Sunday, 16 November 2014

New Model Army, Nick Cave and David Hockney

Watching War of Words, the BBC2 documentary about British poets and writers who fought on the Somme between July and November 1916, narrated without fuss or portentousness by Michael Sheen, the chorus of a song called Ghosts by New Model Army echoed in my mind:-

And when the music is gone the silence is still ringing
With all these conversations between the dead and the living
For these ghosts become part of us, the ghosts become part of us, the ghosts become part of us

The faces of dead soldiers looming up through water's mirror in rain-drenched shell holes that the likes of Siegfried Sassoon, David Jones, Wilfred Owen, J R R Tolkien, Robert Graves and others saw; the lives and voices of dead comrades forever echoing.  

Ghosts is the last song on New Model Army's last album Between Dog and Wolf, released last year. The album is also the title of Matt Reid's film documentary which we went to see before War of Words - hence the fusion of the two.

New Model Army was formed in Bradford by Justin Sullivan 34 years ago. He was greatly helped in his ambition to make a career out of being a singer-songwriter-performer of uncompromising attitude by Joolz Denby. Of all the work he has produced I know only that single LP and two or three songs: Green and Grey, Angry Planet and Vengeance.

In Reid's documentary Sullivan said he wrote Vengeance after watching a TV documentary about Nazi mass-murderer Klaus Barbie in which he was addressed as "Mr Barbie". Sullivan's chorus, to a pounding punk beat, goes:-

I believe in justice,
I believe in vengeance,
I believe in getting the bastards, getting the bastards, getting the bastards

Nazi war criminals didn't come into my mind, but bankers playing silly buggers with foreign exchange rates and world economies did; and vicious buggers playing games with the lives of children.

Neither Greenpeace nor the Labour Party's Red Wedge would have anything to do with New Model Army. On the band's one and only appearance on Top of the Pops they insisted on playing live, not miming to a pre-recoded tape. Sullivan also insisted on wearing a T-shirt bearing the legend: Only stupid bastards take heroin. The BBC insisted that all but the b of bastards was masked by tape. When the boss of Sony arrived backstage at a NMA concert to tell the band he would make them rich and famous, Sullivan told him that his job was to promote their music; it was not their job to promote his corporation. Sony dropped them.

Phil Jupitus said Sullivan's insistence on shooting himself in the foot was one of the consequences of being true to his principles. A man after my own heart, I thought: let the work to the talking.

How different to Nick Cave, who spends almost the entire length of Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's biopic 20,000 Days on Earth talking about the art of song-writing (when he's not talking about himself). His stage act is very different to Justin Sullivan's, very touchy-feely. With his jet black hair swept back Dracula-style, he leans into the front row of his concert audience saying, repeatingly, Can you hear my heart beat? Very theatrical, but then he has written for the stage as well as the big screen.

While I quite enjoyed watching the Cave man building the song Push the Sky Away in the studio, recording the various parts and splicing them together, as he performed on stage my mind was distracted by his facial similarity to Lee Marvin and his stylistic resemblance to Neil Diamond (with a dash of the younger Leonard Cohen). Lesley thought he was pretentious whereras she thought Justin Sullivan was honest. I wondered who took his kids to school and shopped for the pizza he later ate with them (while being filmed of course). Talking about art can be disingenuous. While you are playing god somebody else is paying the bills or cooking the dinner; but the material aspect of making art is not something that singer-songwriters or painters are either asked about or offer to discuss.

David Hockney is case in point. His father Kenneth gave his artistic son a piece of advice: "Don't worry too much about what the neighbours say."

For the last 50 years Hockney has not spent too much time worrying about what anybody - art critics among them - had to say either about his lifestyle or his work. He appears to have adopted his father's iconoclastic advice as his personal philosophy. Early on in his career he declared portentously: "I paint what I want, when I want." Later on he added to this manifesto, saying that he painted pictures wherever he happened to be - London, Los Angeles or Bridlington.

Hmm, well I can report that he's no longer on the east coast of Yorkshire. Instead he's on back on the west coast of America. The least interesting parts of Randall Wright's biopic homage Hockney take place in the Hollywood Hills. Not that the 77-year-old artist's reflections about his childhood in Bradford are boring, they're not. Hockney's always been an interesting, sometimes mischievous, raconteur. It's just that the more compelling parts of the film, for me at any rate, consist of black and white footage of late 1950s Bradford, the art college where Hockney irritated macho show-offs by drawing studiously for hours at a time, learning his craft, and the early 1960s clips of the Royal College of Art in London.


We see the young Hockney, close-cropped hair dyed blond, pogo dancing with a young woman with evident Yorkshire relish. There is a great deal of youthful joie de vivre, both in his behaviour and in his paintings which in 1962 won the 25-year-old the Gold Medal for Painting. Some of the scenes from London of the early 1970s are clips from Jack Hazan's weird and wonderful mixture of fact and fiction, A Bigger Splash (how did he get them all to, well, play themselves?).

