Category: culture

Pizzicato on the double bass, Spike Milligan and Goldsmiths

Advanced Music Class Goldsmiths College 1929-31. This animated and lively group photo features two mischievous double bass players at either end – the instrument that Spike Milligan took with him on the tram to his evening orchestral music class in the middle 1930s. Image: Goldsmiths, University of London.

Spike Milligan (1918-2002) is credited with revolutionising British comedy through his chaotic, surrealist, and subversive imagination.

He created the seminal radio comedy The Goon Show (1951-60), and wrote more than 50 books including six on his Second World War experiences.

To say he was larger and crazier than life itself would be an understatement.

And he was also a student of Goldsmiths College.

He attended a one term music orchestration course in the middle 1930s at the college’s evening department of Adult Education.

It seems this experience represented an important part of what he saw as his development as a musician and composer.

It is emphasised by Ned Sherrin who wrote his entry (2006) for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

While working as an assistant storeman at Keith Prowse in Bond Street, Terence Milligan bluffed his way into a part-time evening course in orchestral practice at Goldsmiths’ College, Lewisham, and subsequently joined a local band, Tommy Brettel’s New Ritz Revels, playing drums, guitar, and trumpet, and occasionally providing vocals.

And it is also variously mentioned by his three biographers Pauline Scudamore, Dominic Beehan and Humphrey Carpenter.

John Cleese recognised his influence on Monty Python’s Flying Circus when he said: ‘Milligan is the great god of us all.’

This television comedy sketch of a tramp picking up his baguette in a café only to find that it produces a clarinet solo by Gershwin is a superb example of how Milligan’s surrealist imagination was also centred in sound and music.

Terence (Spike) Alan Milligan was actually brought up in India because his father Leo Alphonso Milligan was in the British Indian Army. Spike was born near Bombay in 1918.

For a while the Milligan family lived in Brigade House in Rangoon, Burma and remembered being visited by the famous author George Orwell when he was a police officer in his original identity of Eric Arthur Blair.

But in 1932 after the world-wide recession, cutbacks in military expenditure meant that Spike’s father was pensioned off at the age of 42.

The family, including his mother Florence and younger brother Desmond, left the splendour of colonial life with servants to face the hardships of unemployment and despair in a two room attic flat in Catford at 23 Riseldine Road, SE23.

Spike was fifteen years old, disaffected, and further disillusioned when he was turned down by the RAF.

He had a series of dead-end jobs including laundryman, and packer for a tobacco firm.

That is where he began to steal cigarettes to raise funds to buy his first trumpet.

It was the eloquent speech of mitigation by his father Leo at his trial that persuaded the magistrate to give him an absolute discharge on the grounds that his son’s genius as the world’s greatest future trumpet player deserved urgent consideration.

Spike liked to reminisce about his father’s blarney particularly when as a child he had woken him up in the middle of the night to confess that he had not shot any tigers.

When asked for an explanation Leo replied: ‘What would you prefer the boring truth or an exciting lie?’

Spike’s poem ‘Catford 1933’ captured the family’s fall from grace:

My father places his unemployment cards

in his wallet –  there’s plenty of room for them.

In greaseproof paper my mother wraps my

banana sandwiches.

It’s 5.40. Ten minutes to catch that

last workman’s tram.

The tram from Catford to Lewisham Way and Goldsmiths’ College would be the way Spike struggled with his double bass to attend the evening course in orchestral practice.

Humphrey Carpenter speculated that it is likely Spike had to deal with the conductors spinning the time-honoured joke that has irritated classical bass players since the instrument was invented:

How do you get it under your chin?

Answer: By keeping your big mouth shut.

Biographer Pauline Scudamore wrote: ‘He was not really of the standard required, but he bluffed his way into the class and it says much for both Goldsmiths’ insight and the immediacy of Milligan’s responses that he survived the course.’

When arriving for the first lesson he discovered that all the other string instrumentalists were rubbing resin into their bows; something Spike and his double bass lacked completely.

He pretended that he had left his non-existent bow at home. The music teacher said he could play pizzicato little knowing that at the time that was the only way Spike could play it.

Scudamore says Goldsmiths taught him the rudiments of harmony and counterpoint, the discipline of formal music and sight-reading.

Milligan said:

Well, Goldsmiths was the nearest I ever had to a musical education. I suppose I wanted to show off a bit. To show that I didn’t only strum, and that I could play with a bow if I wanted to, and that I took music seriously.

The college was a thriving centre for music in all its dimensions.  It had its own music society known as the Clef Club.

These were the years when the Goldsmiths’s Choral Union and Goldsmiths’ Symphony Orchestra trained by Frederick Haggis were formed, and a String Orchestra conducted by Miss Kitty Kennedy became prominent in local music festivals.

Reginald Jevons was famous for taking group piano lessons with dummy keyboards when there were not enough pianos to go round.

In 1935 there were 300 musicians attending the Adult Evening Department – one third of the overall total of students.

Jevons wrote optimistically in the Anvil, the Evening Students’ Association magazine:

Of the future surely there can be no mistake. We have to thank those whose foresight led us along this path of stimulating the love of good music, and in our own Department we rejoice to see the ideals being set before us, which gave opportunity for self-expression, and a sense of well-being which accompanies the rational expression of the faculties.

Such pompous classicism did not appeal to Spike Milligan.

He told another of his biographers, Dominic Beehan, he didn’t like Goldsmiths’ because it was ‘all classical music’ and at the time he only wanted to play jazz.

There is no doubt that having creative control and confidence over musical notation, arrangement and orchestration had an impact.

It all underpins the brilliance of such anarchic and in its own way, progressive and experimental musical pieces such as the Ying Tong Song first released by Decca in 1956.

