Ai Weiwei, Human Flow, Documentary Film Review

One sign of a ‘modern’ society might be its ability to generate its own thoughtful critics. North America has them by the bucket loads; it used to be Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Now it’s Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, Oliver Stone and of course the irrepressible Noam Chomsky. The Indian subcontinent has the equally irrepressible Arundhati Roy and the Anglo-Indian author, Salman Rushdie. Australasia, still something of a colonial outpost in both politics and cultural attitudes, has its highly combatant John Pilger. Britain has its George Monbiot, Poly Toynbee, and Gary Younge amongst its many competent journalists; daring politicians like Caroline Lucas, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell; cutting-edge musicians like Linton Kwesi Johnson and of course its stand-out playwrights and film makers like Mike Leigh, Dennis Potter, Alan Bennett and Ken Loach. The African continent, both at home and in the African diaspora, has produced and continues to produce a rich seam of critics and activists, not least the revolutionary leaders of the post-colonial struggles and of course those wonderful reggae artists like Cliff, Tosh and Winston Rodney. But in the far-East, and in China in particular, the only name that comes readily to mind to the Eurocentric media, is that of Ai Weiwei.

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Table Tennis England: Still asking the wrong questions.

I understand the governing body of table tennis are in the midst of a root and branch examination of their governing structures. This was forced upon them by some of the old guard kicking back against the ‘modern era’ being imposed on the organisation by Sport England who bluntly told them – modernise your structures or loose all your public funding. Quite right. By the ‘old guard’ I refer to the League and County committees who, hiding behind the fake banner of democracy, resent having Sport England meddling in their decades old control of the sport. Not for them the 21st

century and the bracing winds of modernity, accountability and transparency. I have no idea how the exercise will pan out and to be honest I, and most table tennis enthusiasts, don’t actually care. This is all set to be a token consultation that has no intention of asking the key question: How is it that of all the tens of thousands of youngsters that have been drawn into the sport over the past years, only a tiny handful are still playing?  And if you don’t ask the right sort of questions you have precious little chance of yielding the right sort of answers.

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Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine, Penguin 2014

I know a person of Irish descent who tells me they have experienced varying levels of petty prejudice throughout their life but that it comes and goes. That person is white. I know a person of Jewish descent who tells me they have experienced petty prejudices at varying time in their life but that it comes and goes. They are white. Reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, I get the distinct impression that for Black people living in predominantly European societies, the prejudice never really stops because they are always, first and foremost, in the eyes of the European, Black.

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Oxfam Report: How the neo-liberal, corporate elite hate it.

The statistics are damning enough. But of course, they are damning every year. It never seems to get better. Nearly a billion of our fellow citizens are without clean and safe drinking water. The stuff they are forced to drink is contaminated with every conceivable parasite and life-threatening bacteria. Two billion of our fellow citizens must make do without proper sanitation. Disease is rife. lives are cut short. One in five girls don’t get a primary school education. They are condemned to a lifetime of grinding poverty and ignorance. To top it off, the extremes of wealth and poverty just get larger. A mere 42 people hold the same wealth as the poorest 3.7 billion. 82% of the wealth created in 2017 went to the obscenely rich 1%.

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Brexit Blues

Brexit, Brexit from May to December

Brexit scheming is all I remember

Productivity rising, trade is flat-lining

A time for cheering or a time for crying.

 

Brexit, Brexit from Monday to Sunday

Brexit plotting for a pumped-up payday

Opportunities opening, trade door slamming

The predictions are rosy, the forecasts are damning.

 

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The Crown: Series 2, Netflix, 2017

The golden age of TV continues. Not that there isn’t mountains of dross out there. Of course there is. But amongst the dross there seems to be a slow but steady stream of gems. The latest, in my ‘ever so ‘umble’ opinion, has to be The Crown. Not since the BBC’s I Claudius in the mid 1970’s has a TV series set out with so much ambition.  The BBC’s ‘Our Friends From The North’ and ‘This Life’ certainly had ambition as did HBO’s ‘The Wire’ and ‘The Sopranos’. ‘Black Mirror’ is absolutely sublime as are the three series of ‘In Treatment’. The ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Homeland’ are both likely to be on many people’s ‘best of the best’ list. There have been plenty of other minor masterpieces to salivate over, not least being Alan Bennet’s ‘Talking Heads’, ‘A very British Coup’ and the more recent, ‘Wolf Hall’. In fact, if you put your mind to it, it is easy enough to conjure up a list of twenty or more TV masterpieces without watering down the quality in the slightest.

