Beatty, Paul: “The Sellout”.

Under the layers of sardonic humour in which Beatty has wrapped “The Sellout” lies an important message: racism is alive and well in the United States. The novel is set in Dickens, LA, where “one’s self-worth comes from how one chooses to navigate that space. Walking is akin to begging in the streets”. Want to take public transport? No problem, you can use the RTD Rapid Transit District, otherwise known as the Rough, Tough and Dangerous. Kinshasa rejected Dickens as a twin city because “they thought Dickens was too black”. Beatty subverts racist tropes by setting up a form of modern slavery and segregation in Dickens: “White people are the new niggers… disenfranchised equals ready to fight back against the motherfucking system.”  I read this as a critique of identity politics, the term itself used by Beatty in the “Apples and Oranges” chapter, detailing the extreme results that this new ideology will reach taken to its logical conclusion.  In this regard, it is revealing that the protagonist is referred to as “Me” throughout, his name never revealed. The writing has a multitude of killer lines and Beatty touches on other themes such as imperialism, art and capitalism.

Me’s father, a self-proclaimed “Nigger-Whisperer”, performed multiple experiments on Me during the boy’s childhood.  His thesis that black people would help somebody in a crowd led him to mug his own son in a bizarre attempt to prove his theory, only to end up inciting a violent pile-on in an insane, post-racial, post-ironic world. Beatty reverts to more traditional race relations by having Me killed off by the police and the non-ironic theme continues when Hominy says that it has “Been this way ever since we set foot in this country. Someone’s getting whipped or stopped and frisked”.

The novel contains a fascinating thought which predates the 2017 confederate statue debate: “That’s the difference between most oppressed peoples of the world and American blacks. They vow never to forget, and we want everything expunged from our record, sealed and filed away for eternity”. It is an interesting debate. The Confederate statues represent an egregious chapter in US history, yet it is important that this chapter is not forgotten.  Beatty writes: “That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book- that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song”.  This is redolent of Robert Conquest’s view that the key point of history is the “tone, form, and balance, the aesthetic” of how it is preserved. In a free society, the warts of history are exposed, rather than frozen off as they are in totalitarian regimes.

When Laura Jane says to Marpessa “You’re far too smart to know that it isn’t race that’s the problem but class”, Beatty explores the burgeoning world of intersectionality in his inimitably sarcastic way with the “Lost City of White Male Privilege” whose “very existence is denied by many”. There are so many lines where it is impossible not to laugh out loud. Take the discussion of the several “race wash” options: “regular whiteness (higher life expectancy), deluxe whiteness (world revolves around you and your concerns) and super deluxe whiteness (military service is for suckers)”!

Obama’s impact on race is discussed as the “falsehood that when one of your kind makes it, it means that you’ve all made it” and Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice are “exemplars of how self-hatred can compel one to value mainstream acceptance over self-respect and morality”.

“Not surprisingly, there’s nothing to do at the Pentagon except start a war” observes Me, before later musing of the US that “This country, the latent high school homosexual that it is, the mulatto passing for white that it is, the Neanderthal incessantly plucking its unibrow that it is, needs…somebody to throw baseballs at, to fag-bash, to nigger-stomp, to invade, to embargo”. Indeed. Beatty is at best ambivalent towards his home country: “You couldn’t shout “American, love it or leave it!” when deep down you longed to live in Toronto”.

Marpessa believes that “black literature sucks” because blacks are always referred to as foods and whites are not.  Orwell and Kafka are apparent in the mix of Beatty’s influences, and the writing references Ulysses.  The renaming of novels into black speak is hilarious, such as “The Great Blacksby” and “Mick Please: The Black Irish Journey from Ghetto to Gaelic”, but the absolute best is surely Foy’s renaming of Huckleberry Finn: “The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit”. Just… brilliant!

Beatty’s prose is decent: “Knowing that the ugliest movie stars, the whitest wrappers, and the dumbest intellectuals are often the most respected members of their chosen profession, Hamp, the defence lawyer who looks like a criminal, confidently sets his toothpick on the lectern, runs his tongue over a gold-capped incisor, and straightens his suit, a baby-tooth-white, caftan-baggy, double-breasted ensemble that hangs on his bony frame like an empty hot-air balloon”.

Reading about the Crips applying for NATO membership almost caused me to fall off my couch!  However, just when “The Sellout” seems to be written solely as a comedy, Beatty drops a razor-sharp societal observation.  He observes that racism is everywhere and the only time it wasn’t was when Obama walked across the White House lawn. This contradicts the earlier thought about one man not meaning that they all succeed, yet that is the point: progress is not linear but society has no choice in the matter, as the only alternative is violence and “Professional niggers who just pop because the charade is over”.

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Shehadeh, Raja: “Palestinian Walks”.

Through a series of what Palestinians call “sarhat”, or hill walks, Raja Shehadeh tells the tale of how his native Ramallah in the West Bank has changed over time. In his youth, before the 1967 occupation, he wrote of the “drug-free high, Palestinian style” that he got from walking in the hills. Over time, that high slowly descended into a nightmare. From my outsider’s perspective, it seems that the Israeli state is hell-bent on ethnic cleansing, a term that Ilan Pappe has used to describe the actions of Israel. Shehadeh’s father was forcibly removed from his home in Jaffa in 1948, despite still having to pay rent on the land, in an example of how Nakba effected an individual family. One of Shehadeh’s regrets was not listening to the advice of his elders, who warned him and his generation that the Israelis were intent on eventually ridding both the West Bank and Gaza of Palestinians. He is scathing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 and the heralding on both sides of how this was a peaceful way forward, whereas in reality all he saw was increased settlement.  Shehadeh sought refuge in his house in Ramallah, which he carefully purchased in accordance with the land rules, only for Israel to forcibly remove him from it. Ultimately, he began to record what was happening as a therapeutic way to come to terms with losing the land that he grew up on: “Writing was helping me overcome the anger that burns in the heart of most Palestinians”.

