We were delighted to discover this wonderful review of John Medhurst’s No Less Than Mystic in the newsletter of Warren Ellis (graphic novelist, writer, author of Normal, Gun Machine, Transmetropolitan, Red and much more). He’s kindly given us permission to reprint the section here. You can sign up to his newsletter, Orbital Operations, here. No Less Than Mystic is out now.
I have many fine-looking books by many excellent authors waiting to be read, and I’m desperate to read them, but I have a confession. When NO LESS THAN MYSTIC by John Medhurst arrived, I dropped everything to start it. And it hasn’t let go.
It’s a history of Lenin, the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution.
I feel like I need to yell HEAR ME OUT.
The brilliance of Medhurst’s political histories — and some of you will remember me praising his previous THAT OPTION NO LONGER EXISTS — is his sharp eye for the pivot points and the alternative routes history could have taken. Or, put another way – alternate histories are buried in his actual histories. He will lead you to fly off into fascinating could-have-beens, big ones that start with small corrected missteps or slightly different arrangements of personalities. There are wonders compressed in his books.
The additional pleasure of NO LESS THAN MYSTIC is that he looks back from a 21st Century perspective, with no interest in being chained to the previous moment. From the blurb, in fact, he:
continually examines the Leninist experiment through the lens of a 21st century, de-centralised, ecological, anti-productivist and feminist socialism. Throughout its narrative it interweaves and draws parallels with contemporary anti-capitalist struggles such as those of the Zapatistas, the Kurds, the Argentinean “Recovered Factories”, Occupy, the Arab Spring, the Indignados and Intersectional feminists, attempting to open up the past to the present and points in between.
This fills out the book in remarkable ways, and, frankly, allows Medhurst to put the boot into Lenin from a number of different angles.
(It could be usefully read in tandem with Catherine Merridale’s LENIN ON THE TRAIN, which was not nearly as soft and romantic a book as some idiot reviewers would have you believe.)
This is a big, energetic, ambitious book that deserves every success. A hell of a performance.
(Nice to see Repeater Books building out its list so skilfully, too.)
Warren Ellis is the award-winning writer of graphic novels like TRANSMETROPOLITAN, FELL, MINISTRY OF SPACE and PLANETARY, and the author of the NYT-bestselling GUN MACHINE and the “underground classic” novel CROOKED LITTLE VEIN. The movie RED is based on his graphic novel of the same name.
A new novella, NORMAL is released November 29 2016.
Sci-fi has a pedigree of exploring contemporary issues through the engaging gauze of societies and contexts far removed from painful familiarity. Inequality is explicated through different life forms, nuclear anxiety masquerades as fears of interstellar warfare, loneliness through the guise of artificial intelligence or the pseudo-modernist anonymity of slipping through dense and chaotic metropolises…in each case, sci-fi often trumps its stuffy literary or languorous cinematic ‘betters’; it speaks to us in a clear voice and cuts closer to the bone. A good example of this is the downright Dostoevskian Battlestar Galactica (2004). Battlestar Galactica mirrored post-9/11 paranoia on a multitude of levels. Cylons explored the anxieties and devastating potentials of terrorist ‘sleeper-cells’ – perhaps most obviously the prospect, and fall-out, of suicide bombings. The erosion of civil liberties was the knee-jerk Band-Aid on earth and the Battlestar Galactica fleet. The series was even replete with sham trials (Baltar’s Karamzovian trial) and a prisoner-torture controversy. Resource management, paranoia and the warring of theisms also provided the background to empathetic depictions of beings, whatever they may be. Other than that, the show was just spaceships and aliens.
Westworld fits right into such a lineage. Do not mistake Westworld to be about consciousness, AI agency or sentience. Others can reference Metzinger, Dennet and the Churchlands. Westworld is about every major city in the west. Slightly smiling with avuncular nostalgia and ominous magnanimity, a la Hopkins…let me explain.
Westworld is a luxury theme park, of a ‘wild-west’ theme. It stretches out for miles, so much so that guests can trek for days searching for something or someone inside the park. Hosts populate the park. The hosts are synthetic androids initially indistinguishable from guests. The hosts are like the simpler Replicants in Blade Runner (1982), except Asimov’s first law seems to be correctly installed: they cannot hurt the guests. The hosts are given narratives. They wake up each day, and depending on their finely honed behavioral parameters, engage with the guests or one another in order to serve a grand narrative. Despite the prospect of orchestrating such meticulously complex, rather Dostoevskian in scope, narratives the park invariably relies on simple pleasures. As one can imagine in the park populated by idealized cowboys, farm-girls, whores and militia – the appeal for much of the guests is base. Sex with things and/or conflicts with things are generally what the park caters for. Sex and violence, wild fucks and shoot-outs, are, regardless of the park’s creators’ and directors’ ambitions, its bread and butter.
Of course, as is bound to happen with androids on screen, some guests lose themselves in the illusion, they begin to feel feelings for the hosts. Others, however, do not succumb – they never lose themselves in Westworld, they always remember it is only a game. The Man in Black, played by Ed Harris, falls into the latter category. Logan, played by Ben Barnes, is very similar. These men say only what needs to be said to progress the narrative, like affect-blunted gamers pursuing a game sequence, they shoot, rescue and run with apathy and cynicism. Most intriguing is their interactions with the hosts. They know the hosts are not ‘real people’ so they often talk at them as objects ‘you were programmed well’ they might say. It is this type of dialogue that, initially, reveals who is guest and who is host. The antithesis of these types is undoubtedly William, played by Jimmi Simpson. William cares about the hosts, he doesn’t ask questions they cannot answer; he goes along with the narrative, the shallow ranch clichés and yesteryear syntax of Dolores (played by Evan Rachel Wood).