One of the incidental fascinations of Wright's film, apart from John Harle's soundtrack, is the changing timbre of Hockney's voice across half-a-century. Like the colour of his hair, it has gone from craggy Heathcliff black to camp California blond and bleak Yorkshire grey.

Former student colleagues at Bradford, John Loker and David Oxtoby, are among the talking heads who offer anecdotal colour to the Cook's tour of Hockney's life, though there is little or no evaluation of his art. Oxtoby comes closest, declaring that Hockney probably hasn't changed his basic outlook since his days in Bradford. "He's still searching," he says. Okay, but for what?

For me the best sequences of the film belong to the artist as a young man, before fame, fortune and celebrity - and all those honours bestowed by the Queen. We two old queens clinging together. Not that the film goes anywhere near assessing either Hockney's enormous wealth - extensive properties in California, London and Yorkshire - or his attitude to money and posessions.

Hockney describes his father's advice about ignoring the neighbours as "aristocratic, actually, not working class. My mother would have worried about what people say." As far as I know, Hockney showed no inhibition in projecting himself in London, New York and Los Angeles. Does this make him one of life's natural aristocrats or democrats?

The film does not ask this question let alone answer it. He says: "When I didn't have much money I always was always working..." Words to that effect. Now he has a great deal of money, but this doesn't come up in the film and this made me wonder why. Hockney is not obliged to tell anybody outside the Inland Revenue and its American equivalent what's he worth. Like Justin Sullivan, I expect he wouldn't give a damn however little money he had. But wouldn't you expect a documentary film-maker or profiling journalist at least to ask how much? Hockney is fond of expatiating upon the significance of space and time in his art. Well, his economic power has bought him a great deal of both - a dozen or more people depend on him for a livelihood. Hockney's story, indeed the story of his family, is one of rags to riches. They all made something of themselves by their own efforts. How he did it, how they did it, is worth a few minutes. We are all interested in how people rise above their circumstances. Hockney's wealth isn't the key signature of his story, but neither is it a minor part of it.

The most moving moment occurs about 17 minutes in when Hockney's sister Margaret is shown walking along a street of terraced houses off Bradford's Leeds Road. She enters one of them, the former family home, goes up the stairs into a room and looks out of the window. The camera pans round to a mirror on the wall, into which the young Hockney with a hand-held camera, appears. It's a clever, simple, piece of film-making, splicing together past and present; and Harle's accompanying sountrack mirrors the mood perfectly.

Refreshingly, Randall Wright's film has no disembodied narrator. The people who appear on camera - they include Hockney's mother, Laura - speak for themselves.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Branding Russell

Having a private life and promoting a public cause can be complementary, they don't have to be either/or. It seems to me that Russell Brand is valiantly struggling to reconcile these two aspects of who he is, who he is trying to become.

Standing up in public and admitting that he is an alcoholic, a drug addict, in day-by-day recovery is a point of departure for him, not the end point of a confessional. Listening to him the other night, dominating a platform with the Guardian's Owen Jones in London, I was at times deeply touched by Brand's honesty and above all by his willingness to acknowledge the contradictory impulses in his character and his declared refusal to be dominated by them.

Living an outward life, distancing one's self from the gravitational pull of me, me, me, the regret that follows and the subsequent hunger for palliatives to dull the anguish and self-hatred, requires something beyond those selfish imperatives. Buddhists get out of jail by denying the material world. Political activists hurl themselves into it, as though changing the outside will bring transformation on the inside.

Brand engages in the latter activity while simultaneously placing himself in the hands of a benevolent creator. There was an interesting moment when, during the course of one impassioned cascade, he declared that even David Cameron was beautiful. Like every other human being, he too was a child of the creator. I don't think Brand said 'God'; he may not have said 'Creator', but he was clearly talking about a presence, an emanation, beyond this world.

Owen Jones look slightly embarrassed. As an engaged social activist, possibly an apostle of Richard Dawkins and (it follows) a true believer in man-made environmental apocalypse, the idea of a Tory Prime Minister being beautiful, let alone having a soul, was a bit much for Mr Jones. I don't suppose he'd have quite the same difficulty with the idea of Caroline Lucas and Vivienne Westwood having a soul, but Nigel Farage? Ukip's leader was the one most often referred to disparagingly. He's been well and truly boxed and packaged.