Shehadeh writes how Israel had created a situation where it was easier to get to China from Ramallah than it was to get to Gaza. He watched half a million Jewish people settle in Israel in three decades. In 1979, the Israeli government forbade access to the land registrar which the Palestinians used to settle land disputes and began to control all land disputes in the Israeli judicial system – one which was completely dishonest. The original map of Palestine, drawn up from 1882 until 1888 by the Palestine Exploration Fund, had sent cartographers to survey the land before they noticed that British people were doing the same thing. This definitive 1888 map created the land registration system that was used under the British mandate until 1955 and subsequently under Jordan until Israel suspended it in 1967. Under British and Jordanian control, Palestinian people could still view the specific plots of land. It was only when the Israelis took control that they were denied access to records. This allowed the Israelis to obfuscate who owned what and use it to “legally”, expand their settlements.  Palestinians had no recourse to dispute land ownership.

Shehadeh tells the moving tale of Abu Ameen, his mother’s uncle, who was utterly devoted to the land. He was uneducated and built his own qasr in the desert. He is a prime example of the people that the Israelis dismissed as barely existing when they began to emigrate there in huge numbers from the 1860s onwards. Israel frequently portrays the land as having being barren with the occasional dwelling, when in reality it was full of indigenous people whose existence is denied because they had not built enormous cities like the Israelis did.

Shehadeh trained as a lawyer and tried to highlight the illegality of the Israeli position as much as he could. He chronicled the case of Francois Albina, who had his land expropriated from the Israeli state, and his attempt to block it. Initially, the Israeli court said that Albina was absentee from the land, which Shehadeh was easily able to disprove. After this, they said that Albina had no permit. Albina produced a permit but the Israeli state stated that it did not match up to the land. This was a lie but, because the Israelis controlled the land registrar, it could not be disproved. Shehadeh then asked for an injunction and was told he would have to stump up a quarter of a million US dollars because work had begun on his land. In short, the court was merely a mouthpiece for Israeli political aims. Israeli settlers who were given possession of myriad parcels of land like Albina’s were “full of their own sense of purpose”. So much so, that Shehadeh remarked that “their enthusiasm was contagious. Had I not have been on the other side, I could have fallen for it”. Naturally, this zealousness about settling on land that was not theirs resulted in the settlers believing that “to them the end seemed to justify the use of any means. This was how those who believed they were serving a higher purpose behaved”. How else could they justify a 1976 Israeli court order deposing a Bedouin tribe that had been on its land for twenty years to a rubbish dump, to make way for Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem? How else could they justify invading Ramallah, installing checkpoints on every other road and turning Palestinian land into a giant prison?

By the end of “Palestinian Walks”, Shehadeh cannot even walk in his own land without being stopped by either militant Israeli or Palestinians. The tragic and inevitable result of the imprisonment and ethnic cleansing of an entire country is that they turned to violence to defend themselves. Who in this situation would not? It is easy to philosophise about being a pacifist, yet faced with the situation the Palestinians were in, what other option is there? Shehadeh’s nephew had a narrow escape when he picked up an unexploded missile whilst out walking. During the 1988 Palestinian intifada, Shehadeh was shot at by Palestinians after the PLO had taken control of the West Bank. This is not to mention the hassle that Shehadeh had with Jewish civilians, who are permitted by law to make citizens arrests and carry firearms in the occupied territories. Of course, the Palestinians are not afforded the same rights.  This then led to numerous incidents of violence perpetrated by settlers, which the Israeli courts routinely dismissed. Both Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups have urged the Israeli government to take action against the countless examples of these incidents that have escalated since 1982.

The crucial issue that underpins the racist and colonial attitude of the settlers is, as Shehadeh noted, that “Europe, and later Zionism, has endeavoured to rescue the historical significance of the region in its search for ancient Israel: a search for its own cultural roots which in the process has silenced Palestinian history and relegated it to prehistory”. This is not to say that the blame can be solely laid at the door of the religious Rabbis. For example, Ramallah is not even mentioned in the bible and was clearly demarcated as Palestinian territory, yet this did not stop it being invaded by the Israelis. The underlying mentality needs to be challenged. If not, the mass terrorisation of an entire populace will continue. In Shehadeh’s case, the Israeli ethnic cleansing led to him having mental health problems, “I was too captured by the fear of the future to have children” he wrote, which reminded me of Toni Morrison’s description of how African Americans were treated whilst they were slaves in “Beloved”. The effects on people are the same. The US, which funds the Israeli ethnic cleansing, has to change this attitude. This dates back Herman Melville’s oft-quoted 1855 to 1857 writing about Palestine, which Shehadeh refers to as “vilification by western travellers”. This perception about pre-1948 Palestine being an ugly empty desert needs to change. Only through listening to the stories of Palestinians such as Shehadeh and honest historians like Pappe will we change this attitude. The stakes are too high to let Israeli state propaganda control the narrative.

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Jespersen, Knud: “A History Of Denmark”.

Before a recent trip to Denmark and Sweden with Iseult, I decided to brush up on some Danish history by reading Jespersen’s acclaimed and excellent “A History Of Denmark”. Denmark and the other Nordic countries are interesting templates for good governance, with some policies that I would like to see Ireland adopt, and experiencing Danish society in person substantiated this view. Denmark has an intriguing history in which the state, even under an absolute monarchy, has always been seen as benevolent by its citizens.  This perception lies at the heart of their introduction of higher taxes and the welfare state.

