Monday, 7 September 2015

Symmes Roll

In breaks at work these last weeks I've been dipping in and out of James McGonigal and John Coyle's fine and generous selection of Edwin Morgan's letters. They're a treat.

A lovely surprise, this Friday last, stumbling across an account of Morgan reading Ian Wedde's masterpiece Symmes Hole. The Scottish Pacific rises up again! The contact was via - who else? - Alan Riach.

Morgan takes a while to warm up to the novel, writing to Riach in April 1987:

“Well I finished that extraordinary Symmes book and have now passed it on to Dr McCarey from whom you will doubtless receive a ‘second opinion’. I must admit I skipped here and there, finding the ubiquitous triple dotting … extrememly irritating …. And the disconnectedness that might be a virtue in poetry … somewhat worrying in a prose story. I think I was also a mite disappointed that the title promised more than ever appeared; perhaps I was misled by Verne/Poe/ERBurroughs expectations; the hole, in fact, seemed to be fairly peripheral as holes go. Like your father, I enjoyed the ‘sea’ parts of it best, especially such longish passages as escaped the plague of dots. The great virtue of the book is in what it brings together; you’re forced to think and rethink. Its weakness, no it’s not exactly a weakness, its problem for most readers I imagine is simply its density, and the very difficult of perceiving a goal. Anyhow I’m very grateful to you for shooting it across my bow.”

He continues to other subjects, before finishing:

“Dan Sweigert, of Batavia (Illinois, not Indonesia) is busy setting my ‘Message Clear’ to piano roll music (for player pianos). Letters become holes in rolls. Symmes Roll, and a vicus of recirculation from the northern periphery –“

* * *

Saturday, 18 April 2015

ANZAC: they'll remember it for us wholesale

I hadn’t expected the shift from pomposity to kitsch to be so sudden, or so vertiginous. Gesturing at its own hyperreality the opening this morning of Pukeahu National War Memorial Park – a bipartisan project of nationalist reaction planted in the middle of Wellington – things moved from the physical to the digital, from actors marching in front of us to footage of history as consumer spectacle on the big screen. The same performers, the same script, the move seamless. A woman in red prancing about the tower until, above us, the War Memorial threw out billows of the same fabric, the same symbol. Blood? Memory? Poppies? Intoxication, certainly. It was Leni Riefenstahl meeting the Feebles.

“in face of the massive realities of present-day social existence, individuals do not actually experience events. Because history itself is the spectre haunting modern society, pseudo-history has to be fabricated at every level of the consumption of life; otherwise, the equilibrium of the frozen time that presently holds sway could not be preserved.” (Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 200)

Who better to package and present our pseudo-history than Peter Jackson, kitsch master and union-buster of the Wellington ‘creative’ class? There’s an obvious – and essential – political point to make about memory and forgetting, the traces suppressed (dissent, sedition, resistance, revolt) in the recording of this particular story. But this morning something deeper seemed at work – full fantasy, full consumption, ANZAC as video game and branding exercise and empty spectacle. Join #theshadowbattalion, care of your local bank! Keep your memories fresh in the crisper over the ditch at Woolies!

A "new depthlessness...a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum." A “society bereft of all historicity, whose own putative past is little more than a set of dusty spectacles." (Who else? Jameson back in 1984, and still making the case today.)

This is New Zealand nationalism, however, a different package to the brasher and more direct boosterism of the rather more ambitious political culture across the Tasman. The volume’s down low; the emphasis is on commemoration, compassion, tributes. The tone is sober. The message is the same nonetheless; gathering for our protest this morning we had a plain-clothes police officer waiting to try and intimidate us and to threaten our right to assembly. Dissent gets stifled in low key ways in this country perhaps, but it gets stifled all the same.

And that red! The price of nationhood, some polite voice on Nine to Noon called it earlier in the week. Workers’ blood, wasted invading Turkey a century ago. What relevance has that to now, and what forces are served in this aestheticization of politics? The resonances were somewhere between Marvel comics and European fascism. 

