RANDOM RECOLLECTIONS OF A MALICIOUS DUNCIAD LIVING IN NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE DURING THE 1960s
The upsurge of the late 1960s must remain the bench mark for all future revolt until its example is superseded. It was a time when a spirit of passionate enquiry meant specialisms were montaged together sparring and altering the paradigms of each as almost everything was redefined. It was a moment where we dared to hope for a revolutionary future. For those who refused to join the seemingly irresistible flow it seemed like a time of madness though in essence it was an ambience of all-encompassing creativity. The following gives something of a brief outline of some of this 'mad' creativity in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and how it was snatched from our grasp and turned into its opposite. The sad outcome meant we are today presented with an increasingly programmed and petrified dead life like never before. It's not just that 'art is dead' but so is everyday life which once was supposed to be enriched by an unfettered imagination spilling over from the restrictions imposed by twice and thrice removed artistic forms in their death throes. All this ferment pointed to a spontaneous uprising of the people without parties and leaders, which CRL James saw as the essence of the 1956 Hungarian revolution and could perhaps trigger future earth shattering revolts like in France. May 1968 was to reveal what an astonishing prediction this was though its fallout was felt almost everywhere. Now that profound moment of potential liberation has been lost sight of, passivity and the nightmare of consumerism still beckon us from all directions though for how long remains the great question of the age.
What follows here is testimony to the astounding depth and fecundity of thought which existed amongst the Tyneside working class and its readiness at least among a few, to go for all out revolution, given half a chance. There was nothing quite like it anywhere in Britain and maybe the city’s compactness and remoteness from other major urban centres, encouraged the rapid transmission of ideas, not just down over but up over as well. Because for certain the working class experience in mining, shipbuilding and engineering played an essential part and which the working class of the region has yet to receive its due credit for. How much of this spirit of radical refusal is still alive today I cannot say. Does the region’s ‘Tate’ gallery, the former Baltic Flour Mill pull in the skilled working class in droves as supposedly Tate Modern does, duped into believing that this way emancipation lies? Or are they, as they say in Geordie land, much more “canny” and not fooled for one moment?
From what little direct contact I've had with the north east since the late 1960s I can only say culture is probably now viewed as an aspect of tourism and therefore a bread and butter issue because it brings money into the region. And perhaps every down home Geordie is drawing up their own profit and loss account, scrutinizing each year the amount they are paying toward culture in their council tax. And because the place is so compact and its baneful cultural revolution so overwhelmingly visible, it wouldn't take much for someone to get up in the Bigg Market and proclaim "culture is a part of a political economy that must be abolished" for them to be possibly applauded. But knowing Newcastle , the language is likely to be much more basic. And I don't doubt that, in one way or another, it is a topic of discussion everywhere, receiving a far fuller airing than we could ever have hoped for in the late 1960s - but without the essential revolutionary extras.
Electronic/Natural Sounds: Toop, Cornelius Cardew and Icteric’s “goodbyes to music” via Mallarme, Nietzsche, Hegel, Satie, Varese and Russolo
In the mid 1960s in Newcastle we'd become well obsessed with John Cage. It wasn't fortunately to last. However, of all the myriad art/anti art artists who fed off the rotting corpse of art, Cage is the one "performer" whose example can still interest. The fact that he was also an expert in a difficult field, mycology, I find praise worthy, and by all accounts he went around obsessively noting fungi, just as we do butterflies and moths. Shortly before he died he was invited to attend some cultural nonsense in Huddersfield, West Yorks. Walking back to his hotel in the evening he noticed an edible tree fungus. Besides refusing the offer of a lift at his age, he thought nothing either of scaling a wall to eat the edible fungus, as he was hungry. It show's spirit all right. Only in recent years did I learn that it was John Cage who had first unearthed, in 1949, Satie's Vexations, a landmark every bit as important as Mallarme's blank page and composed roughly about the same time (1893) as Mallarme's abandonment of poetry. Vexations (endless repetition) is nothing if not ambiguous, just like his Furniture Music is. We can say that in both cases Satie was merely anticipating the commodification of music as background noise (musak) and as soundscape, music as a three dimensional occurrence, or four, if you prefer, because time now is also a physical dimension. But such a simplistic leftist dismissal is too easy. I remain convinced there is in Satie's experiments (which still have the power to exasperate musical stuckists just as Mallarme's blank page does writers with a bad dose of pretence to being one, who then rationalize it simply as a case of "writer's block"!) a kernel of something else that leads to the liberation of sound and people from oppression. But if you hope to find a definitive answer to this conundrum by examining meticulously everything Satie wrote and said, you will be disappointed.
I found this fact about Cage reading two books by David Toop, one published in 1995, Ocean of Sound and the other in 2003, Haunted Weather. Toop had, as a student, been involved in the Hornsey College of Art sit-in in 1968 (the sit-ins here in the UK were a feeble response to far more radical events then taking place in France) and then went on to eventually become a sound engineer for U2 where, presumably, he made his pile. (Rather than become a public figure like Bono, he writes books, and his political judgments are not quite as crass as those of Bono). He also mentions how he had been amongst the audience at Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention concert in London during the late 1960s. The London Philharmonic Orchestra had been invited onstage to perform a piece of music by Zappa and this they had done with obvious disdain. In the uproar that followed Toop nicked a sheet of music from an LPO music stand, a gesture he now regrets. The contrast between London and Newcastle could not be more revealing. For when Zappa came to Newcastle it was not the LPO that was assailed but Zappa himself. Shouts of "Up Against the Wall Motherfucker" rang out from out the auditorium and Zappa, clearly perplexed and thinking the audience must be mistaken, repeatedly stepped forward to say "the Motherfuckers are a New York revolutionary group and not to be confused with the Mothers of Invention". Expecting a cart load of hicks from the sticks, Zappa got the shock of his life. We were and - still are - way beyond Toop's reckoning.
Shortly before he died of prostate cancer, Zappa recorded Cage's three minutes of silence, a pointless gesture, but an indication of how far such musicians in the late 1960s still had to travel.
This opposition to Zappa’s concert in Newcastle did not just come from an ‘educated’ knowing few. Others had tagged along who were either signing on or employed doing shit casual jobs and whose career prospects were dismal. One such person was Ritchie from Gateshead . His parents were noted for the open house they kept and the free and easy atmosphere attracted neighbourhood kids. There was little furniture in the house, his parents making do with packing cases instead, and kids found a freedom here they did not have in their own homes. Every working class and lower middle class child brought up in the north of England has tales to tell of such households for they were what lay behind “the green door”. In Liverpool they were referred to as “ragtime households” a term which suggests they had been around for some time, well before World War Two. They were there in the mining communities too but only well after the war and more generally were associated with casualism. There was one such family, the Rycroft’s, in the village near where we were brought up in Co Durham. Old man Rycroft was hardly ever in work and as kids we would often come across him lanes with a rabbit or bird slung over his shoulder, for he was an excellent poacher. Why couldn’t my Dad be more like that? But old man Rycroft’s feckless anti-social behaviour did not stop his son whom we really liked from attending the local grammar school in Bishop Auckland and even as children we were felt the lure of such households.
Today the air of freedom such households give off has been blown away, to be replaced with the stench of class A drugs, capitalist rackets, gang hierarchies and the pursuit of the most addictive drug of all - money. At the other extreme there is all the horror of the nuclear household - and nothing in between.
Way back then we’d intimately known this overlap/identity/sympathy – call it what you will - throughout our very young lives in the north east and West Yorkshire never realizing that perhaps it was an overlap having something unique within it. In practice it meant there was little or no ‘talking down’ to others as the general level of consciousness tended to be an open matter and conversation tended to range from ‘the low’ to ‘the high’ even within a single sentence. This ambience was undoubtedly a product of all the rebellions that periodically had coursed through these areas in the previous 150 years or so. Though defeated these rebellions had left an indelible mark ever ready to be revived and ever receptive to the new tremors running through the atmosphere. All this is true testimony to the astounding depth and fecundity of thought which existed (does it still exist?) amongst the Tyneside working class and which fronts the beginning of this piece but is the merest example for within three years it was right down among the engineering apprentices as a tool of disruption outlined somewhat in The Hidden History of King Mob.
Ritchie’s response to radical theory was immediate and enthusiastic. He also used to carry a can of kerosene around with him to set himself alight should the pain of living under capitalism become just too insupportable, for this was the era when Buddhist monks would set themselves alight in Vietnam, in protest against the war. However Ritchie became the butt of constant jokes. After one attempt that failed one of his mates said to him as he walked into the door of a flat, bedraggled after dowsing himself in kerosene, “damn, he’s forgotten the matches”. The banter was cruel but also affectionate, and even then his ‘educated’ working class pals were well aware the world would be a much poorer place without the Richies of this world.
I came back one weekend, to find he had written on my bedroom wall “silence/revolution/silence” (which I was none too pleased with, but Ritchie was treating my place as home from home). He had been reading Norman O’ Brown’s Love's Body but he also knew about Cage (there are several references to Cage in the book) and though only 20, well up to questioning stage performances, the art of museums and the like. I shall always remember him recounting with relish how someone had gone into the 1968 Venice Biennale carrying a sledgehammer, and then proceeded to demolish the exhibits before the anguished sculptors and assembled guests.
Prior to writing Haunted Weather (2004), Toop had written in 1995 Ocean of Sound, his reputation already established by Rap Attack which even then was in its third edition. Ocean of Sound is subtitled “ether talk, ambient sound and imaginary worlds” and accompanying the ocean of sound is a gale of empty words, the typical stock in trade of pop journalism, the slick phraseology unable to cover up the book is barren of real content. Haunted Weather is rather more concrete and in it we find references to the Situationists and psychogeography, Maoism and so forth. In the nine years that have elapsed, Toop had obviously undergone an education of sorts, taking on board concepts and ideas altogether absent in Ocean of Sound.
In the late 1960s he was a member of Cornelius Cardew’s “scratch orchestra” and the only politics he had any acquaintance with was Maoism. So it must have come as a surprise to him to find out there were revolutionary tendencies in the late 60s that regarded Maoism as a crock of state capitalist shit. However when Toop attempts to deal with these far more radical currents he makes a complete hash of it. Robbed of revolutionary impetus and critique they become meaningless, merely reflecting the way formerly radical experiments are now taken up and the past they were a part of turned inside out and stood on its head, Thus psychogeography today rejects out of hand the impossibility of urban living and, for that reason, ended up as an aspect of the estate agents sales pitch and part of their training program. And by introducing such ideas as soundscapes, like turning on to ambient sounds generated, for instance, by traffic, Toop merely furthers its already unspeakable aestheticization! Perhaps car fumes and other noxious smells will shortly become part of an urban psycho-gastronomic sitting experience, seeing that cafes have for years spilled uncontrollably into the choking streets, Packed with consumers avid for ‘cutting edge’ cultural experiences that are already nearly a hundred years old, sadly it will probably not be short of takers.
However the fact that Toop has been compelled to introduce such ideas into what is, in the final analysis, a statement about music, shows how close to exhaustion “music” now is. It has come to the end of the road, only no one can bear to admit it and all there is now left is the endless round of celebrity for the sake of celebrity, the ‘vexation’ of celebrity – to maybe paraphrase Eric Satie. And for sure the celebrities of Brit pop, the likes of Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, The Chapman Bros, and other ejecta from the Turner Prize and the Saatchi Brothers trough could never hope to sustain an argument as remotely coherent and seemingly intelligent as Haunted Weather. The pity is the book could have been a really interesting read, and you can learn a number of interesting facts from it. I can only think that as a technician familiar with recording sound and proficient in the use of computers, it may have helped Toop see far wider than the celebrity and money obsessed trash just mentioned. Toop’s problem is he’s not enough of a nobody though more so than his fellow traveler Brian Eno. (See Ferry Across the Tyne elsewhere on this web)
By the time Icteric came out in 1966 we had said our goodbyes to music. It would never again grip us as it once had done. The intractable finality of this judgment, which was not a conscious decision in the strict sense of the term, but something almost visceral in its intensity, meant we were deaf to what was good in the music of the late 1960s. All we tended to see in the open air concerts (Monterey, Woodstock, the Isle of Wight) and other audience/performer spectaculars, was an exercise in containment and mass manipulation, an alternative Nuremburg of waving arms and rock star adulation and merely a proxy for Nazi salutes and Fuehrer worship, (However the Isle of Wight mass spectacular did break out into a riot which never happened at Nuremburg) realizing that in general the orgiastic, spontaneous riot and vandalism of early rock ‘n’ roll had gone forever which a humpty-dumpty Punk, a little later, couldn’t put back together again This orgiastic renunciation was what Nietzsche had experienced in Bayreuth and was fundamental to his critique of Wagner, concluding, in one of his fascinating harangues against Wagner, “no god will ever now save music”. How prescient this remark, said almost as an afterthought, would eventually prove to be.
