time’ (in John Barker’s words).”
At least I was not sexually impotent as well as being callow, arrogant and stupid, as is a portrayal of those times written closer to them by Doris Lessing and called The Good Terrorist. Talk about loading the dice, the impotence, envy of the sexual prowess of the bourgeois parents, this on top of all the stupidity, arrogance and self-deception of the “terrorists.” Had it been the other way, and the bourgeois depicted in such terms, the critics would have cried, ‘Polemic masquerading as fiction’.
In fact the good times for the five or so years before my arrest were mostly sex and drugs and rock and roll, the same as most young people at the time. In fact not so much rock’n roll as the emergence of a variety of black music in London town; proper rhythm and blues; ska, reggae and township jazz. I should say though that the first real knock-out, change the world, was a Rolling Stones gig at the Kilburn State in 1963 or 4. For the first time I could dance in a way that wasn’t jiving to Elvis, great dance though the jive is.
I’ve always loved dancing, and Carnival (Notting Hill) is still for me the best two days of the year in London. It’s a piss-off how many leftists- libertarian and Situationist alike, diss it: ‘it’s too commercial’, that kind of thing. This when it’s free; more or less self-policed; and the people selling you the cold beer or working the food stalls are local, making a few quid to help out the income, people who are 100% not the Notting Hill haut bourgeoisie all of whom have fucked off for the weekend. True some of the floats have weirdo sponsors like Her Majesty’s Prison Service, but you’d have to be mental to believe that any screws got recruited there. And last year on the theme of slavery brought out the most vivid imaginations.
Of course with one thing and another I’ve missed a few but when to my first Carnival in 1969 when it was about ten thousand people, pre-sound systems and much more in the Trinidad style. That year, and even more in 1970 it was a proper political achievement at a time of constant police harassment on the streets and their direct attack on the Mangrove. It still is such an achievement, constantly sniped at by the police and the media. Last year the first, and most local bit of Carnival, the steel pan contest on the Saturday night, was moved in a real piece of Trojan Horse politics from the streets around Horniman’s Pleasance to Hyde Park. For the safety of children was Mayor Ken’s line. What, children were not safe in the streets all those years?!
I was brought up in Willesden and from there to the West End of London was less than twenty minutes on what was then the Bakerloo line, and is now the Jubilee. And if you were to miss the last tube there was always a night bus that went as far as Cricklewood. I’ve always loved dancing. It’s hard to write, usually the solution is to see it from the outside in one form or another. Lots of good times can look naff when seen from the outside, pallid bums and pimples for example, of people making love. Usually in fiction this is airbrushed out and an attempt at the feeling is attempted. Not so with dancing, when, viewed from the outside in the form of something of one’s naff past is standard. Jay McInerney is a classic case. Where was the pleasure in all those coke-fuelled disco sessions? Personally I’ve never had a taste for Charlie, but the putdown in Bright Lights, Bright City is all too easy. One writer who does get it, is an unfairly ignored writer of London life in the early 1960s, David Stuart Leslie. (ignored in comparison to Colin MacInnes for example. This despite or because two naff films were made of his novels In My Solitude and Two Gentlemen Sharing, which is an especially tough novel about race and racism; specifically the limits of white liberalism). In My Solitude, published in 1960, is set at the time of the jive, when it was in both trad jazz clubs, and being adapted for r’n’b. At an early r’n’b gig the hero “waited because the number was real fast and only a few couples tried it, and they were pretty keen. You could have picked them out anyway. They had the look. They didn’t smile or look happy, or pleased with themselves, or cute, or toffee-nosed or anything. They didn’t look anything, as though they didn’t hardly know they were there, or what had made them come out on the floor. They weren’t acting sexy. They weren’t enjoying or hating it. They just looked like they didn’t have no choice.”
That’s exactly how it felt for me first time in. The Whiskey-a-Gogo (aka The Pink Flamingo); and from then on after, though that Rolling Stones gig had originally freed us from dancing in ‘couples’. Another three clubs also figured a lot in those times The Marquee; The 100 Club on Oxford Street (the one that’s still going); and for a short period Ronnie Scott’s Old Place in Gerrard Street. The Whiskey-a Gogo was the one where last tube trains were out of the question. I had my first all-nighter there where Georgie Fame and the Blue Notes were headlining. He was (still is) a great keyboard player and singer who made rhythm and blues swing. It was also there I think, I had my first illegal drug which was speed in the form of Dexedrine. The Marquee had a truly eclectic policy. It was there I first heard a live ska band and enjoyed a new, very danceable music. But also had a regular Saturday jazz gig with the Dick Morrissey Quartet that featured the skeletal drummer, Phil Seaman. Phil was a romanticized hero, the real junkie jazzman as we imagined. I hope I grew out of that pretty fast, but he was also a terrific drummer.