The Man in Black’s and Logan’s disposition, their remove from any emotional interaction, recalls a particular scene in The Remains of the Day (1993). Mr. Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall, is serving drinks to Lord Darlington and his three guests. They begin discussing if ‘the man in the street’ should have a say in political matters, such as war. Lord Darlington, halts Mr. Stevens from exiting after he has topped up the glasses of his betters. He informs him that Mr. Spencer has a question for him.
“Do you suppose the debt situation regarding America factors significantly in the present low levels of trade? Or is this a red herring and the abandonment of the gold standard is the cause of the problem?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I am unable to be of assistance in this matter.
“Oh, dear. What a pity. Perhaps you’d help us on another matter. Do you think Europe’s currency problem would be alleviated by an arms agreement between the French and the Bolsheviks?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m unable to be of assistance in this matter.”
“Very well, that’ll be all.”
“One moment, Darlington, I have another question to put to our good man here.
My good fellow do you share our opinion that M. Daladier’s recent speech on North Africa was simply a ruse to scupper the nationalist fringe of his own domestic party?”
“I’m sorry, sir. I am unable to help in any of these matters.”
“You see, our good man here is “unable to assist us in these matters.” Yet we still go along with the notion that this nation’s decisions be left to our good man here and a few millions like him. You may as well ask the Mothers’ Union to organize a war campaign.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You certainly proved your point.”
“- Q.E.D., I think.”
Mr. Spencer takes a malicious delight in exercising his superiority over Mr. Stevens. He knows, before he asks his questions, that Mr. Stevens will not offer any opinion or enter into the dialogue. Of course, this performs his point – that the common man should not have a say in lofty matters best left to those of sound stock. Mr. Spencer is a not unlike a bullish tourist that teases the guards at Edinburgh castle, he knows full well no reply other than duty and courtesy will ever come and relishes the asymmetry of agency. The Man in Black and Logan enjoy the same sneering privilege and disdain for the hosts in Westworld. They ask questions for the answers they need, and when they get tired or bored the simple hosts are dispatched.
Westworld is a luxury resort, the bar inside the headquarters offers the guests respite from playing; they lounge poolside, glittering drinks in hand, before returning to the vicarious thrills of the park. The guests have access to different routes into the park; they may use an underground network that the hosts are not aware of. Like a first class tube system meets Ballardian poor doors.
Westworld is about class. It explores, within the defamiliarized scope of sci-fi, the dynamic between the super rich and others. The super rich can travel the globe swiftly in comfort; they flit in and out of major cities, invisible people circle, mutely providing tertiary service various. The super rich, if they do not like whichever park they land in, can leave, try another time zone, climate and narrative. The prole inhabitants, however, may not leave – they are stuck, stuck in their narrative of debt, strife and strive. The hosts of Westworld live in loops, tightly controlled narratives, with miniscule opportunity of change. The android assigned to the role of whore, bandit or soldier has infinite fates of claustrophobic similarity, any divergence from plan being academic in the grand scheme of things. The whore may whore in various ways, the soldier may fight and die in various ways – but nonetheless, the whore will whore and the soldier will fight and will die. “We live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next.” That’ll be all Stevens…
Like the hosts, we all have our loops. We even have quaint ticks and programming characteristics. We swipe touchscreens and avidly check emails. We parrot empty phrases, “lol” we say blankly. We pepper our dialogue with “like” or acquire croaking vocal frys from American reality TV. We do such things, with varying verisimilitudes, in our daily loops – on a “daily basis”. Whilst we do so the super rich come in to town. They might rape or kill. They might do all sorts of things. No matter. Because, as Logan is fond of reminding William: “what happens in the park, stays in the park.” Cheated on your partner? No problem, a super-injunction can fix that. Perhaps one cheated millions out of money whilst working in high finance? A mere trifle, the hosts will clear the mess up.
In Westworld the hosts soon see through the loops they are trapped in. Maeve, played by Thandie Newton, after trauma upon trauma is compounded, begins to see through the charade – she wakes up. The same is true for Dolores, it is the trauma, the memory that should’ve been erased from surface level script, that returns as the epiphany which sparks their escape. We can only hope our traumas and memories soon resurface and endow us with the fangs to break from our repressing loops of exploitation.
by Tariq Goddard for the Quietus
I came to extreme metal, or at least post-metal, sludge rock, or whatever experts in branding would describe Neurosis’s music as, late in life. I had been listening to music which sounded a bit like metal for years (Godflesh, Black Flag) and other groups that nearly were (ACDC, Sabbath), but touching the actual shore of the genre, far less travelling to its absolute heart of darkness, eluded me.
Looking back, the fundamentally tribal musical era, and atmosphere, I grew up in demanded that one chose sides in a way that might be considered absurdly self-limiting today, and if there were adolescents that lived metal, rejecting their look, rituals and war dances, preceded giving their music my unbiased consideration. Truth resided in appearance, and whatever lay behind that was stigmatised accordingly, especially when other surfaces had so much to offer.
So what changed in mid-life? Moving to the countryside, the deep resemblance of days to one another, barren views that appear to be waiting for you, immersion in things replacing swift responses to them – these all helped. Time also changed the way I expressed the same preferences and the form in which I looked for them. My mute incomprehension towards music like Neurosis’ became an incomprehension in the face of new experiences which their music slowly started to reflect, and metal, especially in its least filtered form, eventually began to make sense to me.