Denmark’s relationship with Sweden, who have an even more appealing model of governance, was formerly violent and is now peaceful.  From 1563 until 1720, Denmark and Sweden were at permanent war with each other, with both countries acting as the aggressor at different periods in their history. Initially, it was Denmark, occupiers of Norway at the time, who were the instigators.  Some of these battles were long and bloody: the Nordic Seven Years War (1563-1570) and the Kalmar War (1611-1613) were both instances in which the Danes attempted to force Sweden into a union. Danish King Christian IV again led the countries to war from 1625 to 1629, which in turn led to the Thirty Years War from 1630 to 1660, in which the ascendancy of Sweden threatened the very sovereignty and existence of Denmark as a state.  So followed numerous wars between 1660 and 1720.  During our visit, we were fortunate to witness a 250th-anniversary re-enactment of a 1717 naval battle, in which Swedish ships advancing upon Copenhagen were defeated by the Danes under legendary commander Admiral Tordenskjold.  The persistent conflict weakened both sides and resulted in an increased Dutch influence in the region.

The threat of increasing Russian dominance propelled Sweden and Denmark toward a long-term truce in the early 18th century, bar a trivial episode in 1788 and a bloodless war from 1808 to 1814. Having overcome 300 years of animosity and conflict, these nations are now a model for peaceful relations between previously warring neighbouring countries.  It’s a lesson to us all to see the two countries put aside such a violent past and forge a peaceful future. Not, however, that Denmark is entirely peaceable: although largely a neutral and peaceful country, they participated in the Iraq war.  The might of contemporary Danish armed forces is visible in the former Holmen Naval Base, on the main canal: tourist sightseeing boats chug past a restricted area where numerous naval frigates are docked and a submarine rests on the quays.

Denmark is comprised of 476 different islands, only 79 of which are inhabited.  The total population of 5.2 million people is similar in size to Ireland. Denmark’s sea area, including Greenland and the Faroe Islands, is a key naval passage from the Middle East to Europe.  The country went bankrupt in 1813 in a part of their economic history which was to influence their future.  Their main export remains beef and dairy farming and their agrarian society saw them develop the co-operative model for farms where all farmers got an equal vote, meaning small farms were not overlooked. In Denmark, a verbal promise to sell a building is seen as legally binding and if you break your word in public life you will be held accountable by the people. Historically, this built trust in leaders.  As far back as the absolute monarchy, the state was “leased out” to private estate owners to collect tax.  This gave a lot of autonomy to citizens and ensured sufficient lack of public agitation to spare the country the revolutions that were sweeping the globe at the time.

For most of its history, Denmark was run as a monarchy. Even in the turbulence of late 18th-century Europe, the institution was “so popular that only a handful of fantasists even considered starting a revolution in Denmark. When in 1848 the revolution did eventually come, it was peaceful, almost cordial, and the king renounced his absolute power without striking a blow”. Previous kings had devolved power to the Danish state beforehand and had helped to emancipate the peasantry. In 1849, the monarchy was restricted and began coagulating into a constitutional monarchy. It is incredible to think how “Frederick the Beloved”, a wonderful statue of whom remains in Copenhagen to this day, handed over power so peacefully. Over half of the world is still not democratic in 2017.  There was a brief Easter crisis in 1920 when King Christian X decided to dismiss the whole government but this resulted in the democratic part of the government becoming even stronger, and in 1953 the monarchy was purely symbolic and wielded no actual power at all. This transition is absolutely critical to understanding why the Danish people viewed the state kindly and saw it as acting with their best interest at heart. Compare this with countries where this was not the case and it becomes easy to see how the welfare state was accepted in Denmark as opposed to in other states. Danish people trust their state. As Jespersen put it, “Most Danes consider the power of the state as a positive, and attribute it to qualities such as honesty, incorruptibility and neutrality”. The 1849 constitution had the King, Parliament and Jury as three separate functioning parts of a democracy.

Denmark has a strong religious past, the country becoming Lutheran when they felt that the Catholic Church had lost focus on giving to the poor. In 1526 the king ceased to take orders from the pope and the state began to merge with religion enforced by the king. Danish people still to this day cherish the church for the work that they do to help the poor. This is a positive role for the church to play. Despite being atheist, I still volunteer with the St Vincent de Paul in Ireland and I believe that the church can play a role in helping the most vulnerable in our society. The danger of atheist and new atheist movements is that they ostracise non-believers: a hallmark of communist regimes has been the targeting of religious people for their faith. Liberal, secular democracy is the way to go: let people believe what they want and if a church helps some people within this framework, all the better. Pietism in Denmark sought to separate church and state at the end of the sixteenth century and insisted that the state had no right to interfere in a person’s personal faith. Grundtvig, a famous Dane, became almost deified himself as a purveyor of secular democracy. “First a human, then a Christian,” he said. Words for 2017, too.

Some other parts of Danish history I found fascinating were how quickly they took to the Enlightenment through the Folk High Schools and the influence of the co-operative movement. Jespersen writes of the co-ops that It is virtually impossible to understand the nature of contemporary Danish society without considering these two movements which politicised the rural population”.  In 1864 Bismarck reunited Germany by taking the “Duchies” land, which included 200,000 Danish speaking people, from Denmark. This lasted until a plebiscite in 1920 when the northern part of Schleswig voted itself back into Denmark. In 1915 women were allowed to vote. In 1940 the Nazi invasion of Denmark and Sweden took them unprepared. Denmark joined NATO 1949 to avoid the controlling machinations of the USSR. The United States then put a military base in Greenland, as the Danes came under the protection of the US Nuclear Umbrella. In 1973 they joined the EC and they have occasionally taken a more proactive stance on foreign policy. In 1990 Denmark sent a warship to the gulf as part UN blockade of Iraq and in 1992 they sent 1,000 soldiers as part of a peacekeeping force to Croatia.