Before I get carried away with all this, it has to be said that London was very different then, you could have a great time on very little money. Temporary jobs were easy to get, and, for the period I was a student, we got a proper living allowance. But most of all this was because rents were cheap, and squatting was just starting to be a mass option. The rentier class in all its forms, it’s they who make it harder for a bohemian hedonism and creativity to exist as a mass option as it was when I was young. One current version of the past is that we took the piss, bit the hand that fed us and so on, and had great responsibility for the imposition of capitalist discipline that began to appear in the early 70s. Yes, they’re still either beating up or romanticising a sixties that never existed, but I suspect the ‘culture wars’ have been overrated and clung on to by horrified leftists of an older generation as an explanation of the capitalist re-imposition of discipline that began with Nixon’s suspension of the relationship between the dollar and gold in August 1971, the month I was arrested.
Yes, it was easier then to have a good time with little money. I don’t remember the exact sequence, but I only started going to the 100 Club after Ronnie Scott re-opened his Old Place. In retrospect, it was a generous act on his part. The main Frith Street Club was going strong with lots of the big names from America and Stan Tracey as house pianist. This was a bit of reach money wise and I only went to a couple of gigs there including one when Sonny Rollins was in such great form that Stan just sat back in awe. But the Old Place was cheap and it was mostly for young musicians, and most of all for me the South African combo that came with Chris McGregor with Dudu Pakwana on saxophone, Mongezi Feza on trumpet, Johnny Dyani on bass and Louis Maholo on drums. He is the only one still alive. They too were life-changers. Modern jazz was for dancing to. At the same time young English musicians, Mike Westbrook, John Surman and Mike Osbourne (miserably cut down with schizophrenia) were breaking moulds, and now and then, a more famous older generation – Tubby Hayes with Phil Seaman on the drums would appear.
It was very cheap, cannot have made any money, and only lasted a couple of years but it broke ground, and when Dudu and the rest allied with guys like Mike Osbourne combined to make The Brotherhood of Breath under Chris McGregor, they were able to make bigger gigs like at the 100. And here taboos were broken and we danced there to “modern jazz”
I should not fetishize all this – make too big a deal of it – but it’s what I loved doing. Other times we smoked Afghani black and talked bollocks all night, and got the giggles. Even the hash was cheap then. Also should not make too big a deal out of it because I was still lower-middle class white boy and though I loved ska and reggae, it was only years afterwards that I realized that the real scene had been on my doorstep in Harlesden, and I just didn’t know of it. And later still, revealed by the London Belongs to Me series from Honest Jon records, that there was whole London world of black and African jazz before the arrival of Chris McGregor.
Does all this then need reconciling with being serious about ‘politics’. Thing is, though it may have been unconscious, I/we had an inkling that these kind of good times were not going to be allowed to continue. While at the same time you would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to see that working class militancy was under attack; that the war against Vietnam was not just “imperialism”, but insanely nihilistic; that the Irish civil rights movement was also subject to state violence; that there were fascist dictatorships in Spain and Portugal; and de facto fascism in Italy. And at that time, having a good time also involved a real disrespect for the law, and doing things legally.
Many of these things have changed, but I feel in many ways even angrier now. That relative lack of inequalities have grown exponentially: there has been a revolution by the rich for the rich. But there is a certain fragility to its legitimacy. Yes, angrier now, but still up for the good times which give one the ‘fuel’ for active opposition. In the 1990s and since, I’ve had a great time at squatted raves and for a long time, since its sad end, the fabulous Dub Club that finally expired in a downstairs club in Finsbury Park after a wonderful period at the Dome in Tufnell park.
