Archive for August, 2009

Solidarity with Malalai Joya

August 30, 2009

My review of Malalai Joya‘s Raising My Voice is now up at 3:AM.

Cohen Tells How

August 29, 2009

A few weeks ago I stopped challenging the relentless pro-faith commentary in the UK press because I became bored with the repetitive nature of those commentators’ arguments, sick of their self-satisfied tone and feeble jokes, and depressed by their poverty of thought, lack of imagination and absence of compassion.

If you too are weary with Bunting, Brown, Byrnes, Eagleton, Gray, Armstrong, Vernon, Appleyard and all the other bores and charlatans making the same weak arguments over and over again in the comment pages, you might enjoy Nick Cohen’s savage counterblast:

When Ayaan Hirsi Ali published Infidel, her account of escape from forced marriage and genital mutilation to Europe, her defence of the liberal values they once believed in appalled ‘liberal’ Europeans. Although Ali needed bodyguards to protect her from Islamist assassins, Timothy Garton Ash sneered that she was an ‘Enlightenment fundamentalist’ while Ian Buruma denounced her as an absolutist. Maryam Namazie, a Marxist Iranian exile who set up the ‘One Law for all Campaign’ to oppose the Archbishop and the Lord Chief Justice, tells me that she experiences every variety of Western duplicity. When she argues in favour of the demonstrators in Tehran, the hard Left tell her she is serving the interests of US imperialism — ‘It’s now reactionary to have a revolution,’ she sighs. When she last appeared on the BBC, to argue that the burka was a straightjacket designed to mark off a woman as a man’s private property, the presenter told her she was an ‘extremist’. With dreary inevitability, Does God Hate Women‘s critics say that Benson and Stangroom’s atheist liberalism is as fundamentalist as the religion of the hardliners they condemn.

Leave aside, however, that the critics do not even-handedly condemn misogynists, homophobes and inquisitors but dedicate all their polemical energy to denouncing those who do. Consider instead whether their equivalence holds good. If you abandon atheism, no atheist police force imitates the religious police in Saudi Arabia and arrests you. If you decide you no longer believe in the equality of the sexes and say that God has made men dominant, no one arraigns you before an equality court. If you stop believing in free speech and start arguing for censorship, no ‘enlightenment fundamentalist’ judge punishes your apostasy with a death sentence.

It’s a long essay, but well worth reading.

How To Explain Iran

August 28, 2009

The situation in Iran remains unstable and conflicted. The recent election and the unrest that followed it has been a source of division amongst Western intellectuals. Some commentators instinctively side with the protestors on the street, while others are concerned about the sovereignty of a foreign government to which the West is hostile. It’s all very complicated, which is why I welcome the input of our Shiraz Socialist commenter, Comrade Resistor, who has contributed a sophisticated pictorial analysis of the situation in Iran.  


(Via Harry’s Place)

Saying the Sayable

August 28, 2009

Discussing Daniel Hannan’s latest ludicrous outburst – a tribute to Enoch Powell – Oliver Kamm makes a good point.

And don’t give me the idiocy that ‘we can’t talk about immigration’. Immigration is a minor political issue elevated to continual public debate. It’s the only political issue discussed in some particularly virulent corners of debate.

The idea that there is some kind of taboo, or prohibition, on discussing immigration is absurd fiction, yet it’s one that passes unchallenged in newspapers, on blogs, in political speeches, and in everyday conversation. It is, in a way, a successful contemporary conspiracy theory – an inflexible belief of the punditocracy whose near-pathological hatred for immigrants has framed this debate for so long.

Boring Musical Facts

August 27, 2009

Have you ever found yourself listening to a couple of music enthusiasts having a very dull, long-winded conversation about tedious aspects of musical history? If you have ever felt left out of such a conversation, excluded and inadequate with nothing to add, then take a look at this collection of dull musical facts. With these at your disposal, you can contribute to boring muso chat sessions with confidence that your contribution will be both widely appreciated and completely devoid of interest. 

Here they are; suggestions always welcome.

