Friday, 30 January 2015

Campanile - Friday Flash

The government troops came and took the church bells away to melt down for the war effort. 

The people in the village had no tocsin for when the enemy columns were spotted from the spire. 

They had no means of raising their god to come to the defence of his sacred temple.

They couldn’t call the farmers in from distant fields to come raise a prayer to entreat for their safety.

Nor could they toll the dead to their graves in the shadow of the church.

Both the village and its god’s passing were marked by a silent death knell.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

In Triplicate - Friday Flash

The Boss arrived and strode into his office, with the swagger of his strut beckoning me in after him. He had assumed his customary stance, presenting his back to me, arms outstretched at the level of his shoulders. Like Rio’s statue of Christ the Redeemer; like a footballer celebrating a goal with mock diffidence; like a pop singer gathering the audience’s acclaim at the end of a song. A humble messiah would have his hands clasped together, but then I wouldn’t have been able to get the arms of his coat over them.

With his garment over the crook of my arm, I approached the coat stand. I carefully enveloped the plush mantle over two of the wooden spikes and stepped back to check the flawless symmetry to stave off creasing. With the upturned talons for hats remaining empty, the array looked like a primitive pagan idol with antler horns; like a hollow man penitent bearing a crown of thorns; like a well-groomed scarecrow not yet gone to seed. 

I was snapped from my reverie by the sough of compressed air, like a refuse lorry hitting its pneumatic brakes; like a hospital respirator; like the discharge of a paintball gun. Even without looking, I knew it to be the sound of his blubbery corpus inclining into his leather chair. I quickly plopped into my own lowly supplicant’s berth and wheeled round to face him. 

He was already sweating, with a sheen of beads above his lip, like the glue waiting to receive a fake moustache; like careless crumbs from a breakfast pastry; like the accusatory powder residue of an excessive cocaine snort. 

“Some Dick-tation” he enunciated, part dyspneic wheeze, part self-satisfied susurration, fully libidinous pant. I turned to a pristine page in my spiral notebook free from my murderous doodles. He started his address. I watched his bulbous hands carve through the air as he hewed his bureaucratic inveigling; like an arthritic orchestral conductor; like a cricket umpire signalling a boundary; like a man swatting away a fly. The mote of his own thoughts at the very limits of his creativity, destroying any comprehensible rhythm when read back to him from the page.  

He clicked pudgy finger against stubby thumb with a squelch like a clown’s outsized footfall; like snapping a saturated twig; like the very sough of his chair each time he toppled into it. “Yours sincerely, signed, etc etc. Three copies in triplicate please, top copy go out second class post with my signature. My copy and file copy as per normal”. Yes indeed, how well I knew the drill. Since it had been exactly the same every day for three years. I rose up from my chair to go type.

You know, I can never read you. I never know what you’re thinking Miss Givens. Behind those tri-focals of yours”. His lips rolled back to reveal his yellowed teeth in some sort of smile Like caterpillars emerging from their leaf cover by consuming it; like skittles being released in the bowling alley from their metal pinsetter; like a stage curtain being raised to reveal hammy pastel sets. 

“There is one more letter I’d like you to transcribe… If you please…” He handed me a hand-written sheet of paper, the first occasion of such a thing. “I hope you can read my scrawl. Probably looks like a spider dipped in ink has crawled across it!” Not a spider, more like a, oh never mind, I can’t be bothered. 

I perused the letter. More bureaucratic film-flam, part hectoring, part wheedling, wholly platitudinous. But then I noticed the signature at the bottom. Not a whole colophon, just the first letter of his name, plus three ‘X’s’. Perhaps three blown kisses; or implying a triple-X certificate content to follow; or the thirty pieces of Roman silver cost of betrayal. “And if you wouldn’t mind nipping out at lunchtime and buying a present for my wife. it’s our anniversary you see. Here’s the catalogue number…” The sweat above his lip had now multiplied; like an outbreak of translucent cold sores; like a clump of frogspawn; like a- Gaaaa! I snatched the money proffered and beat it from the room as rapidly as I could. 

