Friday, January 27, 2006

Top tens and the making of The Making

Top ten lists are fun, even if the discussions they invite are invariably inconclusive. The Adventures in Historical Materialism blog has a post on the ten best works of history produced by Marxist scholars: I'm inclined to respond with my own list, but I don't have time at the moment, so I'll just respond to Histomat's characterisation of EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class as an "absolute classic example of the tradition of 'History from Below'. After researching Thompson's life and work a bit, I'm somewhat uncomfortable with the label of 'history from below', whether it's applied to his own work or the work of other historians from his generation, like Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm. Here's something I wrote on the origins of The Making which might explain my unease:

After the war Edward Thompson spent an unhappy couple of years watching Attlee’s Labour government disappoint the hopes of its socialist followers. As a Communist Party member and aspiring writer, Thompson found himself under attack from ex-communist intellectuals turned Cold Warriors, and also from party bureaucrats who thought that the task of poetry was to increase tractor production in the Soviet Union. By 1948 Thompson had had enough. He packed up and hit the north, taking up a job teaching for the Workers Education Association in Yorkshire. The move north was as much a pilgrimage as a flight. Thompson hoped that a job teaching miners and railwaymen in an old stronghold of the Chartists and the Independent Labour Party would remove him from the influence of both Party orthodoxy and Cold War liberalism, and put him in direct contact with the authentic English socialism he equated with radical liberalism. The middle class Cambridge graduate was following in a tradition made famous by Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier.

Thompson’s hopes were disappointed. He was a talented teacher and was well-liked by many of his students, but he discovered a Yorkshire very different from the one he had sought. The post-war boom, the replacement of rationing with the delights of American-style consumerism and an urban renewal programme had all helped change the culture of many workers. Although he did encounter some eager, class conscious workers, Thompson the teacher was often confronted by apathy and philistinism. In internal reports he complains of miner’s wives who want to discuss the personal lives of nineteenth century novelists, and miners who think that ‘poetry is a luxury the labour movement can do without’.

It is often thought that The Making of the English Working Class was stimulated by Thompson’s experience of a living working class socialist culture and tradition in Northern England. In his preface to the book Thompson encourages this view, claiming that ‘I have learned a great deal from members of my tutorial classes, with whom I have discussed many of the themes treated here’. In fact, Thompson’s masterpiece was the product of a contradiction between the expectations he had of his students and the reality he found in the classrooms of Yorkshire. The Making of the English Working Class was originally designed as a textbook which would penetrate the apathy and consumerism of most of Thompson’s students and uncover in them a mystical layer of ‘real experience’ left over from the Chartists and New Unionism. It is a quixotic as well as a heroic book.

(Reading this over, I think: doesn’t one adjective imply the other? Wasn’t Don Quixote a hero, for Cervantes?)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Not really a neo-nazi, just an adventurous researcher...

The History News Network brings us the extraordinary story of Jacques Pluss:

A year ago, in a controversial decision, Fairleigh Dickinson University fired historian Jacques Pluss after it was revealed that he was a member of the National Socialist Movement. (The school insisted he was fired for missing classes.) The decision drew national headlines. A Neo-Nazi on the faculty of a bona fide university? News accounts indicated that Pluss, an adjunct for several years at the school, was a popular teacher. Students said he didn't bring his politics into the classroom. It didn't seem to add up. It didn't for a reason, says Mr. Pluss.

Pluss attempts to explain himself - and what an explanation it is! - here.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Herald publishes holocaust denier's call for war

The other day I discussed Len Richards' Marxist critique of an opinion piece the leader of the Engineers' Union, Andrew do-Little, had managed to get published in the New Zealand Herald. On his own blog Len has revealed that he tried unsuccessfully to get his reply to Little into the Herald:

I have just got off the phone with John Gardiner, the person who puts those pages together. He told me my piece would not be used because it "did not fit in". He said it was not of "general enough interest" to be published. He claimed to have more than enough submissions and my one "did not make the cut". It is funny that over the last period the "Perspectives" pages have found room for overseas articles, reprinted from the Independent for example, along with a typically incoherent ramble from Mike Moore, which suggests to me a shortage rather than a surfeit of material.

