Monday, 17 November 2014

Defending old formulas - the establishment-left keeping real radicalism in its box

Where would the Establishment be without the 'establishment-left'? The question might seem strange, even oxymoronic. But when it comes to questioning elite structures and dominant narratives there's a whole left-liberal 'buffer class' holding back real radicalism with 'sensible' injunctions to stay within prescribed political and media boundaries.  

From Labour-upholding affiliates to Guardian columnists, the establishment-left play a vital role in maintaining safety-first politics.

Their idea of 'real change' amounts to little more than re-packaged party policies and finding puppet-head replacements, as in the unedifying spectacle of panicked Labour plotters trying to dump Ed Miliband for someone more electorally 'palatable'.

The same rearguard reaction is evident in Owen Jones's and the Labour left's endorsement of Neil Findlay for Scottish party leader. There's recognition of the crisis within Scottish Labour, but no radical effort to deal with its causes or opportunities.

They cling, instead, to notions of a 'rejuvenated' party, the belief that 'new leadership' will have a transforming effect. But do such appointments and alterations remotely touch upon the key structural problems of a sclerotic 'democracy', an archaic Union, a neoliberal-enforced system, a war-addicted imperialist state?   

As with an establishment Labour left, just how useful are most trade unions when faced with real, radical engagement? Closely intertwined with the unions and 'traditional' Labour, a similar tragedy of strategic thinking can be seen with the UK Communist Party, still, whatever its other merits, locked in an old doctrinal cage, unable to contemplate the opportunity of serious left advancement. 

How come, when the overwhelming forces of the left and a mass movement of poor and working class people organised for a progressive Yes in Scotland, the CP alongside Labour and leaders of big unions like Unite were stuck in the same rigid groove campaigning for No?

Now contemplating the mass of Yes street feeling, they, like Jones and others on the establishment-left, now look to Findlay as some sort of 'left saviour'.  

Yet, for Irvine Welsh, the same contradictions remain:
Leftist pundits embody this dilemma, forensically dismantling the party for its shortcomings, yet seeming to assume it can magically resurrect, and then remold the UK state, as it did in 1945-70. In the meantime, they support the de facto preservation of this exploitative and elitist state. To argue to maintain a divisive and reactionary UK state on that basis, pretending it’s about ‘worker’s solidarity’, is both self-deluding and an insult to the intelligence of everybody else. Slavering on like a Hovis advert about the traditions of British working class resistance can’t disguise the fact that you’re bending over backwards to preserve a state that has been doing everything in its power to negate and crush this resistance for the last 35 years, and practically since it’s inception, right up to World War Two. The tragedy of the British left is that it’s got so used to playing this perennial losers game against the UK state. This obsession with protecting it, and continually rolling the same dice, which is so obviously weighted against you, has surely now expired as viable strategy.
For Welsh, even if 'autonomy' was ever granted to Labour in Scotland, the ongoing independence issue only intensifies the problem for Labour leftists:
The problem is if this happens, the party almost inevitably becomes part of the pro-independence movement, a place where many of its natural supporters, before they gave up on it, felt it should be. If you’re left wing, believe in the decentralisation of power and are anti-nuclear weapons, as most real Labour people are, Scottish Indy becomes not so much a catastrophe, as a natural position.
When it comes to being part of something truly radical, doing rather than saying, being engaged in a new paradigm - the establishment-left revert to default mode, picking around the edges, mediating the issue, seeking palliatives, trying, above all, to find ways of rescuing the old formulas.

Establishment-left celebrities perform the same kind of holding role. A little tweet exchange recently with Rory Bremner helps illustrate such conformity to 'tried-and-trusted' positions.
Rory Bremner @rorybremner
At times like this I try to remind myself that the Union is for life, not just for Halloween.

John Hilley @johnwhilley
.@rorybremner Talking of guising, Rory, remember that you helped argue for its lifeline. #YesAlliance

RB: I know. The irony's not lost on me. Tweets occasionally nuanced.

JH: Fair enough, but nuanced tweets on Union life little comfort to radical Yes seeking to break foodbank society and end Trident.

RB: I know, but I'm not sure Indy would either. My argument was fight injustices together, not separately.

JH: A Yes vote would have given real impetus to radical change for all, rather than liberal, token notions of 'fighting together'.
Again, wasn't it typical that Bremner, the 'sage cynic' and 'comedy radical', just couldn't step outside that establishment-left bubble when a real moment of change presented itself?        

In assertive contrast, Russell Brand, who, despite his worthy calls to reject a decaying party political system, was savvy enough to advocate for Yes as a form of imaginative direct action.

And, of course, the role of the establishment-left is vitally evident in the current backlash against Brand himself.

