The Point
Last updated: 19 September 2017.

...red sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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In Praise of Beethoven

Arthur C Clarke - A Very Modern Odyssey

Tackling Private Landlords

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The Eternal Dark Heart of Empire

If You Build Them, They Will Come

So long - the musical legacy of Margaret Thatcher

Now that the dings have been donged, we’ve said so long, and the dirt’s been tramped down, The Point’s Graeme McIver assesses the cultural legacy left by Margaret Thatcher and takes a look at some of the music and songs she inspired. Get in touch pop pickers, and let us know what your own favourite anti-Thatcher songs Top Ten might look like.

 

Her handiwork wreaked havoc on the Mersey
Brought hunger onto Teeside and the Tyne
There was ten per cent employment in the
Bogside Five per cent in Ballymurphy and Ardoyne
From these wastelands she created
Young men coaxed into regiments to train
To maim, to kill, live out her murderous fantasies
And carry out her orders on Goose Green”

Christy Moore

Back in 2006 during the filming of his concert at the Dublin venue The Point, Irish folk singer songwriter Christy Moore introduced a song, “Ordinary Man” by Grimsby born musician Peter Hames. The song outlines the struggles of an ordinary man who loses his job, family and home during the recession of the 1980’s. Before starting the song Moore commented,

“I’ll say one thing about Thatcher… there was some great songs written during  her reign.”

The death of Margaret Thatcher on April 8th has brought interest in these songs and those who have performed them back to the fore.

On the Sunday following her death, a social media campaign to get the song, “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” from the film, The Wizard of Oz to number one almost succeeded when it reached number two in the download charts. The song was number one in Scotland and even entered the charts in Ireland.

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An Independence Poem

 

Dreamers

 

That man who supports independence
Him in that parliament; him on the telly – aye, him
Papers say he’s the only one to share the dream, don’t they
He’s only one man mind you.

But see that mother who supports independence
Lives down the road from me – aye, her
Wakes up, rubs her eyes, brews the tea
Comes by with her shopping and all that
Has three kids, penniless as she is
Wants them to go to university she says
She’s only one mother mind you.

And see that guy who supports independence
Spoke to him on the bus to work – aye, him
Works a shift, dreams, gets by
Says he’s all green; windfarms, nae trident and that
Wants a government closer to home
So’s he can keep up a wage
He’s only one guy mind you.

And see that migrant who supports independence
Came from India with his family – aye, him
Lives in the old tenements
True Scotsman to the bone
Says India did it years ago: What’s taking you so long?
Self-governance, the human struggle and all that
He’s only one migrant mind you.

And see that teacher who supports independence
Works in that school round the corner – aye, her
Holds class, reads books, tells stories
The power of imagination! she tells them
And they listen to her and dream
Says it’s a new chapter, a new start and all that
She’s only one teacher mind you.

But see what the papers call a one-man band
All posturing, politics and that
Sounds more like an orchestra out on the streets
Waking restless dreamers to a call.

Andrew Barr

andrewrbarr.com

The Culture: Iain Banks' Greatest Creation?

The premature death of Iain Banks a year ago shocked and saddened the progressive and literary world. Cultural Scotland lost, all too soon, one of its finest intellects and talents - a genuinely decent man, a socialist, and a prominent supporter of Scottish Independence.

Ina recent article in The National, long time indy supporter, commentator, and activist Pat Kane wrote

"with the work of the late Iain M. Banks, we also have a big-concept science-fictional universe to match anything, anywhere.

 Banks’s The Culture is as conflict-strewn and crisis-torn as any film-maker would need. But the tensions occur in a galaxy where humans (and their AI companions) are way beyond the struggle for scarce resources; have to make decisions about what pleasures to pursue (rather than what pains to avoid); and commit themselves to exploring the wonders of the universe.