Come the late 1960s and I was also sufficiently familiar with Mallarme by then to catch a hint of something else that was to be far more consequential, because less capitalised, than music even then was becoming. Mallarme too had been smitten with the Wagner bug and though he never would reject him with anything like Nietzsche’s ferocity, he also, in his own inimical, quiet manner, had gone one better than Wagner. I was, of course, none too clear about it at the time, and yet I see I had underlined in a now tatty, yellowing penguin edition of Mallarme, the following: “….for undeniably it is not from elementary sonorities through brass, strings and word but from the intellectual word at its height that music must result fully and manifestly in so far as it is the sum of the relationship existing in everything”. What did this mean? For a start it suggested another type of totality that the joys of theory and praxis had eventually to replace traditional artistic pursuits. And I believe that Mallarme was already probing the failure of music and that there was something to be said for the surrealist rejection of music after all. “Let night fall on the orchestra” Breton had said; a remark that had delighted us we first read it in Newcastle around 1964. For Mallarme, despite his notorious obscurity, was opening out on to a much broader, far more fruitful, terrain than music ever would, if it continued to remain imprisoned in music. In contrast pop music and any other music, was going nowhere other than up the blind alley of constant repetition, the vexation predicted by Satie.
And when one reads Mallarme (and what a pity this destroyer of poetry had so much reverence for it) there is a veiled critique of music, as there is of so much else, like architecture and shopping, should one care to look for it. “Instruments have all the dreary intonation and predictability of an automaton, unable to spark the same response as a spontaneous burst of laughter when a musician lays her woodwind to one side. Musicians are destroyed by the ending of their trade and yet still continue to play, estranged beyond all recognition from themselves and others, a broken, tormented shade of minstrelsy, yet still treading the same paths as if nothing had happened.”
How different such a take is from Hegel, a person whom greatly influenced Mallarme, a rare event indeed in 19th century France. It was in his treatment of painting that Hegel had first announced the death of art, which is not that surprising considering how very opposed he was to “picture thinking”. In his book on music he stresses how varied the human voice and musical instruments are in comparison with the depleted sounds of nature, stressing yet again “the impotence of nature”. And yet less than 80 years later the situation has been reversed, which takes some explaining. Hegel had ended his book on music eulogizing the improvisations of a lone guitarist, probably a gypsy (shades of Django Rheinhardt?). So much, then, for orchestral range and the variety of the opera where the possibilities of the human voice are combined with those of all kinds of instruments. It does suggest Hegel was having second thoughts and that his massive construct was already tumbling down about his ears.
Someone has yet to point out there is a relationship between Satie’s Vexations composed in 1893 and Mallarme’s views on music, because undoubtedly there is one, in that instruments in Mallarme take on a life of their own and yet are, like machines, lifeless, suggests a mechanization of sound has taken place that is no longer able to express a desire for liberation. A perspective such as this begs reinterpretation in the light of Marx’s “fetishism of commodities”. And Satie’s Vexations composed in the early 1890s and only coming to light in 1949 is an amazing anticipation of the moment, a 100 years later, when music becomes an autonomous fetish, a software of endless repetition that eventually produces a trance like state (for Satie’s original term, illumination, read ecstasy today). Odd that this forgotten little piece has become of more consequence than the entire history of music up to that point.
One of the reasons we had emphasised Satie is entirely due to the fact that in the mid sixties he was virtually unknown, at least in the English speaking world. Today it is barely possible to open a book on contemporary music without finding his name mentioned somewhere. But to us in the mid sixties in Newcastle it really was a revelation, pointing to the beyond of music. One of us in the Icteric crew, Trevor Winkfield, from Leeds, in true Satian style gave a spoof avante garde piano recital, banging the keys at random with all the sedate etiquette of a concert pianist. In the late 1970s, to the background of the tremendous wave of strikes that made up the fortissimo of The Winter of Discontent, Eric, an engineer from Perivale in London, sat down at a piano and gave a similar impromptu performance. Some present even took it seriously, for by this time Satie’s name was just beginning to creep into print, entering, for the first time, a mass consumer market.
Winkfield was never able to take the necessary steps leading beyond Icteric. In the last communication I had with him, he set out his reasons for rejecting the call for a revolution. He’d called Black Mask in New York “tin pot soldiers” which had really gotten our backs up. Another reason had to do with Satie. He felt such an event – revolution - would fail to recognize the importance of Satie’s laundry lists, which he had just discovered and wanted to publish in a further edition of Icteric. To my knowledge they still have not been published and it is possible they contained witty asides, but it is the sort of thing Toop, and others of a similar ilk, could eventually do, even if it does run the unsettling risk, at least to them, of sidelining the centrality of Satie’s music. What this comment showed however to us in Newcastle in 1967 was how pitiful our former buddy Trevor Winkfield was rapidly becoming and what a philistine take he had on the totality of social revolution where Satie’s laundry lists would be central indeed in the reconstruction of a new life.
For years I never knew what happened to Winkfield though in 2003 I did notice his name kept cropping up in an exhaustive biography of Andre Breton by Mark Polizzotti, a very watered down American surrealist. Doubtless, in the meantime, Winkfield’s knowledge of the avante garde had grown to immense proportions. But to what purpose? Possibly reliving the past of the avant garde down to the most esoteric minutiae is the only thing now saving him from suicide, because he was that way inclined. So he won’t be any further forward in getting to grips with why he felt like that in the first place. Alas, in 2006 I found Trevor Winkfield had become a ‘successful’ artist in New York producing cutie little paintings and that familiar sickly feeling in my gut, concomitant with yet another betrayal, kicked-in again.
Icteric marked the beginning of a profound falling out with the rest of my family, particularly my elder brothers who taught in Newcastle University. We had become an acute embarrassment to them. Years later, in 2003, learning one of them was dying of cancer; I did the humane thing and wrote to him. He mentioned he had taken to listening to Satie. What pieces by Satie I never did find out but I rather suspect they were those captivating, easy listening, bits of Satie, which now accompany TV ads. After my brother died I wrote to one of his son’s, a ‘top’ PFI architect working for Newcastle city council, saying how I regretted I was never able to discuss Satie with my brother before he died. In even tempered prose I referred to the three dimensionality of Satie’s music and that Paul Morley had written a bad, mealy mouthed book, Music in the Shape of a City, based on that insight. I never received a reply, and once more I was made to feel like crap as I have been made to feel countless times before. To be an enfante terrible at 20 is to be 20, to be one at 60 plus is beyond reckoning it is so ludicrous, and only goes to show how much catching up there is to do if humanity is to be saved from self-holocaust.
In a way this is hardly surprising. It’s been said that in today’s world everything is acceptable. The truth is if you possess a critique that is really subversive you are going to be silenced like never before whatever your age making the previous travails of dissident thinkers and anti artists over the last 200 years small beer indeed. Unfortunately we are still an avante garde but the most discriminated in history precisely because, having no product to display, you are no more than malicious idiots inseparable from any fuckhead response.
During 2002, I attended meetings of the Bradford Astronomical Society, finding the atmosphere congenial and healing. One evening stands out. An amateur astronomer had been booked to give a talk on neutron stars, super dense stars some of which spin rapidly, sending out regular pulses of radio waves. It was billed as “the living dead” and I loved the astronomer’s slides of gothic letters dripping blood like out of a hammer horror film, even going so far, big kid that he was, to shine a torch under his chin in the dark and wail like a ghost. It was far more entertaining than a TV show could ever have been, capturing, I believe, something of the feel that working class natural history and science societies once had, before the age of television. Astronomical facts were interspersed with tirades against Mrs. Thatcher and The Daily Telegraph and at one point we were asked to listen to a recording of a neutron star. The repetitive thump amid the sound scatter reminded all of something else and he only had to say: “I’m sure you will agree it’s better than garage” for us all to smile. Personally I could have listened to that sound all night; it was so hypnotic and haunting. Somehow I doubt if the astronomer would be all that hostile to the views I have expressed above, certainly rather less so than a university lecturer I suspect. And I don’t doubt I would have a far harder job convincing Toop, the sound musicians, installation artistes and the other living dead Toop mentions.
Of course Edgar Varese has been here before me. His mistake was to attempt to make an art out of the ‘science’ of sound and to orchestrate natural sound. But it is the sincerity if his visionary idea that communicates, which had it been integral to a critique of capitalism would have been a lot more convincing. For then he could well have plugged his ears against everyday sounds and, longing for a silence completely different to that of Cage, said something like “all well and good in principal, but I cannot listen to this destructive racket anymore”. Even Charlie Parker sought him out in his last years, believing if only he could become absorbed in a mechanical avalanche of sound, he would be released from his alcoholism, suicidal tendencies and the conservatism of jazz, which he felt was waiting in the wings. He wasn’t to be proved wrong.
As a youth Varese had been fascinated by Helmholtz’s groundbreaking experiments in physiological acoustics, including the vibrations of very deep tones, the structure of the ear, the effect of sirens and so on. In The Sensations of Tone published in 1862, Helmholtz had begun by distinguishing noises from musical tones: the noise of a rattling carriage was ambient noise and irregular whereas music “strikes the ear as perfectly undisturbed, uniform sound which remains unaltered as long as it exists”. Varese did not agree and what a pity Varese and Helmholtz were unable to put their heads together in the company of Marx and Bakunin! What a fruitful cacophony that could have been! Fanciful – perhaps – but something like this did happen in the late 1960s which has to be regarded as the all too brief highpoint of humanity in which the most farfetched, and enlightening, possibilities were within our grasp. Life would never be the same again, neither for us or the system we were opposed to.
But of all the out-on-a-limb experiments there was none more so than the Italian Futurist, Luigi Russolo’s, sound machine. As Toop says his machine slipped into the “terminal obscurity of being too avante garde for the avante garde”. But we knew about it in Newcastle , and I can only think it must have been mentioned as a very forgettable curiosity in some orthodox history of modern art. But since then Russolo’s rehabilitation has been complete, though Varese found Russolo’s noise instruments produced “material for the most part of terrifying intractability”.
I think the key to Varese’s hostility lay in the fact Russolo was a painter who, as a complete novice, dared to redefine music as sound. Varese on the contrary never could get over being a ‘musician’ first and foremost. Essentially the conflict between the two was a trade dispute, with Varese the skilled journey man on the one side, and Russolo, a very inferior apprentice, on the other. Varese is disturbed by Russolo’s sound machine because it threatens his trade. But the noise that both Varese and Russolo chose to ignore was also the sound of capitalism reaching a frenzy of destruction. We can only shudder at the Italian Futurist Marinetti’s hygiene of war and express alarm at Russolo behaving like a Helmholtz in the midst of the carnage of the First Word War as he analyzed and classified the whistles of varying shell calibers, the un-harmonic Doppler effect of falling pitch as the shells flew through the air and then exploded. But why stop here? Why did he not go on to analyze the screams of the wounded and the dying (though establishing a meaningful relationship, like that between caliber of shell and sound, would have been near on impossible) and incorporate the war machine into his noise machine?
Were we interested in recording mechanical sounds way back then in Newcastle? I think by this time machine sounds were becoming very jaded and it was natural sound we wanted to capture in the mid 1960s through omni-directional mics. Though we weren’t conscious of it at the time, hidden in our embrace of nature was a rejection of consumer society. The sound a neutron star makes would certainly have fascinated us and we liked the idea of giant instruments left abandoned in the forests that we heard about on a radio programme: The Voice of the Gods. We thrilled to the sound of “bull roarers” which members of a North African tribe whirled around their heads; proof that pure sound could be just as emotive and popular as more conventional musical sounds. I have long wanted to hear this programme again. I did record the sound of my front bicycle wheel made as I struck the spokes with an object whilst it was spinning. To me it was an immensely satisfying, evocative sound, taking me back to my childhood when I would do the same with my elder brother’s bike in the backyard. I imagined the sound carrying across the fields and connecting with the surrounding countryside. I even visited the place I was brought up in, running off a roll of film. This was at Heighington Station in Co Durham, famous as the spot in 1825, George Stephenson’s “Locomotion No.1” was lifted from a horse drawn cart, that had come all the way from Newcastle, and placed on the world’s first level crossing belonging to the Stockton and Darlington railway,. The photos I took that day are now the only photos of an extraordinarily rich wild life site, which included a colony of Dark Green Fritillary butterflies. When my elder brothers and their ridiculous wives heard I had revisited the landscape of my childhood one of them had said “good grief, he is going back to his childhood”. In a sense this was true, and the desire we had to recover the feelings we had as children was a very laudable one. But this was meant to create maximum hurt, for by this time we could do nothing right and were fit only for the gallows. It still makes me boil with anger when I think about it, and from that day to this, their insults have rarely let up.