One man who has made the Herald's cut is Niall Ferguson, the British historian and right-wing gun-for-hire. Ferguson's article 'The Origins of the Great War of 2007 - and how it could have been prevented' was republished under the less cumbersome headline 'Tomorrow, when the war began' on the back page of the Weekend Herald's World section. The piece is an imagined history of a war between a nuclear-armed Iran and Israel - a war which leads to the mutual ruin of Europe and the Muslim world. Ferguson's article has already been ripped apart on the British blog Lenin's Tomb, which cuts to the chase:

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, the counterfactual: if we don't smack those dirty brown people about, they will get some of our nuclear material and use it, and undermine our civilisation.

The Tomb does its readers another service by relating Ferguson's little literary adventure to his day job as a revisionist historian of imperialism, and in particular of the British Empire:

[Ferguson's article] mimics exactly Ferguson's strategy for normalising and rendering acceptable British crimes during its Empire. If Britain had not subjugated the savages, they would have continued to live in shitpiles and kill one another. They would never have known the Holy Profit or the sanctity of Supply and Demand. Without slavery, they might never have seen the fruits of the Protestant work ethic. The Enlightenment ideals of the Empire enjoined it to the betterment of man, even if it was itself a racist, hierarchical and violently coercive affair.

Put simply, Niall Ferguson is a holocaust denier. Taking advantage of the violent swing to the right in British politics and the British academy in the 1980s and 90s, he has worked with remarkable industry to rehabilitate the British Empire as a model of Western civilisation and progress, rather than the vast oppressive apparatus that once weighed like a nightmare on the shoulders of a fifth of the peoples of the globe. His magnum opus is Empire, a book that buries trivialities like the Indian Mutiny and the slave trade under an epic paean to British imperialism.

Like the equally loathsome David Irving, Ferguson is a technically competent historian, at ease in an archive, whose expertise is restricted to a narrow field of enquiry. Unlike Irving, Ferguson has succeeded in his efforts to erect the most absurd generalisations on a pinprick of actual research. The relative fortunes of Irving and Ferguson say a great deal about the hypocrisy of the ruling classes of the West. While Irving languishes in an Austrian prison, Ferguson is riding high, as one of the prophets of the twenty-first century imperialism that is the raison d'etre of neo-conservatism. If Ferguson has a criticism of Bush's foreign policy, it is that Bush is insufficiently imperialist. Jay Tolson glosses the argument of Ferguson's 'Colossus: The Price of America's Empire':

As he sees it, the real problem with Bush's strategy is that it is "imperialism lite." Underfunded, undermanned, and carelessly managed, it falls tragically short of providing the kind of benign empire that he believes the world needs.

In a 2004 article called 'The Last Iraqi Insurgency', Ferguson managed to give his support to both ye olde and shiny new imperialisms, by whitewashing the ongoing US war on Iraq as well as the brutal British occupation of the country in the 1920s. Writing in Dissident Voice, Paul Street exposed the corruption - a corruption of methodology as much as ethics - of Ferguson's arguments:

Ferguson takes his cue from the glorious (for him) example of Britain’s invasion and occupation of Iraq after World War One. That occupation also sparked rebellion. The great British accomplishment in that action was to recognize and act upon the need to repress resistance to colonial rule with a properly savage degree of imperial force. “In 1920,” Ferguson gushes, “the British ended the rebellion through a combination of aerial bombardment and punitive village-burning expeditions. It was not pretty. Even Winston Churchill, then the minister responsible for the air force, was shocked by the actions of some trigger-happy pilots and vengeful ground troops.”

