Poetry to save lives

Kevin Higgins reviewed a collection of politically engaged poetry in Issue 33 (September 2008).

Dave Lordan, The Boy in the Ring (Salmon Poetry)

In the small world that is the Irish poetry scene Dave Lordan is, to say the least of it, an unusual case. His poetic imagination is politically engaged in a way that sets him apart from the vast majority of his contemporaries. Lordan was born in Clonakilty in 1975 and now lives in Dublin. For Irish poets of the previous couple of generations, opposition to the political and cultural status quo (whatever form that opposition might take) was more or less a given. Until the 1990s there was, for most, no way to be a poet in Ireland and not be opposed to things as they were.

The Irish feminist movement of the 1970s and ‘80s had its poetic counterpart in Eavan Boland’s 1982 collection Night Feed, the Catholic church was pretty wickedly satirised in poems such as Paul Durcan’s ‘Priest Accused of Not Wearing Condom’, and the brave new Ireland of the late 1970s was starkly taken to task in poems such as ‘Cuchulainn’ by Michael O’Loughlin: “At eleven-fifteen on a Tuesday morning / with the wind blowing fragments of concrete / Into eyes already battered and bruised / By four tightening walls / In a flat in a tower-block / Named after an Irish Patriot / Who died with your name on his lips…”

Suffering poverty is one thing: poets have a long history of being fairly okay with poverty, both their own and other people’s. But living under the then very real yoke of the Catholic Church—the constitutional ban on divorce, homosexual acts between consenting men illegal until 1993, the sale of condoms completely illegal until 1979—was bound to provoke opposition from artists. I think it was Trotsky who wrote that artists are petit-bourgeois in revolt against the role society is trying to force them into, or words to that effect. Until at least the late 1970s all Irish writers had to worry about censorship, and Irish women writers had to constantly fight against the silence which had been imposed on their mothers and grand­mothers. In the Ireland of the recent past if you were a poet, or artist of any sort, what you were for may not have been at all clear, but you typically knew what you were against.

In the past twenty years many of these issues have either ceased to be or been greatly ameliorated. The church is nothing like the force it was. Censorship is a distant abstraction to young writers starting out now. These days a poet is far more likely to draw the wrath of the left, for not toeing some ‘party line’, than he or she is to be condemned by the powers that be, who are, to be frank, so secure in their position of ideological supremacy that they don’t care what poets say about them. Yes, free market capitalism has, with im­punity, put its hands into pretty much every area of Irish life over the past decade or so. Most artistic types don’t like this, or at least think it has gone too far. But they are not alone in not having a clue what is to be done about it.         

Voting for Enda Kenny (with a bit of Éamon Gilmore thrown in) seems unlikely to change much. And to the bulk of artists, as to most people, the existing far left seems to be more about the past than the future. Even the most apolitical poet knows about what Stalin did to artists, and no-one wants to revisit that. Those few who do loudly engage with political issues tend to follow the formula of writing a stream of vituperative letters to the editor (everywhere from the Irish Times to the Longford Independent) in which they often conclude by sniping at their fellow scribes for not being similarly engagé. For most, excepting those tragic few on the far left who are impressed, it is clear that this sort of ‘political engagement’ is more about death than life. ‘Notice me!’ the sad scribe shrieks. ‘Before they screw down my coffin lid!’ But the world has more important things to attend to. And so the scribe shrieks all the louder. The value of the politically engaged writer has rarely been more open to question than in Ireland right now.

In this context Dave Lordan’s explosion on to the Irish poetry scene over the past couple of years has been a revelation. Towards the end of 2005 he won the Patrick Kavanagh Award. This March he won the Strong Award for Best First Collection, and was also shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award, which was won last year by a little known Co. Derry poet by the name of Séamus Heaney. Lordan’s rise is also proof that what is sometimes called the literary establishment is very open indeed to good political poems, however revolutionary they may be. It would perhaps have been more politically advantageous for his comrades if, when his first book appeared, instead of Lordan being brought to Dún Laoghaire to be given a big award, all copies of The Boy in the Ring had been seized in an early morning Special Branch raid on Salmon Poetry’s headquarters in Clare and Lordan himself exiled to Inisboffin. But it was not to be.

In his poetry Lordan is open about his politics. His point of view is usually that of participant rather than bystander, as in the case of ‘Migrant’s March, Genoa, July 19, 2001’:

The slogans surging up the back of fifty thousand throats
to greet them in our provisional republic.

Free-Free Kurdistan.
So-So-Solidarité.
A- Anti- Anti-capitalista.
Un altro mondo é possible.
Noi siamo tutti clandestini.

A language we all understand.
Is there any such thing as Ireland?

The closing couplet well brings to life the way participation in big political movements can help us transcend the apparently common­sense realities around us. The experimental five-page ‘Excerpt from Reflections on Shannon’ and ‘The hunger striker sings his death’ also both overtly engage with politics in a way that your typical poet believer in all things Irish Times would not:

I ask you again
What the fuck is silence;
And who ever heard
The dead requesting it?

I have, on occasion, heard Lordan’s poems criticised for being somewhat bombastic and more than a little relentless. It’s important to know that Lordan considers the ‘stage’—i.e. reading his poems aloud to an audience—to be more important than the page—i.e. having his poems quietly read from a book by solitary passive readers. When he is on form, he is one of the best performers Irish poetry has to offer. I once saw him perform ‘The hunger striker sings his death’ to a Galway audience which included a woman from a Protestant unionist background in the North who up to that point had more or less believed that the H-Block hunger strikers were just a bunch of guys who had starved themselves to death years ago to make some obscure political point. After the reading this same woman turned to me and said: “Now I get it.” As a poet Lordan has an ability to animate a subject in a way that far outstrips most of even the better public speakers on the left.

He gives his reader/listener the feeling that the people he writes about are not simply pawns in the political argument which undeniably does underpin many of his poems: he also cares about them as human beings. Lordan is an engaged witness to what is going on, rather than a propagandist trying to fit the world into some pre-conceived scheme. It is true that some of his poems are better heard aloud than read on the page but, as I’ve said, that is part of his plan. Lordan is one of a group of younger poets emerging in Ireland right now for whom reading their poems to live audiences is at least as important as being read on the page in the quiet of the reader’s living room. Others would include Cork poet Billy Ramsell who was shortlisted for the same Strong Award which Lordan won. One blogger commented that this year’s Strong Award seemed to represent the arrival in Ireland of “some sort of performance poetry”. And they were, in a sense, on the button. Many of the old boundaries have been eroded or kicked away, and the Irish poetry world is undeniably a more open, less snobbish place than at any other time in its history.

There have, yes, been one or two old guarders keen to pour ignorant scorn on the open mic and poetry slam scene which has sprung up in most of the key urban centres in Ireland over the past five years: they are the sort of people who would no doubt amend Yeats’s exhortation to future generations from “Irish poets, learn your trade” to ‘Younger poets, know your place’. A professor of Irish Studies based at a major American university—a pillar of the literary establishment, if you will—recently likened the aforementioned naysayers to those old men who like to whinge away to themselves about how ‘There’s never anything any good on the telly these days!’ Sadly, they have had some (albeit ineffectual) encouragement from those who should know better. In 2006 a poet member of a many-initialled Trotskyist group published an article in which it was argued that young poets would be better off going along to hear an elderly socialist playwright read his work in a small provincial hotel than wasting their time constantly reading their own work to audiences. Controversy ensued in the pages of The Irish Times, Poetry Ireland News and elsewhere. It is true that young poets should read the great poetry of the past: absolutely. But when a member of a Trotskyist group starts running around trying to stir up deference among the young, we have, to paraphrase Evelyn Waugh, ended up in a very queer street indeed. But I suppose we all make mistakes. In contrast, Dave Lordan has been a staunch advocate of the new poetic openness, even when this has meant not exactly toeing the party line.

And his best poems seal the argument. His ‘Explanations of War’ is one of the finest anti-war poems I have read in years:

See all those bright lights whizzing around in the sky—
They are only the stars throwing a party.
And the shaking you feel beneath you,
The shaking that jars your teeth and your bones—
That is only the way the earth dances.
And the bangs and roars, the cracks and blasts and booms—
These are only the sounds of little spirits tuning their instruments…

But by far Lordan’s greatest quality as a poet is his empathy. George Orwell once wrote that he found it hard to imagine that the typical “polysyllable-chewing Marxist” of the 1930s could possibly have been motivated by a love of anything, let alone the working class. He came to the conclusion that capitalism offended many of them not because it was unjust but because it was untidy. Lordan is a different sort of Marxist, and one rarely spotted in the English language poetry world. He has a genuine anarchic love of those who, as your Auntie Mary might put it, ’give us all a bad name’. His ‘Ode on de winning of de Entente Florale’ ironically and viciously celebrates Clonakilty’s win in that competition by giving voice to the at times Waffen SS-like prejudices of the organising committee: “Told ye so. Told ye we could win it / ’Spite de filth o’ de likes o’ ye / With yere baseball caps and yere baggy pants, / Yere ghetto blasters and yere nigger music…/And de trainee hoors hangin’ offa ye.” Lordan’s use of the demotic brings to mind the work of poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and Tony Harrison. And indeed, if English as it is spoken by the Afro-Caribbean community in London and the white working class in West Yorkshire can be brought into poetry, then why not Clonakilty? I trust the committee who master­minded the town’s Entente Florale triumph are suitably proud of Lordan.

His empathy is at its sharpest when dealing with the issue of suicide, which a number of the poems here do. Far ahead of unaffordable house prices and traffic jams, youth suicide has been the real curse of Ireland’s Tiger years. ‘Mail for a dead guide’ is written in the form of a letter to a friend who killed himself. Lordan is the first Irish poet to seriously and credibly engage with this subject. He is breaking new poetic ground in the way that, say, Cathal Ó Searcaigh was when he began publishing poems about being a young gay man growing up in rural Ireland back in the late 1970s. Lordan’s empathy is born of the fact that he is never an outsider to the issues he writes about, and has clearly done near deadly battle with his own demons in the past.

I finally get to this morning
but cringe at thoughts of my father
at the front door explaining
my mother’s Antigonian wailing…

In true Irish martyr fashion
I’ve decided not to give a warning.

‘Dying for Ireland’

Lordan has until recently been best known as a fairly brash political poet. But there is a huge vulnerability there too, which will, I think, be the making of him as a poet. It has enabled him to take his poetry into the until now uncharted terrain of modern Irish loneli­ness and despair at their worst. Every secondary school in Ireland should, as a matter of urgency, book Dave Lordan for a visit under the Writers in Schools scheme. We all know the old Auden cliché about poetry making nothing happen, but in this case it might actually save lives.

George Orwell: Anything but a saint

On the centenary of Orwell’s birth, Kevin Higgins discussed his controversial legacy in Issue 17 (November 2003).

This year’s centenary of George Orwell’s birth at Motihari in Bengal, India on 25 June 1903 has seen a marked upturn in interest in both his writing and in the man himself. Penguin have republished pretty much everything he ever wrote—both novels and non-fiction—in a series of glossy volumes, which basically add up to a collected works. There have also been two new biographies, both of which have, to varying degrees, tended to try and shift the spotlight away from George Orwell the stubborn teller of inconvenient political and social truths, and onto Eric Blair the man behind the pseudo­nym. There is certainly something to be said for this sort of approach: as someone who has read Orwell’s work voraciously over the years, I know that I certainly relished the opportunity to leaf through the grubby details of his life. But it also has its limitations.

