Swing Time, Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, UK, 2016

This excellent offering from Zadie Smith got me thinking about what makes a really good novel become a classic novel. Of course, there is no definitive answer to that question because the whole thing is so highly subjective, much like in any art form. But for me there are two essential ingredients; one that the particular can effortlessly interchange with the universal, and secondly, that there is something a little magical in the novel. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children comes to mind as does Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Both broke new ground in both the tale and the telling of the tale. Zadie Smith’s latest offering is a great read. No doubt about that. And I will willingly recommend to all and sundry. But is it a classic novel? Probably not.

 

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British Values: Which Ones Would They Be Then?

Swearing allegiance to any set of values is a mighty tricky game. Best to be avoided at all costs. But Tory Minister Sajid Javid has different ideas. He wants the whole nation to swear allegiance to a set of British values. But this seemingly innocuous proposal quickly becomes a philosophical minefield. Who, for starters, will dictate what’s in and what’s out? And who’s to say which interpretation of any given ‘value’ is the correct one. Take for example the right to one’s own religious faith. That seems eminently straightforward and enlightened enough on the surface. Far from it. What if one person’s faith directly contradicts another person’s faith or indeed the law of the land? Take for example the highly contentious medieval practices of ‘honour’ killings, female genital mutilation and forced arranged marriages. Should tolerance of religious cultural diversity trump secular law or should secular law always and everywhere trump deeply held religious custom? This raises the intractably thorny question: where does tolerance of cultural diversity start and where should that tolerance absolutely finish? And what of the myriad grey areas in between?

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Simon Jenkins: Union Basher.

Our liberal media commentators are lining up to condemn the strike action of the RMT and others. Last month it was Matthew Syed in The Times. This month it is Simon Jenkins writing in the London Evening Standard 9/1/17. Both papers I should add are owned and tightly controlled by billionaire media barons who always and everywhere side with the global corporate interest. And when we look at the actions of these billionaires, we should never, ever forget that behind every great fortune is a great crime.

Common to the whinging all these liberal commentators is the sheer inconvenience that these strikes cause the ‘common citizen’. If only the Union Barons would sit down and reasonably work out their differences with management, we could all get on with our busy lives in this great city of ours. And therein lies the fundamental error of their argument. To Syed, Jenkins and their cohorts, there are four main parties involved; management, government and unions and of course the ‘ordinary’ hard-pressed citizen. This is patently a nonsense and a Tory corporate fiction.

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The Invention of the Jewish People, Shlomo Sand, Verso, London 2009

At a time when there is a relentless campaign to equate legitimate criticism of the colonial expansionist policies of the Israeli government with anti-semitism, this text from Shlomo Sand, history professor from Tel Aviv University, is nothing short of explosive. From within the ‘belly of the beast’ so to speak, this Israeli academic has produced a thesis that gets to the very heart of the ‘greater Israel’ project. But it does so much more. In the process of demolishing the ludicrous notion of Israel being ‘God’s promised land to God’s chosen people’, Shlomo’s well documented thesis works to deconstruct the whole notion of ‘pure’ biological races emanating from some misty god inspired times. Even a cursory investigation of history shows that most nations are relatively recent constructs, and even the more ‘ancient’ nations turn out to be little more than an accumulation of successive waves of invasions, migrations and social intermingling, England being the perfect example.

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The Crown, Netflix TV Series, 2016

When I saw this one being advertised, I was determined not to touch it with a barge-pole. It was almost certainly going to be a slavish, grovelling tribute to an aristocratic, parasitic family of European in-breeds, better known as Britain’s Royal family. I’ve always despised the very notion of monarchy, religious hierarchy or any form of hereditary power. I certainly was not going to voluntarily buy into this latest chapter of mindless deference to this archaic medieval institution. But I was badgered into giving this latest Netflix offering a go and hey presto – it was quite intoxicating. Not without a few historical errors but intelligently portrayed and anything but deferential. In one of the early episodes Prince Phillip denounced the entire House of Windsor as a bunch of hyenas with ice cold blood in their veins. Now I can go along with that.

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Fidel Castro: An Historical Hero

Sam Leith (Evening Standard 28th November) and Zoe Williams (The Guardian) were tripping over each other and themselves in their endeavours to brand Fidel Castro a ruthless, bestial dictator. And anyone who dared to think otherwise was guilty of naïve 6th form politics. Both are competent enough journalists, and on their day, damn good ones. A pity then, that on this occasion they, along with dozens of other ‘liberal’ commentators, were guilty of the same bourgeois journalistic failing – that of allowing themselves to become divorced from the material reality of their subject. It’s not that both Leith and Williams do not make some valid points – they do. Arbitrary thuggish state repression is just that, no matter whether it comes from the right or the left – particularly if one is on the receiving end. But criticisms of Castro, like any great historical figure, becomes totally devoid of meaning if divorced from the concrete reality from which they emerged. This is as true for Castro as it is for all the ‘great’ socialist revolutionaries of the 20th

century. When you read the above- mentioned articles it transpires that it is our esteemed ‘liberal’ journalists who are guilty of high school journalism and not those that seek a balanced assessment.