GIVEN that it’s Iain M Banks, there are always pratfalls, perverse outcomes, and blackly humorous moments. But if the shiny, jump-suited optimism of Tomorrowland can’t deliver a hit for the studio system, would the louche, super-intelligent hedonists of The Player of Games or Consider Phlebas deliver any better result? I’ll leave that to the producers and moguls (while hoping dearly that someone could make it happen)."

 By way of our own tribute to Iain, the Point is proud to republish an updated version of Steve Arnott’s analysis of Iain Banks' Culture novels, in which he argues that the Culture is ‘Banks’ greatest character, and surely his highest intellectual creation.’

 

                            

 

‘Perspective, she thought, woozily, slowly, as she died; what a wonderful thing.’

                                                                      Last line, Chapter One, Surface Detail

                                                                                                            Iain M. Banks

 I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to keep them safe from us and let them devour themselves; I wanted maximum interference; I wanted to hit the place with a program Lev Davidovich would have been proud of. I wanted the junta generals to fill their pants when they realised the future is – in Earth terms – a bright, bright red.’

                                                                     Diziet Sma, The State of the Art

                                                                                               Iain M. Banks 

‘…it all boils down to ownership and possession, taking and having.’

                                                                     The drone Flere-Imsaho summing up

                                                                     the feudal-capitalist society of Azad,

                                                                    The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks

 

A few short weeks ago, a year past, I finished Iain Bank’s last science fiction novel The Hydrogen Sonata. It was the latest in his series of novels set in a past, present and future that involve the now internationally recognised Culture. As has been the case with every one of this unparalleled series of books the power of the storytelling and imagination left me pondering for a good few days afterwards about where Iain Banks would take the Culture next. I did not suspect then, and it feels hard to believe even now, that within those few short weeks it would become clear - tragically clear - that I read not only Iain Banks’ latest Culture novel, but that I had just read what would probably be his last.

Culture novels are, of course, just part of Iain Bank’s massive literary output, and he has written many memorable and distinctive novels often described as ‘mainstream’ – The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road, Complicity, Whit and Dead Air, for instance, will be titles familiar to many reading this. I want to concentrate on the Culture novels, however. Partly because they are that part of his work with which I am most deeply familiar, but mainly because I want to argue that the Culture is his greatest single creation, and those novels his best literary work.

My original spur to write this article (in its first and less sad form) came when I read Iain Banks’ Culture novel Surface Detail the year before.  Feeling I’d just read something exhilarating, deep and satisfyingly unique, and contradictorily wanting more of the same, I took the opportunity of systematically re-reading all of the Banks Culture novels - some for the fourth or fifth time. Having made mutterings since the inception of The Point online magazine about writing something on the Banks Culture universe, the inexhaustibility of these radical novels finally convinced me it was long past time to put fingertips to keyboard pad, and share my thoughts on the Culture with other readers of The Point.

Not the least motivation for me doing so is that many on the left in Scotland seemed mainly or wholly ignorant of these titanic, richly layered literary and philosophical works, even though they are authored by one of Scotland’s leading popular writers. Thus they are unable to participate in a meaningful discourse about the important - and genuinely revolutionary - ideas and concepts they embody and contain. If you have never read any of Iain Banks’ Culture novels previously I hope this short essay can act as a bit of a primer and goad, and lead you to those books. If, like me, you’re already a fan, then I hope it might spark the beginnings of a discussion on the left about the Culture.

What are the Culture novels? And what is the Culture? (I’ll stop using italics at this point).

Most readers of books are aware that Iain Banks publishes his non-genre novels under that name, and uses the middle initial M. when publishing his science fiction output.  The Culture novels and novella represent the greater part of that science fiction output and are, in order of publication, Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, The State of the Art, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter, Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata .

All of Banks’ science fiction is of a mind numbingly consistent quality – they are wide screen, intelligent space operas, thrillers that are both comic and tragic in turn, redolent with dizzying philosophical and scientific ideas painted on a universal canvas, splendidly baroque, grotesquely violent, but always with intimate, human, recognisable stories at their core. The Algebraist, for instance, would be a good example of a great Iain Banks science fiction novel that isn’t necessarily a Culture novel. But here I want to talk exclusively about the Culture, Banks’ greatest character, and surely his highest intellectual creation.

The Culture is the communist/anarchist/socialist/libertarian (delete/add according to taste) civilisation that is both background and protagonist in the loose and diverse group of Culture novels; a galaxy spanning, highly technological meta-civilisation that is both pan-human and pan-species, in which artificial intelligences (in many ways superior) are the civic equals of their biological counterparts, and in which men and women routinely meddle with their genes and enhance and change their body shape and sex. The Culture is a ‘Player’ in galactic terms; one of a small group of galactic civilisations who have evolved way beyond middling stellar empires or republics to where they are either approaching the possibility of Sublimation (throwing off all remaining material shackles and effectively becoming ‘something else’), or are busy (when not having plain good old-fashioned hedonistic fun) trying to do good in galactic terms by their own moral lights.

The Culture is in the latter category. Most folk will remember ‘Star Trek’ and its off-shoots, and the famous ‘Prime Directive’ which forbade the Captains’ Kirk or Picard of the Federation to interfere in developing cultures. Both the Culture and the Federation are egalitarian societies that have abolished disease, poverty, war and money, but whereas the Star Trek Federation worldview is informed by 60’s, 70’s and 80’s progressive liberalism and cultural relativism, the Culture is an utterly bolshevik creation, informed by historical materialism, social critiques of capitalism and oppression, and a view of all things in the universe as being fundamentally transient and processal in nature.  Although it agonises about it and tries to do it using minimal possible force, the Culture is an interferer par excellence in emerging and developing cultures on planets and habitats throughout the galaxy. Through the sometimes clandestine, sometimes open agency of its ‘contact’ and ‘special circumstances’ sections, it actively seeks to shorten the time civilisations will spend in a state of primitive barbarism, whether feudal, capitalist, or in state or religious tyrannies, (and sometimes mixtures of all of these), and help them progress to more enlightened and egalitarian states of being.

It is in the interstices of this pan-stellar revolutionary/evolutionary narrative, the doubts and moral shadings of the enterprise, its rewards and contaminations, that Banks finds his characters and his stories.

We were first introduced to the Culture through the eyes of one of its enemies; the Changer Horza Bora Gobuchul, a mercenary working for the religiously fanatic Idirans at war with the Culture, whose story is told in the now recognised classic of the SF canon, Consider Phlebas.

When I first read that book back in the late eighties I was blown away by the spectacle and scale, the dark violence and inexorable sense of doom. In the era of Star Wars, Aliens and Blade Runner I absorbed it as a wide screen space opera that would surely out do all others if ever made into a film.

All of Banks’ science fiction work has that hugely visual, imaginative cinematic quality – not just in the sense of making the page disappear before your eyes and immersing you utterly in his story, but in the literary sense of showing not telling his deeper themes. And deeper themes there are in all of his work.  Though there is no lack of talky philosophical discourse between Banks’ protagonists, it is principally through the plot and development of the characters themselves, the tragic/redemptive weave of their pasts, presents and futures that we find a truly humane richness and a reflection of our own lives. Reading and re-reading Consider Phlebas I became aware that this wasn’t just the ultimate science fiction action movie in print but a more mythic and multi-layered tale. In following Horza’s journey through war, death, the hope of new life and irredeemable loss, we see his prejudices against the Culture and machine intelligence gradually undermined, until he realises he’s been fighting on the wrong side all along.

