Monday, December 13, 2010

Don't piss in the kettle

Since last posting here, I have become a full time dissident.

We did not rise early on Thursday. There was no need to: the Commons wouldn't be voting until 5pm and the protest began at 12. We were marching to stop Nick Clegg from bringing off his latest and most dastardly plot. The crowd assembled at ULU. Above us was the Apache helicopter off Wikileaks, ready to gun down with relish anyone seen carrying a beach umbrella. Around us people were handing out flyers giving advice on what to do if we were arrested and earnest men were debating the relative merits of mutualism and collectivism; speaking much as if the matter would have to be settled by the end of the day, by which time we would have seized all major offices of state and it would be necessary for us to install some new form of government (or indeed non-government).

There was also a stall selling the Socialist Worker. My friends and I have long taken issue with the Socialist Worker's "F**K FEES" slogan.

"You should have courage in your expletives," my friend told one of the people running the stall.

"That's actually an old argument," he replied, "You know it's actually illegal to display obscenities and actually you can be prosecuted for it."

That's the spirit.

Soon we were marching. My two friends and I had with us blackboards and chalk. On these we wrote withering, ironic phrases which we angled at passing media people. "Don't piss in the kettle" (accompanied by a picture of a kettle) was an early favourite.

We marched and marched and marched and when we reached the north side of Parliament Square we stopped. Now, it was apparently at this stage that we "deviated from the agreed route": we were supposed to carry on up Whitehall then turn right and have a rally up by the Hungerford Railway Bridge.

There are two things that it is worth saying about this. One, most of us had not heard anything about any agreed route and it seemed as though the way up Whitehall was blocked. Two, the proposed rally point, up by the Hungerford Railway Bridge, is about three quarters of a kilometre from the House of Commons and isolated from politically iconic buildings.

The green on Parliament Square was protected by temporary fencing but some people broke it down on the south side of the square and soon we had all piled in. As a crowd, we were pushing to the west towards the Palace of Westminster. Some sort of battling was going on at the front but, back where we were, we practised our chants and drank whisky-laced coffee:

"Whose streets? Arse treats! Whose streets? Arse treats!"

This went on for some time and people began settling in, making fires from placards and so on. It seems perversely radical to burn your own message.

Then, for reasons few of us understood at the time, we all abandoned the eastern front and tried to scarper off down Victoria Steeet in the south-west corner of the square (I learned later that we were trying to avoid being kettled and that this was the last way out of the square). It was in that corner that the Met had stationed its most ill-tempered employees. It had hoisted some on enormous horses.

There was a certain amount of stick and smoke-bomb chucking going on. Soon, there were cries of "make way, make way" as young girls bleeding from the head were carried back through the crowd. My friend, who is taller than me, said that from what he could see, one of the police officers was a special maniac and might have been responsible for this.

Then there was a cavalry charge. Trying to stay upright in a terrified crowd of hundreds of people while carrying a blackboard and fleeing charging horses as fast as you can is difficult. The Python Terry Jones used to say that he was tickled by the use of 'run away!' as a military command and enjoyed putting it in the script of Holy Grail as many times as possible. On Thursday, it was the only command I had any use for. When I turned round I saw two figures standing among the horses holding each other. They each looked about four and a half feet tall. This little phase was later reported by Sky News as "Mounted police attacked by protesters".

As the crowd reformed, the mood changed. Time to redaub our chalky palimpsests with more serious-minded, horse-themed slogans. My friend came up with "We met at the riding club". I had "Courses not horses". The fences around the green had been supported by concrete blocks; people were now smashing these into smaller pieces to hurl at the police lines. While I watched someone doing this, a man said to me that he thought throwing lumps of concrete was going too far. I suggested that so long as they were very small lumps – gravel-size, say – it might not be that bad. Another man explained to him that he only had these reservations because he is English: in continental Europe they do this sort of thing all the time and everybody thinks it's fine – indeed, it is fine (he said).

It became clear that getting out on to Victoria Street was no longer possible. We drifted back to the green for a slow simmer in the kettle and waited for the outcome of the vote, which was to be announced some time after 5.30pm. We ate some homemade samosas and someone set fire to a plastic booth creating a vast column of black smoke. The air was seriously acrid and choking from this point on.

We had a little radio and were able to announce that the bill had passed to some nearby people. No reaction. We booed a bit and then set about trying to leave. This turned out to be impossible and one of my friends became separated from the other two of us.

Twenty minutes later, I spotted him in a surging crowd of hundreds of people running away from a police baton charge. I pulled him into the relatively calmer waters at the edge of the Treasury building. No sooner had we achieved this reunion than we became the front line. We were some of the only people standing between police lines and people trying to break a Treasury window. A strong light shone on us from a helicopter far above.

