Wednesday, 30 March 2016

WE ARE DROWNING IN FASCIST RIVERS OF SHIT

Earlier this week, former Channel 4 economics editor Paul Mason observed that "wherever the internet is not censored, it is awash with anger, stereotypes and prejudice". Mason's useful (if depressing) article discusses instances of both anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim agitation online and describes the forces behind them as "giant pumps of unreason, beating in opposite directions but serving the same purpose: to pull apart rational discourse and democratic politics."

I would take issue with the idea of treating Islam/Muslims on one hand and Judaism/Jews on the other as opposites. Not helpful. Uncharacteristically clumsy phrasing from Mason, perhaps. But his brief tour of the worst of the internet is otherwise well done, taking in a number of wearily familiar tropes: the conflation of many disparate conspiracy theories with one another and with Israel and Jews; the logic-resistant insistence of those who get all their information from Twitter, Reddit and shock jocks that nothing published by mainstream news sources is ever true.

Sometimes I have chosen to tangle with people of this sort, wondering whether their hot bile might be cooled and their ferocious invective quietened by being challenged to produce evidence for their wild claims. Another tactic involves inviting them to feel shame for being hatefully uncivilised or for the outright (and obvious) falsehoods they so often articulate. 

These falsehoods are served up as not only as words but also as photographs and illustrations. It does not take very much skill, after all, to find and misappropriate images from online sources. Not much more skill is needed annotate these images in order to use them in misleading ways.

Consider a charmless chap I stumbled upon today. Claiming to be a fellow of the Chartered Management Institute and a former member of the Royal Navy, this Cornishman is a rich source of the kind of material decried in Paul Mason's piece. Consider this tweet of his:



We are told that the children in the picture are nine-year old Austrian girls who have been "brutalised and raped" by "migrant Muslim teens". This is an obvious lie. Even a cursory glance shows that the photograph was clearly taken in a British primary school rather than in Austria. More damningly, the picture can easily be identified as a stock photo licensed by Getty Images. It was used in 2013 to illustrate an Independent article about Michael Gove's approach to the primary curriculum:



Perhaps you don't take issue with this Twitter user for his antipathy towards Islam and Muslims. His prerogative, of course. But it's harder to look kindly on the kind of behaviour shown here. Consider how you would feel, for instance, if you recognised your own daughter in the photo attached to this person's tweet. Your daughter's image mislabelled as that of an Austrian rape victim by a grown man seeking to stoke up hostility towards Muslims. Despicable, isn't it?

He's a coward, too, this fellow. Predictably, when presented with the evidence of his clumsy and easily detected fabrication, @cuzzinharry deleted the offending tweet.

Using images of children to stir up hatred in this way is by no means a new thing. Joshua Bonehill-Paine of Yeovil, Somerset, a somewhat notorious self-styled "nationalist, fascist, theorist and supporter of white rights" used to be rather fond of the tactic prior to his current incarceration. The only time I can recall him interacting directly with me, for instance, he was tweeting via a handle called Find Tom Cunningham, which he'd set up purely to keep repeating an anti-Semitic smear involving a fictitious missing child having supposedly disappeared near a synagogue. This moronic reworking of the age-old blood libel was not Bonehill-Paine's first use of a "missing child" ruse. More than a year before the Find Tom Cunningham nonsense, he'd attracted the attention of the national press for a very similar stunt. All very much in character, because Bonehill-Paine is certainly the kind of person to whom Mason's term giant pump of unreason can be applied.

Calling out these grim provocateurs can be exhausting work. They tend to be relentless and obsessive. As well as being tiring, moreover, these efforts almost always seem to be fruitless. Never more so than when running up against the ceaselessly parroted contention that to challenge the screed of a troll is to stand in opposition to "free speech". I am reminded here of a recent article by US journalist Chris Hedges, who worries about the number of people in the USA gravitating towards a new American fascism. 
These Americans want a kind of freedom - a freedom to hate. They want freedom to use words like "nigger", "kike", "spic", "chink", "raghead" and "fag". They want the freedom to idealize violence and the gun culture. They want the freedom to have enemies, to physically assault Muslims, undocumented workers, African-Americans, homosexuals and anyone who dares criticize their cryptofascism. They want the freedom to celebrate historical movements and figures that the college-educated elites condemn, including the Ku Klux Klan and the Confederacy. They want the freedom to ridicule and dismiss intellectuals, ideas, science and culture. They want the freedom to silence those who have been telling them how to behave. And they want the freedom to revel in hypermasculinity, racism, sexism and white patriarchy.
This is not solely an American phenomenon, of course. Here in the UK we have plenty of online bullyboys who like to bang on about "free speech" while proposing to use that freedom for nothing more constructive than articulating hatred or harassing people. Bonehill-Paine is hardly unique.