Ukip wants Britain to reclaim its soul from the European Union. Russell Brand listed 'Europe' (he meant the EU) as one of the vast trans-national corporate bodies that he wanted people to cut loose from. He has more in common with Ukip than he realises. Green activists, of course, embrace an ever-closer union with the EU because it enforces climate change policies they religiously espouse. In man-made environmental apocalypse they find the certainties that Hebrew zealots in Israel find in the idea of Armageddon. Believers in diametrically opposed ideas have two things in common: a central, over-arching ideal, and passionate intensity. Passionate intensity, as Yeats said in his poem The Second Coming, can lead to terrible acts for politically or morally beautiful reasons.

The world will be saved by wind power, wave power, carbon capture and the transforming potentiality of green technology. That's the mantra. But neither Russell Brand nor Owen Jones made a link between the multi-billion pound cost of this (for the UK rising steeply to 2050) imposed by the EU and its electorally unaccountable panjandrums in the Commission. They see environmentalism as a necessary alternative to morally bankrupt capitalism. It might be if it wasn't so capital-intensive, if it wasn't rich with grants and subsidies. If you embrace the idea of man-made environmental apocalypse then you also embrace the EU as it is, what it was and what it always intended to be - a vast political corporation telling people what they can and cannot do.

Beautiful David Cameron is learning that this organisation cannot be changed from the outside. Russell Brand will too. Activists passionately believe that direct action does force political organisations and corporate bodies to change. Russell Brand doesn't like the idea of coercion, let alone bloody revolution. His idea of revolution has nothing to do with class warfare or Baader-Meinhof-style 'praxis'. Kill bad ideas, not people. He advocated engagement at a local level: do what you can decently do to make a difference for others without harming anyone. He offered his fame and influence to amplify the objectives of good causes. More dubiously he suggested that people should walk into big corporations like Tescos and simply take them over. 

A friend who was with us at the event said afterwards that some of the audience responded to Brand as though he was a messiah. Messianic figures, irrespective of whether they actively seek that status, tend to end up as targets - not for their enemies. It wasn't a Roman who betrayed Christ. The man who assassinated Gandhi was a Hindu, not a Muslim or a Sikh. A Jew gunned down Israel's Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. Europhile Tories put paid to Margaret Thatcher's career. And John Lennon's self-proclaimed biggest fan, Mark Chapman, fired five bullets into him. Et tu Brute and all that.

I think Russell Brand is a bright man who is trying to be a good man. He's sharp enough to know when he's being set up and acutely aware of being patronised. I hope he's just as sharp and aware of the motives of seemingly well-intentioned acolytes who look at him as an opportunity to further their own agenda. He'll have to be long-suffering and good-humoured along the way.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Ukip If You Want To - the Party's Not For Sleeping...

Would Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats be sharing power with the Conservatives if the Social Democratic Party had not come into existence in March 1981?

That's an open question, I don't have a ready-made smart answer. Thirty-three years ago the Liberal Party that David Steel inherited from Jeremy - "bunnies can and will go to France" - Thorpe was a bit of a joke. From being a potential power-broker, first with Edward Heath and then with James Callaghan, it became an outlet for disillusioned Labour or Conservative voters at by-elections. But in the autumn of 1981, six or seven months after The Limehouse Declaration and the manifestation of the SDP, Mr Steel felt sufficiently emboldened by events to tell delegates at end of the Liberal Party conference: "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for govenment!"

Remember that? It took 29 years, but after the 2010 General Election they got there. The question is: would the Lib-Dems have succeeded without the side-swiping arrival of SDP? Answers on the back of a photo of Johnny Rotten aka John Lydon, please.

The analogy between the SDP and the Sex Pistols is not as incongruous as may first appear. The Pistols were a phenomenon for only about two years, from 1976 to 1978. Although popular music reverted to type after the band's shock wave subsided, the after-effect still ripples to this day. Similarly, although the SDP is no longer a Parliamentary party, arguably its influence lingers on, giving hope to the supporters of Ukip.

Disillusioned ex-Ukippers, who criticize Farage's party for not having a sign-posted road map out of the Euroland, should not be denounced as spoilsports. They serve a purpose, much as the chap who rode on the chariot of triumphant Roman emperors whispering 'memento mori'. Premature ejaculations encouraged by triumphal by-election victories are apt to lead to anti-climax and may screw things up for chaps with a cunning plan who come after.

In 1973 pro-EEC Dick Taverne, left the anti-EEC Labour Party (how times change). He sensationally won a by-election at Lincoln and formed the Campaign for Social Democracy. His blazing success was short-lived, as were the SDP comets of former Labour Party panjandrums Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins in the skies of Crosby and Glasgow Hillhead. I've forgotten most of the great by-election shock nights that I used to stay up for, watching the late Vincent Hannah enjoying himself in obscure parts of the country.