Denmark introduced compulsory education in 1814, some way before other European countries. Throughout the twentieth century, it was typically the Social democrats and the liberals who fought out elections in Denmark. Jens Otto Krag, twice Danish Prime Minister, said that “the workers and farmers were the core of the Danish population” and Jespersen wrote that they “respected each other and conducted a running political dialogue, which stretched across all boundaries of class and economic interests”. This “collaborative democracy distinguished Danish political behaviour for most of the twentieth century”. I think that this point has been critical to the success of Denmark. The workers and farmers were not “irreconcilable forces but a symmetrical pair who together supported Danish democracy”. There was not class warfare as Marx had envisioned it but rather class collaboration.  The important thing was that both sides spoke and reasoned with each other.  The process of working together was the key, rather than the actual achievement of a utopian ideal. This is why it is not easy to copy the Danish model. It is not simply a matter of copy-and-pasting their economic policies: it is a cultural mindset that needs to change. Jespersen wrote that the “Ideal of true popular democracy remained the goal”. I think that this is what needs to change in Ireland: to try to work together in a democratic setting. When you combine this true focus on democracy with “the fundamental attitude of modern Danes that the state is a friend and ally, not an adversary, a protector and not an enemy”, it gives the conditions for a well-run country. As far back as 1899, there were strikes by workers for better conditions that set the ground rules for the future. A September agreement that year had “paved the way for the workers to improve their wages and working conditions through negotiation rather than bruising conflicts”. The neophyte Marxist element in Danish society at the time “accepted that socialism could be introduced through incremental reforms rather than a revolution”. This focus on steady improvements and not revolution is a model for all countries worldwide. Live together peacefully and prosper.

Denmark is a peaceful, non-extremist, mature democracy and an excellent template that a plethora of countries could aspire to. Their welfare state, which taxed at an average rate of 51% in 2001, is an essential part of the Danish psyche. Interestingly, this focus on a welfare state has warded off communism, fascism and extremists at either end of the left-right spectrum. Jespersen: “The underlying philosophy was that the working class could use the ballot box to win power, step by step, and once they had control of the apparatus of the state, they could introduce comprehensive reforms to the benefit of the workers”. In this sense, Jespersen’s thesis is that the Danes were able to ward off the extremists in a way that Frish’s 1933 book “Plague over Europe: Bolshevism – Nazism – Fascism” believed was not possible. Jespersen has written a cogent, detailed history of the country and has given a great insight into how the modern Danish state has comes to be. It may be that other countries have not had the conditions to copy their blueprint, yet the key point is to put the foundations in place to let this type of society flourish.

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Best Of 2017

This is what my 2017 sounded like:

Plenty of tracks here have what Whitman termed the “soul-rousing power” of music, an expression I had previously associated with loud music, yet what awakens my spirit mellows with age. Perhaps this is the political equivalent of what Hemingway called the old sneaky left to right move. Most of the tracks on here reflect my favourite records of the year list, which is at the bottom of the page:

1) Dopplereffekt “Gestalt Intelligence”.

2) Slowdive “Go Get It”.

3) Tochigi Canopy “Collecting Things”.

4) Lanark Artefax “Flickering Debris”.

5) Hammock “Now And Not Yet”.

6) Porter Ricks “Prismatic Error”.

7) Steffi “Different Entities”.

8) Lanark Artefax “Touching Absence”.

9) Dopplereffekt “Isotropy”.

10) Brian Eno With Kevin Shields “Only Once Away My Son”.

11) Earthen Sea “Exuberant Burning”.

12) Ellen Alien “Stormy Memories”.

13) Anthony Naples “At Ease”.

14) Marco Shuttle “Ende”.

15) Marco Shuttle “Olga”.

16) Benoit Piolard “Slow Spark, Soft Spoken”.

17) Alessandro Cortini “Iniziare”.

18) Hiroshi Yoshimura “Dream”.

Dopplereffekt’s excellent new LP has two of its electronica-ambient masterpieces represented here, the opener “Gestalt Intelligence” (1) is an interesting comedown from the more beat-laden electronica of, say, their incendiary electro 1995 classic “Scientist”. “Isotropy” (9) is even slower yet all the better for it. “Go Get It” (2), by Slowdive, explores the more ambient territory of their shoegaze past. They are an important band for me, second only to the Valentines in that late eighties navel-gazing epoch and the new LP is an absolute triumph. Regarding shoegaze, I was gobsmacked to see that Kevin Shields had a new track out in 2017 with…Brian Eno! Two hall-of-famers and, weirdly, it sounds exactly like you would expect those two would, if you programmed a computer to coagulate their sounds, equal parts shoegaze and ambient.

Hammock are a wonderfully consistent outfit and continue to better each of their previous outstanding efforts. “Now And Not Yet” is in sugary goose-bump terrain with an almost religious backdrop. When the strings hit the synth for the first time…

Steffi’s “Different Entities” and Lanark Artefax’s “Touching Absence” (7/8) typify the crisp, electrolyte beats and shimmering melodic synth-sounds that I’m into these days. Elsewhere, the combined jazzy guitars and synthesisers on Earthen Sea’s “Exuberant Burning” (11) are a template for what dub techno could sound like. House is not really my thing, but Naple’s “At Ease” utilises the basic four-four template well.

Shuttle’s booking by Labyrinth tells you everything you need to know about where he is at and his two tracks here (14/15) confirm this. “Ende” gets me every time. A breathtakingly original chord with the sound of seagulls and thunder gently rolling away in the background. Piolard is producing some of the finest ambient out there right now and “Slow Spark, Soft Spoken” (16) is no exception. For a more angular granular analogue synth sound, Cortini’s expansive, bass-laden “Iniziare” (17) fits the bill.  Yoshimura’s 1982 classic “Dream” (18) was re-released in 2017 so gets in on a technicality 😊

Every year is a standout one for music. There are seven billion people on the planet so there are always going to be any number of exquisite LP’s released. Equally, there are increasing amounts of dross too, a phenomenon Conquest observed in his magnificent “The Dragons Of Expectations”. Increasingly, it is about seeking out the quality amidst the quantity. A task made all the easier with the digitisation of music. Roll on discovering what 2018 has to offer! Recall what Nietzsche wrote, “without music life would be a mistake”.