Marina Hyde at the Guardian is the latest to pour such scorn on Brand. Note here Hyde's deep annoyance at being absent from her 'vanguard' column while the main avalanche of criticism came crashing down on Brand, and how she's now making up for it by getting her own belated piece of formulaic dismissal across.

Such reaction illustrates the insecurities of establishment-liberal-left journalists who fear being tainted with Brand's radical ideals and having their 'we are the public guardian' roles usurped.

None of this is conspiratorial. It's an automatic herd reaction in formulaic defence of their 'status' and grasping for editorial approval, all in line with the safe corporate-political order. Crushing 'upstarts' like Brand thus becomes a territorial imperative.

As Media Lens show, that hostile closure has intensified as Brand progresses from 'jokey Newsnight exhibit' to active dissident. Hence the increased use of ridicule and smear in an attempt to keep us all in the fold. 

But isn't Brand himself favourably courted by an establishment-left, from Owen Jones, Johann Hari and Mehdi Hasan, to the New Statesman and Huffington Post? Yes, but to what effect? Much of that 'approval' comes as both sympathetic flirtation with Brand the figure and as an exercise in 'sensible-left correction'; a kind of indulgent policing and tempering of his ideas.    

Stay within the accepted frames of thought, we're still coerced and urged. Don't follow Brand's 'pointless anarchism'. Think what you're giving up. Even if the system's imperfect, those like Jones implore us, remain within it and use your vote for the 'best change possible'.

Power elites have the greatest interest in maintaining those frameworks of permissible thought. But it's most often establishment-left-liberals who do the vital shepherding.

Brand is routinely castigated for having no other formula: what's your alternative, what do you propose instead, they demand? But the question can be more usefully turned around: actually, what do you propose? Look at the myriad crises and untold misery capitalism has caused: are you saying that this system is remotely acceptable? What's your alternative?

The problem is not just that they have no answer, they're not, unlike Brand, even asking the question.  Indeed asking why they're not posing that question, while demanding an answer from Brand, is a vitally radical question in itself.

On which challenging note, please watch this brilliant edition of Brand's The Trews on the relentless, formulaic posturing of 'passionate' politicians, our similarly rote-framing media, and, in the face of this enduring, box-ticking failure, the urgent need, commends Brand, for real forms of direct, participatory democracy.

They may continue mocking him, but the establishment and its vital liberal-left buffer will be watching Brand's anti-party political broadcasts with growing discomfort. 

Sunday, 9 November 2014

On Remembrance Day

On Remembrance Day
Vincent Burke
On Remembrance Day
When the army prays
And the flags go up
To remind us that they do it for us

On Remembrance Day
By the flower display
Where the church explains
How the heroes keep the villians away

There I’ll tell it to the careless wind
I’ll tell you when the good guys win

On Remembrance Day
I should stay away
From the BBC
Where they tell you how a real man should be

And the children watch
As the vicar walks around with a cross
'Cause to love is fine
If you do it at a sensible time

Yeah, I’ll tell it to the careless wind
I’ll tell you when the good guys win
Yeah, I’ll save it for the next of kin
On Remembrance Day
On Remembrance Day
On Remembrance Day

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Poppy Appeal and Royal British Legion's appropriation of Eric Bogle's anti-war anthem

Following the release of the Royal British Legion's 2014 Poppy Appeal single, a version of Eric Bogle's classic anti-war anthem No Man's Land (The Green Fields of France), I wrote to Eric asking for his views on the matter:
Hi Eric
I've just watched the British Legion's disgraceful 'adaptation' of your wonderful song No Man's Land.

All the key lines intimating mass human waste, useless suffering and the terrible futility of war are conveniently missing.

I was wondering if you had any thoughts on how this hauntingly beautiful anti-war anthem has been used as a syrupy, jingoistic 'mark of remembrance'.

Kind regards
John Hilley
Here's Eric's reply (sent as a general statement, and published with his permission): 
Apparently Joss Stone’s version of my song “No Man’s Land” has polarised opinions. I usually don’t comment publicly on other people’s versions of my songs, but many of you have e-mailed me about this matter and seem genuinely upset about it, so I am sending you the following in reply to some of the questions I have been asked………please note that I will be entering into no further correspondence regarding this matter, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life e-mailing on my computer, so you will have to accept (or reject ) what I have said below and leave it there……. 
The copyright for “No Man’s Land/The Green Fields of France” is held by my UK Publisher, Domino Publishing, who are ultimately responsible for approving applications to record this song. When an artist wishes to record “No Man’s Land” they must apply for a mechanical license to do so from the relevant UK agency, and pay a licensing fee. Permission to record is more or less automatic, especially if, as is the case with this song, it has been recorded before. At no stage in this process am I, the composer, involved. Generally speaking, the first I know of any new recording is when I see any subsequent royalties from the recording appearing on my royalty statements.

