Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Philip Larkin

If for you the good life started in 1963,
after the worst winter since '47
and The Beatles’ Please, Please Me;
the Yom Kippur War and OPEC
put paid to that in 1973 –
after the currency had been decimalised

and Heath sold out to the EEC.
Lord, protect
what little sovereignty
our state has left,
from those whose wit
exceeds their grace;

and from those
with neither grace nor wit,
whose actions lead us
into temptation,
or worse,
the shit.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

More Bloody Foreigners*

And then the Romans came
with their straight roads, stone forts
and short, belly-piercing swords.
They taught us the art of
stone-walling, ruling
off North from South.
And then came Picts and Britons,
Angles and Saxons,
Jutes and bloody great Danes,
and after them Vikings.
Lowering blood-red sails in the sunset,
they burned the East with dragon-flames.
Irish Norsemen from Dublin
caught and slaughtered the Danes
and were, in turn, broken by Saxon axemen.

The Reformation, the Armada, D-Day -
all that followed might not have been
had Harold Godwinson
kept his nose out of Normandy.
With Papal blessing, William's Normans came
and England, first flayed by the tanner,
was put under the hammer.

Nothing much has changed.

*The title is a line in the film The Eagle Has Landed. This piece was first published in Ambit 173 in Spring, 2003.

Thursday, 13 August 2015


The struggle is to live with quiet gladness
in spite of weather, rent rises,
power bills, stock market fluctuations,
stupid or cowardly governance;

bad faith, cheap grace,
circumstances, time;
young blonde barmaids
with plunging necklines.

Midwife of the questing mind,
professor of ignorance.
The way to wisdom is not
for those with secrets to hide.

The authorities got him
for immoral aiding and abetting,
as the English got Joan of Arc
for the heresy of cross-dressing.

More of a gargoyle even
than Paul Verlaine;
but purer than democrats and tyrants.
He had no possessions, no loot,

no off-shore investments in Persia.
What he had was shared with friends,
and when Athens was under military threat
he fought as a foot soldier.

He was sent to shine a light through posterity.
A thorny old bastard bare-heeled
among potsherds and
the broken amphora of history.

He accepted the state's poison ruefully.
The greatest discovery you can make in life
he said, as he wiped the hemlock from his mouth,
is yourself.

first published in Ambit 196, Spring 2009

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Love & Mercy...

...should have been the title of harrowed John Berryman's penultimate book of poems rather than the title that was chosen, Love & Fame. Instead, it is the title of Bill Pohland's fine film about Brian Wilson, the man who wrote and arranged God Only Knows and Good Vibrations for The Beach Boys.

As the titles roll at the end there is an inset of Brian Wilson in concert singing another of his compositions, Love & Mercy, a benediction for the suffering world from a man who, as the film shows, knew a lot of suffering himself. Unlike Amy Winehouse, though, another sufferer, Wilson found somebody who helped pull him through his nightmares.

Moving through past and future with Paul Dano playing the young Brian and John Cusack the older Wilson (Elizabeth Banks is the very important somebody) the importance of this relationship unfolds as the film goes on. At first it irritated me. I didn't want to know about Brian Wilson's personal life. I was more interested in the recreated studio sessions showing how Wilson's key masterpieces were recorded and the friction this caused with other members of his family including his father, the band's erstwhile manager. But all really good films overcome your resistance and I was won over by the way this relationship is interpolated through the film.

While Love & Mercy is explicit about how Wilson was recovered from the whirling circles of his mind, it doesn't explain what sent him into the vortex. It might have been his face-punching father, whose blows impaired Wilson's hearing; it might have been post-fame narcotics; it might also have been the meddling of the man whom Wilson came to entrust with his his well-being. But they may only have been symptoms: the cause, the trigger for all the rest, might have been innate.

Pohland's film is not a psychiatric treatise, however, but an enjoyable entertainment that explores darker areas of creative vulnerability, as does the excellent but deeply poignant Amy. I don't think either film - the second is a documentary - make a case for special pleading. Both Wilson and Winehouse were exploited to some degree. Wilson's obessessive personality and Winehouse's addictive personality made them vulnerable. Ultimately, the older Wilson was luckier than the young Winehouse in his personal relationships.

I saw Amy twice and I shall go again to see Love & Mercy at my favourite cinema complex in Bradford's National Media Museum. It's what I like to do with some of my days since my career as a journalist was cut short at the end of May. Slowly, I am beginning to accept that this is not a prolonged holiday but my life.

Do yourself a favour and go to a cinema to see both Amy and Love & Mercy. Remember, "true love is searching too; but how can it recognise you/ unless you step out into the light, the light..."

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Beware of Greeks Baring Their Chests...

Amusing and ironic at the same time to me to listen to Greeks in Athens complaining about having only 60 euros a day given to them by banks. Just over 42 quid. That's pretty good compared to the £26 a day I've rationed myself to over the past few weeks. That in turn is a hell of a lot better than the £70 a week one homeless man was on whose story was recounted on Channel 4 yesterday.

Always somebody worse off than yourself. The way that some Greeks have blamed the current plight of their country on the rest of the European Union rather than their own profligate complacency is like a man to whom you've loaned money asking his family to tell your family to pay back the loan his behalf. I thought democracy was supposed to be about accepting responsibility for your own words, deeds, mistakes - as well as holding the great and the good to account.  

Didn't Socrates say something to the effect that the unexamined life wasn't worth living? But then his countrymen got rid of him on a trumped up charge of corrupting the youth of Athens.

Shakespeare, who appears to have written a play suitable for every occasion - Macbeth for the eve of the collapse of Soviet Communism, Julius Caesar for every military dictatorship or civil war you can think of, also has one for the Greek drama/crisis and I don't mean Timon of Athens. No, I was thinking of The Merchant of Venice - "three thousand ducats, well." The 'no' voters, stirred up by their Government, think that Europe's financial institutions, which have already lobbed in 200 billion euros or more, is after a pound of flesh.

