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 https://theintercept.com/ – 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 (http://pirecordings.com/) 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 (https://liamnoble68.wordpress.com/) 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 https://meredithdebonnaire.wordpress.com/ 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.


This week’s reading

Two books have been consuming my spare time recently. “Indonesia Etc” by Elizabeth Pisani – I don’t ever read what might be described as a travel book usually, but this had received good reviews and seemed appropriate when I came across it at the Salts Mill bookshop. Mostly she writes about the further reaches of Indonesia, a massive country with thousands of islands spread out (along the line of a geological fault) and the fourth largest population in the world. She writes about generous hospitality, and the survival of long-held traditions in the face of the incursions of modern life and trading and technology, in a country massively rich in natural resources and fertile. The transition from living just to feed yourself and your village to living as a wage-slave in the capitalist economy. And then the contrast of these distant corners of Indonesia with the central island of Java, the capital Jakarta, the overcrowding and shanty towns and thousands upon thousands of small motorbikes constantly on the move. Everyone looks like a gangster. And the concept of gangster, of a “free man” (no particular mention of a free woman) is also significant in the film “The Act Of Killing”, where veterans of 1960s anti-communist death squads re-enact their executions for a contemporary documentary film crew, with pride and excitement, rather than self-questioning. To be a gangster, a “free man”, romantically on the edge of society – but in fact doing the dirty work of the military state, and thus free from impunity. Quite a disturbing film, and not one that would make you more enthusiastic to visit Indonesia!

The second book, David Harvey”s “Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism” bears some relation, at least in its emphasis on the importance and tolerance of crime, illegality, exploitation and the unofficial economy in the growth of capital and capitalism. Having struggled dutifully through Marx’s “Das Kapital” thirty years ago, through the thickets of of obscure idealist philosophising to describe the inherent nature of the commodity fetish, this book is a much more readable, clear, comprehensible analysis of capital/capitalism and its irresistible growth and seemingly unstoppable destructive proliferation. Highly recommended! I’m only halfway through, but very much looking forward to discovering what his practical suggestions are for countering and replacing this way of living we are all apparently stuck with.

It’s the kind of book I fondly imagine Jeremy Corbyn might have on his bookcase (and have read). Wishful thinking perhaps.

But without wishful thinking, how will we ever imagine, let alone achieve, an alternative future?



Recent highlights:

Three days working at Masonic Hall in Bradford, surrounded by robes and symbols and a bookcase full of masonic history books. The building is for sale, a mile out of Bradford city centre, in its own grounds, backing on to a wood, potential for arts centre/commune/cafe/community hub – I spent the whole week fantasising about it, if only I had £500 000 – but it would be quite a commitment.

Two days in St Ives – classic steep hill leading down to narrow cobbled streets, chips and curry sauce on the harbour, sunset on the beach.

Then a day on St Mary’s, the largest of the Isles of Scilly, blissfully peaceful, hardly a car to be seen, strolling along country lanes always in sight of the sea, a dip in the water, chips and curry sauce on the harbour. Flew there on an 8-seater plane (four rows of two plus a pilot) – hardly enough room to sit up. A proper flying experience.

Three days in Liverpool, old-style veggie cafes (Egg Cafe) and new-style hipster cafes (Golden Square) – beards compulsory. Still a feeling of edginess and opposition and alternative cultures – daughter was staying in an old 5-storey warehouse in old industrial wasteland colonised by bike nerds and tattooists and other representatives of entrepreneurial counter-culture. I was staying in a slightly worn business hotel near the catholic cathedral. Liverpool gets high marks.

And a gig at the Barbican, depping with the Moog Ensemble, twiddling knobs in the dark, sometimes producing deliberate sounds. It is still pleasant to play music in public, occasionally.

Meanwhile, the EU’s treatment of Greece makes it very difficult for an (idealist) anti-austerity left-wing democrat to support the EU in any shape or form. Blatant capitalist dictatorship/repression/oppression. No question.


Fail to plan = plan to fail?