After the Rochester by-election Nigel Farage may well be able to say on behalf of Ukip: 'Now we are two: Carswell and Reckless.' Sounds like a road accident waiting to happen. But Mr Farage should also bear in mind that the SDP's Gang of Four - Bill Rodgers, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins - had 28 erstwhile Labour MPs as well as former Conservative Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler ranked behind them. They did not get into the magic circle of power. They were too pro-Brussels whereas Ukip is not.

Political life in 1981 Britannia was different. Debate was real, heated and meant something - look at the vilification aimed at Tony Benn for trying to make the internal procedures of the Labour Party more accountable. I didn't think he was right at the time, but at least people argued with real feeling. Voting meant something. Parliament meant something. Sovereignty meant something. Since then the people of this country have found themselves chained to treaties they neither voted for nor had a say in formulating. And in that time they have felt increasingly disenfranchised as evidenced by the falling turn-outs at all kinds of elections. Add to that the public's low opinion of MPs and you can see why Nigel Farage believes his party's in with a chance of making a difference at the General Election in May next year.

The two main parties tend to judge the present by the past - 'come the next election voters will revert to type, don't worry old chap'. I hope they get a bloody shock. Both of them are responsible for selling this country out to greedy corporations, the egregious European Union and the United States. If there ever is a referendum on whether we should knock off the EU shackles - which I doubt, for that will take some kind of terrible upheaval - infuriatingly, I probably won't be around to see it.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

2015: A Year of Anniversaries and Landmarks...

Skip Kite's feature-length film about the life and times of the late Tony Benn, Will & Testament, covers most of aspects of his personal and public life - his parents, wartime service in the RAF, the death of his brother Michael, his marriage to Caroline, his renunciation of a peerage and subsequent career in Harold Wilson's Cabinet, his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, his condemnation of Israel's bombardment of Gaza.

But one event is missing, quite important as it happens: Tony Benn's opposition to Britain's membership of the European Economic Community from the late 1960s and all that followed from that, principally his idea for a referendum on Britain's membership two years after the deed was done. What may seem to some an interesting but redundant bit of history is likely to crackle into life once again next year, the year of the General Election.

For those with a taste for historical synchronicity, next year two important anniversaries are due to take place. June 18, 2015, will be the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which saw a coalition of European powers defeat the army of Napoleon Bonaparte and end French dominance of the continent. The other anniversary on June 5 marks the 40th anniversary of the 1975 referendum the result of which saw Britain defeated by another coalition of European powers. The vote to stay in the ten-state ECC, as it was then, underwrote French dominance of Europe at least until the reunification of Germany in 1990.

The difference between Britain now and the Britain in that long hot summer of 1975 when I was 26 is that ordinary people have alternative means of communication to get to the truth of things. I spent this afternoon and half the evening, for example, watching Michael Elliott's 1996 four-part documentary for BBC 2, A Poisoned Chalice, about the formation of the EEC and Britain's various attempts to come to terms with its mutable manifestations - the EEC, the European Community and now the European Union.

Usually, this deeply troubled relationship is pitched as a battle between self-government and government by the EU, in a word sovereignty. The way we would do things over here is not the way they do things over there. Those with a tendency towards this Manichean view of things would not have enjoyed Elliott's second film which explained how Edward Heath's Conservative Government gerrymandered the vote on the European Communities Bill in 1972 with the collusion of the Labour Party - at least the pro-European part of it.

The vote, 309 in favour, 301 against, was accomplished because of a secret deal between the chief whips of the two main parties which meant that during votes on the 12 clauses in the 37-page Bill, sufficient Labour MPs were absent to give the Government a majority. Tony Benn described this as a "coup d'etat by a political class who did not believe in popular sovereignty." He's on film saying this, but oddly, not in Will & Testament.

The 1975 referendum - either in or out - was fought on economics by the pro-lobby which had more than £1.5m to spend on it. There was Shirley Williams, then part of the Labour Government, going round telling housewives that prices would not go up. But, as Heath later admitted, membership of the EEC wasn't about economics, stupid; it was about federalism. Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, from opposites sides of the Commons, both saw that and said so unequivocally. In February 1974, Powell advised Conservatives to vote Labour at the General Election if they valued British sovereignty.

In 1970 Edward Heath assured the public: "Entry could only take place with the full-hearted consent of the British people." Powell said later of that statement: "He knew he hadn't got it and this is coming home to roost on his successors." The ousting of the Iron Lady by the Tory Party hierarchy in 1990 tends to obscure the travails of her successor John Major. Defeated in the House of Commons on the Maastricht Bill first time around, then a vote of confidence and in 1995, 20 years after the referendum, a call-my-bluff resignation as leader of the Conservative Party. Euro-sceptic John Redwood challenged him and lost. Next year, 20 years after that 'back me or sack me' leadership stand-off, 40 years after the referendum on Britain's membership, the issue of the greater European empire (28 states and counting) will be back.  

