Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for January, 2012|Monthly archive page

STORIES FROM THE EAST END

In R.Richardson, Reviews on January 3, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Everything Happens in Cable Street, by Roger Mills (Five Leaves Publications, £8.99p IBSN 978-1-907869-19-8 )

As someone who had lived in East London all my working life, I was immediately drawn to Roger Mills’ excellent new book, Everything happens in Cable Street.

In most people’s minds the words “Cable Street” evoke that famous battle of 1936 when Mosley’s Blackshirts were turned back. Roger Mills includes the preamble to the battle, some interesting first hand accounts, and refers to the battle as the focus of a number of community events since that time. But the bulk of the book paints a picture of life and the changes wrought in Cable Street over the past fifty or so years.

“A HUNDRED CABLE STREETS”:

This is a kaleidoscope of a book, a procession of colourful characters and creative endeavour that have ebbed and flowed in Cable Street. Roger Mills writes, “it was as if there were a hundred Cable Streets, so different were the stories.” Included are a large number of transcripts of interviews made in 1979, 1986 and 2010.

Many of the earlier interviewees were first generation British and were Jewish, of eastern European descent. Others were Irish Catholics. The interviews depict a hard life, mostly in the 1920s and ’30s, but a life with a great sense of community.

Later interviews tell of changes that came post war. “In recent years evil and unscrupulous men have moved in with their all-night cafes and their brothels making life hell for for the decent people who have to bring up children in the midst of all these horrors,” wrote Joseph Williamson, a priest quoted by Roger Mills. Father Joe, as he was known, Edith Ramsay, a Labour councillor, and others did much to highlight the deplorable conditions in Cable Street in those years and gradually slum housing was demolished and the worst of the clubs and brothels were closed down.

A FLOWERING OF CREATIVITY:

Parallel but intertwined with the stories of people in Cable Street is the exploration of some of the creative endeavours in which the author was involved. The formation of the Basement Writers in 1973 was a springboard for creative writing of all kinds. Pamphlets, micro-books and comics were produced, and writing was shared at meetings in the basement of St. George’s Town Hall. An original group member wrote that they had a do-it-yourself aesthetic. The group began to expand and perform their work, featuring poetry, song and knockabout comedy.

The setting up of THAP (the Tower Hamlets Arts Project, involving Thames Television) was another scheme to encourage creativity in drama, photography, painting, film music writing and publishing. The scheme lasted a year, but it spawned a bookshop and publishing house which, through a couple of transformations, runs today as the “Brick Lane Bookshop”.

“Cable Street on Film” is another section of Roger Mills’ book. “To Sir With Love” is probably the best known film to be shot in Cable Street but a number of others are mentioned. “Tunde’s Film”, born of the Basement Film Project in 1973 was very much a community production. It was written by local boy Tunde Ikoh and co-directed with Maggie Pinhorn who brought professional expertise to the project. the author and actors were all taken by Maggie to the film’s showing at the Edinburgh Festival.

There’s more, much more, in this book. There’s the story of the mural of the  battle of Cable Street, the creation of the Community Gardens and a visit to Wilton’s Music hall, saved from demolition but held up with acro-props. And there are many other captivating stories.

For anyone who is interested in social history, and particularly in community involvement, Roger Mills’ fascinating book is a must. If you have a London connection, that will add an extra dimension to your enjoyment.

Reviewed by RUTH RICHARDSON

MAKING A POINT – OR JUST BEING OFFENSIVE?

In Reviews, T. Chinnick on January 3, 2012 at 1:22 pm

TYLER CHINNICK reviews the film “Religulous”, made by American comedian Bill Maher in 2008. It’s now available on DVD.

Bill Maher is an American comedian and journalist, and one of that new breed of militant atheists who display all the arrogance and imperiousness that they attack in the religious. “Religulous” starts with him telling us that he is “seeking answers”, trying to find out why people believe, but it quickly becomes clear that he lacks the humility of a seeker, and this is nothing short of a polemic against religion. He approaches his subjects with a smugness that quickly becomes grating. He is frequently very rude to people who have granted him interviews and agreed to share with him some of their most sacred and deeply held beliefs.

Most of those he interviewed are predictably quite crazy and hold opinions which deserve to be rigorously questioned (indeed in some cases ridiculed), but he approaches them all with an hauteur, a bluster, a conceit that is so positively napoleonic that we find ourselves as viewers sympathising with people whom we’d normally find total unsympathetic.

It’s easy to make fun of religion and indeed a good, witty and entertaining movie could and should be made. This, sadly, is not it. For something far funnier and more insightful, you’d do better to re-watch Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.

STEREOTYPES:

It’s when he tackles Islam, however, that his approach becomes more troubling. His analysis of Islam, and in particular the Arab-Israeli conflict, is riddled with prejudices, stereotypes and double standards.