So, to list some of my favourite LP’s of 2017:

  • Dopplereffekt “Cellular Automata”.
  • The Shins “Heartworms”. Did not hit the heights of “Wincing The Night Away” despite some glorious highlights.
  • Real Estate “In Mind”. Go-to jangle.
  • Blanck Mass “World Eater”.
  • Julia Holter “In The Same Room”.
  • Ellen Alien “Nost”.
  • Slowdive “Slowdive”.
  • Cigarettes After Sex “Cigarettes After Sex”.
  • The War On Drugs “A Deeper Understanding”. What a band.
  • Hammock “Mysterium”. My record of 2017.
  • Earthen Sea “An Act Of Love”. Stripped down dub-techno beats.
  • Otto Totland “The Lost”. Follow up to his 2014 masterpiece “Pino”. A close second to the Hammock LP.
  • Thorsten Quaeschning And Ulrich Schnauss “Synthwaves”. Astonishing record.
  • Alessandro Cortini “Avanti” “Sonni”. Two exceptional long-players from Nine Inch Nails finest.
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Radiohead and whether we can separate the artist from their art.

Sean stretched his hand above his bed, humming to himself as he searched the wooden shelf for the CD case with the blue and white spine. Treating it with the type of care that I never seemed to be able to muster, he carefully unfurled its inner paper sleeve, handing it to Conor, then gently gripped the edges of the disc to release “OK Computer”. Admiring its artwork, he flipped it over, causing shards of reflected light to splinter the room where the five of us were huddled on his single bed. He pressed a button on his black Sony triple CD Hi-Fi and its tray whirred around twice, landing on the Disc Three slot. I could see the cover art of the Bends in Disc Two but was unable to make out what was in Disc One. Delicately propelling the CD by its sides –never touching its shiny underbelly- into the empty slot, he clicked PLAY and so began my first encounter with “Airbag”. . .

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Bathed in a late summer’s haze of red and orange light, Radiohead took to the stage 20 years after the release of “OK Computer” at Open’er Festival 2017 in Gdansk.  Watching them perform to the reserved Polish crowd, it struck me that Thom Yorke’s jolty robotic dancing was oddly redolent of Bez from the Happy Mondays. Granted, Yorke did not move with the manic fluidity that double-dropping a couple of doves undoubtedly gave the Mancunian, yet both seemed to feel the music on a refreshingly visceral level. The Mondays, serendipitous enough to be a young guitar band breaking through just as acid house took root in the British music scene, were hailed as the Madchester crossover band – but I always saw the Stone Roses as true carriers of that mantle. “Fools Gold” and “One Love” were for a long time the perfect exponents of this new hybrid. I have written before about how the Roses did not cut it live, struggling to incorporate their electronic and guitar sounds on stage. Radiohead prove that such fusion can work live, flitting in and out of each genre seamlessly at Gdansk. They are not an all-time great live band in the vein of, say, Queen or Springsteen but can make ambitious tracks like “Paranoid Android” sound great live.

Radiohead are The Beatles of this generation. The fab four remain the finest pop band ever. Oasis were touted as the temporary heirs to their crown before “Be Here Now” flopped. To be on the level of The Beatles, a band needs to embody a change in society, to genuinely progress whilst retaining their distinctive sound – something that rules out Oasis. Listen to “Please Please Me” and then “Abbey Road” (their finest hour, to this listener’s ears) and you hear a band experimenting with new sounds while taking their fans with them. “OK Computer” is not the best Radiohead record, just as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, released fifty years ago, was not the finest Beatles record.  Like ‘Peppers, “OK Computer” was pivotal in the way it changed their goals, direction and sound. In Radiohead’s case this meant them embracing electronic music.  “Kid A”, the LP on which they made their giant leap forward, remains one of the bravest records ever released by a mainstream band at the peak of their powers. Instead of treading the same path, they took a risk and dared their fans to embrace the change. Listen to “OK Computer” and “Kid A” back to back and you realise how momentous the shift was.  They would perfect the blend on their “In Rainbows” LP, symbolically released on a pay-as-you-like basis, and a perfect mix between both camps, displaying a dizzying array of electronic and guitar-based music meshed together by a band completely at ease with themselves and at the absolute zenith of their powers.

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 I am uncomfortable judging musicians on their morals. We are imperfect by design. If you go through any music collection and do a little digging on the members of each group you will learn that they have committed some immoral acts. If you own rap music, does it follow that you legitimise misogyny? As Bell Hooks has sagely pointed out, rap music exists because there is a market for it. We as consumers demand music that is immoral so we need to change ourselves instead of judging the ethics of the rappers. The question is whether we can separate the artist from the art?

If pushed, I would say that we cannot separate them: any time that I separate the artist from their art, copious examples of egregious behaviour by artists spring to mind and I become uncomfortable enjoying the work of said artist. I am agnostic on the matter, yet I do not believe that the statement “The artist can be separate from their art” can be proved, so I err on the side that the theory is unprovable.  The trouble is that we must either decidedly not judge any artists, meaning we consciously separate them even knowing that it is not a sound move, or we hold each artist to the same ethical standard.

This brings me to Radiohead and their non-conformity with the Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) movement to compel the Israeli State to cease its military occupation of Palestinian territory. I am in favour of BDS but with reservations. The big drawback, as with any sanctions, is that it targets citizens who disagree with their government’s stance. There are many Israelis who are against the subjugation of the Palestinian people. Is it fair to target them? Unquestionably, I support Palestine’s right to self-determination. The only real question, then, is whether BDS is the right tactic to employ to achieve this goal? As Chomsky has pointed out, the Israeli support from the United States is the real reason it can continue to occupy the Palestinian territory, therefore maybe the focus should be on the USA. That is a valid criticism, yet what better strategy can I support that will help to end the brutality? There is no alternative at the moment. Furthermore, it is of paramount importance to listen to the Palestinian people in those territories so if they believe that BDS is the way to go, then I think we should support them. However, I am open to being wrong.  When Radiohead played in Israel in 2017, I disagreed with them and would not have played there in the same circumstances. That Israel were complicit in cutting the electricity to the Palestinians at the same time they played made it all the more painful. What recourse do the Palestinian people have? If BDS stymies the Israeli war machine in any way, then that is all well and good. If the only way we can help is to support BDS, then count me in.