I sat down at my desk and picked up three sheets of A4 paper. I slipped two carbon papers separating the leaves, then began drawing. The Boss in outline, then a knife at his throat, a gun to his heart and a bomb against his blubber. A trinity of death. I removed the carbon papers. Execution now not just in triplicate, but nine-fold. Signed etc, etc…

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Second Class Citizens

Britain has for the last two parliamentary terms, one Labour, one Conservative-Lib-Dem coalition, had a black hole of debt. Although the current Chancellor George Osborne claims a growing economy will fill this hole, whoever triumphs at the next election will almost certainly tackle it with a swingeing raft of austerity cuts.

The problem with this, at least as manifested under the current government, is who suffers from the cuts. Despite government claims to the contrary, we are not in this together. Irrespective of the maths which deem cutting benefits and services of the poorest and most needy will reap the required amount of savings, rather than increased taxes on the rich, and passing over the ideological strand behind this decision, the problem is what it says about the people you will target for savings and those you won't.

Mrs Thatcher also inherited a financial black hole. She went about it through a mixture of increased economic growth (share ownership, the financial Big bang, buying council homes for private ownership) and cutting back services and benefits (local government funding, the arts, student grants, unemployment benefit). Everything had to be justified in terms of the free market. Did it turn a profit, or did it cost the State to provide? People were formally costed, either as productive, or as a drain, as a burden to the State. The productive elements of the working class were welcomed with offers to buy shares and council houses and to do everything on credit (for which we are now paying with our debt crisis). Those less well-off were pretty much left to sink in unemployment, sink housing and failing schools. And before you think this is merely a case of Thatcher or Conservative-bashing, Blair and Brown did nothing to reverse these policies of any significance. Those places that rioted in London in 2011 were the same as had rioted under Thatcher in the 80s. This was the next generation, the children and grandchildren of the earlier rioters. Nothing had materially changed within their communities in 30 years.

With Mrs Thatcher having executed the first raft of cuts to welfare benefits and services, what else remained for the current government to make savings on? They have gone far further than Thatcher ever did, targeting the disabled, people in social housing with spare rooms (a punishment for not buying your Council House?), police and army numbers cut back t5o the bare bone and despite Lib-Dem promises, an increase in student loans to pay for tuition. Yet no one is held responsible for the economic crisis that blighted so many people's lives against which this backdrop of cuts was taking place. The Power companies went unchecked on their price rises and recently laggardly response to the collapse in the oil price. Unmerited bonuses to executives leaving their jobs in failure are also allowed to proceed, unless the resignee has the grace to forego what they are entitled to, their reward for failure.

So here's the thing. All people having been costed. the decision has been made that money will be clawed-back from those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, those more vulnerable and needy, rather than those higher up. This implicitly, or maybe even explicitly, avows that such people are worth less to the government and the State than those higher up the ladder. A two-tiered system of favour and prejudice if ever there was one. The calculation is these people cost the state more and are likely to return less to the coffers, therefore they are the ones ripe for plucking for savings. Rather than tax those more able to cope and who can contribute more to State coffers. This is what happens when people are reduced to financial assets or liabilities. What does it behove a State to do to earn the loyalty and allegiance of its citizens? Not to scare off the rich with higher tax rates, or to provide a minimum level of help and assistance for those who are the worst off in society? If the rich can be frightened away so easily, then they are not really that committed to Britain, but only to their money. If the poor have their safety net shredded and ripped away from them, then that is not a State I want to pledge my allegiance to either.

This is not the politics of envy, this is the politics of decency and propriety. The terrorists win if in the campaign to defeat them, we sacrifice so much of what it means to be free and living in a democracy. Similarly, Great Britain ceases to be great if under economic burdens it strips away every welfare benefit and service that makes us a civilised society that looks after its most vulnerable citizens.

Oh and don't be fooled, if Ed Miliband acceded to power, he might tinker around the edges with things like a freeze on power prices, but he would still make swingeing cuts because he had to. How much would he tax the rich when push comes to shove? Blair didn't. Brown didn't. they are too scared of alienating some of that cohort who they know they need their votes to obtain power.