  • In May 1965, driving from his home in Van Nuys to the band’s studio to record the definitive version of ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, the Toyota of Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger sustained two flat tyres from a broken beer pitcher strewn across Highway 11. Luckily, the singer was fully insured and a mechanic arrived within twenty minutes. The tyres were replaced and Jagger was able to complete his journey and record the song as planned.
  • Despite using themes of intergalactic travel in his music, most notably in his 1972 concept album Ziggy Stardust, singer David Bowie has never taken part in a manned space mission. Expeditions in which Bowie failed to participate include the Vostok 1 mission, the 1969 moon landing and the aborted Apollo 13 mission.
  • The ‘Lady’ of Jimi Hendrix’s song ‘Foxy Lady’ was based on a Oklahoma file clerk with whom Hendrix enjoyed four non-consecutive episodes of sexual congress in the summer and early autumn of 1961.
  • In March 1986, driving from his home in Manor Grove to the band’s Dublin studio to record the definitive version of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’, the Audi of U2 singer Bono sustained a flat tyre from a shattered bus station window strewn across Lord Edward Street. Although the singer was not fully insured, Bono was able to travel by taxi to the studio and record the song as planned.
  • Many successful artists have dark secrets in their past. For example, the lead singer of popular band The Arctic Monkeys was once given a fixed penalty notice of £80 after being caught urinating against Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre during the early hours of 29 October 2002.
  • The soul of murdered rap artist Tupac Shakur, in accordance with the principles of reincarnation, currently inhabits a twelve-year-old Auckland house cat named ‘Boris’.
  • Many successful artists have had to overcome great personal struggles to achieve their goals. For example, before becoming lead singer in boring rock band Coldplay Chris Martin suffered from a range of personal problems, including a credit card debt of £500, mild sexual frustration, and a small benign cyst in his armpit which was removed in a basic out-patient procedure. 
  • Despite his name, rap artist Dr Dre is not a qualified medical doctor. Oncology, haematology, urology, radiology and orthopaedics are just some of the fields in which Dre is unable to practice.
  • On the evening of 8 December 1980, popular singer John Lennon was walking back to his New York apartment when, at approximately 10:47pm, he had an inspiration for a song gained from the constellations in his immediate field of vision.  The composition, if written, would have featured a melody of such perfection, and lyrics of such insight, that it would have led to a total cessation of miltary warfare, an end to economic inequality and, eventually, a cure for human mortality. Lennon was murdered by Mark David Chapman at 10:50pm.
  • The Swiftcover car insurance firm promoted by Iggy Pop does not cover musicians.


Coldplay’s Chris Martin once struggled to meet minimum Barclaycard payments of as much as £17. 

Literature and Desire

August 22, 2009

My review of Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story is up now at 3:AM.

The reality of work

August 21, 2009

In an essential piece Jenni Russell explains the reality of 2009 working life for increasing numbers of working class and middle class people.

You really need to read the whole thing but these are her key points:

The welfare-to-work reforms are intended to discourage everyone but the very ill or disabled from leading a life on benefits. Fine, except for two problems. The first one we all know about: as last week’s figures made plain, the jobs aren’t there. The second problem is just as serious. Jobs aren’t what they were. The government and the welfare system tend to talk and act as if finding work is the end of the problem, and as if happy jobseekers will have nothing left to think about except the gold watch they’ll receive when they retire. But many jobs on offer, particularly those advertised in jobcentres, are precarious, temporary or part-time, or have uncertain hours. Leaving the security of benefits for jobs like these is like stepping out on to cracking ice. And our antiquated welfare system hasn’t worked out where the life rafts and lifebelts ought to be.

The government sticks to its mantra that work will always pay. It preaches the virtues of entering the workplace, in any form, on the assumption that low-paid jobs are just a starting point, and that people can work their way up. Its extra financial help to single mothers working under the New Deal runs out after a year, presumably because it thinks the mothers will be on higher pay by then. That’s unlikely. A Treasury analysis in 1999 warned that low-paid jobs were rarely a ladder to high-paid ones. The days of moving from being a teaboy to MD have long gone, partly because the teaboy will now work, often precariously, for a contract catering company, and the MD won’t ever know his name.

Work, in and of itself, is not always the solution. This has to be acknowledged at the highest level before we can even think about welfare reform.


Fly Emily Fly!

August 21, 2009

This year’s Manchester Blog Awards are now open. You can nominate any Manchester-based blogger for a number of categories. I have nominated my amazing friend Emily for the ‘Best Writing On A Blog’ category. Emily writes a personal blog about platespinning single parenthood, two jobs and an MA. I have known her for about a year and it has been breathtaking to watch her writing develop. She’s a natural storyteller, she can be funny, lyrical and moving. I haven’t, yet, seen better writing on a blog. She’s a hero and deserves the recognition.

Seven Days In The Art World

August 19, 2009

thorntonIn this book sociologist Sarah Thornton observes and reports on aspects of the arts market over several different continents at the height of the boom. As she says in the beginning, it’s a business of facade and contradiction: artists tend to be individually unconventional but eager to form herds and hierarchies, feigning a lofty disdain for anything outside the work while obsessed with every detail of art’s commerce. When interviewing artists, Thornton decided that ‘some bullshit is fascinating – such as when people really believe what they’re saying – so sometimes I leave it in and let the reader be the judge.’ It works. You may not believe the artists but you believe that they believe.  

The audience is as interesting as the performance – sometimes more so.  Many buyers treat art as an investment, like property. Thornton relegates to a footnote the observation that ‘Who, in 2007, would have thought that a drawing by Willem De Kooning would be a safer asset than shares in Lehman Brothers?’ Billionaires can walk into an auction and say: ‘That looks good – I’ll take it.’ You can’t do that at an art fair. At Switzerland’s Art Basel potential buyers are ranked as strictly as the artists. Auction mercenaries are pondlife here, with buyers considered on the basis of their track record and current collection, its ‘notable works’ and symmetry: ‘The worst collections are scrambled, disjointed and fickle.’ There are no prices. You don’t ask. There’s something amazing and subversive about a market where the buyer, not the seller, makes the pitch. The buyer of the work overtly affects the artist’s reputation and dealers invest huge amounts of time and energy in the placing of works.

From the Turner Prize ceremony to the all-night group critiques of LA student dorms, Thornton explores a world of which most of us are ignorant but nevertheless feel able to judge. She’s deadpan, but always interested: ‘a good participant observer is more like a stray cat. She is curious and interactive but not threatening.’ Seven Days In The Art World is a fascinating explanation, and also a fine period piece of the boom. There’s a poignancy to the afterword, in which Thornton gives the impression that the million-pound fair deals are forever a thing of the past. There will be no more diamond-encrusted skulls.

I’m Only Sleeping

August 18, 2009

Once you hit twenty five or so you realise that sleep has to be the most underrated leisure activity. It’s said that the soldier’s greatest skill is to be able to sleep anywhere and anytime. The world would undoubtedly be better if everyone slept more often.

I’ve had periods of intermittent insomnia, an unrequited love for sleep. I still remember reading Nikki Sixx’s diaries on the sofa at four in the am, wrapped in an old throw, a cat crashed out on my chest. I don’t suffer from insomnia now, although I do dream a hell of a lot. I won’t bore you with my dreams (other people’s dreams are about as interesting as other people’s careers) but suffice to say they’re not lucid: I never know that I’m dreaming and have been known to talk and walk around in my sleep. And there is a lot going on. My dreams are like a bad first novel: too many characters, too many ideas.

I draw no particular significance from the dreamworld. The basic psychological theory, that the content of dreams is no more than the overflowing hoover-bag of the subconscious and memory, sounds about right to me. 

The memories of the dreams themselves generally disintegrate upon waking, but recently I have tried making an effort to remember them. It can be done, just about, and I’ve even based a couple of short stories on things I’ve dreamt of. I thought I had something this morning – it was an original setting, with a beginning and a middle but not an end. Maybe it’ll come together, maybe not.

In his Danse Macabre, Stephen King said: ‘I am a writer by trade, which means that the most interesting things that have happened to me have happened in my dreams’. But in my experience, dreams aren’t that good for material.