I do not mean to ideologize this and would like to be clear about what I mean by notions of politics-as-personal; Puritanism and morality. The big breakthrough in the radical politics of that time in the past was that the revolution was not a teleological goal, that how one lived and acted in the now was/should be a constituent of ‘the revolution’, of a realized communism. In the process this involved a rejection of that kind of Puritanism which gave no space to the full living of that now, and which manifested itself as manipulative self-righteousness. This rejection did not preclude self-criticism, my own bits of ingrained sexism for example were not going to disappear spontaneously. Similarly the rejection of moralizing was because of its manipulative nature and because it so often involved hidden psychic agendas. Whereas I believe that I and many others tried to live a moral life, that was indeed what the personal is political was about, the aspiration to live out a communist morality. I say this because in more recent times, this opposition to moralizing has been used by consumer capitalism and its purveyors to dismiss any criticism of personal morality as moralizing. Thus the radical alternative comedian starring or doing voice-overs for some obnoxious product. Don’t moralize at me, is their standard response to any criticism.
My feeling on this was well expressed by Susan Sontag in an article ‘Thirty Years After’:
“When I denounced (for example in the essays on Sci-fi, films and on Lukacs) certain kinds of facile moralism, it was in the name of a more alert, a less complacent seriousness. What I didn’t understand…was that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large, and that some of the more transgressive art I was enjoying would reinforce frivolous, merely consumerist transgressions.”
3:AM: You raised the notion of ‘proletarian values’ in an essay for Mute three or so years ago, entitled ‘Intensities of Labour: from Amphetamine to Cocaine’.
JB: Hostility to elitism, and opposition to its practice wherever possible, in that I’ve been unchanging ever since I made the mistake of becoming a student at Cambridge. At that time, 1966, and I can’t believe it has changed much, its existence was in your face. Here was the next generation of the ruling class, assured of its right to be so. I was not going to be of it, but felt I was being readied as some kind of functionary to it. When I tore up my Finals papers along with five other comrades, it was a culmination of a campaign against the process of selection which was, in fact, a process of exclusion. The way things are, when there can only be so many doctors, lawyers or other careers, and when there is no room for interesting work and its rewards for everyone, this process of exclusion is a necessity. No doubt this campaign counted for nothing in the great scheme of things, but it was liberating for me and many other students in other colleges and universities who made similar refusals at the time. In the sleight of hand used by Rupert Murdoch for example, it would be us who were the elitists, arrogant, self-righteous and so on. But that is a sleight of hand and no more, you cannot see Murdoch relying on The Sun newspaper for his information about what’s going on in the world.
With the Angry Brigade (I was technically guilty of the Conspiracy charge but as I’ve said before, they framed a guilty man), it was from a background also of hostility to the elitism of the then vanguard left that saw itself as an alternative ruling class. But with the Angry Brigade, I felt that here was a way of getting back at the existing elite I had seen at Cambridge, in a direct way. One characteristic of it was how of that elite was how it made decisions that had serious impact on the life of others, without it having any consequences for them personally. The idea of the Angry Brigade was to say, yes, it does have consequences for you too.
When I was in prison reading Marx and finding it very helpful in my understanding of the world, I also felt that was what was missing in the Marxisms of my time was understanding that elitism and exploitation were dependent on each other. Yes, capital has a necessity to accumulate, to screw out ever more surplus-value, but capitalists and the state with a shared interest in social and labour discipline, also has to believe without question that they are entitled to be the exclusive disciplinary force, profit by it, and in turn increase their power. There was no question but that they deserved all their power and wealth as a result of their personal attributes. Yes, and if they don’t get their millions in bonuses they will, though there is no hard evidence of this, be instantly snapped up elsewhere for an even greater bonus in another unnamed country. The elite is entitled to its vast rewards, they have to believe it. These days it’s everywhere, pervasive for example on the advertisments of the obscene channel BBC World. Like a smug young suit waltzes through all the usual airport hassles because he’s flying Virgin First Class, and says, “Precious thing, time.”
Meanwhile the poor are queuing, waiting for one thing or another, a bus or an interview at the Housing Office. Their time does not count.
One of the many perversities of prison life is that it is both very social and sociable in the day, and then monastic from early evening only. This was a time, now and then, to examine oneself. A parody of that, mimicking the Bolshevism of the time and its language, would be to call it analyzing one’s own “elitist tendencies.” What this helped with practically, was to avoid getting my head fucked with Althusser and other theorists who traded in exclusive language. What helped even more was a phrase from the not exclusive Henri Lefebvre in a pocket book put out by Methuen (in a not-to-be repeated series of radical pocketbooks): “biological inequality between individuals is an undeniable fact, but it is monstrous to make use of this fact, or accentuate it, so as to profit from it.”