Milligan says he wrote the Ying Tong Song in ten minutes during a journey on the London Underground.

The ‘I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas’ song was also written in 1956 and has remained another iconic sound track for what Dominic Beehan described as the Goons’ auditory surrealism.

Spike was not the only Milligan to attend Goldsmiths.

In 1948 his younger brother Desmond was eligible for a post World War Two education grant to study the three year Art Diploma course.

In the early 1950s Desmond, and his father Leo and mother Florence emigrated to Australia while Spike teamed up with Michael Bentine, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellars to form the famous Goons and as has often been said, the rest was history.

Another Goldsmiths’ connection exists through one of his sons, James Turlough, whose mother, the artist Margaret Maughan also went to Goldsmiths’ College.

When Spike Milligan died in 2002 the intense media coverage indicated that a national figure of great cultural significance had passed away.

However, a dispute over his passport application in 1962 led to his adopting Irish citizenship.

And the line he wanted on his gravestone ‘I told you I was ill’ is inscribed in Irish Gaelic as Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite.

Ned Sherrin said Spike Milligan ‘opened new doors of irreverence and absurdity in his mission to entertain.’

He described him as ‘a troubled, gifted man with a unique mind, an affinity for children, and a puzzled pity for humanity and the animal world.’

These are all qualities that could be said to perfectly qualify him for the honour of being one of the Goldsmiths’ alumni.

Source: https://sites.gold.ac.uk/goldsmithshistory/pizzicato-on-the-double-bass-spike-milligan-and-goldsmiths/

 

 

The Penniless Philanthropist

By Daniel Margrain

Sculptor Drew Edwards (second right) unveiled his moving work Children of the Mediterranean on campus with the help of Syrian refugees now studying at MDX

Actor and sculptor, Andrew Edwards, has been dubbed the ‘penniless philanthropist’. The 51 year old’s life-affirming sculptures, mainly created from tonnes of granite, are a labour of love for Edwards who neither receives, nor asks, for a penny in return for his efforts.

I’ve witnessed the artist toil for hours on end in our communal garden sculpting his creations with a hand grinder. The man often suffers for his art – sometimes, in the physical sense, literally. Last summer he nearly lost a finger and more recently he suffered a deep wound to his leg – the hand tool almost severing a tendon.

The rewards for Edwards is the knowledge that he is making a difference – no matter how small – to help shift the public’s consciousness in terms of bringing to their attention the plight of the some of the most desperate souls on the planet – refugee children driven from their homes by the ravages of imperialist wars who are then exploited by criminal gangs.

Edward’s remarkable story culminated in the recent unveiling of his latest creation, a 91-piece installation entitled ‘Children of the Mediterranean’ – dedicated by the artist in memory of refugee children who were drowned or have been trafficked crossing the Mediterranean sea.

The 91 figures represent the percentage of children who have made the perilous journey unaccompanied. It is the first major piece of art to be erected on the Ritterman plinth in the centre of the new prestigious £18m Ritterman building at Middlesex University’s north London campus.

Edwards began his two year long ‘Children of the Mediterranean’ project after seeing the lifeless body of a small Syrian boy washed up on a beach. The image was captured by the corporate press and printed on many of their front pages, It was subsequently used by Western governments as justification for implementing their regime change agenda in the country.

The image of the dead child brought back disturbing childhood memories for Edwards. At the age of eight, the artist remembered watching the TV documentary series, ‘The World At War’. Edwards was haunted by the image of small children imprisoned in a concentration camp. The nightmare of this experience and the terror on the faces of the children and those who had survived the Mediterranean sea journey, are represented in the faceless stone figures that comprise his most recent creation.

“I didn’t want these children to be forgotten”, said Edwards in his statement to those who attended the recent unveiling of the piece. He added: “This is my way of ensuring this doesn’t happen. News coverage of these kinds of tragic events are often transient in the minds of the public. Hopefully, my work offers a sense of permanence. I think the piece is self-explanatory.”

The logistics involved in moving 7 tonnes of granite into a relatively small outdoor space in the university campus space where the plinth is located was a feat in itself. But having done so, with minimal support, is a testament to the artists commitment to his work.

All the effort was worth it. It’s a stunning piece. The clamor of various sizes of granite stone pieces are packed together in close proximity to one another – a community of lost souls bound together metaphorically and literally by their shared sense of resilience to survive against the odds.

Among them is a solitary figure of white marble, and hidden amid the bodies, is one of the sculptors trademark angels – perhaps symbolizing hope for the future. The entire piece is enmeshed in rusted encased chains that invoke in the viewer an emotional connection to the helplessness of human beings imprisoned by an endless ocean.

Invited by the event organiser to say a few more words during the unveiling, a self-effacing Edwards continued:

“I feel the piece will now have a life of its own. I can’t say for sure where it will be next or where, if ever, it will end up.”

Edwards has other pieces of his dotted around the capital city. Two months ago, the artist was so moved by the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, he donated a statue to the shrine in memory of the victims. It now stands among the flames and tributes at the entrance to Notting Hill Methodist church. Entitled, ‘Grieving Figure In Stone’, it was gratefully accepted by the minister of the church, Rev. Mark Long. and it is hoped it will become a centrepiece in a future garden of remembrance.

Edwards, who is dyslexic and suffers from Grave’s disease, turned to sculpting three years ago as a means of remaining creative between acting jobs. He left school at 15, and at the age of 24, paid to go through drama school and become an actor. Unfortunately, he also became an alcoholic and drug addict but has been clean and sober for the last 20 years.

The artist, whose last role was in the Meryl Streep film, Suffragette, began sculpting by creating angels. Largely inspired by the paintings of William Blake, Edward’s creations have a contemplative and ethereal quality to them. Much of his work seems to hint at themes of spiritual yearning and of the vulnerability of the human condition in a world that is seemingly spiraling out of control.