For example, when the manager of the “Holy Land Amusement Park” explains that they’ve had visitors from the Gaza strip, it is illustrated with shots of hooded Hamas members shooting guns in the air. The sound of gunshots and screams continues throughout the interview.

And footage of a radical imam exhorting Muslims to kill Jews is followed by a shot of a bomb going off in Jerusalem, reducing the whole conflict to nothing more than Palestinian anti-semitism.

There are lots of examples of Muslim prejudice but none of Zionist lunacy, as if hatred and fundamentalism are only to be found on one side. This reflects the commonly held American view of the conflict, and it is just another confirmation that Maher has no interest in asking pertinent questions or in finding answers – only in scoring easy points.

He also interviews Geert Wilders, the fascistic Dutch politician who believes that the Quran should be banned. He is allowed to pontificate without question or contradiction. Maher doesn’t speak to any Muslims who have suffered verbal or physical abuse incited by men like Wilders. Indeed he doesn’t acknowledge that the problem of anti-Muslim prejudice even exists.

ALL CONDEMNED EQUALLY:

Islam particularly but religion in general is treated as one big, indivisible monolith. The idiocy and violence of one sect is used to condemn the whole religion, and in so doing he joins the ranks of the EDL and Pastor Terry Jones. This kind of atheism displays a level of intolerance that is deeply unhelpful and which I find personally distasteful. Are tolerance and mutual respect really so bad?

Religion is presented as something that is uniformly evil. Without light and shade, without a right and a left, without liberal and conservative. If he was really conducting an honest inquiry and using the scientific methods he claims to believe in, then he would have gravitated towards those areas most problematic for his thesis. If religion is as he believes so intrinsically bad and stupid, then how could it have inspired people like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi to battle prejudice an injustice with such courage? Or artists like Michelangelo to create such majestic paintings? There are answers to all these questions for the atheist, but he doesn’t even ask them.

FAILURE:

“Religulous” is a failure. It’s a failure as a quest because he isn’t interested in the answers. It’s a failure as an argument because he doesn’t consider the things which might disprove it, and it fails as a witty polemic because he’s too concentrated on making an argument.

As for me, I believe in Karl Marx’s rather generous treatment of religion: “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

(as quoted by Christopher Hitchens).

READERS’ LETTER: Communist East Germany & British Socialism Today pt.2

In A.Graham, C.Spiby, Readers on January 3, 2012 at 1:15 pm

WORKING FOR SOCIALISM: outside the Labour Party – or in?

Dear the Clarion

Tyler Chinnick sets out an inspiring programme in his “What Next for Labour” article. Sadly, at the present time it is no more ace than the Socialist Party programme. Indeed, much of what he says would sit happily within it.

It would seem that most people on the left share the same aims. We want a fairer, safer world, one in which resources are used wisely, shared more equitably, and where the culture is co-operation not conflict. And that is just about where consensus ends. The gap between being IN the Labour Party and OUT is wide.

If, like me, you choose to work within a minority party you are “sectarian”. Carl Spiby rightly ridicules my show of indignation at being packaged together with the Socialist Workers Party. If one as politically educated as he is does not know the fundamental difference between their way of working and the methods of the Socialist Party, it is unlikely that 99 per cent of the population would either know or care. But of course it matters to me.

Politics are global, national and also highly personal. Being an activist can be tedious and time consuming. It can take you away from your families and friends and hinder careers and other more simple pleasures. It is, then, important to align yourself to a group that makes all this worthwhile. You do have to believe in the vision and the programme and you do have to trust the ethics of the executive and the paid party workers. And how is it any longer possible to do this where the Labour Party is concerned? I believe that the culture of careerism and deception is too deeply embedded to be routed and that this applies to both local councils and national government. Presumably, the local councillors who have impressed Carl do not come from the Forest of Dean. Our own have either given support or kept resolutely silent whilst our health provision has been under attack. Once again, the campaign to retain services within the NHS came from outside of the mainstream political parties.

Carl is of course right (or almost right) when he says that the SP etc., will never win a seat in Parliaments, but he’s off the mark when he equates Parliamentary seats with “reflecting the aspirations of the mass of working people”. Voting figures are woeful and many of us who go to the polling stations mark a cross with a heavy heart. We have been taking part in the only democratic process available to us.

As I said in my response to Carl’s original article, the Labour Party offers nothing to people who are desperate for change. The fact that the trade unions preferred Ed to David has not filled the poor with joy. How many of the young Jarrow marchers or the anti-capitalist campaigners will be rushing to vote Labour? The once great party has had its day. Yes, we do need a mass party but a new one. And to quote the Socialist Party’s “what we stand for”:

“For a new mass workers’ party drawing together workers, young people and activists from workplace, community, environmental and anti-war campaigns, to provide a fighting political alternative to the pro big business parties. Trades Unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party now and aid the building of a new workers’ party.”