The fact that he visited prostitutes, made throwaway comments insulting gay contemporaries such as W H Auden and didn’t like Scottish people is, of course, on one level all very interesting. On another level though, it is also completely irrelevant, doing nothing to diminish his critiques of capitalism and Stalinism in works such as Homage to Catalonia, The Road to Wigan Pier, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. I once heard someone say that everything Karl Marx had ever written could be dismissed as “rubbish” because he had throughout his life failed to properly provide for his family and (if that wasn’t bad enough) then got his housekeeper Helene Demuth pregnant. If we were to use, for example, the fact that Orwell apparently sometimes paid for sex to try and in any way diminish his achievement as a writer and political thinker, then this is the rather intellect­ually limited road we’d be heading down.

George Orwell was certainly flawed, both as a man and as a writer. When he came back to England in 1927, after a five year stint as a Colonial Policeman in Burma, and decided to ‘become a writer’ he looked like an unpromising wannabe indeed. The poet Ruth Pitter was a neighbour of his at the time:

He wrote so badly. He had to teach himself writing. He was like a cow with a musket.… I remember one story that never saw the light of day… it began “Inside the park, the crocuses were out…” Oh dear, I’m afraid we did laugh, but we knew he was kind, because he was good to our old sick cat.

Like most fledgling writers he started off by writing reams of grandiose garbage. According to Bernard Crick’s 1980 biography, George Orwell: A Life, the worst of this appears to have been a fragment of a play about a couple whose baby is dying because they can’t afford an operation she desperately needs. Despite their desperate need for money Francis, the father, refuses a job writing

advertising copy for “Pereira’s Surefire Lung Balm”… because the firm are swindling crooks, the substance is noxious, and, besides, he’s got his artistic integrity to consider. When his wife reminds him of Baby’s needs, he suggests that for her to prostitute herself would be no worse than the job she wants him to take. Then the scenario turns abruptly from naturalism to expressionism… “Everything goes dark, there is a sound like roaring waters.… the furniture is removed”; and we are in a timeless prison cell, in something like the French Revolution, with poet, poet’s wife and christian who “sits… reading a large book. He has a placard inscribed deaf around his neck.”

If a contemporary version of this early Orwell lived around the corner from me, I have no doubt that I would spend a good deal of time desperately trying to avoid him. I have known such people, and they rarely grow up to produce masterpieces!

The early Orwell’s politics were similarly unfocused and adolescent. Looking back on his earlier self from the vantage point of 1936 he has this to say in The Road to Wigan Pier:

I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed; to be one of them against their tyrants. And, chiefly because I had to think everything out in solitude, I had carried my hatred of oppression to extraordinary lengths. At that time [roughly 1928-1933] failure seemed to me to be the only virtue. Every suspicion of self-advancement, even to the extent of making a few hundreds a year, seemed to me spiritually ugly, a species of bullying.

The early Orwell’s stance could in a sense be read as the oh so predictable, immature rejection of bourgeois society by one of its more privileged members, who almost certainly only had a vague notion of what the word ‘bourgeois’ actually meant, and certainly hadn’t the faintest idea how things might actually be changed. Most such middle-class radicals end up being reabsorbed by the society they once supposedly despised. At best they become concerned journalists or perhaps panellists on The View. At worst they end their days thinking that Eoghan Harris has a point. But Orwell was clearly different. His rebellion was a serious one. It was this failure-worshipping stance that led Orwell to drift down among the tramps and winos of London and Paris. And from this milieu came the material for his first book Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. By now his writing had greatly improved from those early, laughable efforts. The plain documentary prose style for which he became famous was already visible. Orwell was nothing if not persistent. In Ruth Pitter’s words: “he had the gift, he had the courage, he had the persistence to go on in spite of failure, sickness, poverty, and opposition”.

The three years that followed saw him produce a novel each year, Burmese Days (1934), A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). The most significant of these for us is probably Burmese Days, a damning anti-imperialist indictment of British colonial rule in Burma: something Orwell knew from the inside having spent five years working as a policeman for the British regime there. All of these novels deal with issues important to Orwell: repression, snobbery, hypo­crisy, the worship of money and the frustration of artistic ambitions.

My personal favourite is Keep the Aspidistra Flying: his grim but often hilarious portrait of Gordon Comstock, a down-at-heel poet forever beset by financial embarrassment and sexual frustration. Comstock is obsessed with not being ruled by the “Money God”, and so leaves a well-paying job writing slogans for an advertising agency, and gets a badly-paying job in a bookshop. At least that way he has some hope of retaining his integrity. In the end, though, his girlfriend Dorothy becomes pregnant, and Comstock leaves the bohemian life behind; surrendering himself entirely to a future of Money, Marriage and Aspidistra Plants, all the things he previously spat venom at. Orwell’s portrait of Gordon Comstock is perhaps the last we see of his early, unfocussed radicalism. Keep the Aspidistra Flying was published in January 1936. By December of that year the Spanish civil war had broken out, and Orwell was in Barcelona fighting against the forces of General Franco as a member of the POUM militia.

Just after he’d finished Keep the Aspidistra Flying Orwell was commiss­ioned by Victor Gollancz of the Stalinist-leaning Left Book Club to write a book of documentary non-fiction about the condition of the unemployed in the industrial north of England. Gollancz offered him an advance of £500, huge money for the time. This was the coincidence which finally pushed George Orwell to become the overtly political writer we have come to know. Years later his friend, Richard Rees, recalled: “There was such an extraordinary change both in his writing and, in a way also, in his attitude after he’d been to the North and written that book. I mean, it was almost as if there’d been a kind of fire smouldering in him all his life which suddenly broke into flame at that time.”

Of course, events external to Orwell’s day-to-day life played their part too. 1936 was the year when the political and economic crisis of the 1930s really began to seriously gather speed as it hurtled towards disaster and the second world war. In March of that year the German army moved into the previously demilitarised Rhineland: the first serious violation by Hitler of the Versailles Treaty. In May Italy invaded Abyssinia and Mussolini declared that a new Roman Empire had been established. In July General Franco’s forces rose up and tried to overthrow the Republican government in Spain. When they didn’t achieve the easy victory they’d expected, the Civil War began. In October Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts were beaten off the streets by anti-fascists at Cable Street as they tried to march through the predominantly Jewish areas of the East End of London. And in December the abdication of Edward VIII did its bit to heighten the sense of crisis.

When he asked Orwell to write the book that would become The Road to Wigan Pier, Victor Gollancz hoped Orwell would produce a book some­thing like Down and Out in Paris and London, except that this time the focus would be industrial workers (both employed and unemployed) and their families, rather than tramps. What Orwell actually produced was a book of two very distinct halves: the first of which provides us with some of the best portraits to be found of working class life in 1930s England. For the first time Orwell begins to see working class people as human beings fully conscious of their own position at the bottom of society. He recalls watching a young woman trying to unblock a drain with a stick: “I thought how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling in the gutter in a back-alley in Wigan, in the bitter cold, prodding a stick up a blocked drain. At that moment she looked and caught my eye, and her expression was as desolate as I have ever seen; it struck me that she was thinking just the same thing I was.” Elsewhere, though, his view of working class life is just a little sentimental:

In a working-class home—I am not thinking at the moment of the unemployed, but of comparatively prosperous homes—you breath a warm, decent, deeply human atmosphere which is not so easy to find elsewhere.… on winter evenings when the fire glows in the open range and dances mirrored in the steel fender, when Father, in his shirt-sleeves, sits in the rocking chair at one side of the fire reading the racing finals, and Mother sits the other with her sewing, and the children with a pennorth of mint humbugs, and the dog lolls roasting himself on the mat.

The picture Orwell paints of this happy, simple life is so idyllic that it sounds almost like something from a speech by Ronald Reagan or Éamon de Valera. I have to confess that whenever I actually come across people as apparently wholesome as this, I tend to suspect that they either have bodies buried under the patio, or that Father (God bless him) will in the fullness of time be escorted into the back of a police van with a bag over his head, having been caught bouncing the little ones on his knee just a little too vigorously.

The second part of The Road to Wigan Pier is a hilarious, if at times slightly cranky portrayal of the organised left of the time. On his way to attend the Independent Labour Party Summer School at Letchworth, Orwell spots two other likely attenders:

both about sixty, both very short, pink and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on the top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, and then, back at them again, and murmured, ‘Socialists’.

Orwell seems to have enjoyed the company of those working-class activists he met in the North of England. But he quite clearly detested those on the left he saw as middle-class trendies or frauds of any type:

‘Socialism’ calls up, on the one hand, a picture of aeroplanes, tractors and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-haired Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers. Socialism, at least in this island, does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankiness, machine-worship and the stupid cult of Russia. Unless you remove that smell, and very rapidly, Fascism may win.

Despite his scathing portrayal of much of the left, Orwell himself was nevertheless moving sharply to the left politically. In early December he put the finishing touches to The Road to Wigan Pier and made arrangements to travel to Spain, where the civil war was now raging. He arrived in Barcelona on 22 December and was greatly impressed by what he saw:

The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing.… Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flags of the Anarchists… Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Seňor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’.

His experience in Spain would lead Orwell to write what is arguably his best book, Homage to Catalonia. But during his time there, Orwell was more than merely another literary tourist: he fought and was shot and badly injured. It was Orwell’s personal experience of the role played by the Stalinists in undermining and ultimately sabotaging this revolution that turned his fairly vague suspicions about ‘the cult of Russia’ into an implacable hostility towards Stalinism, which he retained for the rest of his life. During the Russian-backed crackdown on ‘Trotsky-Fascist Fifth Columnists’ in June 1937 he himself was forced to go on the run, sleeping rough on the streets of Barcelona for several nights, to avoid being rounded up because of his membership of the anti-Stalinist POUM militia. His friend George Kopp was imprisoned and tortured by the Stalinists. The torture with rats of Winston Smith in Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-Four is apparently partly based on Kopp’s treatment at their hands. And yet despite this tragic outcome Orwell left Spain inspired with an impatient, nagging hope:

For months past we had been telling ourselves that ‘when we get out of Spain’ we would go somewhere beside the Mediterranean and be quiet for a little while and perhaps do a little fishing… It sounds like lunacy but the thing that both of us wanted was to be back in Spain. I have recorded some of the outward events, but I suppose I have failed to convey more than a little of what those months in Spain mean to me.… the mountain dawns stretching away into inconceivable distances, the frosty crackle of bullets, the roar and glare of bombs; the clear cold light of the Barcelona mornings, and the stamp of boots in the barrack yard, back in December when people still believed in the revolution…

I think it is fair to say that Orwell left Spain a convinced revolutionary socialist. Indeed he spent the next couple of years waiting for a revolution, which in the end didn’t come. His next novel Coming Up For Air (1939) is a portrait of George Bowling, “a fat insurance salesman worn down by a loveless marriage, the expense of a family, children who despise him”. Bowling is exactly the sort of beleaguered Mr Average that Orwell thought the left needed to appeal to if it was ever to successfully take power in Britain. The coalminers and the cranks would never be enough. A win on the horses inspires Bowling to leave home one day and try to recapture something of his youth:

Of course, his journey is doomed—the small town [where Bowling grew up] had been engulfed by suburbia and his woodland paradise infested with fruit juice drinking, nudist vegetarians, and Garden City cranks.… Katie, his childhood sweetheart is now a worn-out, middle-aged drab and the secret pool, the symbolic centre of his childhood fantasy, turned into a rubbish dump. The horrors of the mass society have overwhelmed the holy places and Doomsday threatens in the form of Hitler, Stalin and their streamlined battalions.… George returns to his bourgeois prison to face again his nagging wife and unlovable children.

Orwell had clearly moved a long way since the days when he believed that salvation could only be found down among penniless tramps. He was now thinking in concrete terms about how society might actually be changed, and socialism made to appeal to both the working and middle classes.