I think they'd simply like some evidence that thy're not going to be conned out of getting their loans back - eventually.  Debt restructuring is commonplace over here. Over there, I suspect, the art of political lying consists of transferring the blame for national culpability elsewhere. Democracy be damned: it's more like blackmail.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

PR and the Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

A campaign is underway for a system of Proprtional Representation, what Paddy Ashdown glibly used to refer to as "fair votes".

The argument has been going on for years. Is it fair that the nearly four million votes cast for Ukip in Thursday's General Election resulted in just one MP, whereas 1.5m votes for the SNP in Scotland resulted in 56?

PR would share parliamentary seats according to the number of votes cast for each party, putting an end to swing voting and marginal seats, we are told. The sense of disenfranchisement and disillusion would diminish as more people realised their vote counted for something.

Various forms of PR are employed all over the world. It's used to select British Members of the European Parliament, so why isn't it deployed in general elections to our own House of Commons?  I don't know, but I hope it isn't. I don't wish the fair votes petition well, I hope it fails. Why?

In part because I think that too much democracy leads to poor decision-making or no decision-making; parliamentary representation shared out according to votes is bound to increase the number of small parties which will regard its MP as a single-issue delegate rather than a representative of all the people in a constituency - including those who didn't vote for that person.

Representing people who didn't vote for you is what real democracy is, for it tacitly acknowledges other views, other standpoints, other arguments. I was once Father of an NUJ chapel and quickly found out how difficult it is representing others with whom you might not entirely agree.

The argument for PR - it militates against single-party domination - is also an argument against PR - it causes factionalism which in turn can encourage parties of political or religious extremes. 'Oh no!' I hear you cry, 'You're not going to bring up the Weimar Republic as an example!' Of course I am. On the day Victory in Europe was celebrated in London, why wouldn't I?

Between 1919 and 1933 Germany was governed by 21 coalitions. And we know what happened in January 1933 as a result of prolonged instability: power was handed to Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party. The Nazis, like the German Communist Party, were encouraged by the constitution of the Weimar Republic.

A system of PR operated. Germany was divided into 35 equal electoral districts. If a party got 60,000 votes in a district it got one deputy in the lower house of the Reichstag. Party officials chose who that deputy would be. If the number of votes was half that in several districts the votes were added up and an appropriate number of deputies was allocated.

In addition, plebicites or referenda were offered on specific issues. Under Article 48 of the constitution, the President  had emergency powers to abolish governments and suspend all human rights. Which is precisely what Hitler did as Chancellor after the Reichstag fire. He persuaded President Hindenburg to give him the power to outlaw political opposition and trades unions.

I wasn't there. But the American reporter William S Shirer was, in Berlin, up until December 1941 when Hitler declared war on the United States. This is what he says in his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich about Weimar's system of governance.

The weaknesses of the Weimar regime were obvious. There were too many political parties, and they were too much at cross purposes. Too absorbed by looking after the special interests they represented, they were unable to form an enduring majority in the Reichstag that could back a stable govenment.

Parliamentary government had become what a majority of Germans called 'kuh handel' - cattle trading - with the partners bargaining for special advantages for the groups which elected them, and the national interests be damned. 

It had been impossible to achieve a majority in the Reichstag for any policy - of the Left, the Center or the Right. Merely to carry on the business of government it was necessary to resort to Article 48 of ther constitution, which in an emergency permitted the chancellor, if the president approved , to govern by decree.

Although I won't be alone in having voted for a party, not especially a candidate, I've always done so knowing the identity of that party's candidate in advance. I don't like the idea of having an MP conferred on me after the election. I like the first-past-the-post system. Since 2010 it has given Britain coalition government and now single party government.

One defeated Liberal-Democrat MP I spoke to the day after the General Election told me that on the doorstep people complained that MPs from different parties needed to work together more. At the same time they criticised Liberal-Democrats for abandoning their principles by working with the Conservatives.
Many of those nearly 4m people who voted Ukip were tactical voters more interested in keeping somebody out than getting somebody elected. The SNP, as I have said elsewhere, were beneficiaries of Labour Party incompetence. The SNP replaced the Liberal-Democrats as Britain's third party. Temporarily. Five years from now the picture could be very different.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Mili-Clint. The Shape of Things to Come.

There was I, getting on with my work, when a wall-screen on the far wall started showing pictures of Ed Miliband in full flow. Evidently the Labour leader was telling a gathering of the party faithful (the Shadow Cabinet were there) that he was "ready for power".

The last time he had the reins of power between his teeth, of course, he was Gordon Brown's Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and signed us up to the EU's carbon capture programme. Brownie points if you believe in Apocalypse Now (in 2017). None if you don't.
I got on with my work. When next I looked up Hillary Clinton was beaming winningly at me. Evidently, the former First Lady of the United States intends to pitch for the Democratic ticket in the next Presidential election.

The last time I took any notice of her she was beaming winningly at David Miliband, who was Gordon Brown's Foreign Secretary. Hillary, on the footslopes of the Everest of ultimate power, was President Obama's Secretary of State, 2009-2013.

Head down again, I contemplated the future should these two events come to pass. On this side of the Atlantic, the Miliband dynasty, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Clinton dynasty.

The prospect of Miliband and Clinton in power at the same time will doubtless cause a flutter of excitement among those who view the alternative as likely to encourage the advance of what Heaven 17 call "that fascist groove thing".

Some of them may have second thoughts after a year of sanctimonious trend-setting - those who haven't taken advantage of the job opportunities, that is.