The Point
Last updated: 11 December 2017.

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In Praise of Beethoven

Arthur C Clarke - A Very Modern Odyssey

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If You Build Them, They Will Come

The Art of the October Revolution - Agitprop

As part of our series of articles throughout this month commemorating the Russian Revolution of Ocober 1917, Fatima Uygun explores the liberatory impulse that the October revolution gave to art, and the use of agitprop under the Bolsheviks. 

 

Walter Benjamin, a Marxist cultural theoretician wrote, "what characterises revolutionary classes at their moment of action is the awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode". There is no better example of this than the workers and artists involved in, and inspired by, the Russian Revolution of 1917.

For the first time in human history a country's working class had defeated its ruling class, and created the beginnings of a new society based on peace, human solidarity, and on meeting the needs of the many. We rightly celebrate the achievements of the Russian of equality, national liberation, sexual liberation, and end to war and tyranny. But we should also celebrate the art it produced as being of one of the most innovative periods in the history of the arts and, I would argue, in the history of humanity.

Like never before, art and creativity exploded in all aspects of Russian life. Trotsky said of 1917, "The revolution is, in the first place, an awakening of human personality in the masses — who were supposed to possess no personality..." People began to actively building a new world in which the arts played a major role. Musical experimentalism broke through the barriers of harmony, overflowed into jazz and created orchestras without conductors. In the visual arts, most artists rejected the concept of artistic subjectivity, they broke painting down to its DNA, and if one form of art wasn't expressive enough then they planned monuments, public art and workers' lounges, clothes, ceramics, theatre, dance. New forms for the new world. Most of all, they attempted to fuse art and everyday life.

Many artists were politicised by the war and came into conflict with both the decaying Tsarist regime and the emerging bourgeois. They echoed the pre-revolution movements in Europe, cubism, futurism and expressionism. But when the revolution came these groups wholeheartedly embraced the February and October revolutions.

The name given to a wide group of artists who allied themselves to the revolution was the Russian Avant Garde and inlcuded the poet Mayakovsky, visual artist Malevich, along with constructivists Rodchenko, Popova, Stepanova, and Nathan Altman, theatre worker Meyerhold and the painter/architect Tatlin.

As soon as the revolution erupted artists like El Lissitsky rushed to join the Committee for Art set up by the Soldiers' Deputies, to begin undertaking effective propaganda work to build the achievements and defend the revolution.

They all embraced the workers' revolution of October as the liberator of art. And, of course, like with any struggle enormous debates took place about the nature of revolutionary art. What was the relation between art and life? Should artists set out to construct a workers' art or was there the need to create "human" art? What would be the relation between art and machine?

Trotsky describes these debates:

"While the dictatorship had a seething mass-basis and a prospect of world revolution, it had no fear of experiments, searchings, the struggle of schools, for it understood that only in this way could a new cultural epoch be prepared. The popular masses were still quivering in every fibre, and were thinking aloud for the first time in a thousand years."

There are too many aspects of this explosion in artistic output and endeavour to cover in one short piece so I will focus on one of the main engines of change, a method that took art to the masses beyond the cities for the first time - Agitprop

Agitprop

American journalist John Reed who wrote the magnificent eye witness account of the revolution Ten Days that shook the World, made into a film "Reds", expresses the transformation: "The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the revolution into a frenzy of expression. From the Smolny Institute alone, the first six months, went out every day tons, carloads, trainloads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable." This was a nation where over 80% of the population was illiterate. Agitprop trains spread information across Russia's vast landscape, traveling to the front lines and distributing propaganda literature to civilians and soldiers of the Red Army fighting in the Civil War (1917-1923). The first agitprop train was named after Lenin, it left from Moscow to Kazan in August 1918.

Art students, led by both Constructivist and Suprematist artists, painted the military trains of the civil war with revolutionary propaganda, graphical or satirical paintings, which playfully reflected the names of the trains and the places where they were headed.

Each agitprop train was equipped with a small library and printing press for printing pamphlets and newspapers and a radio transmitter/receiver to receive fresh information from Moscow. The Constructivists like Malevich, Mayakovsky and El Lissitzky were involved in creating artistic content and propaganda materials for the trains although the crucial artistic medium was film. The Bolsheviks considered film the most 'modern' and 'objective' art form and the least encumbered with bourgeois associations. 'Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important.' (Lenin, 1919). Over 2 million people attended the cinema screenings (agitki) shown on board the agitprop trains.

Agitational bureaus (agitpunkty) were established at major railway stations, important centres of engaging with the wider population- where libraries, lecture halls, and theatres were opened.

The October Revolution, was the most active of all "agit-trains,". In two months alone, it screened cinema to over 100,000 people in 97 screenings. Typically 16 to 18 cars in length, other agit-trains included the Red East, Soviet Caucasus, and Red Cossack. All were equipped for any possible propaganda need, each with its own broadcast radio station, internal telephone system, mobile camera shop, printing press, and newspaper office.

Inside each of the agit-trains, films were screened with musical accompaniment – either piano, or gramophone records.

The agit-boat Red Star spent several months in 1919 and the summer of 1920 sailing up and down the Volga river. Red Star presented more than 400 film shows during its two-year tenure, reaching more than half a million viewers.

As with the agit-trains, the Red Star included among its most active participants leaders from the highest levels of the Russian Communist Party, including V. M. Molotov, as its political commissar, Nadezhda Krupskaya. Krupskaya wrote that Lenin loved the Red Star and would be more than happy to spend his time there but he was needed elsewhere.

Conclusion

The influence of the Russian Revolution and its ideas spread throughout the world, not only to Europe but also to Latin America. And often these ideas were applied to receptive artistic cultures.

"Everything that we went through and realized in art is substantial, is very important, but it is just the beginning, the beginning of a great path to the happiness of mankind, the first step to which was taken by, the Great October Revolution," Siqueiros wrote in his autobiography.

Diego Rivera worked in the USSR in 1927-1928. There he co-founded the October Association, where he collaborated with painters Alexander Deyneka and Dmitri Moor, architects Leonid, Victor and Alexander Vesnin and film director Sergei Eisenstein. Returning to Mexico, Rivera began his magnum opus, The History of Mexico mural at the National Palace in Mexico City.

The French surrealists were influenced, however they proposed to start the revolution in their consciousness through art. "We were bewitched by the triumph of the Russian revolution and the creation of a workers' state led to a big change in our views," wrote André Breton.The surrealists issued the "Revolution first of all and forever" declaration, calling on a radical social alteration in society.

In the German Bauhaus School, an art school in which many teachers shared revolutionary political views of the revolution, artists and architects inspired by the revolution thought that the new art would help build a happy future for humanity. Fresh news from Russia came to Germany via Vasily Kandinsky and El Lissitzky, who emigrated from Russia in 1921.

Architects and interior designers across the world were heavily influenced, from Le Corbusier to Gabo, established a version of Constructivism in England during the 1930s and 1940s and across Latin America

However by 1930 art has gone the same way as worker-led soviets, Trotsky and Bolshevism. Many of the young Constructivist artists, experimenters, writers and theatre workers who aligned themselves with the workers' state were liquidated in the gulags, along with the original Bolshevik revolutionaries from 1917. For Stalin the avant garde was too close to the Bolsheviks. Some like Mayakovsky committed suicide - Malevich died of cancer in a camp.