That said, I respect Radiohead’s right to disagree with BDS. If they want to play in Israel, that is their right and I will not condemn them for doing it. This new-fangled rush to judge in modern society, enhanced by social media, saw Ken Loach become unstuck when he wrote an article condemning Radiohead before it was pointed out to him that his latest film “I, Daniel Blake” was playing at cinemas in Israel at the time. Thankfully he has subsequently stated that the profits of “I, Daniel Blake” will go to help the Palestinian people.  However, would this have happened had it not been pointed out to him? It proves that if you relentlessly judge people, you open yourself up to being relentlessly judged. This charge can also be levelled at Radiohead. When a piece of Art is political or moral then the artist has introduced their morality into the equation and I believe that we can say it is fair, in this instance, to assess the Art in this regard. Radiohead’s music is inherently political and Yorke’s lyrics reflect this, “Karma police arrest this man / this girl . . . her Hitler hairdo is making me feel ill”. It rankled when Radiohead played Israel just as it rankled when Loach proselytised about Palestine while his movie was playing there. Radiohead’s reaction to the whole saga has been disappointing. Thom Yorke even allegedly gave the finger to a fan in Glasgow for waving a Palestinian flag. Would it not have been more sensible to pen an article explaining the rationale behind their decision? The statement they made was vague and insufficient. However, if I hold Radiohead to this standard, then I need to hold all artists that I admire in a similar regard. I’m a Nick Cave fan but he is about to embark on a tour of Israel. Do I stop buying his records? Do I look back at Bez’s pill-popping days and decide that he was supporting violent gangsters through his drug use? Where do I draw the line?

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Closing the apartment door behind me on the way to work, I zipped up my jacket and reached for my iPhone, blearily swiping into Spotify as a gust of cold air hit. I adjusted my AKG black headphones to protect my ears from the cold and thumbed RA into the white search box. Radiohead popped up on my screen and I selected, scrolled to Albums, then to “OK Computer” and tapped “Airbag”. Its tough imposing riff, similar in style to that of “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, blasted out. The science fiction theme on Airbag presupposed the band’s futurism. “I wish that they’d swoop down in a county lane …take me on board their beautiful ship” sings Yorke. Sonically, “Paranoid Android” was a more revealing glimpse of the direction that they were headed in, anchored by its giant guitars before drifting off into dreamy “Bohemian Rhapsody”-esque territory, the schizophrenic split symbolic of the break they were about to make.  “Admission makes you look pretty ugly… bam bam bam bam bamba bamba bamba bamba bamba baba bam” – the rhythm had me jerking my head side to side in Yorke fashion on the way to work. I have always been a fan of the murky trip hop underwater drums on “Climbing Up the Walls”. “No Surprises” foresaw “Kid A” with its synth and xylophones, while the driving rhythms on “The Tourist” serve as a reminder that their signature guitar sound was still their anchor at this stage. “Pack…before your father hears us” has echoes of “She’s leaving home” from “Peppers”.  Radiohead have always had the jangle in them and “Let down”, still my favourite twenty years on, makes me smile on my journey. It is Greenwood at his most melodic and Yorke at his expansive best, wailing angelically about being “hysterical” and having a “chemical reaction”.

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“OK Computer” is a seminal moment in Radiohead’s career.  They are the band of this generation. Just do not expect that they are “back to save the universe”. Admittedly, it is difficult not to judge Radiohead’s politics when Yorke opines that he wants to “Bring down the government, they don’t speak for us” on “OK Computer”.  However, should you feel the need to judge them on their politics, then hold all the artists in your collection to the same standard.  I will be liberal and give them the benefit of the doubt about playing Israel despite disagreeing with their decision to do it. The word “liberal”, like so many others in the political lexicon, is now devoid of meaning. To me, the definition of liberal is being open to different points of view and ideas, to being challenged, to exploring new concepts and being wrong about them. I need to be able to concurrently hold conflicting opinions: as Yorke sings, “There are two colours in my head”. I struggled with that lyric after hearing it at first, but it is an important one. I am wrong all the time. In fact, I love being wrong and learning from the process. If you think you are right and believe you have good politics, it is highly likely that you live in a vain echo chamber. In an era when people seem to be obsessing about being right all the time, we need to accept that we, like the musicians that we want to idolise, are fundamentally flawed and wrong all the time.  As soon as we begin to lionise musicians, or any human beings, we will be “let down and hanging around”.  It would be nice if Radiohead supported BDS. They do not.  Does that invalidate the art that they have created? Not for me.

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Fante, John: “Ask The Dust”.

“Los Angeles, give me some of you!” exclaimed Arturo Bandini, the self-proclaimed genius and all-time literary great. “Ask The Dust” is a paean to the perfidious, seedy underbelly of the city of angels, a journey through its poverty-stricken streets and bars, the flip side of the American dream. Fante’s prose was honest, direct and disarming. He wrote like a grittier Hemingway. One can draw a line from his 1939 novel to the oeuvre of Bukowski, who wrote a foreword to its reissue in 1980. “Thank God I had been born an American” mused Bandini, in one of his honest moments – and this despite recognising that “the illusion that this was paradise” was false.

“We don’t allow Mexicans at this hotel” said Mrs Hargraves. “Nor Jews” she followed up, an interesting comment in pre-Holocaust America. Many, such as Timothy Snyder in “On Tyranny”, have made the point that the United States was not immune to Nazism due to a lack of anti-Semitism. Far from it, and Bandini’s observations back this up. The key is to keep these forces in check and to minimise them.  “Ask The Dust” contained frequent references to race: consider how Arturo callde Camilla his little Mexican peon before she retorted “I’m American”. Class played a bigger role in Bandini’s world, as racial minorities worked the low-paid jobs in Los Angeles.