We were vaguely aware of such things as the French sound engineer, Pierre Schaeffer's, recordings of steam engines (Etudes aux Chemins de Fer with an obvious echo of Debussy), spinning saucepans and so on. But only later did I learn he had worked with composers. I am now curious to know if he had any connection with the Lettristes. It is the sort of thing that would have interested them; hidden in some draw or other there may well be a scrap of paper on which is written a sublime comment that had already linked the future of sound to an anti capitalist revolution.
The Icteric sound bike on fire
Museums and the north east miners. The Russian avante garde of the early twentieth century. The fall-out from Icteric and Colin Hutchinson’s ‘rediscovery’ of Jack Common. The folk loric underground ‘architectural’ constructions of the north east plus thoughts on Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes.
When did this cultural makeover not just of Newcastle but of the entire region begin to get under way? Certainly it was given an enormous boost by what happened post 1968. The setting up of the Beamish open air museum in the early 1970s just south of Gateshead was one such key event and it must be the first interactive museum in the country – easily the most ambitious at any rate – to deal with the country’s industrial past as a total experience, involving not only coalmines, factories and machinery but households, shops and transport. It has since spawned a number of imitations but it is now forgotten that initially its development implied a growing criticism, if not a critique, of the museum as traditionally conceived. Its first director was Frank Atkinson formerly director of Bowes Museum a very traditional museum indeed reflecting the tastes of the landed aristocracy that formerly had such a hold over Co. Durham and Northumberland. Lord Londonderry was once the biggest coal owner in the country and was universally hated by Durham miners. Atkinson must have been uncomfortable in his position and felt, even as early as 1955, that another, less formal museum, was possible that dealt with the lives of ordinary working people. Inevitably it would lead to an aestheticisation of the past rather than to a profounder understanding of it, because whether in a glass case or not things are always wrenched from their actual context in a museum. And like any historical narrative (e.g. Flaubert’s Salammbo) museums always reveal more of the present than the past. 50 years later this would become downright insult when flour milling was made into an avant-garde stunt at the opening of The Baltic Flour Mill, the “Tate Modern of the North”.
It is somewhat ironical that the works of the Russian avante garde, condemned for so long as formalist (i.e. because the question of form was of utmost importance to the Russian avant garde) and hence decadent by the soviet aesthetic GPU, are now literally being blown up out of all proportion in contemporary Russia. Designs based on those of Rodchenko, Malevich, El Lissitsky and so on now spike the Moscow skyline, the creation of Russian realtors who have grown fat on aggrandising constructivist artefacts, if not their vision, which for different reasons – it’s a vision now about billionairing - is as neglected as it ever was under the old Soviet regime..
However in Newcastle by the early seventies the constructive, engineering side of the Russian avante garde had begun to exercise a profound influence, helping set in motion a re-evaluation of the region’s past, particularly its exemplary engineering traditions, and contributing thus to shaping today’s Newcastle. For a time it gives the impression of slipping into a post constructivist conformity, comparable in a manner of speaking to Malevich reverting to painting Russian religious icons, for we are talking about a failed revolution. And so a mural art celebrating the golden age of engineering begins to take shape but in reality it is a hapless adjunct to a more subtle and potent, use of the past, still then finding its feet. Alongside the Catherine Cookson virtual tours it would count for very little, and eventually the murals would be painted over while Cookson would be dramatized on TV which, in turn, would be good for the region’s growing tourist trade. In time murals would be superseded by pieces, and slogans by the egoism and empty territoriality of tagging, as youth became ever more hopelessly lost to itself.
One of our close friends, Colin Hutchinson who had been fired by the events of 1968 and the run–up to 1968, was, in the early 70s, chiefly responsible for disinterring Jack Common publishing a pamphlet called Revolt Against Plenty which Pete D then turned into the basis of the present web in 2003. Reading the reprinted articles by Common for the first time, the radicalism was at once obvious particularly when he invites us to stand behind the cinema screen and, rather than look at the film, observe the audience. To invert the relationship of audience and performer in this strikingly novel way (and Common did so at the height of the 1930s depression when cinemas were springing up even faster where ever there were long dole queues) would have been unthinkable to Common’s lifelong ally, George Orwell.
Was Common speaking on behalf of others from the region or was it entirely his own idea, an individual rather than collective insight? All I can say that as a teenager studying for my GCEs at a technical college and hating every minute of it, I remember writing an essay in which I argued it was more instructive to study the act of reading than to actually read. I was balled out in front of the entire class and made to look a fool. I was barely 15 and Orwell at the same age would already have been delighting in his literary skills whereas I, almost involuntarily as if somehow pushed from behind, was probing beyond words and asking questions about basic forms it was thought just plain silly to ever question. I had by this time become acquainted with Jacques Vache and I now seriously wonder if there was not, in the north east, a common inheritance that caused not only myself, but others, to come out with such ideas that can easily be dismissed as crackers - to employ a term that once was used frequently in the north east. I may say the practice of observing ‘readers’ is now habitual with me whether on trains, tubes or in busses or libraries. I can honestly say I get more out of doing this than I could ever get from reading whatever pap they are invariably absorbed in for it tells me a lot about such people and the society we live in.
One outcome of Common’s return to the north east was to find himself taught in schools this time round. It may well have finished of his subversive potential for good and the subversive potential of what he spoke up for. I learnt this from a nephew who is now a well-off auctioneer in Cockermouth, Cumbria with £ signs for eyes. Though Common is once more a forgotten figure I recall visiting a book shop in Newcastle’s Westgate road shortly after the miners’ strike and asking if there were any books by Common in stock. The reply was distinctly chilly and I immediately tumbled this was a Communist party bookshop and Common was proscribed reading. Instead my attention was directed to a number of novels that had been written by a former miner whose books had also been reprinted in the 1970s. I duly read one of them, Last Cage Down about a pit disaster in the Durham coal field. The introduction went to lengths to stress the book reflected the changing attitudes to art under Stalin where the canons of high art had replaced the proletcult that dealt out Bolshevik propaganda in a constructivist form. In mining community terms that meant the symphony orchestra was to be considered superior to the colliery brass band. Common’s approach was at odds with both positions because he was effectively raising the very real problem of the controlling function of art, as it came to colonise ever more deeply the lives of ordinary working people.
Colin was also involved in producing a number of other pamphlets. One, if I remember correctly, was called Rough Words and contained searing accounts of the 1920s and 1930s depression in the north east by people who had lived through it like many of our parents had. Though such pamphlets were by no means unique to the north east their working class bias marked a shift in the perspectives of local history societies. The pamphlet also contained realistic drawings that had obviously been copied from photos. The majority were of steam trains with serried ranks of engineers proudly posing before the camera. For this was also the moment of hyper-realist ‘reaction’ the first of a number of such reactions to installationist/performance art ‘excess’.
However it was also the last ‘artistically’ conservative expression of the workers’ movement drawing its final breath from the French general strike of 1968 and the wave of labour insurgency gripping nearly every country in the world especially European countries. Quitting their studios and easel paintings, artists came out in to the streets to decorate walls with themes taken from local working class history for it was their one chance in life to reach out to a wider public. One such person in Newcastle was Wally Kershaw (together with a fellow Lancastrian, Ken Billiard, a guy who desperately and endlessly listened to Coltrane’s Impressions still trying to believe the recording was ‘great’ music). Wally was likeable enough always affable but the narrowness of his conceptions prevented him from ever really understanding the times he lived in. In the late 1970s his mural art of steam trains and foundries made it into the pages of The Guardian. He wanted a renewed WPA like the original American example but it has to be said none of these latter day muralist can compare with Riviera and Siquerioz in the 1930s though they appeared to be about to drown the world in paint, their productions were so numerous. It was a relief just to be able to look at a blank wall.
Interest in them has long since faded and battle is now joined between the stuckists and ,for want of a better term, the modernisers, both factions as sterile as the other with no movement of any consequence or interest on either side. (The same cannot be said of Icteric, which was the sole reason we thought it worthwhile to write this history in a variety of different texts most of which are on this web). However what has changed is the allegiance of ‘the working class’ of whom it can no longer be said it “knows what it likes”. For it appears an “art for the people” is now to be found in Tate Modern because the skilled working class are the most frequent visitors to this former generating station and now a temple of culture and doom - just the kinds of people who 50 years ago would have been tempted to try their hand at oil painting rather than making do with whitewashing the backyard. It would not surprise me at all if this were also true of the Baltic Flour Mill in Newcastle. We can, of course, claim it touches new lows in terms of ideological manipulation and is a triumph of unimaginable proportion for manipulation and sheer obfuscation. However it may, all depending, be a prelude to saying the emperor has no clothes and the beginnings of a more profound, and certainly more broadly based, critique of modernism than has hitherto ever been the case. At no other point in history has culture ever been so integral to capital and its extended reproduction and so central to the lives of every living person today.
Colin had from the mid to the late 1960s taken an interest in geodesic construction (best exemplified by Buckminster Fuller) and badly wanted to build a geodesic dome out in the wilds of Northumberland – either that or live in a lighthouse by becoming a lighthouse keeper (which he did for a short while). Lighthouses are a beacon in more ways than one. Not only are they the most altruistic structures ever built, arguably more so than hospitals because no seafarer was ever expected to pay for the services they rendered, but they also serve as temporary resting places for birds and moths. Colin would have known this and liked lighthouses even more because of that. I also remember he mused about digging a big hole in the ground which he then proposed to live in. It was also to be a scientific experiment to establish the maximum depth a person could feel comfortable in but not as a working, rather a living environment.
The region is full of transmuted miners and I am of the opinion neither Colin or, later, Albert Dryden, were just two of a kind. Theirs, and our, mind-building of the Icteric years, was only a more self conscious echo of what was present just below the surface of the region’s collective self. Albert Dryden, a former steel worker from Consett in Co Durham, had blown away the Chief Planning Officer of Derwentside in the late 1980s when the RDC had turned up to demolish his beloved, and inspiring, underground bunker, which he had excavated in the greenbelt and in so doing just to say contravening planning regulations. He instantly became a local - and national hero - for the bitter end to the miners’ strike was still fresh in peoples’ minds.
However it was part of the folk memory of the area that miners in the Northumberland and Durham coalfield would, if evicted from their homes by the coal owners during a strike, dig earthen homes for themselves and their families and forage the countryside and harvest wild fruits, berries and plants. Such facts were long lived and these were certainly old belonging to the nineteenth century But even so in my early teens I too wanted to dig down and down and then along or hollow out a large rock with a stone chisel which I could then live in or at least sleep in. I think it is a measure how the past of privation may one day be reclaimed for better uses. And even now age 60 plus when unable to get to sleep, I will drift back and still take comfort in these dugouts, hollows and recesses of my young mind.
One must not forget the contribution allotments made to the dreams of a genuine urban renewal. Had the country been more like France in possessing a more lax framework of planning law, a Mineur Cheval of the pit villages may well have constructed an similar edifice to that of Facteur Cheval’s Fairy Palace at Hauterive in mid France which the surrealists loved – and so did we - but one that utilized a far greater amount of industrial scrap and other rubbish. Whenever I went by train from Newcastle to Sunderland , I would always look out for an allotment that was entirely fenced in with old doors and even a couple of sheds had been constructed out of them. It was completely over the top and one felt there was more than a hint of deliberation here, but also worlds away from artistic pretence.
Geodesics had then mainly been employed by the American military, like the geodesic golf balls on the Fylingdales Early Warning Station on the moors near Whitby in North Yorks. We never once thought them a visual blot on the landscape, merely scared stiff by the uses such a structure had been put to. Had Fylingdales been a radio telescope, like Jodrell Bank or the one in Arrecibo in Puerto Rico, we would have welcomed it with open arms. Though geodesics purport to be organic they had been instrumental in undermining Euclidean geometry and in a post Euclidean age which had done so much to usher in relativity and the atomic bomb, it is ironic that geodesics domes are increasingly used in greenhouse construction like that of the Eden Centre in Cornwall or the Earth Centre at Conisborough and various butterfly houses. Their span dwarfs that of the great green houses of the nineteenth century and this time their function belongs less to horticulture than to conservation - indeed something more than conservation but the survival of life. Or so it roughly says in the glossy brochures though nothing could be farther from reality. True their future doesn’t belong to horticulture equally it doesn’t belong to conservation having everything to do with “there’s no business like eco-lite show business”. For these grand and bland tourist attractions of a faked nature are the negation of biodiversity signalling the battle for unadorned nature intimately connected with a transformed daily life and environment is a battle we are tragically losing. The latest proposal: a massive living ‘art’ geodesic museum for butterflies that don’t really belong to these shores is to be constructed near St Albans fully backed by all the important nature celebrities. Until we stand up loudly railing against the duplicitous behaviour of all the Sir David Rottenbugger's and the specious specialists in awe of celebrities and hedge funds, this will continue to be so. If we are to have a proper geodesic future it will most likely be small scale inseparable from a revolutionary eco-life set among all types of diversified eco buildings where money rather than nature has been negated.