At his funeral hundreds of mourners in celebration of Malevich, the revolution and in opposition to Stalinism, wore a black square pinned to their collars. Sadly, His grave is now situated under a ugly concrete department block.

From the unlimited possibilities of 1917, the unleashing of creativity and mass participation in the arts during the early years, was replaced by coercion and control.

But no matter what the ruling class would have us believe Stalin was not the natural heir of October. He murdered the memory of that revolution.

The history of the Russian Revolution and the art that flourished with it for a brief few years is our history. It provides us with a glimpse into what liberation can look like; at the artistic heights humanity can achieve.

For the Children of 1917 and 2017...

 

 

For 1917 and 2017: A few lines of defiance and hope - from a bedroom in Scotland to the World

                       

                                      Nobody ever said it would be easy…

 

                                      Ten million voices know what is wrong

                                      Ten million solutions for putting it right

                                      And a billion eyes see encroaching night

 

                                      Nobody ever said it would be easy…

 

                                      Young woman in Dresden with sullied hijab

                                      Teacher in Mosul, burnt, tortured, and stabbed

                                      Are the bombs that fall here

                                      Better than the bombs that fall there?

 

                                      Nobody ever said it would be easy…

 

                                      Blue sky, new sky, no longer our true sky

                                      Green Plains turn,

                                      Dry, dry, dry...

                                      Choking dust deserts, drowning floods rise

                                      We might have done something

                                      But it’s no surprise, no surprise…

 

                                      Nobody ever said it would be easy…

 

                                      Time, again, and now: children cry in their sleep

                                      Mares of the darkness to make a cyborg weep

                                      All they have known turned to wind-blown ash

                                      In the final, brilliant, plutonium flash

 

                                      Nobody ever said it would be easy…

 

                                      The peasants

                                      Still queue at the gargoyled gate

                                      Poor and white in Bristol,

                                      Poor and black in Washington State

                                      And who shall they rage at?  

                                      And who shall they hate?

 

                                      Nobody ever said it would be easy…

 

                                      Five decades since promises of jet packs and space

                                      Forwards! Backwards! Forwards!

                                      With this cantankerous human race

                                      No simple solutions, no rest, or easy grace

 

                                      Nobody ever said it would be easy…

 

                                      Gallus folk fight that their nation be reborn

                                      To free their eagles, their kelpies, their strange unicorn

                                      A defeat doesn’t leave a dream

                                      Shattered, ended or torn…

 

                                      Nobody ever said it would be easy…

 

                                      The Lass fae Niddrie, the boy from Benin,

                                      Bullied New Yorker, Old man in Beijing

                                      At wit’s end, longing

                                      For all manner of things

 

                                      Nobody ever said it would be easy

 

                                      Who owns the trains? Who owns the planes?

                                      Who owns the screens where we play our games?

                                      Who owns the banks? Who owns the tanks?

                                      The hollow places for submissive thanks?

 

                                      Nobody ever said it would be easy…

                                     

                                      So...

                                      For you and I, and yours and ours,

                                      And those who raise the shield

                                      The future’s no’ yet ower

                                      Don’t dare you bow or cower

                                      Before the weapons that they wield

 

                                      Gather up your armour,

                                      Once more take the bloodied field

                                      With wearied heart, and aching limb

                                      Deny, defy, expose the lie

                                      That only they create the real.

 

                                      You are not a single mind

                                      The days to come are not yet sealed

                                      Fight on, fight on, and you will find

                                      A million hearts will with you strive

                                      For the right of all

                                      To be true…and alive!

 

                                      Remake this Earth for all humankind!

                                      Rebuild it as a Common Weal!

                                      You must not yield

                                      You will not yield

                                      To the Lords of Capital

                                      Or any Man of Steel!

 

                                     But nobody ever said it would be easy…

 

Steve Arnott

 

 

Other articles by Steve Arnott in The Point include:

Arthur C Clarke: A Very Modern Odyssey

A Tribute to Neil Armstrong... or 'Where's that f*****g space elevator?

The European stem cell research ban – why and how we should fight it

Enriching Scotland’s Common Weal through Scottish Inventions and Innovations

(science and ideas)

 

The Conspiracy of Doves I – Darwin, Marx and The Conspiracy of Doves

The Conspiracy of Doves II - Socialism and the selfish gene: A tale of quiz shows, game theory and natural selection

The Conspiracy of Doves III - The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection, part one

Postcapitalism: An Overview – Part One

(Darwinist-Marxism, evolution/revolution, post-capitalism)

 

In Praise of Beethoven

Teaching Tom…and Dick and Harry and Jane: A Personal Reply to Tom Hunter on Scottish Education

The Culture: Iain Banks’ Greatest Creation

(culture, education, The Culture)

 

Reversing privatisation and PFI using a ‘windfall’ financing model

2013, A Year to Go: Independence and Raising the Game in Phase 2

Achieving gender balance in an Independent Scottish Parliament (co-authored with Liz Walker)

Taking back what’s ours: Why we need a Public Commission on Public Ownership

Max the YES: Tactical Voting for Holyrood 2016, Yes or No.

(independence, socialism, progressive policy ideas)

On seeing Orcas in Burra Sound

(poetry, verse, fiction)

 

Steve’s novel, Pilot of the Storm, First of ‘The Star King’s Proxy’ trilogy, is also available to buy or rent at…

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pilot-Storm-Book-StarKings-Proxy-ebook/dp/B00JGF0P6Y/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1483670725&sr=1-1&keywords=Stevie+Arnott+-+Pilot+of+The+Storm

Arthur C. Clarke: A Very Modern Odyssey

As the centenary of his birth approaches, Steve Arnott celebrates the life and work of one of the world’s most famous science fiction writers, scientist and futurist, Arthur C. Clarke.

 

On March 19 2008, the day Arthur C. Clarke died in his adopted homeland of Sri Lanka, the NASA satellite Swift observed four gamma ray bursts from distant corners of our universe. These bursts were the signatures of super massive stars dying and going supernova, millions and billions of years ago, whose echoes, travelling at the speed of light, all reached our tiny world in that one day.  Never before had Swift observed four such supernovae within a twenty four hour period.

It is typical and telling of the intellectual legacy left by Clarke that his foundation website describes the event as ‘a cosmic coincidence’. All of Clarke’s work, in science and in fiction, is permeated with a sense of wonder, possibility and ‘magic’ about the reach of science and technology, about the vastness of the universe and humankind’s place in it, that has nothing to do with irrationality or superstition, but everything to do with understanding and the struggle for understanding.

Arthur Clarke would have found only wry amusement at the gullibility of the human psyche that sees horoscopes published and read in almost every daily newspaper, and at astrology’s claim that the movement of celestial bodies affects the personal paths of our daily lives. But he would have derived a deep sense of joy from the undisputed scientific fact that every single one of us, and everything around us, is composed of elements – atoms – generated by precisely such cosmic explosions as the March 19 supernovae in the deep past. Forget medieval cosmologies of angels and demons. The simple truth is much more fantastical and satisfying. We are all made of stars, and in the last and ultimate analysis, we all go back to the stars.