Without any sense of shock or disapproval, Ferguson notes that the British general in charge of Iraq “appealed to London not only for reinforcement but also for chemical weapons (mustard gas bombs or shells).” Ferguson deletes Churchill’s response, which expressed confidence that gas could be used profitably against what he called “recalcitrant Arabs” and included the following lovely statement: “I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favor of using poison gas against uncivilized tribes.” Consistent with that fine sentiment, Churchill gassed the Kurds as “an experiment,” applauding the “lively terror” that mustard gas shells caused among them. There followed 35 years of British occupation, “an outcome” that is “precisely what Washington should be aiming at today,” Ferguson thinks, since “American troops will have to keep order well after the nominal turnover of power.”

Any paper that maintains a page labelled 'Opinions' or 'Perspectives' is in danger of giving the impression that the rest of its pages are devoted to opinion-free, hardboiled reportage and analysis. Such an impression can never be less than wholly false, whether the paper in question is the New Zealand Herald or one of the scruffy publications of the far left. Billed by the Herald's subeditor as a 'historian's eye' view of 'the next phase of events in the Middle East', Ferguson's article is no more than a flight of fantasy designed to advance a very unsavoury political agenda. Give me Len Richards any day.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The centre of the universe (or galaxy, at least)

Feeling significant? Don't. Consider your place in the eternal cosmos. Consider the Astronomy Picture of the Day site, which a friend was kind enough to bring to my attention. Here's the caption for the picture pasted above:

The center of our Milky Way Galaxy is hidden from the prying eyes of optical telescopes by clouds of obscuring dust and gas. But in this stunning vista, the Spitzer Space Telescope's infrared cameras penetrate much of the dust revealing the stars of the crowded galactic center region. A mosaic of many smaller snapshots, the detailed, false-color image shows older, cool stars in bluish hues. Reddish glowing dust clouds are associated with young, hot stars in stellar nurseries. The galactic center lies some 26,000 light-years away, toward the constellation Sagittarius. At that distance, this picture spans about 900 light-years.

As Bill Manhire put it:

I live at the edge of the universe,
like everybody else. Sometimes I think
congratulations are in order:
I look out at the stars
and my eye merely blinks a little,
my voice setles for a sigh.

But my whole pleasure is the inconspicuous:
I love the unimportant thing.
I go down to the Twilight Arcade
and watch the Martian invaders,
already appalled by our language,
pointing at what they want.

Marxism or Littleism?

In a post on indymedia Len Richards, who recently became the co-leader of the Alliance, takes issue with Engineers Union boss Andrew Little over the importance of Karl Marx to twenty-first century trade unionism. Richards observes that:

According to Andrew Little, the fatally divided capitalist society that Karl Marx described and analysed in his ground-breaking study, Capital, back in the mid-to-late 19th century, no longer exists. Little admitted Marx’s ideas are among "the most enduring political and economic theories of all time" but he said they were only relevant for Marx’s time "when the excesses and contradictions of powerful capital were at their height". For him, capitalism has "survived fully intact" and Marxist solutions have been proved "not so flash". Therefore capitalism’s existence cannot be challenged in the 21st century. The six hundred maintenance engineers facing the sack at Air New Zealand might have a different view.

For Little it is just a question of setting "bad management" back on the right track. At Air NZ this means cutting a deal by which half the workers lose their jobs and the other half do the same or more work for less pay. However, it is not "bad management" that is the main problem. At the root of the Air NZ attempt to sack 600 of their engineering workforce are the exigencies of the globalised labour market which pits overseas workers against New Zealand workers. The contradictions of capitalism are still very much alive and kicking.

Richards contrasts Little's attempts to stave off massive job losses at Air New Zealand with legal action and pleas to business with the Marxist solution of direct action by the working class:

In the event of a shut-down of the repair facilities, workers should stage an occupation of their workplaces until the decision is reversed and their jobs are safeguarded. The Argentinean co-operative movement that grew out of the collapse of capitalism in that country in the 1990s was initiated by worker occupations to prevent the destruction and liquidation of vital manufacturing and transport infrastructure. New Zealand workers should take a leaf out of the Argentineans’ book.

