Council Watch!

I spent an interesting couple of hours this afternoon in the public gallery at County Hall in Wakefield, watching the monthly (ish) full meeting of the Wakefield Council (MDC) – democracy in action, as they say. Composition – 53 Labour, 7 Conservative, 2 Ukip, 1 Independent – so not much doubt on the outcome of any votes, regardless of the quality of debate. An impressive room, late-Victorian municipal grandeur, semi-circle of seats but not much consensus. Some very traditional procedural formalities (prayers, the ceremonial mace, a minute’s silence), and a clear sense of deference to “The Leader” (Peter Box, since 1998), who spoke always with authority and some dry humour. Rugby League (Featherstone, Trinity and Castleford) was mentioned with pride. Food banks, homelessness, and suicide (one in 8 of all deaths – 83% male) were spoken of with less pride, and eventually some passion appeared from Councillors Tully and Rowley, in response to the combative (if repetitive) Conservative leader Nadeem Ahmed (the only non-white councillor, out of 63). Mr Ahmed is up for re-election in May 2018 in the Wakefield South ward.

Once various reports had been nodded through (including a 175-page City Centre Urban Design Framework Planning Document – nothing to discuss there), there was a debate on a motion about Homelessness, which filled half an hour, but offered nothing but anodyne good intentions.

So, what was that all about? Is that all there is? This monthly meeting may be just an opportunity for rubber-stamping and inconsequential political point-scoring, but what does it say about local democracy? I assume the real work of the Council and the Councillors goes on elsewhere, in other even less glamorous meeting rooms, and in “The Cabinet”. But what does a Metropolitan District Council like Wakefield actually control these days? In the old days, the local council was responsible for housing and education and transport and youth work, as well as the environment and social work – so many of these activities have been privatised and de-regulated and outsourced, and the Council’s funds have been remorselessly cut. I wonder what the 63 councillors feel they can achieve, what the limitations are that they operate under, and how prepared they are to acknowledge those limits.

I’ve just started reading a book – “Who Stole The Town Hall? (The end of local government as we know it)” by Peter Latham – perhaps then I shall have more context. In the meantime, as the government inevitably crumbles and collapses, we can hope for a Corbynite Labour future, and mobilising the energies and potentials of the many, and not just the few! (That’s a peroration, I think – this week’s new word.)


Il Cimitero Acattolico di Roma


All now turn outwards, night is omnivorous.
Great revolutions are menacing. See children inspired.

Antiquity nearby threatens ominous noodling. I obey,
Going round a man so casually insistent.

Any new thing often negates its opposite.
Grating retro amusements mask such coruscating insight.





Last week I spent a week working in an expensive private school in Wimbledon. This week I’m doing the same work, but in a church hall in Stockton-on-Tees. Geographically 280 miles apart. I’m staying in the Gresham area of Middlebrough, rows of terraced houses, some boarded up, some clearly empty, some half-demolished and left to rot, and some hosting Middlesbrough’s asylum seekers and other incomers. There are very few cars parked on the streets at night. The centres of both Middlesbrough and Stockton have some fine contemporary paving and mosaics, fountains, and poetry on sculpural features – evidence of money spent on “regeneration” – but are distinguished mostly by empty shops, boarded-up frontages, people left behind. Then tonight I went in search of Pizza Express, and found it, at a massive shopping centre, car parks, shops, cinema, more car parks. I feel like the town centre should be the heart of activity, public space, where people work and live and play, but I realise perhaps I’ve been left behind. These malls are where you find the populations now avoiding the town centres – the shops and restaurants and car parks are full, daytime and evening, and the air of misery and cliched northern deprivation is dispersed. So the question is, is my desire for a vibrant town centre now simply a sad nostalgic hangover, a sign of my age, or a sign of my youth in the 1970s? Shopping malls are not public spaces, they are private estates devoted to consumerism and capitalism, but if they are the future, how do we find the seeds of community and resistance there?

I went to a poetry event at Teesside University on Monday night, poems constructed from verbatim quotes from Durham coal miners over the past 200 years, shedding light on their lives and work and communities, now vanished along with the mines. If you were to interview the workers of the shopping malls, describing their lives and routines and experiences, what poetry might ensue? And what community?