With the benefit of hindsight it is embarrassing to see Buckminster Fuller’s name occupying a high place on the Icteric mountain range which fronted the second edition of the magazine. I would still claim he was an inventive genius but very much in the tradition of Edison and, later, Land, and therefore all for a free market capitalism in which business, rather than government, holds sway. This separation of state and society fundamentally vitiates everything he did and said and he came dangerously close to viewing the state as a ‘socialist’ edifice that saps individual entrepreneurial initiative, which he indiscriminately identified with the creative impulse in mankind.
A note on the cover: Period: 1900 to 1950 (from the original magazine)
Evreinov - for reconstruction of the audience/ de Chirico - for his diatribes against modern art/ Buffet (Bernard) - for his honesty / Aragon - for throwing Maurice Martin du Gard's typewriter out of his window /Peret: for spitting/ Morton (Jelly Roll) - for snooker / Eisenstein - for the early things/ Parker (Charlie) - for dying with laughter/ Sherman ' for eluding his followers/ Trotsky- for Literature and Revolution/ Griffith for Intolerance/ Khlebnikov - for his soup-lakes/ Duchamp (Marcel) - for being Villon's brother/ Feks - for factory for the eccentric actor/ Mayakovsky - for not 'rummaging through yesterday's petrified crap'/ The rest for HEROISM and Jonathan Swift for today.
(Note 2004: Sherman never existed. We invented him as an amazing genius seeing people could be conned by anything.)
Never looking at the world in terms of political economy and not even remotely from the perspective of a critique of political economy, Fuller's solution to the problems that beset the world was an even distribution of the benefits of technology.
He came up with the term “spaceship earth” and it is indeed legitimate to compare Fuller with much modern day greenery as they both share common assumptions. With many greens it is still not the mode of production (capitalism) that is at fault but technology and consumption, arguing for pollution free, environmentally responsible form of green technology and ethical, that is, green consumption. So it is not the SUV itself that is nasty, and its cost, which few can afford, is an irrelevance for what really matters is the fact it is a notorious gas guzzler and polluter. Fundamental questions like that of trivial consumption, how consumption defines status, the pressure to buy the latest ‘must have’, fashion and the related advertising industry can then all be safely shuffled to one side. Instead there is substituted a do-gooding greenery of moral choices with the often expensive options they imply: To pollute or not to pollute that is, more or less, their sole criteria and to hell with the fundamental question of exploitation.
Had Fuller been alive today his technicist approach would, I’m sure, have been modified to accommodate the greens but the underlying assumption they tend to share would require only the most modest tweaking. For he did respond to the student movement of the late 1960s, proposing in 1969, a “World Game” contrasting it with the war games and concentrating on “livingry” (he was an indefatigable neologist, forever inventing words like “tensegrity”, a combination of tension and integrity) rather than weaponry.
If he had come to European campuses he would have been given a far rougher ride than in America and it is from this period that his most ‘ambitious’ (i.e. megalomaniac) projects date. His most notorious, surely, was Old Man River City, a geodesic dome one mile in diameter that was to cover, and revitalize, East St Louis in Illinois. By eliminating the cost of snow clearance, Fuller reckoned the dome would pay for itself within a few years.
Buildings always have provided insulation from the elements and, like clothes that is there main, functional purpose. And such an obvious statement is so obvious that it risks being untrue. By blotting out seasonal change this really was carrying things to ridiculous extremes and the moment the all year round, temperate, home environment becomes the same wherever you go it is almost as if you were living in a similar structure on Mars - or from another planet. And in fact it was this suppression of seasonal change that recommended under a geodesic structure, this controlled green house warmth to large scale conservation projects that only have an eye to tourism and nature displays that in reality are merely an opportunity to worship mammon.
And come 1971 this was pushed even further in Otto Frei’s City in the Arctic. We had during the mid sixties a passing minor interest in architects like Frei (Nam Jan Paik was another) largely because they eschewed traditional building material, pushing tent like structures to the maximum and dematerialising architecture like never before. However we wished to dematerialise architecture even further and were curious about the possibilities of air and fire and that really did mean these technicists were then given the boot by us.
The end of architecture and urbanism: Feral notes on fire as an urban experience: Heraclitus, Gaston Bachelard and Yves Klein and supercession in America’s burning ghettoes
Fire as a construction material is the perfect contradiction in terms. We had begun experimenting with fire sometime in 1966, two year after the Watts riot in Los Angeles and a defining moment not only for America but the rest of the world. I mention this because from the mid 1960s, fire was beginning to burn its way into the popular imagination on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Baudelaire had seen this modern day, democratic Prometheus at work in the revolution of 1848 in Paris, causing him to remark: “The masses are born fire worshippers”.
We were much attracted, like the Surrealists before us, to Heraclitus, the great Ionian pre-Socratic philosopher. To us this man had become like fire himself, a living embodiment of this primary element. There was nothing comfortable about the way he lived and sharply opposite to the life of dreary, conformist mediocrity lead by the chair of philosophy in universities.
The elevation of fire to being a fundamental element in the philosophy of Heraclitus is central to his doctrine of change and the unity, and clash, of opposites. We even introduced a quote from Heraclitus into the pages of Icteric: “Even the sacred barley water separates if it is not stirred” for at the time we really were intent on stirring things up and this line from a scientific/social dialectician breathed fire, even if it did not refer to it directly.
However at bottom Heraclitean fire was static fire, a hypostatization of fire that precluded fundamental social change (“the law is a wall” he wrote) and as the decade wore on, it was obvious the fires that were consuming the American ghettoes and elsewhere, like the car burning of 1968, were productive of new values. Yet fire entranced and no one caught its dialectical essence as did Heraclitus and at hand in every box of matches there was Heraclitean fire just waiting to be ignited and not, this time, eulogised in poetry, as in Manley Hopkins. For us a burning ballad from the streets of America served us well: “I really needed a decent job, I really needed some scratch but all I had was a match, so I said burn, baby, burn.” As it so happened a few charred remains from the Watts riot were made into a gallery exhibit: A sophisticated act of recuperation perhaps, but it could not stop the hot breath of revolution from singeing avant-garde art. Come 2002 and no one would have dared transform New York’s Ground Zero into a work of art, but a laser beam lighting outfit was employed to illuminate the skeletal steel rigging and shine a beam of hope into the night sky. The same firm would be employed to light up Newcastle's Baltic Exchange art gallery on its opening night and recreate the Catalan artist Jaume Piensa’s giant beam of light.
In Heraclitus, fire is a layered symbol compressing many things. Appreciative of that fact I read Gaston Bachelard’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire and, like others at the time, was disappointed by it. I think we all expected an incendiary text that would poke the burning embers in all of us, but all we got instead was a mild mannered piece of academic writing. I found Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals much more interesting with his invocation to “dispose of fire feely” and which was fundamental to a world without religion and gods, a new, innocent, guilt free world. Seeing how the primal crime of father murder, and the roasting and eating of the corpse, is fundamental to psychoanalysis, one would have thought Bachelard would have dealt with Nietzsche’s great work anticipating this central tenet of psychoanalysis and his need to escape from its historical dynamic, the reinstitution of oppression after all the burning and killing. However he does not.
Yves Klein (we interviewed his widow for Icteric I’m ashamed to say) had experimented with compressed air and fire as a potential construction material. However by the late 1960s we found this the most dreadful, effete, artistic nonsense and no more exciting than a scented candle compared to the bonfires raging in the American ghettoes.( See the long comment on Yves Klein in the text on Ralph Rumney on this web). And yet between the old and the new, the flames and the morning after, we found a potential for living in flames, for they did make us all feel intensely alive. I recall once, ourselves and others, meeting up with Chris Palliss (aka Maurice Brinton) from the vaguely Council Communist group, Solidarity, that rightly shrank from the strictures such a definition implies. We could agree about much but as usual, the most formidable barrier to communication was the burning question of the transcendence of art. Someone came up with the suggestion “Have you ever thought about the architectural possibilities of Detroit burning”? That was it: we really were bonkers. “What a philistine” we all agreed as the good doctor made his excuses and left.
Never again would fire burn so brightly as it did then, except perhaps in the summer of 1981 when incendiary riots swept the UK. As the decades passed, the bourgeoisie came increasingly to steal the fire back from us, until now they are intent on burning the planet from pole to pole. Now we are the ones with the buckets of water dowsing the flames and horrified at the wild fires sweeping America, Australia and Southern Europe. But now that the open hearth has gone, we really miss it and yearn for its return.
The instantaneous in architecture (if you had to provide it with a name we did not particularly like) appealed to us because it challenged the very basis of architecture, the rock on which its very permanence was founded. Like art, architecture was anything we said it was and by 1969 we could readily agree with a German, Students for a Democratic Society slogan: “Stop all architecture. All buildings are beautiful”.
However much of the easy to erect geodesic and tent like structures were for exhibition purposes (Fuller had made his name largely on account of his 250 diameter geodesic dome for Montreal’s Expo ‘67 in 1967 as also had Frei with his German pavilion). Yet these new structures were still housing the same old shit just as the first of its kind Paxton’s Crystal Palace had done for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Sometime in 1968 we had read Benjamin’s, Paris : Capital of the Nineteenth Century, which had just to say been translated into English, for the first time. We were bowled over, and when referring to the Great Exhibition of 1851 he also links it directly to a trenchant comment by Marx on the “theological capers of the commodity”. This was probably the first time it had been rendered thus in English. Though it was meant to evoke a churchy religious opulence it also implied awe and with the decline of religion at least in Britain we have long thought it should be amended further and rendered as “the artistic capers of the commodity” because that today is closer to what is.
Exhibitions were not the only exemplars of architectural shape making. Stadia were also and for the infamous Munich Olympics of 1972 Frei came up with a structure of fabric, inflatables, poles and wires. But rather than popular protest we had the dramatic public spectacle of terrorism. Leafing at the time through a copy of “Vogue”, I remember noticing a series of fashion photos in which the models had been posed in a way that suggested they had been brought down by terrorist gun fire. An equivalent today would be a photograph in a fashion magazine of an Armani suit worn by a model who has apparently just flung himself out of the burning twin towers. Though international capitalism is able to manipulate terrorism to its own ends today as never before, it is also prohibited from doctoring the images of terror so that in due course they are rendered suitable for a fashion magazine. And what, you may well ask, has any of this got to do with exhibition stands, stadia and the structural potentiality of new materials? Well, it does show how so called cutting edge architecture was ruined by power and display and incompatible with the real unlocking of the potential in everyone to be their own architect we wanted.
But ever after the Olympics were to be made safe from terrorist threat and every other threat, including that of a hostile local population. And as never before sport as enshrined in the Olympic spirit has lent its reactionary weight to urban renewal and city wide makeover destroying as many potent vestiges of the past as possible. Old Barcelona, the city of anarchism, was finally vanquished not by fascist hordes the police and the army but by the Barcelona Olympics committee. The same is true of Athens to a lesser extent as it is true of East London and “the cockney clearances” for 2012. And Newcastle, though on a much reduced scale, is no exception to the rule.
Structurally innovative architecture as embodied especially in stadia, (e.g. Wembley) that stretched material though not the imagination, is also becoming identified with still embryonic, though sinister and very far reaching developments. For it is here we can catch a glimpse of the cyborg future of mankind, of drug enhanced performance, bio upgrades and gene packs. In the end the spectacle of competing athletes will cease to matter and sport will become a live advertisement for pharmaceutical and biotech companies hoping to gain a competitive advantage as a direct consequence of their athletes’ performance in the arena or in the field. An already ubiquitous sponsorship will be replaced by the ownership of people, a bio technological slavery in which pharmaceutical and biotech companies become a modern proxy of former slave owning landowners. However these ends are more likely to be willed by their victims, the new slaves, than was ever the case in the past.
How different this is to Hegel’s celebration of the festival in the concluding chapter of the The Phenomenology of Mind. Though he never specifically mentions the Olympic Games he must also have had them in mind because he celebrates body athleticism, and the lyrical flights of fancy they gave rise to though without ever citing Pindar. For Hegel’s purpose is to go beyond art, seeing in the festival the moment the Greek statue comes to life and descends from its plinth to join the crowd below: In the place of the statue man thus puts himself as the figure elaborated and moulded for perfectly free movement”- (for he is) “a lively and living work of art, which matches strength with beauty” (to whom) is given – the honour of being ---- instead of a god in stone, the highest bodily representative of what the essential Being of the nation is.” (Terrific until we encounter Hegel’s illusions about the nation state).