Little's faith in the ability of bosses and the state to solve the problems created by capitalism reflects the course that the Engineers Union has steered over the past fifteen years. Faced with plant closures and job losses caused by the neo-liberal economic policies of successive governments, and by the anti-union provisions of Employment Contracts Act, the Engineers' leadership decided in the '90s to embrace a 'partnership model' of unionism. The union pledged to sideline 'confrontational' and 'unconstructive' behaviour like strike action, and instead show that it could help employers boost productivity and profits. In return, it expected to get a few crumbs from the tables of the multinational companies that employed many of its members. The partnership model of unionism was adopted by many unions in 90s, but it failed to halt the catalysmic decline in their membership. The Engineers themselves survived in the '90s largely by gobbling up the members of smaller, weaker unions.

One political corollary of the industrial policies Little is pushing is the social democratic belief that the left can enter government and, using the tools of the state, influence capitalists to act in a 'fair' manner and remedy some of the grossest deformities of capitalism. This strategy of 'political partnership' with the bosses was practiced by the Alliance in the 1990s, and it was no more successful than the 'industrial partnership' pursued by the union movement. Like the union movement, the Alliance saw its membership collapse, as its leaders sold out to the bosses without gaining any discernable rewards. For most Alliance members, the decision to support the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 was the last straw.

Since being kicked out of parliament in 2002, the rump of the Alliance has been casting about for direction. Len Richards' rebuke to Andrew Little symbolises one possible direction; over at the comments boxes of spanblather, the defence of partnership unionism by Len's fellow Alliance member Victor Billot symbolises another. Billot was one of the brains behind the Cabotage campaign waged by the Maritime Union of New Zealand (Munz) from 2003 to 2005. Like Andrew Little, Billot is a supporter of alliances with bosses - the campaign for Cabotage was run jointly by Munz and New Zealand shipping companies, and unsuccessfully courted the Employers and Manufacturers Association for support.

The campaign for Cabotage saw Munz producing pamphlets and posters showing New Zealand surrounded by ships flying foreign flags above the slogan 'Isn't there one flag that's missing here?' One Munz press release in favour of Cabotage warned, in language befitting Winston Peters, that "[W]e have had cheap Third World labour being employed in New Zealand waters while New Zealand seafarers are put out of work." Other propaganda talked up the danger of terrorist attack on New Zealand, and claimed that Cabotage could play a role in defending the country.

By helping 'reserve New Zealand domestic and coastal shipping to New Zealand seafarers', Cabotage would have led to job losses amongst foreign seafarers. For understandable reasons, Munz did not try to get support for the campaign from seafarers in other countries. Instead, it sided with local bosses and appealed to some of the worst instincts of New Zealanders.

Like Andrew Little, Victor Billot is keen to dismiss any notion that Marxism and the ideas of socialist internationalism and class struggle might have anything to teach the trade union movement today. His response to socialist critics of Cabotage has been to ridicule them as ultra-left fantasists. Such ridicule could just as easily be directed at Len Richards' criticism of the Engineers Union.

Ultimately, the Alliance will have to chose between the forward-to-the-past left nationalism of the Cabotage campaign, and the Marxist internationalism represented by Len Richard's critique of the Engineers. What's it to be, comrades? Partnership or class struggle? The red flag flying or the national flag? Marxism or Littleism?

Would you take this man as your leader?

The answer is likely to be no, if the comments in this discussion thread on indymedia are any guide.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Unreasonable Chileans

Mellie reckons that the recent debate here and on spanblather about trade unions exposes a fissure between 'reasonable' and 'unreasonable' models of unionism and of left-wing politics. Meanwhile, No Right Turn has welcomed the election of the uber-reasonable Michelle Bachelet as Chilean President, claiming that her success and the reign of her predecessor Lagos represents a fulfilment of the doomed Salvador Allende's prophecy of the eventual triumph of the left in Chile. Alas, twenty-eight thousand contract workers at El Teniente, the world's largest copper mine (check out the photo), don't share No Right Turn's enthusiasm. A week ago police attacked their picket lines, arresting forty-two of them, but their strike for a wage bonus is holding. The World Socialist Website reports that:

Copper prices have reached US$2.10 a pound, generating a windfall of US$3.3 billion for the first nine months of 2005. The surplus notwithstanding, the Chilean government has taken a hard line toward the strike. Economics Minister Nicolas Eyzaguirre declared the government will not be blackmailed into giving in to the subcontractor employees...