I’m sure that’s a quote from someone, perhaps an old politician, perhaps a wise old football manager – if you fail to plan, you might as well plan to fail. It goes along with – the harder I work/practise, the luckier I get – which was Gary Player, the golfer, I think. For now, the pithiest wisdom I have gleaned from nearly six weeks in Singapore is the importance of planning, by governments, from above, perhaps for the benefit of the wider people. And, it seems to me, that Britain is the proof of the reverse, ie thirty or more years of denying the importance of government planning, of shrinking the state, of worshipping the so-called free market, of trusting that somehow all will be for the best if we bow down to the demands of private profit in all areas, above any other consideration. In the name of austerity, the current Conservative government has joyously forged ahead with outsourcing more and more responsibilities to private companies – education, prisons, healthcare, social care, probation, the post office, on and on the list goes – so that all of these services are managed by companies whose first duty is not to provide a decent service, but to provide profits to their shareholders. We need to have the confidence, the vision, the self-belief, even the self-esteem, to say that we, as a country, as a people, are worth ensuring that these services are provided to each and every one of us fairly, generously, and that the only organisation that can ensure that this happens is the state – not profit-seeking private companies. Will anyone stand up in this election and argue for this?

Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore’s first Prime Minister, for thirty years, then remained in government for another twenty years – his son is now Prime Minister (coincidence?) – in fifty years of independence, opposition parties have won a total of about twelve seats in parliament. He was able to plan unashamedly, fifteen-year plans, in a small geographical area, but with undeniable results. Debates after his death: was he in any sense a democrat? A benevolent dictator? Or not so benevolent? A founding father of a nation? Clearly the wealth of Singapore is in international financial trading (above and below board) – not so different to the City of London then – symbolised now by the casino-funded Marina Bay Sands complex, and thus at the heart of rapacious, conspicuous capitalism, surrounded day-to-day by all-pervasive vacuous consumerism, shopping centres full of unaffordable luxury goods.

So now I’m arguing against myself – Singapore is a city-state distinguished by aggressive government planning to provide a centre for international capitalism – I’m looking for aggressive government planning in a large but fragmented islands-state to promote social justice/fairness/equality and education/culture for their own sake – a centre for international socialism, if you like. That’s looking a bit optimistic, even in Scotland. But I think there’s something to argue for there, still, even now, in 2015. But who might argue for it?


Reading – Self and Iris

Away in Singapore for six weeks, with much time to read. So far I have devoured a couple of older Will Self books (My Idea Of Fun and Dr Mukti), addictive, disturbing, entertaining – I hadn’t realised that he’s been using some characters for twenty years, interlocking somehow, without it being necessary to know the backstory from each one. Looking forward to Liver next, but you can have too much of a good thing. So I’ve just read Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea – 500 pages of high class theatrical soap – I’m sure Iris M is meant to be very deep and spiritual, but the narrator was an obnoxious obsessive theatre-luvvie, who never really developed any self-awareness – most peculiar indeed. And yet gripping, once stuff started to happen, if only to see if he would ever realise how deluded he was. I can see it as a period adaptation on a Sunday night – Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry would have to be in it, it would be laughable.

Found a really nice independent bookshop (Books Actually) in Tiong Bahru, what seems to be quite an arty little area, low-rise art deco flats from the 1920s/30s – bought some local poems and a book of noir crime stories set in Singapore – I’m trying to find the sleazy underbelly here, or the radical ferment bubbling up, but it’s not become apparent yet.

And then a few books on psychoanalysis, for light relief – a little gentle Freud; Adam Phillips on Missing Out, how we shape our lives around our ideas of what we haven’t done yet, or what we might have done, or what we imagine everyone else to be doing. And other stuff.

Enjoying listening to Henry Threadgill, new and old, as ever – and Matana Roberts – and right now, Scritti Politti. At some point, all these random inputs will coalesce.



This is night six in Hong Kong, three days of work completed, twenty-two to go. For someone who’s never been east of Copenhagen, it’s an interesting experience, particularly to have arrived during interesting times, occupations in the streets, an “Umbrella Revolution”, which is dissipating slightly but not fading away. Last night I met some resident poets at a poetry cafe event, a broad selection of freshly-hewn poems on a wide range of topics, from the implications of the protests to a veritable cornucopia of genitalia. Most entertaining. Staying in a smart hotel, it’s easy to bypass any sense of real action or engagement, but talking with and listening to the poets gave a clear impression of the tensions around, and particularly the likelihood of a consequent crackdown instantly on any smatterings of something similar in China itself.

So I sat in the lovely Lai Chi Kok park at lunchtime, eating my Subway veggie roll, a few locals dotted about doing their keep-fit and their tai chi, and wrote a couple of poems, and read some Zizek. Having only one job to focus on for a few weeks allows much more space than usual for contemplation. But generally Hong Kong is packed full of people, tower blocks everywhere, some old, some new, some falling down, a conurbation unlike anything in UK, and in the hotel area, endless parades of high-end luxury branded shops, and I assume people with money to spend in them. The air outside is hot and sticky, the air-conditioning is cool, and ecological concerns seem far away, out of mind, here.