Another notable British example of the type, then, is Peter Nunn, the Bristol LGV driver (he calls himself a "businessman") who did some jail time in 2014 for directing filthy, threatening and very sinister remarks via Twitter towards Stella Creasy MP and the journalist Caroline Criado-Perez. On emerging from prison, Nunn returned to his social media accounts, using them to masquerade, unconvincingly, as a self-styled free speech campaigner. In this role, Nunn leaps to the defence of others who, like him, have found themselves facing legal difficulties arising from the horrible things they write online. Nunn's white knight role, however, is nothing more than a disingenuous piss-take, as evidenced by the fact that those he defends are always particularly egregious trolls. One such is Chloe Cowan, a woman who has admitted in court to the deeply distasteful and upsetting trolling of Denise Fergus, mother of murdered Liverpool toddler James Bulger. Another toxic dingbat praised by Nunn is Chris Spivey, a man given a suspended jail term for persistently harassing the family of the murdered soldier, Fusilier Lee Rigby. Then there's John Nimmo of South Shields, who shares with Nunn the dubious honour of having been jailed for sending sinister threats to Ms. Criado-Perez. Predictably, Peter Nunn has offered warm words of support for the dismal Nimmo.

In every case, Nunn describes these nasty characters as "free speech activists". Sometimes he calls them "satirists".  He is, of course, alluding to the fact that this is how he chooses to present himself, which is a truly ludicrous conceit.

These antics would be unpleasant enough even if no tangible ill-effects resulted from Nunn's cheerleading for the likes of Cowan, Spivey and Nimmo. But it is my contention that Peter Nunn is capable of encouraging those he praises beyond the point of caution and towards real and damaging consequences of their spite. When Joshua Bonehill-Paine, for example, was careering maniacally towards his current stint in prison, he was encouraged to proceed on his reckless course by people who chose to offer him succour. Young Joshua appears to be a badly damaged and sadly confused person. Seemingly not unintelligent, he has nevertheless been making an arse of himself and getting into trouble with the law since 2011. In the years that followed, Bonehill-Paine's stunts became ever more ludicrous and ever more venomous. All the while, he was cheered on by the likes of Peter Nunn.

Goading a vulnerable, unemployable youth towards repeated humiliation and prison is a horrible business. Disingenuously lauding that youth as a supposed champion of free speech then adds insult to injury.

But I don't believe Peter Nunn is the worst of the people irresponsible enough to make a sport of encouraging a young man towards his eventual custodial sentence. After all, Nunn's own life appears to have sustained pretty serious damage as a result of his trolling antics. So perhaps he is incapable of better judgement and of consistent decency and is therefore to be pitied as much as condemned.

Worse, in my view, are those who egged on Bonehill-Paine without ever seeming to suffer real consequences themselves. Imagine, if you will, a grown man old enough to have fathered children who are now adults. Imagine this father of grown adults lacking the compassion and the good judgement to refrain from encouraging a confused, damaged young person to continue along a path of self-destruction. I don't have to imagine this person because he exists. Every time Bonehill-Paine set up some new Twitter account, this guy (joined by Peter Nunn) would be among the first to show up in its list of followers. Each time young Joshua did something poisonously stupid, this grown man would wear the mask of an apparently reasonable person, coolly justifying Bonehill-Paine's lunacy in terms of (you guessed it) "free speech". The guy I'm thinking of is named Michael Faulkner. He resides in Rainham, Essex. One of his hobbies seems to be Pixie Lott fandom and interacting online with fellow (younger, female) Pixie Lott fans. That's a little odd. But it's probably harmless. Unlike his other hobby of slyly encouraging self-loathing misfits like Joshua Bonehill-Paine to cause harm to themselves and to others. For that, Mr. Faulkner ought to be ashamed of himself. It's a horrible thing to do - and just another piece of shit floating down the wide river of horror recently described to us by writers such as Paul Mason and Chris Hedges.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