The search for a new musical vocabulary, or enlarging an existing one, had in the past struck me as too aspirational a way to embrace what must come as the result of instinct. Yet something like it had already occurred once before when I found that classical music, in my early twenties, spoke to some version of myself I had not yet become, the experience of listening to it the anticipation of a future sensibility it would take years to completely attain. Extreme metal, conversely, reminded me of a person I had been and a way of understanding experience I had never fully acknowledged; bluntly, painfully and sometimes fearfully, this recognition the ultimate fulfilment of experiences I had been unwilling to complete, or completely acknowledge.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of bombast in the new Oasis documentary Supersonic. Everybody’s busy going mad for it and making history and being the biggest and the best. In a lot of the interview footage there’s a kind of coked-up scattergun quality to both Noel and Liam’s speech; their answers often go on for too long, they’re seduced by their own hype, and can quickly descend into hyperbole and cliche.
There are, however, moments which cut through all this nonsense and which show something of what was good and interesting about the band. One such moment of insight comes during a 1994 TV interview that Noel and Liam are doing to promote Definitely Maybe. A journalist asks the brothers what fans can expect from the album and Noel answers, “Twelve songs about being alive and having fun.” There’s nothing earth-shattering about that description, of course, but its simplicity shows, at that moment, a pop star perfectly attuned to the role of his music. My friends and I loved that album when it came out and, while we knew that the songs as a whole made less sense than those by the more cerebral bands we listened to, but we could pick out the bits and pieces we did understand and use them to give voice to our fun, our boredom, our yearnings.
There’s not much about people like me and my friends in Supersonic, though (or in many discussions of Oasis, for that matter). For all the casual references to birds and girls that litter the film, women almost don’t exist at all as a reference point in the band’s world. I give them a free pass on this sometimes, telling myself that women are so basically absent in Oasis’s music that it can’t even really be counted as sexism, and I think there is some truth to this. On Definitely Maybe there are a couple of songs you could describe as love songs if you really wanted to, but there’s something non-specific about the desire, unattached to any particular person. The film’s footage from the early days fits in with this picture; you see the lads horsing around, recording demos, larking about as they watch the footy, and what’s obviously important to them all is having a good time with their mates. I was reminded of the boys that I used to hang around with as a teen, boys who were all too interested in their guitars/weed/box-fresh Adidas/each other to pay much attention to us girls (all of which was perversely part of their attraction).
There’s a lot of libido in the sound of that album, though: the growling reverb-heavy guitars, the sexy sneer in Liam’s voice on ‘Rock n Roll Star’, that note of rasping longing he strikes on ‘Slide Away’. At its best, Supersonic shows what was so great about Oasis in the early days and captures the visceral thrill emanating from the music and the gigs, the sheer excitement of actually being paid to be in a band for a living, the rage, the joy, all the stuff that their later bloated, self-indulgence drowned out. A few of the band’s more articulate interviews explain where some of that urgency came from; Noel, Liam and Bonehead talk about the days when everything in the band still seemed fragile and the threat of having to jack it all in, go back to their estates in Manchester and sign on the dole again was ever-present. It’s easy to forget that this is the world that Oasis came from and, as Noel tells us in more overblown language, this story hasn’t been repeated many times since, such is the way that the indie music scene has changed.
Supersonic begins and ends with film from one of the record-breaking 1996 Knebworth gigs, the point at which, it’s now widely acknowledged, everything started to go a bit wrong, when the excess and the ego took over. Even so, as I sat in the cinema and watched the band’s absurd rock star arrival by helicopter and heard the drama of the opening chords to ‘Columbia’, their opening song, i got swept up in it all again. Seeing them swaggering on stage, I was revisited by the strange paradoxical feeling I’ve had many times as a music fan: there’s part of me that that wants to be down the front in among the heaving, sweaty mess of the crowd, enjoying the music, but there’s another part of me that wants to to be the rock star, walking on stage to mass adulation and belting out those songs. The word ‘laddish’ gets used a lot to dismiss Oasis and their fans, often, in my experience, by other men, but this really only is part of the story; there’s nothing in that assessment that registers the experience of me and my friends and the girls like us, whose love for Oasis was a strange mix of desire, identification, ambition, and love of the music – we weren’t just standing in the crowd gazing adoringly at Liam. For all the machismo of the band themselves and the hype around them, I don’t actually remember those Oasis gigs as being particularly laddish and this seems borne out by the film, in which there’s always a decent group of girls and women representing down the front at their gigs.
Nevertheless, Knebworth remains a useful starting point for discussing the flaws and limitations of the band and, even more so, of the culture surrounding them. I was at one of those concerts and I remember even at the time feeling something wasn’t quite right; there was a consensus among me and my friends afterwards that it was “too big”. Some of us had been to the Earl’s Court gigs the previous year and loved them; they were also big, but they happened a few days after Morning Glory came out, and somehow seemed to make sense. Knebworth’s scale and the fact that it was happening at all seemed unconnected to anything else—there was no forthcoming or recent album to promote, it wasn’t part of a tour, it just seemed to be about making history for the sake of making history (and money, of course). It was also around this time that the establishment became properly interested in indie bands. It seems strange to me, now, that the Knebworth gigs were an item on the BBC news, but there they were; a rock concert had become about more than having a good time and was now being used as a symbol of something that had nothing to do with us (a thread which of course,continued with Blair and ‘Cool Britannia’).