Hopefully, not too sectarian!

DIANA GASH

And an insider’s view:

I have some sympathy with Diana’s view of the Labour Party – though that doesn’t mean that I share it. To some extent it mirrors the disillusion by many on the left, particularly during the bleak Blair years, when party membership plummeted, and those members who remained found themselves increasingly out in the cold when it came to policy.

But significantly, this fallout didn’t result in any increase in support for those Left parties operating outside Labour. These parties remained marginalised, operating outside the mainstream. What did increase, though, was the level of support for “single issue” campaigns, and, under the Cameron-Clegg coalition, these have continued to increase. And long may they continue to do so. The activities of groups like UKuncut, the “Occupy” anti-capitalist camps, and resistance by the public sector unions are all healthy signs of democratic protest.

Now, I hesitate to use the word “sectarian”. After all, its use is a value judgement. Neither would I like to lump together such parties as the SP, the SWP, the SLP, etc. But what they tend to have in common is a prescriptive approach to politics and action which inhibits any major political breakthrough.

Tony Benn once described the Labour Party as a “broad church”. Despite the stifling impact of the Blair regime, it still is today. It is a (comparatively) mass party, representing a range of views and groups (including the trade unions and the co-operative movement). And this has long been its strength. Hopefully in the future we will be able to look back on “New Labour” as an aberration.

As for Diana’s strictures on our local councillors, I think this needs to be taken in the context of the steady emasculation of local government since the days of Thatcher. Local authorities have in effect become commissioners of local services rather than providers, and few nowadays have much control over their destinies or those of the people who vote for them.  And, I suspect, this has narrowed the vision of many hard working councillors who, at heart, still want to serve the communities they represent.

I can also sympathise with Diana’s point that being a political activist can be tedious and take one away from family, friends, etc. But this, of course, is the consequence of the marginalisation of politics. Once it could be inclusive, but not these days – for which the politicians are to blame!

ALISTAIR GRAHAM

LABOUR IN LIVERPOOL:

In Guest Feature on January 3, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Reflections on the party conference, by former South West region MEP GLYN FORD

The last time that Labour met in Liverpool was eighty six years ago, in 1925. This was in the wake of the defeat of the first ever Labour government, hounded from office in November 1924 by “red scares” and the Daily Mail’s brandishing of the infamous forged “Ziniovev Letter”purporting to show that the Communist Party in Britain was being told by its Soviet masters to prepare for an imminent uprising. Within five years, in 1929, Labour was back in power.

This time around it will not automatically be that swift a return.

In Liverpool, the most eloquent statements of this were made in the Exhibition Hall, rather than from the podium or platform. While many delegates spoke as if Labour’s bounce back to power at the next election was assured, the same was not true of Labour’s corporate collaborators from our years in power. They were largely absent without leave, taking the view that Labour was here to stay in opposition. Certainly Tory gerrymandering with fixed term parliaments and the shaving down of a bloated House of Commons by a scanty fifty MPs to maximise their electoral advantage, makes the task that much harder in May 2015. But making it all worse is the “blame game”, media bias and the malaise infecting traditional social democratic parties across the European Union.

DOGGED BY CLAIMS:

Labour is constantly dogged by the ConDem alliance’s claims that the current crisis is the fault of Labour – stating simultaneously that it’s the global crisis that’s getting in the way of a British recovery. Now, we have to take some responsibility. Labour failed to tackle the greedy bankers, bent coppers and feral press. We didn’t tighten up banking regulation after the Tories’ big bang, ignored evidence of police corruption and kowtowed to Murdoch. Yet none of these would have helped avoid the toxic crisis in the US or the problems with the Irish, Greek or Italian economies.

Second, the very idea of a coalition seems to have stood the BBC’s idea of “balance” on its head. It’s no longer Government and Opposition, but rather Con versus Lib as the two coalition partners have their say centre stage with Labour having a mere walk-on part after those two have finished. Worse, when Labour does get a word in edgeways, it’s not our current spokesman who appears but one of yesterday’s men, and women, often now washed up in the Lords from the flood that swept Labour away.

DECLINE OF THE LEFT:

Third, our problem is one at the heart of western-style democracies. Socialists and Social Democrats less than a generation ago were in government in the majority of EU member states. Not so today. But what about Denmark, made much of in Liverpool? I’m delighted that the Danish Socialists are in power, but we need to be honest with ourselves. They had their worst result in ninety years and actually lost seats. They are in power because of the success of two small left partners and a radical liberal party who are sustaining them in coalition.

So what’s the message, and where do we go from here? More of the same and mere triangulation won’t work. New Labour with all its faults served us well. But in the end it brought us down. Nor will the electorate buy Labour as “Tory-lite”, a party whose cuts will be just that much smaller and made with genuine sadness rather than hidden joy. People know that times will continue to be tough, but they want a different vision of society from that of Cameron and Clegg.