TREADMILL TUNES 002

another treadmill stint this morning. same drill as last time. keeping an eye on the gut and the love handles etc. to get a sense of whether this routine will deliver on its promise of efficient fat burning. as ever, music is needed. shuffled up by the phone today were:

  • Buckshot LeFonque: Hotter Than Hot [1994]
  • Isaac Hayes: Theme from "Shaft" [1971]
  • Wailing Souls: Ishen Tree [1981]
  • St Germain: La Goutte D'Or [2000]
  • Bobby Womack: Across 110th Street [1972]
  • Earth, Wind & Fire: Boogie Wonderland [1979]
  • C.J. & Co.: Devil's Gun [1977] 

POTEMKIN VILLAGES DE NOS JOURS

Early days when it comes to a recently acquired book about Russians opposed to the rule of Putin. I've not yet turned as many pages as I'd like. This is not because the book appears to be uninteresting or otherwise heavy going. It's more a case that finding the time to read purely for pleasure continues to be a bit tricky due, I think, to a combination of factors: the nonsensical deadlines and weird hours of my currently (interim/temporary) BULLSHIT JOB; fair chunks of remaining free time spent pounding a treadmill, jumping onto boxes, curling the biceps etc.; a bit of running around to prepare for the keenly anticipated mega-vacation in the USA.

But just a short way into Panyushkin's Twelve Who Don't Agree, one strange detail caught my eye, sharpening my keenness to read on and learn more. The author, a Russian journalist, describes a St. Petersburg protest march which he covered in 2007:
"A line formed that was no fun to stand in. According to long tradition, the authorities drove a couple of hundred homeless to every opposition rally for the purpose of displaying the drunken riffraff who constituted Putin's opponents. In exchange for participating in the country's political life, the homeless demand vodka but not to be allowed to wash."
Thus far, I've not managed to Google up any other references to the practice alleged here to be a be a "long tradition" for Russia's security forces. Whether or not this actually is a real tactic used by the Kremlin & co. to discredit those who organise against the regime, the image is a colourful one, reminiscent of other ruses that come to mind.

For example, I'm reminded of a recent UK news story, reporting that Transport for London engineers were instructed to waste time digging a superfluous hole near Northumberland Park station purely to serve as a prop for a photoshoot involving George Osborne and Zac Goldsmith.

Turning my thoughts back to Putin's Russia, this idea of creating a completely false impression of how things really are by means of logistically complex dissembling reminds me, naturally enough, of the concept of the Potemkin Village. As I make further progress with Panyushkin's book, let's see if more elaborate, sinister ridiculousness of this sort is alleged and described. 

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

CRATE DIGGIN'

stumbled upon this morning: DIGGING INTO HIP HOP (dihh), "an experimental crate digging experience about 90's hip hop", made by some fellow named Valentin Ledrapier. VERY, VERY GOOD. looks beautiful. fun to use. it's dragged up some half-recalled tunes from somewhere towards the back of my brain. and it's introduced me to some gems that had escaped my notice altogether before today. because I'm not cool? because they came out at times when I had no way of being exposed to such stuff (i'm thinking of my Kielce & Kraków days, particularly)? at just about the half-way mark in terms of digging through the first crates put on the site by Valentin, these are my favourites:

  • Simplē E: Play My Funk [1994]
  • The Deckwrecka: Rice Cakes [1996]
  • DJ Krush and Ronny Jordan: The Jackal (The Illest Mix) [1994]
  • Das EFX: Jassummen [1992]
  • 3 Steps From Nowhere: Pass it On [1993]
  • Alps Cru: Intensity [1995]
  • The Deckwrecka: Rice Cakes [1996]

Monday, 21 March 2016

TREADMILL TUNES 001

Ran a bit today. 500m runs. Seven of them. Two minute gaps (approx.) between them. This was suggested as something that might be good for me. So I'm trying it. This absolutely requires music. Music of my choosing, that is. Not the(mostly)terrible shit piped into the gym. This is what was shuffled up today:
  • Beastie Boys: Egg Man [1989]
  • Funk Fusion Band: Can You Feel it (Progressive Version) [1981]
  • Don Covay: Sookie Sookie [1966]
  • Dizzee Rascal ft. Calvin Harris & Chrome: Dance Wiv Me [2008]
  • The Stone Roses: She Bangs the Drums [1989]
  • Jackie Mittoo: Ghetto Organ [1971]
  • Gogol Bordello: Start Wearing Purple [2006]
  • Kreayshawn: Gucci Gucci [2011]
  • Mustafa Ozkent: Dolana Dolana [1973]
Two observations: weird coincidence to have three tracks shuffled up which each have titles composed of the same word repeated; I am not conscious of ever having heard a Justin Bieber song so I don't know which one was playing (silently, to me) when I looked up at one of the gym's TV screens and noticed that a video of his seems to involve some kinda rapey, creepy breaking-and-entering/kidnap scenario...  