When the artist(s) in question records the cover version of the song, they can, and often do, rework the song as to be almost unrecognisable from the original version. This is especially true in Jazz music, and is generally regarded as an acceptable creative exercise by the artist(s). Although the publisher and/or composer could take legal action if they feel that the original essence of the song has been irrevocably altered and very much to the song’s detriment, this very rarely happens. The bottom line is that so long as royalties are paid, any wounded artistic feelings are usually put aside. 
So then, to the most asked questions about this affair:
Was my permission sought when they decided to record this song? - No
Did I know what they proposed to do with the song when they decided to record it? - No
Do I approve of what they have done to the song ? (missing verses, rock’n’roll arrangement, etc) No, believe it or not I wrote the song intending for the four verses of the original song to gradually build up to what I hoped would be a climactic and strong anti-war statement. Missing out two and a half verses from the original four verses very much negates that intention. As to the musical arrangement, it’s really about whatever floats your musical boat. I would have thought a strong mostly acoustic version would have done a better job of getting the message across, but that’s just my personal preference, and I’m a bit of an old fart folkie. But then to do an acoustic version and include all four verses and choruses would have made the song nearly 7 minutes long, making it of doubtful commercial appeal in today’s modern music market, given that the average attention span of that market’s consumers is rarely more than three minutes or so. There’s not much doubt that the shortened, up-tempo, bluesy version that Joss does will probably appeal to a much broader cross-section of the listening public, certainly to those who did not know the song existed until they heard Joss’s version.
Is the strong anti-war message in the original song diminished in this recording? Yes, missing some crucial verses does not help. But then this diminishment is only in the eyes (or ears) of people who have heard the original version of the song. Those who have not heard the original cannot make the same comparisons or judgements. They must take Joss’s version on it’s own merits and make their own interpretation.
Does it follow then that this version glorifies war instead of condemning it? - No, in my opinion it certainly doesn’t glorify it, but doesn’t condemn it either, it just sort of starts off promisingly enough and then turns into a sing- along chorus type of song. Sentimentalising perhaps, but not glorifying. Will me or my publisher be suing Joss Stone, Jeff Beck or the British Legion? — No, you have to be joking. I would have wished for a version of my song that could have been more true to my original intention in writing the song, but if Joss’s version touches heart [sic] or two here and there and makes some people reflect, perhaps for the first time, on the true price of war, then her version is as valid as anyone else’s.
So, from Eric Bogle, a morally-stated view that the "strong anti-war message of the original song" has been "diminished" and "sentimentalis[ed]" in the RBL version.

Eric has also offered valued comments here on the RBL's commercial imperatives, other stylistic  approaches to the song, the hoped-for humanitarian value it may still have to those first hearing it, and kind perspective on Joss Stone's own artistic efforts. 

But there seems little doubt about the overall effect of the RBL's version: 
...I wrote the song intending for the four verses of the original song to gradually build up to what I hoped would be a climactic and strong anti-war statement. Missing out two and a half verses from the original four verses very much negates that intention.
Here's all the original verses. Read the lines, listen to Eric's own performance of the song, and decide whether, along with the Tower-poppied backdrop, the RBL's production is an honest mark of remembrance or a crass sanitising of Bogle's anti-war message.

Well, how do you do, young Willie McBride?
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside?
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun,
I've been walking all day, and I'm nearly done.
I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the great fallen in 1916,
I hope you died well and I hope you died clean
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus?
And did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

Did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined?
Although, you died back in 1916,
In that faithful heart are you forever 19?
Or are you a stranger without even a name,
Enclosed in forever behind the glass frame,
In an old photograph, torn, battered and stained,
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame?

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus?
And did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

The sun now it shines on the green fields of France;
There’s a warm summer breeze that makes the red poppies dance.
And look how the sun shines from under the clouds
There’s no gas, no barbed wire, there’s no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard it’s still No Man's Land
The countless white crosses stand mute in the sand
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man.
To a whole generation that were butchered and damned.

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus?
And did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

Ah young Willie McBride, I can’t help wonder why,
Do those that lie here know why did they die?
And did they believe when they answered the cause,
Did they really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain,
The killing and dying, were all done in vain.
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus?
And did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus?
And did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

petition has been raised calling for the RBL to apologise for cutting out the song's key verses and principal anti-war sentiment.

Note also that the RBL video asks us to honour only the British and Empire forces killed in World War One, no one else in this dreadful, imperialist-fought slaughter. As the establishment-framed commemorations and poppy-promoted militarism go on, how reflective and universal is that as a message of compassionate remembrance? 


7 November

The Royal British Legion have issued a statement defending their use of Eric Bogle's song.   

Just as the song's main anti-war words have been omitted, so does the RBL @PoppyLegion statement conveniently fail to cite or specify Bogle's more critical comments on their use of the song.