The strike places a question mark over the support that the Chilean unions have given presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet, who calls herself a socialist. The miners’ union has called on its workers to spoil their ballots if the government does not grant the bonus.

Damn unreasonable, ultra-left miners...

Update: here's Bush's response to Bachelet's election. It's worth contrasting it with the White House response to Chavez's various election victories:

"She comes from the same party as President (Ricardo) Lagos. The president (George W. Bush) has had a very good relationship with President Lagos and looks forward to continuing to build on that relationship with the new president," [White House spokesman] McClellan added.

New anarchist slogan

Seen on a telephone pole, near St Lukes shopping mall:


What can you say?

Thursday, January 12, 2006

LSD's father about to bring up his hundred

The New York Times is running an article on Albert Hoffman, the 'father' of LSD and near-centenarian. Hoffman comes across as a rather likeable mixture of scientist and mystic: his accounts of the painstaking, almost alchemical, development of LSD in a series of laboratories are juxtaposed with paeans to 'living nature', and memories of a mystical experience in an alpine forest. Hoffman calls LSD his 'problem child': he decries both the demonisation and the popularisation of the drug, suggesting that it should be neither completely legalised nor completely proscribed. While condemning the calls of Timothy Leary and others for the mass distribution of LSD, Hoffman insists that the drug is a 'medicine for the soul', when used properly. He points out that the drug was used with considerable success in psychoanalysis, before being demonised and proscribed by the anti-drug czars of Western law enforcement agencies. LSD certainly doesn't appear to have done Hoffman any harm...

In defence of incompetence; or: Let's get unreasonable!

Like so many of her posts, and like so many of the arguments of social democrats in general, Spanblather's 'Union Myths #4: Unions just protect the incompetent', means well, but ends up being compromised by its implicit acceptance of the framework of bourgeois argument. Like 'fairness' or 'humanitarian', to name two other hobby horses of the liberal left, 'incompetent' is a term which has been constructed in a discourse dominated by apologists for capitalism: the left needs to pick the term apart - to deconstruct it - rather than simply accept it and use it.

In our society, 'incompetent' workers are usually workers whose sets of skills do not fit with the requirements of capital, or workers who are suffering from social or emotional problems which society is desperate to deny causing them.

I know a number of people who are today adjudged 'incompetent' workers, but who were twenty or so years ago considered 'essential' workers, for possessing the same sets of skills. One worked as an electrician on the railways, and was always in demand from managers; today, though, subcontracting and changes in technology mean he is out of a job, and unlikely to get another in his old field. Any attempt to do so would quickly lead to his being adjudged 'incompetent'. Another person I know worked at a paper mill in the 1980s; he lost his job when the mill closed, and new technology in the country's few remaining mills means he is unlikely to get another job in his old field. Unemployment has led to his developing a drinking problem, and also a mental illness, making him still more 'incompetent'.

There are many workers who manage to hold down jobs, but who are none the less 'incompetent', to one degree or another. There is the secretary who trained in the days of typewriters and shorthand, and struggles with computers; the nurse who has put his back out, and is no longer able to do the heavy lifting the job occasionally requires; the supermarket checkout operator who is suffering from depression, and finds it hard to offer each passing customer the compulsory smile and 'How are you today?'

Span assures us - or, rather, assures the various sub-species of right-wing swamp thing who seem to frequent her blog in disproportionate numbers - that unions do not defend the 'incompetent', only unfairly victimised competent workers, and that 'it is possible to fire people [incompetent, deserving people, presumably] in New Zealand'. Such an argument reminds me of the 'liberal' cases for imperialism that have been appearing in her comment boxes lately, which insist that liberals do not oppose all interventions by powers like the US or the UN, only unjust ones. Iraq may have been a mistake, but 'incompetent' countries still deserve to be fired, or fired on, by the global bosses. (Another reference point is the pathetic attempts of Span's Alliance Party to gets its policies 'costed' by a set of economists before elections, in a futile effort to persuade the public that they were 'affordable', 'realistic', and 'reasonable'.)