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Trump and the Brexiteers: Exploiting the victims of corporate globalisation.

I think it fair to say that capital always and everywhere, if unregulated, moves to the point of highest return. The odd ‘ethical’ exception here than there is soon negated by the relentless tide of self-interest. And in that pursuance of maximum return, capital has long since slipped its national leash. Capital has long since gone global and so too has the manufacture of goods, services and people – both those that are able to profit from the system and those that are desperate to be part of it.

If you were a manufacturer, large or small, why would you manufacture something in the US of A when you could produce the very same thing with the very same quality for a fraction of the cost in the developing world. By the same logic, if you did decide to manufacture either goods or services in the United States, why would you employ a US worker at union agreed rates, when you could employ an ‘illegal’ migrant worker for at a considerably lower cost. This is the morality of capital. In fact, capital has no morality per se. It is gender neutral, colour blind and agonistic in belief. Its only rationale is to reproduce itself at the highest rate possible.

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Tony Blair – The Interview, Alex Bilmes, Esquire, Nov 2016

I don’t recall ever having read a copy of Esquire but the name does ring a bell. I’ve always imagined it as some tacky ‘men’s magazine’, that is if I’ve ever actually thought of it at all. Not quite porn, but a bit seedy nevertheless. Certainly, not a serious political journal. But it was being given away as a complimentary copy by my holiday hotel and the front cover did look intriguing. 

Everybody, myself included, loves to hate Tony Blair these days, so, with an interview on offer with the man himself, I grabbed the mag and began to read, but without having any great expectations either way. But to tell you the truth, I think that Mr Bilmes, the author of the Tony Blair interview, has done a damn good job, neither falling into the trap of blind sycophancy nor shutting the man down without letting him express himself. In the end, I think Bilmes has produced a textured, nuanced interview which presents Blair, I suspect, fairly accurately. And having read the interview twice, the most charitable thing I can say of our former Prime Minister, is that he is a well-intentioned fool.

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Don’t worry my Liberal friends. President Donald Trump was the best outcome possible… really

Yes that’s what the headline says, and no I am not looking for attention. This election was about the American people versus American politics, and the people won. Don’t get me wrong. This is going to be the ultimate in Pyrrhic victories. The people who are going to suffer the most will be Trumps voters when they realise that they have been sold the biggest bill of goods in American political history.

The border wall will not get built, there will be no mass deportations (although life is about to get harder for America’s undocumented workers) and the banks/Wall Street will not be brought to heel. Most of all, the trend that has seen the livelihoods of middle-class (in reality, working class) Americans reduced over the last 40 years, will not be reversed.

Forty years ago the majority of American families could get by on one income provider. Moreover, that same income provider could fulfil their role having only a single job. Forty years ago credit cards were virtually unheard of. Forty years ago the working class was not burdened by anything approaching the level of personal debt it currently holds. Forty years ago the working class was both doing well and knew that it was doing well.

Forty years ago the working class was doing so well it started calling itself the middle class and forgot that it was still comprised of wage slaves.

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I Daniel Blake, Film Review, Ken Loach, October 2016

A gut-wrenching and politically explosive powerhouse of a film for sure, but one that is unlikely to have the same devastating effect on the nation that Loach’s first film, ‘Cathy Come Home’, had some fifty years ago. Whereas millions of Brits were once shocked by Loach’s expose of British homelessness and the heartless bureaucracy that went with it, ‘I Daniel Blake’, is going to have to fight tooth and nail to get itself heard in this new multi-channel, multi-media era. Whereas once, just two terrestrial channels competed for our attention, now there seems to be hundreds. ‘I Daniel Blake’ is a film that deserves to be watched by the entire nation though somehow I very much doubt that it will.

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Bob Dylan: Nobel Prize Winner at Last

Mr Zimmerman is a moody sort of guy. But I mean that in the best possible way. For fifty years or more this extraordinary poet and musician, and all round song and dance man, has been exploring the many contradictory moods of the human condition and doing so with the fine skill of a master wordsmith. I don’t profess to know much about previous winners of this supposedly prestigious literary award so I am unable to make comparisons, but I can say emphatically that BD has the enduring ability to ‘coin a phrase’ that stays with you for the rest of your damn life. There can be few men or women of words that can claim that sort of mantle. And still today, an event may present itself in the news, and one of those poignant Dylan lines pops into mind that seems to perfectly sum up the situation no matter how devilishly complex that situation may be. For that alone I would suggest that the award is well deserved.

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Theresa May: Britain is Open for Corporate Plunder

Despite those stirring, noble words from Theresa May in her first twenty-four hours, Prime Minister May has gone on to shown her true corporate colours. Prime Minister May has consistently backed the corporate interest over and above the interests of the country and its citizens. May, with her promise to reinstate Grammar Schools and the debilitating selection that goes with them, started off badly and has proceeded to go from bad to worse. In fact, so reactionary has her record been so far, she has almost succeeded in making her predecessor look like a social reformer. Almost. In virtually every decision she has made, she has backed the global corporates over and above the public good. May’s administration is shaping up to be every bit as reactionary as the Thatcherite governments that preceded her.

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War Criminals: We need to look closer to home.

There is little doubting that Russia is in the hands of a gangster mafia. The once state owned commanding heights of the old Soviet Union have been sold off to a gang of thieving oligarchs, many of whom were former Communist Party apparatchiks. Whilst this oligarchic elite has grown obscenely rich, the Russian economy has contracted, buffeted as it is by falling oil prices, endless wars around its periphery, western sanctions and criminal government ineptitude. Socially, Russia has become intolerant and repressive. And now, encircled as it is by an ever expansionist NATO, Russia under Putin, has decided the best form of defence is attack. And the Western powers, unable or unwilling to extend its own military operations, can only resort to name calling. Russia is declared the ‘war criminal’ for its actions in the Crimea, Ukraine, and now Syria, but western politicians and commentators should look closer to home for those most culpable for spiralling decent into war and mayhem.

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British Labour Party: Who’s Abusing Who?

All of a sudden ‘abuse’ is the new buzz word in the Labour Party. Nasty stuff to be sure but the question arises; who is abusing whom? Let’s try to unravel the mess. First and foremost, we have to deal with the vexed question of anti-Semitism. I would dare to suggest that ninety-nine point nine percent of alleged anti-semitism by Labour Party members and supporters is in fact wholly legitimate criticism of Israel’s colonial project in the Middle East. The Zionist project is a colonial project without doubt and every progressive person should have both the courage and the right to say so.

 

As a person of Jewish descent, whatever that might mean, (I recommend Shlomo Sand’s, ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’, for background reading), I believe I have an added responsibility to condemn Zionism in all its ugly colonial forms. To condemn western European and white South African colonialism and to condone or ignore Israeli colonialism would be a hypocrisy indeed. Speaking out against the Israeli Occupation, an occupation repeatedly condemned by the UN, should not be conflated with the irrational prejudices associated with centuries of European anti-semitism. And those that deliberately conflate the two, do the cause of battling this ancient prejudice a mighty disservice.

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The GMB: Is this one of the most reactionary organisations in Britain?

Before I get going, I should declare a personal interest. Many moons ago, whilst holding the post of Convenor of Stewards at a very large hospital, I recommended that the portering staff should shift their union membership from the GMB to that of NUPE (now Unison) in order to create a more unified trade union presence. We put the issue to the vote and the porters unanimously approved the recommendation. And then all hell broke loose. The GMB threatened NUPE and me in particular with hell, fire and damnation. They even threatened to invoke the Bridlington agreement. NUPE stood their ground and eventually the wounded GMB officials crawled back into their respective  holes,

though I guess, in retrospect, they were only trying to protect ‘their patch’.

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Corbynistas: Is it time to revamp the old co-operative movement?

 

I have to confess that I actually know precious little about the old co-operative movement, though I’m doing a little background reading right now. What I have learnt is that the movement is still alive and well across Britain and in many other countries as well. However, the last time the Cooperative Movement hit the headlines, it was far from being a sun-drenched moment. The Cooperative Bank, it turned out, was mired in bad debts and bad management. Hardly a ringing endorsement for the next generation to aspire to. My only other contact with things ‘cooperative’ is the Cooperative supermarket, which to be honest, seems little different to any other supermarket. Just another piece of the usual suburban high street. But I do know that the Co-operative Movement had radical origins and a philosophy that at least challenged the prevailing dog-eat-dog ethos of modern capitalism. So, with millions of people, both young and old, looking to break with the neo-liberal global agenda, now might just be the time to revisit our cooperative past.

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