In spite of all that's happened since June 5, 1975 - including the Exchange Rate Mechanism fiasco, the wars caused by European meddling (first in Yugoslavia and more recently in Ukraine), the bail-outs, the immigration free-for-all - the pro-marketeers, as they were known 40 years ago, still bang on about the benefits of being in 'the club'. The more far-seeing among their opponents are now working out practicable strategies for getting out of this bankrupt institution. To paraphrase the 1975 feel-good pop song in support of staying in, we've got to get out to get on.

The cost to the British taxpayer of EU membership over the next five years is £40 billion according to the Office for Budget Responsibility - more than the £17 billion that Chancellor George Osborne says he still needs to take out of public spending.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Waiting for the Bombers...

Early this afternoon, under the awning of a cafe table in the centre of sunny Bradford, I read the last 18 pages of Robert Fisk’s 1,286-page book The Great War For Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. Getting through it – on trains, buses, in cafes, the office and our back yard – has taken just over two months.

From that sententious opening you would be correct in assuming that I think I am not quite the same man I was on July 24 when, hesitatingly, I bought the book in Waterstone’s. I knew it would be polemical, I knew it would take me to places I did not want to go, above all I knew it would expose me to views of invasions and conflicts, from Afghanistan to Palestine, that I did not want to accept. The fact that Fisk lived in Beirut, had lived there for the best part of 30 years, had risked his neck to interview all concerned in these conflicts and invasions, unlike officially embedded correspondents or those who gaze upon terrible events from afar and pass judgement in the safety of book-lined studies, may have played a part in persuading me to take a chance and buy it.

Yes, all right, it is too long and there were times when I wondered whether Fisk was taking a perverse pleasure in the litany of horror he chronicles, from the massacre of Armenians by Turks, to the torture in the jails of Iran and Iraq and shoot 'em up policies of Israel and the United States. Then I realised that by putting names to the liquidated, the disappeared, he was bringing the corpses back into history. I didn't like it. You may not have the stomach for it. But, at least we have a public record of the things done to real people that have been obscured by silence or jargon - "targeted killings" or Donald Rumsfeld double-speak: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." I was an apologist for these people who talked about Iraq as a line in the sand in thje West's valiant "war against terror". I was a nodding dog because, though I should have known better, I didn't want to listen to those who said the 2003 invasion of Iraq was wrong and that it would lead to greater disaster. Reading this book made me realise that everything I thought I knew about the Middle East was wrong or at least was more wrong than right. If that doesn't satisfy you, tough; you'll just have to take my word for it: that book has made a difference. 

The coincidence of finishing it on the day that MPs in Parliament were debating whether to send in RAF bombers against the executioners of Islamic State merely reminded me of history’s barbed-wire ironies, the snagging statements of intent by presidents and prime ministers whose words cause others to bleed.

As MPs rose to address the nation, and posterity, I read: it was little wonder that as the West’s moral and physical power was smashed in the Middle East, a new wave of al-Queda-style bombings reached us across the world, even taking the lives of more than fifty Londoners on 7 July 2005 when the city’s tube and bus systems were attacked by suicide bombers. Prime Minister Blair still insisted this had nothing to do with Britain’s role in Iraq – a claim that seemed all the more mendacious when it was revealed that the British security apparatus had already warned of just such attacks after Britain occupied southern Iraq...

No one grasped that the leader of the Islamic side in this so-called war – bin Laden – was now irrelevant. The billions of dollars spent in trying to find him proved that we had still not understood the reality of the attacks of 11 September, 2001: bin Laden had created al-Qaeda, but his role was now largely ceremonial, theological rather than military...al-Qaeda now existed in the minds of thousands of Muslims. The monster – as Western journalists like to refer to their enemies – had grown up and propagated.

Who created that monster? We did. Fisk’s book rewinds history back to the start of the Great War and the botched settlements in the Middle East that followed the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in Palestine and Arabia. But if you read William Dalrymple's Return of a King, you can trace the origins of present day bitterness in Afghanistan back to Britain's first botched venture into the country back in the early nineteenth century. Fearing a joint attack on its Imperial interests in India byTsarist Russia and Napoleonic France, Britain sent out an armed embassy loaded with gifts; but in seeking friends and allies we backed the wrong tribal leaders, which later resulted in military defeat in the first Afghan War followed by British reprisals of such savagery that they would never be forgotten or forgiven by future generations. I bought and read Dalrymple's fine book last year.

The monster emerged in the form of the Taliban in Afghanistan and then al-Qaeda and now Islamic State. Different groups with different agendas perhaps, but all nourished by spilt blood and broken promises.  Professor Paul Rogers, from Bradford University’s department of Peace Studies, suggested as much when he told me: “The Taliban were supposed to be defeated in six weeks; Saddam Hussein in three weeks. But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been going on for 13 and 11 years respectively. It is tempting to say we should destroy Islamic State, but you have to be incredibly cautious. The toughest elements of IS are Iraqis who fought against the Americans after 2003. I think they will probably welcome it (US and British bombing) because it supports their case against the West.”