So do I have any solutions? Of course not. But I do know a society has to look at itself and decide what its values are, what living in that country means and stands for. And I know treating your citizens as economic indices and wealth-earning units is not the way to go. I also feel Great Britain should lose some of its self-aggrandised credit-rating, not the formal financial rating, but that of calling itself 'Great'. If we are perennially to face a financial black hole and decisions attendant on that, maybe we are not a powerhouse in the world anymore. Without our sense of self-inflation, then perhaps we wouldn't feel such a compunction to fight long-term foreign wars that are such a drain on our finances. Forget our glorious history, in the here and now we are a second division country,  acting and strutting as if we were still in the Premiership of nations. Of course no politician will own up to this because it is electoral suicide. The myth of Britain's greatness is to prevail. So to keep that neon sign illuminated, we punish the weakest and most vulnerable of our citizens, without even providing them a Band Aid for the sake of appearances.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Tense - Friday Flash

A moment in time

A moment of your time

A monument to time

A modicum of momentum through time

Occupied in time

A preoccupation with time


i have/am/will 

moved/moving/move through time

Forever and never

For i say “i”

But that was/is/will be hard to determine

Since what construed/construes/will construe “i”?

I found myself shuttled/shuttling/will be shuttled from the chemical growbag of my mother’s womb

A precipitant precipitate, abreactive reagency, postpartum postulate

Capillaries, thew and membrane all constructed/constructs/ will be constructed from words in the dictionary

Aught but a cluster of sensory excitations

relayed/relaying/will be relayed to a central processing cortex

Which clutched/clutches/will clutch at them interpretatively,

Glossed and glommed/glossing and glomming/ will gloss and will glom impressions

And imagined/imagine/will imagine them as singularly connected/connecting/will connect

Ergo clumped/clumping/will clump them together as a self-reflexive unity 

Of self

Ergo ego

An illusory synchronicity

That imagined/imagines/will imagine it can act through time

and changed/change/will change events

As if time proceeded/proceeds/will proceed along regular intervals

As if the “i” existed/exists/will exist sequentially along an unbroken continuum 

until death and cessation

The nagging uncertainty that ate/eats/will eat at the core of this i of me

Saw/sees/will see the me reached/reaching/will reach for a pen

And wrote/writes/will write a parallel sequence with abridged/abridging/will abridge continuum

Yet that i is avowedly fictional unlike the uncertain state of the prior/current/subsequent me

Which itself was/is/will be, of course, a fiction

Set/setting/will set up a parallax ‘me’ reflective and reflexive of the i that already was/is/pushed out there as having represented/representing/ will be representing me

Stood/standing/will stand for me stood/standing/will stand the test of time

Fiction upon fiction

A fictional i viewed/viewing/will view a second fictional i at one stage removed/remove/will remove

No three-hundred and sixty degree vision was/is/will be possible

Because of single point perspective

Subjective perception subjected/subjecting/will subject itself to reflexive scrutiny

Even though neither being existed/exists/will exist

The second Being being the mark the first being had left/leaves/will leave on the earth

Even though all human marks were/are/will be buried beneath soil or were/are/will be digitised somewhere in the ether

A data set generated by another data set

Is either virtual mark any more longlasting than the other?

Both became/become/will become an evanscent smudge, proof positive that time did/does/will progress in a forward direction

Like the waves of the sea will wash/washing/washed over the beach and obliterate/ will obliterate/obliterated any impressions cast there


A moment in time

A moment of your time

A monument to time

A modicum of momentum through time

Occupied in time

A preoccupation with time

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo, The Power Of the Image and Stereotype

Just over a week ago I'd never heard of Charlie Hebdo magazine let alone read it. Apart from following the tragic events and inevitable conclusion of the manhunt, the aftermath has also prompted huge debate about freedom of expression versus stereotyping, caricature and racism. It all comes down to the nature of the image it seems to me.

Cartoons are great. Just witness those which came out to express their support for the slaughtered cartoonists; images of pencils erasing terrorist guns; pencils severed by bullets, regrowing leads out of both ends. But there are some cartoons which rely on the instant recognition of stereotype and caricature for their power, leading some people unable to pronounce themselves "Je Suis Charlie" because they see some of the cartoon output of the magazine as racist. Not all Jews wear homburg hats and have peyote (the curly sideburns), yet this is the image resorted to by the CH cartoonists to represent a Jew. Because it provides instant recognition, it is a shorthand that carries the payload for whatever else the cartoon wants to deliver. Such a shorthand relies on certain key features, which after all is the 'art' of the caricature, but such features also represent a form of racial profiling. The Nazis used such techniques in their propaganda campaign against the Jews. Is the only difference the injection of humour?