The crowd began doing some fairly unusual multi-tasking. One eye had to be kept on the agitated police line but the other eye was needed to appraise the work of the window smashers who, at this stage, were doing a clearly inadequate job. For one thing, they were hitting the central and most boingy window panes. For another, they were using blunt pieces of concrete. People began shouting advice: "smash the wood!"; "no, smash the glass and then pull out the frame!"; "get a run up!".

Eventually, some masked men turned up with a big metal pole and began lancing the window. "Sorry, sorry. Excuse me," was their cry as they came through the crowd.

A light came on inside the room, suggesting that there were police inside. This was a bad window, the crowd decided. There is a board behind it and, even though we've got through the glass, there'll be no getting through that board. Next window!

The next window had no board behind it and was helpless in the face of seasoned lancers. The blind was ripped out and burned. Hurrah! said the crowd.

My friend asked me what we would do if people started going in to the Treasury. Would we go in? There was no time to answer this question: the police had picked their moment and were charging full pelt with their batons, whacking everyone in their way. Disarray ensued. My friend and I were briefly part of a sit down protest. "Sit down! Everyone sit down!" we were yelling. Then the police charged again: "Fuck! Don't sit down! Don't sit down!"

Running away, we discovered a man smashing a Treasury door. With a little bit of help from others, he was through and people began streaming into the building. Time for that question again: are we going to go in? But, within seconds, everyone was streaming out again, as if repelled by a dragon.

Then began a long fight against the police officers inside using a piece of fencing. People smashed the windows around the door and chucked in bangers. Some people managed to grab truncheons. People hurled themselves at police shields. A masked boy opened a window that seemed to have been unlocked. Back in the audience, between 2 and 10 metres away, we were busy contextualising. Storming the Treasury: the most significant bit of civil disobedience since the poll tax riots, or even the Chartists. A new 1968.

The debate disbanded as police made another baton charge. At this point, we were in danger of being crushed between two separate police lines so we headed away from the Treasury down towards the Supreme Court. In this, the most quiet part of the square, we encountered a Financial Times journalist. She wanted to know what was going on but refused to go any nearer to the noisy section. We could have told her anything.

Further along, a pasty man who was bleeding from the head in two places was wobbling on his feet and asking police if he might be allowed to leave in order to attend hospital. The police told him that they were not going to let him through. Where had he got that bandage? they asked him. He had got it at first aid tent on the green, his friends told them. The police were suspicious of this. The pasty man's companions were in a mood of perfect consternation:

"What's the quickest way we can get him to hospital? Please get him an ambulance."

"All the ambulances are gone and I can't let you through."

After a lot more of this a police medic let him through.

Towards the abbey, another police officer was moving batonless through the kettle rounding up tired people who wanted to leave. He proposed letting us leave in small groups from the south-east corner. We stood in a crowd in that corner for a long time. The police guarding the barriers said they wanted young girls. The bored crowd offered this virginal sacrifice with no resistance but still we were not allowed to leave. An hour later, the police told us that they wouldn't be letting us out after all. Terrible service.

We moped around at the barriers by the parliament. A while later, the police were up to something. Hundreds more were pouring in from the House of Lords end. They had dogs. As they formed their lines, someone played the Imperial March from Star Wars through a megaphone.

Then some good news: we were to be set free! Simply head up to Westminster Bridge and we'll let you out. Thank you, police. Very kind. We read our what-to-do-if-you-get-arrested slips and walked on to Westminster Bridge. The police line ahead of us halted and a new one formed behind us. Much colder out on the bridge. People made some fires and started doing the hokey cokey.

Someone with a radio said that the news was reporting that we were refusing to leave. We did a lot of non-political, 'let us go'-themed chanting.

Someone else with a radio said that we were being held in the cold in order to allow Prince Charles to get to the Palladium safely. This was angry-making news.

Some time after 11, they started letting us out. When we got home, we found that the news was only interested in the Charles and Camilla paint business.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Maximum solidarity

I have been thinking long and hard about how to optimise passive solidarity with striking tube workers. All week in fact. Is it more solidarious to make a big deal of the pain the associated disruption caused you or is it more solidarious to take it in your stride? The point of the strike is disruption; a successful strike is disruptive. In which case, it is important to stress that the strike caused you lots of trouble – this should count as praise of the strike. This is generally the line taken by all those goofs the Evening Standard finds on the street and recruits for 20 words of moaning.

The trouble with those goofs is that they all too often go on to suggest that the strikers are of their essence very bad and should be prevented by emergency legislation from enacting any further heinous withdrawal of labour. This is where they go wrong.