His first major work was a 20-foot high ‘Memorial Angel’ of recycled wind-blown oak and stainless steel that he donated to the Finchley Memorial Hospital. It stands outside the children’s cancer unit and attracts a great deal of attention from children and passers by.

He donated the sculpture as a thank you to the doctors and nursing staff at the hospital that saved his life when he developed septicemia 18 years ago. He has also donated another sculpture – ‘Mother and Child’ – to the Memorial hospital. It is carved from recycled granite and stands on the approach to the reception area. A third, almost finished piece, is in memory of a nurse at the hospital who worked in the cancer ward and sadly died of cancer herself.

Edwards has a further five granite angels ready to be donated or auctioned off for worthy causes and is presently working on a huge sculpture to be donated to the London Borough of Barnet – a 40-foot high piece entitled ‘Angel of North London’. The council have been extremely supportive of the sculptors work by allowing him the use of a work yard, and local builders have made it possible by supplying granite.

The artist wouldn’t have been able to create his work had it not been for those who assisted with transport and equipment. “They all knew I had very little money and it was the drivers bringing the granite who gave me the nickname of the penniless philanthropist”, he said. “I never thought of myself that way, but I do take it as a compliment.”

Edwards has previously said that he will consider at some point in the future to move ‘Children of the Mediterranean’ to a safe stretch of the Thames where, as the tidal water recedes, the ghostly stone figures will appear. “I would like the installation to remind commuters on their way across the Thames that children are the most vulnerable and defenceless members of society. With the ongoing conflict in Syria, and also beyond in a myriad of other places, it’s vital we don’t forget them”, he said.

Edwards concluded:

“The more we see clips of children drowning and fleeing conflict zones throughout the world, the more numb we become. It’s media fatigue. The unforgivable has become palatable. I hope it will make people ponder for a moment how privileged we are to live in one of the richest and safest democracies on earth, and perhaps consider how they can help more.”

‘Children of the Mediterranean’ will be on view at the Ritterman plinth, Middlesex University, for six months after which Edwards hopes it will be bought and the money donated to a children’s charity of the sculptors choice. If not, Edwards will probably relocate it to the banks of the Thames, although he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of it being moved abroad providing he receives the required funding.

Further information from Andrew Edwards:
E mail drewedwards@hotmail.co.uk
Tel: 07957234346

Why Tory cuts to public libraries must be resisted

By Daniel Margrain

Last month marked the beginning of Libraries Week, the annual showcase of all the creative, innovative and diverse activities UK libraries have to offer the public. The key role libraries play in terms of bringing communities together, is particularly important in a global city like London where the wealth gap between the top and bottom of society continues to widen inexorably, and where public space is at a premium.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for people with minimal incomes at their disposal to access modes of information and entertainment outside of the home. With the rise in the level of in-work poverty over the last decade due largely to the normalizing culture of zero-hours contracts and part-time work, access to the paid cultural aspects of a city like London is fast becoming the domain of the few as opposed to the right of the many.

Highly inflated costs during a sustained period in which wages have stagnated, not only means that more people are being priced out of corporate-controlled spaces, but they are also denied the socialized interaction that are analogous to them.

This is where public libraries, as alternative spaces, come into their own. Many people regard libraries as the most valued and trusted resources at the heart of communities because they foster not only learning but social, cultural and economic well-being. Indeed, there are many reasons for arguing that the library is the most important place in town.

Public libraries are one of the few spaces where people can enter a world free from the dominant modes of corporate culture. In addition to offering an alternative to the increasingly atomizing space of the home, they provide people with the opportunity to temporarily escape from a ‘brainwashing’ narrative that portrays them as “a corrupting, anti-social group that exist outside of society.” Think of shows like ‘Jeremy Kyle’ and ‘Benefits Street’ and you get the picture.

More than just books

In that sense, public libraries are more than just books. Not only do they provide a space for people to escape, they are also beneficial in terms of the health and well-being of society. They help to foment children’s literacy and encourage them to become active during term-time and holidays.

They are used by parents and nurseries. They offer access to the internet. They provide space for people to read and study in peace that is not always possible in their homes. They are places to host community events, training and education.

They provide respite for the mentally ill and a space for people with physical disabilities who perhaps feel isolated in the home, as well as offering a temporary sanctuary to the homeless. Arguably, most prescient of all is that libraries represent the very antithesis of the fast-paced rhythm of modern life. They are, in other words, the embodiment of all that is good in society.

The process of reading books is a slow-burning aesthetic pleasure that cannot be reduced to a soundbite phrase or snappy commercial. Furthermore, books are tangible things, not abstractions that exist in ‘clouds’ and can be taken away for free, a system paid for through taxation based on the concept of reciprocity. These represent values at odds with a Tory government that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Tories want to minimize the opportunity people have for accessing narratives that run counter to the prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy and the promotion of greed and selfish individualism that’s concomitant to the demise of the public library. The extent of the library closure scandal throughout the UK was highlighted by Jeremy Corbyn in 2016. The opposition Labour leader cited Freedom of Information (FOI) figures indicating that since 2010, 575 council-run public libraries have either been closed, transferred to community groups or outsourced, a trend that is set to continue into 2019.

Drastic cuts of this nature clearly contravene the 1964 Museums and Public Libraries Act which was introduced in order to ensure council’s didn’t renege on their duty to encourage use of library services. The Act legally requires local authorities to provide comprehensive and efficient library services.

Author Michael Rosen wrote of the importance of maintaining such a service:

“It is vital for the lives of us all that [libraries] are supported, expanded, enriched and diversified. If we let them close, we are in effect consigning huge sections of the population to a world either without books, or a world with only the books that the giant corporations want us to read. This is an appalling prospect.”

So the question is, why does the Tory government want to get rid of them?

Part of their rationale appears to be that many libraries sit on prime value land. But this is not the only reason. Ideology arguably plays a more significant role in terms of the asset-stripping of this important public utility. This is illustrated by the decision of the London Borough of Barnet to approve 12 separate planning applications at a cost of more than £14m to close libraries in an attempt to save less than £2.3m (a massive 2177.5% increase in cost per user resulting from these drastic cuts).

Library closures come down hardest on children. A 2016 study by brain specialist and child development expert, Dr Aric Sigman reveals concerns about the permanent damage to health, development and achievement the prolonged and repeated reading from screens, as an alternative to reading books, has on children.

Libraries Week reminds us that libraries, as with the NHS, are too important a public service to lose. Tory plans to cut libraries to the bone are not only illegal but are detrimental to the health and well being of the public essential to the maintenance of a cohesive society. The attempts to close them must be resisted at every turn.

Correcting Tyranny

By Daniel Margrain

Recently, the Independent reported on the curious story of a group of Satanic worshippers who unveiled a statue of the Knights Templar goat-man called Baphomet in Arkansas. It was not so much the face value story that caught my attention but the statement made by Satanic Arkansas co-founder, Ivy Forrester: “If you’re going to have one religious monument up then it should be open to others. If you don’t agree with that then let’s just not have any at all,” said Forrester.

Equal religious status

On the surface, the demand by Satanists that they have equal religious status with Christians, appears absurd. But is it?  Under the 1st and 14th amendments to the United States Constitution it is possible, using freedom of religion provisions, to obtain equal recognition for any proposed “religion” upon the payment of a nominal fee. A few US states have offered ordination by mail or on-line of The Church of the Latter-Day Dude and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a result of their adherents’ willingness to stump up the requisite cash.

These, and other parody religions have also sought the same reasonable accommodation legally afforded to mainstream established religions that Forrester argues is equally applicable to Satanism. The 1st and 14th amendments to the US constitution ensure that legally no distinction can be made between the rights of citizens to have their faith in belief systems recognized (or ridiculed) under the right to freedom of expression, irrespective of the form the said ‘religion’ takes.

The critical demands placed upon belief systems and critiques of their evidence-based deficiencies apply equally to the Church of the Latter-Day Dude. Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and mainstream established religions. All are afforded equal status under US law and all are open to scrutiny, ridicule and parody on an equal basis.

The problem is that established organised religions consider themselves to be absolved from ridicule in the way that the likes of the Church of the Latter-Day Dude and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster do not. The implication is that established religious belief systems are more credible than non-established ‘joke’ religions. But neither are fact based.

So why should a distinction be made between them in terms of one group being immune from criticism, ridicule and parody and the other open to these kinds of critiques? Why does one group make demands in law to be taken seriously despite the unsubstantiated claims that are made and the other remain open to be parodied and ridiculed on the basis of these unsubstantiated claims? Surely, the notion that all belief systems should be open to criticism and/or parody and ridicule whether established or not, should be regarded as a welcome development in free and democratic societies?

Those who formed the Church of the Latter-Day Dude and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are using the right to freedom of expression under the US Constitution to augment their right to parody other belief systems in the same way that they would expect others, including those who adhere to more established irrational beliefs, to ridicule them. Satirists and others who form spoof religious groups as vehicles for exercising their right to freedom of speech, actively embrace their right to be both offended and to offend the belief systems of others unhindered.

The United States is leading the way in inadvertently exposing the absurdity of organised religious dogma in all it’s forms. The freedom of satirists to be able to self-reflect on the ‘faiths’ they have themselves created in order to expose the absurdity of long established religious dogmas is central to healthy democracies. Nevertheless, it still remains the case that there are limits set by many European state legislatures as to how far down the road its citizens are allowed to go in lampooning organised religion.

Life of Brian & the Satanic Verses

One of my earliest memories of having my right to be offended and to offend curtailed was when, in their infinite wisdom, Torbay Borough Council and thirty-eight others throughout the UK decided to ban the Monty Python religious comedy satire, The Life of Brian, from cinema’s on the basis that it was deemed by a small minority to have been “blasphemous”.

Incredibly, the ban in Torbay remained in place until 2008 lasting 29 years. More significantly, the film was shunned by the BBC and ITV, who declined to broadcast it for fear of offending Christians in the UK. Blasphemy was restrained – or its circulation effectively curtailed – not by the force of law “but by the internalization of this law.

Almost a decade after the The Life of Brian controversy, orthodox religion was again the catalyst behind the attempt to censor art. The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel, first published in 1988, was inspired in part by the life of Muhammad. As with his previous books, Rushdie used magical realism and relied on contemporary events and people to create his characters.  

Many Muslims accused Rushdie of blasphemy and subsequently engaged in a number of book burning exercises throughout the UK. In mid-February 1989, following a violent riot against the book in Pakistan, the Ayatollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran and a Shi’a Muslim scholar, issued a fatwa against Rushdie and his publishers.

Disgraced British parliamentarian, Keith Vaz, who led a march through Leicester shortly after he was elected in 1989, rallied behind India’s decision to ban the book by calling for the same in the UK. To date, with police protection, Rushdie has escaped direct physical harm. However, forty-one others associated with his book have either been murdered or have suffered violent attacks leading to serious, and in some cases, life threatening injuries.

Hebdo, Diedonne & Corbyn

Islamic fundamentalism was again to play a part in regards to its opposition to the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. The publication, which featured cartoons, reports, polemics, and irreverent jokes, was the target of two terrorist attacks, in 2011 and 2015 in response to a number of controversial cartoons it published of the prophet. In the second of these attacks, 12 people were killed, including the magazines publishing director and several other prominent cartoonists.

Meanwhile, in France, public officials, Jewish groups and others have attempted to censor the satirist, political activist and comedian Diedonne M’bala M’bala, for his outspoken criticisms of the Israeli state. More recently the pro-Israel Lobby in the UK have attempted to gag pro-Palestinian activists that include Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. In both cases, the aim of the Lobby is to curtail the freedom of speech of all voices critical of the ethnic cleansing policies of an apartheid state using contrived anti-Semitism allegations as their justification.

The great musician and satirist, Frank Zappa, believed rightly, that no barrier, however “offensive”, should be placed in the way of freedom of expression. Zappa’s targets were everything and everybody from religion, politicians and corporations through to “Catholic girls”, “Jewish princesses”, “valley girls”, black people, white people and ideologies of all kinds. He showed no mercy for the human condition and regularly exposed hypocrisy at every turn. This is the spirit of freedom and openness that we should all aspire to but which religious dogmas and political ideologies often try to suppress.

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New Media & Censorship

By Daniel Margrain

During the height of the anti-capitalist movement in 2002, I wrote a paper as part of my MA in which I said:

“The growth of new (physical) technologies allied with the development of the (virtual) media, is resulting in the revival and reworking of the classical ideal of an actively engaged and responsible citizenship. It is my contention that established media and virtual media will increasingly contest for spheres of influence in ‘cyberspace’. The extent to which one or the other establishes spatial dominance is likely to shape the nature of politics in the new century and therefore determine a new set of socio-political relationships.”

Global village

The development of new media corresponded to what Marxist geographer, David Harvey, referred to as “time-space compression” brought about by the growth in global communication networks which has its genesis as part of a concept of what became known as the “global village” – a term first coined by Marshall McLuhan in 1962. Having since become a cliche of global communications, it describes, in the loose sense, how citizens of the world who have communication tools at their command, can communicate and share interests across the world, just as they might across a village street.

More importantly, however, McLuhan claimed that the dominant mode of communication in the earlier part of the century had been written and printed. Even modes like the telegraph message and air letter were communication in print. This was formal communication typical of the hierarchical and procedurally bound societies of the time.

Conversely, in the global village, television, telephone and other electronic communication restored a formal oral culture in which informality and impermanence were the characteristics. This cut across the formal structures of existing political organisations.

The significance of McLuhan was that he anticipated the phenomena of virtuality and interactivity, the dissolving of traditional structures and patterns and the compression of time and space. One of the main technological manifestations that facilitate the latter is the growth of telecommunications infrastructure.

Power structure

It is the integration of global communication networks – telecommunications, computing and media technologies – that forms the basis of the internet and ISDN traffic. From its small military beginnings in the 1970s and 1980s, the former has opened up the possibility of a genuine new form of community. Over twenty years ago, John Allen and Chris Hamnett even went as far as to argue that the internet would bring about the “death of geography.”

But what McLuhan and Allen and Hamnett overestimated was the extent to which the global village would remove old hierarchies and social gradients. Correspondingly, they underestimated the ability of the new technology to reinforce existing socioeconomic patterns of inequality and structures of power.

Not only has the the new technology installed a new form of communicative apartheid as evidenced by the uneven global spread of internet hosts and web users, but the nature of this trend also gives the illusion of empowerment. In their 1997 book, The Global Media,  Edward Herman and Robert McChesney are rightly critical of the notion that the growth in internet use results in the ability of humanity to leapfrog over existing forms of corporate communication, citing the internet’s rapid commercialization which functions in sharp contrast to it.

While in theory, the development of the internet is the potential catalyst for an active, responsible and informed citizenship to grow, the reconciling of technology with a democratic utopianism presupposes that those who control communications technology are politically and ideologically impartial in a way that the British state broadcaster, for example, is not.

The notion that BBC news journalists are impartial and that their role is to bring power to account, is based on a collective delusion. In Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media, political scientist, Michael Parenti argues that these kinds of journalists:

“Rarely doubt their own objectivity even as they faithfully echo the established political vocabularies and the prevailing politico-economic orthodoxy. Since they do not cross any forbidden lines, they are not reined in. So they are likely to have no awareness they are on an ideological leash” (1986, p.25).

But surely establishment journalists are free to say what they want in a democracy?

In 1996, Noam Chomsky challenged the assertion made by the BBCs Andrew Marr that his views were not the product of a form of self-censorship. Chomsky said:

“I’m sure you believe everything you are saying. But what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you [Marr] wouldn’t be sitting where you are sitting.”

In other words, as Michael Parenti commenting on how media bias manifests, said of establishment journalists like Marr: “[Journalists] say what [they] like because they [their proprietors] like what [they] say.”

Propaganda

If the internet is to successfully leapfrog over what John Pilger describes as “the best, most sophisticated propaganda service in the world”, it must free itself from the forms of control indicative of its traditional counterparts.

Launched in February, 2004, the on-line social media site, Facebook, looked like it offered a genuine avenue for alternative forms of information to flourish freely. But recent evidence uncovered by the website Vox Political points to attempts by the corporation to suppress this free flow of information (see graphic below):

vox.png

According to another popular left-wing site, Skawkbox, statistics for its blog “show a ratio of around four or five visitors via Facebook for every one via Twitter. Over the last few days that has dropped to around one and a half Facebook referrals to every Twitter visitor.”

This is in line with additional analysis which suggests that new Google algorithm’s are restricting access to other left-wing progressive web sites.