That, of course, isn’t a question you’re supposed to ask. They died for our freedoms, so make sure you don’t try and use those freedoms. Debord again: “The spectacle manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond dispute.” Or, as the man said to me this morning, there’s a time and a place for everything: the Prime Minister might be there, but no politics at this war ceremony please.

I’m glad we did a little to disrupt the spectacle, and I’m dreading the coming years in this carnival of reactionBut I wonder this morning too if ‘peak brANZAC’ might be on its way. They can remember it for us wholesale. Capitalism can commodify everything – even memories – but there’s a risk in that for our rulers. Video games sometimes give you the controls.

[Images: the photographs of our protest I took, and the others are from the twitter feed of the British High Commissioner, who declares himself 'moved' by this tribute to sacrifice.] 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Jottings from Marxism in Melbourne

Back yesterday from a week in Melbourne, and four days at Marxism 2015. I’ve been travelling across, on and off, to Marxism for a dozen years now; I think this year’s conference was the best and most rewarding I’ve been to yet.

The stand-out sessions, for me, were talks by Marjorie Thorpe and Noel C Tovey AM. Both I’m sure I’ll be telling my children about many years from now, as moments I was near enough to History to feel it shivering. Thorpe, in sharing stories of her family’s times in Fitzroy, managed to recreate a whole social world of Aboriginal resistance, survival, struggle and celebration. A revelation. Noel C Tovey AM is one of Australia’s most celebrated Aboriginal dancers, actors, directors and performers. I hadn’t, to my shame, heard of him or his achievement before the conference – sitting through the excerpts he performed for us of Little Black Bastard, the story of the suffering early years, was one of the most moving theatrical experiences I’ve had in years. How often do you listen to the memories of a man who was at the Stonewall Riots, and has performed on some of the most distinguished stages of the world? He was Young, Black, and Gay in 1950s Australia and he has survived to teach us all. A mind-bending life. Liz Ross’s interview with him in Red Flag gives just a little sampling of a richer feast.

What else? Khury Petersen-Smith was eloquent and wise on the struggles against racist state murder in the United States and the #BlackLivesMatter movement; a series of talks on philosophy and theory (on Lise Vogel; on Spinoza; on Hegel’s Phenomenology); an eye-opening and absorbing account by ETU militant Strawbs Hayes on organizing FIFO workers. This last talk was as much a cultural experience as a political one for me – who knew unionists in the Northern Territory can hold meetings under the shade of the gum tree?

The organization I’m a member of was able to host Nadia Abu-Shanab, from Auckland Action Against Poverty, as one of the speakers over the weekend. There are connections to be made.


My own talk on the poets in World War One went well, I think, although the stage is usually the worst place to judge those kinds of things.

It was a particular pleasure to be able to do the Australian launch of Writing the 1926 General Strike as a part of the conference, and so nice to have a dear friend and comrade James Plested do the launching. Thanks to the organisers for making this possible.

And the books! My budget, as usual, blown: Bryan Palmer’s biography of James P. Cannon; Cannon’s own Notebooks of an Agitator; a collection of essays by Alan M. Wald on Writing from the Left.

Stutje’s biography of Ernest Mandel.

(I've learnt more from Mandel than a love of what Americans call "sweater vests", but I won't pretend that isn't part of the education too.)

Otto Braun’s account of being A Comintern Agent in China, covering his time journey with Mao and the Party through the Long March and after. This I picked up for $1 on the sale bin, and am not sure what to expect: the introduction mentions that Braun “suffered from the disadvantage of being ignorant of the Chinese language, culture, and history.” Let’s see.

There are lots of new friends met each time I go over for the conference, and that youth and energy are inspiring. But important for me too are the old faces – people I met a decade ago who are active still and in a range of different campaigns and questions. We’re building something real.

[The conference photographs I've taken from the Marxism Conference tumblr and Facebook pages -- both accessible via]