EVEN THE COLD-HEARTED SHOULD WELCOME CHILDREN

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes looked one hundred years into the future and predicted a world in which the citizens of developed countries would work less and have far more leisure time. With under fourteen years to go, it seems unlikely that this prediction will come true within the time scale set out by Keynes. There's a good chance, in fact, that you are reading this and feeling sure that your leisure hours are dwindling, eroded by your job and by the technologies which enable your job to bleed into the time you used to call your own. The working people in your household, moreover, may well be feeling under pressure to work more in order to meet the rising costs of maintaining the standard of living you and your dependants have come to expect. Of these costs, childcare could very well be among the more worrisome concerns. It's quite likely, then, that you have read numerous newspaper articles decrying the costs and availability of the childcare provision so many people need in order to keep working the jobs that pay for all the stuff and all the services we've been taught to think of as indispensable.
One such article appeared in The Guardian this weekend. Many of the comments below the line were of a horribly familiar nature, the gist of them being  "if parents cannot afford to have children, they shouldn't have them." One charming person used exactly that set of words, in fact. In response, I asked that commenter if he was in favour of Britain having a shrinking, ageing population and a shrinking economy to go with it. Another person then asked me a question which seemed to suggest that the thinking behind my question had not been expressed clearly enough:
"What a strange way to justify having children......are they now being seen as an economic benefit?"
So I explained that, as a parent myself, I know my wife and I did not factor any economic calculation when decided we wanted to have a child together. So why did we have a child? Well, I don't think there's just one reason and I'm guessing that the (pretty much subconscious) workings of our minds were in tune with those of most other parents: the idea of the conception of a child being an act of love; the feeling that being caring, loving parents is a natural, fulfilling part of most people's lives.
But my understanding is that in the poorest parts of the world, one very compelling reason for having children is absolutely an economic consideration.
I remember visiting Bangladesh for a conference a few years ago. Although it was not the main focus of that event, one of the topics under discussion was connected with roles for technology in the alleviation of poverty. In covering this, one speaker explained how even in the twenty-first century, many poor people continue to think of children as future labourers able to supplement the family income. We were told that it doesn't take all that long for the early costs of feeding a small child to be outweighed by the uplift in income. This, we learned, is because children commonly begin to provide income by the age of five, and because all such children contribute way more than they consume by around the age of ten. The speaker opined that for these poor families, though, the real benefit kicks in once the parents' ability to earn income and feed themselves is declining with age. At this stage, we were informed, their children become the primary breadwinners. We were reminded that these are people with no bank accounts, savings or pensions.
Understanding this has NOT made me believe that children born to poor people around the developing world are conceived ONLY as a result of a rational calculation of their economic value. Moreover, I am sure that such parents love their kids. But the economic imperative does seem to be there.
Here in the UK, I think most of us do not consciously think of parenthood in this way. Living as we do, for the most part, in warm, well-lit, dry and comfortable homes and with more than sufficient food, we can afford to believe that economic considerations are not at work when we decide to have kids. That said, won't most of us eventually need our offspring to make arrangements for our care in our old age? Won't our last years be a bit more comfortable if our children are there to do for us the things we can no longer do for ourselves?
Back, then, to the question which was put to me in the comments section of that Guardian piece:
"What a strange way to justify having children......are they now being seen as an economic benefit?"
On balance, I completely agree with what I think the questioner was suggesting: that it seems cold, grim and distasteful to think of having children as being only or mainly to do with economics.
The fact remains, though, that this country is one of many developed nations facing a demographic time-bomb. Not that long from now, retirees will outnumber wage-earning, tax-paying contributors to economic growth, I believe.
So when someone contends that "if parents can not afford to have children, they shouldn't have them", I tend to infer that I'm speaking with someone who does link having children very strongly with economic considerations. I then tend to appeal to the apparently cold, pragmatic views of that person by bringing up the economic imperative for a country like ours to keep producing enough kids. It seems a safer bet than trying to appeal to an apparently absent feeling for the more emotional side of deciding to become a parent!