Just as the liberal imperialists buy into the logic of imperialism, even as they try to oppose some of its actions, so do 'reasonable' trade unionists like Span buy into all the worst assumptions of the union-bashing right. A union movement which refuses to defend the most vulnerable workers - the 'incompetents' - is as useless as a political movement which refuses to defend the most vulnerable peoples from imperialism. It's only a hop, skip, and a jump from Span's argument, well-meaning though it is, to the 'partnership' model of unionism which did such damage to Kiwi trade unions in the '90s, and which still dominates the Engineers Union and the PSA. The 'partnership' model saw unions exercising their 'power' by virtually taking responsibility for firing workers, and by accepting mass layoffs in sectors like the railways and the paper industry as 'economic reality'.

The trade union movement and the left in New Zealand will only meet with success when they become radically unreasonable. We need to reject rather than argue within the logic and the vocabulary of the bosses. We should insist that unions defend 'incompetent' workers, and demand that the bosses take responsibilty for the problems that these workers encounter.

A useful reference point here is the workers in Venezuela and other South American countries who have occupied factories that the bosses have tried to close down. Instead of acquiescing in the destruction of industry here, and then trying to disassociate themselves from the 'incompetent' workers, the human jetsam and flotsam who are the flow-on effect of massive job losses, the trade unions should have occupied factories scheduled for closure and kept jobs and communities alive. Compare the Venezuelan town of Moron (alright, I know the name's unfortunate, but they pronounce it differently in Spanish!), where workers have occupied their paper mill and kept it going, with towns like Tokoroa and Kawerau, which produced thousands of 'incompetent' workers in the 80s and 90s, and ask: what could have been achieved, if unions and left parties like the Alliance had rejected the logic and language of the bosses?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Kanabia and Eureka

Everything in the world is on the internet, plus a little more, like the official home of the 'massive, socially progressive nation of Kanabia', whose nerdy creator has nicked the flag of Australia's Eureka rebellion and painted it red, black, and gold, to represent 'libertarian communism'.

The Eureka rebellion occurred in 1854, and might be considered Australia's equivalent of the conflicts created by the Chartist movement in Britain. Miners demanding universal suffrage built a stockade in Ballarat, a town in central Victoria, and took on the army. They came off second best, but are remembered as heroes today by the left, the trade union movement and, unfortunately, the far right, which is happy to present them as simple-minded 'Aussie patriots' who would enjoy kicking some wog arse on Cronulla's golden sands. The government has gotten in on the act and poured money into a Eureka Museum in Ballarat. A cousin of mine works there and he sent me a Eureka flag; I was going to bring it to a May Day demo in Auckland, until friends began asking 'Why have you got that dodgy flag in your room?' They recognised it from Romper Stomper, the film where a young and skinny Russell Crowe puts in an all-too-convincing performance as the leader of a gang of skinheads.

Perhaps one of the reasons the flag looks a little odd to some on the Kiwi left, who don't know the story of Eureka, is the way that it uses blue and white, traditionally colours of the right. The flag of Kanabia is more politically correct, I suppose, but the aesthete in me can't help admiring the beautiful simplicity of the original Eureka flag, Tory colours notwithstanding. It makes every other southern cross-based flag look pretty ordinary.

'Why the fuck couldn't you get some anger management counselling or something?'

I remember Mike Johnson, poet, novelist, and long-time Waiheke Islander, shouting that question twelve years ago, to an audience at the Shakespeare Tavern. Johnson had been invited over the water to read his poems; instead, he read a long, angry open letter to Gu Cheng, his friend and fellow Waihekean. Gu Cheng had killed his wife with a tomahawk and hung himself a couple of days earlier. I can still remember large parts of Johnson's letter:

Why Gu Cheng, why? I know that you had a sense of humour: I remember the funny cartoons you drew for me, when I came to visit you in the shack where you lived. I remember you smiling. Why did you do this?