Fisk’s book, published in 2006, concludes with the Iraqi insurgency and its ramifications, the shock waves of which are still making the horizon quiver. Interestingly he includes a quote from T S Eliot, made in 1946: Justice itself tends to be corrupted by political passion; and that meddling in other people’s affairs which was formerly conducted by the most discreet intrigue is now openly advocated under the name of intervention. Nations which once shrank from condemning the most flagitious violation of human rights in Germany, are now exhorted to interfere in other countries’ government – and always in the name of peace and concord. Respect for the culture, the pattern of life, of other people...is respect for history; and by history we set no great store.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then farce. Those who fail to learn from the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them...Given the present circumstance we may extend that dialectic: the only lesson we learn from our mistakes is to repeat them with more expertise.

Today's debate in the Commons was ostensibly about bombing IS in Iraq - at least that was the message from the Conservative chief whip's office yesterday; but I gather that during the seven-hour debate some Tory MPs were bidding up RAF air strikes to include Syria. Well, that's not what the House overwhelmingly voted in favour of. It would be the mother of all ironies if the West ended up bombing the enemies of Syria's Government when just 13 months ago David Cameron was all for bombing the Assad regime. 

Three days before finishing Fisk’s great and shaming ensemble of recollections, press cuttings and polemic, I saw a small story on page 25 of The Independent. The headline, ‘Rabbi’s car firebombed after he criticised Israel’s actions in Gaza’ didn’t prepare me for what I read underneath.
The torching of Rabbi Ahron Cohen’s Volvo estate happened not in Israel but in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, two weeks after the George Bernard Shaw-bearded rabbi publicly voiced disapproval of Israel’s military policy in supposedly independent Gaza. An anonymous neighbour said: “His views have angered a lot of people around here. A lot of families have boys in the Israeli army.”

I don’t imagine that Home Secretary Teresa May will be discussing with her officials whether these fighters for Israeli freedom should be allowed back into Britain, after all Israel is not a threat to our way of life, is it?

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Rake and Pilgrim: Hockney's Progress...

The palette knives are out for David Hockney. Judging by the bitchy comments posted in response to reviews in The Guardian and The Independent of Christopher Simon Sykes’ second volume of biography of the Hockney, A Pilgrim’s Progress, blokes with an artistic bent less rich and famous don’t like Hockney. Or should that be less rich, famous and not gay? Oh he’s a great draughtsman – or draftsman if you’re American – but really, they say, he’s just a stylist in search of content.

Hockney, of course, has heard or read all this many times since graduating from the Royal College of art, the gold medal for painting in the pocket of his gold lame jacket. Artists were supposed to be scraggy, bearded and poor. Hockney was smart, young, successful and evidently gay. Pop goes the easel. He was tagged a Pop Artist along with others of his generation. It was his popularity that got up some people’s noses. Even in his hometown, Bradford, there have always been those who seem to bear a grudge. Anything Hockney can do they know seven-year-olds who can do better. J B Priestley ran into this problem - "a great place for discouragement,” he once remarked about his home town. Priestley wasn’t gay, though. We’re not prejudiced in Bradford: gay, straight or slightly wobbly, everybody thought to be a bit above himself gets the Dirty Harry treatment. That self-congratulatory song New York, New York, has the line that if you can make it in the Big Apple you can make it anywhere. Pah. Try swanking here, pilgrim.

I’m old enough to understand the value of unfavourable comments. “Write less, mean more,” a critic once said in a review of one of my books. That remark curdled in my guts for years; but I came to accept that the man who wrote it had a point. I write less now but wish I could write more. Prolific Hockney leaves himself open to a similar criticism because the quantity and variety of his work – the prints, paintings, drawings, photographs, opera sets, electronic drawings and lately films – defy easy categorisation; and ungenerous people are suspicious of gifted all-rounders, jealous perhaps. Slog away at one thing for 48 years and you might glean some grudging respect. Go from one thing to another as Hockney has done all his working life and you leave yourself open to the accusation of ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’.

Now while not everything Hockney has done is excellent – I never got on with all those dog paintings of Stanley and Boodge, nor the Very New paintings inspired by his theatre work – he cannot be faulted for being casual or slapdash. Not only does he see more than most, he understands the symbiosis of things – colour, light and space, for example – better than most. Flip through this volume and the one that preceded it two years ago, A Rake’s Progress, and you get a glimpse into the trouble he takes to bring into reality the things in his mind. From all that I have read about him and by him since 1985, when I first met him, I would say that Hockney is most himself when he’s working.  Yeats said artists had a choice: perfection of the life or perfection of the art. Peter Schlesinger, who features in the late 1960s, early 1970s in the first volume, thought Hockney put his work above his relationships. Others make the same complaint in the second volume. Sykes himself found that if Hockney wasn’t in a receptive mood he risked being told to “bugger off”.