The amount of books, pamphlets and essays that have been written on the relationship between Hegel’s dialectical idealism and Marx’s dialectical materialism especially as regards their respective analysis of the labour process as fundamental to an understanding of history could fill a library. However I don’t know of one example that even attempts to translate into material reality and make sense of these final chapters of the The Phenomenology of Mind that deal with art (and sport/leisure for they are viewed like today all as one) as a consummation of necessary labour and as a national celebration. Turned right side up, it could, like everything else in Hegel, unearth a treasury of insights into the present, because art, sport, entertainment and the leisure industries are essential to an understanding of modern day political economy and indispensable if the dizzying transformation of Tyneside over the past 35 years is to be properly grasped.
But what has any of this menacing future have to do with Newcastle and Tyneside? Well, it is now inherent to the advancing hard going of a leisure culture just as today’s frenetic drinking has little in common with past drinking habits. Since the late 1960s the region’s attempt to redefine itself as a leisure city not only has meant massive dollops of art but other entertainment facilities (clubbing, nightlife) and sport. Some while ago we were exhorted in a popular song about Tyneside to remember “Brendan Foster and the Gateshead Games”. Steve Cram was not then in the running but shortly afterwards I remember reading an article in The Economist in the early 1980s hailing him as a potential bionic superhuman rather than superstar, likely to break record after record. The names of both Cram and Foster adhere to the region whilst few would be able to say where Seb Coe comes from, though a lot more would know he was once a militant Thatcherite. And every year there is the Tyneside marathon which almost receives as much TV coverage as the London marathon. The coverage always includes a shot of the runners crossing the famous Tyne Bridge. In comparison the London Marathon does not have anything like such an un-mistakeable landmark as a backdrop. And it sums up how concentrated and thick on the ground the leisure industries of culture are becoming on Tyneside. Should one come under attack, the rest could easily follow suit, for most all of them are showcased within a couple of mile of each other. Nowhere else in Britain outside of London is culture so in your face as on Tyneside.
Cities and the natural, organic constructions of insects. Darwin and Wallace and a miserable Icteric beetle
We had been impressed by the idea of a mobile city that was here one moment and gone the next. So retractable appendages, segmented antennae, exoskeletal joints such as are common in insects and crustacean, telescopic legs and such things interested us. These things existed in sci-fi architecture but we were not taken with them and found our contemporaries, the Archigram group, idea of a mobile city cold and not that appealing. Even then we found something authoritarian about it, a beehive like mechanical automatism. We wanted a more organic technology and even then our choice of form indicated a steadily growing importance of a return to nature. Inevitably, Archigram was almost immediately added to our ever-lengthening list of those who must be subverted when not confronted with choice insult which we duly delivered.
So we made a small Marquette of such a moveable dwelling in the shape of a stag beetle. Apart from anything else the structural problems of making a life size mock up would have been immense and probably insurmountable and certainly beyond our means. So one day we took our pathetic model down to Tynemouth beach and let it drift out to sea: the stag beetle had become a diving beetle – and a new type of aquatic craft.
The miserable Icteric beetle/building launched at Tynemouth
I am not an expert on beetles and wish I had the time to study them more. Unfortunately they do not attract the same attention as butterflies and moths. And yet I have always been intrigued by Haldane’s reply when asked what he had learned from the study of biology: “Nothing much – except god had an inordinate love for beetles”. Every passionate coleopteran has at one point in their life wondered why beetle morphology is so variable and I believe that the fascination insect life held for Bates and Wallace contained a hidden commentary on the meaningless profusion of manufactured form liberally borrowing from all ages and styles that were a central feature of the great exhibitions of the nineteenth century. Nature’s variety would always exceed the manufacturing ingenuity of man and so capitalism would always be outclassed by the creepy crawlies that lived beneath the factory floor. The butterfly varieties, the formal variability of beetles in themselves implies a critique of capitalism and Haldane was always proud to call himself a “communist” (In reality a Stalinist and therefore utterly abhorrent though as a human being Haldane was a very approachable guy).
On the other hand, we never believed for one moment butterflies had an architectural potential and we would have been horrified at the thought of releasing butterflies into living spaces to become a live component of interior décor as yuppies began to do in the 1980s. I have since written on the possibilities of man becoming airborne much earlier but for the fact the aerodynamics of butterfly wings were never closely studied. The more individual, noiseless, pollution free form of aviation that could have resulted might have provided a yardstick against which to judge the form and horror of contemporary air travel. Between the horse and cart and the automobile there was the railway engine whose more rational presence still acts as a break on the madness of ever increasing car ownership.
Though we shuddered at the use of the term another architect that just to say interested us in the mid sixties was, as previously mentioned, the Korean, Nam June Paik. He seemed to us to carry the dismantling of architecture further than Otto Frei and his staging of events implied he was looking for a more spontaneity and less structure in building. Glancing through the arts section of a Sunday newspaper in 2004 I saw that a Nam June Paik museum had been proposed in Korea and one of the entries had the surfaces of the museum covered with tiny pipettes fed with sugar water. It was intended that thousands of butterflies would congregate to feed on the skin of the building providing flickering shade as well as a moving wall of beauty. I was hard up against modern day “architectural deconstructionism”. For a start how would you get the butterflies there in the first place or get them to prefer the sugar water to other, more normal sources, like flowers? By starving them or making sure there were no other nectar sources for miles around having first taken the precaution of situating the building in a concrete desert and then bringing in and releasing the butterflies? There is no other word for it: this is ecological brutalism and it would be a good name for the new movement in architecture. This “living architecture” has the stench of the morgue about it. “Imagine a building clad in butterfly wings - it would be so delicate” the architect, Lim, had crowed. And the museum is so big, an immovable monster of a project and so at odds with the idea of an essentially ephemeral architecture as liberated as our desires, However today’s giantism was already present in the pretence of architectural informality in the 1960s, and always contrary to the true spirit of collective building, which was about movement, revolution and real living cities and awakened people.
Paik may at some point or other have expressed a fondness for butterflies. It is possible he may even have read the Icteric article on butterflies for he certainly knew Robin Page. It is possible Toop read it also, for in the Oceans of Sound, in a note written in 1968, or possibly retrospectively, he begins in bold “a swarm of butterflies encountered on the ocean” and then, in pretentious disconnect, and totally at odds with true disconnect, he goes on to mention a performance by John Latham with an electric circular saw. Now Latham certainly knew of Icteric and the fact that by 1967 we had nothing but loathing for our immediate past and the present we found ourselves in, particularly for the so called artistic avante garde, terrified him. Latham then went on to find fame as the forerunner of the likes of Emin, the Chapman Brothers, Hirst etc and acknowledged as well by them, whilst we became the friends of babies that had thrown themselves out with the bath water.
Some Thoughts on Butterfly Migration
In butterfly migration there is an instinctual sense of purpose. The key to migration is to understand that it is regulated largely by RHYTHM and SEQUENCE OF EVENTS, rather than by reason and foreknowledge.
The migrating butterfly keeps to one straight path. ...they have been seen flying through railway tunnels, through the windows of houses, through an afternoon of thick fog. ...beating their wings against walls trying to fly through rather than over them.
In migration butterflies “know no fear”. Fear is suppressed. ...they may be stroked, and lifted onto one’s finger. They have been seen flying 6" above the waves in mid-Atlantic; on the Rongbuk Glacier, 18000’ up Mount Everest .
A swarm of Monarchs in New Jersey was described as “almost past belief. ...millions is but feebly expressive…..miles of them is no exaggeration. They covered every twig in an area about 200 yards wide and over 2 miles long. The green landscape was changed to brown”.
In 1879 Painted Ladies flew northwards over Europe in such numbers “as to cast a shadow on the ground”……. They have been seen from aeroplanes as great spiral nebulae, or as faint coloured gasses moving amongst the Cumulus……
Merill, an American astronomer, saw millions of Monarchs come into view of his telescope, clearly illuminated by the Moon.
The entomologist Skertchley observed the beginning of a migration in the Sudan in 1869. He saw the wiry grasses among the sand trembling though there was no breath of wind. With a closer look he saw that all the grasses were thickly hung with Painted Lady chrysalises - wriggling violently in the act of emerging. In half an hour they had dried their wings -and in a SPLIT SECOND the whole desert seemed to take to the air as a brown cloud and move away to the North East. In 1887 swarms of Silver Y moths reached the sugar beet fields of Lincolnshire and Norfolk in such numbers that the sound of their wings was distinctly audible .…….
Wind and rain once beat a huge flock of white butterflies (a snowstorm) into a lake in Upper Bavaria; later they were washed ashore in thousands, forming a white rim round the lake. ……
Dead Camberwell Beauties a rare migratory species formed a purple tide at Seaton Carew, Co. Durham in Autumn 1827; they had been driven from the coast of Scandinavia by a storm. ……
In August 1911 Professor Oliver was visiting a small island of about 2 acres on Sutton Broad, Norfolk. As he approached he saw the whole island covered with fluttering white butterflies,all of them were caught on the sticky leaves of the Insectivorous plant, the Sundew. Each small plant had captured 4 to 7 butterflies; mostly they were still alive when Professor Oliver saw them. Several counts gave an average of about six million butterflies caught in this gigantic trap.
……In August 1911 Professor Oliver was visiting a small island of about 2 acres on Sutton Broad, Norfolk . As he approached he saw the whole island covered with fluttering white butterflies,all of them were caught on the sticky leaves of the Insectivorous plant, the Sundew. Each small plant had captured 4 to 7 butterflies; mostly they were still alive when Professor Oliver saw them. Several counts gave an average of about six million butterflies caught in this gigantic trap.
HABIT AND MYTH
In Australia the aborigines once depended on the seasonal mass flight of the Bogang to the caves of N S Wales as valuable food.
E B Ford in connection with mimicry and warning colouration in insects writes: “I personally have made a habit which I recommend to other naturalists of eating specimens of each species which I study”.
The Javanese call migrating butterflies PILGRIMS……… In December 1883 there was a very great flight which the natives took to be the souls of the thousands of people who, in August of that year, had perished in the eruption of Krakatau .
Butterfly movements in Ceylon are said to be pilgrimages to the footprint of Buddha on top of the Hill of Sama Nalahanda…….The butterflies are said to go to the peak yellow, and return white - purged of their sins.
THE ENIGMA OF THE LARGE BLUE
For years entomologists were unable to rear the Large Blue. The caterpillar would feed on Wild Thyme, reach the third moult, wander aimlessly, and then die.
Purefoy happened to pull up some thyme in Cornwall and found a full grown Large Blue larvae in an ants nest. The secret was out. ...Immediately Purefoy devised an ant-hill out of a huge walnut shell which was placed on a pile of earth in a tin box. This was placed on a large platform surrounded by water to prevent the ants escaping. A Large Blue caterpillar was put near the nest. Soon a foraging ant showed great interest and began to caress the caterpillar which responded by producing a drop of sweet fluid from the back of its neck. An hour later the caterpillar hunched its back and the ant bestrode it and staggered away carrying the huge prize to its nest. Inside the guest turned carnivorous and commenced to eat the ant larvae. Purefoy, unable to restrain himself, opened the nest on Christmas Day to show his friends. The caterpillar was neatly suspended from the roof of the shell, where it pupated after the winter.
In May 1915 a male Large Blue emerged and dried its wings on top of the walnut.
David Wise. Autumn 1966
The 19th Century naturalists Wallace and Bates (the former the greatest field naturalist of all time) were fascinated by beetles and, I believe, should one care to really look we will find in that fascination with their almost endless variety a veiled critique of Victorian manufacture, as if to say it all that apparent diversity, that ransacking, and reproduction, of every historical style had left them cold. Certainly Bates and Wallace ardently sought early release from their industrial trades in weekend expeditions into the surrounding countryside and then in the Eden of the Amazon forest. Here is not the place to go into this totally neglected aspect of 19th/20th century aspect of natural history except to say that it is there - and profoundly so - still awaiting the moment it can find its true and much expanded form within a genuine historical unfolding. In our favour – and it is not said with the benefit of hindsight – we did feel even then the study of natural forms provided a key to changing life and transforming the worlds.
Wallace was a ‘socialist’, and though we can find little that is autonomous in his thoughts and to our liking on this matter, nevertheless he was sincere in his convictions and his language did at times border on the incendiary which the likes of the Linnaean Society, the Royal Entomological Society and scientific academia in general have picked on in order to pour scorn on this great guy. He deeply regretted his work as surveyor had assisted the enclosure of common land and he was the first person to point to the destruction of the Amazon rain forest and its frightful consequences that were then still local. Really Marx would have been better off sending Das Kapital to the more receptive Wallace than to the ‘neutral’ Darwin. That Marx had read Darwin is obvious and from the moment The Origin of the Species makes such a splash, Marx continues to reflect on, and modify, Darwin. It is doubtful if he ever heard of Wallace, the co-founder of natural selection, let alone that Wallace was tentatively recasting the relationship between man and nature in a new and novel form which just needed to be brought out more. But let us at last try and make good the gaps in this fossilised record and put the disequilibrium right.
