Cabals and duumvirates: Reacting to Pete and Nick
A nonsensical eruption and a Pro-situ for Dummies out of time?
The following document has been written very reluctantly. However there is a limit to biting one's lip and saying nothing. Silence is then taken as an admission of guilt even amongst close friends who were button-holed in the hope they would then turn on us and join in the general shafting. What happened was a manifestation of class struggle but not that of genuine class struggle which is something entirely different, able to generate a warmth and friendliness totally absent throughout this incident. And we've both had enough experience of the former to know there is a very real difference, as wide a difference almost as that between life and death. We found it deeply distressing, alien to our way of life and maddening. Quite honestly we thought we had entered a wormhole and had travelled back in time to the early seventies when such events were sadly only too common, and, looking back, a complete waste of time. In retrospect the problem is explaining how such denunciatory postures directed at individuals as if they were divorced from all social context and the sole obstacle to a total revolution were able to take centre stage. In reality the worst counter revolution in history was slowly beginning to unfold and creep across the globe though not a hint of this is apparent in the myriad pamphlets, break letters and lettres d' injure of that time.
Breaking our silence we feel a few words need to be said in response to the www.endangeredphoenix . com web. If not exactly hammered we have been well and truly put in our place. Though not openly stated as such much of the Phoenix website is taken up with attacking us. Indeed a fair amount is simply taken up with correcting (in their opinion) our half-digested theories. As it now stands there are two webs that broadly duplicate each other, except that Phoenix has virtually struck out all that we have written. The protagonists have now carried out what they have long thought: that we are, and always were, rubbish – an opinion, especially since the turn of the millennium, that is echoed far and wide whenever our names are mentioned in local council and housing trust offices, social services, certain housing charities, the metropolitan police, the press, our family, sub-contractors etc. However on the revolt against plenty website their texts remain as before and we see no reason to delete them.
While the website Revolt Against Plenty was in its teething stages an almighty row erupted between all those involved. We (especially DW) were accused of being control freaks by taking over the web, lock, stock and barrel and rejecting all elementary democracy and consultation. Superficially this might have appeared to be the case though it is to be hoped the following explanation will shed a truer light on the matter and, in particular, the difficulties of communicating at all reasonably with what had become an increasingly imperious duumvirate in enviable possession of the truth. Nobody, unless they were complete masochists, would, or could, have willingly submitted to the constant rubbishing that had been launched well before the increasingly bitter dispute could be misrepresented as solely a usurpation of democracy. Undoubtedly I do possess a wilful, manic character and in this respect I agree with Pete and Nick. Once I get the bit between my teeth I plough on to the bitter end like a man possessed. I wasn't always such a 'bad ass' as I am now and I can only think it has come about in response to the catastrophic defeat of the late sixties aware that around every corner their lurked a debilitating depression that was destroying the mind and enervating the body and reducing me to a state of near immobility where simply getting up in the morning becomes a major task. I will do anything to avoid these spiritually and physically incapacitating states. And so I have a very marked tendency once given my head to roll on regardless like a frenzied runaway train but knowing all the while any mishaps can be put right later on. O.K. so it's a character defect though one I have long recognised and learnt to live with. This disposition also has its plus side in a manic refusal to be beaten down when others give up. However in my defence I will say that it is most definitely not one that seeks the elimination of others through relentless propaganda or revels in isolating, attacking and eventually excluding them because of minor misdemeanours. Looking back, how was any of this possible in the first place? It certainly has left a legacy of bitter recriminations that is not going to go away like that and is the worst of all outcomes because we have all been the loser. The problem was simply not one of arrogant appropriation and the flouting of agreements that to say the least were very informal. A nasty atmosphere, which we had not in any way contributed to, had been building for some time, reminding me of many another situation in the past. It was getting to the point where we couldn't do right for doing wrong. In the haughtiest manner imaginable and which triggered so many memories of past insults dating from our earliest days in sink schools we were made to feel 'inadequate'. It also felt in every way like a throw-back to the early seventies where revolutionary misfits with often too much perception for their own good and responding to scarcely audible murmurs arising from the depths, were ritually fried for their inadequacies and their failure to appreciate the immanence of the revolution which, but for their obscene insistence on continuing to breathe, would surely happen. Few did take up the hint that they could best help by committing suicide though unfortunately everyone who lived through these times remembers someone who did just that.
As the nightmare began to unfold the shades of two horrible pro-situationist scenes rose up before me. The worst was a grilling I received in Paris in 1975. This third degree of liberation lasted for an entire weekend. Though at the time on a revolutionary semester, the future art dealer for Momma’s gallery in New York showed no quarter as he endeavoured, for my own good, to apprise me of my limitless failings, such was his zeal in promoting the revolutionary truth. Had I confessed I might just have been saved for the revolution. It was a strictly studio apartment reprisal of the Moscow Trials in which ideology, self-contempt and the contempt of the converted substituted for the firing squad. It was of course wounding enough and it took weeks to regain the balanced outlook anger brings. But now of all things in 2004/5 to see the apparition rise once more was just too much. And it was so lamentably out of time and place. One would have thought the immanence of the annihilation of the human race (or, to be optimistic, a good two thirds of it) rather than revolution would have made all the difference. More fool me for thinking the passage of time and the rapidly darkening prospect would have made much difference to this largely class conditioned reflex. In fact in the final days of humanity it may about to be strengthened immeasurably as the light finally fades and people kick up and have to be led back to the truth of money through the pretence of abolishing it.
But what happened thirty years later was pro situ in form though certainly less so in content, though you worry about the culture angle. Perhaps resistant to change it was the style of denunciation that remained. In the seventies we had found it sickening and depressing in the extreme and in itself enough to sink the hope of a revolution amongst the oppressed once and for all. Nothing in our background had prepared us for such behaviour which belonged in our eyes more to the board rooms of the bourgeoisie than to the streets, at least as they were then.
Rather than portentously claiming it was an essentially an issue of revolutionary truth a psychological explanation may be more appropriate. Aren't all of us suffering from a prolonged depression with no relief in sight in the immediate future? Some are more able to acknowledge it then others and there is no doubting that the masked depressions that are now so widespread are one of the most insidious forms depression can take because the victims are completely blind to the fact they are suffering from it. Hence they have a tendency to lash out blindly, to shift the blame, accuse others, scapegoat and find fault with nearly everyone.
We have also dished-out harsh criticisms in the past. But in every case it had to do with the never-ending opportunities for opportunism in a class society. In particular we lashed very promising, gifted individuals taking up deeply compromising careers. For sure there was a sheer, crude class loathing in all this which has not softened with age but rather intensified for it is becoming more apparent with each day that passes that the collapse of the social democratic consensus that began in the late sixties is intensifying and a polarisation as extreme as anything in the 19th century is now well under way.Would that it had been accompanied by a growth in class conscious but for various reasons the very opposite is happening leaving the terrain clear for the bourgeosie to increasingly do just as it pleases. But in 15 years time it could be turning into a different story.
In the meantime individual gods can thrive (because not cut down to size) and there is in our opinion no doubting that in Pete’s eyes Nick had become something of a god. Though he was the sole praetorian guard and a lone worshipper at his shrine he had to be protected at all costs and Nick’s name never taken in vain. And woe betides anyone who did so. In vigorous proletarian scenes gods are always brought down to earth and become the tin pot dictators of an irrational authority to be undermined and harried at every opportunity.
And so because of various fuck-ups one of us (DW) was left with the task of putting together the website that became Revolt Against Plenty. There was none on hand to turn to for help and so it became a matter of trial and error, reading technical books and deciphering the frequently confusing instructions and enrolling on a course. And so mistake followed mistake and the only light relief was to be had when the Algerian teacher stuck her tits in my back as she helped with a technical problem There were eureka moments but they were of short duration and almost immediately one encountered another technical problem then another and so on.
These difficulties were never appreciated. All that counted was how did the website look in cyberspace, a purely contemplative act. A disdain for the practical meant I was to be regarded as the oily rag and barely worthy of contempt, like something the cat had brought in. And so my protestations fell on deaf ears. In the end I was forced to conclude this denigration of practical skills, the very nuts and bolts of how to do something, was typically middle class, a product of the society we lived in. And how different, in this respect, was the treatment I received form “below stairs” (for the number of actual servants in the “service economy” is rapidly growing as is the chattel mentality that goes with it). And this despite the fact there has been over the last twenty five years a not inconsiderable petite bourgeoisification of the proletariat owning to council house sales, levitating property prices and state engineered sell-offs of state companies which were deliberately undervalued in order to create a new share-owning class of rentiers etc. But essentially all of this was just a one-off and unsustainable. As a mechanism of containment it could not compare with the Beveridge creed of grant assisted, higher education for the masses initiated at the conclusion of the Second World War with a state fearful of what happened after the first inter-imperialist conflagration.
Whether they were consciously aware of it or not all the wrong buttons were being pressed and which were bound to detonate a savage class response. Here we were once more the misshapen dolts of the Sec.Mod going nowhere but down the mines, at best destined to be a brickies' mate. And then eventually the prolonged humiliation of the oldest grammar school in the country where every day we were reminded that we were just not up to it, below the general level of intelligence in the school and “speaking the language of bus conductors not the language of Milton and Shakespeare”. If only that bastard of a patrician headmaster were still alive who said that to us because we would soon show him he knew nothing about Milton or Shakespeare, beyond what he had been taught by absurd academics in Oxford. University. Even so he would still have clung fast to his original judgement – for this is England - because what we would say went so far beyond his ken as to be incomprehensible. I have frequently wondered what he would have made of my contention that Hamlet is the first sustained reflection on the beyond of art in European literature but one that is unable, like Hamlet himself, to transcend speculation, fearing the consequences will be catastrophic. In fact I was surprisingly close to holding these views in the sixth form because even a year earlier in technical school despite regularly being told we were academic failures, we were reading books on Dadaism and wondering who was this man Jacques Vache. The humiliation produced by such schooling still smarts to this day and it was a major factor in turning us into revolutionaries.
And yet on the brink of pensionable age here it was all over again. Though NB was a member of the upper middle class elite that has long dominated cutting edge revolutionary theory in this country, Pete was most certainly not. How come then he was so deferential toward it or at least to a particular variant of it which had only appeared to kick over the traces? This not only perplexes us but others also. Seeing through so much he was unable to see through this ploy at all. Pete was not a member of a traditional banking/art family nor was there a trust fund in the background doling out largesse just so long as you toed the line and kept up the pretence of conforming to the family ideals. The relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza comes to mind at least as regards Pete’s undivided loyalty though the nature of the vassalage is very different. It is now Sancho Pedro urging his lordship to attack windmills against his better judgement and convincing him they are giants. All his life NB has had the means to distance himself from the reality – indeed the only reality that matters – he was so obsessed by and one that he would minutely examine from a safe distance not least to note the flaws in it that enabled him to take issue with it with a clear conscience. But as a result of increasingly reverting to type and conforming to the family’s illustrious name he had become more cut off from this very ordinary reality than at any other period in his life. Hence he was open to persuasion of the most insidious kind typically mingling, in a horrible melange, critique with outright class hostility. During the miners’ strike and in the immediate afterglow of it NB would not have launched the assault that was now directed against us because for a few brief years his behaviour had been modified by that titanic struggle, enough for him to have seen the error of his ways and regret he had ever been party to these ritualised denunciations. But to Pete it was all new and an opportunity to play out, for all to see, the role of rigorous revolutionary as clearly set out in “How a Revolutionary should behave for Dummies”. Maybe he felt his idol was weakening and beginning to lack metal. And who better to kick shit out than a couple of codgers approaching their die-by date?
And then came the dreadful Xmas in late 2003. We were barely through the door before the brickbats started. Apart from being told in no uncertain terms we were just illiterate peasants the worst insult was to be told we were just militants. The toughest and easily the most dangerous struggle of our lives against crack heads had been dismissed with a contemptuous wave of the hand. Pete even had the gall to say our fight was no different from the trouble he’d had with alcoholics a few years back. One word from his lordship could have silenced him. Instead el vuestra merced continued to suck on his pipe and say nothing. This was either an admission that he was now so remote from reality that such distinctions were meaningless to him or that his silence was a judicious silence fearing that if he was to lose Pete his last remaining contact with the everyday reality he had long played gooseberry to would have gone.
The thwarting of street revolt? Fuckhead capitalisation and
what this generally - though confusedly - may still imply
A lengthy digression is called for here. Bro had come out of hospital in late 2001 having undergone major heart surgery. This was no run-of-the-mill by-pass surgery – which is daunting enough in any case. A five lane by-pass is practically unheard of but that is what he underwent in addition to repairs to the aorta involving open heart surgery. In fact bro had been given a 20% chance of not surviving the operation and was on the operating table most of the day. Though close to death, it was doubly unfortunate that crack dealers had moved into the flats right next to him making his life, and that of other tenants, utter hell. Despite complaints it became clear that the dealers had the protection, if not the full protection, of the authorities and in a sense had been licensed unofficially to deal crack. Though it was a license to kill business it was, first and foremost, a business and there has never been such a business friendly environment as today. If Enron can get away with it and a host of other businesses why not in god’s name shouldn’t a crack dealer? So damn the ethics. As for the other tenants most were on benefits and hence a drain on business and parasites really.
So the die was cast. Guns were discussed openly in the corridor (the gang was none to discreet not caring that walls and doors have ears) and there had been a shooting incident and the toughened georgian glass to the flat two doors down shattered with bullets. The police and the council, each scratching the others back, hushed up the incident. When the increasingly fearful tenants asked for an explanation they were met with a sharp rebuff and to all intent and purpose the incident never took place, such was the growing authoritarian control over information despite the much-vaunted Freedom of Information Act.
This was in the summer of 2001 and the tide of killings, not just black on black killings, was rising remorselessly. One longed for the return of the good old days of heroin addicts with wasted bodies and weak smiles, of the walking dead and stretcher cases with drips in their arms as paramedics fought to save another druggie, knowing if they did not overdose this week they would the next. Anything but these crazed gun toting killers high on crack rocket fuel. As late as 1997/98 the crumpled bodies of smack heads huddled in doorways or in the stairwells were a regular feature of life on the corridor. They were a nuisance but little more than that and a fly’s slip stream was sufficient to blow them over. Not so the crack supermen and women that had now taken over the corridor. These people were aggressive, territorial and very business minded. Used as we were to dealing with smack heads and “hooligan” gangs from our schooldays these were way outside our league as they were to everyone else, unless armed. I often longed for Durrutti’s column to march down the corridor to teach them the real meaning of respect.
Like naïve liberals we had initially attempted to parley. However it had provoked outright hostility. The guy, Brian, who lived upstairs, had been a former building worker. He was dying from brain cancer when a ‘helper’, Barbara, appeared on the scene descending upon him like an angel of mercy. She made him offer he could not refuse. In return for use of his place from which to deal, all of his needs and has last dying wishes would be catered for. Never having taken anything in his life other then ganja of course Brian fell for it, accustomed as he was to taking people at their word. His place was soon taken from him and prostitutes moved in. I doubt if there is a worse combination in the world than crack and prostitution. We have often wondered what it must have been like for a man dying from a brain tumour to be made to walk the streets at night whilst his deathbed was being used for sex. And then to return in the morning to sleep as best he could in the spunk-covered sheets. Excepting for his description of the rape of a child Dostevesky’s imagination never stretched this far and what was happening seemed to beggar belief. As well as many women, children were also involved: in fact it was, at least on the surface, largely a woman child thing. Women were certainly favoured when it came to the business of ferrying drugs around. If stopped they could demand to be searched by a policewoman, knowing there were not that many around. Kids would be even less likely to be stopped and searched. There are obvious parallels with the killing of Toni Ann Byfield, the young girl who was shot in the back less than a mile away on Harrow Rd. It was highly probable the dealers on the corridors knew of the young girl – and, fatally for her, she knew her killers. In fact some of the kids were really nice, full of play and wide-eyed wonderment and they wanted to be invited in. Ten years on many would be wide eyed from taking “eyeopener.”
What still strikes me was their mastery of PC hype, as if knowing instinctively what terms and combination of words carried the most weight. Rather than play the race card, they chose the language of women and children’s rights. Appearing in court for the first time, Barbara defended herself by claiming she was caring for a dying man! The court was a push over. Less than two years later this multi million pound crack cocaine ring had been broken and the “crack queens of Notting Hill” exposed for what they really were.
Hubris must have played its part: the more empowered the dealers became the more they threw caution to the wind. Having successfully beaten the independent council tenants to a pulp (not as easy as it sounds) they were doubly empowered by the discreet, though active acquiescence finally, of council leaders, the police, social services etc. The latter of course disapproved of crack dealers but not heartily disapproved of them to the point of loathing. That they reserved for uppity council tenants with a social conscience, for it was beginning to dawn on the authorities that the dealers, by successfully silencing all protests over housing conditions, were doing their jobs for them and making their lives easier.
In the early spring of 2001 a mixed race youth, part Arab part English, had moved in two doors down. This was no street kid despite appearances to the contrary and ewe all wondered what strings had his parents pulled to get him of their hands and rehoused in Notting Hill. Dumped on us he could only look down on the council tenants as inferior beings ripe for the taking. A year or two previously under the now famous Westway opposite the tenement block, bunches upon bunches of flowers had been left at night, the wilting leftovers from the flower stall that features so prominently in that nauseating blockbuster of a film “Notting Hill”. For some weeks afterwards no council block in the country could rival its floral decorations and scents.However life was about to become the opposite of all roses, for this event , more than any other signalled the biggest single change in Notting Hill’s post war history. From now on Notting Hill was synonymous with “Little Hollywood” and an urban schizophrenia split the territory in two as never before. A footbridge linking the two crosses the west bound tube line and indignant tenants frequently found their way blocked by film crews cashing in on the “Notting Hill” bonanza. A mere stone throw away (or bullet ricochet) houses were rapidly exceeding the million mark and were even beginning to fetch two or three million. No one who was not part of it could even begin to guess at the horror now beginning to unfold in the tenement’s corridors. Yet they were profoundly linked not only by the supply side economics of the media driven drugs trade for both sectors were now becoming image hooked.
Of course the place had always been a bit edgy and maybe not for the faint hearted. But it was rich in incidents and the residents seemed to appreciate that life there was never dull and would find much to laugh about provided you believed in live and let live. I remember once visiting bro’ and finding a parrot flapping around in the corridor. On another occasion the lift door opened to reveal a glamorously dressed woman squatting on her haunches, knickers around her knees about to have a pee. Raising her eyes she tossed her head impatiently as if to say “how dare you” and went off down the corridor in search of a less public place. One Easter in the same lift, the door opened and a black guy stumbled in as high as a kite on smack. I was carrying a bunch of daffodils and he immediately stuck his nose in these practically odourless flowers. “For the trouble” he asked (i.e. trouble and strife = wife) and added “had an argument”? One couldn’t help but smile just as I did at an elderly Arab man in his late seventies or even older when he stopped me to say, “I could do with a whisky and a good fuck”.
There were to be sure more threatening incidents like when someone tossed a molotov into a would be totters flat because of non-payment for some goods. The bric a brac the flat was overflowing with exploded in a sheet of flame and in no time the fire brigade had arrived. Yet there was something enjoyable about it and certainly exciting even though someone could easily have been killed. The caretaker was rapidly on the scene and he seemed to know everything about the occupant saying he had been expecting this to happen for some time. I remember thinking to myself how much does this caretaker know about the private lives of other residents because he mentioned how he had followed the totter down the street to familiarize himself with his contacts and dealings. Caretakers had tended to played a pivotal role in fascism, Stalinism and in other dictatorships as informants.
And yet all this seemed to change so suddenly, one moment there the next inexplicably gone. And because of the crack takeover a grim silence began to descend on these corridors. Festivity of any type no matter whether good-natured, a bit crazy or downright reckless ended abruptly and fear took its place. Despite going off at half cock ever since the late sixties, the revolution of everyday life was at an end and these corridors began to resemble prison landings and the flats, cells. Who now were the jailers?
The youth mentioned above and later to be nicknamed “Speed Garage” was part of this unfolding horror and grew into it. He initially signalled his contempt for the neighbours by turning up a sound system full blast at two in the morning On the second night it proved too much for the dealer and they had a quiet word with him though he may have had to soak his pants in a pail of bleach and water afterwards. Bully’s when called out are easily intimidated and have no stomach for a fight. The first time I met him he pretended to mug me because I was old and ill. He was waving an inland revenue form for all to see pretending that at last they had finally nailed a notorius tax evader. I doubt if there was anyone in that tenement block apart from the inevitable ‘honest’ minority who had not given the inland revenue the run aroundHowever they certainly did not make a song and dance about it: that would be tio attract unwanted attention.
This kid was naïve - that was obvious – and, because he was such a mug, dangerous. With the best will in the world it is virtually impossible to keep the lid on a crack dealing scene. Sooner or later there is a killing and guns cease to be a fashion accessory. Barbara it must be admitted, did better than most. A suited gent dressed in an expansive overcoat would deliver the crack each week in a black brief case. He was always smiling like he had something to sell – as indeed he did – and I initially took him for an insurance salesman; the man from the Pru. Then the penny dropped as it did with other tenants who were even more alert to what was happening and we would swap notes. The cocaine would then be cut with balking powder and cooked. The subcontractors would then arrive (it went on all night) and the rocks of crack parcelled out. Little if any crack remained on the premises and we thought how like Benetton it was in its modus operandi: a hollowed out drug company run through the contemporary practise of subcontracting out where little actual manufacturing takes place.
The more the cancer ate into Brian’s brain, the stronger his carer became. Her business venture was succeeding beyond her wildest drams and the firm needed to take on more employees. And so “Speed Garage” , previously such a nuisance was taken on to the pay-roll. He was now somebody as his name could now be linked with that of the crack queen of Notting Hill. Easily in her forties, Barbara must have been flattered by the attentions of this young man. As for him he had found the glamour of proletarianization irresistible: the child mules were not image conscious enough to appreciate it, but he, by now in his late teens, certainly was. What a boon to capital in general if only other proletarians could be made to see it that way. Such willing slavery, such awestruck surrender to super exploitation including the right to bask in the borrowed prestige of the boss, especially a female boss. No wonder capital is soft on killer drugs because they have so much to teach it about the art of exploitation. When the crack scene ended the career of speed garage crashed to earth. But his self-image did not. He thought he could continue on alone and took to picking on a a great woman probably in her late forties, a sixties survivor who refused to give in to the year of reaction that followed and is now working on a checkout in Tesco’s. She had even taken crack herself just to see “what it was like” and had many tasty friends one would really not wish to mess with. They paid Speed Garage a visit and “put him in hospital”. He now runs in fear of her as well he might. As long as guns, or at least the threat of guns, ruled the corridor, proletarian justice or something like it and which has no need of the police, is stopped from functioning. Only those - ultimately underprivileged - people who have being able to avoid such situations will lament such drastic retribution.
In fact Speed Garage didn`t know whether to kiss or kill this woman. Maybe he wanted to do both, he was so confused. He would call on her in the middle of the night to ask for things like olive oil to cook with. She would refuse to open the door knowing that once inside she would be unable to defend herself and her calls for help may have gone unheeded. She half suspected he wanted to be mothered, to be compensated for the mother that had failed him and for her to put her arms around him as he got ready to batter her to death. These are just some of the subtleties of the situation that gives it its breathing testament and which only a person who has actually lived through it could possible know. However these human touches did nothing to mitigate the situation of all out war. After Brian died Barbara was able to temporally hold on to the flat. Perhaps she had married him in order to do just that, knowing they would not be married long anyway. Listening to her behind closed doors one day she asked one of the prostitutes take off a T shirt that had belonged to Brian because it now possessed a sentimental value. So a part of her had become attached to the terminally ill old man in spite of herself.
This entire incident particularly when it came to the easy use of naïve young males perfectly reflected the changing character of the area. Both uptown and across the tracks the image and rule by stereotype was taking hold of the area as never before.
Through months and months and months it turned into a hellish, long drawn out battle. Fortunately a small very loose group came together composed entirely – and interestingly – of alternative working class individuals (in that they were or had been employed in manual jobs) to fight this complicated new scourge. Perhaps it could also be said that collectively throughout our lives our loose grouping had taken more drugs than those we were combatting! Inevitably too they were very far left in persuasion and life style. Other tenants, particularly minorities and single parent women were understandably too scared to join in living in fear behind locked doors completely terrorised. Over a period of a year or more the fight was relentless. Amazingly we really got somewhere in the end with all of us taking various individual initiatives even engaging in direct action like super gluing the locks of crack dens. although truth to tell it was difficult getting collective coordination going and that sometimes really pissed you off. In fact with our pretty coherent written exposes we were largely responsible for closing down the £5 million “crack cocaine queens” – as they came to be called – who plagued our part of west London. Finally it received big coverage in the London Standard evening newspaper. The closing down of the crack houses resulted in general tenants’ jubilation. It was a fight conducted autonomously mainly due to the high state of awareness of those principally involved who had no truck whatsoever with official tenants representatives and organisations rightly viewing them as a form of company unionism particularly the local TMO (Tenants Management Organisation).
And what was our reward? Some among our tiny unofficial grouping were threatened with eviction notices from top council officials just at that moment we needed some protection knowing full well the crack capitalists knew by now exactly who we were. We’d cost the authorities an awful lot of money and they in turn wanted our guts for garters hating us far more than any crack dealers. Furthermore, there was no way any of us could ask for police protection being utterly loathed by the local top brass. We didn’t even have the modicum of a certain little bit of media recognition and recuperation – a pulling of radical, genuine sting from a situationist perspective – that would perhaps have indicated to council management and crazed drug mule alike “lay off”. We fought the fight only to be ruthlessly airbrushed out of it come the official day of reckoning. It was as though we never existed as the authorities claimed our struggle lock, stock and barrel as their own initiative rather in the manner of the old totalitarianisms of fascism and Stalinism who taking policies from others would then shoot the instigators of these policies. Our position was rather different with the crazed mules given the nod and the wink to do the shooting. All of us though were very, very scared and footsteps behind in the dark of night brought heart to mouth as you waited for the bullet….During the conflict, the Daily Mail got hold of the story and wanted to do something on it as a way of having a go at Tony Blair’s government. However on finding out who the instigators were, their general thoughts on society their inclinations and drift they reacted in fear not wanting their grubby rag to be turned into a vehicle of what they saw simplistically as ‘anarchist’ propaganda. Anyway in retrospect scared off by our very forthright opinions it is just as well they didn’t print anything! Some of the story did though get printed in a quasi-medical journal specialising in clinical depression though without the edge and oomph needed.
Essentially though this long drawn-out affair had left you completely wrecked and shattered inside. What we did do though was a test case and the fall out helped changed the face of official responses to the crack gang menace and the fuckhead activities alongside it. It’s a story of the rampant free market if ever there was; how marginality was capitalised and about those who should have been our allies and we theirs but were no longer so. At the time we also knew full well people in European countries at the time probably wouldn’t have had a clue about such a situation, severely mistaking your endeavours and only fully understood by American or say, Brazilian counterparts.
Fuckhead revolt certainly amounts to one of the most complicated difficulties of contemporary times, at least, as far as analysis is concerned. Why cannot we talk to these people? This situation probably has no historical precedent as every other insurgency tended to be open responding to others. On the contrary this ‘rebellion’ – if one can even call it that – is openly hostile and completely closed down in advance of any action which then becomes completely self-defeating and nothing more than a foil to the increasing assault of the commodity manufactured in over-drive. Unfortunately much of the recent revolts in the French banlieus can also be characterised in something of the same way… And so on. Locally a guy in west London wanted to get a website together starting by airing some of the above along with lots of other things in and around roughly the same basis of public sector housing and how all these new and horrible problems were being dumped on us. The guy, a tenant himself, was an ex-Maoist so there was no chance here of racism etc. Some amazing stories were collected or in the offing and quite quickly some kind of drift developed particularly theoretically in say discussing the changing face/disappearance of the liberatory edge once plainly there in some sub cultures at least or how they’d become distorted by a dog eats dog atmosphere etc. Moreover, despite reservations it seemed a good idea and also had the advantage of honing and developing web skills which you still weren’t very proficient at meaning the more confident you got technically the greater the independence from techies who can be pretty expensive.
Accusation upon accusation – from your own side!
Well, sorry for this vast aside but it is essential to the horrible and stupid attack launched by Pete and Nick and finally having come full circle to the point where this pared-down explanation started is the point where the ‘militant’ accusation and rubbishing came in. It was an accusation said with real venom and hatred as if you were nothing but empty idiotic airheads simply setting ourselves up as though you hadn’t quite subtly thought long and hard about the problem. Nothing though is risk free and oh, if it only it were wouldn’t we be happy! You always in a way are going to be asking for it and getting away with it is a veritable bonus when it does happen. All Pete could see on that Xmas evening in 2003 was you were foolishly asking to be offed. But what could have been worse than those dreadful weeks in late 2002/early 2003 when you really were waiting to be whacked? A web was certainly some kind of way of getting something of your own back on the authorities particularly as recently some obnoxious so-called independent housing advisor had denied you considerable moving expenses because you’d furiously objected to his lawyer style wording when declaring he didn’t know “if crack was a good thing or a bad thing”. This relatively young guy went purple with fury at old codger upstarts and he was going to make you aware of the power he wielded by the traditional method of hitting you in the pocket. However Pete’s was the final prouncement and said so triumphantly. There was nothing more to be said and that steel trapdoor which so often functions in Pete’s mind particularly when feeling threatened went slap bang shut. Nick as previously pointed out, remained silently looking on most likely more or less agreeing though there’s the possibility he didn’t know how to react as per usual, he had no experience of such things, seeing he’s always able to buy himself out of these types of situations those at the sharp end have no choice but to experience. (He then has to be taught in triplicate and intellectually what response to have as it’s never a gut thing). Hadn’t he that very morning on mentioning the council had made a big mistake on some supposed unpaid rent related to being forced out of your flat by gang activity, drawn himself up to apply his most imperious tone: “Just get on the phone to them immediately councils don’t make such mistakes”. Phew! Well that about took the all-time biscuit. Gob smacked you looked at him realising he was farther away from the lives of people at the sharp end than he’d ever been!
If that wasn’t enough the guy then turned his attention to the way you handled the building scene which was becoming increasingly fraught in more ways than one with a rapidly deteriorating situation getting almost completely out of your control. Inevitably – and so typically – his tone of voice suggested you were largely to blame. “Look, why don’t you insist on getting paid daily? Have you ever thought of that solution?” Such high-handiness left you speechless and gob-smacked and knowing nothing about the harsh realities of life on the tools, the guy was into a familiar pontificating mode. He knew! That’s all there was to it. Nothing else impugned on the matter other than your further inadequacies. It was obviously quite out of the question to even begin to consider the accelerating collapse of a liveable wages structure especially in London and nothing about a pandemic of non-payment related to the insecurities of immigrant labour ruthlessly exploited by sub contractors at a quarter of the going rate. Nothing about enfeebled trade unions product of the most draconian labour laws in Europe meaning you were completely without the most basic protection. No! It is you. You are at fault. The Lord of the Manor had spoken. He knew!
Anyway later on - the same evening - meeting finally over, we walked away shattered and reeling, extremely upset. Both Pete and Nick know so well how to deliver this shattering effect - as others have noted - and all too often directed against the wrong people. The strategy worked well enough as subsequently you felt far too demoralised to carry on with the proposed housing web and sufficiently disheartened to pursue some further attacks on the housing authorities, MPs, police etc, which in any case you needed plenty of geeing-up to do. But this pro-situ lot never encourage constantly on the look out for some weak expression, which can always be found never thinking you might need some kind, loving support for the sheer effort it takes to get so far in very reactionary times. No, let’s kick their heads in instead!
A more than half-completed account – one with plenty oomph – telling the real story and which quite possibly may have been useful to a lot of other people and tentatively destined for a website in the States was abandoned as you felt like slimy slugs deserving of such treatment particularly as it was close friends delivering the really damning judgement. You had had the stuffing knocked out of you only to get a lot more knocked out of you from your own side! After that you felt very wary about making contact with your ‘friends’ especially as that evening it had been accompanied by a very superior tone in other depts: why hadn’t this be done/ why hadn’t that been done suggesting you really were utterly lazy, coming from a couple who are remarkably lazy by any stretch of the imagination. Not that you mind providing they weren’t so sanctimoniously hypocritical about it.
You couldn’t help but reflect that all this pointed to a simple conclusion that Brandt some time previously had decided to get you. Familiarity had finally bred the contempt he so desired. You simply weren’t up to scratch, somewhat in your everyday life but, most certainly, theoretically. Who’s to know but perhaps the crunch had come through a prepatory text that had provisionally been entitled The Hidden History of King Mob. It had been relatively crudely put into some kind of semi presentable shape, a one step on if you like from a series of notes cobbled together over the years reflecting on those tumultuous and liberating times in the late 1960s. The task suddenly seemed to acquire an urgency of realisation set against the backdrop of crack dealing neighbours knowing your life was in danger. Get it out in some kind of misshapen form before it is too late etc. At least that was the bent of your psyche at that horrible time! Thus in a very unfinished state the notes were handed out to a few people for comment one of which was NB asking him to specifically put right the often disjointed/dyslexic English as well as comments on various points etc. The clumsy English was virtually ignored as point upon point was taken apart as he provided the bare bones of a re-write, although in all fairness, he said he liked it. And there the text remains – in bits – to this day.
More than that this provisional text couldn’t remain thus and, as is the man’s character, these ‘inadequacies’ were ruminated on leading to a source of night and day endless worry. A repressed fury slowly, very slowly, seeped to the surface - were these notes beginning to amount to a crime? Maybe it was at this point that a motion of criticism tipped into a slagging as conversations with Pete developed mulling over some of the ideas? Again as previously mentioned some of the Phoenix web is built around such refutations without plainly saying so. Maybe at the time, the change of tone was communicated through indication and subliminal suggestion enabling Pete the lap dog to duly do his duty over-egging the venom and becoming more zealous than the zealot. How other could an atmosphere build up in the space of six months or so if you weren’t been talked about in an increasingly disparaging tone behind your backs until it was bordering on the sneeringly contemptuous? We all talk about each other critically when the person is not present but in a spirit of friendship as the fundamental bedrock. This drift was no longer so, thus ‘democracy’ in such a context would have meant nothing more than grovelling submission to increasing contempt.
Nonetheless, blithely unaware of the utterly demoralising effect created you were expected to get on with putting up the Revolt Against Plenty website. In no time at all the emails started flooding in more or less stamped with the same scornful tone over just about everything. Phone calls were cut out possibly because this media was too user friendly and curt emails were substituted. Obviously something more remote and officious was needed as reprimand as you were heading for complete contempt. On that horrible evening it had been more or less agreed to begin the website by putting up an archival selection of every bodies selected texts together with a number of others you’d found interesting over the years and which were now out of circulation seeing most bookshops that were of any value in Britain had long since disappeared under the onslaught of the property price bubble. Fine; let’s stick to that at the moment so everybody could get accustomed bit-by-bit to formatting, correcting scanned texts and some idea of web site design. Steady as she goes. The main problem though hovered in the background: How to make the jump to some kind of office intranet via a technical devolution which would allow anybody participating who wanted to back out of the web for given periods could easily do so. For the moment I was completely lumbered with 100% of the problems and didn’t like it. It was like a full time secretarial job and a full time worry. It was beginning to be too much on top of everything else especially the still on-going battle with the fuckheads and the authorities. All you needed was this endlessly fraught computer misery – making endless messes of things – how the fuck do you get this or that technical problem right etc. Failure upon failure, panic upon panic. Moreover regarding longer texts there was the question of creating HTML pages reducing download time when dial-up more than broadband was the predominant Internet mode. I experimented by using some of my own longer texts, as I didn’t know what others to experiment with apart from possibly Phil Meyler’s And Yet It Moves but then I didn’t have the photographs for the book. This really caused offence although Nick had sanctioned The Summers although probably on the nod. I knew I couldn’t explain the technical reasons as they would have been dismissed out of hand as essentially it was interpreted purely and simply as hogging the limelight. However, I couldn’t make technical experiments myself without going live although, no doubt others, more technically competent, could. For me it was a case of the omelette and broken eggs despite it being unforgivable! So many web pages were left where they were – a lot having gone off at half cock - as you no longer had much of a heart to put them right.
There was also another problem related to increasing age and general wear and tear after a working life of decades of heavy graft on the buildings: bad heart conditions which though mainly caused by inherited factors were nonetheless aggravated by such activity even though ameliorated by heart by-pass operations. One of the post-operative side effects had been a massive tendency towards palpitations which suddenly hit you and experienced like as if your heart clambers to get out through your breastplate. It is a horrible sensation and a condition that seems to get really aggravated when slumped over computers for any length of time. Moreover when the sensation really kicks in it can take days to subdue putting your mind in a complete tis-was regularly thinking are these your last minutes etc. You rapidly become an exhausted wreck and then - very heaven - finally a glorious sleep engulfs the body and a certain calm returns. Thus physically at times it was utter murder putting together a website but what was the point of complaining? Never having been a whinger you simply grin and bear it. However, there was one further factor sadly product of experience when dealing with Nick. You knew if you’d remarked on your physical condition it would most likely have been regarded in the category of a low down cheap shot, inadmissible alibi. Brandt ten years previously had attacked his former miner friends on this level (see later). You can only take so much…
‘Democracy’ in a venomous atmosphere
Wrong. You had to take a lot more. On that fateful Xmas evening a structure had kind of been decided for the web, which very soon in practice was to amount to a veto system. A constant monitoring – nay policing – rapidly became uppermost with a structure resembling more a GPU or Inquisition. Nothing it seems would be put on the web without complete consent and even, as was to swiftly happen, in putting up a straightforward archive? A relatively mechanical task must surely be more or less glitch free. But what was to unfold was formal democracy gone berserk with Pete as the fulcrum. If Pete decided it wasn’t to go on the web that was all there was to it as Bro’ wasn’t remotely interested in saying either yes or no! Everything had to go through Pete, as he was NB’s representative and unpaid liveried retainer on earth. Pete de veto! Nothing was going to escape ever-watchful eagle eyes rooting out any whiff of unorthodoxy and heresy. Nothing could practically move under such a regime or atmosphere. Why couldn’t there be simple trust instead of this vetoing in the name of democracy? Why this absolute vetting? Why not let things breathe and flow? Why not let a few things go off the deep end? Why not throw things and ideas out to play with in an open ended way? Why police each other? Why not make a few mistakes? Why be perfect? Why even aim for some kind of perfection? Why couldn’t there be plenty of individual autonomy yet collectivist? A gang on a building site could work like this why shouldn’t an office intranet gang? And there’s the rub: collective practical by hand activity is better than the leaden weight of theory still so roundly stamped with the hierarchies of official civilisation. Perhaps it will ever be so until a new society is born? And even after? From our much more shambolic side something very different and considerably more organic was beginning to feel its way forward and unfortunately beginning to realise would never be accepted never mind allowed to be broached. Put simply: Once everybody had become reasonably technically accomplished why not some kind of informal rotation system, each perhaps looking after the web for a flexible period of time thus avoiding this one helluva burden feeling. How about letting things go a bit envisaging the web as more of a process, more in tune with the specifics of the web media rather than aiming for something finished and set in stone as books have a tendency to be. Maybe allowing for something in between notebooks, jottings and theory? Something maybe less portentous allowing for dead ends and fuck ups. Simply cut some slack as previously stated.
We also implicitly trusted Pete and Nick knowing they’d never put up something on the web that was seriously amiss even if maybe contentious. Such trust wasn’t though to be reciprocated. In fact it was the complete opposite as a quickly developing atmosphere pointed to the conclusion you weren’t quite to be trusted or maybe not trusted at all. More than that: You had to be watched every second of the day because you never know but you could start eating your grandmother. In no time the whole atmosphere became pervaded with an all too familiar Brandt upper middle approach with him as moral figurehead keenly watching social inferiors for those ever threatening dangerous transgressions.
And considering this nasty, nothing-must-move-atmosphere together with daily grandmother eating it was hardly surprising you quickly didn’t feel like consulting about much at all as in any case increasingly you were wrong about just about everything. Why consult when it would have meant undergoing yet another ordeal ending up feeling shattered yet again followed by days and days of complete demoralisation on top of feeling pretty freaked out because of all the other things you had to face daily. Further meetings wouldn’t have been friendly forums but an occasion for ritual humiliation i.e. facing up to your appalling inadequacies thus necessary for said inadequacies to be completely revealed to your miserable body, mind and soul in the hope that one day you might be able to improve yourself. Might but don’t hold out too much hope…….and a refrain - as you may now have gathered - we keep repeating.
Suddenly too, everything you’d done in the past especially in terms of pamphlets and the like were beginning to be deemed as simply not up to scratch. This was no longer a simple task of archiving but a trial of your lifelong failings! Texts like The Bankruptcy of Syndicalism & Anarchism and Julio Henriques critique of culture From the End of Empire to the Empire of the End in late 1970s Portugal were declared as not too good and moreover, badly translated. So for a couple of decades this is what our duo secretly thought but why hadn’t they said so at the time when they seemed to be influenced by them? Again your English was called to account more or less implying we don’t want oiks from rough miners’ sec mod schools here but properly educated people. The class thing kicked in instantly almost as reflex. Moreover, you shouldn’t have put in provisional new intros without consulting the duumvirate but seeing they hadn’t done them originally nor knew the circumstances surrounding these texts, what was the point? For sure a few additions later might have come in handy but how about being simply nice and helpful; a suggestion here and there, maybe putting a phrase better etc. And so it went on until you simply weren’t going to take any more insult finally snapping and walking away in despair.
After that well, forget it as you took to bed and freak out. Just let the damn web rot simply pass on the technical access details of the old as the ‘new’ had been delivered weeks previously on that Xmas evening. Let them get on with it as they had in possession the old CD allowing simple cut and paste. However, it seems you were also expected to fully teach your executioners the ins and outs of web design, which you were hardly au fait with yourself whilst the sword of Damocles was swinging above your head and no doubt being told every other minute what a useless, conniving load of shit you were. This was just about the worst of all pro-situ scenes encountered with that familiar avoiding each other pattern. And our response? Don’t reply, don’t propagandise, don’t open emails, and don’t feed the hungry wolf - simply keep away.
There was a further problem though. The object of so much hatred hung in cyberspace as an eternal offence against the human eye created by a monster authoritarian. Technically it wasn’t like some pamphlet or book in preparation that could be scrapped with not much ado. Out there was the sheer excrescence, permanent, for all to see! There was no question that the person responsible for this heinous crime had to be taken out once and for all and denounced to the world and a breathless posterity by any means necessary as a lying, evasive coward. In short the usual epithets Brandt deploys when eliminating those he perceives as adversaries. Once they were delivered in obscure pamphlet now there was the World Wide Web! There’s that bastard Rene Riesel from Nuisances in France – we’ll get him one day - now there’s Dave W in England! Let there be no quarter!
Another web and further stern rebukes
In such an atmosphere any kind of experiment that didn’t fit ridged orthodoxy was frowned upon. Condemnation was in the air before even a hint of heresy could pass the lips. In no way could you have raised the issue of yet another contemplated website; a website totally unlike the previous housing/fuckhead non-starter which was just to say hovering around the mind’s edges. A few months later and it emerged as Dialectical Butterflies - a title suggested by a plumber friend which expressed something of a much wider ranging totality than ever previously envisaged in the sense of: “A whole manner of things become dialectised through different routes” as Lukacs once put it and in this instance referring to a process describing the changing face of Lepidoptera broadly in the Pennine uplands of Yorkshire. Observation, photographs, scientific analysis about butterflies were placed alongside texts taken from the Revolt Against Plenty website such as Energy & Extinction written on the 20th anniversary of the UK’s miners’ strike together with certain experiences relating to nature and the transcendence of art in the profound Newcastle upon Tyne melting pot of the hidden from history aborted uprising of the 1960s/early 1970s. A passion that had once obsessed our childhood many decades later and in the interim kept making its reappearance was thus transformed in the process. To be sure, the website courted and courts a welcome and for some possibly unwelcome juxtaposition: Why put seemingly parochial observations on the recent colonisation of the Green Hairstreak butterfly in to the city of Bradford alongside an account of a workers’ occupation of the oil rigs in the North Sea in 1987 etc? Also, there are incomplete accounts here of certain eco struggles like joining in to try save a remarkable quarry from development or opposing the devastation of Yorkshire collieries smoothed out into something presentably for sale by landscape architects in the pay of the developers. If having an abstractly aloof disposition one could easily characterise this web as partially reformist if you didn’t consider how some of the struggles described here were fought against overwhelming odds between those who passionately defend wild nature from a renewed, momentous onslaught by the developers and the state now equipped with eco-mercenary turncoats - those many poachers turned gamekeepers - paid off handsomely by developers who now must have them on board to have any hope of realising their nightmare projects. You had to experience at first hand all of this increasingly grim reality; you had to get involved to really know the craven impotent submission of the local council biodiversity groups etc. Most of these stories are still in preparation but such experience has helped nuance/flesh out an ever-developing eco critique slowly acquiring the necessary acumen it must have for realisation. It’s a formidable task but one whose lines we hope will encourage a more coherent take down a timely path equipped with an anti-statist critique of political economy in an era when the future for ecology is now fully focussed on so-called sensitive monetary aesthetics first given prominent airing in the writings of E O Wilson who has been awarded his very own a critique in the web. In the short term it has given momentum through contacts to get out the untold story of the often splendid direct action instigated by William Bunting and his Beavers on the glorious huge wetland wastes alongside Thorne pit in South Yorkshire. You can go on and on but isn’t that the dialectical momentum?
Rubbished perhaps as far as the outer reaches of the Milky
Way? The miners’ strike; a revolutionary milieu plus a
proposed white paper on toffs and miners!
It didn’t help that the duumvirate immediately spectacularised the conflict proclaiming everywhere through the internet and the revolutionary milieu what conniving wretches we were. In not replying the silence has remained to this day and the loud voice of “guilty as charged” has claimed the victory. They knew full well in slagging you off to a revolutionary milieu you kept well clear of – a distrust you had initially acquired since the days of the in-crowd in Newcastle in the 1960s - that being uneasy in such company you would have little confidence in replying. For decades you had detested the changing face of the inhibition effects and like-thinks of these groupings which allow plenty of scope for rubbishings if pitched right. Only the content and not the form have changed. You don’t like the competiveness engendered, their sense of supreme importance, their emphasis upon bookishness in the broadest sense of the term. Most of your mature life has been spent on the buildings and the camaraderie evinced here made any milieu/in-crowd relationship pale into insignificance in comparison. Moreover such a life force tended to put the mode named writing on perilous foundations forcing you always to question its exalted status. It was a mode you have always felt unhappy with, a mode you needed to keep your distance from.
In this ever-poisoning atmosphere there was no way you could have discussed anything or voiced doubts and hesitations or simply allow some drift to take its course: you had to walk away and keep on walking, closing down simply to avoid that well known camel’s back breaking. It was 20 years after the UK’s miners’ strike and L’Insomniaque – a radical book publishing outfit in Paris - had requested if it was possible to help Jenny Dennis, a former miner’s wife and good friend to put together a long account of that colossal watershed of a struggle. Over the years you’d heard so many of Jenny’s fascinating stories it really did seem an excellent idea. Even in normal circumstances though there wasn’t a way you would have dared to broach this with NB and co without them pouring the coldest of cold water on the proposal. Pete thought the miners’ strike was considerably overrated (OK but he would have insisted with something approaching cold fury) and Nick had had one of his usual gotterdamerung spats with one or two of the guys around L’Insomniaque together with the ex-miners who would have been involved. Moreover, Pete loathed all the French people who had collected around Nick in the 1980s and as per usual, had unconditionally sided with Nick when the inevitable bust-up came. Thus in familiar mode – possibly as opportunist collaborator - you would have been shattered yet again in advance even if you’d been talking to the duumvirate so you would have had no choice but to have become (yet again) the usual stereotypical lying, devious bastard. (The add-ons were really beginning to stack up!) As it stood, better they didn’t know until the book which came to be called Une Peu de l’Ame de Mineurs de Yorkshire was published.
Moreover Jenny was going through a terrible time emotionally particularly after the death of her husband John, compounded by the fact that John’s Aunty Dot was on her last legs meaning it was the end of the Dennis family Jenny had looked after so faithfully and with such unconditional love for decades. Bit by bit though we managed to get the story together in between the crying, breakdowns, regular day attendance at the mental hospital and sheer grief over the eminent passing of her ever-loving friend Dotty. Basically it was accomplished through cuddles, talking fests, memories of past conversations with one of us hastily writing everything down and then passed back and forth for corrections and additions noting that a deadline – amidst all the complete turmoil – had to be met in order to get the book to the printers on the required date. It was ‘finished’ with hours to spare so inevitably there were on or two inaccuracies although considering the dreadful circumstances in which it was put together, it’s surprising there weren’t a lot more.
There was no question Jenny’s account was a terrific story and as for ourselves it had to be done simply as part of what we owed the miners, especially the Yorkshire miners – it was a feeling deep inside you simply had no control over nor wanted control over. Their presence had played a big part in our childhood and those in our family who were miners had had such a profound and enlightening effect saying things to you when barely five years old that was to resonate down through the years. It became a personal mission if you like to rescue some of John Dennis’s writings especially as you felt so bad at the way he’d been treated in the long aftermath of the miners’ defeat. It was a familiar but true story everywhere and it makes your heart bleed especially when you see time after time to this very day other walking wrecks on the streets of the mining towns and villages a la John Dennis.
Just before the final punch up, NB despite wanting to put something together on the miners, was behaving in his usual, affected, ultra-superior manner: “Remind me to do something on the next anniversary of the strike” (smirk, smirk, titter, titter) meaning something like – those brothers are so backwards they cannot see that anniversaries are an essential function of capitalism etc. You weren’t fools. You knew what was being said as you grimly noted how an essential part of your background that had been such a formative influence had been ruthlessly wiped out by the state whilst, the other side of the coin of this murderous process, there had been a massive increase in what had essentially buttressed Brandt’s lifestyle and subsequent arrogance: inherited wealth. There was no way either this guy could ever have gotten Jenny’s story out of her (or anybody’s else’s in a similar position as he would have been so busy ticking them off they never would have felt easy enough to spill all the essential beans). Jenny had in any case well noted there were things you mustn’t tell such people as ever afterward they’d constantly deploy them against you when opportune to do so. We knew she wasn't wrong!
Sometime in spring 2005 Jenny received a letter from NB asking her in friendly welcome if she may care to comment on a web phoenix had put out on the miners’ strike which in passing praised her recent contribution, Jenny Dennis tells her Tale. However, past memories were to prove too powerful and although Jenny in her tale gratefully acknowledged Nick’s help she also had wanted to launch an attack on his subsequent behaviour but was dissuaded fearful of the harm that could befall her. Thus the letter and information about the new web was promptly binned asking only that his name never be mentioned again!
A miner’s postscript plus further thoughts on the milieu and
aberrant off-springs of the upper middle classes
The ‘revolutionary’ milieu meant and means a tremendous amount to Brandt most likely because he has little organic sense of community apart from that anomic excuse for community the upper middle class family he doesn’t really like to mention. The vibrancy of proletarian community and the street which connects it, no matter how eroded nowadays, never had any reality for him not even when it acquired an alternative edge from the late 1960s onwards. No matter, as in any case it was the social space to be avoided as a living space at all costs. Nonetheless, the man had a mission – a task if you like – to introduce the revolutionary milieu to a more humdrum proletarian scene set within the context of some kind of struggle. No doubt he hoped by this that the often fairly middle class people – some of the better middle class people may it be said – of the milieu could thus acquire a more fleshed out reality quoting less from books. Seeing there must always be something programmatic to such a persuasion friendship was pushed well away to the side. It was also a path he tried to lay out and cajole the more enlightened members of his family to take by introducing them to miners. Before his death, John Dennis well bemused by all of this laughingly suggested he was writing an article called Toffs & Miners one which Jenny latterly has also contemplated completing. For JD though there was always a health warning: “When do we have to pick up the tab?” “What is the hidden agenda?” “When do we get taken?” It was also one we couldn’t disagree with thinking back on our family ensnared in a similar conundrum back in the first half of the 20th century when an 'enlightened' Lord Down, himself dead set against the coal owners for their brutality, came to the ‘rescue’ by employing Grandah Park who’d been blown up in the pits (and amazingly survived though severely crippled) as a rent collector for his estate knowing full well he got on with an intelligent working man of fairly radical persuasion more than any businessman. Seeing there was no other employment and with a family to support he took the bait but if that wasn’t a poisoned chalice what was? However, to be fair on his watch no miner's family was ever thrown out their dwelling as he paid off enough individual rent arrears through his own, by then - much higher - wage.
So Brandt stooped to conquer, er, rather, somewhat own you or at least declare unswerving allegiance. If that didn’t happen other more unscrupulous punishments would be exacted, as he needed you as a kind of human catchment area for all kinds of favours. In the mid 1990s he even managed to get an upstairs alcoholic neighbour without a bean cut off the dole by arbitrarily and without asking, using his address (no democracy here!) to avoid paying parking fines. Reacting in fury he threatened to defend himself which presumably meant rubbishing you to this milieu as he already had embarked upon the preliminaries by calling you a coward for refusing to confront like telling the upstairs neighbour a friend was responsible for his plight or when a girlfriend initially freaked out at him. (You had to carry on living there He could walk away…) He must have felt somehow he kind of owned the Dennis family after giving them a fair amount of money for survival purposes during the 1984-5 miners’ strike which presumably meant he felt at liberty to insult in the grim aftermath. He became especially brutal towards them when they were lying broken on the floor in the early 1990s as he applied his familiar role model behaviour of precious little flower/pampered barbarian to their condition – i.e. pointing out in one letter that JD was in love with her illness as well as getting more and more critical towards them generally. For sure it is a long and intricate story. The first letter was opened and John was only persuaded not to go to London with his son and stab Nick by a lot of tearful pleading and a pub money bribe. Cooling down a more resolute genial tone was adopted one more in line with the social apartheid. His following letters were laughingly blanked topped-off with a “Burning the Brandt” ceremony replete with candles and silly ritual as the unopened letters got burnt to sounds of mumbo- jumbo and hilarity.
The transcendence of art together with some of the
Collective projects were envisaged as we’d collaborated previously and amazingly, very smoothly on a pamphlet on the 2001, anti-globalisation Genoa confrontation: “You Make Plans; We Make History”. Maybe similar things could be done again. Nick suggested we do something similar – a collective update on the critique of culture - whilst one of us had suggested science instead. Red lights flashed realising this could spell trouble, as we knew there would be little fundamental agreement on a critique of culture. The duumvirate seemed blithely unaware of this or rather felt the inadequacies of our critique had to be overcome (especially after the incomplete King Mob notes) once and for all and put firmly into the dustbins of history! In the past whenever the testing ground of a critique of culture was broached, usually when the drink and dope had been flowing, Pete would start spitting feathers: you could only go so far and no further. It was impossible to go the distance with Pete to the new starting point of complete negation in order to arrive at the frontier where maybe the vision of stupendous lift-off could hove into view obviously not to be immediately practically realised – it would have taken the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and a huge peoples’ uprising for that to be possible. You could only feel there was a hanging back, a clinging on, reminding one of Andre Breton’s exhortation in the 1920s that you had to “kick aside the ball and chain of art”; something by the way, Breton increasingly was never to really practise himself and in this so like Pete.
The last vestiges of culture though were and are very important to Pete most likely because he takes music qua music very seriously indeed though commendably he has always refused to make any money out of it resolutely refusing to promote himself in the role of musician. Nonetheless he entertains some notion of the peoples’ music liberated from commodity relationships; of some revived troubadour spirit one fine and sunny morning when capitalism is perhaps in its death throes. Thus he could say Captain Beefheart after leaving rock ‘n’ roll behind was really creating some fine wild paintings or: “You must recognise the difference between poetry and prose”. Remaining quiet – you knew if you didn’t all hell would break loose - the vulgarity of such comment amazed. (What about Byron’s comment nigh on two centuries ago “who both by precept and example shows, That prose is verse and verse is merely prose”, etc). How about Wordsworth’s preface to the Lyrical Ballads from 1798 where something similar is stated? How about Shelley’s proclamations: “The distinction between poetry and prose is a vulgar error” etc. All of this had been said well before avante garde developments totally consigned the distinction to the dustbin. It did indeed make one reflect about the sad lack of even a recuperative end of culture interpretation of English romanticism, which could have more than hinted at the truth regarding the immanent collapse of cultural forms. Why couldn’t some of those careerist Eng Lit academics at least have done something a little useful! (And to bring home the point with perhaps some light relief as a postscript we’ve included two pieces here in somewhat put-on academic style, one on Marx and Heine; the other on poetic form and Wordsworth and others, which may help some of these slippery customers on their way).
Inevitably though it made you realise Pete had little knowledge of the long, long collapse of artistic form over a wide, all-encompassing field, involving painting, sculpture, poetry, the novel, architecture etc. Neither did Pete have any great knowledge of the experiments in avante garde music especially over the the first 50 years of the 20th century nor how it was pretty essential to have somegrasp of what emanated from the late Beethoven etc. What did all of this mean and just how do we look at this still open ended all-rounded trajectory? On being informed about Satie’s furniture music which Pete had no inkling of, he could only say it “foretold musak”. Well that’s obviously one interpretation though a limited one as the complexities within Satie always suggests much more profound consequences, certainly open to a more de-commodified interpretation. Putting it simply: Pete couldn’t get away from the role of the songwriter in the 20th century, a role that wilfully ignore the self-destruct of poetry orelse like Bob Dylan (whom Pete has the greatest admiration for) who banalised the techniques of Les Illuminations into something much more superficial which nonetheless the real protagonists of revolt in the late 1960s did at times reinvigorate on the streets and turn into something far more telling. Moreover, it would appear we were too adamant about culture, even vulgar about its complete emptiness. We had been accused by the duumvirate of eurocentrism – that post modernist inclined buzz word - regarding culture. Surely out there in the eroding jungles of the Amazon torn apart by logging or in the swamps of the Hindus estuary raped by encroaching towns there maybe the great poet of disintegration matching any late 19th century Mallarme confined and locked into a European perspective.
Are you sure? And doesn’t Peter Wollen that ex-Trotskyist and exhibition oriented pro-situationist constantly search for such artistic figures to place in an expanded, art-emphasised, Situationist pantheon. Forget it. These were more than shades of Icteric and 1966 in Newcastle when last accused of the same thing though without the more contemporary eurocentric emphasis. Moreover, seeing music was central to all of this; is the gist of the argument that far removed from musicians like Alban Berg who do something of the same except he hands out recording contracts to those who make ‘music’ or, engage in a rumble in the jungle, dragging them firmly into the cycle of artistic commodity production? Though rejecting such an excuse for searching which merely staves off the day when the vacuity of culture world wide is as plain as day it nonetheless points to a question needing to be gone into in much greater depth recognising that much of the avant garde/end of art experiment did take place in the European confines coinciding with an advancing level of capitalist development, though do these circumstances now mean anything at all now China/India etc is awash with installation artists?
However be that as it may – simply just let it be. Certainly there was no point in pushing things and perhaps at a later date a time would be right when a road may have opened up when differences would maybe find some common resolution or change takes place through changed circumstances. Best to skirt round the question as on-going friendship was what really mattered. Let’s stick together as assuredly we’ll hang separately etc. Wrong time, wrong place etc.
Unfortunately as the web Revolt Against Plenty took shape such a pragmatic position became increasingly impossible as Pete produced a text on the shape of culture, which he unilaterally demanded - without collective discussion may it be said – that had to be the base for a much wider critique. Although it was an interesting and good text and way, way better than anything you could expect from the so-called revolutionary milieu (moreover a milieu clueless about relevant cultural critique and considering aesthetic modulation is now pivotal to capitalist reproduction, a milieu that cannot remotely be called revolutionary) the text didn’t really raise the central question inherent in a renewed and relevant critique of culture: that is the ever-intenser combination of commodity fetishism now inextricably locked into the moving rise and fall of artistic form partaking if you like as its basis the Hegelian historical analysis of culture. (Nick at the time had said to us quite sneeringly; “You’re very Hegelian”. Well, yes but what other way is viable – post-modernist, existentialist, stuckist – what?). This combination had to be explained most likely in a tentative, exploratory way through a renewed political economy of art or rather a renewed critique of the political economy of art, a question John Ruskin once posited though obviously without the content Ruskin inserted in Victorian times. In short, in the highly developed world especially the UK and USA how the manufacturing – steel, mining, workshop economy – has given way to the aesthetic economy in the moment when globalisation has increasingly removed manufacture to the cheap labour regions of China, India and elsewhere. Essentially what had to be elaborated was how this seeming dialectical combination of commodity fetishism and the movement of artistic form had been realised in contemporary society as a false dialectic in this moment of extreme capitalism and endgame. How a lobotomised and emasculated avante gardism imposed everywhere could seamlessly blend with a simultaeneous plethora of archaisms from stuckist easel painting/poetry/music and what have you through endless promo as long as it was proclaimed as art through a ubiquitous and media fabricated artistic ego so enabled in order to pull in the dosh for an absolute landslide of commoditised ‘artistic’ absurdity/abomination everywhere. In a way we could have – quite amusingly perhaps – have rewritten Marx’s famous, profound and complex chapter on the nature of the commodity in Chapter 1 of Capital replacing or rather conjoining - considering the growth of neo-religious mania everywhere – the table-turning quasi-mystical elements inherent in the commodity form with contemporary post-modernist art phraseology. No?
We also could perhaps have envisaged the moment when globalisation will probably be brutally terminated by the final depletion/rape/extinction of fossil fuel energy resources and what would this mean for the aesthetic economy which would most likely merely change its appearance in the absence of any immediate successful revolutionary upsurge. (On the other hand you have to to consider that the immemse wall of fictive capital needing to find outlets maybe finds its ephemeral outlet in the fading of art?). Nonetheless is it possible the aesthetic economy may function in a new and enforced localism amidst collapsing world stock markets and a mass crisis for exurbia, food retailing conglomerates plus among other things, the end of car culture? What would happen if the constant technical revolutionising of the means of production gets forced back into a necessary de-accelerating production over a wide field consequence of depleting raw materials sources such as iron ore? What happens if throwaway culture is squeezed backwards into an ever-extending vista of maintenance and spare parts? Would there be an enforced return to yesteryear excepting say advanced technology now strictly limited? No doubt the domination of the media would remain intact if only because the energy supply necessary to its existence is quite small. But what might it purvey in terms of the aesthetic economy? A return to arts and crafts as counterpart to renewed local food production and allotment city? The end of the mass market aesthetic interior as counterpart to the grossly inflated real estate of fictive capital taken into random junk installation interiors supervised by an artist supremo? There certainly could be many interesting thoughts, conjectures and contributions to be made here and some no doubt may prove to be quite accurate in a visionary way.
How times don’t change and past memories
The defining moment in Brandt’s life –whether he likes or not – is REFUSE - a magazine he produced around 1978 composed almost exclusively of letters from himself to individuals together with some replies. It was naval gazing at its worst and a head-locked obsession so typical of the English upper middle classes emanating from their social isolation, anomie and more or less uniquely privileged economic circumstances dividing them so acutely from other people and which they inevitably feel just as acutely - though in the final analysis - blaming everybody else for. Brandt like others of his ilk finds these rarefied circumstances very distressing but for the life of him (and all the others like him in this miniscule though powerful class fraction) cannot remotely overthrow within and for himself. Although NB was to refute REFUSE nevertheless in one form or another, usually in the shape of a Lettre d’ Injure after a brief popular moment, especially friendship with Yorkshire miners, REFUSE was to return intermittingly as his everyday life constant. It was increasingly a Lettre d’Injure aimed not at people in authority or cadre positions but largely at ex-friends needing to be crippled for distancing themselves from him. People had to be admonished or rather brutally accused especially those socially beneath him as why they should be exempt any longer when searing critique was necessary especially when the ideology of the level playing field was extremely important psychologically to his general sense of well being. Well this is what NB had convinced himself of when needing to administer himself an arm fix of power?
On first meeting him in sometime perhaps in early 1978 a daily ‘assault’ immediately followed which he in his wisdom thought was the new ‘revolutionary’ way to communicate. At least assault is what it felt like. He, with his ready supplies of seemingly limitless spondoolies and a smart abode couldn’t simply perceive you lived an entirely different life by product of entirely different economic circumstances and that you were simply knackered in the evening from hard, physical graft on the buildings working for a sub-contractor. Instead he’d rush into the bathroom while you were busy in the bath covered in soapsuds getting the day’s dirt of your body trying to thrust a leaflet he’d just produced into your wet hands. Moreover one of the leaflets was merely a regurgitation of things and phrases you’d spieled out the night before. He had in fact started without shame, vampiring, cloning and mimicking chameleon-like almost immediately. It was to be one of his most persistent hallmarks remaining as strong to this day as it ever was. NB simply writes your comments down, regurgitates, then claims for himself but more on that later!
He simply had no self-knowledge of his behaviour or how people might regard him. And then all very smartly turned-out in a casual sort of way he’d come primping and pramping beside you to the local pub across the road as you sat down beside two down home rebellious gals who were your old mates to simple shoot the breeze in a good, often light-hearted guffawing way (they were part of that lively subversive un-racist cockney working class here who in different ways were to be cruelly broken with the subsequent repression - and one of them. dearest Pam who's lonely funeral you went to weeks ago - a victim of alcohol - you cried and cried your heart out over). Embarrassment though simply didn’t come into it as the gals without needing to say anything keenly noted how expensively dressed he was with his immaculate leather hand bag slung casually over his shoulders and how delicately manicured he was. Nick sat there quite oblivious as the gals looked at us as if to say: “And who the hell is he? You’re keeping some fine company these days”. Not knowing how to talk to the gals he kept attempting to engage them in the only way he knew imposing some theoretical ‘revolutionary’ conversation on them. It was simply too much. On another occasion he wondered if we could introduce him to some miners (this was merely a few years after the two victorious miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974) from the north of England. After he’d left we laughingly though grimly commented “they’d hoy him down the pit o’ hell”, a reference to a line from the folk song, The Black Leg Miner. One day after three breathless visits in the space of a few hours you had no choice but to show him the door. A couple of short sentences in a letter would surely do the trick with no chance of being published. How wrong such an assumption was! No wonder nigh on 30 years later you tried to refrain from any comment knowing it would be fully deployed against you all over again. And how, as with the help of Pete it was to be worse than ever!
Throughout the decades NB has tended to put peoples’ backs up everywhere. He considers that it is his penchant for truth and absolute honesty that results in such responses. That’s only half the story – the good half – the rest is down to his often very hoity-toity behaviour ever ready to criticise and denounce any compromise no matter how minor subjecting individuals to the harshest treatment over details he’d well spare regarding himself. It was a process often plain to see and at the time, well remarked on. Many would respond on the lines of: “ The hypocrite, who’s he to criticise when he possesses such a fortune in inherited wealth – he’s more compromised than any of us”. This was true enough and occasionally accompanied by a slap or other acts of physical aggression – especially when he’d provoked some young impoverished working class lad who having joined the revolutionary cause – to put it in a corny way – had plenty of ready aggro to hand. Although one could say this was inexcusable behaviour nonetheless it had the salutary effect in civilising the revolutionary Lord of the Manor, hopefully imposing better codes of behaviour in the future. On one occasion he asked us for help when some plumber guy was threatening to punch his lights out. We blanked it knowing full well it might help in knocking some everyday common sense into him in a more durable way.
However, the trouble with this critique was its one-sidedness. In crudely pointing out Nick B’s wealth it was a commentary, which failed to recognise just how excellent his general critique of contemporary society was (and still is). Some ten years ago John Dennis, the Yorkshire miner, was to formulate NB’s particular conundrum more accurately than most and, incidentally, just after tasting a brutal dose of Brandt assault, and considering John was in a poorly and depressed state at the time he did so with intelligent equanimity: “Nick thinks very well but his everyday life is woeful.” For sure everyday life was the nub of the matter and it’s always what has caused the perpetual trouble meaning you really have no choice but to give the guy a wide berth if only to prevent yourself going insane! The “woeful” finally comes down to the initial ugly truth of money as previously mentioned and the way how NB remains fastened to the fortunes of an important family’s treasure chest and trust fund. In short, how he’d always been attacked minus the recognition of his other gifted side. As Dave Easterbrook around the Leeds based Infantile Disorder in the late 1970s was to say – Easterbrook, a working class guy from south London, having had the misfortune in social democratic times to enter university experiencing the real dislocation which surely must have encouraged his nascent schizophrenia, and who was a little later, to spend decades in High Royds lunatic asylum near Otley in West Yorks - “The most important thing in Brandt’s life is his money.” It was unfortunately exactly right! Of course NB would (and no doubt will) reply that this money wasn’t a fortune in the way some inheritances of the real moneyed elite are. However, considering NB imbibed the revolutionary spirit of the times encompassing a general anti-consumerism (“consume more live less” etc) you could live a somewhat alternative lifestyle in quite a gracious way having that ever ready supply of dosh. A certain frugality in daily life meant he had an alternative version of fuck-you money. It also meant NB never had to make stark economic choices enabling him to maintain the veil of having made them. In no way did he ever have to hack it in real terms, never forced to make a decision whether to sell out and earn a living as a professional or survive as a worker of some sort. He always has had sufficient economic cushioning to float above all real choice in daily life.
In compensation he thus could proclaim himself as the model all must follow. The ideal of purity - the way the truth and the life - inevitably adopting a high moral tone with his quite pronounced PC inclinations was (and is) his mode. At times it is quite fearful to behold, although cynically you’d reflect how much it keeps reoccurring in moments of high drama in England. Generally as part of this posturing he’d clone real life decisions others had no choice but to make. Even in the mid-1970s having inherited an apartment he’d squat a few nights a week in order as he said; “to get over my property hang ups” – and so on. And when push came to a kind of shove he could and would always fall back on trust fund resources. In the early 1980s he could readily stump up a big deposit for key money for down payment on a rented flat in salubrious South Kensington. And finally once the housing market went through the roof in the late 1990s he still could get a house bought for him in France courtesy of the same resources. And like they all say no doubt - as others of his ilk - his inheritance will now be running out!
But then there was Byron?
And can we be sure that NB’s use of a PC World is as enlightened as he believes. Doesn’t such attitudinising have a long historical shadow with merely an emphasis change throughout the decades? Back to the moment when the first missionary from the English elite stepped on the shores of Africa proclaiming his God-given role to civilise the heathen? Doesn’t it all partake of history and the agonising times after the repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1830s when the upper middle classes, together with their mentors, the true-blood aristocracy, had to bow down and cultivate the more aware among the dangerous classes – the newly formed industrial workers – in order to exact revenge on the hideous banal display of the commercial bourgeoisie?
There was no way NB could have moved anywhere in England as it was outside the orbit of his exclusive family and flirting with the realities of oik town whether it be East London, Luton or Manchester - heaven forbid – all of which he turned down through one excuse or another. There was no way he could inhale 24/7 the terrain of the social apartheid. That was completely out the question. After living among the dainty delights of Swiss Cottage, Hampstead and South Kensington there was only one way left. Finally the guy quit these shores for south west France having had a house bought for him c/o (what else?) the family trust fund!
And the moment he declared himself to be well and truly heir to this fund he had also to become the exact opposite: in his agony (moving big distances is always hell) he was eking out an existence like the most exploited proletarian in the north of England at the height of the 1930s depression. (He actually said this in December 2004 and your jaw dropped open!!) Brandt had fully convinced himself of this in his fevered anomie stuck out in some isolated hamlet miles from anywhere in silent countryside he had finally become the famous Picture Post photograph of the unemployed miner with the sack of coal slung over his push bike taken by his uncle, the photographer, Bill Brandt. Armed with such sure knowledge NB could thus lambaste those beneath him like never before and, with all previous caution thrown to the wind, venom upon venom guiltlessly spilt out.
The essential problem was this talented guy was never going to join the ranks of the lads and lasses – that simple, crude move he had to take. All talk of “making not taking sides” without such a move is simply that – just talk. He could have become a tenant in the social sector but not without others doing it for him – others engaging in all that shitty palaver with housing bureaucrats etc - and moreover others delivering him to the door of his new council flat in a limo! If he’d gone through all the things all of us had and have to go through, and to have done it by himself alone, it would have made such a difference in demolishing his general air of utter superiority-cum-peevish resentment of those socially beneath him. He would never have behaved like he has done, re: the webs. This tract would never have been written and there never would have been some guy without means utterly worshipping the ground he walks on. Through changed circumstances he would within the month have become a changed man and no doubt the trust fund would have got to hear of it and cut him off. After all his illustrious family - or so reported by another of its renegades - did for one recalcitrant in their ranks in the 1930s who having put his money where his mouth became a communist party farmer. (It really doesn't matter here about the role of the communist party). He was never mentioned in the family annals again. Unable to make the only moves NB must make whenever a big decision has to be made he invariably makes the most conservative one - the one those of his family who administer the purse strings understand.
Cloning, imitation - call it what you will – seemed to effect so much of what he did. If hard work were the order of the day from one of his mates NB in response would do an hour’s heavy chore to prove he later was whacked out too. Others getting older and having to undergo big operations would elicit a cut finger from NB proving he could also bleed! Friends harassed by anti-social behaviour and NB would point to some minor extraneous irritation in his life – a persistent slight noise perhaps – proving he was also going through it. The backdrop to all of this was something far more general and geared towards the ideology of the level playing field metaphor the English elite always bring out, enough, in fact, to the make you yawn as they eternally say “we are all in the same boat now”. Obversely, cloning and imitation means little real empathy for what others go through and that lack of empathy means our Brandt could frequently behave like a brute to those beneath him when facing some grim reality he in his heart of hearts, actually despised them for.
Like others of his ilk, Brandt needed and needs those socially beneath him, as they are the essential means ratifying his privileged existence providing he keeps them on board. Brandt needs the slobs beneath him as he needs to partake of the ideology and practise of throwing them crumbs from the high table. As a tactic this traditionally has been far more successfully deployed in the south than the north of England where noting how money works its way behind all presentation and façade has always been more keenly perceived for at least a couple of centuries or so. Essentially to have a follower in the north for any length of time who would unconditionally defend you implied outright bribery whereas in the south honeyed words from the great and the good could usually be relied on to do the trick apart from honourable exceptions like London’s East End etc. Southern deference is an old story but as true today as ever applying to the production of theory as much as anything else. Need one say more about how this applies to Brandt?
Thus Pete his faithful follower lost to his own social reality whereby the poor help the poor and unbeknown to him grovelling to the transformed image of the upper middle classes who kyboshed him in love as well as survival. Again, as previously hinted at, an old familiar refrain was to kick in – strange how these things simply don’t seem to change when push comes to shove – as the much greater class deference of the south than north of Britain showed its colours. Wise up old friend!
As for Brandt everything increasingly goes topsy-turvy in his head as he bends this way and that embarking on vast contortions whereby he finally fully justifies himself to his mind’s other kingdom. Privilege! What privilege? It could mean anything. He declared we were “privileged” seeing we had acquired a high level of building skills, worked collectively without a ganger and insisted on equal wages with no differential between skilled or unskilled and which you could always fiddle one way or another – divvying up at the end etc – when working on a largish site. It was hardly surprising he’d distort the essence of what is meant by privilege in the language of Orwellian newspeak all the better to mask the real essence of privilege he knew so much about at first hand.
More than that, he has to feed off the oiks below and their all too real experiences in order the red corpuscles in his semi-blue blood retain their colour. Finally, it’s like Brandt has to drink their blood, draining them dry, spitting them out and leaving them to become the living dead for all eternity. No wonder the story of Count Dracula has become an omnipresent image of our times with the ritual of blood sucking as the finale of a sexy seduction with the victim readily willing it. It is also metaphor for the recuperation that is at the heart of a necessary revitalising modern day capitalism is dependent upon.
So many people say they have experienced this out-of-body, sucked-dry experience in relation to Brandt leaving them near to screaming. Bit by bit, imperceptibly it crept up on you beginning from something trivial like the need to go over and over miniscule details related to some incidence in daily life making certain he’d finally got it right. However, in between the endless recounting of details the accusation of ‘liar’ forever trembled, unspoken on his lips. One women at least we know who’d experienced this interrogation said if he did this again; “I’m going to say, “Are you calling me a liar?” It’s an accusation other women have nodded agreement with. But devoid of real experience did it mean NB was hoping his cloning effect might in future improve meaning he may not have to deploy such a loaded approach again over relatively trivial incidents?
It was thus a simple transition from recounting a story to our Count, er, Lord of the Manor, writing down your perceptions, comments and what have you and then claiming as his own with a few deft and ‘enlightened’ changes. Amazingly nobody objected though if they had, he undoubtedly would have counteracted with Lautreamont’s famous maxim: “Ideas improve plagiarism implies it” which though abstractly fine once gone into can reveal quite a different perspective leaving out the molestation of a cloning-cum-vampirism when, for example, confronting the mores of the English upper middle classes. For Brandt it was moulded into a process that takes, sucks dry and then discards the paltry beginnings of others so that he can lay stake to a statement – his statement –, which then becomes iconic the moment everyone who contributed is rubbished and dismissed.
On the simplest of levels for NB to be ‘revolutionary’ always had a certain dilettantish ring to it in the sense he can take it or leave it without due worry because no struggle has ever been organic, compelling him, whether he feels like it or not, to join forces with those in a similar position simply because they have little choice. The abstruse rarity of his privileged situation sets him aside from others and NB has never had to take it on his chin like the economic consequences of a failed revolt leading to black listing, great loss of income with all that that entails like ending personal relationships when a partner fucks off no longer wanting to be in the company of a loser etc. NB quite contemptuously had dismissed the Newcastle defeat in the early 1970s saying the repression wasn’t much to write home about! Again: He knew! To be sure, it would have been most interesting if NB had written honestly about the massive contradictions inherent in his personal economic situation and what it does to you psychologically. What’s it like waiting for that personal cheque or bank statement to drop through the letterbox and what have you to do to maintain the momentum. Just who and whom do you have to suck up to? How does it shape your thoughts and essential relationships and how important is it in maintaining the edifice of a nuclear family bank etc? Instead NB in advance declared that avenue of investigation permanently shut. But seeing he is always applying the stigmata of liar/coward/evasiveness to others why cannot he himself recognise that some people he has had intimate contact with end up seeing his life as nothing other than one based on a permanent lie?
Brandt once asked in a query type of way – why do we tend to spare workers, or if you like, people at the sharp end when we regularly launch such cutting attacks on cadres/professionals etc. There was a suggestion in this query – it certainly wasn’t a question that all were culpable maybe (to be generous yet again) hinting at the omerta that is the unfortunate rule throughout society’s entirety. He obviously was tending to think workers – individually maybe – should be attacked implying you had a tendency towards sentimental weakness in sparing them the same level of tirade. In suggesting this little account was taken of the stark reality of their daily lives; that any mistakes made – even when mind bogglingly stupid - are not carried out in a spirit of duplicity anywhere near the same manner as cadres. Even so, we had no fully worked out answer and frankly blanked the query perhaps for some later date. In any case you do say things but the remarks are usually off-the-cuff, not committed to paper and, taking place within the same social space, are usually done so in a spirit of comradeship, even if heated comradeship. Possibly though, NB was thinking about the brutal and unnecessary written attacks he’d launched on individuals at the sharp end throughout his life and as per usual and post-factum, wanted a ready made justification perhaps to deploy the same tactic more succinctly at a future date. There isn’t a clear-cut answer other than do you need to make a big deal out of it, which might result in having the opposite effect of the one intended? What he failed to grasp wasn’t a revolutionary point about maximum clarity but what an absolutely devastating effect such an attack can have on individuals who have become really trusting towards you and more importantly, in their social space, have little room for manoeuvre. It’s so often like imposing a paradigm of thought confined to the head, like as if everyone was some ersatz intellectual. Perhaps as the Dadaist, Tzara said, “thought comes from the mouth” – and which all these years later maybe hits at a quite different approach to theory. As with the Dennis’s such brutal tactics can completely shatter when already shattered. It comes across as utter cruelty becoming a variation of Baudelaire’s: “Let’s beat up the poor” as the French poet grimly parodied it. Moreover, cultivating workers in moments of real struggle can also have terrible consequences for them, as, whether we like it or not, there’s a certain user mentality in such an approach in the sense they have been befriended to realise some grandiose project as part of a process culminating in social revolution. Once the struggle is over – usually defeated - they are invariably distanced little by little then finally abandoned often making these good people feel even more broken than they need feel. Remember the protagonists aren’t mere pawns in a chess game.
There is also something else closely related to the above. Brandt was (and is) very resentful and especially resentful of the reality of those socially beneath him. Firstly he has to punish for such accidents of birth when peevishness inside reaches such a peak. In that sense he is little different from a mode of perception entirely familiar to his counterparts elsewhere in the echelons of the upper middle classes whereby they have to personally hurt - envious of your social inferiority - a strange paradox nonetheless true. In this – can one say - defining characteristic there is a certain overlap between NB’s and Pete’s peevish resentment although the latter’s comes from a different direction. Pete’s churlish disposition is far more basic and understandable because it is an envy predominantly against those common lot who can hack there way through the miseries of the job market and willy-nilly survive reasonably well without too many frills having not copped out by simply mastering a trade that is in demand, sticking at it and, along the way, occasionally getting some kicks out of it. Thus Pete cannot move along on the terrain of everyday life experienced by the vast majority; the terrain of a forced wage labour and the camaraderie this brings every now and again; a camaraderie far more pregnant with possibilities at times than any revolutionary milieu. We’ve known it and have known it in our very bones - sadly largely in the past - as we became “damned by the rainbow” (Rimbaud) simply because no social revolution has been accomplished in our lifetime.
In a kind of unacknowledged despair, Pete is thus squeezed back into a kind of revolutionary milieuism whose clutches he cannot escape and yet whose limitations he rails constantly against whilst so often looking up to with bitter awe at the uber-intellectuals in its midst.
Moreover, Pete (and NB) were more than aware we had a certain reputation, largely related to past activities and perceived as mainly bad in the general conformist consensus of things. This was hardly surprising as the duumvirate hung about somewhat with those individuals who knew about such things who also commendably tended to take the opposite view that you weren’t too bad at all! Surviving in a limited fringe scene unable to distance themselves (Pete especially) and move into an outside everyday for any length of time and where such reputations are non-existent, such things festered as increasingly the duumvirate saw in it a form of our collaboration with the system whereby you were seeking a name for yourself even though you had adamantly for decades refused to advance yourself anywhere, especially in academia eschewing any form of spectacularisation and the love/hate relationship that goes with followers even though economically it would have made life a lot easier money-wise.
The fall and resurrection of the upper middle classes and the
apples that never rolled far from the tree
Firstly, another reiteration: What you may say about this present tract is the point. Be reminded we never ever wanted to write what has is laid bare here. We hate this personalising, this endless propagandising, which we have refrained from until this moment. When people tried to find to find out what the row was about we kept schtumn, better blank than say anything and never into propagandising, we always remained silent when vilified everywhere. We had learnt this lesson time and time again from the late 1960s onwards - even before! This was perhaps the worst bout as the duumvirate resorted to emails and finally used a web as a means of hopefully digging your grave seeing in your silence a sure expression of culpability and guilt. However it all seemed so familiar. Why does this never happen when you have those inevitable rucs among yourselves or friends – those may it be said firmly placed within the broad parameters of the working class? Why in these rucs is there no attempt to spectacularise or broadcast from the rooftops thus really bringing ugly glitches and momentary antagonism into open warfare? Why does this happen when an individual from the upper middle class or those with similar afterglow or aspirations are involved. In saying this it might therefore be more useful if details are put aside and a general abstraction is brought to the fore as what is being discussed here is essentially the changing face of the upper middle classes and how they tend to have such an inordinate sway over seeming revolutionary moments and theory and not only from the mid 60s onwards.
They are few but their influence is immense. And essentially how they have again assumed such an unbridled sense of their own power, destiny and hold over society and with the destruction of generalised opposition from below especially in these islands their mantle has been restored. They are again omnipotent and perhaps for good reason. Undoubtedly they have a breadth and insight, which the petite bourgeois beneath them generally just don’t seem to possess, as the latters' banality and tunnel vision, always seems to get in the way. And a petite bourgeois ideology especially in terms of an increasingly aestheticised conspicuous consumption is massively what holds sway now in Britain. After the defeat of the miners in the 1980s Jack de Montreuil wrote from France that the situation seemed ripe for such take off. We emphatically said “No” but unfortunately Jack was right. Those many combative, rebellious people within the working class were ruthlessly, though subtly taken out forced more into suicide, drink, drugs and unremitting depression than jail or anything else. Why kill anybody when you can more effectively be made to kill yourself? And the laws against any of them taken any form of direct action were yearly increased until they could hardly move an inch as increasingly the most draconian labour legislation in the highly developed world was put into place. And with no profile it was as though the combatants had disappeared in a form of los disparechos anodyne and without a name.
The changing face of toffs AND the social apartheid
Although this might seem a ridiculously long reply it might be useful if details are put aside and the outlines of a more general abstraction, and one indicated here, taken on board. One could easily say the ghost of William Hazlitt and his glorious class hatreds inhabit this text and one hopes with the same exquisite balance like when outlining the brilliance of Byron, Hazlitt cannot help mocking him as “My noble Lord”! Essentially what is being highlighted here is the changing face of the upper middle classes and in doing so thus able to hold an inordinate sway over genuine revolutionary movements. They are few but their influence is immense. Undoubtedly they have a breadth and insight which the general mass of the petite bourgeois beneath them generally don’t seem to possess as their banality and tunnel vision always seems to get in the way. This changing face with its undoubted genuine edge also sports a very seductive mask that is often little more than displaying an air of personal liberation. One could easily say smoke and mirrors if you were unkind. Although the hopes of social revolution seem pretty remote not to say almost conclusively dim at the moment, these people will be back if revolutionary times are up ahead. However, they will return with all their contradictions intact like as if nothing had ever happened! Finally you can only say be wary and keep your distance because for sure you’ll be fried – maybe not tomorrow or the day after but fried you will be. And remember changing faces are so often a means by which everything remains the same. Chameleon-like responses and charm is a major weapon in this mask: They imitate in order to de-rail.
Basically they have a tendency to lack compassion in all the troubles surrounding everyday life. There is little real daily forgiveness in them and they harbour grudges suddenly catapulted at you from out of the blue as it were, usually when you are sufficiently relaxed and least prepared having been snared and trapped (yet again) by their generally seductive approach. Remember too, they don’t see people like you as friends staying together through thick and thin with all the aggro, ups and downs that are part of friendship but mainly as competitors and whether you like it or not, competitors have to be eliminated.
Once caught up in the spider’s web of the upper middle class it’s also difficult to escape. Such moves are more than frowned on; they are simply out of the question without incurring cold fury. Essentially you are regarded as ‘suspect’ individuals; loose cannons from the dangerous classes. You then ‘fes up as they need to know in full details all about the ugly corners of your life knowing if they’ve procured such confession they possess a permanent stick to beat you with. Thus in no time you become a miserable slimy thing not really worthy of their august presence. Tabs must be kept on you especially when any distancing might appear to be in the offing. Informers from below – who usually don’t have an inkling they are being used as such - must be kept on board in order to pass on information about your movements. The elite thus become a kind of public school secret police – admittedly a mild version in comparison to what real secret police are like – but their efficacy is remarkable in deploying a relaxed, disarming come-on to procure information. Shaking your head in bemusement you cannot help but ponder with such subtleties at their disposal no wonder the British state has been one of the most successful in the world.
However these individuals - ‘them’ - do have a genuine choice; they can simply become one of ‘us’ - the lads and lasses - by getting off that fence they permanently seem to sit on, leaning this way and that as the moment dictates and depending on whom they are with. Getting off that fence will be very painful but fruitfully painful if done in the right spirit. Individuals have done so in the past and some do so today though obviously they have no profile. After all “going native” was quite a familiar phenomena in the history of British Imperialism although strangely no book has been written about such a fascinating episode. Indeed such renegades tend to get excluded from everything they once knew as familiar so the silence surrounding them is hardly remarkable. At the end of Road to Wigan Pier Orwell makes quite a comment: “…and behold! Our proletarian brothers – in so far as we understand them – are not asking for our greetings, they are asking us to commit suicide” – although to be fair on Orwell he probably meant this more in a metaphorical sense although occasionally, if feeling particularly bitter, you like to fantasise the guy meant it literally!
As for our background, it was a family from nothing coming into some kind of social standing via university posts ensnared by the promise inherent in social democracy especially its post second world war, Atlee government variety. After having engaged in some of the often long ‘primordial’ industrial fights prevalent in northern England in the long upsurge after the First World War, there was a settling back; a blunting of the cutting edge as it were. Education was its means, economic poverty its essence. The essential belief was education would become the vehicle whereby the poor would take over the running of society by occupying the positions forcibly (well partially, no doubt) by those who traditionally had held sway over them.
The reality was this perspective had a tendency to overflow its paradigms producing on the one hand, acquiesces and submission plus an often extreme sense of dislocation, which on the other hand, stoked-up equally extreme rebellion moderated by a tendency where everything seemed to get mixed up together. Poverty had merely produced an augmented poverty embedded in a cornucopia of commoditised nothingness. In a sense the explosion of the 1960s in Britain at least was also the explosion of the social democratic perspective: a bomb that finally went off at half-cock and beyond that the perspective lay in bits and pieces like a humpty dumpty that couldn’t be put back together again. All that remained was its debris to be recycled here and there as the decades rolled by. Consequently by the 1970s, the greater class fluidity (or mobility as the media described it) was rapidly drawing to a close. No wonder at that point it was concomitant with a renewed and sharpened ‘class’ critique, which the more relevant modern perspectives perforce had to then take on board though not too well. Since then mobility has limped on towards the standstill of the present time with a class divide heading towards extreme proportions merely off-set by all those well-publicised individuals from below with an eye to business making a fortune here and there. But wasn't that always true even in the early 19th century with the likes of railway engineering entrepreneurs like the Stephenson’s, father and son?
The net effect of all this – and it has been commented upon before – is (yet again) to intensify that social apartheid that remains so persistent in these islands expressing itself in an utter turning away – a turning of the back if you like – as a gestural social iron curtain become almost like an instinct. It’s a definitive closing down that will never again brook any form of communication ever wary of the insult that would most likely result. A long time ago, EP Thompson commented upon the phenomena sympathetically as did those around the early Tom Nairn in the NLR, though the latter saw it as a rather sad and limited response tending to encourage philistinism. However any further developments on these varied lines has been cut dead in the long period of glaciations, which we have experienced for umpteen years. For certain there can be something ugly and crude about the social apartheid but it must be understood otherwise you’ll get nowhere.
As for us as much as we are aware of all such complications inherent in this phenomenon we have never been able to escape its determinants despite feeling somewhat ashamed of such a conundrum. In fact it has tended to get stronger throughout the years in a strange, variant way. We really didn’t want it to be like this. Obviously by any standards we are well clued-in outshining any academic who would care to throw him or herself at you (although they seem afraid to do so). Yet your life has been ‘prole’ in the crudest sense of the term even in the sense of the somewhat comic “horny handed son of toil” ideology because hard physical work over the decades certainly has resulted in a lot of early ailments. However there is one difference in terms of a classic definition: Having taken a slum landlord to court over atrocious living conditions and in your late 40s, you were awarded an out of court settlement of £4000 enabling you to buy a relatively broken down semi-derry in the beloved north country you’d been essentially expelled from and being builders were able to reshape into a reasonable abode. Equally though you’re still ending up with a simple take on things: you don’t trust anybody who isn’t at the sharp end and why should such a response; being long in the tooth, now change?
A necessary addendum?
What we have here a series of notes written in an intentionally put-on academic style- though it is hoped with rather more edge - relating to English romanticism highlighted through a comparison with the different, more theoretical approach of German romanticism. It emphasises the sheer experimental revolt of poetic form inherent in the English experiment; an experiment that clearly pointed towards the transcendence of poetry. Although in Germany, Hegel provided a profound theoretical framework clearly pointing out abstractly that “the arts were dying”, in England that revolt was experienced in a more visceral, subjective way though no less profound. As a line of enquiry pointing to the final destruction and realisation of the historic endeavour alienated within art right up to the present day, these beginnings still remain an unwritten history cut short by the death of William Hazlitt in 1830 and lingering on somewhat in De Quincey only to be entirely extinguished in the Victorian era. This colossal reaction, though on the surface extensively modernised, is still powerfully present overwhelmed by the diktats of the Eng Lit pantheon with its vested interests in the immutability of form furiously dismissing any more accurate interpretation which would certainly point to something very different leading towards an entirely different world free of the ravages of capitalism. It is surprising that no aspiring young academic eager to challenge the petrified fossil of Eng Lit and maybe claiming a bit of notoriety in the process, hasn’t risen to the occasion, even if the constraints of academia would require punches to be pulled. Nonetheless, like Writing Degree Zero fifty years ago in France, a kind of cat could be let out of the bag even if somewhat limping, as all this should have been said years ago in the immediate aftermath of the revolt of the late 1960s in these islands. It is still not too late to begin…
Recently (Jan/Feb 2006) there was a much praised TV series on romanticism put together by Peter Ackroyd, an academic who has written a few novels and at least one biography on a a major romantic figure in the shape of William Blake. Like his compatriot Richard Holmes who has studied the romantics more exclusively and who obviously has quite an influence on Ackroyd in emphasising the republican and social/political persuasion of the protagonists – hardly surprising seeing the TV survey often substituted the French revolution of 1789 with footage from May 1968 in France which both had experienced in their youth - Ackroyd fell well short of an all-rounded radical take on his subject. Instead of giving equal emphasis to the revolt of form at the heart of English romanticism he fell back finally on the usual Eng Lit homilies (yawn) about all the great poetry and art produced after initially pinpointing tantalising asides (e.g. how Coleridge and Wordsworth preferred their writings to remain anonymous at the first publication of the Lyrical Ballads in 1798) the significance of which he then could make no apposite comment on. Didn’t such a gesture question the role of the artist deliberately disavowing any personality cult or special privilege and more than pointing to Lautreamont’s later maxim: “poetry must be made by all and not by one”?
Nonetheless Ackroyd (and Holmes) must be aware of such a drift as you couldn’t fail but notice more than an echo of the English situationist group King Mob in the late 1960s. Some period piece re-enactment of Coleridge in a Quantocks’ fishing village sees digitally imposed lines of romantic verse on the sea walls in the form of large, agitational slogans courtesy of some computer software programme. Hadn’t King Mob originally done just this - though in raw spray paint - on the streets of Notting Hill in 1967/8? What King Mob had significantly failed to do or follow up with was a revolutionary critique of English romanticism emphasising the tendency towards formal dissolution at its very heart; a failure Ackroyd has merely compounded. It’s hardly surprising that Ackroyd’s conclusive comments at the end of his four part TV series were lame, even abysmal especially in seamlessly blending Byron’s personality cult with the very lucrative media banalities of the modern day pop icon. In lightly skipping over the demonic impulse and outrage, which Byron let rip in his everyday life, the essential connection between such self-expression and the dissolution of artistic form is lost. It was a montaging or plagiarising which a few decades later was to find more coherent expression in Lautreamont’s Songs of Maldoror. Moreover, the plagiarism did not stop there as another Englishman had in the meantime made a further contribution in the shape of Charles Darwin. If you like Lautreamont blended the demonically hideous with the mutant transhuman having taken from Darwin not the origin of the species but where the species was horrifyingly going (see Fabre, Darwin, Dalton, 'DNA' Watson meet Lautreamonton www.dialecticalbutterflies.com elsewhere on this website). It is an essential connection which all previous excellent comments and appraisals of Lautreamont from Andre Breton to Guy Debord have missed……
Reflections on English and German romanticism
and the revolt of poetic form
In dredging up memories of the influence of the French avant-garde of the 19th and early 20th century had on me (Lautremont, Rimbaud, Huysmans, Duchamp, Picabia, Vache, the Dadaists and the Surrealists likeAndre Breton, Peret, Artaud, Bataille etc) - and then my enthusiasm for the Russian avant-garde - I also was forced even farther back…..
Somehow at the back of my mind there lingered the influence of the romantic tradition in this country. Over the years its revolutionary implications had become lost and it was this I have been struggling to bring to light. I needed to have some external frame of reference from which to judge it. And the only country that was remotely comparable was Germany. France was undergoing revolutionary upheaval and no literature of any consequence survives from that era. It had been left behind temporarily and only the image making of David survives and his designs for public spectacles enthroning the rule of reason and as a homage to Robespierre. Germany was not comparable to England economically because Germany was then merely an idea, the reality a pre-capitalist entity of squalid dukedoms and principalities, ruled by petty tyrants. England was on the verge of the greatest change since the Neolithic revolution of settled agriculture and city states, possessing freedoms (though not revolutionary freedom) that were the envy of the rest of the world. As a consequence the subversive potential of the arts was much reduced in scope and the gap between art and revolution much narrowed, with art struggling to find an ever diminishing role in the service of a more fundamental revolution that affected all pre-existing forms of art. Their place was increasingly occupied by passion, spontaneity, the revolutionary moment, confession and critique (see “Confessions of an Opium Eater”;”The Spirit of the Age”; parts of “The Prelude”; “In Defense of Poetry” in which poetry is viewed essentially as a progressive act and not merely the prerogative of metre and verse. Today we would say it is anything but the prerogative of metre and verse and unable to supercede art in its entirety has lapsed into meaningless act).
I can think of no more relevant words on Wordsworth than those of Hazlitt and which also applies to practically the whole of the English romantic movement from 1789 to the death of Shelley and Byron. He says in the “Spirit of the Age” that Wordsworth’s “genius is a pure emanation of the Spirit of the Age – it partakes of the revolutionary movement of the age:his muse is a levelling one, (he) tramples on the pride of art with greater pride. The Ode and Epode, the Strophe and anti Strophe, he laughs to scorn. The harp of Homer, the trump of Pindar and of Alcaeus, are still.” How different then is Schiller’s historical approach and his efforts to categorize the forms of poetry by giving them a time and place within history, an approach that later on, Hegel was to greatly elaborate on. In “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry”. Schiller seeks, by historicising form, to establish the difference between ancient and modern poetry. Apart from anything else he sees it is man that has changed, losing over time a naturalness which henceforth it will be Schiller’s appointed task to reclaim. (This historical categorisation of the arts, which Schiller initiates, may well have been prompted by the example of Linnaen systematics in the field of natural history. Rejecting this formalism, in which the part tends to separate from the whole, leads Goethe in the direction of evolution). Compared to Wordsworth’s lack of sympathy for the arts, bordering on outright hostility, we cringe at Schiller’s virtual deification of the Artist (see his poem Die Kunstlers) as would-be aesthetic supremo. And yet here is a much more concrete, fully worked out, critique of the growing division of labour than anything that can be found in Wordsworth or indeed the rest of the English romantics. Our lack of naturalness is solely due to that: “They (the ancients) felt things naturally: we feel what is natural.(…) Our feeling for nature is like the longing of a sick man for health. (…) Nature makes the human race one with itself; art separates and divides.” However don`t be deceived by this insightful bluster of radicalism: for Schiller it is only by being guided through the modern arts - nature “as an idea and an object” - that man becomes whole again. In fact taken to its logical conclusion it does imply a certain transcendence and this possibility continually haunts, and runs away with Schiller, not least in his “Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man”. Though inspired by Kant’s “Critique of Judgement” that appeared in 1787, and which is the most exhaustive examination of the aesthetic faculties residing in man and up to that point without precedent in human history in terms of its concentration and scope, it was the world shaking event two years later that was to concentrate Schiller’s mind.( The “Critique” is not an art history: one had to wait for Hegel for that who criticises Kant for not including “becoming” amongst his categories of mind: had he been able to do so history would have played a much greater role in Kant’s system).
Appalled by the Terror, Schiller needed to settle accounts with it. And this he found in his rejection of the cultivation – or cult - of reason to the exclusion of all other faculties. Immoderate reason is responsible for the division of labour, the sensuous in alliance with a chastened reason, on the contrary, overcomes it. And its chief ally in this battle of the faculties, which puts an end to the distressing consequences of the division of labour, is the cultivation of the arts. Though unwittingly, Schiller was anticipating a response which henceforward was to become commonplace, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, where ever capitalist scociety breaks down: either cheap narcotics or a blitz of the arts or a combination of both and which nowadays is fundamental to the restoration of a threatened division of labour and workaday world, and, as it is now “lived” the none–workaday world. In fact Schiller willy nilly both though his dramatic productions and grudging fealty to the German aristocratic courts of his time was dragged into becoming an artistic impresario in which stage craft and the mounting of public spectacle became uppermost. 150 years before the age of television he wanted a world of perfect illusion, the better to stage the illusion of freedom. (By appearing to be the consummation of drama in terms of staged illusion, TV is the denouement of drama, destroying once and for all its claims to be an agent of change and real liberation). Finally by assiduously recruiting the arts to his protest against the division of labour, Schiller’s cause turns against him: he can be seen as founding an ever more complex, intertwined and, to capital, ever more necessary division of artistic labour whose ramifications are now so immense the problem is knowing where to begin - and end.. Capital is now at a permanent stage of “Homage to the Arts”, the title of a dramatic, processional production written and staged by Schiller in honour of a royal marriage in Weimar in 1804.Today this permanent homage–to-the-arts economy is increasingly global in scale and is an aspect of globalisation that is never subjected to critique or, worse, even recognised, its grip is so pervasive and all powerful. Beyond that of making a lot of money, the purpose of this aesthetic economy is to pacify, distract and alienate a person ever further from their real, natural self and potential. Schiller never fully squared up to this dilemma though he was aware of it. To do so would have meant abandoning art and finding another path to the nature that modern man yearned to recover and that lay beyond the division of labour.
How different things are with Wordsworth who is at once less precise but more consequential and finally total in his approach to nature.. The appreciation of nature is not to be prefaced by a prolonged tuition in artistic appreciation. Rather nature perpetually remonstrates with the arts and scorns them, needing no further adornment. However Schiller’s critique of the division of labour is far more anchored in reality and history than Wordsworth. At this point Wordsworth’s a priori nature really does get in the way of a more developed, historical understanding of the division of labour. The relationship which he postulates between man and nature is primal and no social arrangement will ever make good in the life of the individual the sense of loss an individual feels in the presence of nature when compared to how he or she responded to nature as a child. However in the “still, sad music of humanity” which as an adult he hears in nature, it is the betrayal of his revolutionary ideals he is bemoaning. His abhorrence of the Terror throws him into the arms of nature but not before he is detained for a time by the certainties of mathematics, a compensation for that “revolutionary reason” that has laid him low. But scientific reason is not good enough finally, because it cannot apprehend the higher reason, the “very heaven” of youth and revolution, that was expressed in his thwarted revolutionary hopes. And so it is in the Lake District of his childhood he finds this reason once more, shorn ultimately of revolutionary rapture. And so he gives the lie to his own nature mysticism as expressed in his “Intimations of Immortality” which rather suggests our most intense experience of nature had to be in the womb!
Wordsworth is the first anti poet/poet. He is just one among many and claims no special privileges. There are others, “silent poets”, like his brother who was lost at sea. Poetry is woven into the landscape of the Lake District and its peoples. It has no name: it just is. It spills over into everything. It is in a heap of hewn stones rather than in the “outrage” of architectural madness it is destined to become. It is in the bower made of withered fern in which to lie down during summer in the company of sheep and from there through the “open door place” (a hitherto unimaginable architectural term by the way) to gaze and gaze until the vision of what is, no dream can ever equal. And as for stone monuments what better than Ralph Jones, a giant made of stone, constructed as a lark by three lads on Great Howe at the foot of Thirlmere. Wordsworth would gladly have participated in its making because of its lack of pretence and the playful spirit in which it was conceived. This conception of poetry is absorbed in the everyday: it neither needs or knows of poetry in the customary sense.
Matters do not rest here. It is only logical Wordsworth should find encouragement and resolve not in the lives of the poets but in the lives of those who daily trod the fells. He would rather choose a leech gatherer as a guide than Virgil. This is the antithesis of Schiller’s approach where art is midwife to the birth of a greater nature and the artist is on a higher plane to that of the life of the common people. Call it humility, call it what you like but I see a link between Wordsworth’s attitude and the utter failure of revolutionary vanguards in this country.
Yet it is legitimate to draw comparisons between Goethe and Schiller and Wordsworth and Coleridge. However there is in England an absence of that mighty philosophical dimension which stretches from Kant to Hegel with in between the lesser figures of Schelling, Fichte and Schlegel. Poets in Germany, particularly Schiller turn their hand to philosophy. Goethe did not regard himself as philosophically minded, evolving an intuitive dialectic that is the antithesis of Kantian dualism and hence that of his friend Schiller who was also, despite himself, not comfortable with Kant. This intuitive dialectic also bears striking similarities to Hegel and springs directly from his scientific endeavours, Abandoning painting (as Hazlitt was to do in this country) he also turns his back on verse temporarily to grapple with a larger problem, that of the need to redefine science by imbuing it with the unwritten of poetry. Through awakened eyes that over time have narrowed to a squint bordering on blindness, Goethe seeks to poeticise science by magnifying its visual reality. Observation, by inheriting the artistic tradition, reclaims its rights, replacing a withered observation that is now dead to beauty and the cognitive power of beauty – hardly a Kantian conception. (Apart from its epistemological wrongness it introduces history, which, if not entirely alien to Kant, played a small part in his total system. In fact Goethe was to write one of the very first histories of science. See his remarkable preface to his anti Newtonian, Theory of Colours) Hazlitt in fact does not take this path. Rather, abandoning painting he next writes a thesis “An essay on the principles of human action”. Time and again in English romanticism we confront the question now open now hidden of human praxis as if beyond the arts, which have had their time, as beyond there lay more productive, fulfilling occupations. Compared to the potentialities of the whole man the arts are just a hindrance and an embarrassment. The plough is mightier than the pen and without mentioning Burns and his poetic production Wordsworth opts to heap praise on the Burns who knew how to plough a furrow, as if regretting he lacked the skill himself and therefore excluded from the truth of his own versifying which never should have become verse in the first instance. The cult of science and Goethe’s challenge to that cult by stressing a more inclusive, rounded science which concentrates all human endeavour by transcending all art and science in a new unity never takes off in this country. Rather it is subsumed by the question of praxis of which science is but a part.
There is no philosophical resonance in England to match that of Germany. However the theoretical stabs and searching’s of the English romantics are much more sui generis and can be found wanting if subjected to the tedium of a more strictly logical mind which however continues to remain haunted by the truths they have dismissed after a more discursive examination. In particular, I am thinking of the preface to the “Lyrical Ballads” of 1797, composed jointly by Wordsworth and Coleridge but really Wordsworth’s own. In this preface Wordsworth yearns to leave art behind and to find fulfilment in nature. Ever afterwards these views torment Coleridge and he must seek out an adequate rebuttal by rendering it more palatable and thus rescuing art. In his Biographia Literaria composed many years later he goes to considerable pains to correct Wordsworth views, which on more sober reflection are totally overstated, and in need of correction. That he goes to these lengths does suggest the Preface was having an enormous influence, an influence not to Coleridge’s liking who by this time wanted a commissariat of cultural continuity, a super ministry entrusted with the safe guarding of the heritage of words (and the things created by words) of which he would be the soul presiding judge. To the Wordsworth of the Preface the passionate language of common people is poetry though it must be understood this passion is linked to the unfolding of reason in its highest sense and illumined through and through by the imagination which is unleashed by sensuous apprehension at its most intense.
But had not Coleridge done the same and this time in a trance which dissolved the boundary between poetry and reverie, anticipating surrealism? “Kubla Khan” renders his famous distinction between the primary and secondary imagination as set down years later in his Biographia Literaria, null and void. It is the one poem of his entire oeuvre he could not reconcile himself to or believe possible. And its creation continually reminds Coleridge of the days when poetry, unrepressed spontaneity and reverie were as one.
For once upon a time this to Coleridge was the bridge between “art” and “science” (again there is the same need for italics as in Goethe’s case) and the unspoken basis of his relationship with the chemist Humphrey Davy. For a time they were as one. Davy’s discovery of the intoxicating properties of nitrous oxide not only narrows the gap between poetry, reverie, spontaneity and science (the discovery of the gas was patiently arrived at through rigorous experiment) it is also in its way a concrete example of the central quest of Germanic absolute idealism, the unity of art and science and hence subject and object by the action of mind and body whose own internal make up reflected that of the external world and vice versa.(The unease this conception gives rise to – we need only think of Lebens Philosophie and the drag it exerted on evolutionary theory even as it strove to recognize evolution within the boundaries of the fixity of the species – this paradox is evident in both Goethe’s Ur phenomenon and Hegel’s Philosophy of Identity - could only be resolved by dialectical materialsm and its more grounded approach which views mind as a historical creation.) It is also given a characteristically English twist at odds with the sober rigidities of German absolute idealism, that of intoxication from substance abuse: nitrous oxide became known as “laughing gas”. Davy himself writes down his experiences on the drug, his descriptions possessing an unfettered richness like they were from the hand of Coleridge. Even to this day they are regarded as unsurpassed descriptions of drug highs. Davy and Coleridge compare notes and one is reminded of the close collaboration between Wordsworth and Coleridge and Goethe and Schiller to the point where none of them could be completely sure as to who wrote what. The collaboration between Davy and Coleridge is a completely new domain in comparison to which the experiments by Schelling comprehensible only in terms of his desire to get beyond the antinomies of Kant with the “science” of mesmerism really are laughable. It took some time for Germany to make good this absence of hard science in contrast to England poised as it was on the brink of the earth shattering industrial revolution in which science as objectified through capitalist industry would increasingly hold sway. All that Germany had to offer instead were the mythologies of absolute idealism and the deceptive, easily derided, “subjectivism” of Goetherian science, which could have yielded fruit, but not in the way its progenitors thought.