Sykes’ book gives a graphic picture of Hockney when his normal Protestant work ethic was disrupted either by illness or distress. Physiologically he wasn’t himself – wrapped up in a dressing gown in front of the fire, falling asleep at dinner parties, rendered almost comatose by narcotics – Sykes doesn’t say which ones. The Yorkshireman capable of sustained bursts of creative energy wasn’t there, wasn’t his-self. The death of friends, many from AIDS, the death of his mother, the death of his two dogs, the loss of hearing in the late 1990s (he seemed to have two miniature hair-dryers lodged in the inner coils of each ear), the occasional bouts of depression that followed, are in sharp contrast to most of the 38 years recounted in A Rake’s Progress.       

I read through most of the book two years ago. I've only had time to read chunks of the second volume. Though compiled and written with respect and admiration, I wouldn't say these books are sycophantic. Hockney temperamentally blowing a gasket in the desert on a drive from Chicago back to LA, Hockney rather cravenly getting somebody else to remove a bothersome acquaintence from his guest house, Hockney disrupting the sleep of guests to lecture them about Picasso or one-point perspective - all this, and doubtless more in chapters I have yet to read, are included.    

Other things don't appear to be. The extent of Hockney's riches, for example - the properties in London, Bridlington, Los Angeles and elsewhere for all I know, the people who depend on him for a livelihood, the cars, the paintings. The man who was raised in Steadman Terrace, off Leeds Road, and Hutton Terrace, Eccleshill, has done very well for himself and for his family and friends. What he's got he has earned. His mother and father didn't have the brass, as they say in Yorkshire, to pay for their artistic son's progress. Nor is there any mention that I could find of the circumstances that led to the death of 22-year-old Dominic Elliott in Hockney's Bridlington house last year. I thought there would be and believe the omission of this, for whatever reason, merely draws attention to the incident which Hockney would prefer to forget, leaving Yorkshire to return to his home in the Hollywood Hills where he spends his days between waking and sleeping painting.

What both books do have, however, is the presence of Hockney's late mother Laura - and they are the better for it. Unlike any other book about Hockney or by Hockney, Sykes' biography is illuminated by extracts from Mrs Hockney's diaries and letters. At the end of one letter she wrote in the early 1980s, a letter in which she referred to Hockney's sexuality for the first time, she says this: "There are many things I shall never know in this life. The world changes every day - but I'll be modern where I can - God bless you my own dear boy." That is touching and gives the reader a different way of looking at Hockney. He was throughout his mother's life a dutiful son. He has always been modern, meaning in the moment.

But it's a credit to Sykes that the happy families light is not always rosy-red. He says Mrs Hockney was irritated by the time and attention her son gave to his friend Jonathan Silver, the owner of Salts Mill in Bradford who was dying of pancreatic cancer in the summer of 1997. Yet it was this relationship which prompted Hockney to return to Yorkshire for seven or eight years and paint the seasonal landscapes of the Wolds.

Hockney the landscape artist, the painter of dachshunds, the flower water-colourist, the optical investigator: all these manifestations of himself appear to have upset a lot of people including art critic Brian Sewell - a man who annunciates his words with the precision of a Guardsman ironing creases in his trousers. Sewell likened the Yorkshire Wolds paintings in The Bigger Picture exhibition at London's Royal Academy to be made to sit under the loudspeakers at Glastonbury. Hockney's life has certainly been colourful and loud. The Sunday Times once profiled him: 'Portrait of the Artist as a Naughty Boy' - but he's never been afraid to risk public ridicule or outright hostility by standing up for what he believes. That's something he got from his parents, especially his father Kenneth. Like everybody else, he is the sum of his contradictions. The man who fills a 70-ft long wall of his LA studio with pictures from several hundred years of Western art also has a penchent for corny jokes and listening to tapes of 1960s BBC radio drama series such as Paul Temple. After lunch in Bridlington three years ago Hockney, who was wont to sign off emails 'Love life', wondered whether it was too early to break out the After Eights. The cigarettes he smoked that day were stubbed after three or four puffs.

Sykes' first book gives the impression of vivacity, intelligence and eagerness for experience - a man with a talent for life who never thought he would fail. Though the pictures get brighter in the second volume, there is more chiaroscuro in the life. At the finale, however, Hockney laughs off mortality by saying in his seventies that he is coming to the end of his middle period. Well, his mother nearly made it to 100 which could mean that, if Hockney's heart holds out and he doesn't have another stroke, he'll be around for at least another 22 years. Is Sykes contemplating a title for a third volume, I wonder?