Wallace even tried his hand at building, constructing a mechanics institute in Neath in Wales. It was built in traditional stone and is frankly Georgian in appearance but instead of using the traditional pulley and hoist he had used wrought iron cranes which Paxton would employ to much greater effect to lift the prefabricated sections of the Crystal Palace into place. So I remain convinced that the emphasis upon variation so fundamental to an understanding of the origin of species was also a criticism of the manufacturing capabilities of capitalism that has only ever been able, come what may, produce regularity, uniformity, conformity.
Our miserable Icteric beetle was an attempt to return natural history into building and we rewound the tape going from an early interest in natural history into building then eventually back into natural history and building but unable to take the matter one jot further. Of course we lacked anything like this level of awareness in the mid sixties in Newcastle and it would be wrong to infer we did. But I believe it intuitively existed and strongly so, evident for our preference for living forms over mechanical forms.
Icteric’s fallout: The Sage Music Centre, Lettrism and a previous Dancastle. The opening – and hoped for closing of the Baltic Exchange. Art gigantism as cultural response to the apocalyptic riots of 1981
Writing this piece of history which was never intended to go beyond a few paragraphs we have been struck over and over again by the manner in which what we did or just intended to do has come back to haunt us as if we alone have been responsible for the horrid mess Newcastle has become. A few months ago I chucked away a sheet from the Daily Mail I wondered whether to keep for future reference because it detailed a number of prestige buildings from around the world that resembles animal forms including insects. And so with Norman Foster’s music centre in Gateshead “The Armadillo”, for I find in it a disturbing resemblance to our wretched little beetle which never left the model stage and never could given that we had already intuitively grasped a revolutionary change in social relationships would have to come first.
The Sage Music Centre - to give it its correct official title – is, like an ever increasing number of buildings today, a computer pumped creation. Though Norman Foster designed the wavy exterior skin, the acoustics were left to the engineering firm of Ove Arup and Partners, the same firm Foster had employed to help out with the engineering fiddly bits on the Millennium Bridge across the Thames. Sir Anthony Caro the ‘great’ UK sculptor of crap iron had also been recruited more as a name more than a partner in design crime. The project could then appear as an example of the joined up approach to design, combining architecture, engineering and art though not, of course, direct, sharp end, democracy which if it had any real clout would have stopped such shit in its tracks instantly.
Gateshead Council as the dedicated web site puts it first floated the idea of a “pioneering international centre for musical discovery”. However not until the Sage software company stepped in with a £6 million donation did the idea become practicable. This new sponsor perfectly reflected Tyneside’s changing industrial basis. A “leading international supplier of accounting and business software”, it was founded in Newcastle in that critical year of 1981 when “post industrial” rioting swept every major city in the UK. In 1989 Sage was floated on the London Stock Exchange and the offer to sponsor the music centre in Gateshead to the tune of £6 million (and money is the only tune today) had followed an announcement to build a new HQ in Gosforth, a very well off suburb of Newcastle.
Though The Sage did not involve a big art name like Caro as part of its design team, it had employed a design consultancy, Pentagram. This company is located in Notting Hill in London another typical area where the entire social fabric has dramatically changed in accordance with the move away from manufacturing industries (despite its long standing bohemian image, even 30 years ago a surprising number of locals were employed in the Park Royal industrial estate) to the new, ‘creative’ industries. If anything The Sage is more hip to modernism than the Millennium Bridge because the styling is based on the letter “S” a concept which inevitable brings to mind Lettrism. This latter example of architectural Lettrism, which, of course, will never lead to a consideration of the historicisation of form as it did with Isou, strings the letter “S” out to ludicrous lengths. The pretension is painful: “a derivative of the letter “S”, the new identity references not only the shape of The Sage but also the shapes formed by the adjacent Tyne Bridge and Eyebridge. The curvilinear sweep of the new symbol provides an elegant solution to musical notation, linking notes, architecture and content”. Despite the pretension it is a rather more advanced concept than one involving the traditional figure of a sculptor and it demonstrates the extent to which Tyneside is bent on usurping London’s ‘progressive’ cultural hegemony. And it would come as no surprise if the designer Angus Hyland, a partner in Pentagram, has even heard of Lettrism, never mind the revolutionary conclusions it helped give rise to later. Rather it suggests the extent to which the present is built on the ruins of a failed revolution it knows nothing about, just as Icteric has stamped its imprint on a Newcastle that is entirely unawares.
There are high hopes for the Sage Music Centre just as there were for Sheffield’s folk music centre, which formed part of the regeneration of inner city Sheffield following the riots of 1981, the collapse of steel making and then the destruction of the mining community following the defeat of the 1984/5 miners strike. Though Sheffield’s music centre failed as a result of cash flow problems and has had to re-structure, it has considerably influenced employment expectations amongst the city’s youth. Rather than becoming steel workers, miners and so on, though in reality there are hardly any jobs on offer, now everyone wants to be an artist or be “creative” to use a Blairite term, though in reality they have equally little choice about the matter either. Or so it appears.
Given the formal innovations made possible by computer aided design and the creation of material with greater tensile strength, cityscapes should be more exciting than ever before. The reverse is true and we feel more evacuated from urban space and numbed by our surroundings than at any other point in history. Only when these prestige constructions fuck up do we gain any real pleasure from them. When Sir Norm’s “Millennium Bridge” linking the north side of the Thames embankment with the south side where Tate Modern stands, was opened to the public on the first day of the third millennia, this modern ladder to cultural heaven began to sway crazily. At this moment the packed pedestrians on this footbridge began to discover for themselves the joys of walking, or rather just trying to walk, with no set purpose, almost as if they were toddlers once more, and surpassing by far the Tate Modern ‘experience’. For amid the cries of laughter and fears for their own safety on the morning after the biggest damp squib of all time, the fire work display to mark the year 2000, they had come alive------.
When we first went to Newcastle in the early 60s, the city was already in the throes of a drastic rebuilding program. Many of the steep terraces that led down to the Tyne and Armstrong’s munitions factories in the city’s west end, were being knocked down. Footage of concrete demolition balls bashing into the mean red brick streets would introduce, in the late 1960s, the popular TV series Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads. In their place even meaner high rise streets and towers would arise like Cruddas Park with a piece of sculpture especially commissioned for the occasion, against which dogs, at least, could cock their legs in this otherwise featureless, windswept place. For this was Danscastle, an allusion to the leader of Newcastle city council, Dan Smith, who was later to go to jail for receiving bribes from building contractors who, then as now, would murder just to get their noses into the trough. And, then as now, the best disguise for sordid self interest was “the vision thing” and T Dan Smith harboured dreams of Newcastle becoming the “Venice of the North”. The most imposing of them all would be the steel, glass, concrete monstrosities was the Town Hall beside the AI at the top of Northumberland St. in the Haymarket. In fact one of us was given the job of enlarging the seahorses from a small marquette that were then stuck to the bell tower like overgrown gargoyles. The ‘name’ sculptor who got the commission received £20,000 for fumbling with a bit of mud and we got £250 for doing the hard slog. Nevertheless, though we made up the seahorses for money, how to get the plumbing up the inwards of the creatures so they could spout water at regular intervals as the bells pealed out Bobby Shaftoe or the Blaydon Races, was all that interested us. But otherwise the Greco Roman, Renaissance idea of unifying art and architecture as epitomized in Newcastle’s Town hall we found fuddy-duddy and old hat, missing the point and opposed to the march of history, a joke, a ridiculous blind alley and intensely reactionary.
In fact finding a solution to difficult technical problems was to become a major factor in getting the skilled pool of Tyneside engineering workers to take an interest in the Eyebridge. A pedestrian footbridge (and different therefore to the Low Level Bridge which was for vehicles as well as pedestrians) it mimicked the closing of an eye and was also Newcastle’s answer to Norman Forster’s Millennium Bridge across the Thames. And unlike any of the other bridges across the Tyne that once seen together, indelibly stamp themselves on the memory, this post utility bridge leads directly to the eminently forgettable Baltic Flour Mill, Tyneside’s answer to Tate Modern.
The idea of the general strike was first mooted sometime before 1850. The fact workers had the means at hand to economically strangle the bourgeoisie just by laying down their tools marked a fundamental shift in the notion of insurrection, which hitherto was mainly reliant on a display of arms. The idea of a supremely successful passive general strike was combined with an image of orderliness and docility and appealed strongly to the parliamentarianism of social democracy. However in reality this was nowhere true. Sometime in the 1830s, at the moment when Fourier’s influence was beginning to have an impact, a man from the north east, Benbow, came up with the idea of “a grand national holiday”. Also something of a ‘pornographer’, he must have been impressed how the withdrawal of labour was accompanied by an outburst of festivity and pleasure. Just imagine if that were to be realised on a universal scale, oh, baby, wouldn’t that be a sight! A general strike of love and dancing!
So right from the beginning of its industrial history, Tyneside possessed a notion of strike action as festivity leading directly to a world of leisure. Not until the insurrectionary chains of engineering workers dancing the samba (possibly the most social form of dancing ever) in Italian factories in 1969, or the Ford “strikes” of the early seventies in the States where factories were converted into an impromptu water sports venue, had anyone thought to take another look at The Right to get Drunk Strike of 1911 on Tyneside (and which teetotallers supported), that Common mentions in one of his articles. Let’s face it, comrades, in any other area of the country or, for that matter, in any other country, such a strike and such levity on behalf of a “labour reporter” would have been condemned as “anti working class” and dismissed as bourgeois propaganda.
The north east was renowned for its drinking habits long before the drinks industry took total charge of Newcastle city centre and changed it into a caricature of its former self. The comic strip character, Andy Capp, was often depicted as dead drunk and never in work. There was even alleged to be a “broon ale” ward in the prestigious Royal Victoria Infirmary (where Wittgenstein once worked) which just maybe is more fact than the fantasy of a dipso Geordie toasting the legendary potency (some claimed it even contained tincture of opium!) of Newcastle Brown Ale. It was a local brew made by the Scottish and Newcastle Breweries but like Boddingtons in Manchester, the brewery has been closed down and moved miles away. Like so much else in Tyneside (it is true of elsewhere but it is especially true of Newcastle) the familiar oval label on the bottle is all that is now left of something that was once completely identified with the area, a token of the past like the Lipton’s Tea packets on the shelves of the pseudo Co-op in Beamish Museum.
Many a Geordie club man after a lifetime working on their alcoholic diet would have liked to have been buried with CIU rather than RIP on their gravestone. Having drunk like fishes all their lives by the mid 1970s they were floundering like fish out of water as the new clubbing culture was beginning to push them out of their local watering holes. For under the Bigg Market there lay a beach, a very profitable beach.
Now it would be silly to claim there was a direct link between a famous slogan from the Paris May `68 – “Under the paving stones lies the beach” - and what happened in Newcastle post 1968. But it did resonante like no other comparable slogan handed down from ‘68 and come the 1980s to wander around Newcastle on a Friday and Saturday nights was to be transported to the Balearics, notwithstanding those winds from the Tyne that were “fit to cut you in two”. It could even be blizzarding yet everyone was dressed ready to party. And inside the clubs and bars the temperature was turned up to boiling point. So Geordie of the Arctic was born who thought nothing of a quick canter to the North Pole dressed only in a T shirt, light cotton slacks and trainers. He’d had a canny few lagers of course but this kind of drinking was different. By degrees the drinks industry began to find the form of drinking best suited to its tastes – that of increased profitability. So industrialised drinking found its feet in the vertical drinking of jam packed bars and clubs where it was standing room only.
Social drinking was henceforth increasingly marginalized (and how many of Jack Common’s articles were distilled from encounters in the pub?) and all that was left was the vexing loop of a crushing techno noise and the delirium of non communication replacing the spontaneous smile of mutual banter and pub talk, where at the very least you could be heard. For the first time, girls in equal numbers to the boys were welcomed into this nightmare, for the privilege of getting of yer face at weekends is an equal opportunities success story, perhaps its best to date – provided you have the money of course. Long ago Engels famously observed “drink was the quickest way out of Manchester” and smoke stack industry. Today the oblivion of binge drinking is, by taking it at its face value, at least some kind of a way out of the increasingly vice like grip of the drinks industry. Once on the deck it becomes unconscious critique, a form of practical-critical activity that directly impugns the drinks industry.