Saturday, 19 March 2016

ON THE FRUITFULNESS OF KILLING TIME

The BULLSHIT JOB that I'm doing at the moment can be done at home. So I do it at home, working odd hours and finding time to do less bullshit things between the various bullshit tasks involved. Hence going to the gym at 10.00 in the morning to be put through my paces by a muscular, cheerful dude who calls me buddy and scores higher for emotional intelligence and bedside manner (well, the personal trainer equivalent thereof) than pretty much any other person I can think of. Smashing off my visceral fat. Buying me a few more years, maybe. Getting the old body to the point where no it no longer feels like I'm dragging around an awkwardly proportioned sack of shit. That is actual progress. There's a spring in my step and my lower back doesn't grumble any more, even after a night spent on a blow-up bed when guest bedrooming somewhere. I have actual fucking biceps, fer chrissakes. Not noticeably large. But there. Really there.

Anyway, after an hour of strong mind, buddy and get your foot higher for me, buddy, I was nauseous and fully wiped out. Had to sit, bewildered, on a PLYO SOFT BOX for what seemed like ages before I could make it out of the sweaty kit and into the shower. Then the shower went on an on and on. Wasteful. Superb. So I get out of there and it's an awkward time. I can't brunch because I breakfasted. I can't lunch because it's not yet midday. Twenty-plus minutes shy of noon, in fact. What to do? Ours is not a town where there's much to do on a grey day bedevilled by insistent, pissy drizzle. So I went into Waterstones because I can always stand to look at books. Even in a weirdly deficient branch of Waterstones - massive children's dept., acres of business books and a dismally small fiction section that's mostly airport stuff. But my eye was drawn to a tray full of books marked all the way down to ONE POUND. 99.9% dross, of course. But then I saw a neat little volume containing profiles of 12 Russians who don't like Putin. I'll have some of that, I decided. I've lost count of the genuinely interesting things I've picked up in those places that only sell remaindered books. It was in one of those places that I got turned on to Ismail Kadare, fer chrissakes. So my mind is always open to the possibility of being led somewhere stimulating by a bargain pick-up. Let's see. Perhaps it'll make it into the suitcase as holiday reading for the impending trip to the USA. So I went off to get my chicken burger with a hopeful smile, my freshly battered flesh notwithstanding. I got them to hold the mayo and the sickly-sweet onion relish, replacing these with jalapeños. I like a slight frosting of sweat on the brow when eating chicken. Then back to the BULLSHIT JOB.


Friday, 18 March 2016

A GOOD WALK SLIGHTLY SPOILED


The idea of the woods is an attractive one. When it comes to the stretching of the legs and the inhalation of relatively fresher air at the weekend, a consensus has been settled upon by the three members of my little family: the woods are the best. A woody walk: that's what we call an afternoon stroll among trees, along muddy paths, over little brooks, crunching over a thick carpet of fragrantly decaying leaves. This all happens just barely outside the M25. So even the biggest of these woods is tiny, really - a little slice of dampened footfalls, of birdsong, of bramble-tangle, of toadstool, of hollybush. The rounding of a corner or a change in the direction of the breeze and, yes, you can hear the swish of traffic on some not-far-off stretch of motorway. People and their houses and their out-of-town business parks and their bigbox furniture stores: close by, really. How long ago was it, then, that to be in the woods in England truly meant to be somewhere unpeopled and unmanaged? Before the industrial revolution, surely. Some time before that, most likely. Weren't our ancestors cutting swathes through old wood so we could build ships and rules waves? Didn't our ancestors' masters take big bites out of ancient oak, hazel and birch so they could enclose land and own it and own the people set to work on it? Something like that. Anyway, however we got here, here we are: tiny green wedges among the tidy homes and the efficient agriculture and the corrugated sides of giant logistics sites. Of these little wooded places, we have a reliable favourite for our Sunday strolls: colour-coded signs marking out circular walks of varying length. The yellow walk, I think, is the longest (and therefore best): X number of miles in a leafy loop back to the car park. It works. And for a while, it worked especially well, marred-yet-improved by the fat trunk of a fallen tree right across the path at the top of a stretch of gently rising land. 3/4 of the way around the circuit, this obstacle lay there for months. Climbing over it became the highlight of the leg-stretching, the muddy palms brandished like proof of having achieved something. No way to get over it without laying hands on its footprint-smothered bulk, you see. It's gone now. And while we still like that walk, it feels like something important is missing as we climb into the final quarter of the circuit, minds turning to "home learning", work deadlines and the cramped, wired, electrified England crowding in on us just beyond the edge of that minuscule remnant of the old forest.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