About six weeks prior to Clarke’s passing, and half a world away, on a cold early February evening in Inverness, I found myself thinking about his scientific legacy in quite a profound way.  I was watching the New York Giants quite unforgettable humbling of the ‘unstoppable’ New England Patriots in last season’s Super Bowl (American Football, erroneously described as rugby with padding, correctly described as ‘violent chess with men’ is one of my guilty pleasures). Suddenly I found myself thinking that when I was a young boy growing up the idea of watching such a thing live in your front room would have seemed like science fiction, as would mobile telephones that could send pictures and music instantly across the face of the planet, or sat nav, with its voice from nowhere giving us directions as we drive.

All of these things are dependent on relays of geostationary satellites orbiting the earth. ‘Geostationary’ means that the satellite orbits the earth at the same rate and direction of the planet’s spin, so that it is always above a fixed point.

Such satellites in relay were first proposed in 1945 by Arthur Clarke in a paper to Wireless World called Extra-Terrestrial Relays – Can Rocket Stations give world wide radio coverage?  Clarke never claimed sole authorship of the idea, and it probably would have happened anyway, but Clarke’s contribution in describing and popularising the concept, and in discussing the powerful positive possibilities for world-wide communication and information transfer, and consequently the possibility for increased human understanding in a world emerging from the second world war and entering the cold war, was a vital one.  So much so that geostationary orbits are known as Clarke orbits in his honour.

 

So what, the socialist cynic might say.  We ended up with Rupert Murdoch’s world domination and 500 channels of shit to choose from.  But the technology and its positive possibilities will still remain long after capitalism as a social power becomes history.

Clarke himself, however, believed that his longest lasting contribution to the development of humanity won’t be the satellite communications network, but the space elevator or ‘needle’ first developed in his 1979 science fiction novel The Fountains of Paradise.  Based on the same fundamental concept as the geostationary satellite, the space elevator posits transport pods linked to a hyper-tensile cable stretching from a point to the earth’s surface to a geostationary space station thousands of miles above the earth.  While the initial costs of developing such a sky buster would be high, once in operation the costs of moving people and materials into space would be relatively cheap compared to fuel intensive small payload traditional rocket launches. Clarke believed that space elevators could open up the rest of the solar system for exploration and eventual colonisation.

The physics of the space elevator are fundamentally sound – the only stumbling block is the super tensile material required to stretch a heavy payload supporting cable over such a distance. In The Fountains of Paradise Clarke imagines a ‘pseudo one-dimensional hyper diamond crystal’ to do the rope trick, but recent scientific advances have shown that such hyper-tensile materials can be created in the laboratory.  Carbon nanotube technology is one possible candidate for the space elevator cable. Clarke himself latterly expressed the view that the artificial carbon Buckminsterfullerene would be able to play the role.

In theory, the construction of a space elevator could begin now. Such a world changing project – a Panama Canal to space – is held back not by theoretical possibility, but by social will, the priorities of capitalism and the limitations of the nation state. Will we ever see Clarke’s space elevator take humankind to the planets and perhaps later the stars? Get back to me on that one in fifty years time.

By the way, almost as a sub-plot in the novel, and way in advance of Dawkins, Pinker and modern evolutionary psychology Clarke speculates that religion has its origin in sexual reproduction. Clarke, though he once dabbled in the paranormal, was a lifelong humanist and atheist – although, perhaps mischievously, he also sometimes described himself as a crypto-buddhist.

A Humanist Laureate of the International Humanist Society, he told an interviewer in 1972 that he could not forgive religion for its role in wars and atrocities.

In terms of his own sexuality, Clarke was once married, very briefly, but always attracted speculation that he was gay.  Michael Moorcock once said “everybody knew he was gay.”  But Clarke grew up in the thirties, forties and fifties where being openly gay in the wrong circles could be deadly. He may well have been aware of the fate of his contemporary Alan Turing - mathematician, wartime code breaker and inventor of the concept of the binary computer - who took his own life with an apple laced with cyanide when his own sexuality was brought into question. (By the way, think about that the next time you look at the Apple computer logo.)

Whatever the reason, Clarke appeared to take the Oscar Wilde position that his sexuality and sexual life were nobody’s damn business. When asked by journalists if he was gay he would reply, “No, merely mildly cheerful.”

If the two huge concepts of communications satellites and the space elevator, together with his contributions to humanism, were Clarke’s only gifts to humankind that alone would be well worthy of remembrance, but it is, of course, as one of the most well known science fiction writers of all time that he is known best across the globe.

Born in Minehead, in Somerset, in 1917, the young Arthur Clarke first came across science fiction from the gaudy pulp fiction magazines he was able to get from American sailors in the area. But while the American tradition developed from bug-eyed monsters and rocket ships, and tended (although not exclusively) to a right wing Americanised view of the Universe, Clarke was to become one of the key threads in the somewhat different tapestry of a British science fiction tradition – one that concerned itself with progress and/or the consequences of science and technology rather than galactic conquest, and one that placed hard scientific speculation together with observations on the human condition and social concerns.

In reading Clarke’s novel Imperial Earth many years ago, I was thrilled to realise, about half way through the book, that the main character was both black and bisexual. The novel was set in the twenty-third century and Clarke’s technique was to reveal his character’s colour and sexuality almost incidentally.  Gradually the reader becomes aware that in the twenty third century someone’s sexuality or race is no more worthy of mention than their taste in food or the colour of their hair.  Racism, sexism and homophobia are abolished through cultural normalisation.

 

In his key – and probably best works – Childhood’s End, The City and the Stars and Rendezvous with Rama, Clarke explores the impact on humanity of contact with alien technological species and our own subsequent physical and cultural evolution. His themes of growth, death, knowledge and transformation are the biggest that there is, and time and time again Clarke proves himself to be a profound dialectical thinker – where each technological leap forward leads to huge social, cultural and psychological changes for human society, which in themselves propel yet further change.

Clarke’s best known work was his collaboration with another late and great – Stanley Kubrick – on the iconic 1969 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. As well as the obvious Homeric reference, the movie was based on an original Clarke short story The Sentinel, in which an alien artifact was found on the moon.

Clarke was brought in to work on the screenplay and technical aspects of the film, as well as to write a simultaneous novel of the same name. As it turned out the movie came out ahead of the book and Clarke was a bit angry with Kubrick for a while on the grounds that it made his book look like a novelisation of a film rather than a work in its own right. Book and movie both follow the same plot closely, but while Clarke provides prosaic and causal explanation for events in the book, Kubrick’s lack of dialogue and rationalisation make the film an altogether more ambiguous and mysterious experience.

The film came out in the year that Neil Armstrong made his 'one small step' - although the famous boot print on the moon everyone knows is actually Buzz Aldrin's!. This temporal congruity of a real world changing cultural event with a big budget science fiction movie based on hard science and real scientific conjecture gave the movie huge impetus. It remains the greatest science fiction movie of all time to this date, and Clarke’s input was crucial to the realisation of Kubrick’s cinematic vision.

The famous ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do’ sequence when Dave Bowman slowly dismantles HAL, the onboard artificial intelligence, is surely one of the most memorable ‘death’ scenes in any film. Clarke had heard a voice synthesiser demonstration at Bell Labs, using the ‘Daisy’ song, some months previously, and strongly advised Kubrick to use it.  The result is a deeply affecting experience in what is otherwise a relatively cold but vast intellectual and visual film. It takes the form, extends it, and uses it to say something profound – a real ‘Guernica’ moment.