Bandini is Fante. A misogynist, he physically accosted Camilla, ordering her around in an aggressive and threatening manner. Camilla was mentally unstable and required extra care and attention, yet Bandini was oblivious to this and was physically violent with her. Bandini used Camilla’s mental health as an excuse for his misogyny and was derisive of other women in the same way. He tried to be cool but came across as an asshole, albeit an honest one. He contemplated punching Camilla in another vile episode which resulted in Camilla being “forced to leave because I ordered her out”. Bandini’s emasculation when he did perform sexually for Camilla on the beach had shades of the husband being humiliated in Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life Of Francis Macomber”. Both artists explored the theme of how men react violently after their masculinity is vitiated.

1930s LA was secular but religion remained a dominant theme in “Ask The Dust”. “You should have been a priest” Bandini scolded himself, clothed in generational guilt. He identified as an atheist yet society constantly reminded him of the moral virtues of religion. When Bandini pilfered the buttermilk, he blessed himself in an act of confession.

Consider the names of some of the characters: Hellfrick! A drunk who rarely paid his debts and whose very name represented a route that Bandini’s life could have taken – the life, indeed, that Bukowski subsequently chose. It is revealing that Bandini chose to visit Father Abbot for emotional support after believing he was a failure with women and as a writer. Bandini was emblematic of a society that wanted to be atheist but still reverted back to religion.  After the earthquake, Bandini attended mass again, in another pointed nod to how theocracy was his moral seabed. “I was a Catholic. This was a mortal sin against Vera Rivken” Bandini reassured himself. Bandini indicated Fante’s struggle to sever ties with his religious past, comparable to a Graham Greene novel.

There was some excellent, angular prose in “Ask The Dust”. “A cold wind sideswiped us. The jalopy teetered. From below rose the roar of the sea. Far out fogbanks crept towards the land, an army of ghosts crawling on their bellies” said Arturo of Camilla and his late night road trip through Beverly Hills. Wrote Bandini of Hellfrick eating: “He sat before a plate of the food, his mouth bloated, his thin jaws working hard”.

Fante frequently referred to the pretentiousness of being an artist. Bandini labeled himself a “genius”, the next great writer, and frequently referred to himself in the third person. He interspersed these opinions whilst expressing his doubts about how genuinely talented he actually was, articulating the neurosis of the artist. He chronicled the role of the artist as observer in society: “the world was full of uproariously amusing people” chuckled Bandini to himself at the huaraches that Camilla wore as she worked in the bar. One cringed when Bandini made the fourteen-year-old Judy read his story aloud to him. There were several such moments in this vein, such as when Bandini mused on whether he caused the earthquake. It was affected and narcissistic, yet true to life.

Fante cleverly used the third person narrative to perfect the conceit: “something had happened to Arturo Bandini” he thought. This was a world that Fante/Bandini had created. They made it happen: “The world was dust, and dust it would become”. The style that Fante wrote with and the themes explored elevate “Ask The Dust” above that of ordinary bar-stool story.

I first read “Ask The Dust” in my early twenties and fell in love with the loose languid style and the earnestness of Fante’s effort, yet I was not as captivated the second time around. There were moments of brilliance and Fante’s honesty is admirable. However, writing about reality becomes tiresome: there are only so many times you can listen to Vera utter words to Bandini like: “You are nobody, and I might have been somebody, and the road to each of us is love”. Still, Fante’s place in the pantheon of gritty urban authors is safe.

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Flaubert, Gustave “Madame Bovary”

“Madame Bovary” remains as important today as it was in 1856. We are still grappling with the themes Flaubert wrote about: religion, class, love and feminism. Emma Bovary, who just “wished to live in Paris”, and experience an exciting life outside of rural France ended up committing suicide which demonstrated that her immoral, largely atheist lifestyle (with its multiple extra-marital affairs and mountainous accumulations of debt) could not be tolerated in a French society which was just beginning to be liberated by the Enlightenment. Her journey embodied France’s transition to a secular one. At the beginning of the novel, “Bovary preferred to sit in her room reading” and was rather virtuous and Catholic. By the end, having read Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers, she was a completely different person, one more in tune with a non-religious life. Most importantly, Madame Bovary was the extraordinary tale of the attempt at female emancipation in mid-nineteenth-century France.

Misogyny was so intricately woven into the tapestry of French society that Flaubert commented flippantly that “men always do better”. “If he asks for her I’ll give her to him” remarked Emma’s father, Monsieur Rouault, concerning Charles’ marriage proposal to Emma who was an object, a mere vessel in this society, something to be given away. It was this callous disregard for her as an individual that resulted in her rebelling and having an affair, representing the female struggle for equal rights.  Contrast her with Rodolphe, with whom she had an affair, who was able to have multiple affairs without society thinking any the worse of him. Women were not afforded that privilege.

Most revealing in “Madame Bovary” was how utterly commonplace the effects of the patriarchy were. Seemingly throwaway remarks like “the men, who were in the majority sat at the first table” typified how deep-seated this attitude was. Flaubert’s burgeoning realist style captured it perfectly. “A woman is always hampered” mused Emma as she pontificated about whether or not she should have a baby with Charles, in a further examination of Rouault’s perception of women as objects: Madame Bovary was viewed as a receptacle for bringing people into the world. The feelings, the emotions of women did not enter the equation.   Emma reassured herself that she was “without remorse, without anxiety, without regret” when she looked back on her extramarital affair. On one level, this was an understandable human emotion, as anyone in a relationship should regret cheating on their partner – yet in Emma’s case, the line was even more revealing. Her affair with Rodolphe, who had multiple lovers, was instructive that a promiscuous man could function perfectly well and be thought respectable in society, while Emma had to poison herself with the shame of her infidelity and immorality. Despite her frequent attempts to gain her independence, she was still ostracised by society. “You are all evil” Emma said to Leon of men, going on to reveal of the horrible, lecherous Guillaumin that “this man oppressed her horribly”, objectifying Emma with an attempt to get her to have sex with him in return for eradicating her financial debt.