Why Gu Cheng, why? Was it poverty? Why did you allow yourself to sit around all day, dazzled by images, while the cupboards were bare? Why did you force your wife to live like that? Why would you never even learn English?

Why, Gu Cheng, why? Was it the year you had just spent on a felowship in Berlin, that cold, gloomy city, that city of genocide, so far from the sun of Waiheke?

Why, Gu Chenge, why? Was it the pain of exile, being forced from your native land?

Why, Gu Cheng, why? Was it your childhood, the madness of the Cultural Revolution, your family's exile deep in the bleakest part of the country, far from the city and from books?

Mike Johnson was not the only one to be fascinated and horrified by Gu Cheng's implosion. Eliot Weinberger's article in the latest issue of the London Review of Books reflects the continued widespread interest in 'the most radical poet in all of China's 2500 years of written poetry'. Weinberger reviews Gu Cheng's life and work, and the treatment it has received in the years since his death. Weinberger's memory of a meeting with Gu Cheng makes for uncomfortable reading:

Gu Cheng, Xie Ye and I went to a restaurant in Chinatown. As we sat down, my first question, predictably, was about his hat. He told me that he always wore it so that none of his thoughts would escape his head. Xie Ye said that he also slept in it, in order not to lose his dreams.
Gu Cheng picked up the menu and chose a dish. Xie Ye was amazed. He had never before ordered anything in a restaurant, preferring to eat whatever he was served. She then put a tape recorder on the table. She told me that everything Gu Cheng said should be preserved.

We talked for hours, but I understood little of it. Every topic immediately led to a disquisition on cosmic forces: the Cultural Revolution was like the chaos before creation in Chinese mythology, before things separated into yin and yang, and Tiananmen Square represented their continuing imbalance; Mao Zedong, in a way I couldn’t follow, was somehow the embodiment of wubuwei, Taoist non-non-action. Xie Ye gazed at him adoringly the whole time, and both of them radiated an innocent sweetness. I felt I was in the presence of one of those crazy mountain sages of Chinese tradition.

Somewhere in the evening, Gu Cheng left for the bathroom, and as soon as he was out of sight, Xie Ye turned to me smiling and said: ‘I hope he dies.’ She explained that, in New Zealand, he had forced her to give their son to a Maori couple to raise, as he demanded her undivided attention and wanted to be the only male in the house. ‘I can’t get my baby back unless he is dead,’ she said. I had met them for the first time just a few hours before.

For me, the most fascinating part of Weinberger's article is its discussion of the revolutionary poetics Gu Chenge developed, under immense personal and political pressure, in the 1980s. After being associated in the 70s with the so-called 'misty' group of poets, who became notorious for rejecting the dreary myth-making of 'socialist' realism in favour of quiet, introspective poems, Gu Cheng 'had a revelation' in 1985:

Before, he had ‘tried to be a human being’, but now he realised that the world was an illusion, and he learned to leave his self behind and inhabit a shadow existence. Before, he had written ‘mainly lyrical poetry’. Now he ‘discovered a strange and unique phenomenon: that words themselves acted like drops of liquid mercury splashing about, moving in any direction’. He called one of his long sequences ‘Liquid Mercury’. ‘Any word may be as beautiful as water so long as it is free of restraints,’ he wrote...

It is extraordinary that Gu Cheng, largely ignorant of Western Modernism – the few poets he knew and admired in translation were Lorca, Tagore, Elytis and Paz – independently recreated much of the Western literary history of the 20th century. From the Imagism and Symbolism of the early lyrics, he moved on to Dadaism or one of the Futurisms. (Two earlier translators, Sean Golden and Chu Chiyu, said they were continually reminded of Gertrude Stein, whom Gu Cheng had never read.) He ultimately landed in a completely idiosyncratic corner of Surrealism.