Last week I sat with a French citizen familiar with CH and she proceeded to translate many of the captions of the CH front cover cartoons. In doing so I realised that there was much subtle wordplay and punning used to lash cultural and political icons to the mast of their satire and critique. Such wordplay was completely inaccessible to a non-native speaker not immersed in French cultural and political daily life such as me. So the overriding image someone like me takes away from those front covers, is of the stereotypical portrayal of the caricature. As a constructor of images through words rather than picture as I am, I am forever struck by the resonances of Magritte's painting.

The painting would not work without the words contextualising and subverting the image. Were there no words, it would just be an uninvolving painting of a pipe. With the words one sees that the artist is pointing out that this isn't a pipe, but the image of a pipe and one painted at that. Without the complex captioning of the CH cartoons, it would just be an image of a stereotypical Jew, or a Muslim cleric or an archbishop (again, as if a bishop stood for all Christians, or an Imam for all Muslims).

Far more informed practitioners than me can try and decide whether CH's layering of caption across image pulls them back from accusations of stereotyping and racism or not. But I want to focus entirely on images of the Prophet Muhammad. Charlie Hebdo published their post-killing issue today with an image of the Prophet on the front cover. Without the context of the last week, I wouldn't have known that was Muhammad, since no images of Muhammad exist so we don't know what he looks like. But since the media are reporting that it is a representation of Muhammad, and the fact that it feeds back into previous depictions of the prophet by the magazine, I am forced to accept that it is a representation of the Prophet. (it could to my mind be a caricature of a Muslim, maybe an Imam, coming to stand for all Muslims). The issue is not whether this particular image is offensive, for in the eyes of Islam NO IMAGES of the prophet are ever to be made, rendered straight or as caricature. The image itself is profane within Muslim doctrine. Just as depictions of the Jewish god are forbidden as idolatrous, because no-one knows what he looks like, nor are we meant to know (nor even know his true name). This seems to be the heart of the matter for me. Can any group in society, or even society as a whole, prohibit the representation of any image?

Images are controlled all the time. Warnings on the news that 'these images may be upsetting to some', or the faces of dead bodies pixelated out 'out of respect for the dead and their families'. We have film certification and TV watersheds to restrict the broadcasting of certain images. There are certain sexual images deemed to be obscene and likely to corrupt and offend that are beyond the pale and outlawed from pornographic publication. However, there are circumstances when an image deemed too upsetting for society as a whole, would still be inflicted on an individual; consider this, crime scene photos of an appalling murder scene might be withheld from the general public, but a person thought to be a witness may very well be shown them in a bid to prompt their recall. Some of these are held up against extant laws, such as the case of obscenity, others are judgement calls such as the case of pixelating faces.

Not representing the Prophet in any image is a fundamental tenet of Islam. Should it be enshrined in British/European law or not? That representing the Prophet is actually an incitement to racial hatred? If it does become law, then it is a victory for violence and intimidation to get the law changed. What about certain laws pertaining to other religions who might start demanding legislative change? Both Islamic and Jewish methods of slaughtering animals for meat are under constant challenge for animal cruelty. Where do we come down on that issue, for at present there seemed to be two different standards applied, one for Halal and Kosher, another for all other slaughterhouses. Can one religion legislate to all others, having special case status? Well it already exists as in the case of animal slaughter.

I don't think you can prohibit an image. In a similar vein that you can't unthink an idea that has already been thought and exists in the human pool of knowledge and ideas. The Swastika is an illegal image to display publically in Germany, but people still know its image and what is represents. Yet how can you know the image of the prophet who has no determined image (unlike Jesus Christ, even if these representations are fanciful and far removed from what he actually looked like)? I really don't have any answers on this one at all.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Playing Detective - A Couple Of Unanswered Questions From The Paris Slayings

I'm no different from anyone who doesn't work for the police or intelligence services, although I have published a work of fiction about terrorist actions. And my amateur spidey sleuth senses are twitching over a couple of aspects of last week's terrorist outrages in Paris.

Firstly, at least one of the terrorists may have seen action in Syria, but Kalashnikovs and Rocket-Propelled grenade launchers are not just something you can smuggle back in your suitcase like hotel towels.

So how did the terrorists get their hands on such hardware?
1) The radical Islamic terror networks have excellent quartermasters who can secure this kind of ordnance
2) The terrorist bought them from the criminal underworld.