I MIGHT STOP USING INSTAGRAM

The first time I posted something to Instagram was in in March 2013 and by May of the same year I'd figured out what I would want to use Instagram for most of the time: people-free close-ups of the small things that catch my eye... the quotidian beauty of the ugly, architectural details, the way human things look when contrasted with sky or water.

It seemed an admirable replacement for one of the things I'd been doing with this blog in its earliest days. Back then, I was in the habit of lugging a bulky SLR camera around with me almost every day, using it to take photos of things that not many people seem to be interested in taking photos of: untidy doorbellshandwritten signs and bursts of anger; mysterious markings on the streets under our wheels; the matter which accumulates around drains; the strangely even visual slicing of bits of our surroundings.

You can get some strange looks, let me tell you, if observed pointing a bloody great camera at a discarded leaflet, a crumpled beer can or a declaration of love written on a lamppost. Then there's the business of wrestling that big-bodied SLR out of its case. There's the fiddling with the lens cap. There's the hooking it up to the laptop back home. You get the idea: a bit of a ballache. So Instagram seemed like an upgrade: done with the tidy, tiny phone and up online in seconds; arty editing in a trice; the whole social bit of strangers finding your stuff and then you see their stuff and sometimes you like their stuff etc.

But the thing I liked most was the geo-tagging of the photos. I loved that. Not least because of my fondness for snapping graffiti and street art. Because those things come and go. The prettyugly little thing that catches your eye on Monday could be scrubbed off or covered up by Tuesday. Ephemeral. Fleeting. Lovely, then, to have a way of recording precisely were each eye-pleaser had been found and photographed:


The things I snapped used to appear in PRECISELY the right location. Zooming in, I could tell exactly where a tiny graffito or paste-up had been on the day I'd seen it. Nicenicenice.

But a little while ago something changed. I went to Instagram a picture and the app asked me to "Add Location". I was presented with a list of options, all of them shops, bars, restaurants, or tourist attractions. So Instagram suddenly wanted to associate my pictures of back-alley daubs or interestingly scrunched cigarette packets with places where things are sold for money. Not cool. And there doesn't seem to be a reliable workaround. Unless somebody knows of one?

This has kinda spoiled Insta for me, buggering up its most appealing feature in order to... what..? encourage people to discover new coffee shops? even though it's not obviously monetisable? (Or is it? Am I missing something?)... [BEMUSED EMOTICON]

So maybe I'll be blogging more little visual gems here again from now on. Or will I? Can I ever go back to the ballache of it? Let's see, I suppose.  

BIG TYPO

In October we went to Liverpool and the Wirral for a couple of days. It was a fairly enjoyable if largely uneventful trip. Right now, I'm looking at the handful of photos I took. This is my favourite:

   
This was taken at ADVENTURELAND in New Brighton. Inside: arcade machines. Outside: small fairground-style rides. Not great. But my son liked it well enough. Long may his low standards continue. Budding sophisticate he may be. But, at the age of 10, he can still be fobbed off with second rate attractions: weary, faded mini-golf; a dismal, ill-smelling travelling fair staffed by unsmiling tweakers. So, the cups of tea, the how-have-you-beens, the that's-very-nices, the walking, the eating and all that other adult stuff was punctuated by a short but slow interlude at ADVENTURELAND. The whirligigs whirled. The leaden sky swirled. I just looked at this sign above the entrance to the indoor part of the place and found myself imagining the conversation that would have unfolded when the signwriting firm delivered it to ADVENTURELAND. Didn't anyone look at any proofs or anything?