3:AM: What do you make of writers like James Kelman in that regard?
JB: More depth was given to this view of the world by an essay by Kelman in the Edinburgh Review at the end of the seventies, when this, with its mix of fiction and wide ranging essays and snippets, was everything you could want from a magazine. In the essay he started by celebrating how Chomsky’s linguistics showed that everyone, except for those with particular neuorological impairments, had the same capacity for language; that it is, whatever the particular language, wired into us. He went on to also celebrate the Scottish Enlightenment in the person of Thomas Reid, and described its concerns about the developing specializations of knowledge and their exclusivity in the late 18th century. They argued that the existence and nurturing of a mass critical intelligence in all the people in the face of this. Without such a mass critical intelligence, the elites of knowledge and power were likely to do stupid and dangerous things. But its development and nurturing is the last thing being encouraged by the education system except for elite institutions where critical thinking is encouraged within fixed parameters. Education is ever more functional to capitalist economies, ever more instrumental.
How this is the case is explored in Kelman’s novel A Disaffection with its teacher main character trying to help pupils accept nothing on trust. It’s been rightly said that Kelman does not parade his own socialist beliefs in the fiction, but it implicitly and constantly questions the assumptions of elitism. It begins with the writing itself which famously made and makes Glasgow talk as rich and articulate as the most literary, and breaks from previous ‘dialect writing’ by using neither apostrophes nor speech marks when his characters are speaking. This is not an affectation but integral to expressing a language that challenged elite self-satisfaction with its own. We all have the same capacity for language, whereas the elite has the power to determine what is “torture” and what “ill-treatment”, or as it now is “Inappropriate behaviour” and “Mis-selling”. What Kelman’s fiction prose does is to challenge that power of definition, the value judgements implicit in so many adjectives and adverbs.
3:AM: Do you really think Iain Sinclair is a “literary estate agent”?
JB: I feel hostile to the writing of Iain Sinclair (which appeared in an essay in Mute magazine called ‘Reader Flattery: Iain Sinclair and the Colonisation of East London’) when I shouldn’t feel like that. He’s all right the geezer, on the same side, horrified, maybe angry, at the colonisation of East London which is to make a further leap with Olympic Games bollocks. Only the anger gets smothered in phrase-making and then you wonder. The accumulated phrases are full of value judgement, become summings-up of anything that moves; wrapped up in a parcel, and that’s that. I especially disliked when it was directed at working class people who were not saved by any claim to eccentricity. For them the phrase-making had a sneer to it, they were aesthetically displeasing. An oddball aesthetic perhaps, but so what!
It wasn’t just this angle of sneer, but very often the phrase-making itself because of the defining quality it has. A recent piece on the London Olympics in the London Review of Books is much of the same, and this is perverse because we both think it is a form of grotesque colonisation. Perverse too because he mentions a film I had an acting part in. And perhaps too, I feel a little bitter that so very few people came on the protest march that came on a bitterly cold Saturday, just after the news of the bid’s victory on the podium, when we marched from Stratford Tube to the edge of Hackney marshes due to be concreted past a pre-existing sports field that is never used. But really I can’t stand the judgemental phrasing. Here for example in a place I know, Haggerston Park. He begins with the rough sleepers:
“Late risers, having nothing much to rise for, burrow deep into dismal kapok-stuffed cocoons while dog-accompanists use ballistic/prosthetic devices to hurl soggy yellow green tennis balls for their hunt-and retrieve pets. And the stoic Chinese couple, accompanying their own version of the Long March, scorch rubber treadmarks around the padlocked novelty of the pristine football pitches. Artificial grass is better than the real thing, tougher, each blade individually painted, False chlorophyll dazzles like permanent dew, the permafrost of conspicuous investment.”
The times I’ve been there, usually school holidays, these pitches have been lively with non-stop local youth teams. It is an outrage that some of the football pitches on the Hackney Marsh will be concreted over in the name of spectacular sport, but these artificial pitches like the massively used one on Market Road, were not created as replacements so why the sneer? Obviously each blade is not individually painted. Why ‘false chlorophyll?’ And as for the park? Well that’s then, summed up so we can move on. Towards what was the Haggerston swimming pool. Its closure too another scandal from the bourgeois social engineers of Hackney Council, but anger is again swallowed up in the phrase-making about the jazzy visuals on the surrounding fence which “pre-empts the attentions of spray-can subversives, class warriors, animal liberationists and wannabe Banksies hoping for exposure in the weekend magazines.”