It is a sign of a great futurist when their best work is only truly appreciated many years after it is first done.  That has certainly been the case with Arthur C. Clarke.  His own foundation, dedicated to ‘science, literature and social concerns’ now carries on his name and his work, and a link to their website is given below.  I’ll end by citing Clarke’s own four laws of prediction, of which the third is by far and away the most famous, having been referenced in almost everything from Star Trek  to The Simpsons.

 

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic
  4. For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert.

 

Arthur C. Clark, Scientist, Writer, Futurist and Progressive Humanitarian, 1917-2008

 www.clarkefoundation.org  

 

In Praise of Beethoven

 

Steve Arnott takes a look at the composer Beethoven and argues he is an artist revolutionary and revolutionary artist for all times.

 

Introduction

 

I’ll own up – I have a guilty pleasure. Not the great composer Ludwig Van Beethoven – no guilt can accrue from a lifetime’s attachment to genius.  No, my guilty pleasure is the slightly more lowbrow and populist Classic FM.  I know I should really be listening to Radio Three with its clear intellectual approach and tendency to play more challenging and obscure works – but hey, when you are working away on the computer you can’t beat a good tune.

Every year, Classic FM conduct their Hall of Fame vote of listener’s favourite pieces and every year, over the four days Easter holiday weekend the top 300 – that’s right, 300 - classical tunes are played.  Beethoven regularly has about twenty pieces in the chart (think about it – that’s one in fifteen). Sometimes fellow freemason and genius Mozart has more, but the Beethoven pieces always dominate higher end of the chart.

Is there a reason for this perennial popularity beyond the notes of the music? Perhaps.  The composer is an iconic figure – the half mad, more than half deaf musical revolutionary doomed in love. But the real reason I would argue lies in the revolutionary content of the music itself, artistically, spiritually, ideologically and structurally.

I remember going to see a performance of Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio, performed by Scottish Opera and leaving thinking a) that was brilliant and would bring every socialist in Scotland to their feet if they could only see and hear it and b) my mum and dad would have loved that – so why as working class people would they not think twice about going to see Les Miserables but regard classical music as ‘not for them’?

This essay is dedicated to those two thoughts.  

 

 

Beethoven - The modern phenomenon

 

My earliest experience of Beethoven, as a young boy, was as comic cliché. Beethoven was a staple of comic sketches on the telly – I particularly remember a typically deranged Monty Python sketch with John Cleese.  At that age, Beethoven meant a comically mad deaf German with rolling eyes and a brass horn in his ear and “DAA-DAA-DAA-DAAAHH!”.  I was also aware, however, from World War Two stories I’d read, that Churchill had used that same refrain from Beethoven’s Fifth symphony for radio propaganda against Hitler. In Morse code dot-dot-dot-dash stood for V, for victory.

Dialectically, artistic works that become the property of elites make their way back into popular culture in the most surprising and diverse of ways. Even now I can’t hear Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries with seeing Elmer Fudd bouncing along, shotgun in hand, singing “I’m going to hunt wabbit, I’m going to hunt wabbit…”  The agitated, crashing and truly revolutionary finale of old Ludwig’s “Moonlight” Sonata suffers from the same difficulty of a temporally specific cultural meme. It takes a real effort to listen to that runaway piano without seeing (in grainy black and white) an imperilled lady tied to a railway line by a black clad pantomime villain, looming above her, twirling his waxed moustache…

And herein lies the difficulty in writing about Beethoven the revolutionary for a socialist magazine in the early 21st century. What was “revolutionary” then may not necessarily seem so now, at least at first glance or hearing, either in the complex politics of the man or the music. We have 200 years of subjective experience to overlay on his original artistic intent, and being human cannot help but do so. The fact that Beethoven lived in the shadow of the censor much of his life - the choral finale of the Ninth symphony was changed from “Ode to Freedom” (freiheit) to “Ode to Joy” (freude) to allow performance - does not help clarify matters either.

 

Of his time, yet ahead of it

 

History is a human construction and as such can be both obscuring fog and clarifying lens.

Yet, set in the context of his time and his antecedents, I would argue Beethoven is THE revolutionary artist and artist-revolutionary. He is both of his time and ahead of it. Not only is he the consistent musical voice of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Europe, he is the first composer to make the trials and tribulations, the feelings and struggles and consciousness of the artist central to the musical work. He is the musical embodiment of the struggle of the Enlightenment against feudal oppression, the brotherhood of man against tyranny, but also, for the first time in the history of his art, of the intimate and the personal in music. His “heroic” period (1800 -1812) builds the bridge between the classical music of Mozart and Haydn and early Romanticism and programme music. His last great works, the Ninth Symphony, the Solemn Mass in D minor (Missa Solemnis), and the final string quartets, prefigure modernity itself.

Like Marx, Beethoven spent most of his adult life embroiled in whole layers of personal and political struggle. The struggle against poverty, the struggle to be recognised as an musical artist in his own right rather than as a liveried servant of the aristocracy, a tragically unfulfilled love life, and, of course, his rapidly increasing deafness, which, for the last ten years of his life was total.

The Europe in which Beethoven struggled was no less stormy. As a young man Beethoven was an articulate student and advocate of Enlightenment thought, and a supporter of the French Revolution. At the turn of the nineteenth century he placed much of his hopes in the First Consul of France, the young Napoleon Bonaparte. Famously, his first truly revolutionary symphony, the monumental 3rd, had been originally dedicated to Bonaparte. When Beethoven heard that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor he scratched the Corsican’s name from the title page. “Now he will trample on all human rights and indulge only his own ambition,” he said. “He will place himself above everyone and become a tyrant.” 

Later, French troops occupied Vienna as Napoleon attempted to bring his Thermidorian version of the French Revolution to the rest of Europe on the point of a bayonet. The Austro-Hungarian Prince Lichnowsky, one of Beethoven’s patrons, once asked the composer to play for officers of the French occupying force. Beethoven refused and broke with his patron – risking destitution and poverty in those days – saying “I am not a performing monkey.” He later wrote to the prince “…what you are you are by accident of birth. There are and will be thousands of princes. There is only one Beethoven.”

In one of those great ironies of history, the sovereign heads of Europe at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which redrew the map of Europe in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat chose Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, with its story of political prisoners, the struggle against tyranny, of brotherhood and love, to open the Congress.

One can only presume that, like the Nazi’s who came after them who played Beethoven in the concentration camps, they saw only their own pale and egotistical reflection in Beethoven’s universal and soaring musical themes.  For the first time ever in an opera the hero of the piece is a woman, the protagonists for the most part ordinary workers and officials or political activists. The political prisoners are finally set free by a Minister who represents “the best of kings” i.e. freedom itself, and, again, for the first time the masses, the crowd, the ordinary people play a critical role.

We can only presume these elements passed over the crowned heads of Europe in their moment of self satisfaction. In any case the applause was thunderous, though by that stage of his life, Beethoven, the most celebrated composer and musician in Europe, could not hear any of it. 

A generation later, and some twenty years after Beethoven’s death, the revolutionary impulses in Beethoven’s music would find new resonance. If the first wave of the European revolution against feudalism had been the Reformation and the second the French Revolution,  then these same great Houses of Europe that applauded Fidelio that evening were shaken to the core by the third great wave of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, as the masses again took to the streets in 1848. 