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

AMAZON TO FLORIDA

another birthday last month. well spent, too. which is unusual for me. well spent on a trip down to chichester, where we ate well, had front row seats at a STEWART LEE gig and dropped in on a dear old friend of mine. seeing my pal was good in itself. but he also went on to recommend a book that's stirred up a few ideas and given some pleasure in the weeks following the visit.

looking back at that enjoyable weekend away and looking forward to a trip to NEW YORK and FLORIDA that is now less than three weeks away, I do count myself a fortunate fellow. yes, yes.

NEW YORK will be a whirlwind. not even two full days into which a blaze of experiences must be crammed. I've been there before. but this will be my son's first trip to the city and he's anxious not to spend a single moment doing anything as dull as pausing for breath in a hotel room. so we must flash past a number of the main tourist sights, gorge ourselves on suitably american food, catch up with relatives and a family friend who live in manhattan AND sit through our first ever in-the-flesh NBA game. 

FLORIDA will be different. yes, the last bit of our stay down there will be somewhat eventful. but before we go, briefly, all resort hotel and theme park, we will linger longer in the very familiar stretch of U.S. suburbia and american edgelands around which one of my sets of in-laws can be found. no wifi in the house, amazingly! and I can only take so much sun, pale-complexioned, freckle-dotted english rose that I am. and only so many longlonglong infomercials on the tv. so: BOOKS.

good timing, then, that birthday of mine, not least because my other set of in-laws (the just up the road from here in-laws) always ping me a generously fat amazon top-up to mark the passing of another year of this life i'm living. here is the haul, almost all stuff written by familiar writers I can trust to do it for me. intrigued to see if a favourite will emerge in the FLORIDA sunshine between trips to the giant fridge for another weak, pale beer or another helping of HEARTS OF PALM salad:

NO SPECIAL QUALITY OF HEROISM

As discussed little while ago, I recently picked up the latest(?) posthumously assembled collection of never-before-seen (and previously-not-widely-seen) stuff by Charles Bukowski. Yet another volume for the collection.

Last time, I referred to The Bell Tolls for No One as a ragtag collection of short stories. But, having finally read the whole book now (I'm reading for pleasure much less often and much more slowly these days), I see that it's perhaps better to describe it as a mishmash of short pieces of writing.

Yes, of the various forms you will find between the covers of this collection, (familiar!) little stories grown from the kernels of real incidents in Bukowski's life are the most numerous. Yes, also well-represented here are small bits of dirty, ludicrous, fantastical fiction, each one realised over just a few pages: a factory worker shares an apartment with an ageing Adolph (sic) Hitler who is planning to populate the world with horrible creatures born of bathtub flatulence; a cop is kidnapped by a cast of grotesque, Rabelaisian and murderous criminals residing in a crumbling Hollywood mansion; in two separate but strikingly similar stories, mid-air havoc is wreaked by savage, perverted n'er-do-wells terrorising commercial flights.

But among all this fiction, we can discover think pieces that Bukowski contributed to underground newspapers such as Open City. Even in this context, the author tends towards anecdotes of a highly personal nature rather than towards pronouncing on the important and popularly discussed issues of the time.

But in the pages of The Bell Tolls for No One we do find one example of a form that Bukowski almost never used, namely straight socio-political commentary conveying a definite set of opinions presented plainly and unambiguously. This appears as the first part of a 1973 L.A. Free Press column, which does soon revert to something closer to one of the author's usual preferred forms, in this case a first person account of a friend telling a surreal yarn. But for a page-and-a-half, Bukowski writes about the then highly topical issue of American prisoners of war left behind in Vietnam:
The POW propaganda plant is still grinding against all sensibilities. We lost the war, got our asses kicked out by starving men and women half our size. We couldn't bomb, con or beg them into submission so we got out and while getting out, somebody had to come up with a smokescreen to make the populace forget we got our asses kicked. Let's build the POW angle, they said, and so it began. Bob Hope became concerned about the POWs; his wartime Santa Claus kick had rather petered out in the last two trips. The word was out and the act was in. The arrival of the first POWs was put on tv. Here came the plane in. And we waited and waited and the plane taxied and taxied. You never saw a plane taxi that much in any airport at any time in the world. The cameras waited and they bled it to death. Then out came the first grand POW and patriotism was back. 
These words written in the early 1970s took me back to the mid-1980s and to the first time I had any notion of a war in Vietnam having taken place. I was in my mid teens. Paul Hardcastle's 19 hit the  top of pop charts here in Britain and in many other countries. I clearly recall that several of our broadsheet newspapers took this as a cue to run Sunday supplement pieces on the Vietnam War. Up to then, then, I had been only dimly aware of this war. Fair enough. After all, the conflict had spluttered to its untidy conclusion when I was just five years old. I don't remember my parents speaking about it and it certainly hadn't been covered as part of the history curriculum at school. 