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The Greatest, Matthew Syed, John Murray Publishers, 2017

The standout chapter in this otherwise routine offering is undoubtedly Chapter 4, ‘The Political Game’. But it is the standout chapter for all the worst reasons. On the question of sports psychology, motivation and sporting success, Syed has been determinedly innovative and at times quite revolutionary. Syed consistently rejects spurious notions of inherent ‘talent’ and instead focuses on personal mindset, environmental factors and sheer hard work. For this Syed should be warmly applauded. Talent as a factor in success is ultimately a reactionary concept carelessly propagated by the ruling elites to justify their continued hold on the reigns of power. Syed systematically explodes this ruling-class myth. Syed is also consistently in the vanguard in exposing petty prejudices in sport and society; not least racist and homophobic prejudices. Once again, this sterling work should be acknowledged and applauded. But when Syed strays into the world of historical polemics, one can’t help but feel, despite or perhaps because of his PPE Oxford Degree, that he is way out of his depth. Clearly, dialectical thinking is not on the Oxbridge curriculum. 

 

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Even The Dogs, Jon McGregor, Bloomsbury, London, 2010

Christmas is the season of good cheer. It is also the season of forced gaiety and consumerist frenzy.  It is also the season of bleak homelessness, addiction and other forms of individual and family disfunction. And should you wish to get an insight into the latter condition, you could do no better than to read Jon McGregor’s, ‘Even The Dogs’. I am currently mourning Jim Crace’s decision to retire from novel writing but praise the gods, Jon McGregor has miraculously arrived to fill the vacuum. And he does so with all the literary genius that we had come to love and expect from Jim Crace. Two literary geniuses proving, as if proof was necessary, that the centuries old art of novel writing is not dead.

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Pompeii, Robert Harris, Hutchinson, London, 2003

A rollicking, fictionalised account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD which, without effort, wiped the Roman town of Pompeii from the living map. I say fictionalised, but it is clear from this historical novel that Harris has done his homework. Just a brief scan of the acknowledgements page at the end of the novel testifies to Harris’s attention to historical accuracy. It’s a great read, marred only perhaps by the decision to include a romantic interest. Still, the man has to make a living. The work is peppered with thoughtful philosophical flourishes alongside much Greco-Roman wisdom and the novel is all the richer for it. But for me, the highlight of the novel is the manner in which Harris interlaces his tale with the everyday reality of slavery – the socio-economic bedrock of Rome and all other classical empires of antiquity.

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Of course, Russian sport is corrupt, but then so are the Olympics, Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, 6/12/17

A welcome and overdue return to ‘sporting polemics’ but predictably it’s the same old story; corruption, doping and unaccountable oligarchy. Simon Jenkins does an excellent job in outlining the corrupt relationship between the Russian authorities and the IOC and FIFA. But more than that, he goes on to make the point that it is not only Russian sport that is mired in corruption and cheating. All nations are at it, not least the British, although they like to play the very British game of being holier than thou. What makes Jenkins’ article stand out from the pack is his ability to get to the root cause of much of this corruption. To cut to the chase, it is national chauvinism, says Jenkins, that is at the heart of all that is rotten with international sport and unless and until this nexus between national chauvinism and sporting excellence is broken, international sport will forever be dragged into the gutter.

 

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Let’s Turn the Tide on Plastic, Daily Mail, 30/11/17

Notwithstanding my unflinching revulsion of all that is the Daily Mail, complete with its non-stop xenophobia, its petty ‘little England’ mentality and its outright racist bile, I am forced once again to congratulate its editors for their front-page campaign against the tsunami of plastic currently devastating our planet. I say, ‘once again’ because they ran a similar inspiring front-page campaign not so long ago declaring ‘sugar as the new tobacco’. They were correct on that one and they are equally correct on their attitude towards discarded plastics. Just as The Sun, that vile tabloid rag, once came out defiantly against the murderers of Stephen Lawrence, so The Daily Mail occasionally demonstrates its better nature. It is rare but welcome nevertheless. But there is a glaring contradiction at the heart of their campaigning journalism; the not insignificant question of government regulation.

