Sunday, 24 January 2016

Famous Dead People

It's been a tough old month for 70s Rock stars...for a while there it looked like the 69 club was forming...and not in a good way.
It might seem anathema but I liked Bowie a lot AND I liked the Eagles...and yes, quite specifically Glenn Frey. If this doesn't make aesthetic sense let's remember that I also like Wagner and Pucinni never fails to make me cry and I just realised how to enjoy Verdi. I like hard core late 70s punk rock, I like celtic folk music. Oh and I grew up listening to and loving country music of all sorts. Let's just say my tastes are eclectic.
If I now have any regrets in my rather misspent time; its that I never paid the outrageous amount to see the reformed Eagles...because I just don't see any point in seeing them now without the powerhouse of Frey. I told myself that like seeing The Pogues with a Shane McGowan so messed up by booze he can't form a sentence; that seeing the ageing Eagles would be a disappointment when I had all that 70s concert footage in my head. For the record, I think I was wrong. Nonetheless.
I did see Bowie in concert, once, at Western Springs Stadium in Auckland in 1987. It was the Glss Spider Tour and I had just turned 18. I still remember dancing euphorically to Heroes and then having to be passed over the heads of the audience and into the front stage areabecause my boyfriend's little sister had fainted and we all needed to get back stage to check on her. Up close Bowie was a very small man. It's hard to believe that that massive voice, incredible presence; all that power, came out of such a tiny frame.
People might get wanting to talk about the Eagles guitarist and an iconic figure like Bowie in the same breath...or the same blog...but for me they provided some of the most important parts of the soundtrack of my most formative years.
So, favourite Bowie song? No contest! Janine. "...I've got things inside my head that even I can't face." Even at 17 I felt a little like he was singing about me specifically.  I have been caught singing aloud to that while walking with my Walkman (it's was the 80s...everyone had a Walkman...), while

driving in my car alone, while just sitting in the living room. It's a brilliant mix of catchy, upbeat
music and really quite dark lyrics.
Let's first real boyfriend gave me Station to Station to listen to as a gift when we were forced to be apart for several months. It's was a crappy home recording on an old cassette tape and I listened to it till I think I knew every chord. Sitting alone in my room, a long way from where I wanted to be, and powerless to do much about it, that music formed a link for me to a world I wanted to be in.
In the early 90s one of my friends became obsessed with Bowie, specifically with Cygnet Committee which she would listen to on repeat, very, very loudly whenever possible. She was particularly fond of the line "We slit the Catholic throat." And spent a lot of time trying to interpret the lyrics. Of course she was also obsessed with her lecturer who was an ex-Catholic priest. She used to make us drive past his house and park opposite it to see if she could see inside...but that's another story.
So Mr Bowie has been important for me. A couple of years ago when I got to see the Bowie
exhibition at the V & A with another friend and obsessive fan, I had the chance to reflect on just what
an extraordinary artist and man he was. And I wondered at the he sick? Does he know something is up?
Which brings me to the Eagles. In my first year of university I was pretty homesick...I had a tape(yes a cassette tape! And a little mono speaker cassette deck.) and I played the Eagles Greatest Hits to myself every night to fall asleep. The tape would click off at the end and I would wake for a second then fall back to sleep with Glenn Frey's voice going round and round in my head. Because even though everyone thinks Don Henley was the great voice in the's all the songs that Frey fronted that I love...Take it Easy; Lyin' Eyes; Peaceful, Easy Feeling.
It's become fashionable to make fun of the Eagles, to say they sold out or their music was only ever easy listening. But show me anyone my age who doesn't know all the lyrics to Hotel California? And if you still don't believe some of the 70s footage - four, sometimes five, very stoned guys with bad haircuts just doing their thing. The Eagles were accused of just loitering on stage...and it's kind of true. Frey looks so stoned most of the time that his already heavy lidded eyes are closed more
than they are open. And I think that's what I liked at17 and like now. They weren't posing; they
weren't trying to be clever; the lyrics aren't really very profound "There's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowing down to take a look at me." Of course Jackson Brown says it's an incredible lyric that manages to combine redemption, girls and the American love of cars - I just hear a young man pretty pleased with himself that girls like him (and why wouldn't they!) and I like that simplicity. Oh and I have always liked that the girl was driving a Ford ute...she is no girly girl...she's some tough farm chick with her own wheels!
You get to a certain age and the people that formed you as a human being...the people who made the music that soundtracks your life; the people who were in the films that changed you; who wrote the contemporary novels and poetry you love; those people start to die...because we all have to eventually. That brings you up smack with your own mortality. It makes you realise that everything human is finite...the number of songs we will write, or poems or stories. The number of paintings we will make...and the number of all those things we will see and experience.
I won't ever see the Eagles live. There will be no more Bowie albums. It's the finiteness that's most frightening. The abyss we all end up having to stare into.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

For my friend and comrade

I'm not sure how you go about summing up a man's life. How you put down in finite, bounded words all the things that make a person who they were. My friend and comrade, Dave Silcock, died a week ago. I didn't know till this morning and its taken me all day to decide that a good man's life needs a written tribute.
Just a couple of days ago I was trying to explain to someone that us commies don't believe in a great man theory of history; that the death of Rosa Luxemburg was a small ad endum at the end of the German section's Conference report to the Third International. And I don't think I was wrong.
But our class, the working class, we need to give the respect that's due to our lifelong fighters. To the men and women like my friend Dave who never give up knowing that they are on the right side.
Dave spent time talking to people. He'd argue with anyone who'd listen; and who he thought he might be able to shift. He knew exactly what he thought and he didn't mind saying it. A brazen bravery of position I've always respected.
And he was kind.
I think whenever someone dies, we find in ourselves all the little stories; those moments that its only later we know are as close as it comes to having a profound knowledge of someone. Everytime I've seen Dave, he's talked to me about politics. Once it was me who was the active one - with meetings every night and a new campaign every week. Me trying to convince him to join Workers Power again and later PR. But never hard - I always knew he was a man who made up his own mind. Recently, its been him contacting me about union action; about coming to branch meetings; about being active again. But never once had he tried to make me feel bad or guilty. He just kept quietly reminding me that the struggle is still out there and it still needs good people to be making the good fight.
Its that kindness I'll remember.
I'm not sure how you go about summing up a man's life. You can make all sorts of statements about the people they loved and who love them; about the lives and minds they touched and changed; about the actions they took which made the world just that little bit better a place.
I don't know if in the end we are all more than sums of our parts.
And I don't know if this was one of the Grateful Dead lyrics Dave liked...but its one I've always liked and I thank him for making me listen

There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.

Like Trotsky, I'm an intransigent atheist, I don't believe there's anything after death. I'm not sure, but I think when we say that people live on in our memories; we're really only trying to soothe ourselves in our immediate grief. But I will miss you Dave; I will think about you and remember you and try a little harder to be the good person, the good friend, the good comrade you have been.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Sometimes I just don't know what to think

Sometimes things in your life come together,,,"sorrows in battalions" as a better man than I said. I felt that way this morning when scrolling through facebook I found the post about a young man I used to teach who may (or may not) have recently strapped an explosive belt onto himself  and ended his and the lives of a number of other people far away from Melbourne, in Iraq. What do you say when confronted with something like that? "How odd...he always seemed like rather a nice lad."

I'm under instruction from my employer to in fact say nothing at all...but that doesn't seem like quite the right response in a world that really has gone mad. Over the Ukraine someone deliberately or otherwise has shot down a passenger jet; bodies lie about in the hot sun and locals rummage through the debris looking for, of all things mascara (if the facebook posts of other Ukranians are to be believed). Meanwhile in Gaza Israel kills over 800 civilians and keeps killing them, even as I write. One of these acts is being called terrorism; the other...self-defence. What name you give it depends not on the act it would seem...but on what side you are on.

So what name do I give to the act that may well have been perpetrated in Iraq by a naughty, but really rather sweet young man I used to know? I just don't know anymore. Good people can do horrendous things. Sometimes good people have to do horrendous things. Or believe they have to. Politically, I can choose a side - personally, I'm left a little numb.

Which was how I felt a few days ago when someone I know quite well posted a long explanation of, essentially, why she is now a zionist. It made me shiver. It made me shiver because there are a couple of things for me that define who one is politically - they are about the sides you take in a few central conflicts that defined the 20th Century. That one stands with the Bolsheviks against everyone else I think goes without saying...but for me there are two other conflicts just as defining - I stand with the Irish Republicans against the British State and I stand with the Palestinians against...well...the rest of the world. For me this is so simple, so basic, so unquestionable that when I see it questioned I am, for a moment, completely floored.

I'm not going to rehearse the arguments here for why a one state solution is the only solution in Palestine. I'm not going to go over why the state of Israel has no right to exist. But I'm also not going to broker any suggestions of anti-Semitism. Because that's what frightened me the most about my acquaintances post - she equated any attack on Israel; really any suggestion that a Palestinian cause might be a just one; with hating Jews. So let's be really, really clear - there was no state of Israel till after World War 2 when the rest of the world felt guilt about letting the Holocaust happen.  And when the state of Israel was formed - primarily at the end of a gun; it was with the violent displacement of the people who already lived there - Palestinian people.

Peace, peace, peace - everyone in favour of a two-state solution will try and tell you that they just want peace. There can be no peace without justice. And there can be no peace unless the current situation is replaced with a secular, inclusive state of Palestine.

But that's not what I'm writing about here. Because as chilled as I was by this persons arguments; her readiness to now accept the propaganda not just of the liberal two-staters but of what even she termed liberal was her reasons for doing so that made me stop and think. She's in love with a Jewish girl - the daughter of these self-same liberal zionists. They sound like nice people - they are warm, welcoming, loving and tolerant. But being a nice person doesn't make you right.

And having empathy with someone because you can see they genuinely believe what they are saying, doesn't make their arguments any better. Loving someone, doesn't mean they see the world more rationally than you have till then. Being a goofy kid doesn't stop you becoming a suicide bomber.

In the face of horror and death and conflicts so out of control that the resistance and the protests and the appeals we make can seem as if they are hopeless; falling on ears that will not, cannot, hear. There was something a little human for me this week. The posts I saw about the young man in Iraq didn't attack him, he wasn't being villifed even by those who could not possibly agree with his actions; they said they were thinking of his family. A friend of his I met by accident just said "How tragic." I think I agree.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Surplus to requirements

You know how whenever you go on a long overseas trip; there's always some well-meaning friend or relation who turns up at the airport to say goodbye. And inevitably they have brought along a "little" gift for you. Never mind that you have spent the last three months weighting everything from your knickers to your toothbrush to keep your luggage under whatever requisite amount your ensuing travel plans permit - no, here's Aunty Whatshername with just a little thing she really thought you couldn't do without.
So you take it. Because what else are you supposed to do? And you carry it around with you for the next three months. Its almost certainly something utterly useless. A clothes drying line. A vanity case. An extra pair of fast-dry knickers. Whatever it is, you have it stowed away with you...just in case... It survives the overland haul from Thailand to Cambodia. It doesn't get nicked when most of the rest of your stuff does in Rome. It makes it back from the weekend in Paris you don't remember.
The whole time you feel slightly resentful of it. Its sitting there in the corner of your pack taking up room that could be used for a few extra pilfered hotel toiletries. Its definitely what made carrying the pack back from the station at 1am all the more arduous. Its annoying crinkly wrapper, well, is annoying. But you can't throw it out. You feel beholden to it. You don't own the damn thing; its begun to own you.
And you arrive back home with it, still safely packed away; probably still in its original wrapper. And when Aunty asks you exclaim "Oh, yes, so very useful. Thanks."
And that friends is how I feel about a whole lot of the equipment that I've been handed. That's how I feel most of all about all those organs of reproduction that I got courtesy of being female.
Don't get me wrong...I've got no problem with actually being a woman. Alright; sexism, oppression, systematic violence and inequality aren't a lot of fun...but all things being equal I would have been beaten up a lot more times in a lot more bar fights if I wasn't 5ft2 and female.
No, the problem I have is with all this equipment I have, and like Aunty's spare knickers, I'm never going to use. A perfectly (as far as we know, not that its ever been road-tested) functional uterus, all the attendant bits, doing what they should. And me with absolutely no use for them. Because I have never, ever, even for a moment wanted to produce babies.
The nasty cosmic joke of it just gets worse as I get older. Because now all that nicely functioning equipment is meeting its use-by date. The hormones are changing and the headaches, stomach aches, mood swings and general menopausal bullshit is beginning. So having never used the bloody extra equipment I got stuck with; now I'm having to deal with the maintenance of it.
Its at the level of unfair that makes an atheist want to wave her fist at heaven.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014


I am so angry currently that its difficult to tease out the various strands of anger from the almost overwhelming dreads of rage in which I am entangled. I'm angry because people I teach with don't know what the word philanthropic means. You'd think the anthro in the middle of it would kind of give it away - suggest it had something to do with people...but apparently I'm some special extra-smart person who knows the roots of words and what they mean and other lesser mortals - who spend all day teaching children - don't. In fact one of these teacher people - who has been working all year on designing a philanthropic project - spent an hour patronising me today about just how clever I must be to know the meaning of a word that she didn't understand; despite being in charge of the project about it. But she didn't need to wait for me to send my numerous, initially witty, but increasingly irritated emails - to realise her error - she could have just googled it; or asked someone - but no, instead, several people, all of whom let us remember, are in charge of the education of the young, just brazenly went on organising a project they didn't understand and didn't know the meaning of. So my school has a philanthropic project which is to help out an animal shelter. Do you see the obvious problem here? Because the people who educate the children don't... I've been asked what I have against animals - the answer is nothing - I like my cat very much - but its a cat, not a person. I've been asked if I don't see what an important cause raising awareness about battery hens is - the answer is no, I don't think its that important - not while there are refugees being turned away from our shores; people locked up in detention centres; people starving and lacking health care and adequate shelter in our supposedly first world nation - need I go on? There are a number of problems here and they are related. The first is that somehow the meanings of things don't matter - that close enough is good enough - that sure it might say philanthropic but what it really means is some sort of charity. So aside from the fact that I think charity of all kinds is deeply problematic both because of its patronising and neo-colonial nature but also because it takes away from the state the responsibility it has to look after all members of society - I also think words matter. Call things by their right names is one of the most basic ideas of marxism - I want things called by their right names and if I am supposed to do a philanthropic project; then it damn well better be about people. The second is about the relationship between humans and animals. Anthropomorphism - and just in case any of my educator colleagues are reading this and having a little trouble with the definitions of big words that are hard to pronounce - that means seeing and treating animals as if they have human characteristics - is a deeply problematic way of viewing the world. By their very nature animals do not have rights - they can't possibly as they have no obligations in our society. Does that mean people should treat them cruelly? - No - the way we treat lesser, vulnerable creatures is a sign of the extent of our own humanity. But that's our perogitive as humans. Today's prosletysing 'launch' of the philanthropomorphic project included the deeply enlightening information that through selective breeding humans have transformed wild animals into the domesticated species we see on farms today. I was left wondering what the point of this lesson was - would the people who run the shelter our philanthropomorphic project is helping prefer it if we hadn't domesticated dogs, sheep, cattle, chickens, goats, or pigs? Should we perhaps let these animals return to their "natural" (and what is that anyway?) state; while we see a massive drop in food yields, protein becomes impossible to buy except for the most wealthy (its already out of the diet of a huge part of the world's population because of the in-built inequalities these animal activists haven't even begun to notice) and we all revert to some sort of hunter gather existence. And what about the poor, oppressed and modified by humans grains? Should we perhaps get rid of those too - after all 10,000 years of human "interference" has made the grain we eat unrecognisable compared to the wild grains that started it all. Because that's where the argument that somehow humans were morally wrong to domesticate and selectively breed animals ends - it ends with a rejection of 10,000 years of development. Domestication meant that people settled in one place; that towns and cities were possible; that writing developed; that humans ourselves changed to be what we are. There's no turning that clock back. The third problen is less concrete and less to do with the silly project. Its the idea that principle's don't matter as much as doing what everyone else is doing. I got what amounts to peer pressure today to support the stupid project. I was told I wasn't being collegial - that in effect I was a bad workmate because I happen to have a different opinion. In the end its the thing that makes me the most angry. People who are too stupid to know the meaning of words or bother to look them up when they realise they don't know - make me angry. People who think animals are more important or as important as humans make me angry. People who want to live in some kind of idealised natural past or who see humans as some sort of blight on the planet make me angry - its the ultimate in self-hate really and I think we should discourage self-hate in young people. But what makes me angriest is people assuming that they can talk me out of my principles. If I say I am not going to do something because I disagree - this means that I have thought about it, considered the options, weighed the consequences and made a decision. It means this because I am a responsible adult and if I make a public pronouncement - its because I am absolutely sure of what I am saying. When other adults then question me - all it makes me think is that they clearly don't go through this process of thinking before they make a public pronouncement - to assume I can be convinced otherwise is to assume I have not fully considered my action. That's insulting. But it also suggests that they don't interrogate their own decisions before announcing them - and that's worrying. This whole process also makes me realise that lots of the people that I teach with - people who look after young people and guide them in the world - don't understand what it means to have a principle. My understanding of the world - my principles - are central to who I am - in a socratic sense - I am my principles. To deny them is to deny myself. Hardly a week goes by when I don't think about Bolt's Thomas Moore in a Man for All Seasons - the extraordinary image of him opening his fingers so that like water, his soul - his principles - drip through. Like Moore, I'm not prepared to allow my principles to dribble away between my fingers. It doesn't just make me angry - it makes me frightened - that other people think that's alright.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

In a tank in an art gallery is a very large shark. Ok if you look closely it is shedding skin round its edges. But its still a very large shark. Complete with open mouth and a lot of flesh-shredding teeth. It's Damien Hirst. The cunt is not a lot older than me. And an awful lot richer. Its named for a line in an essay he wrote that he particularly liked - the Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Yes Damien, you are very fucking clever. Because its true, I can't imagine not being alive. And I don't want to. Though I tried to as I stood in front of Mr Hisrt's cunty big fucking shark. In fact the security guard at the Tate Modern told me it was best were I to stand right in front of its open jaws. Jaws indeed. Very amusing pop culture reference Mr Security Guard - you have a career in stand-up just waiting for you. But yes, I'll give it to the uppity cunt, it is very hard to imagine oneself dead. Though his exhibition helped. A dove, bursting into flight, in a cube of preserving fluid; butterflies - caterpiller, chyrisilis, insect - all in a brightly lit indoor room; then their fragile little wings turned into stained glass mandallas. Yep - after all that horror and god knows how many extinguished cigarettes, I wasn't having too much trouble picturing death. Which I think might be his point. Death is all too close, too much of the time. And those mandallas are lovely, really lovely - till you see the thousands of little lives that have made them. Mr Hirst made me smile. And when I reflect on it; that's a little disturbing. Because his art is about the fragility of existence; about the beauty inside the ugliness. No, the beauty of the ugliness.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

I don't watch much TV... fact I don't watch a lot that isn't pure text. But in the last week I've watched three things that have made me nearly cry.

The first is predictable...I watched Agora for the first time, and given how long I have been in love with Hypatia and her is unsurprising that the film was effective. Of course it wasn't her overly romanticised death that made me want to weep. It was the burning of Library of Alexandria. Did the Christians really burn all the knowledge of the Classical world; in one huge conflagration? The 4th Century sources are not clear on the matter. But their lack of passion as they describe the various sackings should not be any great indicator of how large or small the disaster was - the deaths of Luxembourg and Liebknecht takes only a few lines in the German sections report to the Comintern - and in its time it was an event of similar significance...

Burning books makes me want to cry. Monotheistic bigotry makes me want to cry. The horror of the loss of all that wisdom and poetry; the plays, the poems, the astronomy, the mathematics..that makes me want to cry. What the film's director failed in was making me want to cry for Hypatia and the dreadful human pain of her death. Hypatia; pagan, philosopher, mathematician, teacher; was intransigent. Pursued by a suitor, the story goes, she threw him rags stained with her menstrual blood and told him that this was woman, if he loved this then he loved corruption. Harsh but direct. Needless to say, she never married. But she was brilliant and she was torn to pieces by the Christians, on the steps of their church for not being the passive vessel they thought woman should be. That makes me want to weep. Agora's soft, romantic cop-out does not.

And that's because real, human pain is not pretty.

The second thing this week, that made me want to cry was Chris Lilley's Angry Boys. And its not the moment you expect. Its Daniel, distraught, face-down on his bed, weeping because his mother is going to re-marry. Chris Lilley has been able to make me feel empathy with an aggressive, homophobic, racist little boy; whose heart I felt breaking.

The third time...ah...predictable. Shane Mcgowan was singing Rainy Night in Soho. I looked at his 1988 face and thought "By God Shane, but you were the the most magnetic, absorbing, exciting man alive right then." And neither you nor I will ever be that young again.

Real. Human. Pain. Nothing like it to remind you you're alive.