‘Horror movies don’t create fear, they release it’ – Wes Craven
Jeremy Millar’s Self Portrait as a Drowned Man (2011)
Mental health is political: political on multiple and intersecting dimensions. For R.D. Laing ‘insanity’ was ‘a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world’. Unsurprisingly an ever-intensifying pandemic of mental ill-health is a direct consequence of the entrenchment and intensification of a now half-century long political-economic project that substitutes the baubles of consumerism for social solidarity and psychological grounded-ness, only to reward the now atomised and isolated consumer with the horrors of penury and precarity. That devastates the biosphere of this planet upon which we all depend for the gross over-enrichment of a global handful who measure their wealth in billions. That project which having in 2008-9 imploded under the burden of its own greed and short-termism, now is reconstituting itself in the form of multiple explicit and implicit fascisms, like Terminator 2 (1991) reconstituting itself after being blown apart, of Frank’s resurrection in Hellraiser (1987). Thus, we, the peoples of the pagus (pace Bhabha), find ourselves – and this mental illness is collective, not individual — locked in a foie à deux with a thanatoid political-economic system, a reality of horror in which even the glitziest trappings of late capitalism’s consumer-reward system conceal piles of rotting corpses. Where the ‘hardworking’ (what is so great about being ‘hardworking’?) discover that Arbeit macht Armut, where dead refugee children wash up on English seaside holiday beaches and a portion of the population cheers. Where a morally depraved Home Secretary sells her ‘dream’ of mass deportations to Rwanda to a morally degenerate sector of the British electorate. A nightmare-reality of horror where, perversely, the noose or the speeding express train seem to offer a kind of solution.
The only way out is through, to break through the nightmare; but how, when resilience, an attribute so used and abused today, is utterly inadequate as a battering-ram? For Gramsci, culture is a field of struggle where the intellectual, the artist, the activist understand that a society cannot be changed until it has changed the way it perceives itself: therefore art, like mental health, becomes political; therefore, horror becomes politically and therapeutically a form of empowerment. Capitalism as castration, and the castration of capitalism and its underpinning order, are acted out symbolically through the monstrous-Queer and the empowering counter-gaze of non-conforming sexualities and libidos. Politically, horror renders the normal abject, collapsing hegemonic socio-political meaningfulness; therapeutically, artistic horror works as a kind of inoculation, creating within us risklessly something of an immunity to the real horrors of everyday living, enabling within us the genuine resilience needed to push on through the nightmare. Small wonder then, the creative chronology of The Horror Show! exhibition starts around the mid-‘70s, when those unlikely (and sometimes symbiotic) bedfellows, punk and neoliberalism were new, continuing through the ‘80s, the ‘90s, the ‘00s, the ‘10s to more-or-less the present moment: half a century of evermore horrible political-economics, but also fifty years of resistance, sometimes as folk monsters, sometimes as ghosts, other times as witches, to that horror.
Toxic Grafity No.5 (Spring 1980) was subtitled ‘A Reality of Horror!’ Even then I had an awareness of the ways in which horror lurks beneath consumer enjoyment, the everyday, the fun, the youthful, the pastoral, from May 1976 when I witnessed the deaths of two close friends (see the post under ‘Bikes’). Appropriately, perhaps, TG5 in on display in the ‘Monster’ section of the exhibition in a glass-case along with other DIY anarcho-punk material of that time. Above it, the original Spitting Image puppet of Margaret Thatcher (1984) snootily holds its nose in the air in distain at all this filth, all the more demonic for the grotesque puppet’s decontextualization from its TV series. ‘Monster’ seeks to delve:
‘ … into the economic and political turbulence of the 1970s and the high octane spectacle and social division of the 1980s. Against a backdrop of unrest and uprising, it charts the origin story and ascent of the individuals who will go on to disrupt, define and destroy British culture ….’
Yet while we artists and activists of the day were partially successful in changing the culture and thus the way society perceives itself, the political-economic monster at which we Quixotically tilted from strength to strength from 1979 until 2008, when it disemboweled itself. It refuses to rest quietly in its grave. The eternal consumer present, fuelled by low interest rates and house price hyper-inflation, has now collapsed into a new 1980s of social division. Now new unrest and uprising beckon: now we artists and activists of the day, now in late middle-age, find it is time to renew our efforts. One more heave. More monsters lurk in the exhibition, courtesy of the Bauhaus (Bela Lugosi’s Dead, 1982, provides an aural backdrop), Marc Almond, the Chapman brothers, Don Letts, London Leatherman, Jamie Reid, Ralph Steadman, Poly Styrene and many, many others. David Bowie as Diamond Dog is there (1974), as is the Traffic Warden from Hell from Threads (1984).
Aesthetically and conceptually, if not chronologically, the Chapman’s ‘Return of the Repressed3’ (1997) forms a bridge between ‘Monster’ and ‘Ghost’. ‘Ghost’ is the exhibition’s Second Act, with work spanning roughly the fall of Thatcher after the Poll Tax riots and mass civil disobedience in 1990, through Millennial anxiety to 9/11 and the financial crash of 2008-9, an event from which the neoliberal experiment in which we have all been lab rats has never recovered, taking in Reece Shearsmith’s severed head from Inside No.9 (2018), a photo essay of Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’ (1993-4). Kerry Stewart’s ‘The Boy from the Chemist’s Is Here to See You’ (1993) is disturbing and haunting, clips from the BBC’s Ghostwatch (1992) flicker on screens, there is Graham Dolphin’s ‘Joy Division Door’ (2011) evoking a suicidal loss of control. David Shrigley’s taxidermised cat protests its death; Jeremy Millar’s ‘Self Portrait as a Drowned Man’ suggests the Channel crossings. And there is more. The sheer horror of a filmmaker condemned to blindness before an inevitable death: Derek Jarman’s final film Blue (1993) is poignant as always, recalling the human consequences of epi- and pan-demic. The Horror Show! was delayed for two years due to the Covid pandemic. AIDS is now a liveable, chronic condition; but only in the wealthy West. To the right of the screen is a door, I open it then to my left find a set-maker’s workshop with saws, blood-effect pain, the smell of varnish and freshly cut wood. Some viewers follow me in, ‘Is this art?’ I mention that it is, of the unintentional variety, assuming unintentional art is a thing!
The Third Act is ‘Witch’ presents more-or-less contemporary work, some of it commissioned specifically for this show. It presents a ‘digital coven’ where the monstrous-feminine and the monstrous-Queer suggest a new spirituality predicated upon social and ecological justice, and an anarchic autonomy of both the body-proper and the body-politic, while rejecting the ‘patriarchal occult’. Penny Slinger’s ‘Red Dakini’ (2018) suggests a digital Kali; Bert Gilbert’s ‘The Vesica’ (2019) presents a large Nazar, the ‘Evil Eye’ amulet of the eastern Mediterranean, topping lips that are at once facial and vaginal, evoking Ishtar and Ashtoreth the Bronze Age Levantine goddesses, each a goddess of both sex and war. Tai Shani’s ‘The Neon Hieroglyph’ offers a feminist mythology of psychedelics. Almost the final item, Gazelle Twin’s audio installation in a small room dominated by red and black hangings and ambient lighting presents an evocation, a hex. It reminds me strongly of the Poison Girls work from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, almost as if, where Vi Subversa (1935-2016) were still alive, this might be the kind of work she would be doing today, I think the strong resemblance is coincidental, a meting of souls. At least for me personally, this installation completes the exhibition, reconnecting the contemporary world of ‘Witch’ with the 1970s-‘80s world of ‘Monster’ in which I was a participant over forty years ago.
But herein lies a critique of the exhibition. Especially in ‘Monster’, I (now aged 63) noted what was missing. The cover of The Clash’s first album (1977) should have been there: it’s not ‘horror’ in the cinematic sense, but that ‘You lookin’ at me’ street gang pose blocking a dank innercity ally would have struck horror into the hearts of all of us who were in the dirty, violent London of that time. Malcolm Owen of the Ruts’ 1980 death from a heroin overdose was every bit as horrific as was Ian Curtis’. In their very different own ways, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Joy Division laid the foundations of what would soon become the Goth subculture, they should have had a bit more prominence, and should have featured in the show.
More radically sub-culturally, Crass’ ‘Reality Asylum’ (1978) is an extreme statement tearing apart patriarchal religion even by today’s standards, and its flip-side ‘Reality Asylum’ is prefigures much in ‘Witch’. Their ‘Nagasaki Nightmare’ (1981) and anti-Falklands War ‘How Does It Feel (to be the Mother of a Thousand Dead?’ (1982), and ‘Sheep Farming in the Falklands’ (1983) expose the horror of war, a kind of horror (I say this as a survivor of conflict-induced PTSD) somewhat missing from the exhibition. Then London-based NYC performance artist Annie Anxiety’s ‘Hello Horror’ (1981) would work well with the exhibition, ‘The car-crash thrill of smashing steel / good god / blowjob/ rigour mortis bop; children playing lynch-mob’. Conflict’s ‘Meat Is Murder’ (1985) exposes the horror of factory farming and human complicity in horrific animal suffering. Flux of Pink Indians ‘I Wanna Marry a Tube Disaster’ (1982) outs the shameful pleasures of consuming vicarious media rubber-necking of urban disaster. Horror? Then say no more than Throbbing Gristle’s experiments in the macabre, the fetishist, our darkest thanatoid desires: they should have featured in the exhibition. Above all, the Poison Girls oeuvre from the 1970s to the ‘90s bring together ‘Monster’, ‘Ghost’, and especially ‘Witch’, nearly squaring the circle (or should that be pentagram?); their omission was an error. It’s not as if these were simply records: Throbbing Gristle, Crass (something from Gee Vaucher surely should have featured?), and the Poison Girls, in effect DIY multimedia arts collectives, also produced significant visual and audio-visual output.
A weakness of the exhibition is that with its Central St. Martins, Goldsmiths, and ancient university graduates, Turner Prize winners and nominees, The Horror Show! can come over as a bit well-to-do middle-class mainstream and bourgeois-radical. Kinda alt mainstream radicalism? The autodidactic aspect of punk DIY is often underestimated. I’m not dissing those awesome academic institutions, went on, belatedly, to get a PhD in 2000, after dropping out of Sixth Form for punk in 1976, and spent a large part of my adult life as a higher education practitioner. So I’m not dissing that at all. But punk autodidacticism is underestimated. We weren’t all postcard punks, Sid Snot, nor Vyv Basterd. While I understand and respect the rationale for the exhibition’s 50-year time-frame, a nod to the work of William Blake (1757-1827) might have added a bit of deep historical, radical context.
That critique aside, the exhibition is of course haunted in a different sense: many of the artists, activists, filmmakers, performers, and writers are of course now dead, some recently, some now long-gone: Jordan (1955-2022) features prominently in ‘Monster’. A good few of those now lost to us were personal friends of mine. Marx would have seen the cultural as merely ‘superstructural’, and the political-economic struggle merely ‘infrastructural’, ephemeral. The neo-Marxist Gramsci, writing a century ago under Fascism disagreed. At times it seems, with seemingly endless ‘culture wars’, that today’s now mainstreamed far-right have learnt Gramsci’s lessons on culture better than the rest of us. But this is a superficial perception, a kind of fleeting horrific nightmare. To that can be added the radical insights of feminist and Queer psychoanalysis vis-à-vis Horror and oppositional subcultural artistic praxis. This important exhibitions reminds us of what we have achieved, reminds us that, The Reality of Horror notwithstanding, we are stronger than that and them. And, that we, political-economics being a box still to tick, have achieved aesthetically, artistically, culturally, morally, and philosophically, far, far more than today’s mainstreamed yet flailing and failing far-right could ever hope to achieve in their wildest, washed up bodies, refugee deporting nightmares. We are stronger than them.
Of course, the exhibition is not all doom and gloom, dark kink, nor po-faced horror; there are moments of great humour too: Harminder Judge’s ‘Self-Portrait’ (2016), Jamie Reid’s ‘Monster on a Nice Roof’ (1972), Strigley’s cat, and the severed head. As many of us who have cared for a loved one through their final illness might have found, dark humour, macabre humour, gallows humour makes bearable the unbearable for both the carer and the cared-for. Even dying can have its funny side. There were great laughs at this show: much of the time I had a huge grin on my face, and that was before I discovered the free bar at the private viewing!
Do see this very important event.
David Shrigley’s I’m Dead, 2007
 The Nazar is the blue and white ‘Evil Eye’ motif of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans, used by Christians, Jews and Muslims in the region it nonetheless has deep pagan roots.
 The Shaam is, broadly, the old ‘Levant’, what’s now Israel, Cyprus, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Mediterranean Turkey (the old Cilicia).
I wrote this for The Socialist Review back in June, 2000. It’s a timely reminder that the (perhaps now not-so) ‘new racism’ that has demonised and persecuted refugees for over two decades did not start with the Tories. At that time I was working at the then University of North London (now part of London Metropolitan University), on a specialist EU-funded Access to Higher Education programme for refugee learners.
Thatcher came to power in May 1979 after a thoroughly racist general election campaign that demonised immigrants of all kinds. Before that in the ‘70s the National Front came close to mainstreaming. Ostensibly it was ‘respectable’ British nationalist party, but was run by neo-Nazis and used roaming gangs of indoctrinated Nazi boneheads to carry out racist attacks and intimidate opponents. But so racist was Thatcher’s ’79 campaign that the NF collapsed almost overnight as ‘respectable’ white British racists found in Thatcher an electoral expression for their racism free the taint of association with neo-Nazi bootboys.
Fast-forward to 1997 and Blair’s New Labour had no desire to be tainted by the overt racism of Thatcher and the NF. But the political need for scapegoats remained, and there was still electoral capital to be made by throwing some bleeding human flesh at the hungry cur of white British racism by demonising refugees. Indeed, the word ‘refugee’ became something of a political swear-word. People who during the Cold War might once have been welcomed as ‘political refugees’ fleeing oppressive regimes, were now merely ‘refugees’, then ‘asylum seekers’, then ‘economic migrants’; eventually, even ‘migrant’ eventually became a term of racist abuse – as if, say, Valencia and Andalusia weren’t packed with ‘expats’: white British migrants.
As with so many authoritarian measures enacted by the Tories since 2010, hatred towards ‘migrants’ had its origins with the New Labour version of populism. Of course, the Tories, aided and abetted by UKIP and the UK’s mainstreamed far-right print media, took state-sanctioned hatred of ‘migrants’ to new levels of ugliness and obscenity. It remains an unhealthy political obsession, cue the ‘Hostile Environment’, anti-immigrant vans, the UK’s nasty, shitty little ‘Border Force’, migrants living in penury in prison-like conditions, deportation to Rwanda, children drowning in the Channel.
This I called out back in 2000: as with so much else, what New Labour started has been taken to new levels in what has become in effect a far-right country.
Labour’s racism: the last straw
A Tory and New Labour auction to introduce more draconian measures against refugees and asylum seekers is creating a repressive and racist atmosphere. Mike Diboll looks at the truth behind the hysteria
Claude* is a biochemist who has done pioneering work in isolating the components of the sophisticated modern drugs used to treat cancer and Aids from natural flora. He is currently carrying out post-doctoral research at one of Britain’s leading universities. Sonya undertook her doctoral research at Chernobyl, investigating the use of high doses of vitamins in the treatment of children affected by radioactive fallout. Neither of these people are British citizens, nor have they been headhunted by international recruitment consultants. Rather, Claude and Sonya arrived in the UK via refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Originally refugees from the Rwandan genocide, they fled again from Congo to the UK only when the Congolese civil war threatened their lives for a second time. Claude and Sonya are asylum seekers.
Moreover, their case is not unique. They are two former students on an innovative course on which I teach at a London university. This course aims to provide asylum seekers and refugees with a ‘fast track’, not to deportation, but to higher education or professional employment. Scanning the class list of a recent course provides an interesting insight into the background of many asylum seekers: an engineer and a human rights activist who fled the fundamentalist Taliban regime in Afghanistan; an MBA who fell foul of the Russian mafia; a Latvian computer programmer; two engineers, a doctor and a teacher from Iraq; a consultant psychiatrist and two dissident intellectuals from Iran; an Albanian physicist and a Kosovan musician; a businesswoman and a teacher of children with special needs from Colombia; an Algerian journalist; Kurdish biochemists, engineers, doctors and nurses; and several secretaries, administrators and students from various of the world’s trouble-spots.
This profile shows the predominant media image of asylum seekers as scroungers, squeegee merchants, beggars, rapists and terrorists to be a callow lie. Yet such stereotypes, vigorously promoted by the right wing tabloids, mould public and political opinion about asylum seekers, and underpin repressive government legislation which aims to restrict the right to asylum, and make life for asylum seekers in Britain as impoverished, unpleasant, undignified and humiliating as is possible under international law. It could be objected that Claude and Sonya are not typical asylum seekers. However, this is not true. Although the yellow press and the New Labour government alike pretend otherwise, the large majority of asylum seekers bring with them useful skills and know-how from which the British economy and British society will benefit. Generally it is only those refugees who have access to professional networks, who have reasonable English language skills, a little hard currency, and a lot of self-confidence and determination who make it to the UK.
The bulk of refugees seek refuge in neighbouring countries which are themselves unstable or human rights abusers. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates the world total of refugees at over 22 million. The majority of these refugees flee to neighbouring countries: Iran, Pakistan and India are host to 3 million Afghan refugees; Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia host 600,000 Iraqi refugees; and half a million Sierra Leonian refugees are currently in Guinea, Senegal and Gambia. Even in the case of the former Yugoslavia, most refugees end up in other former Yugoslav republics, Germany, Scandinavia or Switzerland. Britain is host to none of the world’s major refugee populations, yet the asylum seekers that it does receive come in the main from their countries’ intelligentsia and professional elite. Many of these have been involved in political opposition movements to the dominant regimes in their countries, or have been involved in promoting human rights and have only sought refuge in Britain at the last possible moment, when their lives and those of their families are in clear and present danger.
Sticks and stones
Informed establishment opinion is quite aware of this. An Economist journalist wrote recently, ‘Many people would agree that unrestricted immigration carries large social costs of assimilating people who are culturally and linguistically different, but against this must be set the array of economic benefits that migrants can bring… British policy towards asylum seekers must be changed.’ Of course, it would be wrong to argue that only professionally qualified refugees who could bring obvious ‘economic benefits’ should be let into the UK and others excluded. The 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees states that ‘a “refugee” is a person who is outside of his or her country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution, or who has fled because of war or civil conflict’–nothing here about ‘economic benefits’. Nevertheless, the spectacle of the Economist criticising a Labour government on its reactionary and right wing stance on asylum seekers is indicative of a deep malaise in British politics. We live in worrying times.
The government has cause to be grateful to the Tories. The extremity of Hague and Widdecombe’s rants about locking up all asylum seekers makes New Labour’s own repressive measures appear reasonable to a casual observer who has had no direct contact with actual asylum seekers. Marxists should remember that ideas develop out of practice, not the other way round. Thus sticks and stones break bones but words in themselves seldom do real harm. New Labour is now in power and is likely to be so after the next general election. It is the sticks and stones of its actions which are causing asylum seekers real suffering in Britain today. The Tories’ despicable words about ‘reception centres’ and a repatriations agency hurt only in so far as they encourage and justify further government repression, and supply Jack Straw with a constant stream of ideas for new measures. We have been here before. In the late 1970s and early 1980s National Front propaganda advocating the forced repatriation of black and Asian Britons to their supposed countries of origin had the effect of legitimising as ‘reasonable’ the Thatcher government’s racist views on immigration. The result of this was the draconian 1981 Immigration Act.
The 1951 Geneva Convention states that ‘a refugee has the right to safe asylum. However, international protection comprises more than physical safety. Refugees should receive at least the same rights and basic help as any other foreigner who is a legal resident.’ Furthermore, the convention asserts that ‘economic and social rights should apply to refugees as they do to other individuals. Every refugee should have access to medical care. Every adult refugee should have the right to work. No refugee child should be deprived of schooling.’ In forcing asylum seekers to live on the princely sum of £35.25 per week mainly in vouchers (sorry, no change given) the government is clearly breaking the spirit of the convention, even as it (just about) conforms to the convention’s letter. Small surprise, then, that the government is lobbying for the 1951 convention, which so far has formed the cornerstone of British policy on asylum, to be replaced in response to ‘the influx of economic migrants’. Rushing in where Michael Howard feared to tread, Straw is asking the European Union to advocate the redrafting of the convention ‘to reflect modern times’, thereby endangering what has hitherto been regarded as an almost sacred text in international law. This should be one ‘modernisation’ too far for a civilised society to tolerate.
As the Tories talk about ‘reception centres’, the government is building ‘detention centres’. Dispersal ensures that asylum seekers are removed from the community and support networks that exist in London. Instead, asylum seekers will be dumped onto the outskirts of provincial towns where racist and fascist groups such as the BNP will exploit the asylum issue. Take one sample week in February: the Bolton Evening News reported ‘a racially motivated and horrific attack’ in which Kosovan refugees were assaulted by thugs using broken bottles and bricks, while the Manchester Evening News reported that three young Kurdish asylum seekers were beaten up and robbed by a gang of 20 thugs. Meanwhile, as well as ensuring that asylum seekers live in abject poverty, vouchers function as a social signifier of unwanted ‘otherness’ chillingly like Nazi Germany’s pink triangles and yellow Stars of David. Already several of my students have complained of harassment in shops when their vouchers have been produced in payment.
New Labour’s response early in its term of office to the murder of Stephen Lawrence was well-intentioned and should be applauded. However, as Imran Khan, the Lawrences’ lawyer commented recently, there is ‘clear evidence’ that government policy on asylum has led to a significant increase in the kind of racist attacks which brought about the death of Stephen Lawrence. For, as Bill Morris, the leader of the TGWU pointed out this April, the ‘mood music’ created by the vilification of asylum seekers by the government and much of the media gives succour to racists and fascists to the detriment of both asylum seekers, and black and Asian Britons. Indeed, ‘asylum’ has effectively become a media codeword for ‘race’ which allows racists to use the asylum issue as a ‘respectable’ vehicle for the expression of otherwise socially and politically unacceptable racist sentiments.
New Labour no doubt set out to make ‘old fashioned’ racism against blacks, Asians and others a thing of the past–henceforth, black and Asian Britons were to be ‘us’ rather than ‘them’. Unfortunately, having effectively abandoned even a token commitment to socialism as a defining creed, New Labour began its flirtation with organic, corporatist nationalism. Thus ‘New Britain’ with its ‘strong community’ was fulfilling a ‘moral purpose’ to ‘renew British strength’, with New Labour as ‘the nation’s only hope for salvation’, and ‘nation and party at last united’. To play with revivalist nationalism is to play with political fire. Although New Labour originally was at pains to create a redefined politically correct nationalism, a nationalist agenda inevitably requires a ‘them’, a demonised ‘other’ against whom ‘us’, however that ‘us’ is defined, can find identity. Asylum seekers fitted this bill perfectly, hence New Labour’s willingness to milk anti-asylum for all it is worth.
In March this year Blair was referring to ‘bogus and non-bogus asylum seekers’–no mention of the word ‘genuine’. In a similar vein, Jack Straw offended the Roma, the extermination of whom the Nazis prioritised above the extermination of the Jews, by stating that society has been ‘too tolerant’ of ‘travellers’, and he has recently shared a platform with Charles Murray, an academic white supremacist from the US who believes that white people are genetically superior to black people, and the rich enjoy a similar advantage over the poor. Regrettably, in letting the racist genie out of the bottle, the Labour government has initiated a sequence of events that it can no longer control, and the long term consequences of which are unpredictable. Certainly a racist agenda will dominate British politics until after the next general election at least. Thus the government intends to open army camps as detention centres to hold an expected ‘surge’ of refugees this summer.
The scapegoating of asylum seekers is rooted in populist politics and the exploitation of nationalism for short term political ends. Away from the Daily Mail and the Sun, the bosses’ newspaper the Financial Times recently reported that even as the government is building internment camps to accommodate a ‘flood’ of asylum seekers, it is planning ‘a fast-track work permit system to speed up the recruitment of foreign workers’ because of ‘severe skills shortages’ in areas such as information technology, engineering and medicine. Why go to such lengths to recruit from eastern Europe and Australasia when people such as Claude and Sonya are already living here and need only attend a short ‘fast track’ course such as the one I teach on to enter the labour market? Could it be the colour of their skin?
*The names have been changed for reasons of confidentiality
I am watching the important ITV series The Walk In. Somewhat on topic is this nasty ‘gig review’ in the now far-right Spectator.
The whole premise of this pseudo-gig review of Morrissey in the Spectator is wrong. So many people know the name of the Moors Murderers but not the Manchester bomber? So what?
The Arena bombing is no more forgotten than 9/11. Can the author of this nonsense Brendan O’Neill tell us, without looking it up, the name of the terrorist pilot who crashed the hijacked ‘plane into the North Tower? I thought not. Without looking it up, can he tell me the name of the Suffolk Strangler? I thought not. Can, without looking it up, B. O’Neill tell us who P. O’Neill was? I thought not. From memory, can he tell us the name of the London Nail Bomber, or the assassin of Jo Cox? Not being able to recall a name does not mean an event is ‘forgotten’.
As for Jihadist terrorism, a great deal has been done to counter it, directly and indirectly, internationally and at home, by the police, intelligence services, and armed forces (notwithstanding incidents of hitting the wrong targets and the shameful official trafficking of Shamima Begum); but also by educators, social and youth workers, health professionals, academics, by public and community awareness; shock, horror, *also by Muslims and Muslim communities themselves*!
The victims of the Arena atrocity did not die, pace ‘Moz’, in a ‘bonfire’: they were either blown apart, died from catastrophic blood loss, or suffered life-changing macerating injuries. By calling it a ‘bonfire’ ‘Moz’ himself sanitises and trivialises what happened, thus enabling forgetting. Or more accurately the wrong kind of remembering, remembering the atrocity in a way that turns it into an Islamophobic white supremacist dog-whistle.
The toxic symbiosis between Jihadist and far-right terrorism is well-attested. The whole premise of this Spectator ‘gig review’ is drivel. Back in the real world, a great deal has been done to address Jihadist terrorism, while the rightist mainstream media continue dog whistle their neo-Nazi street dogs.
As for Morrissey, he is really dreadful. He’s like watching paint dry. About as much a ‘rebel’ as a tin of budget baked beans, about as rock ‘n’ roll as a cement-filled static caravan. A bores’ bore. Always has been, I thought so back in the day. But now he’s carved out a career as a whistler summoning attack dogs, endorsed by the Spectator.
I didn’t know all the answers either, they were rhetorical questions. But the answers are (having looked them up):
1) Mohamad Atta;
2) Steve Wright (a misogynist terrorist against women);
3) P. O’Neill was the pseudonym used by pIRA operatives to claim responsibility for actions (including the 1996 Manchester Bombing);
4) David Copeland (far-right terrorist, the 1999 London Nail Bomber);
5) Thomas Mair (far-right terrorist assassin of Jo Cox).
The Moors Murderers were of course Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Are serial killers terrorists? In media discourse, no. But as the Second Wave feminists demonstrated, “the personal is political” (and, indeed, the political is personal). Very often the motives of serial killers are politically or ideologically rooted. This was generally implicit, but has become explicit with the rise of the Incel (“Involuntarily Celibate”) explicitly anti-feminist movement. Were the Moors Murderers terrorists against children? Brady certainly had a fixation with Nazi ideology which emphasised the power of the strong over the weak.
Disclaimer: I have been published a few times in the Spectator, but that was in the days when it was a respectable centre-right organ of comment, not the swivel-eyed, shrill rightist rag it has since become!
Never mind Liz Truss, she’s a nobody going nowhere who very soon shall be forgotten, or remembered with faint embarrassment.
The right used until very recently, be very clever with their soundbites, “Citizen of Nowhere” was deeply sinister in a divide et impera kinda way. Al de Pfeffel’s “Oven ready Brexit” was deceptive, but plugged into a reactionary populist desire of a populus drugged on consumerism to “Get [insert] Done!” or “Make [insert] Great Again!” Cameron’s “Big Society” and “The Greenest Government Ever” was just plain deceptive. But Truss’s “Anti-Growth Coalition” was just plain dumb.
Except, except. As an own-goal it was brilliant, the best since Southampton vs Sunderland, 2014. Divide et impera has got away with an awful lot the past two decades, certainly since the 2008-9 Financial Crash, which holed neoliberalism below the waterline. Ever since then, the right, and even sections of the left, have been flirting with differing projects based around a revival of fascism.
But The Anti-Growth Coalition! With that Truss’s speechwriters have managed to unite the Anglers Society and the most extreme Eco-Warriors, Anarchists and the Liberal Democrats, the Celtic independence parties and Unionist one nation Tories, Extinction Rebellion and the National Trust, Vegans and Hunters, the Labour and Communist Parties, the BBC and Another Angry Voice, Marxists and idealists, atheists and the pious, the police and whoso they hunt. Doubtless, there are many other “Persons Unknown” who are part of Truss’s Anti-Growth Coalition.
But Truss is a nobody. The truth she has inadvertently established will have a life well beyond her theoretical radioactive elements political life, beyond the deeply deluded UK, which still likes to imagine is the Centre of the Universe. There is indeed a movement that it anti-growth, or at least anti- the neoliberal/fascist version of growth so eloquently expressed by Truss’s hydrocarbon-funded “think tank” wonks and speechwriters.
Or at least those who might question “growth”, or advocate minimal growth, with what might remain of growth targeted at global social justice, or renewable or fusion energy, or education, science, and the arts.
While back in the mid-C18th an economic system predicated on endless growth on a finite planet might have made sense. Now it, capitalism, is killing us, maybe it’s time for a rethink? Even over something as innocuous and uncontroversial as, say, a four-day week or a Universal Basic Income? That’d be a start! A global Zero Carbon commitment within the next decade might also help. A bit.
This image combines the original 1978 Toxic Grafity “Anarchy and Peace” logo, in Green and Black, with, hey guess what? “Anti-Growth Coalition”. The pink monster thing combines the image of a metastasising cancer cell with H.P. Lovecraft’s (a notorious racist himself) Cluthu, who, as we all know, is a great friend of Humanity and this Earth.
As neoliberalism attempts to metastasise into fascism (Italy, Sweden, France? Brexit led them all; let’s all flush Bibi, Bolsonaro, Modi, Putin, and Drumpff and their -isms into the cess-pit of history), it emerges as a “growth”, a cancer in the body-personal brought on by pollution and novel viruses, and a cancer on the body politic; a cancer on the face of this earth, a tumour in our hearts and brains, a THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE Cluthu in our minds, souls, spirits.
Viva the Anti-Growth Coalition!
Together, our differences aside, we are strong! We may well all fall out, the Anglers Society and Extinction Rebellion, along our journey; but the journey is, perhaps, more important than the destination. Divide and rule is over!
I wrote this back in 2018 for the edited anthology Ripped, Torn and Cut: Pop Politics and Punk Fanzines from 1976 (The Subcultures Network (eds), Manchester University Press, 2018). I reproduce it here partly as an example of my more recent writing, and partly because it helps fill in the reader about some of the things I’ve been involved in since I produced the last Toxic Grafity back in 1982! So yeah, in this piece there is: the Middle East; academia and higher education; revolution; counter-revolution; political violence; mental health, breakdown and recovery; autoethnography, and: a punk reawakening. It’s written in an academic voice, or semi-academic one, not quite the very ‘objectivist’ voice I’ve used elsewhere in sociological writing. Indeed, at the levels of voice, vocabulary, structure, and conventions I set out to subvert academic writing, or at least try to push it in a different direction. I also set out to subvert the idea of a discrete, knowing “I” or author, presenting myself as multiple personalities. ‘Mental Liberation Issue’ is the sub-title of Toxic Grafity 5.
All that follows below is data, Alec Grant (2013)
What was I thinking when, in the summer of 1980, I subtitled issue 5 of Toxic Grafity the ‘mental liberation issue’? As Matt Worley notes, Toxic featured ‘politically charged collage, essays on anarchy and diatribes against state repression’ in which the music coverage was ‘all but subsumed within a series of nihilistic ruminations on the inanity of work, the illusion of politics and the stifling abjection of everyday life’. This issue also carried a flexi-disc of the hitherto unreleased Crass track ‘Tribal Rival Rebel Revel.
It is challenging reflecting back 38 years to invoke the subjectivity that was ‘Mike D’, aged 19; I’m not sure it’s possible. The ‘mental’ was intended as a double entendre: Toxic, I fancied, was about ‘liberation’, and the theme of the issue was the liberation of the mind from the constraining constructions through which socialisation reproduces conformity (I’m retrospectively projecting academic language onto Mike D): an ambitious task for a punk who had not thought to undertake the basic intellectual groundwork of first framing theories of either ‘liberation’ or the ‘mind’. But Mike D was primal enough for his mind not to need ‘liberating’ from that stuff, the conventions and conformities of academic prose. Yet ‘mental’ also sought to evoke punk ‘chaos’: the liberation imagined by Toxic was to be ‘mental’ in the way that the mosh-pit or pogoing was ‘mental’: chaotic, crazy, primal, angry, ‘going mental’; a V-sign; a phlegmy gob; a half-brick Molotov aimed at conformity-constructing socialisation of the sort that (had Mike D known) shaped the working-class subjectivities of Paul Willis’s ‘lads’ in his seminal study Learning to Labour: How Working-Class Kids Get Working-Class Jobs (first published in that punkiest of years, 1977). Such socialisation enabled ‘self-damnation in the taking on of subordinate roles in western capitalism … damnation experienced, paradoxically, as true learning, affirmation, appropriation and as a form of resistance’. Rejecting such socialisation, Mike D and his ilk were empowered with the agency to flob their gob and lob their bricks at hegemonic structures that were reconstructing Willis’s ‘lads’ as capitalism’s ‘dummies, dupes and zombies’. This empowerment took place through the countercultural milieu of ‘anarcho-punk’ (I can’t recall the term being used in the day), which shaped Mike D’s subjectivity and enabled his agency. In turn, through Toxic and related performances, Mike D’s enabled cultural agency helped shape shape that milieu.
December 2012, Beachy Head, East Sussex; meet ‘Mental Mike’:
The body would be smashed open as it hit the crags as it plummeted, white cliffs stained blood-red against sea of gunmetal, leaden sky. The pounding waves would flush away the mess.
The phone rings.
‘It’s Richard from Time to Talk … How are you feeling today?’
‘Is this some kind of tracking app?’
‘Where are you?’
‘Beachy Head … It’s okay, there’s someone with me, I’m just going for a walk ….’
Still the waves crash and flush: as with the Brighton express that cuts through Mid- Sussex stations at full speed, ending this way would be to stop the pain, not a cry for help.
Mental Mike is ‘mental’, mentally ill, sick in the head, crazy, neurotic, psychotic, under therapy and on medication, on a therapist’s watch list: driven mental through Anxiety, Major Depressive Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), he might be a danger to himself, or others.
From the perspective of 2017, semi-retired academic ex-punk Mike (‘Old Fart Mike’) wonders what the adjective ‘mental’ might say about the relationship, if any, of those two half-recalled subjectivities – Mike D and Mental Mike – that haunt Old Fart Mike’s consciousness as he taps out this paper, pulling on the rusted chains of memory? How might Mike D’s ‘mental liberation’ – ‘“THE VILEST FORM OF COMMUNICATION” B.U, … @ … O.K. …?’ – inform our understanding, as an exercise in narrative mental health writing, of Mike’s mentalness? Moreover, as an investigation into ‘the truth of revolution’ and the politics of counterculture, how might Mike D’s ‘mental liberation’ help us understand the complex of emotional, military, political, social and vocational forces that drove Mental Mike – with his thousand-yard stare like the GI on the cover of Gee Vaucher’s International Anthem(1979), his jumps, starts, tics, panic reflexes, anxiety attacks and mind fragmented into a legion of ‘characters’ (his word) – over the brink into suicidal insanity?
In 2015, Mental Mike recalls ‘Higher Education Manager Mike’ of 2007–11:
December 2008, Jidd Hafs Maternity Hospital, Bahrain. My daughter’s a day old. Just outside the hospital white-helmeted mercenary-police in riot gear confront a small group of shabaab in this most Baharna of neighbourhoods.
My partner asks for baby stuff from my Oxford blue Land Rover Discovery, I leave the ward to fetch. Something’s wrong. My eyes, my throat, burn. An ecstasy of fumbling: CS gas canisters over the hospital’s perimeter wall. My mucus membranes choke off my throat, I stagger back to the ward. MY DAUGHTER’S NOT IN HER COT!
‘SHE’S IN an incubator … ’ The jidd hafsy nurse senses my panic. ‘We always put the babies there when the gas comes into the hospital … it’s just routine … ’
Two years, three months later I’ll see entire villages carpet-gassed, houses and shops invisible in a thick fog of CS.
Bahrain Teachers College, October 2009: ‘Where’s Hussein?’ The student’s missed three classes.
‘Don’t worry where Hussein is’, the senior academic mercenary tells me, ‘he’s the authorities’ problem now, not ours. Make sure his name’s taken off the records.’
Bahrain Teachers College, 11 March 2011. I refuse to leave with the mercenary educators. I must bear witness to my students’ bid to occupy the campus. They are attacked by baltajiyya: regime-loyalist vigilante gangs who seemed to have turned up on campus by pre-arrangement, police and military out of uniform, sectarian street gangs, jihadist fanatics, gym-bunnies brutalize the students.
Thugs brandish swords, spears, clubs, chains: broke glass, brain-blood. Builders, fishermen, armed makeshift with the tools of their trades arrive to support the students. The ‘police’ arrive, shotguns, CS, baton rounds, birdshot.
Then the military, helicopters, live fire. I run and hide … pools of congealing blood, scattered handbags, women’s shoes, wrecked vehicles. The counter-revolution has begun.
November 2012. Some Job Centre Plus clown has suggested I take a role as a Christmas Santa.
Iain Duncan Smith opines that the unemployed are unemployed because of the moral choices they have made.
Tell me about it.
In anger I say that Bahrain has made me mad. This is unfair. Bahrain and its people are dear to me.
Bahrain didn’t make me mad, the nasty little British-dependent family-state that runs it did. I’m tougher than that.
No, it was coming back to Britain that pushed me to the brink of that cliff, the edge of that platform. I felt like a witness to a rape or a murder. I had to tell the world what I’d seen, felt. But the powers of this world denied it. It never happened.
‘The truth of revolution, brother … ’ is what? ‘Mental liberation?’ Mental Mike is more mental than liberated. And yet, standing there, in ‘Pearl Square’, Bahrain’s Tahrir Square, in February 2011, the young Wordsworth’s words on the French Revolution entered Manager Mike’s consciousness: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very Heaven … ’
In 2009, he had heard about an emerging body of scholarship in ‘Punk Studies’. Writing in his reactionary delusion to the Kill Your Pet Puppy website, treating punk scholarship with snobby condescension, he had written at the end of a turgid piece about Toxic:
‘I’ve repudiated so much of what I used to believe in during those days in the late 1970s, but the closing words for Crass’ ‘Bloody Revolutions’ track ‘but the truth of revolution, brother, is Year Zero’ still appeals to the Burkeian in me!’
When the revolution happened, confronted by real, actual revolution, Manager Mike moved about amid it, smelled, touched, felt revolution ‘in the air’, in the crowds. He felt privileged, honoured, to be there. He was staggered to witness the world that Mike D had once dreamed about, fantasised about, fanzined about, actually actualise before his eyes: vast numbers of individuals en masse self-organising autonomously, bypassing the state and state structures to fulfil their everyday needs; becoming one great collective entity expressing powerfully a unified revolutionary will, defying the military, taunting the riot police to occupy public space in the name of the revolutionary overthrow of the detested regime:
‘There’s no stopping us unless it’s under a hail of bullets!’
Hundreds of thousands of people occupying the so-called ‘prestige’ social space between the financial and the diplomatic districts, wresting control of the streets from the state with carnival-like creativity – protest as performance and performance as protest – organising autonomously the essentials to maintain bare life while making art and poem and performance and song, graffiti and creative appropriation, mocking humour and creative insurrectionary play: all this in defiance of guns and tanks.
Manager Mike felt himself decentring, fragmenting: an epiphany amid the chanting and the slogans and the singing and the marching, the to-ing and fro-ing, crowds surging, confronting then defending against the riot police: the scales of conformity dropped from his eyes, his public persona, his knowing ‘I’, his owning ‘me’ fractured, fell away. An ancient presence emerged into his being; a new-old subjectivity conjured by the chanting from the abyssal depths of the decades. Mike D, newly summoned, saw around him in Bahrain the ancient promise of the Stop the City protests fulfilled in his new present.
As Rich Cross observed, Stop the City was ‘imaginative, inspired, subversive and norm breaking’. Organised in 1983 to 1984 without a coordinating committee but with ‘willful, passionate utopianism’, Stop the City were carnivals of action designed to disrupt the flow of capital and draw attention to issues of arms manufacture, apartheid and exploitation. Targeted first at the City of London, they ‘punctured for all of time’ (Dave Morris) the ‘secrecy and supposed invulnerability’ of the state. Many punks were involved. Yet here in Bahrain there was none of the ‘marginality’ and ‘fragility’ that Cross noted of Stop the City; rather, the state’s haybat ud-dawla, the ‘fear’ or ‘awe’ that made possible the state’s thousands of daily oppressions, the state’s projection of itself into the consciousness of its subjects as a God-like entity, all-powerful and enduring, intimidating people from taking collective action against it, here this haybat, this toxic charisma, was ‘punctured for all time’, just destroyed. And Mike D, a living, witnessing link between Stop the City and the Arab Spring grew up in the punktured shell of Manager Mike.
Few if any of the participants in the Bahrain Revolution would have known of Stop the City, but a genealogy connects them via the anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist protests of the later 1990s to 2000s and the Occupy! movement. Bahrain has a long history of uprising against, firstly, de facto British rule, then the ruling Al Khalifa dynasty during the British Protectorate. This opposition dates back at least to the 1920s, into Bahrain’s ‘independence period post-1973. Most recently, the 1995 to 2002 ‘Bahrain Intifada’ forced the regime to make major public life concessions. I knew from teaching radical Bahraini students that young Bahrainis were exploring fresh models of resistance, including the anti-globalisation and the Occupy! movements. Fellow eyewitness and political anthropologist Toby Mattheisen observes:
‘… we could hear the voices of thousands, the shrieking of megaphones, fanfares, music … how relaxed everybody seemed to be. There were thousands of people at the roundabout and two had been killed [by state security forces] trying to reach here, but … it felt like the most natural thing to bring your family to a demonstration in the heart of the capital … protestors had set up tents, screens, makeshift kitchens, medical centers, mobile phone charging stations and a podium for speakers … Hundreds of tents and mattresses had been set up in the first two days.
Mike D was resurrected, a living link between Stop the City and the revolution flowering before his eyes. Shortly after, four battalions of military and riot police surrounded the occupation site and cleared it with lethal force. As Matthiesen observes: The image that came to symbolize that night’s events was a photo of a [protester’s] skull, cracked open by a shotgun fired at close range, with the brains spilling out. Counter-revolution is scarier than revolution, especially if the revolution is as velvet as I witnessed at the roundabout.
The events of the counter-revolution and his fleeing from Bahrain to the UK put Mike D back in his Toxic box and Mental Mike emerged in his place. His route to sanity would be to reclaim Mike D – to revisit and re-story these events away from insanity-evoking catastrophe to bring to the fore once more that life-giving epiphany, to make it work once more, curatively, therapeutically, in his present. Reflection was painful, but he persevered. Reflecting on Toxic, selfhood and revolution on the Kill Your Pet Puppy website in 2015 Mental Mike observed:
‘Looking back from the perspective of 2015, the ‘me’ of 1978 or 1979 [i.e. Mike D] seems far closer to the ‘me’ of 2015 [Mental Mike] than does the ‘me’ of 2009 [Manager Mike]. That ‘me’ is no more. I hesitate to say ‘dead’ because I doubt one’s earlier selves can ever really be ‘dead’ to one’s present self. Rather, I see that 2009 self as having been distilled away by a kind of alchemy, as dross burnt away in a crucible, as a fragile construct devastatingly deconstructed, shattered, and blasted across the four cardinal compass points by a tsunami of fire.’
Stripped of the façade-like persona I had constructed around the ‘me’ of 2009, I now see a person remarkably like the ‘me’ of 1978, although I hesitate to say that is the ‘real’ me: to what extent can any of our constructed personas be ‘real’ in a fundamental, existential sense? … Nevertheless, the transformation has been remarkable. The immediate question that arises when contemplating that transformation, then, has to be ‘What were the factors that brought it about?’ These factors are easy to identify, but hard to write about.
There is the experience of revolution. I don’t mean reading about revolution or merely witnessing one, but of experiencing that inexorable movement that draws one – almost drags one, in some ways reluctantly – from bearing witness to a revolution to becoming part of it … a survival of the ‘me’ of 1978 lurking about unnoticed among the cacophony of conflicting voices that constitute my consciousness.
Whatever it was, it was able, with a daring and disturbing deftness of touch to take over … As this happened the part of ‘me’ that is supposed to direct my actions in accordance with rational self-interest retreated, letting the ‘me’ of 1978 (or something very like it) dictate my actions, even though ‘rational self-interest me’ knew in doing so I would be writing the execution warrant for 2009 ‘me’: deprived of the material and professional symbols that announced my 2009 ‘me’ to the social world beyond me, it would wither … .
[W]hat I was witnessing in 2011 … was a people, young and old and of all walks of life making history, becoming the subject-objects of their own revolutionary becoming. This was bigger than ‘me’, of any of the [plural] ‘Me-s’ that noisily occupied the conscious space of my individuality. I understood how social and political forces flowed through my subjectivity, shaping it and in turn being shaped by it, as a river forms the landscape even as its course is determined by it. I saw subjectivity not as a stasis, but as a process, that my ‘me’ was a construct that would always be a work in progress, never complete. I saw how this transformation of one’s understanding of self and society was inherently part of the revolutionary process. That in rejecting the static social and political structures in which both coercion and ideology corral us, revolutionary consciousness, life-as-becoming, is re-initiated.
Old Fart Mike reviews from his experience a rant, ‘The Admition’, from Mike D’s Blakean innocence:
‘God is a lie. There is no god, god is a con-trick, death is oblivion … I reject religion, I reject work, in a system of capitalism (or state capitalism, as in fascism, or communism, the same thing) … work is slavery, it never sets you free, that’s a fucking lie, the ‘myth’ of capital … yes, I reject contemporary values and past values … I see no political solution, for politics left and right is lies … REALIZE THE INSANITY OF ‘CIVILIZATION’ AND ITS STINKING OVERKILL, OVEREAT, OVER EVERY FUCKING THING THEN ACT TO DESTROY IT.’
There are some familiar ‘anarcho-punk’ tropes here: ‘religion’ as an archaic form of oppression enslaving the governed; politics and the state as serving the vested interests of capital; the rejection of political left and right; elements of nihilism and misanthropy. But I’d now say that God is a verb: an eternal and sentient verbal imperative BE!, which we can embody and enact in moments of transformation.
Thinking of Mike’s journey across the decades as an autobiographical ethnography, we find here continuities with his pasts and presents: substitute Mental Mike’s deconstruction of subjectivity, the ‘I’, for Mike D’s demolition of ‘God’ and there is continuity; substitute Mike D’s undifferentiated rage at politics, left or right, at work, even at ‘civilization’ itself, for Mental Mike’s rage at the Al Khalifa family state’s murderous suppression of a popular uprising – a Stop the City writ large – that he witnessed in Bahrain, then there is continuity again. In this, the rediscovery, the re-evocation of his punk subjectivity across the decades allowed him to re-story tragedy and trauma; in this lay the cure for Mental Mike’s Madness.
My intention above has been to write a ‘poststructuralist autoethnographic’ to explore how a ‘punk subjectivity’ has endured, sometimes subliminally, sometimes epiphanically across my lifespan, influencing my social and political agency and my action-in-the-world in a range of contexts which are very different to the original ‘anarcho-punk’ context of Toxic and its wider milieu.
By ‘autoethnographic’ I mean an approach to qualitative research that involves ‘research, writing, story and method that connect the autobiographical to the cultural, social and political’. Autoethnography can be seen as ‘rewriting the self and the social’, as ‘a form of self-narrative that places the self within a social context’. It is ‘the use of personal experience and personal writing to purposefully comment on/critique cultural practices; to make contributions to existing research; to embrace vulnerability and purpose; and [very punkily] to create reciprocal relationships with audiences in order to compel a response’. It is a contemporary reflexive qualitative research methodology in which ‘the researcher and the researched are the same people’.
Yet the ‘personal’ in experience is problematic, given poststructuralist scepticism as to the existence of essentially discrete and authoritative subjectivities: by calling the above ‘poststructuralist’, I refer to that approach to autoethnography that deploys ‘multiple, de-centred voices to represent fragmented experiences. Rather than presenting unproblematic ‘authentic’ or ‘lived’ experiences, I seek to present the above narrative in a way that problematises the possibility of ‘a direct transmission from thinking to describing to receiving’ from one holistic narrating subjectivity to a receiving subjectivity.
Insisting that ‘the personal is political’, I have sought to relate the endurance of my ‘punk subjectivity’ to my agency in a struggle for social and political justice in the Middle East, using an epiphanic event which ‘seizes hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger’ (Benjamin) to ‘rediscover the past not as a succession of events, but as a series of scenes … images and stories’ (Ulmer). The epiphanic event is the re-emergence of a subsumed Mike D during a riot police assault on a Bahraini demonstration; Mike D having been buried for decades under the conformity-constructing structures of professional academia and the conformities of an academic career (a conformity as constraining as the conformity Willis’s ‘lads’ experienced in their work in a 1970s factory). The text above is ‘messy’, ‘discordant’ and ‘contrapunctal’ to problematise ‘my’ authority and presence in the text.
I have tried to show how cultural, social and political forces have flowed through and shaped my subjectivity; how subjectivity-as-agency-in-the-world in turn shapes the cultural, social and political forces that flow around us. I’ve attempted to show how we ‘are inscribed within dialogic, socially shared, linguistic and representational practices’ across our lifespans, so that our selves can be seen as ‘social and relational rather than as an autonomous phenomenon’, producing ‘difference(s) to be lived with’. Thus, I have acknowledged the crucial agency of revolutionary Bahrainis in rebirthing my subsumed ‘punk subjectivity’, giving me a new and post-revolutionary perspective on the world, the localisation within the individual of a ‘revolutionary consciousness’. This new consciousness survived the Saudi-led counter-revolution that crushed the Bahrain uprising and, since my return/flight/exile to the UK, has enabled me to engage in countercultural, social and political justice movements in ways that are innovative yet grounded in my punk past.
I’ve sought to acknowledge the therapeutic potential of autoethnographic writing that is ‘ethical, vulnerable, evocative’ for writers, readers and for those with whom we have shared experiences. Hence, I have foregrounded and personified as ‘Mental Mike’ my struggle with the multiple mental illnesses resulting from my experiences in Bahrain and exile. To treat this, I have revisited the concept of ‘mental liberation’, which was the organising theme of Toxic Grafity in 1980. I allow Mental Mike to give an open and frank account of his mentalness and allow him to revisit traumatic events, restorying them therapeutically as a positive and empowering epiphany, an evocative epistemology that uses tales of suffering, loss and pain not only to create catharsis, but to spur Old Fart Mike on to reflective, critical, creative action in a socially and politically just praxis. Using paraphrases and quotes from material written between 2011 and 2016, I’ve traced Mental Mike’s ‘mental liberation’ from potential suicide case to a re-authored and re-voiced writer. This has paralleled my experience using narrative in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and when writing-up ethnography. Thus, the above participates in the genre of narrative mental health writing. As Mental Health practitioner, mental health survivor and autoethnographer Alec Grant notes in Our Encounters with Madness (2011): ‘[An] important function of mental health narratives is that they provide testimony … giving witness to … the experiences of recovery, healing and endurance of sufferers of mental health problems’. Mental Mike wrote in 2016: ‘I felt like a witness to a rape or a murder. I had to tell the world what I’d seen, felt. But the powers of this world denied it. It never happened.’
Alec Grant continues: ‘in the provision of testimony, both writers and readers are witnesses. This places an onus on both groups to treat stories with care and respect, learn from them as oral history and take the necessary subsequent action in the spirit of social justice’. I’ve sought to confront these ‘powers of the world’, Mike D’s ‘CIVILIZATION AND ITS STINKING OVERKILL’, through a storied ‘hero’, Mike D, my adult self at its most innocent and primal.
This chapter further contributes to studies of the wider ‘Arab Spring’, also to critical discourse on higher education: non-elite academics who have struggled through higher education having had diverse life histories are highly likely to end up in out-of-the-ordinary higher education contexts such as the Gulf – how do their life-stories and those of the students they interact with intersect and what are the civil society, cultural, ethical, political and public sphere consequences
I’ve suggested new ways of writing about the punk experience, going beyond history writing, discourse analysis and cultural studies-based approaches to reveal how punk pasts can be used in personal-political presents to enable personal-political agency for social and political justice, and to effect therapeutic or curative transformations in a context of a neoliberal mental health pandemic. Important here is the idea of the ‘punk epiphany’: the sudden and unexpected return of punk consciousness at a life-changing moment: such epiphanies have both ethical and aesthetic aspects. Connecting the personal past with the social, they become almost a kind of pedagogy. For us who were participants ‘in the day’, these punk pasts seem, when we recall them, purile, simplistic, naive and youthfully exuberant; yet when they epiphanically reshape our presents we restory them, projecting them into our futures they are present to us as ourselves at our most raw, primal and, in that Blakean sense, ‘innocent’. This offers new vistas in writing about punk.
The re-voiced Mike D says to the world of 2018 ‘The truth of the counter-revolution, sister, is a mental health Year Zero, and today’s big issue, is ‘mental liberation’ from neoliberal toxicity.’
I now see my breakdown as a breakthrough . . . .
Toxic ran for six issues, 1978–82; each issue carried a different misspelling of ‘graffiti’.
 Matthew Worley, ‘Punk, Politics and British (Fan)zines, 1976–84: “While the world was dying did you wonder why?”’, History Workshop Journal, 79:1 (2015), 76–106.
 Paul Willis, Learning to Labour: How Working-Class Kids Get Working-Class Jobs (Farnham: Ashgate,  2000), p. 113.
 These are Arabic slogans from the demonstrations and occupations I eye-witnessed: the last one anticipating what, tragically, eventually came to pass – they were stopped under a hail of lead.
 Rich Cross, ‘Stop the City’, in Mike Dines and Matthew Worley (eds), The Aesthetic of Our Anger: Anarcho-Punk, Politics and Music (Colchester: Minor Compositions, 2016), pp. 151–2. Morris was a Stop the City organiser, quoted in ibid., p. 155.
 Mike Diboll, ‘The Admition’, Toxic Grafity, 5 (1980), p. 18.
 Worley, ‘Punk, Politics and British (fan)zines, 1976–84’, 98–9.
 Carolyn Ellis, The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel about Autoethnography (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaVista, 2004), p. xix.
 Deborah Reed-Danahay, Auto/ethnography: Rewriting the Self and the Social (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 6.
 Stacey Holman Jones, Tony Adams and Carolyn Ellis, Handbook of Autoethnography (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2013).
 Carolyn Ellis and Arthur Bochner, ‘Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity’, in Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (eds), Handbook of Qualitative Research (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000).
 Alec Grant, Nigel Short and Lydia Turner, ‘Introduction: Storying Life and Lives’, in Nigel Short, Lydia Turner and Alec Grant (eds), Contemporary British Autoethnography (Rotterdam: Sense, 2013), p. 12.
 Alec Grant, ‘Writing, Teaching and Survival in Mental Health: A Discordant Quintet for One’, in Short, Turner and Grant (eds), Contemporary British Autoethnography, p. 34.
 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1968), p. 257; Gregory Ulmer, Teletheory (New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 112.
 Maggie MacLure, ‘Qualitative Inquiry: Where are the Ruins?’, Qualitative Inquiry, 17:10 (2011), 997–1005; Grant, ‘Writing, Teaching and Survival in Mental Health’, p. 33.
 Grant, Short and Turner, ‘Introduction’, p. 5.
 Here I am alluding to the ‘poststructural’ voice as a forever incomplete, shifting, discordant performance, always contingent, forever becoming, always subject to re-authoring, re-voicing, re-reading. (See Grant et al ‘Introduction) p. 7-8.
 Alec Grant, Francis Biley and Hannah Walker (eds), Our Encounters with Madness (Ross-on-Wye: PCCS, 2011), p. 2.
It all started innocently enough, with me mocking yet another of Alexander de Pfeffel’s clumsy, ill-informed and self-serving Classicisms, this one on the occasion of his Mea Maxima “leaving” speech form outside No.10, as he was off to hand in his “I’ll be back” resignation to Liz up on Scotland:
“Never mind that he was dictator (a word that had a completely different meaning in the early Roman Republic), more to the point is that Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was a paragon of public and civic virtue, and a noted man of honour, honesty, and integrity. He must be spinning in his grave. A far more pertinent Classical comparison comes from some 700 years after Cincinnatus’s time: Marcus Didius Julianus. He shan’t be back.”
Right. Then the news that a certain someone was sickening, perhaps terminally so:
“Having to humour both de Pfeffel and Truss both within the day would push any ancient, weak, frail constitution out of homeostasis.”
Later that afternoon the media was going bananas, I decided I needed one of
I thought I’d better say something nice, reasoned, and “balanced”:
Okay, I guess I ought say something about the late Queen. I am, of course, a staunch republican (in every sense apart from the US sense). We in These Islands should not have a monarchy. At all. It infantalises politically: it’s a bit like spina bifida, although that only affects a handful of bones out of the 200-odd in the human body, it nevertheless cripples the entire body (politic), the entire constitution.
But what of Elizabeth herself? I very much doubt she was quite the Nations’ Granny as in that very cute Paddington bear video that was done for her Platinum Jubilee, nor was she quite the person Olivia Coleman portrayed in The Crown. Coming from a deeply dysfunctional family of racists, fascists, alcoholics, and womanisers she might well have been quite a horrible person for the few who knew her personally, there is evidence to suggest that was the case.
Yet she played her Queen role with great dignity. She presided, in a dignified manner, over Great Britain’s decline from Empire and global superpower to middling-sized European economy. She embodied a patrician notion of Britishness which while I reject I partly respect. During the last four decades of her reign she acted as a kind of sticking plaster over a nation, or cluster of nations, that visibly now are tearing themselves apart on so many levels.
I think she was appalled at that, and I suspect was horrified over the far-right, ultra-nationalist direction England-dominated UK was heading during the 80s and 90s of her life. On occasion, she, very subtly, signalled her concern over this, even as her role, and the institution of the monarchy per se, enabled it. It was as if the UK were enacting and performing everything from her life she sought to live down (whilst enabling it). I suspect she was very sad about this. Perhaps even depressed, but because of her upbringing and her role she continued to enable it. To be a human being is a bundle of contradictions.
With her passing, surely the monarchy is doomed. I can’t see how even the residual deference to the monarchy shall survive very far into Charles’ reign. We just know too much about him.
When These Islands become a republic, or a (con)federation of republics this needs to be done properly, with profound constitutional reform at every level. Otherwise, like other ex-empires with a critical mass of the population given to mawkish, reactionary Imperial nostalgia, it will descend into fascism. She really, really wouldn’t have wanted that. I think.
So she’d dead, and with her a whole national notion. That passing is for the best, but we need be wary of the future.
Apparently, she loved Scotland, where she died. So here, with this beautiful lament, is my tribute to Elizabeth Windsor, a deeply flawed person, like us all, representing an even more flawed undemocratic institution. But she performed her rightly doomed role with dignity, and tried, however inadequately, to keep things from their very worse. That’s all I have to say about the late Queen; RIP:
See, I’m all heart. Little did I know I’d soon be hearing enough bagpipes &ct to last me the rest of my life! I guess the embalmers were at work?
With all that mawkishness, the 9th November couldn’t come quickly enough as a bit of light relief:
Still on the 9th November I thought I’d better get all Constitutional:
Hereditary Head of State + Unelected Upper House + Lower House elected by First Past the Post + a Prime Minister selected by members of the ruling party after her predecessor was sacked in disgrace = NOT A DEMOCRACY!
I even came up with some pretty sweets to make my point:
“I guess in the Quality Street democracy all those who voted for blue, orange, purple, pink, primrose, green, turquoise, amber, tangerine, or red sweets just have to suck it up for the next five years. The Yellow Toffees won square and fair, get over it! Okay, being the cheapest sweet in the box the Quality Street tin is rigged in favour of Yellow Toffees anyway. But that’s a minor detail. Just be grateful we have the Yellow Toffees, just think what the Green Noisettes would have done to your teeth!”
Fuck this for a game of soldiers, let’s get fuckin’ real:
The Monarchy died for the Empire’s sins, not mine:
‘It is true, of course, that—as many of her admirers say—Elizabeth, unlike the first English queen to bear this name, had no power over affairs of state. In her many travels though, she incarnated and ably helped sell her nation and its system while never criticizing or apologizing for any aspect of its past. It is also true that the world became almost completely decolonized during Elizabeth II’s time on the throne and that a great many of the former colonies have become democracies, which to one degree or another take seriously the rights of their citizens. But it is long past the time when the world should pretend that this is because British rule was benign or that the rights of London’s imperial subjects had much of anything to do with what “empire” was really about.’
Still on 13th September a famous nonagenarian died. Jean-Luc Goddard, I gather, decided to call it a day at a clinic in Switzerland:
“He gazed into clouds of CS and made art; RIP J-L G”:
Not a good month to be in your nineties, I guess. But when it when the gate won’t stop creaking?
Anyway, I thought it might be time to get a bit personal:
‘My wife asks for something from my 4X4, I leave the ward to fetch. Something’s wrong. My eyes, my throat, burn. An ecstasy of fumbling: a CS gas canister or two over the hospital’s perimeter wall. My mucus membranes choke off my throat, I stagger back to the ward. My daughter’s not in her cot.’
Still on Unlucky for Liz 13th this article, I thought, really tells it like it is:
‘Britain’s royal family has met members of autocratic Middle Eastern monarchies nearly once a fortnight since the crackdown on ‘Arab Spring’ protests began 10 years ago this month. Their visits have often coincided with human rights abuses in the Gulf, where pro-democracy activists are punished for criticising the Windsor ties to regimes.’
Still on 13th, since there’s been a succession (they don’t hang about, do they?) I thought I’d get a bit religious, it’s only fitting, after all:
Charles III, Fidei Defensor: er, “Jesus autem dixit: Non homicidium facies; non adulterabis; non facies furtum; non falsum testimonium dices”. Yeah, kinda. Now I am, er, “broadminded”, very much so, and I’m not sure “adultery” is even a thing. Love is. But really I don’t need to be taught a lesson in morality by Mr Charles Windsor. At all. לא תרצח
14th September, Corpse Porn
‘The media’s going full-on coffin porn. Quite literally it is a kind of porn, perhaps of the sickest and most perverted kind. My previous experiences of enforced mourning: (1) When Winston Churchill was being buried in ’65 I passed by a closed shop and stopped to look in the window at toys, my late dad (in the Army against Germany 1944-5 and in the occupation of Germany until ’49) squeezed my had hard and told me to have respect, I had no idea what my otherwise kind and gentle father was on about; (2) In the UAE, 2004 when Sheikh Zayed died: at a mall we might have committed the facial expression crime of smiling at a private joke; someone flashed an “ID Card” in Arabic claiming to be “Religious Police” (the UAE doesn’t have a Muwatta/Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, at least not officially), it was a UAEU student library card. Cue embarrassed faces. Lying is a sin. Anyway, we’re getting virtually hour-by-hour coffin porn: what kind of vehicle it’s in, where it is, where it’s going, gawping crowds (well semi-crowds, check the camera angle they don’t look that big): why not show a “Premium Subscribers” video of her being embalmed, or the lead lining of her coffin being soldered shut (against the stink, she’ll be put in a family vault above ground). I’ll be glad when it’s all over.’
I meant the Royal Fun Day, not my life, just yet!
As the 14th dragged on, there were signs and wonders in the sky!
‘The Angel of Mons, and the shining cloud into which the Sandringham Regiment disappeared into heaven at Gallipoli in 1915 (I’ve walked the Gallipoli battlefields) are apparently still with us in the form of Queen’s-face-on-stamps and marmalade sandwich cloud formations. FFS, whatever the strengths and weaknesses, continuities and contradictions of the late Queen, when will this country grow TF up?’
The 14th was a long day:
‘When the Queen Mother died we were in the Gulf. My son, then aged 5, heard that she was lying in on a “catafalque”. He heard “catapult”, and imagined her flying across the Thames, across Southbank, her body to come to an awkward rest in the trees in Southwark park, which we knew well as until 2001 we’d been living in Rotherhithe. The image stays with me to this day.’
‘Objects exist and if one pays more attention to them than to people, it is precisely because they exist more than the people. Dead objects are still alive. Living people are often already dead’ — Jean-Luc Godard, died 13th September 2022, aged 91.
15th September, A Warning from History:
‘If you don’t think the idea of a “national community” is sinister, look up “Volksgemeinschaft”.’
16th September, the Rubber Johnny cashes in:
‘John “Community Payback” Lydon, royalty and royalties ligger and LA property developer. “You can help people like John for as little as £2k per month ….” I hope I die before I get old. I wasn’t away Cook, Jone, and Matlock were doing anything to cash in, jus’ you John’:
17th September: fuck this, it is getting REALLY depressing. Time to get personal again!
This is getting depressing, quite literally. I’ve witnessed a country being invaded, with state TV cancelling all other output and hailing the Saudi invaders’ miles long convoy of armoured vehicles as a “fraternal intervention” against “terrorism”. All public buildings, schools, universities, medical infrastructure, shops closed, all dissent even the most innocuous criminalised (15 years to life for a poem, a song, graffiti; death for not a lot worse). Okay, this was done at gunpoint, but right now I am beginning to find the echoes of this painful. Quite literally.
My view is that the current lockdown isn’t really to do with commemorating the late Queen. Ostensibly it is, but really it is about ensuring the succession, ensuring nothing changes. So any dissent from the succession is shut down because it is ”inappropriate” or “now’s not the time”. That time, of course will never come until the succession is firmly established, normalised.
I am a staunch republican, but actually a republic is quite low down on my list of constitutional reforms. Reforms that must happen if this country it to be a polity fit for the C21st. First must come Proportional Representation, then an elected upper chamber, because without those things nothing important can change, at least nothing significant can change as a result of political process. Then can come a Republic. But I simply don’t accept that constitutional reform “isn’t a priority”. It should be an absolute priority if there isn’t to be more of the same. And as we stand right now, more of the same is leading us into a very dark place.