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Brexit and the Irish Question: Don’t mention the ongoing Occupation.

In a half decent article by Polly Toynbee, ‘The Irish Question May Yet Save Britain From Brexit’ (The Guardian 28/11/17) she gives a hint at the Imperial rule that has so humiliated this small nation for so long. Toynbee writes; ‘They (the Brexiteers) pretended it was nothing. Reviving that deep-dyed, centuries-old contempt for the Irish, they have dismissed it with an imperial fly-whisk as a minor irritation.’ Beautiful written and historically accurate. But it is not enough. Neither Toynbee, or Andrew Marr or Jeremy Paxman before them, nor the whole gamut of liberal journalists currently plying their trade in Britain, can bring themselves to openly admit that the remnants of the British Empire still occupy six counties of the thirty-two counties of Ireland. This is not some small pedantic point. Just imagine if the Germans still occupied the Channel Islands. Would liberal Britain, let alone the thousands of rabid nationalists still lurking in the corridors of power, quietly acquiesce to mid-20th

century German imperial occupation? I think not.

 

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I Am Not Your Negro, Film Review, Raoul Peck, 2017

Based on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript, this is an important piece in the jigsaw of America’s Civil Rights Movement. But it is so much more. Baldwin was attempting, in his final work, to link together the lives, criminally cut short, of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and the lesser known civil rights activist, Medgar Evers into a coherent whole. And Raoul Peck does full justice to that unfinished work. He does so by allowing plenty of space for Baldwin to speak his own wonderfully eloquent words rather than allowing others to speak for him. And the key message that this fine intellectual has for his white neighbours; America does not have a ‘Negro problem’ but instead, he makes abundantly clear, America has an unresolved problem with race. Peck, in this fine documentary, gives plenty of room for Baldwin’s thesis to be aired and, by interspersing the narrative with some contemporary footage, brings the message bang on up to the present day. Full marks.

 

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Brick Lane, Monica Ali, Transworld Publishers, London, 2003

This one is important, and perhaps more important than its author might have originally imagined. In an age where religion and other assorted superstitions are making something of a comeback, here is a novel that tenaciously works, on every front, to deconstruct all the nonsense about gods, fate and the god-given, subordinate role of women. That the novelist achieves this with much humour and empathy for her characters, whilst maintaining throughout a growing level of tension, is an achievement in itself. That the novel stands out, fifteen years on, as a searing indictment of all things patriarchal and metaphysical, is its real achievement.

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The War on Women, Sue Lloyd-Roberts, Simon & Schuster, London, 2016

For a harrowing journalistic account of how a violent, misogynistic patriarchy still rules our planet, you could do no better than to read Sue Lloyd Robert’s ‘The War on Women’. It’s not a theoretical exposition but the theoretical questions behind the viscous misogyny that continues to plague our species emerges clear enough. The book feels a little unfinished and that is probably because its author sadly died before she could tidy things up. And one cannot help but feel there is a vital missing chapter. Robert’s does a heroic job of presenting the global picture, but where are the all damning chapters recounting Britain’s shameful record of domestic abuse? The statistics emerging from the so-called western developed countries are truly shocking. By the time you have read this short blog, half a dozen women would have been battered nearly to death in their own homes by men they thought they could trust. Every week two will die of their injuries. This is truly a war on women and it’s happening right in front of our noses.

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Another Country, James Baldwin

The title of this powerful novel is somewhat ambiguous and probably deliberately so. It might refer to the very different experiences that Black and White people experience in the USA. It might equally refer to the different worlds and experiences of gay and straight people, not to mention the many shifting shades in between. It might actually refer to the dreams and aspirations that we all have, contrasted with the hum-drum reality that most of us inevitably lead. ‘Another Country’ could even refer to that geographical place that we all dream about; some place that we imagine is so much better than where we actually are. I suspect ‘Another Country’ for Mr Baldwin, is all of these things; metaphysical, socio-political and geographical. Either way, Baldwin produced something of a classic, quietly simmering away until it explodes into anger, recriminations and personal revelations. But what I found both intriguing and shocking about this novel was that some fifty years on, the sickening reality of racial discrimination is as alive today in America as it was in the 1960’s. Just why is it, I kept asking myself, is this supposedly most modern of nations stuck in a social dead-end when it comes to the question of race?

 

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