I have devised an equation for constructing strike-sympathetic comments to provide to newspapers:

Stress enormous painful disruption caused + Express sympathy for strikers themselves = Maximum optimal solidarity

Also, who are those 'volunteers' who appear in Underground stations during strikes? Are they picket line-crossing tube workers or are they general purpose anti-strike fans? What is their fucking game?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The least trustworthy of animals

The animal least worthy of trust is the centaur. With its soft, downy fur and playful sense of irony it pretends mammalianism but, like the insect, its limbs are six. The internet has noticed:

Re: Mommy, where do Centaurs come from?

Eldariel, 08-28-2009, 09:00 AM
It's worth remembering that Centaurs have 6 limbs and thus cannot be mammals. Indeed, I'd say their likeness to Humans and Horses is only coincidental and they are descend from insects whose exoskeleton just so happens to remind skin (why do you think they have natural armor?) and whose antennae have developed to double as ears.

Eldariel called it good. But further down on the same page of internet Mark Hall says this:

Mark Hall, 08-28-2009, 08:21 PM
Technically, 5. Humans and other apes are a little freakish in that we've only got 4, though our 5th is visible in our skeletons.

Hall means tails. Tails are limbs ergo mammals have five limbs. But are tails limbs, Hall? According to the dictionary, a tail is a jointed or prehensile appendage. Prehensile can mean grabby, quick on the uptake, or avaricious. Consider the horse's tail: it is none of these things. At best, the horse's tail is swishy. Here is a diagram:

In a modern horse, the tail does contain some bones and is ergo jointed. But the bones are few and the nature of the horse's tail is predominantly swishy, not jointed. Ergo, the horse's tail is not a limb and ergo centaurs are insects.

Turning now to the skeletal system of a modern centaur, we see that the problems make manifold their instances:

Two ribcages. Wherein, we are supposed to believe, throb two hearts, two pancreata, two souls? Not likely. The centaurs' treachery is too base to be given full expression in Earth languages.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Peer to Peer

Here is an idea for a new television programme.

Two young men (with iPhones) compete to see who can ascend to the higher rank of peerage in a year. They are set challenges: promoting organic chicken against the clock, redecorating a house against the clock, getting youngsters to try tripe against the clock, delivering thirty pizzas.

The two are life-long friends. Their names are Joss and Helena. Even at school, each knew that to live his life untitled would be unbearable.

Helena says, "I got a lot of peer pressure at school: Dad was only a baronet and sometimes that was pretty hard."

Joss says, "I'm really stoked about this year. What do I want out of it? A dukedom would be great but I think I'd probably be just as happy to be an earl."

Along the way, they are given advice by John Prescott, Tony Benn and others. Their story is interspersed with real-life stories of those that made it — Prescott himself, Voldemort — and tragic no-hopers — Stephen Fry, Eamon Holmes.

Alternative names for the show:
  • Lordy!
  • Peer Pressure
  • We Woz Robed

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Very Good Speech

I have done a painting to commemorate Gordon Brown's very good speech to Citizens UK yesterday.

You can also watch the very good speech right here.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


In Woody Allen's Stardust Memories the central character, a film director played by Allen himself, is accused of making films that are merely psychological and not political. When we think politically we think in terms of types: old people, workers, children, disabled people, Muslim people. Art allows us to see political problems through idiosyncratic individual experience. Unlike politics, art can concern itself with the specificities and ambiguities of human lives. Marx and Engels were keen that fictional characters should combine typicality (the quality of being representative of politically-relevant types of person) with individuality. Such characters "incarnate historical forces without thereby ceasing to be richly individualised".

It is with this idea in mind that were I making a film about a black child in the American state of Georgia in the 1970s and I wished to have a television in a scene, I would be wary about having the television play Rumpole of the Bailey despite the fact that I know that Reginald D Hunter, who is a black man raised in Georgia, watched Rumpole of the Bailey on the television during that time. It would risk subverting the typicality of that experience. Probably, there are other examples.

Avatar is a film that fails politically and psychologically.

Its psychological failure is of an unremarkable kind commonly associated with admiral-class blockbuster movies. There are several characters in the film: a soldier, a scientist, a corporate man, a general, some tribespeople. The soldier is a wheelchair user and the scientist is an occasional smoker. That's it for characterisation. This is a film that embraces typicality so completely that it is anti-human.

Avatar's political failure is far richer and more unusual. In this its central achievement is managing to be racist (in at least three distinct ways) while also being crudely anti-militaristic.

The first way in which Avatar is racist is in the portrayal of the indigenous Na'vi people. The Na'vi are a blue-skinned alien race who inhabit a mineral-rich world that is invaded by bad imperialist Earthlings. They are depicted dismissively as generic savages who are closer to beasts than the capitalist military colonialists. They growl and tense when confronted with disagreeable things, they wear tan loin-cloths and discount faux-tribal jewellery from Accessorize, they are vaguely "spiritual" and are concerned about ecological "balance". You do not have to be an anthropologist to imagine that there might be more to aboriginal people than this thoughtless stereotyping. There might even be cultural differences between different groups of aboriginal people. More of this sordid association with typicality, then.

The second way in which Avatar is monstrously racist is that it assumes that its story will be only be broadly appreciated if told through the eyes of a Western white man: a normal person. It is this nice normal person who renounces his technologically-rich upbringing and industrialist society and embraces instead spirituality and balance. This white person, with whom the entire audience can so easily identify, goes on to become the very best of the savages; a prophesied Warrior-King of the beast people who lands them a great victory. It is beyond the abilities of the charming, dumb aboriginals to bring about their own victory and no one would have appreciated a story told from their perspective.

It is in this feature of the film that we are invited to bear witness to the process by which the white man appoints himself entitled to absolve himself of his sins. We thus feel very good that we the audience, being nice post-white white people, identify with the white man who liberates and leads the oppressed rather than the cruel, pillaging white people with whom we have nothing in common. Similarly we have nothing in common with our colonial forebears: that is why everything is fine now.

The third way in which Avatar is racist is contained in a single piece of dialogue from the smoking scientist character. The religion of the Na'vi is based on ancestor worship. They believe that they channel the wisdom of the their ancestors through large sacred trees. The scientist explains that much of the flora of the planet is connected in the manner of synapses and exists as something like a planet-wide brain. The Na'vi, she explains, are able to tap in to the accrued knowledge of the planet through their sacred places.

So while the invading imperialists are dreadful, bad and evil they are, in fact, right and they have a better understanding of the natives' planet than the natives themselves who, earnest simpleminded pagans that they are, have but a misconceived and primitive apprehension.

So much for the racism. The anti-militarism in Avatar is not so elegantly trifurcated as the racism but it is impressive that the filmmakers were able to combine it with all the other disagreeableness. The soldiers in the film are portrayed as relentlessly mean, bloodthirsty bastards. We cheer as they are toppled from their hideous machines, stripped of their nasty overtly technological weapons and dismembered on the sacred CGI forest floor.

Western powers are currently engaged in war and the message that Avatar seems to be keen to send to the soldiers is that the wrongness of war and the root of much of the pain caused by war is the simple bastardry of the average soldier. Politics plays a part in the upper-echelons, of course, but the major problem, lest we forget, is that soldiers are awful.

But Avatar's failures are not only political and psychological they are also visual. Everyone but everyone but everyone but everyone seems to think that – whatever Avatar's other flaws – to look at it, to actually see it with your eyes is to be confronted with a parade of cinematic frames of such poignant beauty that they surpass not only all the images from other movies that we may have previously considered beautiful but all other sights that have ever encountered human retinae. I'm here to tell you that this isn't the case. The emperor is a hideous dresser.

The Na'vi are proud, lissom elf-cat people of the sort that can be found on all fantasy art forums:

The CGI forest looks fairly real but not much more so than the forest in the 2007 video game Crysis and certainly not more real than real forest, which has been seen in some films before. Throughout the film, the hatefulness and banality of what is going on taints the film so all pervasively that it is impossible to find any of it beautiful.

It also turns out that 3D does not look so much like the 3D we are used to from the real 3D world, what counts as 3D, apparently, is a series of two-dimensional planes. And high class 3D, which we are told is what Avatar has, does not involve having things appearing to point out of the screen or dangle before your eyes (in the fun way that you get in Disneyland), high class 3D is about being distracted by different layers of jellyfish seed things and having a headache.

You would be better off watching Local Hero, a film with a similar premise featuring a lanky and youthful Peter Capaldi. In Local Hero the agent of the oppressor is a young American oil executive, MacIntyre, who is sent to the northwest coast of Scotland to buy out the land from under a village in order to build an oil refinery. There he finds a close-knit community where the local hotelier is the lawyer and the preacher too. But, unlike the Na'vi, these indigenes are glad of the arrival of the neocolonialist and they see it as an opportunity to become very rich.

At first, they feign scepticism to drive up the price of the deal and MacIntyre's time there is prolonged. What follows is at once more humane than Avatar and mystical in its own right.

And, what is more, featuring, as it does, the sands of Morar, it is better looking than Avatar:

I enjoyed some other pieces about Avatar.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Election Prediction

Brown will get extradited to China over this bullying shit.

Cameron will bottle it and get caught trying to flee wearing a false moustache and carrying an old suitcase full of ladies' underwear.

Boris will see this as his chance and "form-up" in the manner of the Power Rangers to become over three hundred feet tall. He'll stride down the wider streets of London saying, in his booming giant's voice, "Who would dare not vote for me?"

In the end no one votes for him and he'll skulk off out to sea grumbling.

At this point Brown will return having grown a big horrible beard because he's been tortured. He's just in time to stop the nuclear bomb!

Everybody throws a big party for Brown.