GLIMMER OF HOPE:

The best glimmer of hope in Liverpool came from Ed Miliband’s speech. It was the first social democratic leader’s speech since 1992. It was not perfectly structured or delivered, but it began the process of putting into place a new framework of thinking for Labour. Ed derided rigged markets, asset strippers and vested interests, promising to become the voice of the hard-working majority, the squeezed middle and the crushed bottom. As he said in his devastating attack on the Tory leader, “only David Cameron could believe that you make ordinary families work harder by making them poorer and you make the rich work harder by making them richer.”

There is a long way to go, but Liverpool set Labour off in the right direction. If we can build on this over the next eighteen months to two years, we can attract back those who left us in 2010, keep those who remained with us and attract back those who had given up on politics in favour of abstention, or been seduced by the siren voices of the mad, bad and sad – UKIP and the BNP – and the regional and political sectarians.

“We’re the 99 per cent”

In A.Graham on January 3, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Why the “occupy” movement is taking action

Capitalism has failed us. Particularly the finance capitalism of the big banking corporations that has ruled the global economy in recent decades. There must be another, better, way – a way that we can equate with Socialism.

That, basically, is the message of those who have involved themselves in the “Occupy” movement, which kicked off in September with the camp city erected near Wall Street – America’s financial centre.

It soon spread to other cities in the USA, and then crossed the Atlantic to protest camps set up outside St. Paul’s in the City of London and sites in other cities in Britain, including College Green in Bristol.

The slogan of the protesters is based on the fact that the top financial elite make up (roughly) one per cent of the population. By their manipulation of the money markets, their actions affect the lives of the rest of us – the remaining 99 per cent of the world population.

The message of the movement was reinforced in October, with the news that top directors in the UK had given themselves a pay rise of 49 per cent – at a time when others in the population were suffering cuts in their standards of living and their pensions – or being thrown out of work. The gap between rich and poor in this country has been growing for some time – and it’s been growing particularly since the present government came to power.

MAKING MONEY:

But what do the financiers in the City actually produce? Is it anything useful, like food, houses, railways, or the stuff of engineering or technology? No, it’s money – money made on the backs of those who do produce the goods and services that the rest of us need to carry on our lives.

No doubt a bank or investment trust would claim that they provide the capital that allows those who work on the farms, build the homes, etc., etc., to do their bit in the social structure. Up to a point – but it’s largely other people’s money they’re investing, and at the end of the day its not altruism that guides their actions – it’s profit. And all too often their actions wreak havoc with other people’s lives.

THE TERRIBLE COST:

This drive for profit at all costs can have terrible consequences – as happened with the financial collapse of 2007-08 when toxic investments (largely in the housing markets) spread like a man-made plague throughout the world’s financial system. The banks who’d gambled with our money were bailed out – but the rest of us had to pick up the tab.

We can trace the roots of this financial disaster back at least to Thatcher’s de-regulation of the banking system in the 1980s and ’90s. Or we could go back to the grim thirties for another object lesson. Indeed, there have been many times when the system that gambled with money entrusted to them by other people had played havoc with the economy – and people’s lives. Of course we don’t have to go back to the financial collapse of 1929. There are those who’ll recall the dark days of the early 1990s when shares tumbled and panic in the City nearly brought about another disintegration in the markets.

SYMPATHY:

It’s significant that the “Occupy” movement has gained a level of sympathy amongst many, and the authorities in the USA and Britain seemed at first reluctant to move against them. since 2008, it’s been difficult, even for supporters of capitalism, to defend the bankers and the system that they uphold.

Of course the right-wing press has done its best to belittle the camp communities. But it wasn’t until November that the authorities in America moved in with riot police to evict forcibly the camps that had sprung up in New York and elsewhere in the USA. Over here, the Corporation of the City of London finally decided to take action.

“ROBIN HOOD” TAX:

And whilst the authorities may be successful in dispersing the protesters, they haven’t quelled the ideas of those who set up the camps in the first place. More and more people are backing the idea of a “Robin Hood” Tax (roughly based on the proposal for a “Tobin Tax” put forward by the economist of that name) – for a modest tax on financial transactions which could be used to ward off the impact of any further collapse.

The City as a whole, of course, is against it. After all, why should they be expected pay for their greed? But many, more thoughtful, economists and businessmen have given their backing, and so has the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The camps HAVE made an impact. They have created debate, and wrong-footed even the most ardent supporters of finance capitalism. Whatever happens next (and with winter approaching and a tougher libe being proposed by the authorities it may be that they won’t be able to sustain themselves), the debate that they have provoked will no doubt carry on for some time.

ALISTAIR GRAHAM