Oasis’s transformation from a fairly successful band charting top-ten singles into stadium-rocking mega stars happened in a wider context of excess in the music scene. You can see now how they were egged on by those around them, and how their worst of their behaviour— the boozy bust-ups, the ungracious award acceptance speeches, the hotel-trashings—were encouraged and applauded by record company execs and managers, those who, in theory, should have known better. I’m not making excuses for the band – all that stuff was all there in the early days – but it was never the most interesting thing about them. As their career progressed, however, all this was magnified and fetishised and it turned them into something vaguely grotesque and ridiculous.
There’s obviously been no space allowed in Supersonic for reflection about any of this, though. The key figures in the film – Liam, Noel, Alan McGee – all have “no regrets”, “would do it all over again” and “wouldn’t change a thing”. Not only does this demonstrate a kind of tiresome bravado, typical of the period, it also partly explains the limitations of Oasis as a band and why, once their early energy and urgency had worn off, their music could only go so far. They were never challenged by those around them and couldn’t be bothered to do it themselves.
Supersonic reminded me, on a very visceral level, of all that I adored about this band; but in so many ways it reproduces the sexism of the music culture it portrays. There are two women voices in the whole film; one of them is Peggy Gallagher, who gives moving accounts of her arrival in Manchester from Ireland, of her relationship with her abusive husband and of how she finally plucked up the courage to leave him. The other is Christine, the Oasis road manager, who appears as a kind of good-natured, long-suffering mother figure. I wanted to hear more from Christine, about her relationship with these men that she worked with and supported, how she dealt with it as a music industry professional in her own right. This film desperately needed more from women like her, more from voices who weren’t so interested in the hype, to cut through the bombast and give us something other than superlatives. As it is, it reminded me of what so much of our music culture still is: conversations between and about men.
Tariq Goddard delivers his verdict on Ocean Wisdom’s debut album
For listeners of a certain age, myself for example, who feel all of their forty-one years without yet regarding that as old, there exists an uncontrollable reflex when listening to music made by the very young. A mental registrar of the trail of influences on offer, and then a reluctant dismissal of the end product for being less than their sum. In a terrifying presentiment, or perhaps confirmation, of old age and invalidity, it becomes harder to infer what the purpose of these acts adding so little to what they love is, however blameless they are for having been born “late” in the history of musical evolution. This kind of grand reduction is an easy and cheap exercise: no one can feel venerable about practising it, and as being “positively” disposed to something is usually of no help (and the young don’t care what the fuck you think) the generational conversation dies stillborn in the traps.
Something like the reverse of this happens when encountering Chaos 93, the debut album of Brighton rapper, Ocean Wisdom. Spotting the influences is a delayed afterthought, mainly because the music is too arresting and immersive to bother doing so, and partly as where they are audible there is nothing derivative or hand-me-down about their employment. Traditionally British hip-hop has experienced many modifications, and has been at its most popular when transformed, or put at the service of another genre, be it Trip-Hop or Grime. Often playing it completely straight has drawn unflattering comparisons to the States, beginning with Derek B (LL Cool J adapted for laughs) and even the more credible Hijack (whose first album was produced by Ice T’s Rhyme Syndicate). Sharing a language with America, and rapping in it, meant there was never going to be a short cut to establishing a homegrown identity. Ocean’s trajectory, however, owes plenty to those who have tried, moving through Rodney P, Skinnyman, Roots Manuva, and his contemporaries on High Focus, a British equivalent of Def Jux, who, like that label, mentor the sort of boundary pushing hip-hop that musically and lyrically can end up anywhere.
As with his label mates Dead Players and Dirty Dike, who produces and guests on the album, Ocean combines the whispered introspection of Trip-Hop, with the speed and severity of Grime, embracing a similar Pound-Land realist approach to his subject matter. His is a lyrical universe that has emerged under the shadow of Sports Direct and reduced expectation aspiration, where Park and Ride is the new public space, and Red Bull and Vodka the refined drink of choice. Here hip-hop’s traditional braggadocio is deliberately undermined by shrill jackdaw mockery and relentless sarcasm, this is hip-hop that takes the piss. While the form is often faithful to the canon, there are cheeky nods to NWA and Dre, they’re inhabitants of a parallel universe, the weight of history all but thrown off as Ocean chatters away with confident invention, his caustic observations sharing more with The Sleaford Mods or Mark E Smith, than Jay Z and Nas.
As a rapper Ocean revels in busy and wordy compressed rhymes, flaunting his jerky erudition and quick intelligence, ‘watch me pitta pasta to different parts of a written pattern/plus alliteration a wicked blag for a sicker stanza’, while inverting the genres usual tropes, ‘fuck bench pressing, I cover my food in french dressing’ in obedience to its basic one: keeping it real. The verbal hyperactivity is deliberately out of step with the backing, which is mostly minimal, spooky and spare, the mixture of speed and space weirdly hypnotic, nowhere more so than when the music slows to an orchestral crawl. The sprawling exercise in thinking aloud that is “Heskey”, which seems to be about a kind of motorway-ennui, and not the giant striker who kept Robbie Fowler out of Liverpool’s starting eleven, is so unusual that Ocean leaves all comparisons behind.
In a year where the new isn’t always original, and the truly original not always likely to be popular, with two musical legends dead, and the pressure on those who still live to be interesting enough to deserve to, Chaos 93 is vital work in a maturing genre by a young talent, which should be as gripping a listen for those who know they’ll love it, as it is necessary for those who think they won’t.
Tariq Goddard is a British novelist and co-founder of Repeater Books.
When future historians come to make sense of our peculiarly disappointed moment (and good luck to them), some will no doubt wonder where the anger was. Every decade of the 20th century had its Marx-quoting middle classes and placard-bearers hailing the imminent end of capitalism. But recent political events have outstripped the imaginations of even the most jaded pessimists. In five years’ time there may be no effective welfare system or health and social care service to speak of. Austerity is re-elected, the prime minister inserts his penis into a dead pig and retains credibility, and the leader of the opposition is called a terrorist sympathiser for opposing another ill-thought out military disaster. Strange times.