It’s a bit cheeky from someone who does OK himself in the weekend magazines, but the real giveaway is the judgemental “wannabe”. How do we know the motives of modern-day graffiti artists? The style is not a matter of aesthetics, rather that the language is integral to the politics. In this instance the flashy phrase-making feels to be all too like the flashy nature of Olympics past, present and to come.
Another essay I wrote for Mute called ‘Intensities of Labour: From Amphetamine to Cocaine’ in which I described how in the “creative city”, it was not enough to be good at your job, you had to believe it was important and have a tangible enthusiasm. Cocaine is especially effective in creating this feeling. In practical terms this enthusiasm often means lots of unpaid overtime to the benefit of capital, but also making the boss see that you believe. Against this I placed proletarian values, by which you go to work for the money, and that’s it. There was not space to describe such values any further, but here again James Kelman’s fiction has been a help in confirming, giving words to what one knows inside.
There is work itself. In the very first novel, The Bus Conductor Hines for example, both conductors and drivers are always trying to work on their own terms, giving nothing more of themselves than is absolutely necessary. They’re taking no shit off of passengers either. Bukowski’s postman’s like this. In warehouses and meat-packing plants it’s just the boss to screw. But Bukowski is more limited, he romanticizes in-the-gutter bohemianism because it’s just him, the loner with one crazy lover or another.
Kelman’s Hines is not just involved with guys at work, he is also – with his own fears and paranoias- the father of a small child with a wife who loves him but has a better job than his. In this passage from The Bus Conductor when he is anxious about his wife’s feelings for him and thinks of his in-laws, he suggests what class is all about, and does it in a way that mimics ‘proper language.’
“It was their expectation she should one day meet her match within the Higher realms. Their only son having secured a fine situation….has now contrived to appropriate a variety of snug objects. Little wonder they should be dumb founded to learn of their only daughter’s curious infatuation with a lowly member of the transport experience…. But also… he was displaying the manifold characteristics of the Imminent Go-Getter. On subjects of a metaphysical nature he provided the family with a few stimulating evenings.”
In this novel, and then, for example, the story ‘Band of Hope’ (that appears in the collection Greyhound for Breakfast), he also expresses proletarian values beyond work itself, and does it without preaching or phrase-making. In the story a group of men who all know each other, and are a syndicate for the night are at a not-glamorous gambling place (it hardly rates as a casino and hot soup is what gets served). The character Oanny has fallen asleep while this on-the-night syndicate he’s in, is backing one of their own, Alec. When he wakes up he gets that something is going on.
A joke at his expense maybe and complains that he finally has to get to the point of asking how much has been won. They drag it out , until he has to say:
“All I’m asking is how much we lifted
Fair enough. And all I’m asking is how much you put in the kitty?
What? Oanny sat back in his chair. How much had he put in the kitty? In the kitty? How much? What kind of fucking question was that? He glanced sideways at Alec. It could not be a real question. Surely no. He scowled and made as though to say something but his attention was diverted by fat Stanley who had begun wheezing in that way he had.
Eh? Asked Alec
Oanny looked at him and grinned. Fuck off!”
First off, he and we finally realize it’s a wind-up by that wheeze, which is fat Stanley’s style of laughing, and the wind-up is wit that is not without affection. And at the same time, Oanny’s ‘What kind of fucking question was that?’ is itself an expression of those non-bourgeois values. We do not know whether he has put money in, or how much, but these are long-term pals, it should not matter. Whereas with the bourgeoisie you’re likely to get accounting down to the last penny. This is not ‘old-fashioned politics on my part, but pragmatically true as I know from my time as a Man-with-a-van removals outfit. I remember how in the space of a week getting a good tip and no argument about the hours from people who could easily be described as Mondeo Man, a working class couple who were doing all right and on the way up. Whereas with another couple from the creative industries, after me and my nephew had got a heavy piano up the tightest of curved stairs, when I said that will be five hours – we charged by the hour – she said, But really it was only 4 and three-quarters, then did the sum that required and paid that.
In a variety of ways then I’ve found Kelman especially fruitful in enriching an anti-elitist view of the world both in his non-fiction and fiction.