Marx had penned the Communist Manifesto in January of that year.

 

 

The flawed human

 

In purely modern terms – and I use that caveat advisedly – Beethoven was undoubtedly abused as a child and was also, as an adult, himself an abuser.

Beethoven came from a family of court musicians. Remember that this is the time of Mozart and Haydn. Such occupations were largely modestly paid and the position to the aristocratic household to which the musicians were employed was one of master and servant.

When it became clear to his father that young Ludwig had talent, the elder Beethoven saw the opportunity to raise the family name and bank balance through developing a young Mozart-style prodigy. From an early age Beethoven would spend many, many hours a day practicing the piano while his father looked on. Mistakes would often be punished by the stroke of a cane across the knuckles. Quite often his drunken father would bring friends home and wake young Ludwig up in the middle of the night to perform for them, something he hated.

When Beethoven grew old enough, and had developed enough of a reputation to be invited to study with the great German maestro Haydn, he left provincial Bonn for Vienna. He was never to return or see his parents in person again.

In Vienna, Beethoven rapidly became a huge celebrity among the “noble-born” elite who would hold evening parlour parties and invite top pianists of the day to compete with one another on who could best entertain them. Musical improvisation did not begin with black music or early Jazz. Top pianists in the 1790’s and early 1800’s would vie with Beethoven to see who could improvise the most bold and daring piano variations on well known tunes of the day. But Beethoven always trounced them. He was the top gun by a country mile and the rising star of society. Little did the aristocrats who applauded him wildly suspect the punishment and suffering that had, at least in part, gone into creating such facility on the keyboard, or the part the distorted values of their own society had played in shaping it.

Beethoven taught piano to the sons and daughters of rich aristocrats. At this time in his life, he falls in and out of love like a Romantic poet. All of his love affairs – consummated or not – end in tragedy for him. He is hugely talented and charismatic, but not particularly tidy or well kept. Above all these daughters of the aristocracy must first think of their station, and Beethoven is a commoner, a “mere” musician.

By 1800 Beethoven has hearing problems, by 1802 it is clear these are incurable and he will face a musician’s worst nightmare; a long slow collapse into total deafness. He considers suicide, but instead finds the fullest expression of the human spirit through his art. This time of failed love affairs and growing deafness is amongst his most productive. Beethoven is defiant. At the end of the “Eroica” symphony he musically shakes his fist at God.

He had always been demanding, particularly of musicians who played his works, but from this time on he was never an easy person to deal with. Beethoven withdrew into himself, avoiding human society apart from a few trusted friends and lieutenants. He was often short, rude, even downright offensive - even to those friends and fellow musicians. He would often write to them the next day apologising for his behaviour and assuring them of “his highest regard”.

But if deafness and social awkwardness, together with the artist’s drive for perfection could explain much of Beethoven’s behaviour during this period, his later treatment of his brother’s wife, Johanna, and his attempts to win sole guardianship of her son, his nephew, after his brother’s death, seem like monomania and downright nastiness, and not only from our privileged modern perspective.

Beethoven never believed that Johanna was a good enough wife for his brother, or mother for his nephew, Karl. Before his brother’s death from consumption he made him sign guardianship of the young boy over to him. After his brother’s death there was a protracted and unpleasant legal battle over custody of Karl which Beethoven eventually won. Beethoven took Karl under his wing and in a frightening parody of his own father tried to teach the boy music.

Young Karl, however, had no talent or desires in that direction. He wanted to join the Army. Eventually, despairing of his uncle’s lack of understanding he tried, and failed, to commit suicide. Beethoven relented and allowed the boy to go back to his mother.

Maynard Solomon, Marxist, musicologist, psychoanalyst and Beethoven biographer has said that in these unproductive and wasted years of 1812-1822, Beethoven may well have been clinically insane. His attempt to use his celebrity and power to create a surrogate family for himself nearly destroyed him, and pitilessly hurt and alienated those around him.

But, not untypically for this great artist of extremes, Beethoven was once again, in the closing years of his life, to find an answer in his music. 

Now, having given up at last the dark path on which he had set himself, he was to compose his finest music - the last string quartets, a deeply personal and spiritual journey in music; the great choral Missa Solemnis, with its utterly secular musical depiction of war, and call for peace; and, of course, the Ninth Symphony, his last great revolutionary gift to mankind “Oh you millions I embrace you. This kiss is for the whole world.”

Johanna is reputed to have said that, for the Ninth, she forgave Ludwig everything, but that’s probably apocryphal.

 

The Promethean

 

So was Beethoven both a revolutionary artist and an artist-revolutionary?

That he was a revolutionary artist is beyond doubt. He virtually creates single-handedly modern music for the piano in both sonata and concerto form. He expands the bounds both of the symphony and concerto beyond the conceptual limits of the time, in every direction. He develops wholly new techniques of exposition. He brings folk song and the voice and dances of the urban and rural masses into the classical form for the first time. He creates a new musical language that is capable of being both deeply internal and reflective and a joyous call to arms.

And artist revolutionary?  Beethoven’s commitment to the Enlightenment values of liberty, equality and fraternity are never in doubt, or his hatred of aristocratic privilege.  Though he enjoyed the company of aristocrats he never tired of reminding them, in many different ways that “I too, am a king”. Beethoven enters an eighteenth century world where musicians and artists are essentially still feudal servants and leaves it in the nineteenth century, when, largely due to his efforts, this one group of workers can now be treated on their own terms – as creative artists.

But Beethoven can, in the last analysis, only be judged on his music. And here, ultimately, we go beyond any political or philosophical debate. Beethoven’s music, at its very best, deals with real human feelings and emotions, engages the human spirit and strives towards the future – whether in the titanic opening bars of the Fifth symphony, the haunting battle between piano and orchestra in the Fourth Piano Concerto, or the dithyrambic rush to infinity at the end of the epic choral Ninth.

Beethoven stands, along with Shakespeare, Marx and Darwin, as one of the true modern Prometheans. From the deep cell of his own deafness, and the prison of his own time, he called forth, and still calls forth, lightning to our nations. 

 

  

Football Under Capitalism - The Exploitation of a Working Class Sport

 

Introduction

England's top division, the Premier League, now has fifteen out of its twenty clubs owned by multi-millionaires who view their investment as nothing more than a business opportunity to increase their already sizeable Swiss bank accounts. Gratuitous sums of money spent on "world class talent" is done so in the knowledge that success on the fielding will ultimately pay dividends in returns of television rights, sponsorship, merchandise and the ability to fill stadiums to the brim with their clubs loyal supporters. In this however, is identified as the root of the substantially growing problem for club owners, what is football without the fans?

In October 2015, Bayern Munich fans travelled to London to watch their side play Arsenal in the premier European cup competition, the Champions League. Bayern fans, affronted at being charged £64 for a ticket to watch the game staged a protest in which they boycotted the first five minutes of the game before entering the stadium. Upon taking their seats in the stand the clubs supporters unravelled a banner which said "£64 a ticket, but without fans football is not worth a penny".


The following report will examine the neoliberalist nature of multimillionaire investment into "the beautiful game" across the Europe and examine whether the owners of football clubs establish forms of corporate social responsibility relating to perceived unethical organisational operations. Focused arguments will relate to the provision of match day experiences that are affordable for those living in working class communities where the most iconic football clubs gained their heritage or if the sole principle of football clubs are now to act as capitalist monopolies interested only in profit.