The two novels that followed before his premature death from TB in 1950 are what transformed him from a medium-sized 1930s figure into a literary superstar, whose books will no doubt still be read two hundred years from now. Animal Farm (1945) is an ingenious Swiftian satire on the Russian Revolution betrayed. Orwell has been accused by some of jumping on the Cold War bandwagon, and of allowing his work to be used by reactionaries and warmongers to attack the socialism which he himself believed in. It’s important to remember, though, that when Orwell was writing and trying to find a publisher for Animal Farm, the second world war was still on, and Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union were still allies. Orwell actually found it incredibly difficult to find a publisher for what was seen at the time as another trouble-making book by him. So the charge of opportunism really doesn’t stick. Later Disney (with a little help from the CIA) purchased the film rights to the book and famously removed the last scene in which the animals peer in the window at the pigs and the humans having dinner together, and cannot see any difference between them. Orwell’s message that the Stalinist bureaucracy (represented by pigs) and the capitalist class (represented by the humans) were as bad as each other was no doubt a little inconvenient for the American cold war propagandists who hijacked his work. The manner in which life-long Soviet apparatchiks such as Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin managed to trans­form themselves into advocates of the gangster capitalism now prevalent in Russia shows that he was of course right: in the last analysis there was very little difference between them and the capitalist class in the west. They would do anything to hang onto their positions, up to and including the complete restoration of capitalism.

His last major work was Nineteen Eighty-Four, a deeply pessimistic portrait of a totalitarian society, resembling those that then existed in eastern Europe. By the time he wrote this book, Orwell had moved away from the near Marxist stance of Homage to Catalonia. His revolutionary moment had passed. And of course world events had moved on too. The second world war was over, and Britain now had a Labour government which Orwell basically supported. It was this Labour government—a government far to the left of that of Tony Blair—which created the National Health Service and the welfare state. By the time Orwell died in 1950, the political situation was completely different to that of 1936, the year he went to fight in Spain. Orwell had an instinctive rather than a theoretical attitude to politics. His contempt for theoreticians—“shock-haired Marxists chewing polysyllables”—led him to spend a lot of time reacting against other people’s ideas rather than coming up with credible ideas of his own.

The worst example of this is his stance in relation to World War II. In September 1938, during the Czechoslovakia crisis, Orwell published a short article in New Leader, the paper of the ILP, in which he stated: “We repudiate… all appeals to the people to support a war which would, in fact, maintain and extend imperialist possessions and interest, whatever the incidental occasion.” At the time the Stalinist parties where promoting the Popular Front policy. ‘Democracy not Fascism’ was the slogan, and they were desperate to build an alliance against Nazi Germany between the Soviet Union and western powers, such as Britain and France. When the war actually came both Orwell and the Stalinists did a complete about-turn. The Hitler-Stalin pact was signed and the Soviet Union stayed out of the war until it was attacked itself in 1941. The Communist Parties attacked the war as ‘imperialist’, just as Orwell had in his New Leader article. Orwell, on the other hand, strongly supported the war effort and vehemently attacked the anti-imperialist, anti-war point of view, which he himself had still supported as late as August 1939. He never properly explained this about-turn. A likely explanation is that, by then, his hatred of the Stalinists was so intense that when he heard them saying one thing, he would, if at all possible, say the opposite.

His hatred of all things Soviet was also his motivation when, on 2 May 1949, he sent a list of suspected Communists and fellow-travellers to the British intelligence services. The list included both literary figures such as Stephen Spender and J B Priestley, and left-wing Labour MPs such as Ian Mikardo and Tom Driberg. A number of the people named by Orwell were outed not just as suspected Communist sympathisers but also as homo­sexuals. Given that homosexual acts between men were still illegal in Britain, and would remain so for another twenty years, this was a partic­ularly disgusting thing to have done. Orwell handed MI5 material which they would no doubt use to blackmail left-wingers and socialists. There is no excuse for this. Despite his many faults, though, Orwell is a writer whose work will always be of interest to socialists, indeed to thinking people everywhere. Yes, he was often cranky, often wrong. But his dogged pursuit of some of the awkward questions of his time led him to produce two of the master­pieces of socialist literature, Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm. And the bravery he showed in opposing Stalinism—not when it was weak and collapsing but at the height of its power—cannot be lightly dismissed. If this Orwell lived around the corner from me, he would be welcome to come around for a cup of tea anytime. No doubt we would argue. But such is life.

Palaces of memory, rooms full of light

Issue 13 (July 2002) saw Kevin Higgins review a novel telling of Trotsky’s last years.

Meaghan Delahunt, In The Blue House (Bloomsbury)

Meaghan Delahunt’s debut novel—a fictionalised version of Leon Trotsky’s last years in Mexico and, in particular, his relationship with the artist Frida Kahlo—bucks a number of the trends which have lately come to dominate the rather precious world of contemporary English language fiction. Given the typically oh so self-obsessed novels about getting divorced in Hampstead (à la Martin Amis) or going to find yourself in Spain (à la Colm Tóibín) which currently dominate the bookshelves in Eason’s and Waterstones, it was refreshing indeed to find a novel in which history, far from being over, is writ large; and to encounter characters who, for better or for worse, actually mattered in the grand scheme of things. However, perhaps the way this novel differs from most of its contemporaries is best illustrated by the fact that I actually managed to read it from beginning to end—all 304 pages—without once being tempted to see what was on the television. Episode after episode of Home and Away and The Bold and the Beautiful drifted into oblivion as it grabbed and held my attention.

Delahunt successfully weaves the messy details of Trotsky’s personal life (such as the affair with Kahlo and its aftermath) and the tumultuous events of his political life into an impressively seamless whole. To do this she uses an occasionally bewildering variety of narrators, everyone from Trotsky and Kahlo themselves to Stalin, Beria, the poet Mayakovsky and Ramon Mercader, the man who eventually wielded that ice-pick. She also skips around considerably in time. For example, the story ‘starts’ shortly after Frida Kahlo’s death in July 1954 with Señora Rosita Moreno reminiscing about Kahlo’s life in the Blue House of the title. On page 175, though, we’re suddenly back in 1898 and the young Trotsky is pacing around his first ever prison cell in Odessa. Changing narrator with each chapter, Delahunt’s version of the story moves relentlessly back and forth through time before ending back where it began with Frida Kahlo’s death in 1954. A structure which in the hands of a less accomplished writer could have made the novel confusing and episodic actually works very well.

The chapters are short and punchy, and almost entirely devoid of self-indulgent first novel rambling. The book apparently evolved from a short story of Delahunt’s, ‘In the Blue House at Coyoacan’, which was published in the Australian literary magazine Heat back in 1998. And one gets the impression that it has been through several drafts. Facing into a story like this must have been an absolutely daunting task for a first-time novelist such as Delahunt. To begin with, the fact that it is based on the lives of prominent historical figures, who were alive as recently as the middle of the last century, means that you need more than dramatic tension to keep the reader interested. Hardly anyone will read on simply to find out ‘what happened in the end’, because the vast majority of Delahunt’s potential readers will already have known at least the basics of the ‘Trotsky story’ long before they picked up her book. Of course, one definite advantage In The Blue House has from the outset is that, quite unlike the typical Hampstead divorcee, its characters are all such interesting people.

It is, above all else, a book about Trotsky’s personal reaction to the dev­astating political defeats he suffered during the last decade and a half of his life. As Delahunt tells it, his affair with Frida Kahlo was something of an attempt to recapture his former glory at a time when, deep down, he knew perfectly well that his days were numbered:

He had seen himself new, had felt as if all the accumulations of his past had been rolled back in the body of a person much younger than himself who knew only the grandeur of him and none of its fading.
For Natalia [his wife] knew the lustre. She knew, also, the efforts to maintain it, to polish. The effort, sometimes, to keep going.
The younger woman saw none of this, and this cheered him. Made him forget how much effort it took to rise again in the morning, preparing for battle, wondering if that day would be his last and, if that were the case, how best to live it.

How different this Trotsky is from the caricature ‘Strelnikov’ in Doctor Zhivago with his deadpan declaration about the personal life now being “dead in Russia”. Much has been made of the way Trotsky supposedly shrugged off even the most devastating political setbacks. And no doubt he had an amazing capacity for picking himself up and starting from scratch again. However, I have to say that I think Delahunt does us a service by making her Trotsky rather more completely human than the one we are used to. Shortly before his death in August 1940 she has him suffering from insomnia and wondering if he had “like Marx, neglected those closest to him? Made intolerable demands upon them?… Maybe he had no talent for love or intimacy.” Some will undoubtedly read these thoughts as belonging more to Delahunt than to Trotsky, and as such will see them as the self-justification of someone who simply hadn’t the stomach for the long, hard haul of revolutionary politics. However, this would, I think, be a crude reading to say the least. After all, who among those of us who’ve had any sort of serious involvement in revolutionary politics has not, on occasion, paused to consider the toll that involvement has taken on their personal life?

My favourite passage, though, is on page 253 in a chapter narrated by Trotsky’s wife Natalia:

Of course, later, when personal tragedy consumed us, when we lost everyone [including all of their children]… He would stand at the window and look up at the moon. He would pack the dead away inside himself. So many spaces for the dead inside. We spoke often of our palaces of memory. In these rooms our children still played. Friends still embraced; we clinked glasses in rooms full of light. But some rooms, after we had endured too much, could never be opened.

Though this is clearly a description of a deeply personal tragedy, it could also be read as a sustained metaphor for the complete crushing of revolu­tionary optimism in any time or place. And, while it would certainly be ludicrous to make any direct comparison between the relatively small sacri­fices activists today sometimes make and the gothic tragedy which engulfed Trotsky, there are, I think, many of us who know something about what it’s like to have long-lost comrades with whom we still occasionally clink glasses in imaginary “rooms full of light”. As a former Trotskyist activist herself, Delahunt clearly knows what she’s talking about here. However, far from being some dry political tract, In The Blue House is, on the contrary, a very accomplished work of art indeed. By avoiding hero worship and, instead, painting this picture of a decidedly fallible Trotsky grappling with the con­sequences of a catastrophic political defeat, Delahunt succeeds in making him someone the contemporary reader can really believe in.

Hitchens through the looking glass

Kevin Higgins reviewed a book on controversial critic Christopher Hitchens in Issue 52 (June 2013).

Richard Seymour, Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens (Verso)

In this full-frontal assault, the late Christopher Hitchens gets a dose of his own strong medicine. Richard Seymour presents the case against Hitchens to the world in forensic detail, in a manner that consciously parodies Hitchens’s own book-length diatribes against Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger. It is a trial in which the verdict was already decided upon before the first word of this eloquent prosecutorial tract was typed. Having convicted the late (and, for him, unlamented) Hitchens long before page one, Seymour closes with a quote from the nineteenth-century radical essayist Hazlitt: “He became ‘a living satire upon himself’.”

Seymour first used the long-form version of that quote against Hitchens when responding in The Guardian to the news that Hitchens had been posthumously honoured by the Orwell Prize:

Yet in his final years, Hitchens resembled nothing so much as the wretched apostate assayed by William Hazlitt—haunted by “the phantoms of his altered principles”, driven “to loathe and execrate them”, offering “all his thoughts, hopes, wishes, from youth upwards… at the shrine of matured servility”, becoming, at last, “one vile antithesis, a living and ignominious satire on himself”. And it is a sorry thing, but I suspect it is that Hitchens [my emphasis] who has been posthumously honoured…

In the course of these more than one hundred pages Seymour lands many heavy punches on Hitchens’s corpse. There’s the fact that he couldn’t be bothered to vote Labour in the 1979 general election, his apparent infatuation with (the now also late) Margaret Thatcher, his support of the Falklands war, his ambivalence about the British Empire and, of course, Iraq. High crimes and misdemeanours, to be sure. Before you lop someone’s head off, though, even if that head belongs to a dead man as it does in this case, it’s important to know exactly who is doing the accusing.