I'm sure Hockney doesn't give a thought to whether he'll be here in 2036. In Jack Hazan's film docu-drama A Bigger Splash, he tells Cecila Birtwell that though he hasn't much time for nostalgia he keeps going back to the same places, perhaps the same faces. Don't we all? But he leaves all that behind when he's busy picture-making. Tough as that is for those who want his time and attention on a daily basis, those beyond the magic circle can derive great pleasure and not a little happiness from the pictures and the books - as I have over the years. Art saves lives.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Günter Grass: 'What Must Be Said'

Günter Grass: 'What Must Be Said'
Poem published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, created a heated debate in both Germany and Israel

"Why have I kept silent, held back so long,
on something openly practised in
war games, at the end of which those of us
who survive will at best be footnotes?

It's the alleged right to a first strike
that could destroy an Iranian people
subjugated by a loudmouth
and gathered in organized rallies,
because an atom bomb may be being
developed within his arc of power.

Yet why do I hesitate to name
that other land in which
for years – although kept secret –
a growing nuclear power has existed
beyond supervision or verification,
subject to no inspection of any kind?

This general silence on the facts,
before which my own silence has bowed,
seems to me a troubling, enforced lie,
leading to a likely punishment
the moment it's broken:
the verdict "Anti-semitism" falls easily.

But now that my own country,
brought in time after time
for questioning about its own crimes,
profound and beyond compare,
has delivered yet another submarine to Israel,
(in what is purely a business transaction,
though glibly declared an act of reparation)
whose speciality consists in its ability
to direct nuclear warheads toward
an area in which not a single atom bomb
has yet been proved to exist, its feared
existence proof enough, I'll say what must be said.

But why have I kept silent till now?
Because I thought my own origins,
tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,
meant I could not expect Israel, a land
to which I am, and always will be, attached,
to accept this open declaration of the truth.

Why only now, grown old,
and with what ink remains, do I say:
Israel's atomic power endangers
an already fragile world peace?
Because what must be said
may be too late tomorrow;
and because – burdened enough as Germans –
we may be providing material for a crime
that is foreseeable, so that our complicity
will not be expunged by any
of the usual excuses.

And granted: I've broken my silence
because I'm sick of the West's hypocrisy;
and I hope too that many may be freed
from their silence, may demand
that those responsible for the open danger
we face renounce the use of force,
may insist that the governments of
both Iran and Israel allow an international authority
free and open inspection of
the nuclear potential and capability of both.

No other course offers help
to Israelis and Palestinians alike,
to all those living side by side in enmity
in this region occupied by illusions,
and ultimately, to all of us."

Translated by Breon Mitchell. You can read the poem in the original German here.
• This poem was amended on 10 and 11 April 2012 after it was revised by the translator. This was further amended on 13 April 2012 to include a link to the original poem in German.

Before anyone tells me that the author of this poem joined the Waffen SS when he was 18, I know. Hence the line "Because I thought my own origins/ tarnished by a stain that can never be removed..."

I copied Grass's poem on to my blog because yesterday the television news showed a picture of a block of flats in Gaza imploding, having been struck by a projectile or bomb fired by Israel.

I didn't think of 9/ll and the World Trade Center. I thought of all the years I have taken Israel's side, its right to exist, its right to live behind the defensive shield not of Iron Dome, but the Holocaust - the conversation stopper, the dialogue killer. The Holocaust does not give Israel the right to do to Gaza and its people what the Nazis did to Warsaw and its people, not in my book. As Grass says in the poem, "the verdict Anti-semitism falls easily."

I'm not surprised that Grass's poem resulted in Israel declaring the old boy persona non grata, though the poem, calling for an independent inspection of both Iran and Israel's nuclear capabilities, seems fair enough to me. It's better balanced than Respect MP George Galloway's recent pronouncement, for example, that Bradford was an "Israel free zone". While that's not an anti-Jewish statement it doesn't acknowledge the Israelis critical of the Likud Government's military policies and its borderland strategy.

George Orwell wrote - what did he write, exactly? Something about true freedom meaning listening to something, an opinion, an idea, you don't want to hear. Have I become so accustomed to the censorship that now abounds in this age of scheissdrek - even fictional dramas on television have an obligatory warning about scenes of violence (imagine that, a drama about World War 1or the Holocaust warning of scenes of violence) that I can no longer instantly bring to mind Orwell's words?

Establishment Israel choosing to be offended by a poem as sane as Grass's, with its reasonable questioning propositions, but offending the world's sight by unreasonably blowing up a civilian apartment block in Gaza doesn't surprise me either.