 

Club ownership: Evolution of the business model

Bourdieu (1998) identified that the economic expansion within football as a process which has been underpinned across Europe by the ascension of the free market, or neo liberalism political and economic policies. Neoliberalism follows the economic theories posed by Adam Smith, Friedrich von Hayek and most notably Milton Friedman (1970) that advocate for the creation of a global 'free market' which is realised by marginalising the role of the state intervention in relation to the economy. Furthermore, the privatisation of public assets, disregarding welfare programmes and establishing the transnational circulation of capital and investment underpin neoliberal objectives.

Briebarth and Harris (2008) stated that Europe has become epicentre of the global game, specifically identifying Germany and England as pivotal catalysts in the evolution of the sport. Deep roots within English and German culture and society provide specific insight into the complexity of relationships between owners and supporters of football clubs, furthermore differentiating between national conducts of corporate social responsibility.

Economic liberalisation can be seen through the changing of motives in relation to financial investment in football clubs. Giunlianotti & Robertson (2009) identified that during the 1980s the pursuit of profit became increasingly significant, specifically highlighting that in 1985 Tottenham Hotspur became the first English club to be floated on the stock market. In England, the national body the Football Association or FA, had previously implemented strict regulations that restricted the opportunities of directors to attain significant profits from ownership of clubs. However, Tottenham owner at the time Sir Alan Sugar devised a solution to outwit the FA and created a holding company within which the football club were an asset to, thus allowing a situation in which the club could be traded transnationally and ultimately enable football clubs to turn into a profitable business model for investors. This was a major turning point within the English game which recognised football clubs as multimillion pound businesses and established supporters as a captive market as stated by Cannon & Hamil (2000).

 

Cultural Differences and Political Involvement

England, is considered not only the home of 'the beautiful game' but also the creator of modern football as a business within the greater globalisation and neoliberal project. However, in a move to stabilise the professional games influx on multimillionaire owners, supporters trust were formed by local communities to raise awareness of supporter's grievances. Holt et al (2005) stated that creation of these have been essential in establishing beneficial relations between stakeholders and local communities. Sutcliffe (2000) stated that increased unrest within communities football fans have called for regulatory bodies to examine critical issues in the UK Parliament, such as the treatment of supporters in terms of ticket pricing, accessibility to matches and recognition by multimillionaire owners as stakeholders in the clubs success.

Germany, however have a footballing culture and organisational construct that follows a considerably different model. German football clubs are governed by a professional body, the Deutscher Fussball-Bund (DFB). Clubs are promoted as groups of interest, fostering environment where governing bodies and local communities work together to increase the development of societies across Germany through the game of football. Gerhard Mayer-Vorfelder, former DFB president stated that German parliament understand the role sport plays in democratic societies and politics, stating that football has an immense impact on culture providing support for disadvantaged people, public health issues and also can help re-integrate criminal offenders into society.


Giunlianotti & Robertson (2009) identified globalisation as extensively debated topic within social science, focusing on the question of determination and agency. Debate relates to the critical and empirical degrees of freedom that recognised how local cultures engage with the globalisation project. Cultural imperialism arguments focus on the determination and power of global culture manifested in Western civilisation, primarily Angelo-American, which restricts the critical agency of social actors within society.

 

Germany vs England

Wynn (2007) stated that football clubs from towns, cities and regions command the hearts and minds of their fans. Supporters believe that their club embodies local character, traditions and spirit that define their communities and cultures. Wynn (2007) further stated that football teams can be fashioned to reflect local and national ideologies, emphasising that they cannot remain uninfluenced by society.

Distinctive cultural contrasts within the day to day running of football clubs are primarily identified through examination of clubs within the German and English game respectively. Since the formation of the English Premier League in 1992, there have been 52 professional football clubs that have become insolvent, including former and current Premier League sides such as Leeds, Portsmouth, Bournemouth and Southampton. Compare this statement with Germany's top three divisions, Bundesliga, they have had none. This however is not to say that German clubs are not effected by financial irregularities, numerous high profile clubs have been severely in debt however, only to find themselves saved.

The perception of Germany culture towards their football clubs is distinctively different than that of England. German culture follows Wynn (2007) idea that football clubs embody local character and define communities. This belief is the reason that why in the case of financial hardships undertaken by German clubs, the government and rival teams have provided loans to bail out other teams. Examples of such are that of Hansa Rostock who in 2012 surmounted debts of £6.8m and faced bankruptcy, only to have their local council provide a waiver of tax, provision of a national grant and the purchasing of property such as their training complex. Furthermore, European powerhouse Borussia Dortmund came within days of liquidation only to be saved by their biggest league rivals, Bayern Munich with a £1.6m loan.


Compare this to English footballing culture, where clubs are still defined as pillars within local communities however their hardships go unrecognised by local government and rival clubs instead follow neoliberal ideologies. The English game stagnates under a "dog eat dog" mentality of governments and rival owners in which clubs who wish to escape their economic hardship must themselves find multinational financiers to clear debts and provide investment or face liquidation.

Godfrey (2009) states however that Germany's political history and national identity in comparison to the UK, must be taken into consideration. The German constitution devolved power away from centralised authorities following the rise of Nazism and Fascism. The constitution seeks consensus from all associated parties before the progression of substantial organisational or societal changes. The political landscape in the UK however differs greatly, as a patrician state governed from the centralised power of London. Wynn (2007) stated that football culture ultimately reflects wider societal culture, which poses significant difficulties in affecting change.

What are the corporate social responsibilities of football clubs?

Carroll (1979) identified corporate executives have previously struggled to grasp the issue of an organisations responsibility to society. Neoliberal arguments would state that that a corporation's sole responsibility is to provide maximum financial return to its shareholders. Social activist groups in the 1960s campaigned for a corporate responsibility and gained success through the creation of legislation in the 1970s which established numerous employment, consumer and equality commissions to implement corporate social responsibility practices. These new governmental bodies established that national public policy officially recognised consumers as significant stakeholders within businesses. Williams (2015) described corporate social responsibility solely as the actions which organisations take that contribute to social welfare, beyond what is required for profit maximization. Thus examination must be placed on the civic responsibilities football clubs have to their consumers, communities and furthermore, society as a whole.

 

CSR initiatives in action

Repercussions of supporter pressure on the UK parliament relating to multimillionaire owners using English clubs for maximising personal profit caused significant reactionary behaviour. In 2005, the FA alongside individual clubs decided to implement stakeholder driven corporate social responsibility initiatives within local communities to address the issue of football clubs moving away from traditional grassroots communities where clubs gain heritage and instead were focusing marketing football as a sport for middle to upper class only. Sandy, Sloan & Rosetraub (2004) further added that governments were now identifying professional clubs as becoming intrinsic to social development and growth regional economies.

Ackerman (1973) stated that the corporate social responsibilities programs undertaken by clubs within England were pre-emptive and preventative, primarily targeting the youth within society and their future development. The interaction between clubs and schools provide proactive educational programs, however have an underlying unethical philosophy. Ackerman (1973) stated that provision of opportunities to establish a better skilled and educated increase the potential for football fans with a "higher value", or even future footballers, which the club can utilise to maximise profits. Windsor (2001) states that the perception from fans of their local clubs as providing opportunities that help working class communities socially provides unwavering loyalty, therefore football clubs who decide to invest in society, are ultimately investing in their own club also.