The question of whether the cultural globalization of virtual space will result in the homogenization and neutralization of public and political discourse in similar ways that have befallen the traditional media, is likely to depend on the extent to which it is subject to the same distorted relations of economic power. For a liberal democracy like the UK that boasts about its plurality, the signs do not appear to be encouraging:

“Frank Beacham who enthused about the internet as a public sphere outside of corporate or government control in early 1995, lamented one year later that the internet was shifting ‘from being a participatory medium that serves the interests of the public to being a broadcast media where corporations deliver consumer-orientated information. Interactivity would be reduced to little more than sales transactions and e mail.” (Herman, E. & McChesney, R. (1997) ‘The Global Media’, p.135).

Commercial values

The implication is that the nature of the new, as with old, media content is implicitly and explicitly determined or influenced by advertising and commercial values. A key issue relates to whether information that is not influenced by the above factors is freely accessible in other forms. The main problem with liberal democracies is not necessarily that information is unavailable to the public, or that voting procedures, for example, are too cumbersome, rather it is the public’s lack of scepticism and desire to root out the facts (See for example, Hirschkop, K. in Capitalism and the Information Age, 2000).

The spread of the internet in such a situation, therefore, increases the access to far more information that would otherwise be the case with traditional forms of media. But access by itself is not the principal problem. Knowledge is not the base of its authority but its instrument. It is within this context that new media is unlikely to prove qualitatively different from the old. However, it is by its nature, likely to alter our perceptions of political space, relations to power and historical forms of rule.

In terms of production networks, global media output and global multinational capital both need technology in order to expand, just as much as technology needs multinationals and governments to globalize spaces of capital and new media through economic liberalization. Thus, globalization, technology, new media and the dominant relations of economic power are inter-connected. Moreover, as Robert McChesney asserts, these factors are reinforced by an uneven balance of power for the benefit of corporate-media political culture:

“A market dominated political economy tends to produce exactly such a political culture, to some extent because commercial penetration tends to undermine the autonomous social organisations that can bring meaning to public life…A capitalist society works most efficiently when the bulk of the population is demoralized and effectively depoliticised…As the Financial Times put it, ‘capitalist democracy can best succeed to the extent that it is about ‘the process of depoliticising the economy.’ The global commercial media are integral to this depoliticization process” (1997, pp.16-17).

Whether virtual space can bring about a new democratic polity based upon notions of social, economic and political justice, will depend on whether networked technologies are able to break free from the grip of the distortions that reflect the overriding interests associated with traditional forms of media proprietorship.

Ultimately, new media is shaped by the ideology of power, not democracy. In the context in which a Guardian editorial recently argued that “censoring the internet is necessary”, and a mainstream media which historian Mark Curtis contends, “keeps the public in the dark about virtually every important current and historical policy”, the stakes could hardly be higher.

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The twentieth anniversary of Radiohead’s ‘Ok Computer’. But is it any good?

By Daniel Margrain

Image result for pics of ok computer

I stopped reading the New Musical Express (NME) not long after writers of the caliber of Julie Burchill, Steven Wells, Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray stopped writing for it. Anton Corbijn’s stunning and memorable monochrome photography added to the mix of art, politics and music that made the paper special. For many people my age, the post-punk and new wave era, corresponded to a golden age in rock music and rock music journalism.

The NME seemed to have more credibility than its main rivals, the Melody Maker and Sounds. It’s music journalism was acerbic, if at times irreverent and pretentious, but as teenager and twenty-something I couldn’t do without my weekly fix.

Indicative of a great deal of what continues to pass for rock music journalism in Britain, it’s flaws were that it was probably too colloquial in its outlook, disproportionately praising UK bands at the expense of those in the USA.

The emergence of the stupefying Brit-pop scene in the early 1990s marked a nadir for the paper. The genres iconography was as reactionary as the music was derivative and bombastic. The paper’s content began to reflect this superficiality. Among the ubiquitous genre of Britpop artists to emerge during this period were the British band, Radiohead, who unlike many of their contemporaries, the NME were largely indifferent to.

Proving to be more of a critical and commercial success outside Britain than in it during the early 1990s, it wasn’t until the release of their third album, OK Computer in 1997 that the group received widespread critical acclaim. The album initiated a stylistic shift toward a more atmospheric and melancholic sound of rock music whose abstract lyrics touched on themes of urban living, alienation, technology and modernity.

The music journalist at the NME whose words I paid close attention to more than any other during my youth, Nick Kent, wrote in Mojo about Ok Computer:

“Others may end up selling more, but in 20 years time I’m betting [the album] will be seen as the key record of 1997, the one to take rock forward instead of artfully revamping images and song structures from an earlier era.”

Twenty years since Kent wrote his piece, it’s perhaps worth considering whether his enthusiasm for the album is justified? I listened to it again for the first time for many years yesterday (July 19, 2017). My indifference to the work hasn’t changed.

The recording opens with Airbag, a kind of meticulously crafted and structured post-modern form of psychedelia updated for a generation unfamiliar with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Musically, the piece is rather dull, a theme that sets the tone for much of the album.

Paranoid Android is marked by the shift towards early Roxy-Music-esque prog-rock, hard rock and Gothic and blues elements that invoke a curious merging of Van der Graaf Generator and the Rolling Stones Beggar’s Banquet. Although its a slight departure from the opening track, it’s no less boring.

The self-confessed attempts by the group to emulate the disturbing atmosphere of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew in Subterranean Homesick Alien fails to capture the dense and chaotic magma of that piece, but instead is closer to the relatively conventional jazz of Herbie Hancock sprinkled with the transcendentalism of Pink Floyd.

The Romeo and Juliet-inspired Exit Music (For a Film) illustrates quite a clever use of vocal, acoustic guitar, mournful choir, electronics, renaissance-sounding mellotron and distorted trip-hop bass that is quite effective in its way, but hardly innovative. Nevertheless, this solemn requiem is one of the few successful and interesting moments on the album.