Something about the madness, the pointlessness and ugliness of America's ill-fated adventure in Indochina caught my adolescent imagination. So I went on to watch the movies Apocalypse Now and Platoon and the TV series Tour of Duty with morbid interest. Little by little, it dawned on me that all of these works of fiction seemed to be presenting Americans (if not America) as (the) victims of this war. Little by little, it occurred to me to wonder why the suffering and the deaths of Vietnamese combatants and civilians is passed over so lightly in these films and TV shows. Were they not victims too? If you really want to get into it, didn't the people of Vietnam suffer rather more badly than the fighting men of the USA? 

In those movies and TV series we see American conscripts and professional soldiers broken, brutalised and horrified by the things they see and do. We see American families and communities traumatised by grief for their dead or by the psychological and physical damage sustained by returning veterans. So we should, because, undeniably, tours of duty in Vietnam did ruin the minds and bodies of many American men. Men of modest means, on the whole, of course. Men whose families did not have the connections and wealth enjoyed by the parents of draft-dodgers such as Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney.

In those movies we see American men dying in battle too, of course. So we should, because around 60,000 US service personnel lost their lives during the Vietnam War. 

Big numbers, yes. Horrible things, definitely. Big, bitter divisions in American society. So of course it's a big deal. Of course movies and TV dramas have explored this American suffering. But are these really big numbers when set side-by-side with a tally of dead and wounded Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian people? No. Decidedly not. Because between 400,000 and 900,000 North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong personnel died in the war. Around 250,000 members of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (America's allies) were killed. Civilian deaths? Estimates vary wildly, but most seem to place the number at well over 1.5 million.

In this context, wouldn't a truly compassionate account of the Vietnam War focus to some degree on the suffering of the Vietnamese people as well as on the miseries of American servicemen? But I think about those movies and TV shows. As far as I recall, the makers of these fictional accounts of the war make no meaningful attempt to convey the scale of the horror visited upon the people of Vietnam and neighbouring countries. This makes it hard not to form the impression that Hollywood doesn't give a fuck about dead foreign civilians.

I am not alone in arriving at this conclusion. In a 2012 article which asks a wider question about why Americans ignore the civilians killed in "American wars", John Tirman notes that "the lack of concern about those who die in U.S. wars is... shown by these civilians' absence, in large part, from our films, novels and documentaries" and that "the entertainment industry portrays these wars... almost always with a focus on Americans."

For my own part, I believe I am capable of sustaining a compassionate response to the plight of the Vietnamese dead and wounded and to the tribulations of conscripted men from poor neighbourhoods across America. I'd certainly welcome a novel, movie or TV drama on the theme of the Vietnam war which invites and allows me to experience both feelings at once. But I do understand why others might consider the existing Hollywood and TV treatments of the Vietnam war and grow weary of being expected to sympathise only with the battered and blooded GIs. It was with this in mind that I read on as as Bukowski continued with his reaction to the return of American POWs:
A POW is a man who went to war knowingly, knowing he might kill or be killed, capture of be captured, maim or be maimed. These is no special quality of heroism in this. There are few real patriots anymore, there have been too many useless wars and they have come too fast.
Most American men of war age merely took a gamble; they figured by going that the odds against them actually getting killed were high. By going and returning, whether they believed in the war or not, they would still retain their decent citizen status and be able to return to their women and their jobs and their homes and their baseball games, their new cars. By refusing they faced imprisonment and/or hiding.
Most weighed it all and considered that going to war was the easier way, especially those with college educations and ROTC training who were able to fly above the muck and blood, only pushing buttons. That some of them became POWs was just tough shit of the spinning of the wheel and they know it better than anybody. And if they are given a free fuck now or a free automobile or applause or a good  job, they're going to take that too.
The other night at the Olympic Auditorium boxing matches, a former POW was introduced and he got up into the ring and was given a standing ovation. I once had an almost-admiration for boxing fans. I now see them in a different magenta lavender brownsmear hue...