There is a prevailing sense of paralysis and defeat all across ex-industrial Britain. And this particularly effects the young, who have not known anything else. So, what is their story?
Darkstar have set out to capture something of it in their third album, Foam Island (Warp records). Washed-out, woozy and subtly groovy, it’s electronica that pulses, bleeps and sighs over twelve tracks. There is a consistency of rhythm that connotes animation and motion, a light-touch percussion of peaceful getting-by over bleeding-heart dramatics. Most interesting of all, sampled into many of the songs are the voices of young people from Huddersfield, who the Darkstar duo interviewed over the summer of 2015, around the time of the general election. James Young and Aiden Whalley present here their findings, the hopes and desires of young people in one small town, as they endure and find spaces of pleasure and communal belonging.
Let’s start with “Stoke the Fire”, one of the strongest tracks on the album. It’s the album’s challenge to its subjects, beginning with a deceptively simple hooky beat and a scene-setting statement that says what it sees (‘Live in a wasteland, but hope for a palace’), one that taps into the underlying feeling of sarky resilience and dreams postponed round ‘ere. Textures cohere and take form over a building pulse. Low-key evocations match them, ‘take the challenge’, ‘the time to try has come’, ‘the hold of fate has swung’. It seeks out a truth written in the ordinary experiences and feelings written out of the mainstream media’s island story. ‘Stoke the fire, so young’ repeats the chorus. Something in that dormant energy, alive but self-contained, needing the oxygen of something to make itself known. ‘Show them where you’re from’. A mantra-like chorus follows, ‘speak or hold your tongue’, speak up, speak out, or let it pass, give up, give in, pass the baton, pass the mic.
Voice is often confused for authenticity: the voice of the young, the voice of the disenfranchised, etc. One shouldn’t forget who selects what voices, how they were edited down, or what questions they were asked. Darkstar approached young people around Huddersfield train station. Their frank approaches to strangers invited amusement and scepticism, and at times they were confused for undercover police. But it worked.
The ambitions of the album are best realised on “A Different Kind of Struggle”. They asked strangers about their lives, a question more complex than it sounds, and through building trust, established this. Darkstar’s voices, all young, a mixture of male and female, speak brightly of what they live for and their values. ‘Loyalty, kindness and honesty, just basic things’ gives the first track its title and focus, as a young woman’s voice repeats and is looped, Steve Reich-alike, as another man talks of the inter-connectedness of friends, and another young woman, of being able to feel herself. ‘I’m not a materialist person… it’s not a full thing’ says another in “Through the Motions”, bringing light to a lilting if often detached, affectless sound. ‘I’ve not experienced that much of the world’, says Javan, ‘and it’s because of that, I feel content here’. Friends, family, glimmers of hope between the ‘arrears’, ‘compromises… concrete structures’ composted into the story.
Community is a recurring motif, even a preoccupation, as Young and Whalley explore their own estrangement from a particularly Northern community. Though from Winsome, Cheshire and nearby Wakefield, respectively, Darkstar have spent the last few years in exile, working and recording in London. Both North (2010) and News from Nowhere (2013) tried in different ways to capture a sense of Northernness, a rare and possibly non-existent quality, associated with abandonment and anger. The production of the latter even involved living fifteen months in Slawaite, a village a few miles south-west of Huddersfield, in order to tap into this subterranean juice. But missing were voices, people’s actual experiences. So the summer they spent smoking and drinking with a crowd of young people, ‘like a holiday’ says Whalley, welcomed in.
One gets a sense of that intimacy in the album. ‘Ruskin Grove, we call it the Gaza’, says Daryl, tongue firmly in cheek, at the end of “Inherent in the Fibre”. We’re on a post-war housing estate in nearby Deighton, a strip where Daryl likes to sit back and watch the world. The police put a surveillance camera up, but it was quickly taken down by concerned locals. Laughter, easy times. ‘Enjoying the sun, drinking some brandy with you’.
The result is a rich series of documentary portraits that deserves praise for resisting the obvious clichés about Northern grimness or authenticity. In its focus on feeling, it does sometimes miss out the landscape necessary to contextualise these young people. The physical landscape of mass suburban housing estates and retail parks, the billboards and broken roads, is not here. The mental landscape, of underpaid, overworked inertia, being stuck in a place, or the ambient anxiety of social care responsibilities for disabled parents and friends as statutory services disappear, is only partly alluded to. ‘It sounds a bit bad, but I try to stay out of it’, says a young woman on “A Different Kind of Struggle”. Her words give this island its impermanent structure. ‘If I do start thinking about it I get worried. I’m in my own little bubble’.
Sleaford Mods are another group that’ll make the Austerity Britain mixtape of the future. Whilst Foam Island was being produced, two documentary film-makers followed the band on a tour of a number of small towns around Britain, filming shows and interviewing fans. The resulting documentary by Nathan Hannawin and Paul Sng, Invisible Britain, shares a common aim with Darkstar, using music as a form of documentary and expression of communities in Britain left behind, silenced or out of sight.
Interspersed between footage of Jason Williamson caustically and wonderfully berating jumped-up individuals in jobcentres, quiet streets or on Question Time, various protest causes set out their stall, from JENGBA (Joint Enterprise) to Unite the Union. Their earnestness is often out-of-kilter with the singer’s own scepticism about political change. What’s most interesting is his own meta-commentary on Sleaford Mods’ political significance to its fans. Like the young people on Foam Island, he’s capable and confident in expressing his own individual anger. But asked to give a political position he becomes awkward, resistant of the pressure to take the mantle of poet laureate for the disaffected working class. Whilst austerity and toffs in Westminster are the problem, the solution’s not clear. At one point he blames human nature for the political malaise.
Though two decades older than most residents of Foam Island, he taps into a similar current of contemporary anger, a more desperate one, ‘it’s a different kind of struggle now’, as an older woman describes, lending another track its title. One wracked with a kind of insular feeling, of being under attack. Though the inhabitants of Foam Island describe their small town as island-like, detached yet self-contained, easily overlooked from outside but with its own rich inner life, their comments seem better purposed to describing the inhabitants themselves. Under immense social pressure (‘like all councils round here, we’ll soon have less money to run local services’, goes a Kirklees council voiceover in the track “Cuts”, £83million cuts so far made, £69 million of ‘savings’ to go), the inner life of the mind remains intact, webbed in friendships and fantasies. ‘Ya distance yerself to concentrate on yer own journey’ says one girl on “Go Natural”. Such a resilient yet blinkered persistence in fantasies of individual survival and success, necessary as they are, are what Lauren Berlant calls ‘cruel optimism’. It makes for broken hearts.
This refusal to hold a consistent and positive political idea is often lauded. John Harris in the Guardian praised Foam Island for not sounding like protest music, and heralds its representation of ‘deep political disengagement’. His social journalism, a beacon of light in a sea of chinless mediocrity, is at times hamstrung by an unexplained contempt for ideas. It’s as if they’re some kind of rabbit-shit wholefood, foisted onto the dinner-plates of ordinary decent folk by a minority of highly-strung lefties, with their iPads, haircuts and intersectionality (cue tittering). This is not the case. There is something patronising and self-defeating in this attitude, one that at times strays into Jason Williamson’s talk. A hostility to being so pretentious as to have an idea and want to do something with it. ‘Jumped-up’ and ‘being pretentious’ are other ways of rendering having ‘ideas above your station’. In taking up the mic or the pen to simply narrate the futility of intellectual and political change, the effect is not unlike that of a sermon by the medieval clergy: passion, catharsis, emptiness, empty hope.
Darkstar were invited to perform last week at the Barbican on a bill with Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods, and others, as part of a series of events on social (im)mobility in the arts. The event was commendable in its political focus. Subjugation by Oxbridge toffs and private school bores has now been extended to music and the arts, and the only media channel now presenting working class lives is Channel 5’s regular slew of benefits misery entertainment. But many invited speakers on social class were either regular talking heads or leading academics, or involved in PR agencies. There was still the problem of the working class not speaking, of the term ‘class’ not even being said. Ordinary people were still out of shot.
This comes at a time when depictions of class are unclear. The traditional bastions of the organised Left have fallen short on description: radicals talk of the ‘multitude’ or ‘the 99%’ or, after the late Laclau, ‘the People’ (in a non-nationalist, empty signifier way, obviously), or ‘the count of the uncounted’. Yes, there are some valid theoretical reasons for this. But it’s effectively consistent with the popular narrative that class doesn’t exist, that the working class disappeared sometime in the 1990s. ‘We’re all middle class now’ – think on that famous line by Lord Prezza of Two Jags. It doesn’t matter that John Prescott never actually came out with it. Around 1996, the dawn of the Blair project, it was essentially true, it indicated a changing structure of feeling. You didn’t know any of them, and it didn’t apply to your friends, but probably everyone now was middle class, and if they weren’t, something was wrong with them – they weren’t working enough, were scrounging on benefits, not paying their way.
In this new world order, class is now something to be ashamed of, a sign of failure. It also explains why political movements that can speak the language of pride, fairness and community, whilst giving vent to its frustrations, are succeeding. The Left isn’t getting it, I hear talk of ‘rainy fascism island’. When I travelled around the island interviewing people, collecting their voices, it blew my mind how much courage, intellectual boldness, dreaming and disappointment I found. Island Story is intended as a barometer of this changing structure of feeling, one that makes the contemporary experience of working class like nothing else in history. That shame, that buried anger, there is nothing comparable in the 1980s or before. Young people are being brought up in it, breathing the air, taking on its shape and norms. And we don’t yet know what the effects of that will be.
Mike Savage and other sociologists have recently attempted to update our notions of class. In Social Class in the 21st Century (Penguin, 2015), they expand what class means, accounting for social, economic and cultural factors. Drawing on a UK survey of around 161,000 people, they offer seven new categories: the elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emergent service workers, and the precariat. Yet the methodology is weak, as Danny Dorling has noted: these 161,000 people were a self-selecting sample found through a BBC online survey in 2011, which systematically over-estimated its own social status (a smaller representative survey of around 1000 was appended). Its dependence on cultural and social factors mean that, even if you’re a zero-hours care-home worker, having friends who are teachers or listening to classical music could catapult you into the middle classes. The categories themselves are weak: what retail or catering assistant or postal worker is a ‘new affluent worker’? Would you put carpenters in the lowest rung ‘precariat’, and NHS midwives in the ‘established middle class’? Most categories can be refolded back into working, middle and upper, whilst accounting for internal variables of age. But its most interesting contribution is its own inaccuracy. Who wants to be working class? Who even knows what it means?
Over the course of Foam Island there are frequent evocations of fate. ‘The hold of fate has swung’ repeats over “Stoke the Fire”. In “Go Natural” fate is said to be ‘in disguise’, the pre-determination of events unclear to us but not the gods. Later in “Pin Secure” we’re encouraged to challenge what appears as fate, self-fulfilling prophecy, with ‘you call it fate’ – perhaps it is not. Then in “Foam Island” ‘his fate is scarred’, it burdens one who believes it so. There is no better word to sum up everything at stake now than fate: the bitter acceptance of what must come, like it did in the 1980s or the 1930s. Or to fight back, kick against the pricks, bring war against the gods, not out of hope for success, but because it’s the necessary and right thing to do. It all comes down to fate, or fatalism, however you see it. The naturalisation and normalisation of defeat is one of the most powerful functions of ideology.
‘In a positive way now, it’s about how our country’s run’, says a young guy on “A Different Kind of Struggle”. Seeing a way out of fate involves imagination. The idea of Foam Island came accidentally, when Darkstar watched a documentary about the Sex Pistols’ Xmas gigs in Huddersfield in 1977. They did a benefit show for the children of striking firemen. Entrance was free and the kids were given presents (all Sex Pistols merch, granted). Johnny Rotten stuck his face in a big cake and the children jumped on top of him. Now middle-aged, those kids there were electrified by it, by that show of support and the energy they brought. They recall it vividly. It indicated another possibility.
There is a value in documentary work like this: it brings to light how people feel, shows us that others feel as we do, that our grievances are common, and the cause clear. They are more limited in imagining what could happen. A voice can only relay the present spectrum of imaginary possibility, what political strategists call the ‘Overton window’. What lies next is imagining what might be possible. For that we have glimmers and stories, half-shots of memory, detached voices. Johnny Rotten in a Huddersfield nightclub narrating ‘Anarchy in the UK’ to pogoing teenagers; a member of King Mob dressed up as Santa, giving out ‘free’ toys to children in Selfridge’s; Tony Benn drawing up plans to democratise the running of the UK’s mostly publicly-owned industries; all moments, moments of something, like that revelatory vision of ‘one tone, clarity’ that ends Foam Island on “Days Burn Blue”.
That’s what makes Foam Island an interesting and worthwhile project. For all the problems of voice, they didn’t wheel out journalists, established artists and youth workers to speak for the young; instead, they asked them themselves. The resulting picture is richer for it, and the album combines occasional dabbles in melancholia (“Foam Island”) or political commentary (“Cuts”) with some light-hearted, upbeat grooves (“Go Natural”, “Inherent in the Fibre”). Whilst they might have gone further, and longer, integrating their young collaborators into the music itself, perhaps collectively writing lyrics to one or two tracks, it is a very good album.
Dawn Foster reviews Paul Mason & Matt Ridley
This piece is from the Winter 2015 issue of New Humanist magazine, which is out now. Reposted with permission.
In 2008, as Lehman Brothers collapsed, Paul Mason was weaving between the limos, satellite trucks, sacked bankers and bodyguards outside the headquarters in Wall Street. Mason was then economics editor at BBC’s Newsnight: his cameraman wanted to film him “amidst the chaos”. Mason’s latest book, PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, written seven years on, argues that capitalism as an idea is bloated and exhausted, with little power left to continue.
Mason’s argument rests on the belief that the rise of technology – specifically computers and social media – has undermined traditional capitalist structures. He writes about the emergence of the “networked individual” permanently plugged into the internet, easily able to organise online and grasp complex theories due to immediate access to knowledge. Twinned with the catastrophes of the global banking crisis, climate change and a looming demographic time bomb, this is triggering a transformation from capitalism to “post-capitalism”.
Matt Ridley, in his second book, The Evolution of Everything, argues that the theory of evolution can be applied to almost every structure and concept in the world: the economy, education, government, religion, money and many others. In contrast to Mason, Ridley insists the major calamities of history are small bumps on the path to a better society, with the fittest arguments and theories surviving. Ridley emphasises the role of chance in human society. This handily gives mechanisms and institutions that inflict suffering and heighten inequality a benign veneer that absolves them of responsibility for the outcomes.
A common thread weaves through both books: that traditional and assumed power is illusory, and that certain social trends are inevitable. Both could be described as techno-utopian in their arguments, albeit from different standpoints. Mason’s almost breathless belief that technology has flattened power has some purchase in the recent events and uprisings he lists: the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and Turkey’s Gezi Park were given more attention through social media and networks facilitated online. A large-scale strike in rural China and student protests in Hong Kong, both in 2014, were organised through social networks. Whether they succeeded completely in undermining authority is harder to determine. Ridley, by contrast, sees the rise of technology as a welcome threat to the power of the state. The public funding of research in universities, for instance, is to be replaced by private money and the influence of the market.
Those warning that the “sharing economy” – where people rent homes, cars, services and other assets directly from each other online or through apps – is a threat to workers, rather than to capitalism, have often been scorned as Luddites. There’s a common misconception that the Luddites were afraid of technology that could have enhanced their work. In fact, the original Luddites were highly skilled workers, who recognised that the employers introducing the machines were prioritising their profit margins, rather than workers’ interests.
Mason is not ignorant of this, and his potted account of the relationship between labour, the economy and technological change is instructive. Yet his optimism sometimes crowds out the downside of the “sharing economy” and the “internet of things”. Wikipedia, the internet encyclopaedia Mason repeatedly cites as an open-source knowledge project that outperforms its competitors, relies on an army of hundreds of unpaid editors across the globe. Fact-checking and scrutinising articles for balance is done patchily. Uber, the taxi app that matches users with freelance drivers, has caused protests in many major cities, as professional taxi companies lose business to the far cheaper service, whose low rates mean low pay, all the while undermining the earning power of established drivers.
It is revealing to read the two books side by side, especially on the concept of money and economics. Mason’s proposals for a fairer society and banking system point out that a universal basic income – a fixed sum paid to every citizen by the state, set at a rate to cover their basic needs – could ameliorate some of the effects the rise of automation has had on the workforce, allowing more people to pursue non-paid work. It would also offer a safety net, so people could avoid being trapped in what the LSE professor and activist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”. The idea of a basic income is politically neutral. Free-market economist Milton Friedman proposed it as a way of shrinking the state, for instance. There’s little incentive for Tesco to pay higher wages if all workers are afforded a lump sum to survive on.
Ridley was chairman of Northern Rock from 2004-7, which experienced the biggest bank run in living memory at the end of his tenure. He dealt briefly with this in his first book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010), and while it doesn’t merit a mention this time, it’s clear that he still believes, with bullish confidence, that his economic outlook was and is right. The roots of the 2007-8 financial crash in his view were not speculation, sub-prime loans and a lack of financial oversight in institutions – but over-regulation, red tape and the meddling of government and central banks in the finance industry. This gives Ridley’s arguments a dogmatic tone; a marked contrast to Mason, who is generally regarded as on the left of the political spectrum but is informed and curious enough to explore ideas from a broad range of intellectual traditions.
Both parties skim lightly over the question of inequality, which has become an increasingly fraught topic of political debate since the crash. Ridley, in line with his “evolution” thesis, sees poverty and inequality as both inevitable and desirable. The rich earn their wealth as the poor trap themselves in poverty due to the inevitable battle of the survival of the fittest. Ridley, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, appears to see the uneven distribution and the hoarding of wealth as forms of natural selection. High achievers breed high achievers, for instance, “because of genetics”. Mason is more nuanced, considering factors such as “brain drain” migration of skilled workers from poor countries to richer ones. However, his focus on the networked individual as “the new working class” overlooks the fact that most of the educated young individuals described would be from the middle class. The working class still exists, and has suffered from a stagnation in wages. Wealth inequality in many countries, including Britain, has skyrocketed in recent years but the corrosive effects this has on individuals and communities are largely unexplored in these books.
Mason’s proposals for a new economy and society are more convincing than Ridley’s cheerleading for freer free markets. But crucially, Mason’s arguments rely on a belief that the networked individual can force institutions to give up power and reform financial systems and the labour market. Most protest movements that started after the crash have fizzled out, although many (notably Occupy Wall Street and UK Uncut) have succeeded in changing the way in which many ordinary people think about finance and the government’s role in financial regulation. Yet it’s not only protest movements that have access to new technology: the most networked of all are the very wealthy and the businesses they run. Capitalism’s ability to use every shift in technology to increase profits and decrease wages should never be underestimated. Ridley and Mason, with different viewpoints, consider the positive and benign possibilities of technology’s effect on the economy. We would do well to remember the possible pitfalls, too.
For all the Pet Shop Boys’ talk of having made “Electric, but more so”, Super is a very different beast from its predecessor. Perhaps it’s because the duo enjoy playing with expectations, but there is a striking disconnect here between the bright, brash artwork and the sad world lit up by the strobe lights.
The dark side of Super is not the brooding BDSM hinted at by Electric’s wildest moments, but rather the resigned grief of Elysium and Nightlife. Nowhere on Electric will you find lyrics anything like “I live every day like a sad beast of prey” or “no one understands us here/imagine how free we will be if we disappear”; nowhere else in pop music, probably, will you find the line ‘I sound quite demented’, but then this is a band that once shoehorned the words ‘Carphone Warehouse’ and ‘bourgeoisie’ into the same verse.
If we’ve met Super’s characters before, it was longer ago than Electric – they appeared in ‘To Step Aside’, ‘Dreaming of the Queen’, even ‘Opportunities’. And the flawed superheroes who lend this album its bold title are hardly the Avengers.
There’s the ageing autocrat pondering abdication on ‘The Dictator Decides’; the Shoreditch boys hoping their time at the top will last forever (‘Twenty-something’, ‘Groovy’); the star DJ, a celebrity only for as long as he can fill the dancefloor; the ‘Pop Kids’ whose romance and spark is dulled by the tedious march of time.
It must be said, though, that we visit some utterly barmy discos along the way. Oddest of all is ‘Happiness’ with its Junior Senior breakdown – so giddy, it’s easy to miss the bleak message that opens the album: ‘it’s a long way to happiness’.
And while Neil Tennant sneaks bits of himself into all his protagonists, only on closing track ‘Into Thin Air’ does it feel like he’s telling his own story: for four minutes, just like the dictator, he really does want to pack it all in. ‘Too much ugly talking; too many bad politicians’, he sings, perhaps describing the rabble to whom he has dedicated the rest of Super. If we didn’t know a third Stuart Price collaboration was already in the making, it would be tempting – and frightening – to see this as Tennant’s answer to ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, the song in which Bowie laid bare his own premature flight schedule.
‘Into Thin Air’ is Super’s bewitching highlight. It has echoes of Relentless, the wistful dance album that came with Very; a flash, too, of the Nightlife dancers’ slackening subjectivity. This is what Robert Miles’s ‘dream house’ should have been in 1996: a lullaby for the ecstatic. After the sugar rush of ‘Say It to Me’ and ‘Burn’, ‘Into Thin Air’ slips calmly, unseen, out of the club. The day is so very young and instead of heading home our hero walks towards the sunrise, his head full of sound and his feet no longer touching the road, while his friends feign concern at their inability to find him in the darkness.