JB: Well it hasn’t got very far. My first novel Futures appeared in French and German from two substantial publishers, Grasset and Dumont, but never found an English publisher. Since then I’ve written another three, none of which have so far got anywhere. They are all set at specific times for a reason, and perhaps none of them have been the ‘right times’ in the recent past. Or more commonly, in those rejections where someone has made an actual comment, they fall ‘between genres.’ Futures was set in London in 1987 and concerned the darkly ironic coming together of the world of finance capital and cocaine. A French reviewer called it ‘magisterially orchestrated’, this of course is the one I shall remember, and gave me the confidence to carry on. Now I don’t know, it seems dilettantish to carry on, while at the same time writing a novel is a huge commitment.
3:AM: What about your ‘political commitment’ now then?
JB: Some people say that as you get older, you move to “the right” politically, others that you become more left wing than ever. Which only goes to show how these categories do not tell the whole story. I don’t think that my own political view of the world have changed from when I was young, and probably the best day of my life was June 18th (J18) all those years ago because it was truly wild and, for once was addressing a truly significant target, a building where billions of dollars, yen and Euros whiz around a the world, a key part of that world which has revealed to be built on the wishful thinking of greed that is both systemic and personal. And, on that day, full of admiration for a younger generation who had pulled off a stunt that lifted the spirits of people opposed to all the meanesses big and small, of capitalism, and shown what could be improvised. Younger comrades told me this was DIY culture, and how rave culture had picked up on attitudes for my youth, and been so much more competent in “reclaiming the streets,” and embracing actions beyond the legal. It was so cheering, just as when I came out of prison in 1978 to a series of Rock Against Racism gigs. J18 was even better but in the years that followed, the frighteners were put on that DIY political culture.
It was, they say 9/11 that changed the world as opposed to J18 as a minor footnote in a possible history of the future. In fact it did, and it didn’t, customer figures on 9/12 at the IKEA store on the North Circular were as usual. I remember the day well, being present at the Excel exhibition in Canning Town to protest against the “Arms fair” (check the cheek of that phrasing), an international show of killing weapons large and small. Needless to say there was a huge police presence to protect this business-as-usual, but finding a spot between Excel and a nearby hotel, we were able to make some arms dealers at least look shamefaced, though their spokesmen were all ready to tell the world that this display of weapons (each with their own glossy magazine brochures…real weapons pornography), was all in aid of creating peace in the world. What 9/11 did do was the give both impetus and rationalization to repressive processes already in motion (as news of the Twin Towers attack filtered through the Arms Fair police told demonstrators that they were in part responsible for the New York attacks). Yes, already in motion when for example on May Day 2001before the attacks on material American symbols took place, the lead-up to that involved media scare stuff unprecedented in my lifetime. Plotters were planning all sorts of villainy Police would be armed, London was on full alert. And not just the tabloids either.
In response to the non-plot, the police started to use some piece of legal smallprint, (a tactic developed by the Israeli state to accompany violent land-grabbing) called Rule sixty that enabled the cops to enclose, coraal, groups of people for indefinite periods, demanding personal details, taking photographs and so on. It became all too easy to get a criminal record of some sort or another simply for being ‘politically’ on the street. This is hardly a new tactic, the state creates the circumstances to create the very situation it has warned against. In the instance of street politics the scares will mean that only a ‘hard core’ of activists will carry it out, and the state can then say, See, we told you so. Soon after all this came Genoa.
It is clear that as many people are saying, or have said for quite a while, that street action and large scale protest as against the G8 in Scotland are not enough by themselves. There are both limits and contradictions involved, in that they are spectacular politics in all senses and yet are either ignored or caricatured in the mass media spectacle. It is obviously true that the politics of changing the world is a slow everyday process in a variety of what seem to be small-scale struggles against exploitation and the ‘new enclosures’ being perpetuated by a capitalism whose dynamism has become so geographically limited and technologically slanted. But it does then also seem wrong to diss ‘street protest’, especially at a time when the mass media routinely refers to the ‘civil liberties’ lobby, as if the only people concerned with these liberties were middle class cranks. Civil liberties have to be constantly re-made, and reclaiming the streets is a part of that, and equally street protests have been important for more than visibility, which is for people to know that they are not alone, that their objections to the world as it is are not weird.