There is a saying famous the world over in the English speaking world; at some point in our lives we have all said “it is like taking coals to Newcastle” meaning that nothing more absurd is possible. Apart from the fact Polish coal is now landed on Tyneside, is bringing culture to Newcastle just as absurd and unnecessary as coal once was? And should it turn out to be the case is a different – better -scenario possible? The boats that would take the coal from Newcastle to London would return filled with piss, which was then poured on the Jurassic coastline south of Newcastle to dissolve the alum. It would be nice to think we are in for a return of “taking the piss” but his time out of Newcastle’s “cultural revolution”.
Outside Morrison’s shopping centre in Darlington, locomotive engineering has been turned back into stone – or rather brick. The Brick Train is a giant locomotive made from 185,000 bricks. Loosely based on Mallard (which holds the world speed record for a steam locomotive), it was put together by a team of 100 workmen. It is an extremely skilful piece of brickwork and I admire the skill of the bricklayers who constructed it far more so than the big potatoes of an artist, David Mach, who conceived the damn thing, likening to the pyramids! The egos of these artists, not one of whom cringes at the term, are even bigger than their creations, Gormley is another of The Angel of the North fame – or, as locals call it “The Tyneside Flasher”.
I knew of the existence of the Brick Train but I only learnt recently of its whereabouts when phoning a Darlington telephone number concerning a winter heating allowance. Not having visited Darlington for well over thirty years, I began to ask the obliging female at the other end of the phone what Darlington was now like. “Still crap” she replied. I asked about Heighington Station and was told that the former parcels office – which she could not have known about – was now a pub “The Locomotion” not, please note, “Locomotion No 1”. I then asked about the Brick Train and when told of its whereabouts, asked if that was anywhere near North Road Shops. The answer came back “Where”? and on being told that A4s, (or Streeks as we used to call them and the model for the Brick Train), used to be repaired at North Road Shops, she asked “What are Streeks”? Now fifty years ago if a kid got an engineering apprenticeship in North Road Shops that kidder had got it made. However it made me think about the significance of tokenism and token reminders in modern day life. Part of the intention behind the Brick Train was to "bring back traditional (?) skills and crafts to the town” and the increased sculptural giantism merely covers for a declining skills base, which, however, can still be very handy once put to the test. In fact the skill that goes into the construction of these monstrosities is the only interesting thing about them. But that honour goes to those who make them and is the inverse of what is, because it is the names of Mach (Brick Train), Gormley (The Angel of the North, Gateshead), Hambling (The Scallop, Suffolk), Heatherwick (B of the Bang, Manchester), De la Hey (Wicker Man, Bridgewater) that are blazoned across the newspaper and talked about in the media, each intent on outdoing the other and becoming a brand, like Damien Hirst, with a stock market rating and a PLC to their name. As a gauge of local reaction and hopefully a sign of things to come, the last named, the Bridgewater Wicker Man, was burnt and destroyed in an arson attack, And how much would it take to make The Angel of the North into The Fallen Angel of the North?. The former mining town of Castleford (birth place of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth) is the latest town to have taken a direct hit. An old red colliery wheel, now cut into two halves, is part of a design by Gormley. At least one local resident was quick to round on Gormley “You put that bloody wheel back in its place” she fired off: “Arthur bloody Scargill put that wheel where it was”. And even the respectable residents of Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast, birthplace of Benjamin Britain, have voiced their rather more polite opposition to The Scallop. ”Please get rid of it” they say as one.
The genesis of contemporary “public art” goes back to the inner city riots of 1981. Though their destructive fury was mostly confined to major urban centre’s, there were few towns, and even villages in a few cases, that escaped the unrest. The spread of present day public art uncannily matches this dispersed insurrectionary movement: Just as no corner of the country was safe from rioting, so nowhere is now safe from “public art”. No other prior wave of public art, whether that of the statues of the Victorian era with a pastiche of the Albert Memorial in every newly invested borough, the war memorials following the Great War or the Gabo/Zadkine symbols of post war reconstruction that arose in the new Jerusalem’s, can match it, either in scale or funding.
With the riots still fresh in people’s minds, an Art and Architecture conference was convened at the ICA in London in 1982. Following it, a highly influential report entitled Art with Reach appeared in “Art Monthly” and which we are told is “still worth reading” by the apologists for these space invaders. It probably is, provided we never for one moment lose sight of the fact it is a landmark in social control and chiefly about the reclamation of urban space for capital, the saving of cities from oblivion and civilization from anarchy. It must also be set against a background of massive unemployment (the highest totals since the 1930s depression), the collapse of traditional manufacturing industries and the beginning of a new ‘creative’ economy of high end, value added art business and art/business consultancies, flotation’s, plcs’ creative finance, dot com mania, software engineering etc. in which living, location, brand, logo, fashion, hype, publicity, spin and celebrity would be valorized as never before. With aesthetics increasingly functioning as an index of the economy and apparently built on quick sand, this economy obstinately refuses to be sucked under, defying analysis as well as gravity.
In 1994 Channel 4 appeared to have pulled off the impossible, establishing a contemporary art event as something of a national concern. In that year a film of exhibits and artists was made by “Illuminations” for Channel 4. Walter Benjamin had finally made it as a film company. However it is doubtful if Channel 4’s newscaster Jon Snow and gullible compere of the Turner Prize and indefatigable supporter of every progressive cause was at all aware Illuminations was the title of a book by Benjamin.Channel 4 and the tabloids began to act in concert each in their different ways hyping the exhibits, and, more importantly, the artists, either through praise or censure. Though Tracy Emin failed to win the 1999 Turner Prize, her exhibit My Bed undoubtedly stole the show in terms of media exposure – which is what counts. Though she cried when the prize went to Steve McQueen for his rehash of a scene from a Buster Keaton film, she was more than compensated when Charles Saatchi brought her bed for £150,000. Emin was now well and truly launched on the road to media celebrity and the wealth that comes with it, provided you abide by certain rules.
Two stories come to mind in connection with McQueen and Emin. A former member of the Situationist International, Jacqueline De Jongh, was so delighted with Emin`s bed she wanted to throw herself on it, she had now sunk so low. However she thought fit to remind the writer of the Guardian article that she still possessed a post card Guy Debord had sent her in her more radical days, saying Holland “est pour vous” – Holland belongs to you. It was an uncritical article , just as one would expect, but it would come as no surprise to learn that Emin has never even heard of Debord, just like the rest of the sad bunch making up Brit Art. And as for McQeen---- sometime after the Turner Prize award for 1999 we became involved in a violent demonstration organized by Reclaim the Streets around Euston Station protesting at the behaviour of Railtrack following a number of fatal train crashes. A number of police vans were set on fire and in response the police applied a new tactic, herding us all into the forecourt of Euston Station and releasing each one of us individually after taking down our particulars. The atmosphere was very menacing and we thought a massacre was imminent and we all going to be clubbed to the ground. At this tense moment a youth climbed a plinth and sang out “Steve McQueen is the greatest”. It did nothing to defuse the situation or reassure people, but it did make me think that Turner Prize celebs had now the status of demi-gods, able to save through a mere incantation of their names even among anti-globalisers like Reclaim the Streets people.
How long we will have to wait for the definitive crash of contemporary avante garde is anybody’s guess. Does it mean its increasing popularity will cause people to enquire further into the genesis of all this crap and that behind it long suppressed revolutionary truths will be revealed for all to see? That avante garde nonsense is more widespread in the UK and America than virtually anywhere else (though one shouldn`t underestimate its emerging potential in Africa, China, the Middle East etc.)
Stuart and Gordon: Situationist and Solidarity. Math and music.
Sometime in 1967 I started to share my flat in Newcastle with Gordon, a mathematician who was studying for a Phd. He was a member of Solidarity, a spin off from Socialisme ou Barbarie in France. We first got to know Gordan because of his irreverent denunciations of Trotskyists (who had a large presence on Tyneside – in fact, - remember again - Mr. Newcastle himself, Dan Smith, had been one in his youth) at meetings called to oppose the Vietnam war.
We were fully in accord with Gordan’s anti Leninist stance, and eagerly read the pamphlets that Solidarity put out, many of an archival nature like those on the anti Bolshevik uprising in Krondstat in 1921 by Ida Mett and Alexandra Kollontai but which were useful in helping demolish the hold of Leninism. However wanting as we did by then a total revolution, mathematics was not exempt from entering the field of human praxis and we would have heated and frequently drunken discussions with each other.
For far more than old style workers’ democracy was involved here and looking back this was an encounter that never yielded the fruits it promised like so much else then. Through Gordon I first came to know of Kurt Godel (the Austro-American mathematician) and Gordon would spend his days feeding the punch cards he had prepared at home into the main frame computer at Newcastle University. Though our discussion appeared to border on complete craziness, looking back I now think they were far from crazy and possessed a sort of inspirational lunacy and bizarre logic. They were taking place within an anti-Bolshevik, libertarian perspective and therefore anything was possible had things been allowed to develop. I knew enough by then to know that Hegel, though smart enough to give mathematics its due, treated mathematics as a quantitative sum that could not brook contradiction. Though rigorous within its own terms it was finally only a part of a far more profound, dialectical, logic. For reality was essentially contradictory and the resolution of contradiction was what drove history forward. Hence for Hegel and Marx, dialectical logic became the only valid element in the whole of existing logic. I was also opposed to mathematics from a psychoanalytical viewpoint because I was then immersed in reading revolutionary interpretations of Freud. In psychoanalytical theory numbers and anality are one of a kind, mathematics originally being the sublimate of far more basic outpourings. Anality was also identified with sadistic fantasies of control and however barmy my pronouncements on the subject then were, few would deny that mathematics nowadays is more in control than ever through the binary notation on which digital technology is built. Gordon certainly did look at these revolutionary interpretations of Freud but whether it caused him to waver in his regard for mathematics as above history, I cannot say. In fact he interpreted the question of desublimation as more and better sex and like many others at that time opted for Reich. And when Solidarity finally did come to deal with psychoanalysis it was through the eyes of Reich and at the neglect of the far wider, explosive and disturbing question of repressed eros.
All these years later I now realize that Gordon was studying the mathematical basis of computing and that had I enquired further I would have found that his line of study would lead directly to the creation of modern programming and the internet. I wish now I had been less adamant and had asked him more about Godel for I now know that Godel had anticipated the coding mechanisms of modern day computers by stating in the 1930s that all mathematical systems become inconsistent and only by changing the axioms that support a partial system (i.e. program) can coherence be maintained. So in principle everything then becomes computable, even madness. Though it isn’t strictly analogous to what Godel had in mind, Adobe’s Paint Shop strikes me as just that. And at bottom this sums up how most people feel about computers, as if they are being tricked in to becoming part of a nonsense reality which eventually will swallow them up.
Gordon was also a classical music fan and at times I had to shut my ears to the sounds coming from his room. So in my proselytising, life and death, zeal I thought it right to acquaint him with the history of avant-garde noise makers from Satie through to John Cage for Gordon maintained there was a profound relationship between mathematics and music. However to my mind I no longer knew what was meant by music and the question which to me then hung over its existence has become over time a full stop to a growing number of people. In fact I felt utterly compelled to undermine the assumptions behind this long standing postulate. Since then I have often pondered on Max Planck and Einstein playing classical compositions together on piano and violin, Heisenburg playing Bach on the church organ high above the caves on the outskirts of Dresden in which he was developing the A-bomb or Roger Penrose with his ears glued to Mozart as he pondered the mathematics of a singularity at the heart of a black hole. Did their ‘revolutionary’ physics and maths preclude, other than classical music, all other kinds of music?
We are now sufficiently distant from this critical period in the late 1960s – the most critical in the history of the human race - to see that this encounter between myself and Gordon was not that unusual and characterised one aspect of what became known as the "information revolution" (or rather the disinformation counter-revolution). Richard Stallman finding the degree of control irksome in university computing centers had drifted into the AI laboratory where there was not the same hierarchy between teachers and students and hackers were welcomed. Opposed to the Vietnam War and obviously left leaning, Stallman became a byword for free software, a term which was later modified by the free market libertarian, Eric S. Raymond, to "open source" because otherwise it evoked the image of the communard on the barricades. (Definitely shades of the Paris Commune here, even as late as 1997 when he wrote in his manifesto The Cathedral and the Bazaar "We do not need to behave like Communards pumping our fists on the barricades. This is a losing strategy". The persistence of this sort of revolutionary rhetoric is extraordinary for by this time even die hard Trotskyists had dropped it). In fact Stallman was at pains to emphasize free software was not the same as free beer and he was not therefore opposed to money per se. Had they ever met Gordon and Stallman would, from the outset, have disagreed over such a fundamental issue, and so the sharing 'communist' side of the net is a pale version of something that could easily have had a far more radical origin - and a far more radical outcome.