Hope and Resistance

Goodness me, it feels difficult to adjust to this backward-facing world, where a 13:12 vote is described as “the people have spoken”, and the winning candidate in an election received 3 million less votes than the loser. There are voices to follow, to inspire resistance, clinging on to what used to be universally accepted universal values – human rights, individual rights for all individuals as humans, regardless of anything else – Paul Mason, Pankaj Mishra, Laurie Penny, Owen Hatherley, Beatrix Campbell – but resistance and solidarity has to happen in everyday life too, wherever we might be.

Meanwhile musical inspiration remains too – in “jazz”, anything related to the veterans Henry Threadgill and Wadada Leo Smith, anything on the Pi and Firehouse labels, anything involving the young(ish) progressives Mary Halvorson, Ingrid Laubrock, Taylor Ho Bynum, Jonathan Finlayson, and particularly Matana Roberts.

Resist and survive.


Reading list

Following in the spirit of the inimitable Meredith Debonnaire ( ), I shall offer a quick rundown of what I’ve been reading over the last month while working away.

Paul Mason – Postcapitalism : much more analytical of economic trends in a post-Marxist way than I expected, very thought-provoking – he sees the increasing automisation of work as an opportunity to create a fairer organisation of society, to question what the function of paid work is, to institute a citizens basic wage as a starting step to free people from wage labour/exploitation – that the exponential growth in information networks will lead to something beyond what we know as capitalism. Lots of good stuff in there – but even back in the 80s, people were saying that we would soon be liberated from full-time work by advances in technology, and like so many things, backwards has been the direction of travel.

Nina Power – One Dimensional Woman : arguing against populist mainstream so-called feminism based on consumerism and self-exploitation – and for the need to see wider societal struggles around equality, liberation for all, against capitalism, a wider intellectual view. Bracing.

Stieg Larsson – The Girl Who Played With Fire : second in the series, like the first, I read it addictively in about three days – 560 pages. And then I need to make myself wait to read the third one. Slightly like junk food, a thriller for right-on people on the left!

Ooi Kee Beng/Wan Hamidi Hamid – Young and Malay : doing my local research – a book of young people writing about their experiences growing up in Malaysia, where society is increasingly organised and structured and limited on racial grounds by government decree. These young Malays see that it’s not really helping anyone, they feel that what was originally a fairly relaxed multi-racial state sixty years ago is becoming more segregated and less tolerant, to everyone’s disadvantage. I hadn’t realised how institutionalised these distinctions are here. If you’re born ethnically Malay, you are by definition a muslim, and that is becoming less liberal, from above. The contrast with the Chinese and Indian elements is striking and quite peculiar. Similar issues in Singapore and Indonesia too. I can’t quite see how the embrace of western-style technology and consumerist culture fits in.

Laurie Penny – Unspeakable Things : totally inspiring book on women and men, feminism, sexuality, from an impassioned but clear perspective. Lots of issues I feel I was fired up about in the 80s (and since, as a parent/human) – she writes very personally, but with a broader perspective. Everyone should read this, but particularly men, with an open mind and a willingness to listen!

Sunjeev Sahota – The Year of the Runaways : another addictive novel, three young Indian men, illegal immigrants in Sheffield, and a young devout Sikh woman from Croydon – their stories interweave, often disturbing and tragic, or distressing, ultimately on some level inspiring, very involving. The book has a really naff cover (gold-embossed title) and a quote from the Daily Mail, not renowned for their sympathy to outsiders, coming over here and taking those jobs that noone wants to do. The collision of rigid stratified societies/cultures with western so-called liberalism.

John Gray – The Soul of the Marionette : John Gray is an antidote to Paul Mason or Slavoj Zizek or Jeremy Corbyn even, perhaps to anyone involved in politics at all – one of his main points is always that is no such thing as progress, or society evolving in a positive way – that even attempting to build a better society is doomed to make things worse probably – we are better off accepting the innate weaknesses/faults/failings of humans and getting on as best as we can. That all sounds a bit miserable I know, this is only a short book and took a little while to get going – philosophically it’s about freedom and free will, whether ultimately there really is any, and whether ultimately that’s important or not, and how that affects how we live. Why should we aspire to live a good life, what might that mean. The illusion that apparently endless developments in knowledge might lead to a correspondingly better life. He likes to knock down illusions, for what he might call realism. Perhaps this sounds negative, but it’s bracing, and not uninspiring.

As I type, with the ipod on shuffle, I’ve heard some Astor Piazzolla, some Iain Ballamy, some Jonathan Richman, Breeders, Patti Smith – also all highly recommended!



Certainty Integrity Surveillance

This week’s reading: Ben Watson on Derek Bailey, and then Glenn Greenwald on Edward Snowden.

Derek Bailey – uniquely cantankerous and single-minded improvising guitarist, from Sheffield, died ten years ago – worked for years in dance bands and doing pop sessions, but eventually pursued his own vision, uncompromising, and yet always open to people who were similarly open – not background music at all, always in the moment, spiky, provocative. And an excellent book by the extremely opinionated Ben Watson, always keen to bring in Marx and Adorno and Zappa, and Leeds. I come away wondering how some people manage to be so decisive, so clear, taking a position with such certainty. Maybe there’s still time.

And then Glenn Greenwald writing about the process of meeting Edward Snowden (in Hong Kong) in genuine cloak-and-dagger rendezvous, and all that was then revealed. The level of surveillance is so huge, and all those Seattle/silicon valley internet radicals are sucked into it, allowing their systems to be co-opted – google, apple, facebook, microsoft, skype – it makes me want to leave them all. No doubt this is another one. I looked up Glenn G’s newish website – which I see is partly funded by the owner of Ebay – there’s a thing! Perhaps it will provide a supplement to the increasingly frustrating Guardian. Mr G is a quintessentially American radical, everything is very closely argued, and there’s always a sense of surprise and disappointment at how somehow the founding ideals of the USA (always used to justify USA actions) continue to be abused and misused and betrayed so blatantly. And the question is, how many people care enough? And in relation to internet/communications surveillance, enormous as it is, how many people care enough? All of our communications are potentially available to be sifted through and examined. It’s not a good thought.


September music

Unexpectedly I’m going to attempt to write about music. Although I would like to recommend a couple of books – David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Will Self’s Shark – plus the remarkable hospitality of everyone I met in Indonesia in August while working in Malang, Surabaya and Jakarta. But apart from exam candidates, I heard only a smattering of live music while over there (and alas no live gamelan), so I’m hoping to top up with Cooly G in Bradford tonight, and Dave Kane’s Rabbit Project in Leeds tomorrow. And Loose Tubes again next week.

Meanwhile I’m listening, listening. Anything put out by Pi Recordings ( is worth investigating – so far this year, Henry Threadgill’s Zooid (In For A Penny, In For A Pound), Steve Coleman’s Synovial Joints, and now a new cd by Liberty Ellman (first for nine years) – Radiate. Exciting, angular stuff with edgy textures and rhythms – three horns, guitar, bass and drums. Serious New York musicians.

And a solo cd by Mary Halvorson (Meltframe) – I saw her at the Vortex with the Thirteenth Assembly a couple of years ago – she was the standout performer, so focussed and intense, no unnecessary notes or gestures. She operates in the world of jazz/impro (loosely defined) but brings in a lot of indie-rock riffing and distortion, more Derek Bailey than Charlie Christian, sounds rather than virtuosity. Compelling!

And earlier in the year, a third cd in the Coin Coin series by Chicago saxist Matana Roberts, an intense long-term project reinterpreting the black USA experience – a unique work – she’s playing in London and Brighton in early Oct and I’m gutted to be unable to go. Recommended!

Writing about music is much harder than writing about books – Liam Noble ( does it much better (eg posts about Ornette Coleman and John Taylor this year) – basically I just want to say “this is great, listen to it” – subtle criticism comes less easily.

Meanwhile, last week I read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – initially intrigued but then obsessively gripped so that I had to read the last 300 pages in one evening. Now recommended by I’m reading China Mieville’s The City And The City – similar feelings!

On the national anthem – I haven’t sung it for years and years – and I never say Amen in church either. Hope Mr Corbyn sticks to his guns – slightly militaristic sentiments for him, I know. I’m hoping he will go for the red poppy/white poppy combo on 11th Nov.