Let Down is basically a trance track featuring a subtle use of electronica that overlays some of the bands David Crosby-ian influences from their second album, The Bends. With a melodic chord progression reminiscent of the Beatles Sexy Sadie, the albums sixth track, Karma Police (inspired by Sgt Pepper), includes a pleasant Elton John-style romantic piano motif that eventually dissipates into a black hole of effects. Again, not a bad piece, but it’s not something I would necessarily have any desire to hear again either.

Fitter Happier is a short throwaway piece of sampled musique concrete, while Electioneering is heavy rock reminiscent of the groups debut, Pablo Honey. The next track, Climbing Up the Walls, is layered with a string section, ambient noise and repetitive, metallic percussion, while the renaissance-infused mournful hymn of the Beach Boys-inspired No Surprises, whose use of glockenspiel in the refrain reminiscent of a music box, is probably the best known cut on the album.

The penultimate apocalyptic, orchestral and choral, Lucky, is as languid and overblown a piece as the worst excesses of Pink Floyd. The album closes with The Tourist, a meandering waltz for the blues.

The album has its moments but there is simply a lack of quality in the structure of the songs and too much of it is filler. The melodramatic dirges and vocals are too hard to take after a while, especially during a single sitting. Ultimately, there is not enough interest to justify its length.

Production values can only sustain interest up to a point before the limitations of what lies underneath are exposed. This was true of Sgt Pepper and Dark Side as it is with Ok Computer.

Ultimately, Radiohead’s “art” in Ok Computer, like David Bowie’s, is the personification of artifice. As one independent critic, Piero Scaruffi, argued:

“[Ok Computer] embodies the quintessence of artificial art, raising futility to paradigm, focusing on the phenomenon rather than the content…of concentrating on ‘sound’ to the expense of “music”.

The leading creative force of the band, Thom Yorke, openly admitted in an interview in Mojo that the appropriation of other artists ideas – The Beatles, REM, Beach Boys, P J Harvey, Can and others – acted as the catalyst and provided the inspiration that culminated in the creation of the records “sound”.

There is nothing wrong in artists admitting  influences and sources. On the contrary, it is an admirable position to take. But as influential as the work of peers might be to an artist, it doesn’t necessarily follow that great art emerges from these influences. OK Computer, whose whole is not, in my view, greater than the sum of its parts, is a case in point.

That the album is regarded by many critics to be the best of the last 25 years; is included in many of the ‘best of’ lists including Rolling Stone and is even ranked by some to be the best rock album of all-time, is in my view, a gross overstatement of the albums artistic historical significance.

According to Tim Footman:

“Not since 1967, with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, had so many major critics agreed immediately, not only on an album’s merits, but on its long-term significance, and its ability to encapsulate a particular point in history.”

This kind of a simplified critique arguably says more about how corporate music journalism operates and the limited parameters it sets, than it does about genuine creative and artistic worth of pieces of music.

The “artistic merits” of Ok Computer relate to the extent to which the public and critics alike buy into the illusion that its production excesses are art and that these excesses don’t detract from the mediocre quality of the content.

The concept of style over substance embodied in pop and rock music can be traced back to the Beatles Sgt Pepper album in 1967 where the role of producer, George Martin (the fifth Beatle), was widely regarded as being at least an equal, if not a more important figure, than the musicians.

It’s no coincidence that Thom Yorke (who outlined how important producer Nigel Godrich, characterised as Radiohead’s “sixth member”, was to Ok Computer), cited Sgt Pepper, particularly, A Day In the Life, as a major influence on him. It also explains why Tim Footman cited above, holds both Sgt Pepper and Ok Computer in equally high esteem. 

Radiohead upped the ante. But beneath the artifice there really isn’t much substance to their “art” and precious little for critics to write about the groups songs or the competency of the musicians who perform them.

The fact that twenty years on from the release of Ok Computer, not a single corporate critic has alluded to the fact that the album is a masterpiece of “faux avantegarde”, as Piero Scaruffi put it, or that the group who made it are one of the most hyped and overrated bands probably since U2, is a reflection of the lack of good quality independent music journalism in this country and abroad,

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Gods & Monsters

By Daniel Margrain

 

Image result for pics of frankenstein and god

During the pre-enlightenment before science, the earth was widely perceived as a stable force at the centre of the universe overseen by the purveyors of God who envisaged humanity as being fixed and set in stone. The appetite for tasting the forbidden fruit that intellectual curiosity implies, was widely regarded as being concomitant to bringing forth evil into the world.

Thus theologians rationalized the tendency to disobey God as a primordial human urge that had to be controlled by a deity through which wrongdoers were required to seek salvation in order to absolve themselves of their intellectual impulses. As theology eventually began to accede to scientific inquiry, this salvation correspondingly began to take root in a system of ideas embodied in the philosophical writings of Aristotle.

Dovetailed

The positions in society that individuals were perceived to have naturally occupied, all dovetailed together, according to Aristotle, to form a pattern of the universe which gave everything its purpose. Aristotlian philosophy centred on order, was to be one of the guiding principles of the enlightenment which legitimized the continued existence of uneven relations of power.

So although the enlightenment was a great leap forward from the idea that the power of Kings was historically fixed predicated on a grand purpose and design ordained by God, modernity nevertheless remained tied to the concept of progress as being that of the development of the human mind and of human nature as unchanging.

The classical economists who arose out of the enlightenment were thus able to treat the existence of private property as fixed and ‘natural’. Similar claims are made by evolutionary psychologists who reinforce the ideology that human behaviour or psychological characteristics are a biological adaptation shaped by natural selection hard-wired into the human brain.

The notion that human behaviour is genetically determined and that biology holds the key to solving social problems and the related claim that biology demonstrates the limits of social reform, has a long history going back to Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, in 1865.

Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology reinforce the ideological notion that the mass of ordinary people are conditioned to know their place within an ‘unchanging’ society even though the great changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution prove that power had transferred from feudal landlords to corporate grandees.

Commodification

By the mid 19th century, the supplanting of the aristocracy of land with money led to the transference of the great estates to commodities. Karl Marx was the first to analyse in detail the nature of the emerging capitalism in which the worker devotes his life to producing objects which he does not own or control. The labour of the worker, according to Marx, thus becomes something separate and external to him.

In the year of Marx’s birth in 1818, a young English author called Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley published, in London, the first edition of the Gothic and Romantic science fiction novel, Frankenstein – the tale of a monster which turns against its creator. It’s the externalizing and uncontrollable forces Shelley describes in her masterpiece that draws parallels with the daily lot of workers.

It was precisely the lack of any control workers had in the production process during the industrial revolution that led to the Luddites smashing up the machines that churned out the fruits of their alienated labour. For Marx, alienation is a material and social process that is intrinsic to society and nature in flux.

In dialectical terms, change in nature is marked by a state of continuous motion driven by the struggle of conflicting and antagonistic forces. Since humans are an integral part of nature, they can not be excluded from the socioeconomic forces that shape it. At some point quantitative change results in fundamental qualitative change.

An acorn, in becoming an oak, for example, will have ceased to be an acorn. Yet implicit within the acorn is the potential to become an oak. Similarly, the socioeconomic system of capitalism, in potentially becoming something else, will eventually at some point – as was the case with feudalism before it – cease to be.

Transformation

The dramatic rise in popularity of the socialist, Jeremy Corbyn, could be said to be symptomatic of the beginning of this kind of transformation. At some point diametrically opposing and irreconcilable forces – in this case between capital and labour – have to break. To suggest otherwise, is to imply that capitalism which emerged around 200 years ago, will – evoking Fukuyama’s End of History thesis – continue for the rest of eternity.

Just as Dr Frankenstein couldn’t control the monster he created and the machines couldn’t contain the impulses of workers in the factories wrought by the impacts of industrial capitalism, so it is the case that the establishment won’t be able to control the anti-capitalist forces which Corbyn has unleashed.

The history of colonial and imperialist oppression has been marked by the ability of the oppressors to suppress opposition to their rule using monsters as part of their strategy of divide and conquer. However, what the oppressors rarely appear to factor in to their strategies, is the potential for both the monsters and ordinary people alike, to break free from their chains.

The brainwashing techniques of the corporate media, in conjunction with the Machiavellian politicians who sing to the tune of their paymasters intent on controlling the latter, cannot be sustained indefinitely. In terms of the former, not only are monsters able to break free from the oppressors who create and nurture them, but paradoxically, they also create the conditions in which a greater number of other uncontrollable monsters emerge.

This, for example, was the case in Afghanistan during the 1980s following Carter’s 1979 covert programme in support of tribal groups known as the mujahedin. The kinds of monsters which successive US governments have helped nurture, have managed to either strain at their leash (as in the case of the Zionists in Israel), or they have broken free from their masters grip (as is the case of ISIS in Syria).

Biting the hand

In both cases the monster has bitten the financial hand of Washington that feeds it. This has resulted in unintended, and often unpredictable, geopolitical consequences. However, there are other monsters which their creators manage to exert a tight control over.

An example, is the extent to which Washington has managed to maintain leverage over terrorist fighters in central and south America who continue to emerge from what was formerly known as the School of the Americas located at Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia.

The school was almost certainly responsible for training the regime that overthrew the Honduran government headed by Manuel Zelaya in June, 2009, as well as fomenting the March, 2016 coup that culminated in the assassination of the leading grass-roots Honduran environmental activist, Berta Caceres.

More recently, SOA-trained fighters, at the behest of Washington, are likely to be similarly implicated in the current attempts to destabilize Venezuela. In addition, ISIS and their various terrorist offshoots in Syria are trained and funded, either overtly or covertly, by Britain and numerous foreign mercenary forces form part of the imperialists geopolitical and regime change strategy in the country.

Saudi Arabia, who is one of the key players in Syria, has also been bombarding Yemen since at least September, 2015 using weaponry sold to them by the UK-US governments’. Faustian pacts with the devil have, largely by way of ‘blow back’, contributed significantly to the exponential spread of terrorism worldwide.

Defining terrorism

Given that the FBI defines terrorism as “violent acts …intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government, or affect the conduct of a government”, it’s difficult to rationalize how the violation of international law in this way, is not illustrative of anything other than the kinds of terrorism the Western powers accuse their official enemies of committing.

The truth is the biggest, most powerful monsters, are the establishment elite who occupy the corridors of Washington, Westminster, Whitehall and Fleet Street. If God does exist, maybe he will be at the gates of Heaven to pass judgement on the corrupt ruling class who will do anything in order to maintain their privileges in the service of naked self-interest, money and power.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn has given ordinary people belief that there is a feasible alternative to endless war, poverty, austerity, climate chaos and “gushing-up” neoliberal economics. Corbyn has provided us with a chink of light in what has been a very long and bleak tunnel of hopelessness and despair.

We are getting increasingly closer to establishing the number to the combination lock that will free us from an insane corporate capitalist logic of the kind that motivates the monsters of imperial power. Jeremy Corbyn’s long-standing principled opposition to capitalist excess and the unambiguous way he linked terrorism directly to the British state, would suggest that the number to the combination is to be found in the jacket pocket of his ill-fitted suit.

I rely on the generosity of my readers. I don’t make any money from my work and I’m not funded. If you’ve enjoyed reading this or another posting, please consider making a donation, no matter how small. You can help continue my research and write independently..… Thanks!


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