The same contradictory movement marks the beginning of virtual reality which, going from celluloid loops, eventually meets up with the increasingly visual world of computing and digitised imaging which had been anticipated in the growth of post war amusement arcades and then video games, which are a home centred development of the latter. One of VRs main protagonists, Morton Heilig, was encouraged to set down his early proposals in a bi-lingual magazine, Espacios, edited by the Stalinist fellow traveller and muralist David Siqueiroz. A bitter opponent of the more famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, who sheltered Trotsky and was also a friend of Andre Breton, Siqueiros is rumoured to have played a key role in the assassination of Trotsky. Heilig’s post World War Two early inventions had a huge influence on the development of arcade games and his anticipation of 360 degree total cinema involving the entire human sensorium, rather than just the visual and auditory senses, was only very incompletely realised in cinemascope and cinerama. The 3D horror movies of the 1950s were the closest approximation to the “experience theatre”, and the photograph of a captive, (and captivated audience!), wearing the red and blue gel 3D specs has ever after personified The Society of the Spectacle. Never able to garner the financial support he needed, an itinerant camera operator and trade union activist, drifting in and out of the Greenwich Village beat scene and knowing what it was like to get the sack, Heilig wanted to lift VR out of the entertainment arena and to make it into an indispensable teaching tool. Reflecting on his failure to make any inroads – and he is all the more interesting as a person on that account - his comments have more than an undertone of radicalism to them: “For less than the price of a bomber, we could have distributed marvellous learning environments to our major universities. If I had written a proposal for a theatre that could kill people, I guess I might have done better at finding funding”. Somewhat surprisingly, the military gave VR the cold shoulder then (in contrast the military’s role in the development of the internet is well documented) and it is only latterly that they have begun to take a deep interest in it. Thus VR has come a long way from being a teaching aid in the operating theatre to becoming gradually more indispensable to the military’s theatre of operations, bringing the dream of a totally mechanised warfare ever nearer. If the only casualties of war, at any rate for the aggressor, are shattered bits of metal, then, at a stroke, it does away with the dire political and social consequences of body bags.
Between now and Heilig’s well meaning, though shockingly naïve, espousal of the virtues of virtual reality, things have seriously changed for the worse. It can all be summed in the meaning we attach to the word theatre. For it means a potential for something far more total now exists than theatre (or fiction) has ever dreamed of, in which reality and illusion, at first interactive, will then merge. Engrossed in this wrap-around, haptic ideology of total immersion, and lost to ourselves, we will become our own ‘creators’ and the triumph of ‘art’ and utter destruction of any remaining humanity, will be complete. One need only glance at VR manuals and note current terms such as “smart skin”, “cybergarments”, “interactive tactile telepresence”, “dildonics” - the latter term coined by the mischievous inventor of the hypertext language Xanadu, Ted Nelson, that was founded on Coleridge’s Khubla Khan. This he interpreted as a vision of the hell of forgetfulness that could be remedied by an electronic prosthesis, so next time Coleridge would have no difficulty in remembering what came next after his first attempt to transcribe Khubla Khan from his head had been so rudely interrupted. For cyber futurism is the direct descendant of some of the most extravagant and ludicrous expressions of romanticism that aspires not just to see into the life of things but to create life itself - “to knock on the doors of creation”.
Back now to Newcastle in the late 1960s. Gordon the mathematician and member of the council communist Solidarity group discovered Tolkien and for weeks The Hobbit and other shit like The Lord of the Rings was rarely out of his hands. At that time Tolkien was one of our pet hates and to us the incarnation of monotony and unimaginative, fluffy hippiedom. I failed to see how anyone, especially a mathematician and a revolutionary moreover, could be attracted to this interminable, turgid nonsense and I was delighted to learn that Tolkien was an shameless imperialist and opposed to immigration. However it was the Tolkien industry that was to grow and grow, culminating in a stupendously boring, digitised film of Lord of the Rings while all hope of revolution gradually faded. However new ageist imagery was to become fundamental to the computer revolution, beginning with computer games and ending up with today’s endless cybergames, which are a recuperated expression of the ‘great game’ of revolution as articulated in the late 60s. Eric S. Raymond a leading exponent of a degree of open access to information (see above) has helped shaped the world of avatars which people cybergames. These are a projection of his interest in Viking/Anglo Saxon mythology that has been combined with an enthusiasm for martial arts and a defense of gun rights. At this point computing and virtual reality start to come together and a weird right/left synthesis so typical of the times ensues: the smash hit The Matrix which began as a computer game insists “the revolution starts here”. It does not but compulsive behaviour does because, at this point, a virtual world begins to rule, governed by virtual money and substitute lives, a powerful compensation for this world we live in but definitely not a rejection of it, for its pseudo feudalism is techno capitalism at its most lethal and hypnotic.
I have often thought about the chance encounter between Gordon and ourselves. There certainly was an avenue of communication between us though not a broad one and excepting a few brief, frenetic, mutually incomprehensible clashes it tended to harden around a joint anti Bolshevik hostility and little else which is a pity really because we each obviously felt a need to understand each other’s angle of vision and nothing in our respective pasts had prepared us for such an encounter. Here was a mine of riches just waiting to be explored and developed but even so the impact was to be enduring and in ways we could not possibly have anticipated. For it is precisely this coming together of opposites, which makes the late, 1960s so unique. The real cool of a post revolutionary society – and not the cool image making of consumer capitalism - would have ensured that the outcome of anti art and computing would have been entirely different.
As it so happens, this all to brief encounter was to have a future in which the antinomies were to be reconciled but in ways neither of us could approve of, because it takes place on the basis of a much strengthened, near omnipotent capitalism. Somewhat disheveled and wild looking, Gordon came across as every bit the ‘mad scientist’. Yet he also resembled a furry freak brother, a resemblance underscored by his passion for Tolkien.
From the mid 19th century onwards number begins to assume, though it was far from apparent at the time, a potential for power it had only previously glimpsed. Beneath surface appearances, number may have formerly been said to rule (e.g. Galileo, Fiobanacci), and even been divinely ordained (Plato, Liebnitz), but not until now would its potential for maximum social control become increasingly manifest. It was the transcriptions of symbolic logic, and which eventually was to form the basis of computer programs, that was to help make this possible.
At the same moment as numbers are reduced to just two numbers, O and 1, mathematics starts to be romanticised. A key figure in this development is Ada Lovelace, help mate of Babbage – and also Lord Byron’s estranged daughter. Nearly all her life she sought to come to terms with her dead father and his ‘gothic’ excesses, which were also a protest against stifling bourgeois morality. Calling her numbers “fairies” was a great help to her and brought her closer to the being of her father.
But it was not until the closing years of the 20th century that the controlling potential of magical scenarios becomes demonstrably obvious. And by this time it has assimilated the idea of the game, not as something that unfolds within a fixed interval of time, like a football match or Atari video game, but as something that takes over a person's life, with connotations that hark back to the 'great game' of revolution as first proclaimed during the 1960s. Gordon the mathematician and aspiring computer programmer may have been absorbed in Tolkien just as anybody can be said to be absorbed in a novel but this is a qualitative leap that has nothing to do with dialectics: this is total immersion that blurs the boundary between fantasy and reality and with every day that passes one becomes less sure which is which. What followed on from Gordon was, in a manner of speaking, a realization of art (though a highly reactionary one) whilst we yearn for past reassurances and the dull witted repetitiveness of the twelve times table where at least you were on firm ground.
I got the impression maths was something of a distraction from Gordon’s main pleasure: slagging off Trotskyists. No doubt he would have enjoyed doing the same to Communists but, unlike Italy or France, they had little presence in the student movement here, though they could put on a good show in traditional manufacturing industries. However 10 years later with the mass wildcat strikes of the The Winter of Discontent as all but invisible backdrop, mathematics and ‘the artistic imagination’ would begin to come together. But any hope of properly linking up these separate splinters and radically redefining them, had now gone. A group of students at Essex University in 1979, the scene of a sit-in ten years previously, led by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle have been credited with the invention of the first multi-player, round the clock, computer fantasy game called Dungeons and Dragons. Linked by early international computer networks, the spin-offs from this computer generated, eclectic gothic romanticism would increasingly compensate for our sad selves in a reduced world where the individual counts for less every day.
A romantic like Byron would affect postures and be a bit player in his own literary make-believe. Yet these postures would spill over into the real world and the battle cry of “freedom” was never far from his lips, even if he did muddle up nationalism and internationalism, the fight for Greek independence with the revolt of the Luddites. However nothing of the sort happens in the virtual world. Personas (or avatars) can be self-created over time and virtual wealth accumulated to the point where real money will change hands, allowing a real person to buy an on-line celebrity persona. There is even room for a virtual class conflict and one that penetrates into the real world but only in an inconsequential way that changes nothing in the player/capital relationship. This is something other than a virtual replay of Orgreave in which this time the miners defeat the police. Rather the real time capitalists that control these virtual life games can lure players into new ones and suddenly a virtual inhabitant will find themselves all alone in a virtual world deserted by their scabbing buddies. Ultimately it is up to the owners who control the virtual world to decide whether the game shall continue for they can close it down at the flick of a switch.
The growth potential for this kind of thing is enormous and has barely started. The games are crude and violent, a game war of one against all and a playground of destruction that mirrors the real world. In time a more appealing virtual world is bound to evolve, that becomes an extension of our longing for peace and beauty and that envelops us as completely as the game worlds and is just as compulsive and has a far wider appeal. If you think that this is exaggerated then perhaps you should check out the disturbing facts of online fantasy for yourselves. There is for instance Sony’s Everquest (or more popularly known as “Evercrack”) or Lineage created and run by a Korean company NC Soft with four million subscribers and with profits running at over £5million a month. And then read the virtual horror stories and ask yourself is this not twisting the once reasonably clear borders between fantasy and reality into a pliant haze?
Computers are by far and away the most hypnotic, compulsive, and 'democratic' (in the sense of availability and ease of manipulation) inventions ever. In comparison, the internal combustion engine is a non-starter and very pedestrian. A computer is also able to pretend to organicity no other technology has ever previously been capable of. We are encouraged to believe it can grow with ourselves and be an extension of our sensory apparatus, a truly personal computer that is also about personal growth and that has a working brain that will only become less rudimentary as time passes. I therefore make no apology for this rambling digression, beginning with a chance encounter between us and a budding computer programmer in Newcastle in the late 1960s. Despite appearing to make much out of nothing, at bottom it is posing a question we are all asking in one way or another: could computers have had a history, function and purpose different to the one they have, seeing how time and again they glance against issues of great revolutionary importance and proffer an illusory cure to our growing marginality and impotence when faced, not with a virtual capitalism, but a virtually impregnable capitalism.
Behind so much of the transformation of Newcastle from heavy industry to the so-called ‘creative industries’ lies changing structures of capitalism as financial capital scored an outright victory over industrial capital even in heartlands like Tyneside. Once such a trajectory looked so all powerful that nothing could de-rail its momentum but how times change! The debacle of Northern Rock and the fifth largest bank in the UK proves just how tenuous this shift was. The breakdown of cultural forms that pointed so clearly to the praxis of total revolutionary subversion was waylaid – as we now well know – by a pyramid of fictive capital that needed to find an outlet. And behind all the totality of a subversive cultural recuperation that swept through Newcastle care of structured investment vehicles and collateralized debt obligations etc something else had been said which initially had pointed in the opposite direction. Now that the mesmeric power of finance capital is disintegrating the truth can begin to be disinterred. For certain the immediate future can only mean a growing vacuum where maybe, just maybe, ideas and long forgotten trajectories will begin to be turned right side up.
In all this playing around with endgames which has been documented here, always avoiding that obvious open door into fresh air, a visual metaphor that Bunuel used so tellingly in The Exterminating Angel there is nothing forthright, nothing remotely daring. (Remember Newcastle was Bunuel’s favourite city). Yet there is no smoke without fire. Surely more than a few individuals like us and our mates will again talk the talk and walk the walk taking their ideas to a logical and dialectical conclusion. It’s just that today clued-in people walk away without much of a murmur, without so much as a leaflet angrily dumped on a desk, on a blog or perhaps pasted up on the door of a steel and glass, post modern office construction, saying what they have to say. If only a few did this spontaneously it really would begin to catch on becoming perhaps in no time the prairie fire we all desire and the one fire – now that the planet is burning up – we all want, that bonfire of capitalism; that visible insurrection of millions quitting their bullshit roles. What we desperately need is the return of clued-in contestation, forthright anger and finally, revolutionary explosion and for the fire next time to be successful.
First Written in late 2004 followed by a slight update in 2008
For further recent commentary related to the above read the following in the "Wreckage & bric-a-brac" series: