I’m interviewed for a feature in the January 2023 edition of Practical Sportsbikes magazine, out now, about biking and mental health. It’s a great feature that includes interviews with two other guys. We all of us have been affected by mental health issues in our different ways, for different reasons. We talk about how riding and working on bikes have helped us cope. There is background information on mental health, and a feature on Mental Health Motorbike, a rider focused charity offering peer-to-peer support to riders on the road and track [https://mhmotorbike.com]. Those of you who know me will not I’ve been riding since I was 13 off-road, and since I was 16 on the road. My ‘70s punk and bike days overlapped, and indeed are linked. For 7 years during the ‘80s I was a London-based motorcycle despatch rider, putting in literally hundreds of thousands of miles in all weathers, inner-city and long-distance. I left despatch riding when I entered higher education via an Access Course as a 30-year-old mature student in 1989. I still ride, and enjoy recommissioning, modifying, and riding bikes from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Those of you who know will also know of my struggles with PTSD and Major Depression. Here’s how bikes help.
Seeing Auschwitz: a Visual Journey through the Crimes the Nazis Tried to Hide. 81, Old Brompton Road, South Kensington, London SW7 3LD. Until 25th March 2023.
I have never been to Auschwitz, but I want to. ‘Want’ in the sense of ‘in need of visiting’: ‘The Lord is my Shepheard, I shall Not Want’, War on Want, Waste not Want not. I have long wanted to visit that site, and to have the privilege of being able to walk away. Oh, Salonica, City of Ghosts! One day, I shall go. It’s on my Bucket List. If I went it would be an act of pilgrimage, peregrinus. Mein Pilgerstab. But tomorrow never comes, perhaps tomorrow is not for me. So I put it off. But Seeing Auschwitz is the very best photo exhibition I have ever been to in 63 three years of life. Do see.
The Long Hot Summer of ’76, Westerham, Kent
The first time I learnt this shit is real. I mean really real, not real a long time ago and a long way away, but real here and now in my life. It’s the Summer of 1976. I’ve dropped out of Sixth Form, and have a flash motorbike to pay off, punk is happening. I’m a labourer at a small factory in west Kent. My job is sawing up asbestos sheets. After work I vacuum myself to remove my whiteness, the whiteness of the dust. But it’s lunchtime, and we’re in the smoke-filled canteen; there is a hot drinks dispenser, packed lunches. Factory production. Back then it was considered a form of solidarity to share cigarettes. Being a sharer marked one out as one of the lads, like Paul Willis’ ‘lads’ in Learning to Labour (1977). But I’d been too tardy: ‘Flash the ash then you tight cunt. What’s your problem . . . .’
12th November 2022, west London
The trains aren’t running between Three Brides and Brighton: if I’m not careful I’ll be late coming back from London; we’ve ordered a delivery of Indian food for all four of us for eight p.m. But I’m cooking the rice; although I say so myself, I cook an excellent Persian-style pilau, tastier and healthier than British Indian Restaurant style pilau, and home-cooking that way saves money. The Cost of Living. Crisis. But I still need to buy saffron, peas, raisins, decent basmati. I would’ve been back two hours ago, but the trains. Upstairs in the rail replacement bus it is hot, damp, sweaty. The bus if packed full. A white man in I guess his late-50s looks dishevelled. He tries to strike up conversations with the passengers. I guess he’s somewhere on the spectrum, or low-level or recovering Schizophrenic, or ADHD, or OCD, or just very lonely. You know the type. To my shame I ignore him. I crave the solitude of my reflection. Then I realise, to the deep shame of my right-on ego, that I am ‘selecting’ him. He tries to open the slit of the ventilation window, it’s stuck fast. He mutters something. Guiltily I refuse eye-contact; then relent. I try with window. With difficulty it opens, the fresh air is delicious. I notice my hands are still shaking badly, a whiff of acridity escapes from my armpit. Adrenalin, cortisol.
‘Thanks. Now at least you and I will survive!’ I will survive.
I say: ‘You are an angel’; it was meant as a blessing, but I’m getting off soon so I don’t need to explain. I didn’t mean that as an endearment, I meant that he really was an angel. Anyway, words would have failed my attempts at explanation. He was, I dunno, Metatron, Malech ha-Chai’im, the Angel of Life; Hell, I could do with that, I’ve just seen the Angel of Death, Malech ha-Mavut, grinning at me from a party, a chillout party of Wine Women, and Song in a retreat in the woods, among the birch trees. You are an angel, dear friend of strange meeting. (In Arabic that would be malak al-Hayyat and malak al-Mawt – difference is as big or small, as positive or pathologised as one choses to make it).
The rail replacement bus notwithstanding, I’ve arrived on time. It is unseasonably hot, 20C – global heating, and denial will kill us. The train was hot and stuffy. Victoria station has a Wetherspoons up an escalator to the right after leaving the ticket barrier from exiting a Sussex train. I don’t approve of Wetherspoons. Their CEO’s Brexit ultra-nationalism rammed down one’s throat over a cheap pint, and they treat their staff like slaves. But it’s cheap and I’m thirsty. I finish my pint, taking a piss on the way out; two stops on the Circle Line to South Kensington. I think I know where the venue is, about three minutes’ walk max. London used to have shit food, 40-odd years ago. Unless you had serious money to spend, or you were eating in one of London’s ethnic ‘villages’. But now the aromas of Korea and Cuba, Persia and Peru, barbecue and baking, kebab and curry massage my sinuses. There is a lot of alfresco dining, a big red sun is starting to set down Old Brompton Road forcing my to look aside against the glare. It’s unseasonably hot. I resist the temptation to look at the prices in an estate agent’s window, but I notice a Georgian restaurant in a basement. I’m hungry but in a hurry, but if I make good time at the exhibition I’ll nip in for a quick bugleme – it’s ages since I’ve eaten Caucasian, and I’ve never eaten Georgian.
I can see the venue across the road on the odd numbers side. Sombre plain black and white panels announce it. No garishness here to humour the tourists. The unaware could walk past it and not notice it’s there. I stop and pull on my vape. ‘How to write about this when so much has been written about it before? When there is no more poetry after it, and the act of writing becomes an act of barbarism? When God was murdered, faith became folly? When attempted theodicy is depravity, and discourse decadent? What can I possibly add?’ ‘Can the image succeed where the word must fail?’ I muse that one way to write about Auschwitz might be not to write about it, but rather how the exhibition affected me. This approach would be personal, but hopefully not self-centred. The exhibition teaches, very effectively, how to read image; affectively. Reader Response to a text. Also, I might attempted to link the exceptionality of Auschwitz with the banal, the everyday, the triviality of petty annoyances. First World Problems. But Germany at that time was very much the First World, artistically, culturally, economically, industrially, intellectually, musically, philosophically. Technologically. Already disorientated, I enter in.
Darkness descended long ago; the Winter day, like life, is short. My brain burns to tell, to tell anybody. I pull three or four times hard on the vape, I blurt it out to a couple leaning against the exhibition building’s street wall, smoking. Like me, they have just come out. They understand my words but not my meaning. How can they when words are not enough? The stench of burning meat sickens me, the melted fat of fed beasts; the bugleme a dead desire from a distant dream. Stomach acid reflux. I pace towards the Underground station, I realise that as I strode I have been vocalising blasphemies quite loudly. Quite why, I cannot grasp. I stop and smoke again, drawing in the nicotine deep as the drawn-in darkness, full fathom five. I must be careful. I shouldn’t want to seem a manic street preacher, a bus stop loony, Lebensunwertes Leben. I shouldn’t want to be selected. So I descend into the Underground’s She’ol. Yesterday was the 104th anniversary of the Armistice on the Western Front. The Great War, of course, was a great atrocity. But its ending is celebrated with great solemnity in the UK. Actually, it is not, it is not great, it is not solemnity: the cloying consumerist imperial nostalgia has become a kind of forgetting. Wearing or not wearing a poppy has become a kind of selection, the woke from the patriots. I don’t wear. Red or white or black. Those who fought, killed, and were killed (or dismembered or disfigured, castrated or disabled, mentally or morally destroyed) will always be, for what it’s worth, in my heart, mind, prayers, best thoughts. Lest we forget. But not a poppy on a pin. In the vestibule cum first circle is a poppy stall. Once, such a stall would have consisted of a disabled veteran and perhaps an assistant selling little paper poppies from a plastic tray wherein reside their hearts. Now there is a cornucopia of poppy-themed memorabilia for the faithful. The Great War was not The War to End All Wars. In the Balkans, the Levant, North Africa, around the Black Sea, in the Caucuses, the Great War started in 1911, and ended in 1924. Arguably, the Hundred Years (Plus) War of Ottoman Succession continues to rage around us to this day. Oh, Salonica!
I enter, and am given an audio device and shown how to use it. It’s very straightforward, and all free. Usually I don’t use these things at galleries and exhibitions, but this one is quite good. User friendly. I’ve seen most these photographs before, many times. They are very small images. But here they are blown up into vast panels. The reprographics are superb despite the enlargement. On the walls are smaller reproductions closer to the size of the original monochrome images. With explanatory text. The audio is a simplified version of that text, but still useful. Both the gallery space and the audio have music: ‘funerial ambient’, I’d call it. I can understand why it’s there, but it isn’t needed. Silence might have been better, but the consumer demands music. Silence, or perhaps ambient sounds from today’s London might have worked better: train sounds, guards directing passengers (‘customers’) into queues and lines to await their train, their fate; snatches of conversations from London’s many languages. Very importantly we (there are about thirty of us present in this space) are informed that these images are taken from the perpetrators’ perspective. Once stated that seems obvious, but it isn’t on a casual reading of the images. Many times I have seen these images before, but that obvious truth never occurred to me. I have many failings, but intellectual stupidity and lack of learning are not among them. But until now, about 15.10 on the afternoon of 12th November 2022, I hadn’t got it. Clever old me. Stupid old me. They were taken to create an archive, a visual record of an industrial process (the process can ever be refined), a record of an experiment in extermination (there is always more to learn, Vorsprung durch Technik): their claims to objectivity are a lie, a perpetrator’s lie.
My first takeaway: these are not objective images, an objective presentation of fact; nor are they naïve: they are selected. What if God isn’t dead, merely that the modes of worship have become dead letter? Suppose God is alive and her worship is in protest and resistance? If so, that God must be wan and sickly, yet still alive. For there are little acts of resistance here among the images of these people getting off a train, most of whom will be dead before the film is developed: an old man looks back at the camera, he uses a bit of cloth to cover his shame, his payot have been literally pulled from his temples, the beard he has worn all his adult life crudely shaved away as the blunted instruments scarred his face, yet he looks back at the photographer’s gaze in anger; a boy of about twelve years of age gazes back at the perpetrator-photographer, stares him out, that’s why Himmler had ordered that even the youngest must die, so they can’t grow up to extract revenge; a man helps a woman he almost certainly does not know carry the weight on her back: pots and pans, brushes, changes of underwear, all she has left, she’s sure they’ll come in useful eventually, she’s being resettled after all, her lasts goods and chattels will end up in ‘Canada’, The Cost of Living; an inmate risks his life to mutter vital information to a woman and her child that might just save them; his job is to bark orders at those descending from the train in Yiddish, Hungarian, or Ladino; he’d be killed on the spot if he said anything else, but the talkers’ body language suggests he is risking his life to help her and her son survive. In vain, because they all were murdered within a few hours, but the human spirit, if not God, lives on. Perhaps they are one and the same thing, in this industrialised death camp?
But not all those images-within-the-image are acts of resistance. A late middle-aged man stares back at the privileged photographer with the 1,000 yard stare of what we would now call PTSD. He has had enough. Is resigned to his all-too immanent fate: he has no trousers, but long-johns; one foot shod, the other bare he is either resigned to his fate, or numb to it, as if it were a kind of relief. For a moment I am him. Empathy. I guess:
‘Magnificent, mourned no more, marred of heart, mind behind, married dreamed, mortal changed—Ass and face done with murder.
In the world, given, flower maddened, made no Utopia, shut under pine, almed in Earth, balmed in Lone, Jehovah, accept.’
Resistance as an act of worship. Watching all this are the SS men, with guns, canes, whips, and dogs trained to disembowel a human being or rip out their throat on a one-word barked order; a few metres away from the railway platform machine-gun emplacements and barbed wire fences render escape impossible. Then there’s that gatehouse, truly an iconic structure; post-War supermarkets, the big 24-hour ones, have long greeted customers with something very like it: Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose – the banality of evil.
A great strength of this exhibition is its pedagogics. It presents a masterclass in how to read an image, read it critically, to empathise, to read as an act of solidarity and read as a springboard of protest and resistance. Reading as an act of resistance, of worship. NEVER AGAIN! We hope. This exhibition should be packed with school trips, it is a must-view for students studying the much-maligned but ever more necessary Media Studies (Why so maligned? There are vested interests at play undermining the young learning how to read media, critically). It is in short an education. My daughter Rebecca, fourteen, herself persona non grata in the land of her birth because of who she is, is an aspiring and emerging artist. I’d love to take her here. But she doesn’t like horror. But this isn’t horror as a genre, it is horror as lived life, of political life, these human beings being fed into the stomach of the Nazi body-politic.
The platform is very crowded, as are the stairs leading to it. Uniformed Transport for London staff select routes for us depending on our destinations. They bark at us authoritatively, but in good humour, with a species of camaraderie. No Hell hounds here. I try to be a good citizen, why should I not be? It would be churlish of me to disobey an order; besides, there are real risks disobedience for the Hell of it poses to the people pressed by the tracks. South Kensington is very busy: the Victoria and Albert, Natural History, and Science museums; all those al fresco restaurants and the smell of burnt meat and the fat of fattened calves and sheep; there has been a football match, Chelsea or Fulham, I guess; late middle-aged and very elderly men in military uniform, black tie and tuxedo, or morning or smart lounge suits bedecked with medals. I can read some of the medal ribbon bars: Kenya, Korea; Suez; Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan. Bomb-test survivors. I want to ask them where they served and in what capacity. Were they rescuers, saviours preventing atrocity, or were they perpetrators? Subjective perspective, I guess? Or self-deception, denial. Only following orders. I very nearly do ask one of them, but I have become autistic. I maintain the silence of my-self. My hands shake, legs wobble. There were only a couple score of us at the show, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only person on the train who was there. The restaurants, the museums, poppy day, the football clearly are more important. I start to loathe my fellow human. But that in itself is problematic. That’s how it starts.
It is standing room only, but only two stops to Victoria. A young woman, seated, sketches in a little notebook with pencil and charcoal. I glance down. I half expect to see a bayonetting or a dead baby as oven fuel. A Reality of Horror! But no, just quick drawings of passengers who caught her eye. Not me, alas. I fancy I would have helped her carry her burden, or whispered to her dangerous advice. But no, this train offers nothing of moral agency, just an autistic retreat into self. I’m back at the Victoria Wetherspoons, I pull deeply on my vape and really don’t give a fuck what the smoking regulations are. I order the same pint I had earlier, the same beer in the same place handed to me by the same server as only a few hours later. The few hours it takes for a train load of fellow humans to be mass-murdered. This time the beer tastes disgusting. I can’t finish it and leave it to a beggar. I make my way to the Sussex train that shall only go as far as Three Bridges before uniformed operatives select us into different queues according to our ultimate destinations: Brighton, Lewes, Eastbourne, Worthing.
I am looking at some images. This time they are new to me. This time they are drawings, not photographs. This time they are images made by victims, not perpetrators. Almost the first time I’d seen imagery from victims, not perpetrators nor liberators. I’ve read plenty of textual testimony, but these sketches are new to me. Most of them. To my right there are some screens. Benches for people who find standing through it too much. The audio commentary is starting to go on too much; I switch it off. It’s good, but not that good. I need to centre. I’m reading the images and the text that goes with them. It becomes a kind of pleasure to read rather than listen. Then to my right an voice in German. Good, precise German. I look right instinctively. It was obviously a recorded voice, but I had responded as if it were live and spoken. I switch the audio back on, but combining the audio with trying text and images — is too much. I switch the audio off again. I hear ‘Adonai Elohim’: the iron doors have just slammed shut and been locked. The exhibition spares the viewer what happened inside the chamber. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, there are no images of that. But I have read textual Sonderkommando and perpetrator accounts of the opening of those doors. I’ll leave it there. I feel as if my lungs are constricting. I feel thirsty. I feel hot. This is starting to get to me. At 63 I’m still reasonably fit. Back in Sussex I do four, five, six, seven, even ten miles a day walking purposefully or hiking. Yet my thighs start to weaken. I feel guilty of my strong walkers thighs. They are about to betray me. I have to sit down. Someone gets up and I sit in their place. A Hungarian ex-Sonderkommando survivor is talking, probably now long dead. Of natural causes. This testimony was filmed, I guess in the ‘80s or ‘90s. He speaks clearly and deliberately in impeccable German with only a hint of a Yiddish accent; there are English subtitles. Somebody else speaks, or is their name mentioned? I can’t recall. I’m feeling dizzy. But the Spanish name hits me like a slingshot. It is, of course, Ladino. From the City of Ghosts. I close my eyes, put my head between my knees as if in preparation for a ‘plane crash. I raise my torso. Breathe deeply with shut eyes, breathe rhythmically against the onslaught of adrenaline and cortisol. But I cannot mute my ears: PTSD – I have seen violent death close up, and smelt the gas, albeit only CS. And seen political killing I saw take place PR-ed off the television news. As if it never really happened. This is getting too much. I stand, my members only just obeying the commands of my mind. I lose track of time in there. As one would; as one should.
The Southern train back home, or at least as far as Three Bridges, the stop after Gatwick Airport. It is crowded, I get one of the last seats. Others have to stand. At least it’s not me. Lucky me. It is still, relative to the time of year, hot. The train is stuffy and intolerable.
Global Heating: some passengers remark on it. There are differences of opinion, ‘Well, personally I don’t mind it, shorts and t-shirts on Armistice Day, who’d’ve imagined? We can manage. We’ve been through worse, what about the War?’ Denial. If a situation is very, very bad denying it doesn’t make it less bad, it makes it worse. Much worse. Deny, you’re such a liar. Your war, not Others’; not even the real war since you never knew it, but a mush of sentimental war-porn. I close my eyes as the train rattles on. I realise that I’ve unconsciously put my hands is a position of supplication. To whom? I realise it looks odd. I don’t want to look odd, a manic street preacher, a bus stop loony, Lebensunwertes Leben. At Clapham Junction some people get off, others get it on; still others move about to snatch a vacant seat. I open my eyes. I start to select my fellow passengers: I try imagine who might be selectors, who might be selected. I try to make eye contact with those who I imagine might be selected. Most don’t get it. Why should they? Most haven’t seen what I have seen. Besides, this is all in my head. Some do, and return a knowing look of mutual recognition. I understand that this has created a kind of solidarity. The Gaydar of atrocity. The few who return that look are young, tough, street-wise, selectable in their Otherness. Like the angry boy returning the photographer’s gaze, like the old man with his ripped-out beard, like the man helping the woman with her burden, like the inmate whispering hopeless life-saving advice sotto voce on pain of summary execution, in between the barked orders in Yiddish, Czech, Hungarian or Ladino. Solidarity. Others are asleep, some literally, most figuratively. The train buzzes with Multi-Ethnic London English, Arabic, Urdu, Yoruba, Patois; I hear some Farsi, some African French. A guard walks the isle to check tickets. Fixed Penalty. The street-wise gaze their gaze of contempt. A moral and physical coward, the guard pretends he didn’t see them. But the digital security cameras record their data from an elevated position of authority. The train rattles on towards its premature destination, I want to explain the solidarity we own in our shared mortality. But I sit tight-lipped. Who but a nut-case?
Some English football fans recall a match, ‘We beat them fair and square’. They discuss the Qatar World Cup; opinions are divided, ‘But it’s out of order, look at the way they treat their foreign workers . . . .’ Look at the way we treat ours. Unexpectedly, they discuss world languages. One, with a degree of accuracy, reckons the most widely spoken languages are English, Spanish, and Chinese. His friend says that Chinese is really just a collection of ‘hundreds’ of different languages and dialects. His mate corrects him, ‘Yeah, but when we go up to Everton or Liverpool we understand what, 50% of Scouse? The conversation goes on to Glaswegian Scots, how it’s a different language, then they discuss Scottish independence, with some nuance. It occurs to me that to know several languages is the natural condition of a humane humanity. But I’ve heard it said that civilised thought can only be expressed in English, or was it French? Or German? Or Arabic? Nationalism demands homonoia and unisonance. Atatürk proclaimed ‘Happy whoso can say they are a Turk’; revived Hebrew is supposed to have united the Jewish people, but really it has divided between Israelis and diaspora. Language is not the Open Sesame of assimilation nor admittance to the Volksgemeinschaft: one can deliberately forget the languages of one’s forbears, forsake ummat and emmunah, but still the Nuremberg Laws (plagiarised from the ante-bellum Jim Crow laws of the US South) make plain Whose Who and who is Jew. I’m minded to join the football fans in their conversation, but one of their friends has fallen asleep drunk and has started to drool and seep vomit. The sole of his white trainer points at its foot-ball pattern at me: I see stiff, stilled, dead feet sticking out of a pile of corpses; the cuff of his hoodie says ‘Urban’ something or other, but it is half rolled up obscuring the stitched writing, at first my tied eyes read ‘Orbán’. Besides, even the faces of the articulate ones are flushed red with I’d estimate about ten pints. I’d undoubtedly come across as a wild man just escaped an atrocity exhibition, ‘Hold off! Unhand me grey-haired loon!’ This would be unlikely to end well. So I zone out and doze woke nightmares. East Croydon, getting there.
The train is hot and stuffy and smells bad. Then I think of that train, waiting in the continental climate summer heat, the people alighting, the dogs trained to tear out throats and disembowel. People who had taken a long, slow, hot enforced train ride to their destination, Death. That long ride, people who hadn’t taken a bath or shower in days or weeks, the train bereft of ventilation, sanitation or seats, those who got sick on the train, or died. The piss, the sweat, the vomit, the shit. The struggle to maintain dignity one and the same as the struggle to stay alive. The engine’s smell of hot oil and grease, burning coal and wood. The acrid stench from the crematoria, the sickly smell from the open sewers, the guard’s beer-breath, testosteroned-up body odour, their sweaty feet encased in jackboots, the dogs’ breath and farts. Enlarged as they may be, the images cannot recreate the stench.
I get up from the bench to walk around to try to get my legs working properly. I hear a snatch of the Hungarian man’s testimony again as I walk to a different part of the exhibition. To my left are the lavatories, I had a pee at the Victoria Wetherspoons, so I decide not to use. Then I see it. To the left there is an arrow saying ‘Women, Children, Disabled’, with appropriate icons; to the right ‘Men’. The simple human act of urination becomes a kind of self-selection, or perhaps more accurately that simple choice suggests what it is like to be selected on account of who you are, or present, or as seen as. I’m not sure this was deliberate. But it is art. I’m reminded of the icon on the Seeing Auschwitz tab for its webpage, it says starkly ‘SA’, when I saw it on my ‘open’ bar I thought: Sturmabteilung.
I am now wandering aimlessly. I’ve lost track of the sequence of the exhibition, and the audio-guide. I pass around bare-eared. A display reminds me that Auschwitz started of as a small concentration camp for the politically inconvenient and killable: not too different to camps the British Empire had established during the lifetimes of both Auschwitz’s perpetrators and soon-to-be-murdered. But the camp grew, it expanded in acreage and complexity of function, it was a project, a work-in-progress; it’s functions multiplied: concentration camp, industrial complex fed my slave labour, Death Camp, Extermination Centre. And holiday camp. Malech ha-Mavut, he took a bit of finding but I had resolved to try to find him unaided, stares at me from a spa camp about twenty miles from the killing camp. I look around, holiday camp photos: a group photo, bottles of beer and wine, accordions and guitars, men with arms around women and women with arms around men, sausage and bread, the birch trees, sunshine, fresh air. Auschwitz was a factory, a death factory, a production line where human beings are rendered into piles of useful things like shoes and cooking pans and stashes of human hair by the ton, fertiliser, rendered human schmaltz greasing the wheels of industry. Even the fat of their melting helped create a self-sustaining cycle in the crematorium ovens. The useless burnt bones, ground to ash, were dumped in the Vistula river. You can book a cruise up that river now: in all our decadence people die.
All this had a designer, a design team: the railway interfaces, selection, the gas chambers, the ovens; but also the fate of the living, or at least the minority where were later-to-die, the factories, the organisation of slave labour. Intelligent Design. It even had an HR dimension, stress management, employee wellbeing and mindfulness. ‘Sunny Lodge’ played a vital role in the death process. Smiling faces look back at me, relived by their holiday, by the music, the free food and drink, the opportunities for casual sex. And the fresh air. A stressful job, undoubtedly. But these people were convinced their work had a purpose, not just drudgery labour, but the opportunity to Make The World A Better Place, the demonic counter to tikkun ha-‘olam. Work Sets Free. Time Out.
These images of young people having fun, playing hard after working hard, are the most horrific in the entire exhibition. I am literally nauseated. All this was a process. But Auschwitz was not the only processing centre in this industry of death: the extermination centres at Treblinka and Sobivor made little pretence of being ‘camps’; Auschwitz was unique only in terms of the sheer scale of its killing, and that it combined the functions of an extermination centre with those of concentration camp and slave-labour-factory industrial production.
I wander more. There is a wall of mugshots, perpetrator’s images of ‘specimens’, data for the project management, a data-led extermination, Following the Science: a political dissident, a criminal, a homosexual (three different people, but one person could have been all three, these are perpetrators’ categories); a young woman with a veil is identified by the Z-word, what is to Romani people what the N-word is to people of colour; the word is still in use across Europe, sometimes in the official documentation by which the deserving are selected from the undeserving, those worthy of life from those less worthy, us from them. Romaphobia, anti-Gypsyism, our continent’s last ‘respectable’ racism. A young woman, crudely and non-consensually shaved, is simply labelled Jude. Enough said. She goes on to attempt suicide, but against all odds she survived the death camp.
Not all images are perpetrators’ images, but a different kind of data. In contrast to the data images there are a few smuggled ones, some sketches by a skilled hand show the camp at a quite early stage of its construction, the details confirmed by the perpetrators’ ‘data’ photographs. One shows victims, still in their civilian, off-the-train clothes, attempting to fight back. They are shot at with pistol and rifle fire; the artist has captured the moment of an SS thug bayoneting with well-trained parage-ground precision a man in a coat and hat.
Taken with a botched together camera homespun by the camp’s internal resistance, we see images of women stripped naked and herded into a gas chamber, I think the one in the Birch Grove. The ajar door of Crematorium No.5 provides a frame. The women’s corpses will soon me burnt in that furnace, and the Sonderkommando photographer will feed the fire and process the little that’s left, on pain of death. The photographs are crude and ill-framed, but we can see what is happening to the women, fear what will happen to the photographer if caught. One image is barely an image, the door-frame is at an angle, the camera facing up, jagged lines of a tree against the sky. It is an image of panic, of near discovery. Just visible, some women are being herded at bayonet-point.
In a 1946 series of ex-Sonderkommando sketches done from then recent memory, a trained artist captures in precise detail the inside of a crematorium. A shaved Rabbi, hiding his vocation, recites the Mourners’ Kaddish as he feeds the fire with the dead body of a toddler. His daily habit. Recites it in pain, on pain, if discovered, of being himself processed. Prayer as resistance, like a poem in the dark — escape into Oblivion. Involuntarily my eyes alight upon a drawing of a beautiful young woman lying naked on her back. It could easily have been the work of a skilled drawer at a life-drawing in Brighton class last week. But there is something not right: the line of her diaphragm is too deeply drawn for her to have been a living person. Her drawing breath against the gas had caused a spasm that the artist had faithfully captured – a death-drawing. Then I notice that the ‘dentists’ are about to set to work on her teeth. I feel deeply ashamed. My male gaze had been drawn to her body, not her face. Auschwitz makes perpetrators of us all.
My phone sounds. ‘How is the shopping going?’ The question angers me. I’m not even at Three Bridges yet. The train is hot, and sticky, and smelly. The bus will be worse. Passenger’s bodies crushed together. But the question is not unreasonable. I should have factored in the shopping, I hadn’t reckoned with the rail replacement bus on the way up and on the way down south, I had lost track of time in the exhibition. I hadn’t thought to phone ahead. Tonight’s called-in takeaway is a real treat this Saturday night. The Cost of Living. Crisis. My anger ebbs to irritation, and even that I hide. I reassure I shall be back soon, and all will be right. Auschwitz makes perpetrators of us all. You are my Angel.
There is another gaze on Auschwitz, the gaze of an Allied photoreconnaissance aircraft from 20,000 feet. The death-city is revealed like a map, in all the precision of its design. The structures I have just viewed in photograph and sketch are laid out in two dimensions. It was a very clear day. The railway line and platform (complete with train), the gate house, the barracks, the ovens and crematoria, the birch grove from where a plume of grey smoke rises to meet the aircraft halfway. Auschwitz was bombed, but only the slave-labour-fed factories. The strategic imperative was to destroy the Nazis’ military-industrial complex. All other considerations were secondary. I understand the deathly logic of warfare, of attrition. But. By the time this image was taken, human intelligence over what was being done there had been available to Allied decision-makers for a year or more. The intelligence had been coming in with ever greater intensity. But. The pilot flew on a given vector, took these images, and used the hight speed of his light, unarmed aircraft to evade interception on the way back. But. The photo analysts and targeting specialists were following orders: they had been ordered to identify industrial facilities not a death camp. Such a camp had never existed before, why should they know what one looked like? So they identified industrial plant, and passed their targeting recommendations up the chain of command. But, decision-makers had their strategic imperatives: factories, not death factories. But. If they knew about the death camp, was it ever a priority? Or were those about to die in it mere collateral damage? Might it even be that some did not entirely disapprove of what was happening there? I really don’t know. But. Auschwitz could easily have been destroyed. A fraction of the thousands of tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs that Allied high-altitude day and night bombers pointlessly and murderously unleashed on Dresden would have consigned Auschwitz and its logistical supply chain to history’s mass grave earlier, saving hundreds of thousands of lives. If not less accurate high-altitude ‘area bombers’, Lancasters, Halifaxes, B-17s, by that stage of the War the Allies had long-range, high-speed, low-altitude fighter-bombers with proven ability to take out precision targets, the Mosquito, the Beaufighter, the P-38, the P-47. These would have made short work of the railway junctions, the gatehouse, the platforms, the administrative buildings, the barracks, the ovens, the crematoria, the perimeter fences.
Canisters could have been dropped to surviving inmates: food, clothing, medicines; arms and ammunition; forged documents, money. But this is counter-factual. For reasons of grand strategy, resource allocation, faulty appreciation of human and photographic intelligence; or for reasons of carelessness, neglect, or lack of empathy and imagination; or for reasons of prejudice, this did not happen. Auschwitz makes perpetrators of us all, even in our Finest Hour. I am dizzy, my limbs only partially obey me. I feel sick. I am alone.
The bus has arrived at its destination. I stretch my legs from the long, tiring journey and pull deeply on my vape. Sainsbury’s is the best bet. They have hugely increased their South Asian food stock. Not quite my plan, but I should get most of what I need from there. I walk towards the supermarket’s gatehouse-like entrance. I rush around with a trolley, gibbering, legs weak, hand shaking, stomach full of bile. I speed-shop and get everything, indeed more, than I need. The power of logistics and project management. I mutter some nonsense as I pay. I lock myself in the disabled toilet, throw up in it and pebble dash the pan. I clean myself up. I down a bottle of 8.2% cider in three gulps. I phone home, ‘I’m done at Sainsbury’s pick me up ASAP. Love you!’ I pull on the vape as I down another bottle. If I hit the kitchen running I’ve just got time to cook the pilau.
On the way out on my left are a series of small screens at eye-level. The idea is to make Auschwitz meaningful today. As if it could not be: it defined the modern day. The first is titled ‘Antisemitism’: despite Auschwitz antisemitism still poisons the world today. The video is halfway through, an Arab-looking man has set up a row of Israeli flags in forty-five gallon oil drums, he sets them on fire. I’m guessing it was from the West Bank, but I’m not sure. For the first and only time I feel manipulated: opposition to Israeli chauvinism, irredentism, racism, ultra-nationalism and expansionism is not antisemitism. Such opposition can be abused by antisemites for an antisemitic agenda for sure, but per se it is not antisemitism and it is dangerous to suggest it is. I didn’t watch the video in full, I was put off and couldn’t be bothered. So I can’t comment more. Perhaps there was a contextual reason for that image? The next screen was called ‘Hate’, or ‘Hate Speech’, I can’t recall which. It showed screenshots of online hate speech. Worthy to expose it, but already I’ve seen enough of that online to last me a lifetime. As I move on the screens get better as they present post-War genocides: Cambodia, Rwanda, the ISIS atrocities against the Yazidis; the genocide of Muslims is treated too: the massacre at Srebrenica, the plight of the Rohingya, genocidal Islamophobia from Bosnia and the Balkans to Burma’s border with Bangladesh. This is very well-presented.
But something is missing. I wonder why I couldn’t see anything about the Armenian genocide, as it has so many parallels with the Holocaust. After the Nazis’ defeat, SS men were not dignified with being treated as prisoners of war, as soldiers of a defeated enemy. No, rightly they were treated as what they were: gangsters, terrorists, members of an armed gang or death squad. In some regards, the Special Organisation, the Teshkilât-i Mahsūsa, anticipated the Schutzstaffel.
There was a similar resort to euphemism and subterfuge in the Armenian genocide, ‘deportations’, ‘resettlement’; the same genocidal logistical diligence, the imagined plausibility of the denial. Processing in a Hostile Environment. Armenia established in the fledgeling international law in the post-1918 world the idea of Crimes Against Humanity, for which some but by no means all Nazi perpetrators, rightly by the standards of justice of the mid-C20th, hanged after 1945. It established the superiority of Human Rights over National Sovereignty. Taking Back Control. Sovereignty. I’m put off the bugleme.
Perhaps the Armenian Genocide was too long ago to feature, but how long ago is too long ago? Will Auschwitz one day become too long ago? Is it becoming so now? Denial. This exhibition pushes back against that. Or perhaps covering the Armenian Genocide, what Atatürk would later call a ‘Shameful Act’, would have disrupted the exhibition’s time-narrative? Or perhaps it was covered in the exhibition, and I missed it. By then I was very tired, exhausted, on the edge.
But still: Something Was Missing.
I hand back my audio equipment. It comes to me in a flash. I stand still as I let the thought settle in, creating an obstacle to people exiting the exhibition. A greeter asks me if I’m alright. I say I am as I let the thought sink in.
‘We live in a society that has been shaped by ultra-nationalism, xenophobia and an intensifying ‘new racism’ for at least the past six years. Depraved Prime Ministers, depraved Home Secretaries, depraved ministers and MPs, a depraved mainstreamed far-right press, and a depraved large minority of the electorate celebrate creating a Hostile Environment here in the UK. Deportations, and the ‘processing’ of asylum-seekers has become part of respectable political-media discourse. This is not the Holocaust. Nor is it Cambodia, Srebrenica, Islamic State, nor Burma, nor Rwanda. Not remotely. But we are getting closer to Kristallnacht than we realise, and many don’t care if we do get there. This is how it starts. Kristallnacht was preceded by a German version of the Hostile Environment. And without Kristallnacht there could have been no Auschwitz, no Holocaust. We have a moral imperative to stop this. Niqāb-wearing women as ‘bank robbers’, ‘letterboxes’; picanninies with water-melon smiles’; ‘tank-toped bum-boys’. It starts like that. Some find it amusing. Der Strümer. If we do not truly we will all be complicit in what ever happens next. Auschwitz continues to corrupt us all.
This is the message that is burning my bloody brain. I try to explain to the people on the reception, but I fear they think I am disturbed. I am. At 17.15 I drift in a daze into the darkness, and share my secret with the couple smoking against the wall. I don’t think they got it. I march on apace towards South Kensington Underground station, and the crowded trains.
Dinner is served. The takeout was delivered slightly late, which bought me time. The pilau complemented the curries perfectly, as expected. I share some details of the exhibition with my family. And my secret. They agree. We watch some TV. They go to bed about midnight. I am writing this until 05.30, Sunday 13th November.
This important exhibition is the best photo exhibition I have ever seen in my life. It should be packed every day. Do see.
West Kent, The Long Hot Summer of ’76. ‘. . . What’s your problem, you fuckin’ Jew?’ Another workmate added, ‘Him, that Dibble, he’s worse than a fuckin’ Jew . . . .’ So corrected, I flashed the ash. ‘Sorry about that, mate; but something about you just gets on my tits.’
The long, hot summer of ’76 was nowhere near as hot as the summer of ’22. Denial. But, from a very secular, indeed hedonistic, family that summer awoke me to the realisation that however much one assimilates, however much one denies, the Nuremberg Laws (or their 2020s equivalents – refugees are being ‘processed’) will win out. If we let them. Our choice.
‘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).
Clap: an Anatomy of Applause (Unsounds Records, 2022) is an international double sound-art vinyl combination album that ambitiously sets out to be an aural exploration of the very human and primitive (in the original sense) phenomenon of clapping and applause. We humans are bipedal apes, that whole existential conundrum of an embodied affect and intellect capable of apprehending the secrets and extent of physical and psychological space, of technological (and often self-destructive) magic, and creating art. Music, and more primitively sound, is perhaps the original human art. Clapping, along with chanting (the Isondrones spiritually through this ambitious compilation), and stamped feet are our most primeval attempts to create art, meaning, and meaninglessness through the symbolic arrangement of sound in time.
The compilation connects the primeval clap with our adventures in analogue and digital sound. The contributors span cultural space (they are from or (have) live(d) in Amsterdam, Baltimore MA, Cyprus, Edinburgh, Korea, London, Milan, The Hague, and many other locations), and generational time frequently but not exclusively having trod paths taken and not-taken from Punk to Post-Punk, to Industrial to Experimental, to Sound Art to just plain Sound. They have variously composed, produced, and performed in concert, on analogue and digital recording technology, for dance, stage, and theatre. This album can be ambient even to the point of easy listening, but also challenging and provocative; it can be primordially engaging and intellectually stimulating; provocative and tedious; exciting, numbing, a stimulant and a sedative; sound in the background, yet at the forefront of one’s mind.
Sometimes it engages with the theme of clapping implicitly, even literally; other tracks engage with applause more tangentially, even cryptically. Below are my impressionistic comments, track-by-track; I have sought to identify the various sonic homages, references, and allusion which, I shall maintain, connect the sound art with lived histories, both personal and political:
Andy Moor begins the album with ‘Perseverance’, an applauding homage to the 2020 Mars probe: female mission controller, relaxed, healthy heartbeat (about 60 bpm), and something of Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You!’ (1977), the anthem of clap. Symbolising, digital humans desperately seeking extra-terrestrial microbial life (if there is life in even one other location in the universe it gratifies our need for meaning; if Life on Earth is the only life there is, that sheer meaninglessness means us meaning).
Ji Yuon Kang follows, ’27 April 2018’, Korean detente, many hopes: we are on shamans grounds now, the shamanism of Korea, pre-Buddhist, pre-Christian; pre-capitalist, pre-communist. An ancient-present animism in a digitised world, the clap through its aeons: industrial drill in fuzziness and warmness; Alien (1979) alien perception allusions; there is ‘Master of the Universe’, from Hawkwind’s In Search of Space (1971): ‘the wind of time is blowing through me, it’s all a figment of my mind, in a world that I have designed’ . . . .
Moor Mother, ‘Clap Piece’: the shortest piece here, at 2’.30”. We are in an experimental ambient room here, found-sounds, bells pealing, church bells perhaps, probably. The bells, the bells; the clapper claps so the bells sound.
Eraldo Bernocchi, ‘The Solitude of Pens’: the power of pens, Malala: ambient warmth in there somewhere is Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ (1977), or woman; the sound pounces, ambulant music streaking over the savanna like some cheetah in pursuit of pray, I almost expect David Attenborough: the scratching of solitary pens writing manifestos. For freedom.
Fani Konstantinidou, ‘Επευφήμισμός’ (‘Euphemism’): ison drones and etymologies from the Greek, we are underwater, ambient, atonal: movie surreal, Eraserhead (1977) movie hauntings The Ring (2002); under water becomes rainfall, waterfall, the flow of clapping and applause as the water falls – sonic environmentalism.
Yannis Kyriakides, ‘Farewell Concert’: Maria Calas, Madam Butterfly, her farewell concert (1973): vintage archive sound; the ison meets In Search of Space (1971): water, rainfall, weather with human hands clapping, recorded applause across a half-century: analogue, an off-tune radiogram meets digital; alluded punk Sid’s ‘My Way’ (1978); Eve Libertine: a musical dream – the sound of all hands clapping.
Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner), ‘The Fall, The Freedom’: We’re on the Forbidden Planet (1956); rustling, insects? Rain falling, rainfall pealing into applause, sci-fi ambient human clapping: voices at the end.
Maurizio Bianchi, ‘M.B. Claps’: An old school phone rings, evoking Poison Girls and ‘Old Tarts’ Song’ (1979): we’re over the moon, Clangers (1969-’71) clapping, waiting for the Soup Dragon: memories of childhood; a remembered symphony, of a genocide.
Terence Hannum, ‘Precious Element’: Ison distortion; flashlight cosmonauts enter luminous vulva of the cave, seeking the Precious Element; the ison becomes pure distortion, then the sound of shore, sea on shingle applauds; a fanfare as they gape in awe, the element revealed.
Barbara Ellison, ‘Plauditory Phantoms No.1’: At 10’.02” the longest track on the album. We’re at a junction of sound and history here: gas escapes, drizzling rain; the flow, trickle, drizzle – I want to pee. A rainy suburban street, shower on tarmac or cobble or ison; then marching in step, militarily speaking: pace as clap and clap as pace: are we being led to the firing stake down Paths of Glory (1957)? No, though it rains we’re taking a ‘Holiday in the Sun’ (1977), we had no real reason to be here at all. But now we have a reason: the Wall falls (1989), human hands, some now being dead are phantoms, clap.
Massimo Pupillo, ‘In Memory of Punk Rock’: Remember Punk Rock? I Wish You Were Here (1975) just before that, ‘ … Number 51’ (1970): your punk time is up, so put away that ‘Axe’ (1969): Hawkwind’s engine fans spin again to fire-up: ‘Master’ (1971), I’m heading off to AvP planet, via Brighton Aquarium ambient, refugee in aqua caverns from a napalm death: an artist’s journey from punk rock to free improvisation, a madeleine time-morsel applauding pre-punk temps perdu.
Such are the impressions of this listener: an active-aesthetic listener response and list of aural evocations. How many of these evocations did the artists intend? Does it matter? Certainly, there are some clear homages, quotes, and allusions in these tracks that were certainly intended. Others, perhaps, were evoked solely in the mind of this listener in response to these soundscapes. Yet other while unintended were evoked in the minds of the composers as they composed: a crucial theme that runs through this compilation is that of sound-memories, the found sounds of the composer’s inner space: recordings of historic events; punk, pop, and prog from the 1960s and ‘70s; the cinematic uncanny from the 1950s to the 2010s: remembered snatches of sound from over the lifespan, sound attached to significant events, old gigs, old homes, old loves, history. Meaning made in the intersection between composer and listener, mediated through a sound-text: the amplification of applause through history, personal and political. Impressive, it deserves your applause.
 Originally the slow choral drone of the Byzantine Chant
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
As a mental health survivor (PTSD and Major Depression), and a life-long biker, some thoughts about biking and mental health. Indeed, biking as therapy.
Motorcycle maintenance and bike building or restoration is great kinaesthetic ‘mindfulness’ therapy: it beats a squeezy ‘anxiety ball’ or joss sticks any day! In part because it is goal-focused (getting the bloody thing running right on the road as you want it). But that goal is low-risk in the sense that it’s not your home, your livelihood, or your relationship that is at stake.
Likewise, riding takes you out of yourself. It stills that useless internal dialogue of negative thought cycles that underpins anxiety. Shuts it up totally: the sensory feedback from the road and the bike; a bike’s inherent dynamic instability (relative to four wheels) demanding micro-adjustments in micro-seconds; the feeling, the sheer physicality, being ‘out there’ on the road; the satisfaction from the knowledge that you are using a skill honed over decades boosts flagging self-esteem; the intensity of it all burns away those evolutionary fight-or-flight hormones that are so ill-deployed in the modern world. Then you realise you’ve been on reserve the past ten miles!
I don’t want to overstate it, but as intensive, focused, physical kind of mindfulness biking is way better than …. Well, let’s just say it’s better than citalopram, a 50-minute Cognitive Behaviour Therapy session, or a fucking wellbeing app.
I had a more-or-less complete mental breakdown 2012-13. I had been working overseas in higher education for a decade, and was caught up in one of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, and its deadly suppression. Unarmed protestors, some of them students I had taught, were getting their brains blown out. Whole villages were carpet-gassed, students were being ‘disappeared’. The campus was being use for torture and interrogation. I was expected to know which side my expat, tax-free salaried bread was buttered on and be complicit, or at least turn a blind eye. But I couldn’t and didn’t, putting myself at risk. I fled in emergency circumstances. Back in the UK I struggled to rebuild my career. Biking helped, really helped. So did working on some of the bikes I had back in the day, or mates had, or I had wanted but couldn’t afford.
I’ve been biking since 1974, my late dad (1926-2016) had been a biker and got me into biking. He had been in the final months of the Second World War, and knew how a bike could still the mind. When he died, I had a bit of a mental health wobble. But I used some of what I had inherited to buy a couple of bikes from back in my ‘70s days. I knew he would have wanted that.
PTSD is a result of an endocrine dysfunction the ‘fight or flight’ hormones adrenaline and cortisol that evolved to help us survive in a state of nature get stuck: in the modern world the threat is not a Smilodon leaping out at you from the bushes, but a symbolic reminder of a traumatic event (for me it was fireworks and fire crackers, helicopters, roaring crowds, and marker pens), or something more abstract: an unexpectedly large bill, a performance management review, a court summons. Your glands uselessly secrete huge amounts of these hormones, overwhelming body and mind. In this sense, PTSD is as much a physiological condition as it is a mental one.
So how does biking help? Well, when riding the physical threat is real, but controllable. Your sportsbike is your Smilodon, but you are controlling it. In that sense, you are quite literally riding your (sabre-toothed) tiger. But you can provoke it to roar at you, then shut it down to a pussycat simply by releasing the grip of your right hand. In this way, you can through riding begin to normalise the release of stress hormones, so they are there when you need them, say when some moron pulls out in front of you, rather than having your body flooded with them by, say, a bill. Before I had PTSD there were times I had a spill on track, or a near-miss on the road. I’d breathe deeply to calm down, think through what had happened, then get back in the saddle as quickly as I could in the circumstances, and try to internalise what I had learnt.
Therapy, good therapy (there’s plenty of crap out there) is a bit like that. Of course, I’m not recommending riding in the middle of a PTSD bout, that would be foolish, dangerous, and a risk to self and others. But biking as therapy, when calm, helps, I’ve found, stabilises the release of those endocrine hormones so that they become more normal, more useful, so they give you the quick response you need to avoid t-boning some idiot driver, rather than freaking you out as you open a letter. I guess high-end sports therapists do something similar, say if a racer has a bad spill then develops a phobia over getting their knee down.
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.