The wretched episode with Guillaumin revealed the extent to which class played a role in Yonville.  Emma, disillusioned with life as a woman, took to buying expensive goods on credit to make herself feel better, remarking that her “immense land of joys and passions” left her “confused in her desire for the sensuality of luxury and the desires of the heart”. Flaubert, through Emma, predated the materialism that was to become so rampant many years later. Gender seemed more significant than class in “Madame Bovary”, in so far as it was Emma’s role as a woman in society that drove her to the immorality of buying expensive goods on credit and not paying for them. This did not justify such actions (we all need to live within our means), yet it seemed important to connect her lavish spending habits to her profound unhappiness. Emma and Charles were wealthy, with a life of material comfort and servants, yet Emma destroyed their standing in society and Charles became totally destitute after her death, desperately afraid to sell any item belonging to her. Madame Bovary senior even tried in vain to get Charles to relinquish some of Emma’s clothing after her death, only for him to refuse.  Emma told her servant to “do as she pleases” towards the end of the story in an exchange designed to highlight how Emma had begun to free herself from her social structure and was consequently able to see how unfair it was to even have servants. Moreover, the interplaying roles of class and gender reinforced how Emma could not fully escape her role as a woman, although she could change her class. This dynamic is still relevant today: in a global society, people can shed their social class, whereas biology is inescapable.

Madame Bovary is at its heart a love story. Reading it for the second time, Charles’s story is almost as tragic as Emma’s. He was devoted to Emma and died of a broken heart upon learning of her infidelity. I read this as the Catholic society’s coercion of them to stay together resulting in both of their untimely deaths. The public shame was too much for both of them to bear. Whilst Emma took her own life, Charles’ fate was certainly no less tragic. “Good heavens, why did I marry?” Emma mused to herself. “The more Emma recognised her [extramarital] love, the more she crushed it down.” The weight of moral expectation in society forced Emma’s hand and ensured her conformity.  Despite this, “ennui, the silent spider, was weaving its web in darkness in every corner in her heart”, imploring her to break free. She did, but still suffered the consequences in an unfree society. Flaubert articulated the whole matter wonderfully: “love, she thought, must come suddenly with great outbursts and lightning in a hurricane of the skies which falls upon life, revolutionises it, roots up the will like a leaf, and seeps up the whole heart like an abyss”.

Flaubert is reputed to have agonised over every sentence he wrote, crafting, honing and perfecting them. “Lace trimmings, diamond broaches, medallion bracelets trembled on bodices gleaned on breasts” he wrote, in an attempt to portray life in France as he saw it. In some regards, Flaubert was the first realist and a line can be drawn from his work, through Hemingway’s, to that of John Fante. Unlike, say, Bukowski, Flaubert wrote with a genuine profundity of observation and not just for the sake of it. Take his casual observation of how we communicate as a species: “human speech is like a cracked tin kettle on which we hammer out tunes to make beats dance when we long to move the stars”. The description is beautiful but the ideas expressed are equally thought-provoking. “Speech is a rolling mill that thins out the sentiment” is also a most wonderful expression. I am currently reading Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct” and this expression keeps rattling around whilst I do. Flaubert is not just grittily describing life: his ideas set “Madame Bovary” apart and propelled it into the canon. He was a good thinker as well as a brilliant writer. Emma described how the opera singer that she witnessed “had outbursts of rage and elegiac gurglings of infinite sweetness and the notes escaped from his bare neck full of sobs and kisses”. Again, the language on display is simply stunning but it is also important thematically, as Emma’s discovery of art reinvigorated her, keeping her alive to a degree, and she went on to bond with Leon over their shared appreciation of art and literature.

Charles did not understand this sensuous, creative side to Emma and it was instructive that he diagnosed her as having a physical illness when she was emotionally unwell. With mental health not even a consideration in society at the time, the only solutions that were proposed to make her feel better were medicinal and religious ones. The priest told her to read some Catholic tracts which Emma briefly took solace in. However, critically, bare faith was not enough for Emma. She needed more. “My God is of Socrates…of Voltaire” said the chemist, proposing a radically different reading list. There were a minority of people who represented the emergence of the Enlightenment in rural French life when we learn that religion was, for some, “absurd (and) completely opposed to all physical laws”. Madame Bovary senior, representative of the older generation who disliked this new-fangled secularity, excoriated her son Charles for letting Emma laze around idly, reading what she described as “bad books against religion”. Binet also got in on the act, advising her that her “immodest thoughts and impure temptations” may have come from the “mental libertinage” that she read about. There was a wonderful piece of symbolism when Leon met Emma in a church, where he pictured her looking “like an angel” whereas the priest “petrified” her. Try as they might, they could not escape the clutches of the church.

Flaubert enunciated how doctors in society were constantly learning new facts and disciplines that were improving the lives of people. When Hippolytes’s leg became infected with gangrene, the doctors worked hard to find a solution, in contrast to the priest’s advice to him to simply pray! The ludicrousness of using faith to heal people, as was the custom, was laid bare. Yet, in some ways, Flaubert critiqued this new reliance on the science. Think of Charles, a purveyor of the new belief system: he was unable to think outside of it and consequently failed to empathise with Emma’s emotional side, which was to have tragic results.

The debate continues to rage about religion and we now have new atheism replacing the original Enlightenment strain. Now that Europe has largely liberalised and become secular, Western atheists have turned their attention to the role of Islam in the Middle East. Indeed, Islam now appears to be a larger threat than Christianity to the secularism in modern French society so, to some degree, this is inevitable. Yet it feels somewhat counterintuitive. Give me Flaubert and the original spirit of atheism every day of the week. This vision of empowered women living in a free, secular society means that “Madame Bovary” remains a perfectly written masterpiece one hundred and sixty-one years later.

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