Seymour correctly points out that Hitchens had a tendency to avoid difficult issues, particularly in his best-selling memoir Hitch-22. For example, in 1998 Hitchens swore in an affidavit for the House of Representatives impeachment trial of Bill Clinton that his (then) friend Sidney Blumenthal had told Hitchens that Monica Lewinsky was “a stalker”, i.e. a woman obsessed with imposing her affections on Clinton’s hapless willy. Blumenthal telling Hitchens this lie was part of a Clinton administration attempt to spin the story against the woman on whose dress the President memorably ejaculated. It is possible that Blumenthal, who was given the job of spinning this story to journalists he believed would be sympathetic, did not know that it was a lie. In his own testimony to the committee, Blumenthal denied that he had ever smeared Lewinsky’s character in that way. He was not happy, to say the least of it, when Hitchens told the Republican-controlled congressional committee the truth. This wound to their friendship never healed. No surprise there. It is a little odd, though, that Blumenthal’s name appears not even once in Hitchens’s 424-page memoir. Surely there must have been something to say about this friendship that was sacrificed on the altar of a committee chaired by Representative Henry Hyde—a man who had previously argued that, though Oliver North may have lied to Congress, his cause was a noble one: fighting communism, which made all the lying and other skullduggery OK, if not even slightly heroic.

Such interpersonal issues aside, Hitchens was upfront about his previous political associations. In the aforementioned memoir he goes into some detail about his recruitment to and membership of “a small, but growing post-Trotskyist, Luxemburgist sect”. Hitchens was an active member of said small, but growing sect while a student at Oxford University and for some years after. Until earlier this year Richard Seymour was also a long-standing member of the afore­mentioned sect. It is true, certainly, that anyone who has followed Seymour’s blog Lenin’s Tomb could not but be aware of his political affiliation. But it would be possible for a newcomer to read his indict­ment of Hitchens from beginning to end and not be exactly clear about that.

A number of the leaders of this political tendency—including one who was apparently recruited to the group by Hitchens—are presented as witnesses for the prosecution in the chapter ‘Christopher Hitchens in Theory And Practice’. Ironically, Seymour has since fallen out with said Hitchens recruit because of a serious scandal which saw a leading member of the group accused of raping a female comrade. The leadership have been accused of covering the issue up, and Seymour has bravely taken to an oppositional barricade. One result of this has been that he, and many of his co-oppositionists, have found themselves outside the fold.

But when Seymour wrote this book, he was still a true believing member, and happy to quote as reliable witnesses people whose word he clearly, in the light of recent catastrophes, no longer accepts as gospel. The testimony of a serving member of a far left group against someone who has departed the fold is, quite simply, never to be believed. Particularly when it is based in any part on warmed-over anecdotes by old-timers who, dammit, always suspected that deep down he/she was an incurable bourgeois hound from the get-go. It is not enough to say that the ex-member is no good now: it must be proved that he/she was always dodgy. In such a campaign of reputational revision, no smear is inadmissible. The converse is also the case, as Seymour would now no doubt have to agree: if you are a serving leadership loyalist in such a group—and the one in which Hitchens and Seymour served their time is not at all unique in this regard—then even if you happen to have dead children buried beneath a conservatory which you are forever extending when you’re not out selling papers or attending branch meetings, this will not be spoken of. Until you resign your membership. I exaggerate… perhaps.

Once the reader knows that the Richard Seymour who wrote this book is several rungs below the jilted ex-husband on the reliability as a witness league table, you can give his case against Hitchens its proper weight. Hitchens was someone who tended to lurch about the place at speed politically, and make things up as he went along. He was wrong about many issues, and when he was wrong, he was very, very wrong. For example, his attempt to excuse the Bush administration for its monstrous mishandling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans was, well, shite talk pure and simple.

Hitchens was a man drawn to the grand idea—a hangover from his days in that “small, but growing post-Trotskyist, Luxemburgist sect”, no doubt—and when reality got in his way, the deeper the hole he was in, the more furiously he dug. His polemics against religion, in God is not Great and elsewhere, leaned too heavily on only part of Marx’s famous quote about religion being “the opium of the people”. The rest of it says that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions.” In other words, as long as there are oppressed creatures in a heartless world, then many of those oppressed creatures—in the absence of a better offer—will continue to imbibe the religious opium. This is not to say that such use of opium a good thing, or that it shouldn’t be argued against. But you’re not going to wean people off such super­natural hopes by mere argument alone.

Seymour appears to dismiss Hitchens’s famous polemic against Mother Teresa on the grounds that she was an easy target. In what way? In 1995, the year Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in theory and practice was published, the book’s subject was not only still alive but the most successful religious conwoman in the world. She had been a friend of the Haitian dictator Baby Doc Duvalier and of the deranged Albanian Stalinist leader Enver Hoxha. She had accepted financial support from the convicted Savings and Loans fraudster Charles Keating. She was lauded for her work with the poor in Calcutta, though this was to an overwhelming extent illusory. She campaigned not only against abortion but also against all forms of family planning in, of all countries, India. That November she stopped off in Dublin to join the call for a No vote in our divorce referendum. Mother Teresa was an ultra-reactionary pest whom the world showered with prizes, including the Nobel Peace Prize, though she never even claimed to do anything to promote peace. Her speech at the award ceremony in Stockholm in 1979 was all about the evils of abortion. I’m currently compiling the shortest list in history: Irish liberals and lefties who took Mother Teresa to task. So far, there are no names on it. Not even my own. Hitchens’s smashing of the icon that was Mother Teresa is a book which should be force-fed to everyone who thinks that Michael D Higgins is very brave in the way he’s speaking out right now, or that Mary Robinson is an important ethical voice for our time.

George Galloway was another of Hitchens’s victims. His debate with Galloway about the Iraq war at Baruch University, New York in 2005 was a classic heavyweight contest in which no stone was left un­thrown. Unlike Mother Teresa, Galloway answered back. In an inter­view broadcast after Hitchens’s death, Galloway gloated that now Hitchens knows that God is indeed great. It should have been absolutely possible to both oppose the Iraq war and to say that George Galloway is an egomaniacal charlatan with a serious addiction to French-kissing the buttocks of any sordid little tyrant who’ll let him. Yet I can only think of one person on the entire British left who consistently said that it was so: Peter Tatchell, the legendary gay rights campaigner who also very actively opposed the Iraq war. The vast majority have been not at all keen to examine the phenomenon that is Ungorgeous George, and resented Hitchens for his attacks on their hero.

Yes, most will admit, Galloway is flawed, but he’s on the right side. The thing is, though, he’s not. He presents a programme on the Iranian regime’s propaganda station Press TV, opposes a woman’s right to choose, and openly supported the Iranian police and militia when they shot dead a young Iranian woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, during their crackdown on protests against the rigged presidential election in 2009. In 2010 Galloway described Bashar Assad’s Syria as “the last castle of Arab dignity”. It depends what one’s definition of dignity is, of course. Ireland’s recent discussion about abortion has been bad, but it could have been worse. As well as having to suffer Breda O’Brien and Caroline Simons, just imagine what it would have been like if Mother Teresa was still alive and George Galloway lived in Galway. For such small mercies are we truly grateful. Seymour doesn’t choose to discuss Hitchens’s great debate with Galloway. No doubt it didn’t suit his grand anti-hegemonic political scheme.

Unhitched is well written, if a little verbose in places. Indeed, Seymour’s writing style calls to mind that of Hitchens himself. To read this book is to look at Christopher Hitchens through the looking glass: one cannot help wonder where on the political spectrum its relatively youthful author will end up? So Seymour is a good writer and possesses no small amount of courage. He has that in common with his subject. But to paraphrase 1970s crooner Dean Friedman, he’s not as smart as he’d like to think he is. Certainly, he convicts Hitchens of not having a coherent political alternative to those on the left whom he savaged. But Hitchens was never a writer of manifestos: he was a smasher of sacred statues, statues which for the most part absolutely deserved the smashing he gave them. And his words will live after him.

For example, the Catholic hierarchy has implied that politicians who vote for the government’s X Case legislation may face ex­communication. It reminded me of one point Hitchens made in one of his many debates about religion:

Like many Nazi leaders, Josef Goebbels started off as a practising Catholic and was the only one to be excommunicated—not because of his Nazi crimes but because he married a woman who was not only a Protestant but divorced. So, we do have standards, then!

Wouldn’t it be delicious to see some whispery-voiced cleric reminded of this fact during the Irish abortion debate? A good boy like Fintan O’Toole would never even think of saying such a thing. Michael D Higgins might say it in private, at a fundraising dinner party at which known Trotskyists were present. Hitchens, on the other hand, would say that and worse to the whole listening world. And for that, if nothing else, we must love him.

Culture and the recession

In September 2010 (Issue 41) Kevin Higgins asked how socialists should respond to cutbacks in the arts.

Since the implosion of the international banking system in September 2008 ushered in this era of our great economic unhappiness, the atmosphere of everyday life in Ireland has changed for every­body to an extent that would have been unimaginable just three years ago. Be you nurse, property developer, teacher, banker, person with disabilities, administrator of corrupt FÁS scheme, teenager sitting the Leaving Cert or Fianna Fáil politician in search of votes, nothing is quite as it was during the dear departed era of bigger, better, faster, more. This is not to say that we are all in it together. But whoever you are, the age of less is upon you.

You will be forced to pay for the clean-up, whether or not you got to go to the party during those years when each July the sky right above me was loud with helicopters carrying Seánie and Dunner and Fingers and friends to the Galway Races. The G Hotel out the road used to charge €2,500 per night for its luxury suite during race week. This year no one, with the exception of Ireland’s foremost stand-up comedian Enda Kenny, wants to be seen dead with the fallen gods of the property bubble. Last month one Galway establishment received seven hundred applications for a few badly-paid jobs collecting glasses for the week of the festival. Many people are desperate. Property developers and bankers have now joined paedophile priests at the bottom of most people’s invitation list for any event at which other human beings will be present. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen: it’s been a long way down.

Such disturbed economic weather has inevitably had a big effect on the arts, particularly at the grassroots level. I took part in a night of poetry and music at the International Bar in Dublin recently which had something of the atmosphere of the Weimar Republic about it. The capacity crowd was a little on the raucous side, but very friendly with the exception of one inebriated gentlemen of middling years who had to be escorted to the exit because he kept interrupting the performers. He repeatedly muttered, rather disconcertingly, that he had “something to say about Christopher Hitchens”!

For most of the nineties and noughties such an individual would have been seen by many younger audience members as an unshaven throwback to the grim and dirty days of the mid-1980s: one of life’s losers who, though the whole world around him was now winning, was still working hard to continue the losing streak which probably began the day Horslips broke up. He’s the kind of guy who typically likes an economic crisis because it provides him with a background into which he can partly fade. Paradoxically, despite the fact that he was shown the door and I was one of the guest poets, I felt he fitted in with the crowd, many of whom felt sorry for him, at least as much I did. The motto ‘There but for the grace of whoever could go any of us’ is back, which is maybe a first step back towards something like solidarity.  So many people are losing these days, the word ‘loser’ is likely on its way to join ‘property ladder’ and ‘soft landing’ in the dustbin of terms that no longer apply. The ‘Show me the money, fuck you, I want it now’ vibe of pre-2008 is as dead and gone as the Fianna Fáil tent.

The cultural scene is also undergoing big changes, although I can only speak in detail about my own area, literature. As with the economy, it looks very much like the 1930s in slow motion. The big festivals which a couple of years back would pay healthy fees to visiting poets and fiction writers are coming under pressure. This year Mayo County Council’s Arts Office cancelled their popular Force 12 Writers Weekend in Belmullet, apparently for financial reasons. In the summer of 2008, when the word ‘recession’ had just crept back into the lexicon of Irish pub talk but before Lehman Brothers went belly up, a group of us were well paid to read our work and conduct workshops at said festival. It was for many years a great gathering point for writers—both established and new—in the west. Its demise is a great pity, and just one example of how the crisis is making life narrower and duller for many. This is not intended to be any sort of criticism of those who work for Mayo County Council Arts Office. It is easy to mouth empty, left-sounding criticisms of arts ‘bureaucrats’. Such rants are rarely anything like the truth, and taking them at face value will only lead you into the company of some of the worst cranks imaginable. The cranks who loiter on the fringes of the arts are typically even worse than the most ghastly political crank you’ve ever met on the left. Although, in a few cases, they save us time by actually being the same people.

The truth is that those responsible for the arts in every local authority countrywide, and administrators in a wide variety of established arts organisations, have since the onset of the recession been moving heaven and earth and then some to try and ensure that the arts and personal creativity can remain accessible to as many people as possible in all the many forms that might take. This will on occasion mean trying to rustle up the funds to ensure that an opera festival continues or that an exhibition of abstract art can go ahead. Some would say that such elitist minority interests should not receive public money. But the truth is that far more of what the left likes to call ‘ordinary working class people’ attended the Galway Arts Festival this July, for example, than will this year or next year attend all the public meetings of the different Irish far left groups put together. Facts like this should give you pause next time your inner philistine asks why on earth taxpayers should be subsidising such things at a time when tens of thousands of workers are losing their jobs and services such as health and education are being slashed.

The entire budget for both the Arts Council and Culture Ireland, which offers grants to help promote the work of Irish artists to audiences outside Ireland, was €73.23 million this year, about one third of one percent of the twenty odd billion given to bail out Anglo Irish Bank. And much government funding for the arts goes towards projects which are anything but elitist, such as the painting classes for older long-stay patients at Merlin Park Hospital or the popular creative writing classes provided for people with disabilities in Galway by the Brothers of Charity’s Away with Words project. Such projects, and there are many others, bring colour and joy to the lives of those for whom such things are a crying need and no sort of luxury.

It is true that sometimes a cutback in a grant can provide an arts organisation with a necessary jolt; it is undeniable, for example, that the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin’s Parnell Square is a livelier place now, more engaged with the broad writing community, than it was before its large annual grant was cut to nothing in 2009. But that is something of an exception. Most arts organisations perform miracles in terms of the amount they do with what is, in the grand scheme, very little money. Only the clinically insane get involved in the arts with financial gain in mind. The question for most in the sector has been and remains: how do we protect what we love to do from the ongoing economic carnage? This despite the fact that much of the time our one certain reward, even in the good times, is no security at all.

One of the main lines of argument which has been used by the National Campaign for the Arts and others as they’ve lobbied to try and limit the cutbacks has been that the arts have the potential to play an important role in a hoped-for economic recovery. It has even been said that Ireland’s cultural image—everything from Riverdance to the reality of Ireland’s position as a literary superpower—can play a role in attracting multinational investment. This is a very difficult argument for the left.  But dismissing it out of hand gets us nowhere. It is a reflection of the fact that most Irish artists do not, as things stand, believe that there is any credible alternative to capitalism. Despite Seánie Fitzpatrick et al, the arguments put forward by the parties of the organised far left are seen by most to be only a little more believable than the predictions of mediums at Knock. Artists and poets and the like may have a reputation for not being in touch with what taxi drivers call ‘the real world’. But being an artist of any sort is a difficult, if at times also very rewarding life, and most have learned to be ruthlessly practical in terms of where tomorrow’s lunch is coming from. Promises of socialist castles in the air might appeal to some of the young, newly unemployed now hit with welfare cuts, but despite the van Gogh stereotype most artists are only interested in things that have a chance of actually happening.

The other problem for the left is that this campaign, using what most of the comrades would no doubt see as pro-capitalist arguments, has to date been pretty successful. The most miserable man in Ireland, Colm McCarthy, recommended in his Bord Snip Nua report that both Culture Ireland and the Irish Film Board be abolished. Both have to date avoided the axe—although there have been reductions in their budgets, as well as that of the Arts Council, which is by far the most important source of funding for artists and arts organisations of every stripe. The appointment by the govern­ment of Gabriel Byrne as our ‘cultural ambassador’ was an important success for the campaign in that it now makes it much more difficult for said same government to abolish Culture Ireland. If Irish artists aren’t enabled to travel abroad to promote their work, then what precisely would be the point of having the man who once rolled in the hay with Maggie in The Riordans as our cultural ambassador?

The National Campaign for the Arts has fought its corner, using every pragmatic argument available to it. It deserves our support and any constructive suggestions the left might have. There is some concern that arguments about Ireland’s cultural image being advan­tageous when it comes to attracting inward investment commodify the arts and might potentially turn our writers and actors and visual artists into court jesters paid to pleasure visitors from the board­rooms of global capitalism. I have to say that, to date, I have never seen a single instance where a funding agency tried to coax or pressurise an artist into following any sort of pro-business line in his or her work. The day an arts administrator tells me that I can’t say this or that in a poem, I will resist as absolutely as I have already had to do when some of the more jaded hacks of the far left have on occasion tried to bully or jostle me into following their every line. But I don’t think it’s about to happen.

The pragmatism of the National Campaign for the Arts may sound like something from a very different world to the one inhabited by the large crowd who attended the livewire poetry and music event at the International Bar which I mentioned at the outset. And it is. At such events one is witnessing the new culture of post-Tiger Ireland being born, whereas the established arts organisations in most cases represent the cultural life that was during the years of endless honey. The new culture will continue to be driven forward by the whip of the recession. There are very hopeful signs that, come what may, artists will continue to make their art and work with others to find their audience.

In my own field, I was delighted of late to see that a group of young writers have come together to launch a new magazine, The Poetry Bus, despite having received no funding at all. Another young writer recently launched the fine online magazine Wordlegs.com. I was disappointed when the editor dropped her original rule that she would not accept submissions from writers over thirty years of age. It seemed to me a marvellously direct way of saying to the world: Here is the new generation, carving out its own space. The fogeys of yesteryear need not apply. That said, I did send her some poems recently: I refer you to my previous comment about artists having to be ruthlessly practical.

There has also been a significant flowering of new theatre com­panies doing some interesting things. Fledgling theatre companies usually rely on a group of enthusiastic young people with time on their hands. These days there is no shortage of such young people looking for some place to put their talent and enthusiasm. I recently saw an excellent play, The Quare Land, staged as part of Galway Arts Festival by Decadent Theatre Company. It went right for the meat of our current crisis with wit and passion and managed also to be a great afternoon’s entertainment. 

The economic hell into which we have now descended will no doubt result in some arts organisations going under. Those who have got used to relying on large grants will find themselves facing out into a mean looking sea for the foreseeable. But some of the new publications and events I’ve mentioned will grow up to achieve real significance. From these will come the writers whose novels and short stories and poems will tell people fifty or a hundred years from now what it was like to be here today living in a country brought low by the wild gambling of our now fallen Great Gatsbys whose ghosts must surely have wandered the corridors of the G Hotel during this year’s Galway Races.

It would be a very bad thing indeed if a new generation of writers and artists were to end up having to live on the slices of cold toast which were the staple diet of Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien. In the long run, there is nothing pretty about that sort of poverty. It tends, ultimately, to kill creativity. To play its role in making sure such an outcome does not fall on the heads of these writers and artists as yet unknown, it’s important the left supports the National Campaign for the Arts. The arts are just as important in their way as the health service, education or social welfare. Even in these worst of times, there has to be more to life than hospital trolleys, damp school buildings and not enough dole. Any socialist who doesn’t know this and act accordingly is no socialist worth being.

Poetry, politics and the left

Galway poet Kevin Higgins was interviewed in Issue 38 (December 2009).

Much of your poetry deals with overtly political subject matter, so you obviously don’t subscribe to the view that ‘poetry and politics don’t mix’. Does that view persist, or is there a level of openness to political poetry in Ireland today?

I think there is no small amount of confusion on this issue. It would be fair to say that most poets, most readers of contemporary poetry, and the majority of those who attend readings have a vague idea that the role of poetry is to question and oppose things as they are, rather than to support the status quo. In the majority of cases, this tends to amount to little more than the requisite poem or two about Palestine or the Iraq war in collections that are mostly made up of what has been un­charitably called the poetry of personal anecdote. This is a huge generalisation, of course, and as with any such generalisation, is more than a little unfair to many. There are a minority of recently emerged poets for whom poetry and radical left wing politics of one variety or another are inseparable. In a word, yes, there is openness to political poetry in Ireland today. Whatever you have to say on whatever subject, as long as it’s well said, people will listen, and the poems will make their way out into the world and find a readership.

So if poetry is open to politics, is politics open to poetry? Do you think there is a recognition among left-wing activists that poetry has a meaningful role to play in the socialist project?

If by left-wing activists you mean those who are involved in organi­s­ations proposing a transform­ation more radical than installing Éamon Gilmore as Tánaiste or Mary Lou McDonald as Junior Minister for Nothing-in-Particular, I’d have to say that the answer would be more No than Yes. Certainly there are those active on the left who have a real appreciation of poetry and the arts in general, and some recog­nition of the role that poetry can play in sharpening one’s under­standing of the world as it is now, has been and will come to be. But these tend to be people who are either on their way out of active involvement, certainly in terms of being members of organised groups and parties, or are in some sense dissidents within these parties.

The organised far left is, as I have learned from bitter experience, still pretty much addicted to the idea that poetry is only of use when it has an obvious and immediate propaganda value in the campaign of the moment. They view with suspicion people who think for themselves and also tend to see activities such as writing poetry as a diversion from the ‘struggle’. I would have been pretty bad on these issues myself back in my workerist days, so I do cut them some slack. But my work teaching poetry workshops and creative writing classes has really brought home to me that any attempt to force on a poet an agenda with which he or she isn’t imaginatively engaged does more than diminish the poetry. In the end it destroys it. The only real role the organised far left seems to see for poetry is the usual one or two suspects reading a poem at the end of the demo type of thing. Culture isn’t a peripheral thing: it is central. And anyone who wants to control the arts for narrow political ends would do very bad things indeed if they ever came to power.

Surely there will always be some kind of tension between political activists trying to offer straightforward answers to political issues on the one hand, and poets trying to explore ambiguities in life’s nooks and crannies on the other? Is it not necessary—or even creative—for those imperatives to clash from time to time?

I agree that such a clash could potentially be very creative. There will be tensions between those primarily involved in writing political statements and those involved in writing poems. They are very different activities. Writing a political manifesto or a leaflet necessarily moves one in the direction of simplifying the issues rather than going into the complexities. Also, a leaflet is not the opinion of one person but of a group, and would obviously be very different to, say, a poem or short story, which if it is to be any good must necessarily be the independent creation of one person’s imagination. But that’s not the issue here. The real problem is that most of the organised far left groups run their internal affairs in a very cultish way—small groups of people endlessly engaged in convincing themselves that they are absolutely right and everyone else absolutely wrong—with the result that many of their members, and I’d say their entire leaderships, have no use for anything that doesn’t further the building of the party. For them culture is not a separate zone in which what you describe as “life’s nooks and crannies” can be creatively explored, ambiguities and all. For them culture has no role at all other than to confirm the points of view they already hold dear. It is a given that when there is an immediate public issue on which a leaflet or press release needs to be written or a speech has to be made, straightforwardness is to be favoured every time over ambiguity. But a society without the ability to question and criticise itself, which is precisely what the best poems and plays and films do, is a profoundly dysfunctional society. And even small left wing groups are their own kind of society.

So is the problem here not so much that the left suffers from bad cultural politics, but that it suffers from bad politics, full stop?

I think that the bad cultural politics is important, because it gives us a taste of the type of regime the organised far left would impose were it to come to power. For example, I doubt we’d be having this conversation in such a public and open way if the people in question were ensconced in government buildings. The way the organised far left deals with internal issues is cavalier in the extreme. They don’t even abide by their own stated rules half the time, and there is a huge amount of cynicism in the way that people are dealt with: again and again, people who have given these organisations decades of their lives are just tossed aside. The internal regimes of the far left organisations are inherently undemocratic, hence the constant splits and denunciations of former members. I’ve even heard of people being expelled by text message! I’ve known too many cases involving too many people over far too long a period of time to believe that this is anything other than a systematic failure, rather than the result of the shortcomings of this or that individual or group of individuals. This next statement will no doubt cause steam to start emerging from some comrades’ ears, but it seems to me obvious that Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party are infinitely more democratic organisations than any of those on the organised far left. They can tolerate internal dissent in a way that the far left cannot, and that is a great strength.

The cultural issue leads straight to the democracy issue, which in turn leads right to the disaster that was the aftermath of the Russian revolution. What Russia proved is that, without the active particip­ation of the majority of the people in the decision-making processes, socialism cannot work. If you’re going to abolish the market, which at least tells you something about what people want, albeit in a very distorted and anarchic way, you must allow people the freedom to tell you what they want and how they want it. Otherwise socialist planning is entirely impractical.

I know I’m not the first to say this, but it is obvious now that the beliefs (1) that socialism is in some sense historically inevitable, (2) that it will solve all of the world’s problems, and (3) that it can only be brought about by a tightly organised group which does not tolerate public dissent from the party line, will always lead to disaster and probably to the restoration of capitalism as happened in Russia and eastern Europe. After all, if you believe you have all the answers to the world’s problems and can create a heaven on earth, then it is possible to justify any number of lies, any number of purges of deviant petit-bourgeois elements to achieve such an end. Trotsky and Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg and Co. did not have at their disposal the information we now do. They did not know that the limits placed on internal dissent and free expression generally in what was a time of civil war in Russia, far from being a bulwark against the restoration of capitalism, would turn out to be the first step in the long journey back towards capitalism. And I’ve no doubt that Marx would run screaming in the opposite direction from most of those who today claim to be his followers. Saying this sort of thing causes me something close to physical pain. I don’t want it to be true. Over a period of many years I have tried every other way of looking at it. But I can no longer avoid the obvious which has stared me in the face every day for at least the past five or six years.

Some people reading comments like this from you, and even some of your poetry, will conclude that here is a disillusioned former socialist who has turned renegade. You obviously reject the organised far left as it is currently—but are you rejecting revolutionary socialism as a political philosophy too?

I know there are many who’ll react to what I’m saying in the way you describe. In the past, I would have taken that line myself. Now I tend to view that as one of the ways the far left dodges valid questions: instead of bothering to come up with a proper answer, they attack the questioner. To put it at its bluntest: even if I am now in the pay of Dick Cheney and the Israelis and Galway Chamber of Commerce, that doesn’t absolve them from having to answer the points I’m making. The organised far left are meant to be the vanguard of the international working class, the most advanced and forward-looking people in the world. So come on, boys and girls, step up to the plate and demolish my argument.

I am in favour of all of the things that revolutionary socialists pretend to be in favour of. Refusing to stay quiet about flagrant hypocrisy on the left certainly has nothing at all to do with “rejecting revolutionary socialism”. What I really think is that if there is to be any hope at all of a better and workable and democratic version of socialism, then the far left needs to undergo a complete reformation, and to this end its nose has to be rubbed in all its worst mistakes. A society in which all the vast resources of the planet were under the democratic control of the man and woman in the street would be infinitely better than what we have now. The fear, the insecurity which is affecting almost everyone you meet at the moment is truly awful. A truly democratic socialist plan implemented on a global scale would have to be better than this. However, no one, and I include myself in that, will be convinced to support, or even to tolerate, a system in which there is a one party dictatorship and the whole country is run like a big fat FÁS scheme gone mad. We will not go gently into that good night, because that would be much worse than what we have—yes, worse than NAMA and Brian Cowen. But saying no to all the prospective Dear Leaders doesn’t in my mind amount to “rejecting revolutionary socialism”.

If we can focus on a specific example, ‘Firewood’, a poem in your last collection. Some people believe you were advocating military intervention in Darfur under cover of the UN, or at least tacitly supporting the idea. Where do you stand on that issue?

I don’t think that people who read this poem as me “advocating military intervention” really understand what poems are and how they are born. For a while I had been of the view that sections of the left had been accommodating themselves to Islam in a way that is not at all socialist. Obviously, one has to oppose any type of religious discrimination against any group, and I always will, but the use of the slogan “We are all Hezbollah now!” during the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006 was not good. Sections of the left seemed all too willing to act like cheerleaders for what remains an Islamic funda­mentalist group—with no offence at all intended to actual cheer­leaders, most of whom have never committed such serious political mistakes. Anyway, when I read the article which contained the fatal few words “It’s problematic to describe this as genocide” something snapped in me, which is the way a poem is usually born. I saw that article as amounting to a kind of apology for the Sudanese govern­ment and the Janjaweed. The glibness of the language seemed to indicate a wish that the difficult issue of what has been happening in Darfur would go away so that the writer could go back to his preferred subject: George W Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I know that the situation in the Sudan is horribly complicated, with Muslims massacring other Muslims and so on, and that there are no easy solutions, but the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed are clearly the bad guys, and this article was trying to muddy the waters. When you come across a phrase as glib as “It’s problematic to describe this as genocide”, dodgy politics is never far behind. To me, this was a section of the organised far left just shrugging its shoulders about a conflict that had seen the government-sponsored murder of tens of thousands and the dis­placement of many hundreds of thousands.

I have no answers in relation to Darfur: the poem is not about that. I don’t think a UN-sponsored invasion would make things better, but I would not actively oppose such action if I thought it was the least worst option. I understand the left’s desire to maintain its independent political position on these issues and to offer its own uniquely socialist answer, which obviously has no role for the UN or liberal interventionism of the type that took place in Kosovo. However, I have no time at all for the meaningless sloganeering that often goes on in these situations: the appeals to the phantom armies of the Bosnian and Rwandan working classes which were the response of some left groups to those situations. If you have no real answer, then far better to admit that rather than trying to bullshit your way to a unified theory of everything. The writer of that article had nothing to say about Darfur, and he missed an excellent opportunity to say it. Every possible pressure should be put on the Sudanese government in relation to what it’s been doing in Darfur. And the effect of that article, if it had any effect at all, would have been to take the pressure off. It amounted to scabbing on the people of Darfur in their hour of great need: that’s what provoked the poem.

The rapid move from economic boom to bust has shaken a lot of certainties in Irish society, and opened up space for questioning and for potential alternatives. What role do you see for writers and artists in that process?

Last year I used a few pages from The Great Gatsby, the scene in which the narrator describes the night he first went to one of Gatsby’s lavish gatherings at his mansion, as the basis for a writing exercise. Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy the day that course began. I always give the historical context when I’m intro­ducing a piece of writing to students, and mostly it seems to float over their heads. This time when I said that what was being described in this book, the jazz age of the 1920s, was an era very similar to the one which had just died a very sudden death here in Ireland, for the first time since I started teaching writing, I got a real sense that what was happening outside—in what Marxists like to call ‘the real world’—was in the room with us and influencing how we talked, not just about the literature of the past, but also the stories and poems the students were writing themselves. That is a big change and will I’m sure in the long run, or perhaps even in the short run, change Irish writing. My own guess would be that there’ll be a lot of novels taking to task the Celtic Tiger era in the next couple of years. Now it’s over, the boom era is somehow more digestible.

Also, though, there may be less outlets for new writers. Certainly publishers will take less risks and the arts sector in general will have less funding. I think that if the grassroots literary events which have grown so dramatically in the past few years all manage to keep going, and the signs are that they will, then they’ll become forums where the tangible discontent and anger that’s out there about what has happened and is going to happen will be given literary expression. This will especially be the case if we don’t see emigration starting up again in a serious way, as it did during the 1980s. Either way, things will not be as they have been. There was a brashness about the Irish literary scene before last year which fed into some of the writing, an idea that crisis was something you only saw on Reeling in The Years, that had nothing to do with where we thought we were. I think there will likely, as time goes on, be new literary magazines which reflect the turn world events have taken. This happened during the 1930s when magazines such as The Partisan Review became very important. There is a crying need for new literary magazines run by younger writers with a fresh way of looking at things. No one will, nor should, listen to the rants and gibes of cranky old literary gents who’ve never got over the fact that Neil Jordan and Paul Durcan are more successful than they are. But I would be most interested to read the reflections and rants of writers in their twenties, the new generation who will eventually put me in the old peoples’ home.

In terms of what role writers should play, I don’t think a writer can be judged by the number of demos he or she goes on or the number of angry letters he or she writes to The Irish Times. These things may make the person in question an excellent activist, but tell us very little about their writing. The writers I am always interested in are those who see everything in the world as their subject, and ruthlessly write the truth as they see it, come what may. Far better to do this than become a yes man or woman for this or that popular front.

Twenty years ago today

In Issue 19 (July 2004) Kevin Higgins reviewed a novel set in the British miners’ strike of 1984-5.

David Peace, GB84 (Faber and Faber)

This time twenty years ago the miners’ strike was raging across the water. The morning radio news was full of flying pickets and pitched battles between miners and police; the evening television dominated by images of the same. Names of places such as Cortonwood, Ollerton and Orgreave were burned into the consciousness forever, simply because we heard them so often. Cortonwood, where it all started when the National Coal Board announced the Yorkshire pit’s arbitrary closure in the first week of March 1984. (Within days it became clear that this was part of a much larger pit closure programme.) Ollerton, the Nottinghamshire mining village where the strike claimed its first fatality, when a young miner was killed in a crush between pickets and police during the second week of the strike. Orgreave, the Yorkshire coking plant then vital to Britain’s electricity supply, where the miners tried to repeat their famous 1972 victory, when they succeeded in closing down a similar plant at Saltley, Birmingham by mass picketing. This time it didn’t work.

The miners were lured to Orgreave from South Wales, Kent, Durham, Yorkshire, Scotland and elsewhere in their tens of thousands on a beautiful June day to face the massed power of the British state: thousands of police with horses, dogs and riot gear, ready willing and able to turn the miners back. From that day on we all knew something had changed. This wasn’t 1972 or ’74. There’d be no easy victory. And in the end, which didn’t come until March 1985—a whole year after the strike started—there was no victory at all. The miners went back without a settlement, their union’s power broken, their industry about to be destroyed.

David Peace’s novel GB84, which he describes as “a fiction, based on fact”, charts the course of the strike from the optimism of the early days through the pitched battles of the summer to the slowly dawning reality of total defeat. Peace uses a traditional, linear narrative structure interspersed with extracts from the diaries of two miners, Martin and Peter. And much of the time it works. Younger readers for whom it has only ever been ancient history would certainly get at least an idea what the miners’ strike was like. Peace writes in an accessible style, without in any sense trying to dumb complex issues down. And he provides us with more than the bare documentary facts. Indeed, GB84 brings that apocalyptic year more credibly back to life than many an earnest but dead-in-the-mouth speech at many a far-left meeting. It makes the strike human again by giving the reader a real sense of the emotions it stirred, as the high hopes of activists and trade unionists everywhere turned so bitterly into their opposite.

GB84 is divided into five chapters, each of which has a title of its own; the first four—‘Ninety-nine red balloons’, ‘Two Tribes’, ‘Careless Whisper’ and ‘There’s a world outside your window and it’s a world of dread and fear’—are all references to popular songs of the time. No doubt some will complain that Peace is trivialising such a momentous event by naming a chapter in a book about it after a song written by George Michael. I have to say, though, that for some strange reason I personally have always found it useful to know what was in the charts the year a particular event happened. Knowing, say for example, that T‑Rex were in the charts the year Ireland joined the EEC, or that Renee and Renato had their one hit wonder ‘Save Your Love’ the year the Falklands War happened, somehow makes those events seem more rather than less real. Sad, I know. But true. With the title of the last chapter ‘Terminal, or the Triumph of the Will’ Peace leaves such frivolity behind, and everything is suddenly deadly serious.

For me, the best writing in the whole novel are the two extracts from Martin’s diary in the last chapter. On day 364 of the strike, when more than 50% of the miners have drifted back to work, and the National Executive of the NUM have voted by 98-91 to recommend a return to work without a settlement, Martin summons up the ghosts of all the previous generations of miners whose struggles made the tradition which Thatcher succeeded in decisively trampling into the dirt:

The Dead that carried us from far to near. Through the villages of the Damned, to stand beside us here. Under their banners and their badges. In their branches and their bands—Their muffled drums. Their muted pipes—That whisper. That echo—Their funeral marches. Their funeral music—That moans. That screams—Again and again. For ever more—As if they are marching their way up out of their graves. Here to mourn the new dead—The country deaf to their laments.

In many ways the tempo of GB84 resembles that of a symphony, and the extract quoted above is part of its catastrophic crescendo. The black pessimism of the defeated strike is, in a sense, the flip-side of the near hubris of its early days:

Motion to back strike is proposed. Motion is seconded. Motion is backed 100 per cent—Folk head off to Hotel or Club. Lot of talk about ’72 and ’74. I’m having a piss in Club when this bloke says to me, It’ll be right then? I say, How do you mean? We’ll win? He says. Yeah, I tell him. What you worried about?

Generally speaking, Peace weighs the significance of different events well. One criticism I would have, though, is that, in a couple of places, his narrative is laced with just a little too much fatalism. Clearly, by Christmas 1984 the miners were doomed. But between March and October it was by no means certain that Thatcher was going to prevail. Peace downplays the significance of Arthur Scargill’s mistake in not calling a national ballot, by having one of his characters—an almost satanic government advisor referred to throughout the book as “the Jew”—talk in March 1984 about “the very unlikely event of a national ballot and… even unlikelier event of a vote for strike”. Now, this is simply wrong.

All the evidence is that the overwhelming majority of miners and their families supported the strike at this stage. And, if anything, support for the strike increased during the spring and summer as more miners and their wives became more actively involved and the strike gained the sympathy of a wide coalition of people in every corner of Britain: everyone from traditional trade unionists to the Sikh community in Birmingham to gay and lesbian groups in London and Brighton. The miners received money collected by sympathisers worldwide, even receiving cheques from such non-proletarian sources as Elizabeth Taylor and the American billionaire John Paul Getty.

If there was a national ballot anytime between April and August, when 80% of miners were on strike, it’s a racing certainty that the ballot would have endorsed the strike. And this would have given the strike added legii­macy, which would certainly have persuaded many of those in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere, who continued to work, to join the strike. The miners’ tradition was to have a national ballot when the issue was national strike action: there were national ballots in both 1972 and 1974. And not to have had one in 1984 was a major strategic error brought about, at least in part, because of the top-down, bureaucratic socialism of miners’ union president Arthur Scargill. The miners may still not have won if there’d been a ballot, but they would certainly have had a much better chance.

Another window of possibility David Peace downplays a little is the threatened strike action by NACODS, the union which represented pit deputies, who were responsible for pit safety, and without whom no mine could legally stay open. They voted to strike 82% to 18% in October 1984. If implemented this would have meant every working miner in Britain being sent home. After seven months the strike would finally (if only by default) be 100% solid. With a NACODS strike still threatened, Peace has the aforementioned government advisor ‘the Jew’ confidently ranting:

there must be no further negotiations. There must be no further promises of no compulsory redundancies. There must be no amnesty and no jobs for any miners convicted of criminal offences. The times have changed…

At that stage outright victory was probably beyond the miners’ grasp, but the likelihood has to be that, if NACODS walked out and stayed out, there would have been some sort of fudge. Thatcher would not have claimed her famous victory. And everyone would have lived to fight another day. However, the national executive of NACODS called off their strike at the last minute, and the rest is history.

Peace does a good job, though, of illustrating the sheer ruthlessness of the Thatcher government. On page 253 he has ‘the Jew’, whose actual name is Stephen Sweet, draw up a strategy to entice striking miners back to work

The Jew wants a copy of the entire payroll for the National Coal Board. The Jew wants every miner’s name checked against police and county court records—The Jew wants weaknesses—
Men who have transferred to their pit. Men who live a distance from their pit—Men who are married. Men divorced. Men who have children. Men who can’t—Men who have mortgages. Men who have debts—Men who used to work a lot of overtime. Men who used to have a lot of money—Men who have weaknesses. Age. Sex. Drink. Theft. Gambling. Money. The Jew wants lists.

Two things really irritated me about this mostly enjoyable book. The first was the constant reference to this government advisor as ‘the Jew’. Only a couple of times in 462 pages is he referred to as Stephen Sweet. I could see no reason for this, other than self-indulgence (or perhaps an attempt at sensationalism) on the part of the author. The second was the gangster sub-plot, which is so obviously a tacked-on afterthought (perhaps designed to widen the book’s appeal?) that it’s actually possible to read the rest of the book without bothering with the sub-plot at all.

So, GB84 is an imperfect book rather than any sort of masterpiece. But it has enough going for it to make it worthwhile. And it obviously has particular significance for those on the left. It charts the progress of a battle, which in the words of Michael Eaton—the all too real Saatchi & Saatchi advisor appointed by Thatcher to advise the Coal Board—was the “decisive occasion in recent British history when the right won and the left lost”. It took some on the left years to come to terms with the gravity of this defeat. When Thatcher resigned six years later, the bulk of her agenda had been carried out. The miners’ strike was the decisive point when Thatcherism might have been stopped, but wasn’t. Her victory ended a long period of heightened class conflict in Britain which had started with the struggle against the Heath Tory government in the early 1970s, and created in its place a world fit for New Labour and Michael O’Leary of Ryanair. It also allowed Thatcher to become a credible icon for those advocating the restoration of the free market in eastern Europe. From Poland to Dublin Airport the after-effects of the miners’ defeat can still be seen. It was in a sense the event which, more than any other, gave birth to the world we all now live and work in.

Borges, Balzac and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

Kevin Higgins reviewed a book of essays on the relationship between literature and politics in Issue 12 (March 2002).

Christopher Hitchens, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the public sphere (Verso)

To say that the relationship between literary criticism and Marxist politics has been fraught with difficulties is something of an understatement. More often than not the nuanced, dialectical approach used by the likes of Marx and Trotsky to unravel the world of literature in all its many-sided com­plexity has been (and for the most part still is) elbowed aside in favour of a crude reductionism which has its origins in the Stalinist crackdown on literature and art in the late 1920s. Even today, those who review books (or films) for left-wing publications tend to operate on the basis that if a book is ‘objectively speaking’ on the right side of the class struggle then this, in and of itself, must mean that the book in question is a ‘good book’ deserving a positive review. And the reverse is also held to be true: T S Eliot’s poetry couldn’t possibly be a patch on, say, Jimmy McGovern’s Dockers because, after all, T S Eliot was a reactionary. In the minds of some, any comrade who takes a few hours out from the class struggle to read The Wasteland or The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock is probably in serious danger of ending up on the Fine Gael front bench, or as Primate of the Church of Ireland, or some such grotesque bourgeois deviation.

Roddy Doyle is judged to be more ‘politically relevant’ than, say, John Updike or Julian Barnes, merely because he writes about ‘ordinary working class people’, whereas they for the most part don’t. And indeed perhaps he is more relevant, at least in the sense that his subject matter means that socialists will probably have more to say about him than they will about most contemporary novelists. However, taken too far, this sort of approach to literature and art could, at least in theory, reduce us to the absurdity of saying that Brendan Grace is somehow a better comedian than Woody Allen merely because his subject matter is more ‘working-class’; or, per­haps a little more plausibly, that Rage Against The Machine are definitely better than Elgar was, because they sing “fuck the police” whereas he did nothing of the sort. Marx and Engels may have thought that, in literary terms, one reactionary Balzac, writing as he did predominantly about the French middle and upper classes, was preferable to a hundred socialist Zolas, writing about ‘the workers’, but such dialectical niceties tend un­fortunately to be lost on most of their followers.

In this context, Christopher Hitchens’ Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the public sphere is required reading for anyone even remotely interested in the relationship between literature and politics. And how ironic it is that this example of a dialectical (one might say almost Marxist) approach to literature should be provided by Hitchens: a ‘left’ liberal Vanity Fair columnist, who since September 11 has apparently lost the run of himself and become (along with silly old Paul McCartney) just another raving imperialist warmonger. It is, as Margaret Thatcher once famously remarked, a funny old world indeed.

The book is a collection of thirty five reviews and essays, which origi­nally appeared in publications such as The New York Review of Books, the New Left Review and the Times Literary Supplement. In the foreword Hitchens tells us about the influence Wilfred Owen’s devastatingly power­ful anti-war poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ had on him as a young man:

I shall never be able to forget the way in which these verses utterly turned over all the furniture in my mind; inverting every conception of order and patriotism and tradition on which I had been brought up. I hadn’t yet encountered, or even heard of the novels of Barbusse and Remarque, or the paintings of Otto Dix, or the great essays and polemics of the Zimmerwald and Kienthal conferences; the appeals to civilisation written by Rosa Luxemburg in her Junius incarnation. (Revisionism has succeeded in overturning many of the icons of Western Marxism; this tide however still halts when it confronts the nobility of Luxemburg and Jean Jaures and other less celebrated heroes of 1914—such as the Serbian Dimitri Tucovic.) I came to all these discoveries, and later ones such as the magnificent Regeneration trilogy composed by Pat Barker, through a door that had been forced open for me by Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’.

All the more ironic, then, that in the aftermath of September 11 Hitchens has apparently turned his back on the tradition of Zimmerwald and Rosa Luxemburg, preferring instead to accuse opponents of the War on Terrorism of being ‘soft on fascism’ in an article in The Spectator: a magazine which has in its time given refuge to every rightward moving crank from Kingsley Amis to Woodrow Wyatt.

A little further on in the foreword Hitchens points out that:

Many of the writers discussed here have no ‘agenda’ of any sort, or are conservatives whose insight and integrity I have found indispensable. I remember for example sitting with Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires as he employed an almost Evelyn Waugh-like argument in excusing the military dictatorship that then held power in his country. But I had a feeling that he couldn’t keep up this pose, and not many years later he wrote a satirical poem ridiculing the Falklands/Malvinas adventure while also making statements against the junta’s cruelty in the matter of the desaparecidos. It wasn’t just another author signing a letter about ‘human rights’; it was the ironic mind refusing the dictates of the literal one.