Either way, the two converge in the sense that even the quartermasters have to source the guns from somewhere, so at some point someone is trading them illegal weapons

Have Europe's borders become so porous that guns flow as freely as people? Where are the security checks on baggage (if smuggled by individuals) or freight (if sent commercially)? At some point in the transport cycle this hardware is likely to have originated from outside the EU, from the former Soviet Union, or Syria and Iraq perhaps. But the moment it comes into the EU it has to be discovered by the authorities or we remain totally vulnerable.

The French underworld has always been heavily tooled up, with machine guns to the fore. So it is quite conceivable that the guns were purchased locally. In which case it behoves the criminal classes to rediscover some notions of loyalty to the state they operate within, by keeping their sixth sense open as to the possible use of desired purchases and refuse to deal with terrorists. After all, it could be their wives and children hit in the crossfire. It's true that some terrorists have backgrounds within the criminal underworld, but if they drop out of circulation to go fight in Syria and then reappear trying to hook up with their old contacts again, it ought to sound alarm bells to the crims.

Secondly, Jihadists who declare war on their home state, cherish and welcome death. They don't hand themselves up for arrest of their own volition. And yet seemingly this is exactly what the third member of the Kouachi cell did in Reims. Could he possibly be entirely innocent, but his name came up in the frame because some identification material of his was found in one of the cars stolen by the brothers during their spree? Could he have handed himself in just to clear himself as an entirely innocent party? If that is the case - and we've heard absolutely nothing since his arrest - then the third gunman from the Charlie Hebdo massacre is still at large as well. Some more information on the status of this other accomplice (or not) would be welcome to clear up the fog.

I am also slightly confused by the role of Hayat Boumeddiene, the common law wife of the third gunman Amedy Coulibaly. Coulibaly's video sees him declaring his allegiance to ISIS, yet ISIS purportedly don't allow women to fight in their cause because of their lesser role in society to men (I'll refrain delving into the psychosexual exploration of that anxiety). Boumeddiene is said to have been a planner for her husband and exchanged 500 phone calls with the wives of the Kouachi brothers. Were these all just bolstering of their spirits, a reaffirmation of their commitment to the missions of their husbands? Or was this the means of planning communication that meant their husbands could remain off the grid? Boumeddiene is also over the internet pictured aiming a crossbow. If she is in Syria as seems likely, is she being feted as a war hero's widow? Or is she being allowed to apply her nefarious talents to ISIS' operations in the field?

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo and artists' dereliction of duty

So suddenly we’re all Charlie and we’re all in solidarity with freedom of expression. Sorry, not buying a word of it. In Britain artists of print, stage, music and whatever passes for indigenous film have all fought shy of the political in their subject matter. With a few honourable exceptions, not least within the cartoon and graphics community and the odd stand-up comic (Jerry Sadowitz reviled for his extreme comedy, ‘outed’ Jimmy Savile in his act 30 years before society caught up to him).

In Britain ever since Mrs Thatcher demanded that our art be self-financing so that market demands shaped content, and also since the arts community miserably failed to get to grips with the ideology of Thatcherism with god-awful ‘little’ films about relationships set against the backdrops of riots or demos, we have increasingly detached our artistic output from having any political message at all. And this was in the decade of the Rushdie Affair let us not forget. The ironic thing is that in an era when public discourse on anything has been eroded by the authorities (Blair happily carried this on from Thatcher), art failed miserably to step in to fill the breach. (Nor can twitter usefully redress the balance for that matter). The fact is our artists have been censoring themselves for the past twenty years, be it for economic or political reasons. And now we are proclaiming that we are all about the right to express oneself freely… 

In continental Europe, they just don’t even make the distinction between art and politics. Camus, Sartre and De Beauvoir went on every march going, while Malraux was Culture Minister in the government. Can you imaging an Amis leading a demo, either Kingsley or Martin? Sadly now that Harold Pinter has passed, there is no one to lead our artistic intelligentsia and get them out on the street (although he tended to favour agitation by dinner party). Europe’s refusal to categorise art as political and separate is exactly why you can have a radical magazine like Charlie Hebdo exist in the first place. But as more and more artists cede the political ground through fear of reprisal (or libel), then that leaves fewer arts’ bodies, each operating in isolation and therefore very vulnerable to attacks such as these. If there were a myriad of arts organisations making challenging, provocative, radical art, then those offended by it wouldn’t be able to strike at them all. They wouldn’t know where to bloody start. 

You want to show solidarity? Make some flipping political art for a change. I know I have. It’s what I do.