The ideology of creating a "higher value" fan, is rooted within neoliberal philosophy that ultimately focuses on the creation of wealth and profit for organisations through the ignorance of what is deemed ethical or unethical business practice. However, football clubs are also unwittingly following a form of socialist philosophies when partaking in aforementioned corporate social responsibilities initiatives also. Socialist activist James Maclean stated that people from working class communities should follow the ideology of "rise with your class, not out of it". Football clubs who deliver educational initiatives that increase the prospects for the population stuck within lower social classes ultimately in turn provide opportunities to progress a societal classes as a whole.

 

Social activism for supporter ownership

The German Bundesliga have a substantially different business model in relation to the ownership of their nation's footballing sides. The basis of the German model follows the ownership legislature called the 50+1 rule, which enforces through national law a minimum of 51% must be owned by the association's clubs members or supporters trust. However, despite this law the remaining 49% is made available to multinational entrepreneurs or organisations for investment, ensuring that the teams acquire alternative investment streams. Bundesliga clubs boardrooms are decided democratically through the election of delegates by those within the 51% supporter's shareholders. Hamil et al (2000) states that the benefits of the supporter ownership model allows majority control of the club in the hands of the people who live and work in the communities surrounding the base of the club/organisation, promoting social development as well as campaigns or initiatives for healthier living and multicultural integration. However, numerous clubs within the German league have tried to remove regulations to adopt a neoliberalist model in relation to club ownership however the unrelenting passion of the German football fans to have their clubs control in their own hands has so far thus stopped them from doing so. The German model highlights the fan ownership is a viable model, however not one that comes without a fight.

An example of the struggles English supporters encounter can be seen through the formation of FC United of Manchester. During the 2005 takeover of Manchester United Football Club by Malcolm Glazer, American business tycoon, a group of supporters made their displeasure known at the news the club would fall into the hands of a multimillionaire who viewed the project as process to clear vast personal debts amounted across the pond. United supporters protested the takeover by showing up to home games in the green and yellow colours of their founding club Newton Heath LYR, who had been established in 1878 through the working class communities that ran the Lancashire to Yorkshire railway lines. Upon completion of the takeover of Manchester United FC, the supporter group decided to form their own protest club, FC United of Manchester, to provide football for working class supporters who were feeling forced away from Old Trafford through increased prices of match day tickets. Roy Keane, former Manchester United captain stated that the club had become more interested those eating "prawn sandwiches" in hospitality boxes than supporters paying their hard earned weekly wages to see the Red Devils play.


Ticket Prices

FC United of Manchester and Roy Keane were ultimately proven right. Published figures during the 2014/15 season, showed the prices for Premier League season tickets increased by 7%, leaving the average expense to watch all fourteen of your teams home games at the £800 mark. The Guardian (2014) newspaper stated that the cheapest ticket to see Manchester United play at home has risen in price, with adjusting for inflation, by 785% since 1990.

During the 2011-2012 season, the BBC conducted a survey regarding the 'price of football' highlighting a significant gulf between the English game and their German counterparts. The operating profits of the top leagues in respect countries were identified as the Premier League producing on average £68m, an average across all 20 clubs, with Bundesliga clubs producing more than double the profit margin, achieving an average of £154m profit across its 18 clubs. Furthermore identified in this study was the average attendances and ticket pricing across in the two respective leagues, with the Bundesliga producing cheaper tickets and unsurprisingly higher attendances. Oughton et al (2003) identified the direct correlation showing between ticket prices and attendances when examining how football clubs now operating as transnational organisations could facilitate profits and provide affordable ticketing for working class communities.

Bayern Munich, Bundesliga champions and Germany's most successful club, were identified as a primary example difference between the German and English models within the ownership of clubs and season ticket pricing. Uli Hoeness, Bayern president stated "We could charge more than £104. Let's say we charged £300. We'd get £2m more in income, but what is £2m to us? In a transfer discussion you argue that some for five minutes. But the difference between $104 and £300 is huge for the fan. We do not think the fans are like cows, who you milk. Football has got to be for everyone. That is the biggest difference between us and England"

 

Conclusion

Corporate social responsibility primarily focused within the contextual argument around football clubs has an intertwining relationship with cultural studies. The political landscape in the two investigated countries plays a significant role within the day to day operations of clubs and how they are viewed within the constructs of society. Germany views their premier footballing institutions as ones which possess the ability to promote healthy lifestyles, encourage multicultural integration and develop society as a whole. However, the evolution of football clubs within England have progressed to the stage of ignorance relating to the societal benefits clubs can bring to communities instead focusing on using them as organisations to provide substantial profits for multimillionaire investors at the expense of life long supporters being turned away at turnstiles through expensive ticket prices.

Trotsky (1974) suggested that "any future revolution in Britain will inevitably awaken in the working class through the most unusual passions" listing sport and specifically football, as a potential catalyst of societal change. With the aforementioned protesting against multimillionaire owner's introduction of extortionate ticket prices in the English game that is ultimately felt through by poorest supporters in stadiums across the country, the murmurings of revolt are formulating. Furthermore, the creation breakaway fan owned clubs such as FC United of Manchester further suggest that the backbone of support once provided by working class communities is becoming disenfranchised with evolution of football clubs and their ownership, specifically in England, from local based clubs with heritage in railway, factory and mining towns to transnational organisations interested specifically in marketability and profit margins. The likes of the Glazer family need to be reminded that "football without fans, is not worth a penny".

 

References

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On seeing Orcas in Burra Sound


This free form poem was first published, in a slightly different version, in 2009, and is based on a personal experience, and on the great economic crash of 2008 and 2009. At the time I couldn't have envisaged the momentous events we may be on the brink of in Scotland 2014, but reading it again it seemed to have a certain resonance for these times.  I'll leave it to readers to decide that for themselves, but I will thank writer, activist and friend, John Aberdein, without whom these poetic reflections would never have become.

- Steve Arnott 

 

On seeing Orcas in Burra Sound, 2007

 

steel Orcadian sky

salt morning wind

steady chug of diesel.

 

All the talk had been of death -

empty boat tied up in Stromness

young pilot shrouded in night;

a local son

lost to the irreducible sea.

 

Then: “Whales!” “Whales!”

halfway to Hoy, the cry went up

the rush to the rail, pointing fingers

bisecting

the moment’s gift,

timely, Nietzschean

metaphor made flesh.

Yes!

 

Yes!

Quick fumblings in cases and handbags;

the clicks and whirrs of attempted capture.

I caught with no camera

Other than that which evolution bequeathed.

 

There they were:

not just whales, but Orcas

five…six…seven! Adults and young

flying in formation,

feeding perhaps…

their yin yang bodies

glistering,

massive,

arcing in sinusoidal motion

through air and cresting sea

just a few boat lengths away.

 

I recollect

tingle in my primate spine,

soundless swelling in mammal chest;

a narrative sense – how unique

to be here?

At this point in space.

At this point in time.

 

“I have been crossing this stretch of water

for twenty five years,” said my travelled friend

“and have seen nothing like this before.”