It is a tragedy that Mike Johnson was one of only a very few New Zealand writers who had the opportunity to befriend and support Gu Cheng. The best we can do now is read the man's work.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Happy b'day Syd/Roger

It's the sixtieth birthday of Syd Barrett (or Roger Barrett, as he prefers to be known these days). When I was staying in Cambridge last year I was always aware of Barrett's presence in the town, always half-expecting him to wander around a corner or go cycling past me at an intersection, his bicycle basket filled with groceries and bottles of paint.

In the early sixties Barrett left school in Cambridge, settled in London, and formed The Pink Floyd; at the beginning of the seventies he stepped out of his Earls Court flat and walked all the way back to Cambridge, where he settled in his mother's basement. Except for a few years back in London later in the seventies, he has lived in Cambridge ever since, assiduously avoiding music journos and obsessive fans, and engaging in his favourite hobbies of painting, gardening, and walking in parks.

During his few years in the London limelight Barrett pioneered perhaps half a dozen new genres of music, from space rock to psych-folk. Heady experiments in feedback and free-form guitar noise with the early Floyd gave way to the quirky, richly ornamented pictures of English life - 'suburban psychedelia', some called it - of classic Floyd singles like 'Arnold Layne' and 'See Emily Play', and were replaced in turn by the jagged, deconstructed pop of the brief solo career Barrett managed after being expelled from the band he had founded and inspired.

I remember playing some of Syd's songs to a friend who was immersed in the study of Stockhausen at the University of New South Wales' School of Music. 'He's either a genius, or really, really, stoned', my friend said, as he poured another glass of ouzo. In Syd's case at least, I don't think those are mutually exclusive options:

It's no good trying to place your hand
where I can't see because I understand
that you're different from me
yes I can tell that you can't be what you pretend
and you're rocking me backwards and you're rocking towards
the red and yellow mane of a stallion horse

It's no good trying to hold your love where I can't see
because I understand that you're different from me
yes I can tell that you can't be what you pretend
the caterpillar hood won't cover the head
and you know you should be home in bed

It's no good holding your sequined fan where I can't see
because I understand that you're different from me
yes I can tell that you can't be what you pretend
yes you're spinning around and around
in a car with electric lights flashing very fast...

Find out how to download some of Syd's unreleased music for free here.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Stalinist sci-fi #3

Dr Who in trouble again

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the heat Dr Who was drawing from right-wingers angered by the anti-war theme of its Christmas special. Since then the good Doctor has come under fire from another angle - British censors have discovered that the 'Doctor Who - the Beginning' DVD Box Set contains obscenities, and made its sale to kids under 12 illegal. Steve Roberts, producer of the DVD, explains:

Basically, it was a mistake by the BBFC. We had bleeped the word "bastard" in one of the comedy sketches [that featured as extras on the DVDs] and they believed that what they could hear was an inadequately bleeped "fucker". They cant reverse decisions, even if the error is theirs, and so the only option would be to resubmit for re-classification - and that re-submission would need to be a different version.

Meanwhile, a couple of readers of this blog (yes, they exist!) have reports on the Christmas special:

"Saw Dr Who - crap. Pretty much just like the last Doctor, new actor seemed fine but was unconscious most of the episode. From what I've heard it was a success here and people really like it. Not much like the old Dr Who though - sword duels and zapping robots with his sonic screwdriver instead of coming up with some more pacific plan.

It did have one good bit, right near the end when the Earth uses its Project torchlight - won't tell you in case you see it, but gave a nice moral dimension.

The anti-war thing was offhand and topical but not a strong statement by any means."

"I shan't spoil the Xmas Doctor Who special for you, but it was anti-war and anti-Blair in particular in a very direct and viceral fashion - which was nice. I think it is part of a longer running battle between the BBC and the Blair regime which had gagged it somewhat in the aftermath of the Iraq war (sacking Greg Dyke etc)..."

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Hugo Chavez action figure

Anyone lucky enough to get this baby for Xmas?

Sunday, January 01, 2006

It's official - God hates Morales

Don't take my word for it - see what the man (or woman? or hermaphrodite? or turtle with the world on its back? whatever...) himself has to say here.