Once this particular collaboration between Coleridge and Davy ceased the antinomies of art and science would assert themselves once more. Yet both would continually strive to understand the other, Coleridge forever seeking to give a more comprehensive account of Davy’s discoveries fitting them into a larger philosophical whole. And Davy, in turn, was flattered by Coleridge’s attention using it as an entrée into polite society He learns what it is to be a cultural snob for Davy plays second fiddle to Coleridge deferring to his self-appointed role as superior pedagogue to the practical experimenter. Through his acquaintance with Coleridge, Davy gains social ease, acceptance, and class haughtiness including the rancour that goes with it, particularly when a member of the lower class comes within their orbit, and proves to be better than they are, as happened with Michael Faraday, the blacksmith’s son. In fact this relationship was to be of enormous consequence to the history of science in this country, and which was still being played out over a century and a half later in the late 1960s and with the question of revolutionary overthrow still dominating events and to the exclusion of all else this time, for now there were no privileged areas immune from upheaval.
As is well known, Coleridge single-handed brought German idealist philosophy to this country. Interest in Kant and particularly Schelling and Schlegel dates from Coleridge’s visit to Germany. He brings back dialectic in his suitcase though significantly he appears never to have heard of or ever mentions Hegel.. He was slow to fulfil his early promise and meanwhile looked on as friends from his youth rose to stardom like Schelling and Holderlin. He had felt stirring within him a much deeper more thoroughly historical way of perceiving everything that lay before him and which took time to realize.
Pushing Coleridge to onside for the moment I believe I detect a link between Hegel’s dialectical idealism and the part played by nature in Wordsworth’s scheme of things. It is still I believe operative to this day and could be of major consequence to the conservationist and eco movements though this time the reason unleashed by contact with nature would necessarily involve a critique of political economy, consumer society, the state and wage labour. Hegel the atheist was a believer to the extent that he held that god, in other words the dialectic of theory and practise, was realized in the unfolding of history. Hence there was no prime mover, only the ever deepening profundity of dialectical thought in which god becomes, rising from inert matter through the vegetable and then animal kingdom and finally to man all unfolding within the universal history of a dialectical pan-logicism but which by far the most interesting part is that of human history. Of all of Hegel’s work that of the “Philosophy of Nature” is the least interesting despite going to infinite pains to master his subject. The same cannot be said of his “Philosophy of the Fine Arts” which is still richly rewarding and is in every respect remarkable and profoundly innovatory. The dialectic gains strength over time. Thus nature is weak – in fact Hegel speaks of “the impotence of nature”. But for Wordsworth it is strong and like Hegel ultimately the fount of reason. However this reason can only come about as a result of a passionate feeling for nature and it is only through contact with nature that we can discover this reason. And to find it we must become immersed in it its outward forms unleashing the imagination and laying bare mere appearances allowing us to connect with that reason which had been so cruelly betrayed by the French Revolution. For Wordsworth comes to nature after the destruction of his hopes in the French Revolution, that is why he hears in it the “still sad music of humanity”. Though still retaining his commitment to equality it is the right of the dandelion that is proclaimed before that of the rights of man. We on the contrary have no choice other than to reject this truncated reason and go directly from nature to man which means confronting the capitalist mode of production and its abolition. Without that all life down to even the merest microbe is in jeopardy and what could be more irrational than assenting to that.
The conservation of Nature today should lead to a profounder line of reasoning than was ever the case in the past. This is the next and greatest addition to the Wordsworthian spirit articulated by him but never fully developed. It should also lead to a reappraisal of history, of modes of production and of forms of art because all in some way or other are present in Wordsworth. But unlike Wordsworth, conservationists today don’t seek in conservation an antidote to revolution but rather should find there a stimulus to revolution. And all are in one way or another being propelled in this direction. Beginning with nature, dialectical reason seeks to reclaim its rights.
Dialectical lines for insects:
Goethe: Das Lebendge will ich preisen,
Das nach flammentod sich sehner
“I would praise the living thing that longs for death by fire”
“You no longer remain a prisoner in the shadowing darkness and a new desire snatches you up to a higher union. No distance can weigh you down, you come flying, fascinated, and at last, lusting for the light, poor moth, you perish in the flame. And until you possess it, this commandment: die and become! You will be but a dismal guest on the dark earth.”
C/f Shelley: “The desire of the moth for the star”
Keats: Imagination (fancy) as an antidote to the failure of pleasure at least as then understood by the prevailing utilitarianism and its crude psychology of what constitutes pleasure. Pleasure is perishable and domestic, the imagination is not: “ever let the fancy roam, pleasure never is at home” i.e. real pleasure knows no home comforts, it must stray far and wide. However the imagination (or fancy) is an interior affair; it rarely struggles to become real in Keats. Imagination “opens wide the minds cage door”: properly understood butterflies liberate the mind or rather overawe the mind, unleashing a limitless inventiveness in thought (which wants to become real and has need of practical realities). Like the spider or the caterpillar, the imagination weaves a silk thread but one that has to be broken in order to truly liberate the mind: “break the mesh of the fancy’s silken leash; quickly break her prison string,”(Fancy) And so to “Ode to Psyche”. Keats builds a sanctuary to Psyche in his heart. But like the intruder in the virgin undergrowth of Epping Forest who finds a pair of mating Ringlet butterflies in the grass - I have come to the conclusion they were Ringlets that Keats saw and I’m also convinced the location had to be Epping Forest - Psyche appeals to the “untrodden region of my mind” from which branch “shadowy thoughts”, thoughts that no one has ever had before, wrenching the mind from its accustomed pathways andtherefore sweetly painful. Thought becomes like nature ever creating ever changing, and the window left open at night with a light behind it that attract moths becomes a symbol of that process. For Goethe this desire of the moth for the flame becomes a desire for a higher union. It arises from the fulfilment of sexual desire and is released by it, an act of procreation that also procreates us, “begetting as we begat”. It is a higher, more total, union though not qualitatively different from the “warm love” of Keats though it requires we die in order to become. (“Stirbe und Werde!”)
The hidden message of entomology is love not hate: it is about union and communion, an understanding and love of what is different - and what could be more different than insect anatomy -; it is about the liberation of desire, the greater dissatisfaction that desire brings, it is an anticipation of the higher person, an anticipation of the human community that reaches for the stars.
Keats says he recognises Cupid but that Psyche puzzles him. In the mating Ringlets he espies both Cupid and Psyche but significantly it is Psyche “with awakened eyes”. (In the myth Psyche’s eyes are closed when Cupid makes love to her). The eye is of primary importance to Keats: his first major work is Endymion, based on the mythical youth who dreamed whilst awake. It cannot therefore be the eye of the scientific empiricist but a fuller eye and one the optician needs to recognise is just as real. In “Ode to Psyche” Keats’ eye becomes not just an instrument of sight but a musical instrument though which he can sing for the first time the beauty of butterflies: “I see and sing, by my own eyes inspired”. The Lyre – “the fond believing lyre”- belongs to the past of an enchanted nature that can never return, in the same way as the Greek gods can never return. Psyche was originally a mortal but a mortal who has outlived the Greek gods and is still alive, her “lucent fans” (wings) still “fluttering”, because saved from the aging process of repetitive ritual. She lives because she symbolises that which is new and innovatory and seeking ever greater unity in a difference bound by love. Psyche then becomes the negation of myth, the embodiment of freethinking and the realisation of history.
Entomology should have made the best science because the last, the one that was most in step with the maturing of humanity. But entomology was always something of an afterthought; a leftover after everything else had been dealt with. Other than Aristotle, no other philosopher gave it the time of day and his basic nomenclature of head, thorax, and abdomen still stands. John Ray’s (1628/1705) last book was on insects and not published during his lifetime. Having described nigh on 19,000 plant species he then sought to bring order into the animal kingdom based chiefly on toes, hoofs and teeth. Insects were a poor third though Ray’s refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to a restored king, Charles 11, and a newly arisen state religion, bequeathed to scientific natural history in this country an independence and anti-state cast of mind it has never been able to wholly rid itself of. This is still powerfully present in Keats and other romantics.
So overall there were no dead generations to weigh entomology down; it did not evolve throughout successive millennia to the same degree as the other sciences. Entomology was almost new born and never underwent a Copernican revolution. The lion and the lamb are more potent biblical symbols than the locust and the locust never did get to lie down with the lion and the lamb. For there was to be no redemption for insects in mainstream thought. But insects were everywhere and the scientific study of insects mirrored more faithfully the contradictions of the society it grew up in both as a reaction to it (the initial uselessness of entomology and therefore attractive to many who felt marginalized and rejected like cockroaches, a fugitive discipline for fugitive minds) and as most embodying the goals of industrial capitalism by eventually bringing about the destruction of all insects – the utter folly of GM foods and ever more powerful pesticides - and hence entomology as a branch of learning. Applied Entomology also encapsulates the most suicidal tendencies of modern capitalism.
Keats had an uneasy relationship with music and the Ode to Psyche is the least tuneful of his great odes. It could not be other. “ The Ode to a Nightingale” is a song to the nightingale but a song in which the nightingale’s song outdoes the poem, if we could but hear it. But in the “Ode to Psyche” we don’t know what song is being sung. It is a song without a tune lacking any frame of musical reference. Not words set to music, rather something akin to musical eyesight. In that sense it takes up where the “Ode to a Grecian Urn” left off: “Heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter”. They are, of course, heard in the inner ear of the imagination and so are similar to the atheist Shelley’s craving for “the music that is divine” and different from what we can now hear because it means fulfilment and not the promise of fulfilment. Keats found an intimation of this in the music of nature and from an early age his ear must have been highly attuned to natural sound for in his teenage “Hymn to Pan” (the spirit of nature) he refers to Pan as the “strange ministrant of undescribed sounds, that come a swooning over hollow grounds, and wither drearily on barren moors”. Are there such unexplained sounds that travel for miles? Have I missed them because I have become deaf in the same way as I am afflicted by partial blindness and am losing my sense of smell, taste and touch? In any case it makes me realize how little I have listened and need to listen in the future.
Why did Keats concentrate on Psyche and not continue to treat Cupid and Psyche as a couple? In isolating Psyche like he did I think he was feeling his way back, like a scientist and dreamer combined in the same person, to a first principle on which to found everything else. He needed to separate Psyche from Cupid who had been bound together throughout history, though in fact the unlike resonances that Keats is describing could apply to Cupid’s darts. Rather I think the number of illustrations of Psyche on her own and looking more like a human butterfly than ever must have become more frequent in children’s books and elsewhere because of the growing interest in Lepidoptera. Keats had perhaps unconsciously registered this. He was fragmenting myth in order to create a more plausible riposte to modern scientific empiricism which was leaving too much out. He was unweaving the rainbow to weave a better one.
What is the love Keats outlines between a male and female butterfly, Cupid and Psyche, and the rest of humanity? For this is about picture thinking and outlines. The butterflies are not clinched in a passionate embrace; rather they are sleeping in each other’s arms with merely a promise of kisses in the new dawn and the morrow, which never comes. Though wrapped around each other they are “disjointed” and “their lips touched not”, a posture which makes me think it could only have been a pair of mating Ringlets that he had seen in the woodland, for theirs is a triangular form of mating almost as if they were about to embrace, like humans, and they tend not to fly off when approached as do Meadow Browns. What other woodland butterfly could it have been? Mating Speckled Woods are an uncommon sight and probably do so in trees rather than in the grass. This aside, I think Keats was hinting at the growing apartness of modern love, that it exists (and exits) increasingly as an ideal, something much thought about but never experienced directly. There is sex and little else. Real love is then a separation, an alienation and a yearning. It also flies off into other realms and is quickly sublimated, displaced onto thought that is more than mere reverie, at once reasoned and highly imaginative. However it needs a living symbol, a practical act to express itself through. And this is achieved by opening the window at night so that moths, attracted by the light, can fly in. How much has yet to be rightfully attributed to entomology like species still awaiting identification, though different in kind from the conventional classification of insects!
Marx and Heine in relation to Keats, Shelley, John Ray, Von
Frisch and Mallarme - among others…
Here in England there is nothing to compare with the encounter between Heine and Marx. There is a far reaching interplay between the two and both are deeply affected by the rising tide of revolt in Germany (or what was to become Germany) and the rest of Europe. By the 1840s’ Heine is asserting that prose, not poetry, was a more appropriate form of expression going so far as to announce the imminent demise of poetry. Replying to a poetry competition in 1837 offering as a prize a golden quill, Heine sent four lines declaring the songbird is dead never to be re-awakened concluding with the recommendation “to stick the golden quill up your ass”. (Such a blunt statement is unimaginable in England at the time but there was no one approaching Heine’s stature either) However the young Marx, picking himself up from his failure as a poet, is able to formulate the beyond of poetry in so striking a manner that Heine is easily outclassed. He is writing at length about his love for Jenny and his failure to find a poetic form adequate to the emotions coursing through him. It is worth quoting at length:
“……. a remote beyond, such as my love, became my heaven, my art. Everything grew vague, and all that is vague lacks boundaries; onslaughts against the present, broad and shapeless expressions of unnatural feeling, constructed purely out of the blue, the complete opposition of what is and what ought to be, rhetorical reflections instead of poetic thoughts but perhaps also a certain warmth of sentiment and a struggle for movement characterises all the poems in the first three volumes I sent to Jenny. The whole horizon of a longing which sees no frontiers assumed many forms and frustrated my effort to write with poetic conciseness.”
It is, you will agree, richer and more eloquent than poetry and could equally apply to the hopes aroused by class struggle.
Echoes of Heine abound in Marx’s early writings but undoubtedly the best-known example is Heine’s characterization of religion as “spiritual opium”. Marx refers to religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature ---- the opium of the people”. This also is a definite improvement on Heine.
We can also see the contrast between them when we compare what both of them have to say about the armed uprising of the Silesian weavers in June 1844 which was bloodily put down by the Prussian army. Heine wrote a short, very compact, poem on the uprising in which the desperate weavers weave the motto of the Prussian military God, King and Fatherland into a shroud. But there is no mention of brotherhood, freedom and private property. Though the poem was learnt by heart by generations of German workers finally we are more satisfied and cheered by Marx’s comments which, though less melodious, have a distinct bearing upon the theory and practise of the proletariat that is directed toward a social totality and looks far beyond the immediate. In the Song of the Weavers Marx sees a “bold battle cry which does not mention the hearth, factory or district but which the proletariat immediately proclaims its opposition to private property in a forceful, sharp, ruthless and violent manner ------ whereas every other movement turned initially only against the industrialist, the visible enemy, this one attacked also the hidden enemy, namely the banker. (Critical notes on “The King of Prussia and Social Reform”).
There is a degree of impersonality to the “Silesian Weavers” which is unusual for Heine. It is influenced by the ballad form like much of the ‘radical’ poetry of this era. Heine disliked conventional verse forms and is very specific in his condemnation of “political poetry” which is also formally conservative. He is now able to pose the question of form in a more pertinent manner than Marx who is now on the point of dismissing the question as all but irrelevant having nothing further to say on the subject except for a few lines in the Grundrisse. “Freedom”, Heine declared, should manifest itself, “in the treatment, in the form, by no means in the subject” and, “artists who choose freedom itself and emancipation for their subject are usually of limited shackled spirit, truly unfree”. We can already see here how potentially explosive the issue is because it implies the artist is unfree who opts for moribund forms.
There is even the hint that precisely the form of poetry compromises the poet. Popular poetry of the late 1830’s and 1840’s represented an escape from the obscurantism of the Young Hegelians and it had the added advantage of not being subject to the same stifling censorship as critique. Its radicalism was therefore merely apparent even though Georg Herwegh tried to invade Germany from France at the head of a few hundred German exiles that were instantly routed. Another ‘political poet’ Freiligrath, who had been awarded a pension by the King of Prussia, is also only known to us from his contact with Marx. His chief claim to fame comes from handing on to Marx the three volumes of Hegel’s “Science of Logic” which had once belonged to Bakunin. And thereby hangs a tale. Maybe it is possible to rescue Hegel’s “Science of Logic” from the mortal blows dealt it by Engel’s “Dialectics of Nature” and its enthronement as a state religion in that dark farce of a communist society, the former Soviet Union and which could have ended once and for all any hope for humanity in that its shadow still falls over all who fight for social revolution today.
(Marx subsequently would only fleetingly refer to art, an oversight, which could only have the most negative consequences: henceforth art would rise above history and take on the aspect of the eternal, stepping in for a fading religiosity. However Hegel gets the last laugh because his historicisation of form though wrapped in an idealist dialectic provides a more convincing account of the rise and fall of form).
Though Marx was the first to treat philosophy and religion as an alienation of humanities essential social power he did not apply the same criteria to art. Hegel did precisely that by absorbing and overcoming art within a greater philosophy at the very moment of its transcendence. It is to be sure a breath-taking concept with a reach that anticipates the avante garde of the early 20th century. Hegel's Philosophy of the Arts is still viable and remains the only valid approach to the moment of art and its potential for transcendence up to that time. I well recall my astonishment on reading the concluding paragraphs in the section on painting where quite unequivocally he declares the task of painting to be complete. All that is left at best is illustration. There is even a touch of philistinism in Hegel’s approach particularly in his emphasis on photographic realism. It was to be a white square on a white background painted in Russia a hundred years later that announced the lingering death of painting.
Hegel here is at his most direct. His books on architecture, sculpture/ music and poetry are less forthright in their conclusions and it was left to history to provide the detail. The section on music ends with extravagant praise for a musician, possibly a gypsy, overheard improvising on a guitar and exceeding all the other pleasures Hegel has previously derived from music. Gone are the orchestras and choirs numbering hundreds of musicians and singers and all performing by rote.
The preface to the Philosophy of Art begins with a unique and highly contemporaneous, analysis of situations. The first condition is a general World condition meaning really that though history has always existed it has not always existed as world history. The missing factor is in fact the world market. Out of this first condition indeterminate and determinate situations arise leading in the latter case to the creation of new values. The determinate situation alone involves meaningful action and the clarification of the situation is “necessary to any enquiry into the true constituents of action”. It is the job of art to bring out the essentials of action in the sense of a genuinely historic action. But once humanity has fulfilled its destiny art is consigned to the prehistory of alienation and in its place the Hegelian concept reigns. Read critique for this concept and the dialectic of theory and practise in the act of revolution and we are a step nearer the truth. For Hegel art remains forever behind events but given his emphasis upon action he prefers forms that move (also reflected incidentally in his preference for animal life above the vegetative and inanimate) and have a beginning, middle and end. Architecture is superseded by sculpture and then painting and all are static forms. Next comes music in this ascending scale and then finally poetry and drama.
When one looks at England in the 1840s’ there is not even an inkling of a debate on form, nor even the merest hint that to raise such a question also raises the question of freedom. The possibility of any such debate had ended with the death of Hazlitt though Emily Bronte was to turn the ordered sequence of the novel inside out with her use of flashback.
Chartism is accompanied more by poetic bombast than verse not even remotely comparable to Heine’s. And yet Chartism must also have had its popular songs and forms of expression. There is evidence to suggest these forms were losing their traditional cohesion and were coming apart at the seams. Both Coleridge and Shelley had stretched the ballad form almost beyond recognition, which is not the case with Heine. One wonders how much it reflected a more general undermining of popular forms. Given the speed of the changes taking place in agriculture and the beginnings of large-scale industry it is unlikely that popular forms of expression would not also have bent under the strain.
It is not too much to say that Shelley became a reborn icon of revolt the moment he was introduced to radical Chartist workers. The slow uncovering of the amazing truth about Shelley subsequently became linked to the rise and the fall of the workers’ movement. On top of the green Shelley there is now a red Shelley though both advance together.
The massacre of unarmed men, women and children in 1818 on St Peter’s field in Manchester was an event no less important in England than the uprising of 1848 in France. Though exiled in Italy, Shelley’s response on hearing the news was immediate and furious. However the greatness of “the Mask of Anarchy” taken out of context obscures the extent to which in the two months following Peterloo, Shelley was pushing at the limits of poetry, He was a ‘modern’ before his time easily some 80 years in advance of what was to occur and possessing a power of synthesis which in many ways outstripped it and would take even longer to catch up with.
One could analyse at length “the Mask of Anarchy”. Suffice to say there is an anticipation of the form of the workers and soldiers’ council but only in terms of a mass presence, eventually, of both. It is a passive body that passively resists and not an anticipation of how historically they actually did move to take over. What prompts the soldiers to take the side of the oppressed gathered in a “Great Assembly” is shame and the fact no woman would look at them. Nor is Shelley’s notion of a great assembly taken a stage further: it does not take matters into its own hands becoming both a legislative and executive organ. Like no other poet before him he recognizes the power of the masses but then cannot conceive of an anti-statist legislative body. Though the son in law of William Godwin “the father of English anarchism” the latter’s theoretical anarchism remained a dead letter because it was built around the enlightened teacher who dispensed emancipation through the power of reason rather than being disarmed enough to receive it. Thus emancipation was known in advance and held no surprises. (Remaining aloof from the French Revolution and Peterloo, Godwin’s legacy has bedevilled English anarchism ever since – wooden in its responses, insular, unable to move with the times and several steps behind the real movement).
In the “Mask of Anarchy” there are undeniable pointers that could have led to a critique of political economy. Had he not died so young one wonders how the ageing Shelley might have responded to the young Marx. Possibly with an even greater enthusiasm and understanding than Heine: apart from the first 40 pages the rest of “the German Ideology” remains uncut in Heine’s copy.
In Heine’s “Silesian Weavers” there is no mention of money – or lack of it – but which is of course implied. However in Shelley’s tract things are far more explicit. He speaks of the “ghost of gold” meaning paper money (“paper coin”) and though it may look as though he is arguing for an early form of the gold standard in fact his grasp of the significance of paper money is uncanny and opens up a rich vein of potential enquiry. “Paper coin – that forgery” could refer to the practise of printing money and its increasingly fictive character as time went by. As conceived by Shelley and also born out by reality it also leads to an increase in the rate of exploitation taking “from toil a thousand fold more than e’er its substance could/ In the tyrannies of old”.
However Peterloo was a catalyst for so much more. It brought everything to a head. As one of the more responsible biographers of Shelley has rightly said his output that ran “in an unbroken curve from 6th Sept 1818 when he first received news of Peterloo until 5th Nov – suggest a state of exultant energy and vision – that it is difficult to conceive in ordinary terms”. Shelley is frequently able to hit the nail on the head more in his “prose”(e.g. letters etc.) than in his poetry. In a dedication letter he looks forward to a London that “shall be an habitation of bitterns; when St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey shall stand, shapeless and nameless ruins, in the midst of an unpeopled marsh; when the piers of Waterloo Bridge shall become the nuclei of islets of reeds and osiers and cast the jagged shadows of their broken arches on the solitary stream…” This London may look empty but really Shelley is reclaiming nature for the people: the ruin of Waterloo Bridge is also a reprisal for Peterloo. In this fantasy of destruction and renewal Shelley has touched on the question of “town and revolution” that a hundred years later was to become of such burning importance.
There is no doubting that Shelley’s innovations outstripped his theorising and only now can we see where they were leading. In “Peter Bell the third” which is a piss take on Wordsworth and Coleridge he writes about hell (i.e. London) reducing ‘poetry’ to an incantation of names that is almost pre-lettrist and yet also very powerful: “German soldiers – camps – confusion – tumults – lotteries – rage – delusion – gin – suicide – and Methodism”. No punctuation either, just dashes. And in a letter to Leigh Hunt outlining his defence of Richard Carlile on trial for sedition for defending the Peterloo demonstrators he was both aware of how the meaning of words could be turned in to their opposites by power (“though oppression should change names and names cease to be oppressions”) and of the need to rescue language for the sake of “liberty and the oppressed”. Note that this crisis of language was not just an aesthetic dilemma as it had a tendency to become in Mallarme but was central to the fate of humanity. In the same letter to Hunt he reflects on their respective differences of “theory and practise” which he then crossed out almost as if he sensed he was running dangerously ahead of his time.
During this period Shelley writes the death certificate of English nature poetry: “Ode to the West Wind”. Never again could it acquire the same degree of urgency and uplift us quite so much. Henceforth nature was to become something split-off but into which we could read the failed hopes of humanity and even for those who have an ear and eye for it, the formal transcendence of art into life though it would be more correct to say the “life sciences”.
If read consecutively the “Mask of Anarchy” and the “Ode to the West Wind” seem to almost blend. “The Ode to the West Wind” conceived within days of the “Mask of Anarchy” could not but also be a reflection on Peterloo but this time within a natural setting. The very words become superimposed. The leaves driven by the wind like “ghosts before an enchanter fleeing – yellow red pestilence stricken” aren’t just sickly, poverty driven mill workers but also the “ghosts of gold – paper money” which was already beginning to turn nature inside out.
Natural imagery would never again acquire this degree of unspecific generality open to a number of interpretations but whose bottom line, in any case, was the need for revolution. This combining of social struggle and wild nature corresponded to a deep undercurrent in the rapidly forming industrial working class and which left an indelible imprint upon it never to be entirely effaced. Shelley echoed this apparent contradiction though in a very striking way. That is why it is mistaken particularly in this country to view the proletariat as a cog in a machine that would inherit the world on the basis of large-scale industry laid down by capitalism. Ecologists who have viewed the ‘workers’ from outside as slaves to consumption have consistently failed to acknowledge this.
Nature and political revolution had formed an indissoluble whole in Romanticism. Hazlitt had unforgettably described Wordsworth’s muse as “a levelling” one. Nature was for the people, by the people and representative government was its direct consequence. However Shelley is the first to see that nature is also riven by class antagonism. Even worse, despotism could eventually cause nature to perish. He writes of the “fish – poisoned in the streams; the birds in the green woods perished” and finally with outstanding prescience and most alarmingly of all “the insect rave ---- withered up” and “avarice died before the god it made”.
We are getting perilously close to the situation described by Shelley and that grants significance to insects never previously accorded to them. In fact this belated but growing appreciation of the indispensable role small organisms play in sustaining life also unfolds against a background of increased commoditisation in which money strives to be the sole necessity even if that means its eventual annihilation because of universal destruction. Beside this nightmare scenario the abolition of money by means of a conscious peoples’ is beginning to look increasingly unlikely.
Shelley’s “Revolt of Islam” from which the above quotes come was written in Jan 1818, a mere eight months before the Peterloo massacre. We are perhaps reading too much into these words of Shelley twisting them into the strait jacket of political economy when perhaps he held to a more simplistic, more political view of liberty as representative government. However Shelley was never specific on this point and designing constitutions was of scant interest to him enough to make one think he was at odds with the idea. There is nothing about votes for all, an elected parliament with a fixed term of office, an independent judiciary and whatever else takes the fancy of the typical constitutionalist, in “The Mask of Anarchy”.
It has been said that Keats’s “Ode to Autumn” is also a commentary on Peterloo reflected through the prism of nature. If so it becomes a strain to penetrate the layers of allusion to get at the truth and even then we cannot be entirely sure. However more on this later. Enough to say that Keats’ mode of poetical encryption was taken up by naturalists in their unconscious manner of alluding to something vague beneath the hard science of the text. Science, particularly natural science, was becoming enveloped in an all encompassing nebula of values and meaning that was almost impossible to decipher and doubly so once it became regarded as unhinged to draw attention to it. This ‘symbolisation’ of science and not just literature, which also heralded its end, has never received the attention it merits.
Far more so than Shelley who modelled himself at least partly on the materialism of Lucretius, the key to this splitting off of the natural from the social is to be found in Keats. This forking is given a far clearer expression in the “Ode to a Nightingale” than in the “Ode to Autumn”. In the former it is the bird (i.e. the study of birds – ornithology) that is able to escape the present condition of man and the desire for the peace of the grave: “no hungry generations tread thee down” that is the generations of men, women and children that were shortly to assemble at Peterloo.
In the “Ode to a Nightingale”, perhaps the most famous of all time, Keats mapped out the territory on which the science of animal ethnology was set to unfold. Beyond certain limits transgression was henceforth forbidden. (In a rather different vein he was to do the same for entomology in his “Ode to Psyche”, only this time the jumping of fences into other fields was encouraged. Indeed it was the floating essence of entomology because its uselessness and scientific marginality implied it was not open to conscription by power having, “no voice, no lute, no pipe”).
Keats would have sung a different tune had he seen how entomology was to be transformed particularly by Pasteur and the growing acknowledgement of the role played by insects in the transmission of diseases. And also how along with worms they acted as a morphological bridge to the world of the “infinitely small”. He might also have divined how insects would become a bogeyman of modern capitalist agriculture prepared even to destroy the pollinators and therefore agriculture, creating unprecedented famine.
That entomology has long ceased to be a discrete discipline, ramifying now into the chemical industry, bioengineering and genetic modification does not completely overturn the ground plan laid down more generally by Keats. In a book – one picked at random – “The Discovery of Animal Behaviour” by John Sparks the separate worlds of animal and human “behaviours” are viewed less as a break in continuity between the human and the animal kingdom but rather as a fundamental division between town and country. All the great animal ethnologists of the 20th century, Lorenz, Tinbergen Frisch were brought up in a country setting and were stimulated by the presence of nature from an early age. But this enviable head start also produced a grotesque social retardation. It was a joy to find Von Frisch`s memoirs “A Biologist Remembers” in a second hand bookshop but very distressing to learn of his deeply conservative responses to the Bavarian Soviet in 1918-19. And this by a biologist who did more than any other in the 20th century to puncture the overwhelming anthropomorphism of the humn species when he discovered the Honey Bee possessed a subtle language, the most complex so far
known outside that of humans. Social turbulence, the unnatural life of the great conurbations – this is the forgetfulness of the great animal ethnologists, - that forgetting of the human condition which involved social warfare so ardently desired by Keats in the “Ode to the Nightingale”. And by a bewildering reversal of perspective, animal behaviours are given an abiding relevance outside their proper employ by being uncritically superimposed upon the human. The “immortal bird” of Keats’ ode becomes an inverse anthropomorphism destined to live on in us because of a wilful refusal to face up to what really happened in human history.
Shelley’s idea of love is not that different from Keats. Yet it has more to do with transcendence, the flight of thought as a prelude to action than in bringing opposites together or merely conjuring with the new in one’s mind. And for that purpose insect analogies come to mind and yet they are more then mere analogies, they are living symbols: we take to the air with them and not merely by way of illustration.
The poem in which the memorable line “the desire of the moth for the star” occurs is simply entitled “To—” To what? - To nothing in particular and everything. For it is also about the failing power of words which have lost there meaning not merely through repeated use but because their use has become devalued as the object of the word has become devalued.. It is never recognised the author of “In Defence of Poetry” - incidentally Shelley’s view of what is poetry far transcends the written word having already escaped the page in the introductory sentences - increasingly had a problem with language, frequently pushing it beyond the limits of comprehension as language broke under the strain of what he really wanted to say. The ethereal Shelley was strangely rooted in the empiricist tradition of Locke, Berkeley and Hume, struggling to create objects through words in a way inadmissible to empiricism, before they became a fact, He was lettriste avante la lettre, rejecting the conventional division of writing into poetry and prose as “a vulgar error” and going so far as to maintain poetry could be reduced to just one word or, come to that, none at all, like in the absence of a predicate in the above title. Where words failed only a moth aspiring to reach a bright star could restore the meaning of the word love, a love he could no longer give outside of a new society.
Shelley finds love in nature because he can no longer find it in man. It is nature that responds to his thoughts and moods not man and is the more sentient of the two. Only when humanity is restored to its full self will he find himself in humanity and not merely nature. And when it does come he finds the desire of the moth for the star in the events of Peterloo.
The standard treatment of John Ray, the founding father of English natural history is typical. That Ray was formerly a clergyman always receives a mention accompanied by the rider we are indeed fortunate because he was then able to devote his entire life to the study of natural history. John Sparks in “The Discovery of Animal Behaviour” goes even further and says that after the bloody civil war of the 1640s’ Ray sought in the peace of nature a refuge from all this turmoil. It is much more complex than that. Ray refused to swear an oath that would have compromised his independence and made a state religion out of his puritan faith. He was sacked from his job because of his principles. The struggle for the recognition of nature goes to the heart of the English revolution. Not only did it signify equality but independence of mind. Even if there is not one sign of the tumultuous pleasures of the flesh in Ray set free by the civil war of the 1640s’ it does not mean Ray did not regard them as also part of creation just as birds flowers fish and trees were: only that his passions were channelled in to soberly recording and describing the flora and fauna of England. But he is not the detached recorder of the bio-biographers, the ascetic scientist probing an external nature, a subject as lifeless as the object of enquiry. And nothing much is ever made of Ray’s collection of country sayings and local dialect, except to note it. Did this not also imply a resistance to a state leviathan that was imposing uniformity on language that was capable of destroying minority speech even down to the local names for plants and animals? These frequently are extraordinarily deft and may even have contained the outlines of a superior certainly more memorable system of classification. Ray was a great classifier but one cannot help but feel that in his descriptions he was seeking a beyond that if pushed invites comparison with Shelley: “he will watch from dawn to gloom/ the late reflected sun illume/ the yellow bees in the ivy bloom/nor heed nor see what things they be/ but from these create he can/ forms more real than living man” etc.
The blurring of the outlines of the species can also be given a completely opposite treatment where the characters acquire a clarity of outline they do not possess in reality. And they appear bigger to our eyes. This is Mallarme’s approach . His botanical descriptions belong to a changed, better world in which geography has been reborn even as it assimilates and transforms the most advanced geological thinking:
“Yes, in an island that the air loads with sight and not with visions, every flower showed itself to be larger without our discussing it
Such huge flower that each one was invariably adorned with a lucid contour, a hiatus that separated it from the gardens”.
As is made plain this is not a visionary state: it could be an everyday reality. But it requires action to get there and typically Mallarme veils this recognition in the almost impenetrable obscurity of little known Greek and Latin names (uttered by a child that has “abdicated from his ecstasy” in the passage to adulthood) that means “arise”(the wild praxis of Dionysus possibly} and “beauty”, but a beauty “hidden by the too large gladiolus”.
Mallarme’s recoil from the endless hybrids and varieties of horticulture is also a search for a primal language free from social deceit and which also simplifies nature and renders it less artificial. When he says, “flower” he wants us to see a flower different to those found in bouquets and in the “hiatus (of) gardens” or in “gladioli”. The great classifiers such as Ray and Linnaeus never deigned to describe garden varieties even though hybrids in nature were a problem for them: this would be left to the aestheticians of horticulture writing in garden catalogues and which in the late 19th century was already becoming an industry.
Mallarme’s generic flower concludes “variation on a subject”, a rambling enquiry into the crisis of versification. Though wreathed at times in impenetrable obscurity, Mallarme in this text and others was demolishing with soft hammer blows, a façade that had stood firm since Homer. Read carefully it also says something about the state of commodification then reached where “to speak has no connection with the reality of things except commercially”. But this primitive accumulation of words by the commodity had yet to seize the inner world of reveries and it this symphonic parallel discourse of layered meanings that Mallarme (forever ambiguously) finds “nothing or almost an art”. Mallarme’s investigations into language has attracted the attention of professional linguists, particularly his observations on word tonalities, but it always comes as a disappointment to find it ends there. The division of mental labour is so ingrained that Mallarme’s search for a language that means what it says and the fundamental crises of literature and so much else he spent a lifetime proclaiming is not just passed over in silence: it just does not go in.
For a brief moment in the UK, say from 1965 to the early 1970s’, the real Mallarme, as distinct from the uncomfortable litterateur, began, though only just, to be recognised. Investigating the tools of his trade with a dimension and depth no other poet had even thought of doing, Mallarme found himself on the threshold of a new age: the age of revolution which posed all things anew.
This other Mallarme and what it was to lead to, transcends the fixed terms of the “two cultures”. No other Situationist influenced grouping anywhere in the world in the late 1960s had so many ex-scientists as King Mob in the UK. Why this was so is a question that not only has never been raised but never gone into. That moment has now gone and we can’t now ask the questions we needed to then when we were all in full flow simply because the individuals involved have dispersed far and wide and no longer have any relevant contact with each other. All that remain are memories of tantalising conversations and probings cut short during moments of passionate invention. The only ex-scientist fully congnisant with the death of art and yet able to write a critique of science was Phil Meyler in his book “And Yet it Moves” (now out of print though recently published in Spanish by Campo Abierto this book can be read on this website).
Instead we are left with C.P. Snow’s naïve opposition from the 1950s’ and which still forms the basis of Richard Dawkin’s book “Unweaving the Rainbow”. Dawkins is a militant atheist but as far as capitalism is concerned he is not even agnostic: he is an out and out believer. Not one word escapes his lips on the social utilization of science. The merest flickerings of revolt are entirely absent. So it is not surprising if his conception of art is limited by an almost quaint aestheticism, which belongs – and only just - to the 19th century.
Stuart Wise: December 2005