 

Later, the Orcas behind us

sparkling the grey,

we approached the jetty, saw the seals   

- a hundred or more –

huddled in the shallows,

backs to the shore, bobbing like buoys,

brown eyes fixed outwards

in primal terror.

Fixed on the black and white conquistadors.

 

Who, there and then, on that boat

                  - children all, of our postmodern

                  and multiply -

                  linked -   

                  world -

                  did not make the Attenborough connection?

                  Sly, sliding Orca, taking seal from the beach?

                  Or, far out at sea, playing with bloodied pup

                  like a kitten with its toy?

 

       All the dichotomies were present and correct

                         in that ensouled, singular

                         drop of time:

                         the mediated and unmediated,

                         contingency and synchronicity,

                         the wild and the civilised world,

       man and beast,

                         death and life.

 

The planet moved again in its orbit

one and a half times around the sun.

 

None of us had seen anything like it before

when the crunch came. The bubble burst;

the very kings of the world

stood in line to be saved

by the alms of the poor,

and the hard won gains of working folk

- who’d feed a family for the week

on what a Master might pay

for a lunchtime bottle of wine -

were mortgaged to the futures

of the comprehensively obscene.

 

It was both absurdity and an augur

I think –

no, nothing much has changed…yet.

Stocks are up, heads are down,

the dole queues longer and longer.

Big Brother box still squawks and squawks,

keeping most - most of the time -

corralled in baitballs, or listless

in the dull and limited pools.

 

“Work to live! Live to work!

arbecht macht frei

consume, consume, consume,”

then, emptied, die.

 

Killers still rule, and sing their songs,

in our primordial waters.

When you are born

We will eat you

When you swim

We will eat you

When you hunt

We will eat you

When you love

We will eat you

When you are old

We will eat you

We will suck on the marrow

Of your bones

and your soul

And spit and piss it out

 

Still, it moves…

 

What is a single life worth?

And how should it be lived?

All of politics and philosophy

unbounded in a nutshell.

 

steel orcadian light

steady thrum of diesel

salt spray, spattering.

 

That first and final camera inverts the world;

and re-invents a still young dream.

Other masses, purposeful and sleek, that play,

feed, sing, and break the circle of the sea.

 

In time, other seas

in which to carouse;

limitless rainbow valleys

and unseen mountains;

Other melodies keened

amongst the bubbles

and stories writ in turquoise corals

 

But patience:

All crossings take place in real time.

Enough now to glimpse  

the mere beginning:

 

Consider again, conquistadors and prey,

seen through the rain and distances of grey.

 

Past epochs spent,

great flukes rising and crashing;

They pod pressed in fear;

Their compass narrowed

and sheared to shallow water;

Their backs to the wall of the shore;

And we Leviathan.

 

 

Steve Arnott

August 2009

 

Passing on The Torch - RTP Downsized

Graeme McIver talks to Martin Chomsky the singer-songwriter, author and playwright who has produced RTP Downsized - a graphic novel aimed at the younger generation based on Robert Tressell’s socialist classic, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

 

 ©Esther Frain Worldinstill

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Campaigners - Luchd-Iomairt

- a poem in Gaelic and English, by John Aberdein 

I've made a couple of visits to the Gaelic College at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig this year, and the good news is I've hardly met any folk there that are not already a definite YES. I'm not a Gaelic speaker myself, though I worked a few years in the Gàidhealtachd as fisherman, diver, YH warden and the like. But there is a quality about Gaelic poetry which – by means of natural emblems such as trees, birds, wells and springs – goes to the heart of things, and so I wanted to see if I could write Gaelic poems. The answer was yes, but only with immense aid on the grammar side from tutor-poets Coinneach MacMhanais from Glasgow and Rodi Gorman from Dublin, which I hereby very gratefully acknowledge.

Anyway, here's a poem I hope speaks to the historical moment.

 

 Luchd-Iomairt     

 

Mura robh e garbh

leis na bliadhnaichean,

cho ròiseaideach

 

ri giuthas

le ràmhan

ruanaidhean;

 

agus nach robh i

spangach mar a' bheithe

na ciabhan aice

 

cho ceòl-bhinn

ri grian, gu deimhinn

agus ri brìosan;

 

nach robh fìor-thobraichean

math aig

sneachd a leaghadh,

 

no tàrmachan

plabartaich

mar chlach-èiteig bheò,

 

am biodh dòchas aca

 Dùn Deòrsa dorcha

a dhubhadh a-mach?

 

Fo seuntan na talmhainn,

ga litreachadh as ùr – 

Alba.

 

Campaigners

 

Were he not

thick with years,

resinous

 

as a pine

with red

boughs;

 

and she not 

birch-bright,

her tresses

 

melodious

as sun, yes,

and as breeze;

 

were springs

not good

at melting snow,

 

nor tàrmachan

awhirr

like living quartz,

 

how could they hope

to cancel

dark forts of Empire?

 

Under the land's spell,

respelling their land –

Alba.

 

Notes:

Scots pine and silver birch have been my favourite trees since childhood, and are personified in the poem to exemplify strength, experience and a measure of coorseness, together with intelligence, harmony and grace.
Tarmachan is the proper spelling of ptarmigan (if you don't superimpose Greek fanciness on the Gaelic original) and  tarmachan are those camouflage-changing grouse of the high mountains – which stop scuttling around between rocks and hard places and take flight at the last minute (like we must do!)
The English version of the poem has simply dark forts of Empire, but the Gaelic is able to be much more specific. Dùn Deòrsa is the old spelling for Fort George, that huge fortified Hanoverian barracks that was built near Inverness post-1745 to 'pacify' the Highlands. Later it became a focus for recruitment to the Highland regiments of the British Army, and it's still garrisoned to this day.
If you want to know how it's pronounced, Dùn Deòrsa dorcha is roughly Doon Georsa dorocha.
When I visited Fort George late one Sunday afternoon this year, I remarked in the souvenir shop that the Saltire had been taken down at 4pm but that the Union Jack was still flying. The shop takes down the Saltire, I was told, but the military are the only ones allowed to take down the Union Jack.
 Aye, that'll fairly change, I replied.

Joyeux Noel - an antidote to World War 1 jingoism

It might be summer, but Jimmy Haddow argues its a film about a different time of year altogether that reminds us - amongst all the rewriting of history in the centenary year of the beginning of the First World War - of the real class and imperialist nature of that great human tragedy.

 

It is the year of the 100th anniversary of the World War One and the British ruling class and its scribes in the media are releasing a nauseating avalanche of jingoistic propaganda to hide the true realities of the war. "Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)" is a 2005 semi-factual film about the World War One Christmas truce depicted through the eyes of French, Scottish and German soldiers will be a small antidote to the misinformation we will read and see on our screens during 2014 and after.

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Under the Skin

Ana Dreyfuss Quillon reviews Jonathan Glazer's new film

 

Let's cut to the chase: this is a cinematic masterpiece and if you haven't caught it on the big screen you should while there is still a chance to do so. Sombre, beautiful, disturbing, darky comic and, at times, horrific, this filmic re-imagining of Michel Faber's satirical SF fantasy transcends genre film making and will stay with you long after you see it, both in terms of its stunning imagery and its iconic central performance by Scarlett Johanson, and in its 'show, don't tell' treatment of the big philosophical themes it embraces.

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External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left

Greenpeace

The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books