This sort of talk will probably sound fairly alien to most left-wing activists, brought up as most of us have been on a diet of ‘Ken Loach good, Brideshead Revisited bad’. And yet it is far closer to Marx’s actual approach to literature—Borges perhaps being a kind of latter-day Argentinian Balzac—than anything you’re likely to read in an issue of a far left paper. A little more commonplace is Hitchens’ observation that:

In the case of the United States, we await a writer who can summon every nerve to cleanse the country of the filthy stain of the death penalty… there is as yet no Blake or Camus or Koestler to synthesise justice and reason with outrage; to compose the poem or novel—as did Herman Melville with flogging in his White-Jacket—that will constitute the needful moral legislation.

Of course the well-meaning sentiments are undoubtedly already there, indeed are probably ten-a-penny at every open-mike poetry night from Greenwich Village to San Francisco, but the trick is to combine the political and the aesthetic: to accomplish the usually impossible task of making a statement which as well as being ‘true’ is memorable to the point of being in some sense beautiful.

The writers with whom Hitchens engages here range from the predictable—George Orwell, Raymond Williams, Gore Vidal, Salman Rushdie and Oscar Wilde—to those such as F Scott Fitzgerald and Roald Dahl whose work might superficially seem to be almost entirely devoid of political content. ‘Rebel in Evening Clothes’ is the title of a lovely essay on Dorothy Parker who, as a daughter of the massively wealthy Rothschild family and fashion writer for Vogue, was perhaps an unlikely radical. And yet her 1919 poem, originally titled ‘Hate Song’, is something which, with the possible exception of a slightly disparaging reference to milkmen, even the most hardened Socialist Realist would surely have to appreciate:

…the Boss;
He made us what we are to-day—
I hope he’s satisfied.
He has some bizarre ideas
About his employees getting to work
At nine o’clock in the morning—
As if they were a lot of milkmen.
He has never been known to see you
When you arrive at 8.45,
But try to come in at a quarter past ten
And he will always go up in the elevator with you.
He goes to Paris on the slightest provocation
And nobody knows why he has to stay there so long.

There are also some hilarious demolition jobs: on the horribly glib Tom Wolfe (essayist and author of the novel Bonfire of the Vanities); on Tom Clancy (author of The Hunt for Red October etc, etc) who Hitchens aptly describes as “the junk supplier of surrogate testosterone”; and, best of all, on the prominent American critic Norman Podhoretz, of whom he says: “But as the years passed… Podhoretz began to fawn more openly on Richard Nixon and the Israeli general staff as if rehearsing for the engulfing, mandible-straining blow job he would later bestow on Ronald Reagan.” Of course, in the light of his own post-September 11 descent into pro-imperialist jingoism, it is entirely possible that, for Hitchens himself, that particular sentence might yet turn out to be the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

However, the best essay in the entire book is his examination of the life and poetry of Philip Larkin. Ever since the publication of his Selected Letters in 1992 showed that he was, to put it mildly, a reactionary and a racist, critical responses to Larkin have tended to polarise into two distinct camps. On the left are those who claim that the fact that Larkin enclosed the following charming little ditty in a letter to a friend clearly exposes him as the disgusting reactionary they always suspected him of being:

Prison for the strikers
Bring back the cat
Kick out the niggers
How about that?

And for Larkin’s critics this is where the case for the prosecution usually rests. Meanwhile his apologists such as the critic John Bailey have claimed that Larkin was simply “more free of cant—political, social or literary—than any of his peers”. Britain’s current Poet Laureate Andrew Motion has even gone so far as to say “that Larkin’s work had the capacity to create a recognisable and democratic vision of contemporary society”. Hitchens cuts through both hypocrisy and hyperbole with great skill, providing us with pretty damning evidence that, far from being just another Tory Little Englander, Larkin was in fact a “frustrated fascist”, who after 1945 was forced by the new political realities to hide his real political beliefs. And yet at the same time Hitchens still manages to separate the poems themselves from the political views of the poet:

unless we lose all interest in contradiction—we are fortunate in being able to say that Larkin’s politics are buried well beneath, and some­where apart from, his poems. The place he occupies in popular affec­tion—which he had won for himself long before the publication of his fouler private thoughts—is the place that he earned, paradoxically, by attention to ordinariness, to quotidian suffering and to demotic humour. Decaying communities, old people’s homes, housing estates, clinics… he mapped these much better than most social democrats, and he found words for experience.

Unacknowledged Legislation is a truly excellent book: a must for any­one who has ever complained about one of those left-press reviews in which the reviewer typically uses the last sentence to earnestly inform us that the ‘fundamental flaw’ in this or that book or film is that nowhere does it provide the working class with an answer to the problems they face under capitalism. The recent political statements of its author, Christopher Hitchens, are of course disappointing in the extreme; but they are also perhaps just a contemporary example of the relationship between literature and politics in all its complexity.

When entrepreneurs roamed free and the rats got your eyes

On the centenary of the Dublin lockout, Kevin Higgins discussed its classic novel in Issue 54 (December 2013).

James Plunkett, Strumpet City (Gill & Macmillan)

Though many pages have been filled with facts about the events leading up to and away from the 1913 lockout—and there are things to be learned from books such as Pádraig Yeates’s Lockout: Dublin 1913—it is from a book of fiction that most Irish people have gained what factual knowledge they have about the sharpest clash thus far between those who live off profits made by the labour of others (in this case, the Dublin employers led by William Martin Murphy) and those without whose sweat there would be no profits, represented here by characters such as Fitz and Mary whose aspirations are, in many ways, similar enough to those of many contemporary Irish couples whose small dreams have in the last few years been battered apart by what Brendan Howlin calls economic reality. Strumpet City, first published in 1969, was adapted for television by the playwright Hugh Leonard—no socialist—and the resulting series, first screened in 1980, was hugely popular. I was not quite thirteen years old when I first saw Rashers Tierney, the ghastly snob Catholic curate Father O’Connor and Jim Larkin make shapes across our black and white TV.

This new edition includes an introduction by Fintan O’Toole. One effect of this was to make me feel as if I was on my way to a funeral rather than about to again read a great story which holds many lessons for today. Fintan likes working class people a lot. I know that. But whenever some group of the aforementioned actually takes action in defence of their conditions, he tends to be struck dumb. It’s not as if, as one of our leading national definers, he doesn’t have the platforms. I can’t help feeling that Fintan likes the working class characters in Strumpet City all the more because he thinks that what many of them represent—militant trade unionismis safely dead and not about to disrupt either the traffic near the Irish Times offices or the delivery of his next vegetarian salad. I perhaps have this wrong. If so, I look forward to his passionate article in support of the Dublin Bus workers next time they decide to, as the Sunday Indo will no doubt describe it, hold the capital city to ransom.

Strumpet City is a vast sprawl of a novel in the nineteenth century tradition. It has been described as our Doctor Zhivago, but a more apt comparison is with Germinal, Zola’s great novel of 1895 about the tribulations of striking French coalminers and their families a couple of decades before the Dublin lockout. The story spans the turning point years of 1907-14 and is told via the contrasting life stories of a dozen characters. It begins with the visit of King Edward VII which, were they around at the time, would have been an event to provoke an almost sexual excitement from the likes of Kevin Myers and Ruth Dudley Edwards. The way this event is portrayed by James Plunkett calls to mind the nonsense one often heard being spoken in August 1997 on the untimely demise of the former Princess of Wales. It was a time when dissent against the royal love-in was mostly muttered wryly out of the side of the mouth.

The best and worst humanity has to offer comes alive on these pages. When their long-term housekeeper Miss Gilchrist has a stroke, the eminently respectable Bradshaws reward her years of service by depositing her in the workhouse. When neo-liberal economists go to bed at night, this is the sort of thing of which they dream. Mary, who arrives from down the country to take up a job working in service with the Bradshaws, is informed that she is forbidden to date men (and presumably women) while working there because the Bradshaws are people with standards to keep. Being a good girl, Mary takes no notice at all of what they say, though she has to be discreet. She walks out with and eventually marries Fitz, who joins the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and is then one of the more than twenty thousand locked out of their jobs until they meet the employer’s demand: that they immediately resign from Larkin’s rapidly growing union.

Father O’Connor is a priest of the worst sort, the sort who these days turns up with a big silly smile on him at Youth Defence gigs. There is something vaguely perverted about his repulsion from the actualities of flesh. He cannot bring himself to approve of the decision of Fitz and Mary “To sleep in the sweat of one bed and deposit in due time a few more animal faces among the dirt”. Father O’Connor is a dude with issues, and seems just a little too interested in what Mary and Fitz get up to in bed. He goes on to play an heroic role when he joins a righteous mob determined to stop the children of locked out workers boarding boats to England and Wales where the families of British trades unionists had offered to take them in so as to ease the pressure on their parents. It was an important act of solidarity designed to help people many of whom were at this stage near starvation. But we couldn’t have children from decent (or even in­decent) Catholic homes going to stay with English and Welsh Protestants and atheists, now could we? In the unlikely event that such protests were to take place today, Father O’Connor and his ilk would surely be joined by Lucinda Creighton TD waving a picture of an abortion in one paw and a copy of Milton Friedman’s Monetary History of the United States in the other. Dublin port is, after all, partly in her Dublin South East constituency. The other priest who features, Father Giffley, is an altogether more sympathetic character. He is a raging alcoholic which, given the facts of his life, seems as rational a solution as any. He sympathises with the workers and the poor, and loathes his colleague’s tight-arsed snobbery.

We all know how the lockout ended: the workers were defeated in the short term, though things were changed nevertheless. It would never be 1907 again. The world of the Bradshaws and Father O’Connor, with his Sunday afternoon visits to posh friends in Kingstown, was in its twilight. As the book ends, less than a year after the lockout’s end, Fitz is on his way to the trenches of World War I. We can be sure that did not end happily. For all its brutal vibrancy, indeed because of it, capitalism always has some ghastly surprise in store for us. And surprises don’t come much nastier than World War I. I’m sure Father O’Connor blessed the troops as they left. He wouldn’t have minded members of his flock hanging around with Protestants in those circumstances.

The harshest image of the book, and the one that stays with me, is what became of Rashers Tierney. In the RTÉ dramatization he was memorably played by David Kelly. Rashers lives in a derelict base­ment with his dog Rusty. Towards the end of the book he appears to be dying of what might be cancer. He expires alone and in agony, having soiled the only clothes he has. Before Rashers is found, the rats have had his face, his eyes and his hands: a fine example of the free market doing its work. Father O’Connor is called, but feels unable to give the last rights to “carrion”.

Liberal newspaper columnists and the greybeard leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions would have us shed a tear for poor Rashers and then refocus on our far more complex contemporary reality. But in the words of William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Especially when the underlying conflict remains unresolved. Read another way, if there is a book to convince the unconvinced that William Martin Murphy’s successor as owner of Independent Newspapers—the plump-faced tax avoider Denis O’Brien—and all the ultra-Catholic rubbish who’ll be back to haunt us come the same-sex marriage referendum should be put permanent­ly beyond use, Strumpet City is that book.

Dear General Secretary

This poem by Kevin Higgins appeared in Issue 49 in September 2012.

after Osip Mandelstam

You’re the folksinger beard
you spent years trying to grow;
the Afghan jacket you used to wear
on Bank Holiday bus trips to Galway.
But the complete set of Bob Dylan LPs
in the corner of your living room
is not telling the truth.

When you read Animal Farm, it’s to see
how the pigs did it.
Whatever the Revolution demands,
you are what it will get.
Your loudest supporters,
those just out of nappies, or refugees
from the Central Mental Hospital.

The inconvenient turn up accused
of attempted rape, pilfering funds…
you leave it to others to execute the details.
Anyone who questions the verdict
can take their case to the committee
that never meets.

You sleep soundly, dream
of the portrait that’ll decorate
every town centre, every crossroads
from Donegal to Waterford:
that folksinger beard
you spent years trying to grow
finally come to heroic fruition.