Having said all this, may sound perverse to say that one of the problems I have with the anti-capitalist movement is ‘ultra-leftism.’ Him? Cheeky bugger, they might well say. For me to say it may well also provoke a knowing mirth from ‘leftists’ of my generation. This is true not just of the all-too-dominant Bolsheviks of the time (many of whom are now hardline New Labourites) who still dreamed of storming the Winter Palace but were terrified of any illegality) but also of ‘libertarian communists’.
That’s how I see myself, in fact said words to this effect in my 1972 trial when being pinned down to a label, but it’s a political tradition that was scarred by a mendacious, hugely distributed pamphlet of Lenin entitled Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. I’ve written elsewhere of how the seen-the-neoliberal-light ex-Bolsheviks in New Labour dismiss opposition to its politics as infantile, and it would now be most enjoyable to see some of these bastards eating their neoliberal hubris; in the case of Lenin the technique was to caricature arguments for proletarian democracy, make them straw figures and knock them down.
But there is such a thing as ultra-leftism and it takes more forms than just ‘black bloc-ers, infiltrated by agents provocateurs as they probably are. Its most distasteful aspect is its armchair encouragement of other people to act in ways that may have dire consequences for them, but not those in the armchairs. I think especially of the black youth encouraged to attack the police and police stations by leftist sects in the 1980s, and then disponwed.
That is an extreme case. The most recognizable characteristics of ultra-leftism are:-
- an overwhelming need to be in the right according to a set of tick-boxes as to ones ‘the political-as-personal’ virtues.
- criticism of anti-capitalist organizations in parts of the world where conditions are far more difficult on the grounds, and action requires great courage, that they are not hard line or pure enough (again, easy enough to say from the armchair)
- a fetishization of various one-dimensional theories
- a misjudgement as to what victories, might be possible in any given situation.
Sometimes it takes the form of ‘the enemy-of-my enemy-is-my-friend’ politics. I find this especially distressing to hear libertarian comrades refusing to see how things are, because of a ‘Cold War’ view of the world. This really came to a head for me during the war against Bosnia and then Kosovo as I described in a long piece written at the start of the Iraq invasion called “Frankenstein and the Chickenhawks.” There were many brave comrades who took supplies to Tuzla during the war against Bosnia and I have huge admiration for their courage, but much of ‘the left’ supported Milosevic as if he were an anti-Nazi hero of the Yugoslav resistance rather than a cynical nationalist, and seeing his actions as a response to the evil machinations of the imperialist west. The imperialist west commits enough crimes in the world without having to exaggerate. To listen to the pro-Serbian left you would think the Americans had planned the whole thing rather than the reality of having to be dragged kicking and screaming to do anything to stop the project of ethnic cleansing. The Americans are not omnipotent nor omniscient and to see the world entirely through that lens leads to support to leaders who have no right to be supported. Besides, the American elite’s belief in its omnipotence has in recent years revealed the opposite in several parts of the world. Instead we are constantly in between a rock and a hard place, but trying to live out contradictions instead of suppressing them. The Kosovan people had every right to expect to be protected (the racism directed against them from various sections of a left proclaiming its anti-racism was unbelievable), but it obviously stuck in the throat that that defence was in the hands of NATO and involved a cowardly bombing campaign.
Now we’re in a situation where awareness of the contradictions is especially important. The financial crisis of capitalism will, likely as not, lead to high levels of unemployment, and it would be truly “ultra-leftist” to celebrate that, especially by those like academics for whom it is not going to have consequences. Equally one can hardly not celebrate the hubris now experienced by those ‘masters of the universe’ and their wiseguys. What matters is that this celebration becomes a political course of action which concentrates on attacking the elitism of banking wiseguys and the political and media monologue which has supported them for so long. In this country we have had a government that self-advertized its ‘prudence’ while hard selling “London” as the least regulated world financial centre. As financial institutions are nationalized and ‘socialism for the rich’ becomes manifest, it is still the same wiseguys who speak with authority about what is going on. There are now legions of wise-after-the-eventers with their authority unchallenged. All this matters because there is likely to be wholescale media manipulation to turn blame against the weakest, “illegal immigrants” and the like. The work I hope to be part of is to keep the focus on the real guilty parties, both their greed and incompetence; to say they have no right to their authority and not to take seriously promises to behave better once they have been saved.
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John Barker was born in North London where he still lives. He was imprisoned in the 70s as an Angry Brigade ‘conspirator’ and served a further sentence in the early 90s for hash smuggling.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 11th, 2008.