Banks followed up this stunner of a novel with another immediate classic. The Player of Games introduces us to Culture society and the machinations of its dirty tricks section Special Circumstances from within. Jernau Gurgeh is one of the great Game players of Culture wide renown, with a life devoted to the study and winning of games picked up from planetary and stellar civilisations throughout the galaxy. Living a comfortable life of academic luxury on a Culture Orbital (a circular ribbon of diamond hard material 3 million kilometres in diameter, 10 million kilometres in circumference and a few thousand kilometres across its inner surface – few Culture citizens live on anything as primitive as a planet), Gurgeh is inveigled by Special Circumstances to travelling to the Empire of Azad, a cruel feudal/capitalist stellar empire, to play the game of Azad, a game on which the whole society is modelled and run and which determines the station of every one of its subjects. Think Graham Green meets Blade Runner, together with devastating social critique and an apocalyptic set piece climax, all compressed into a shortish novel, a breathless, beautifully written narrative best read in a single evening.

Here’s the thing; all of Banks’ Culture novels are different – different characters, different stories, different storytelling techniques. Both the Culture oeuvre and the Culture universe are too vast to encompass in a short essay. Someday someone should write a book. But to give a flavour the classically written two viewpoint, two plot narrative of Inversions is a much easier read for the relative newcomer than the multi-narrative, high tech Excession, and though both are fantastic novels that deeply reward the attentive reader, the reader will benefit from having already introduced herself to the Culture through the earlier novels. Look to Windward is a deceptively simple, yet tricksy tale, and an exquisitely observed tragi-comedy of manners; Matter a return to epic scale and high adventure.

Yet there are also common themes which seem almost instinctively knitted into all of the Culture stories, and which are worth drawing attention to.

Perspective. The Culture is physically vast beyond our capacity for imagination. It is the pinnacle of what we might imagine a future socialist society to be, super technological, superabundant, superhuman, morally enlightened, profoundly egalitarian and long since moved from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. It has existed for thousands of years and will continue to exist for thousands of years, but it is only one of a number of galactic meta civilisations, and it too will fade away, collapse or transform itself into something different. All things come into being and pass away.

Our Earth, our world, is part of the Culture universe, but only incidentally, in the passing, as it were, as one of the multitude of barbarian primitive planets observed but not yet contacted. The events of Consider Phlebas occur ‘far, far away’ at the time of the Crusades. The Culture’s Contact section comes across us in AD 1977, in the novella The State of the Art, but decides not to intervene in our mixed up primitive society, and instead treat us as a kind of control experiment, clandestinely observed, to see whether we make it out of barbarism by ourselves, or destroy the planet by ourselves. The class struggle is universal but we are one speck of dust in a galaxy teeming with life and conflict.

Politics, and the price of doing good. Left politics runs through all the Culture novels like an invariable, but infinitely applicable, mathematical constant, and not in the bad ‘you’ll have three bowls of cold socialist realist porridge a day, young man”, kind of way. Rather, Banks allows the politics to be a kind of emergent phenomenon, something that is created from the narrative, the moral questions and exigencies of character and plot, the observation of societies and the multifarious nature of the sentient conscious beings that populate the Culture universe.

As in his so-called ‘mainstream’ novels, it is very clear that Banks is an original, non-dogmatic thinker who has imbibed in his education much left wing discourse, and sipped of the notion of revolution and social progress as a moral categorical imperative.  The clear theme that runs throughout the Culture novels is the price to be paid when persons, singularly or collectively, attempt to do good, or to maintain good in the face of reaction. That price may be physical destruction or emotional disintegration, it may be moral compromise or the shattering of cosy cherished beliefs, but there is always a price to be paid. Leading characters die, or become disillusioned, or are used for higher purposes. This is not Doctor Who. The universe is not saved every week by waving a sonic screwdriver and ‘reversing the polarity’.  There is real death, real failure, real suffering. The redemptive aspect comes from doing what is right for wider social progress on an interstellar scale.

Human nature in ‘Utopia’. Banks’ Culture has often been referred to be critics as a utopia – mistakenly in my view. Literary utopias are all blank slate/human putty endgames from Revelations to Thomas More and onwards. They assume that human nature is flawed either because of some form of original sin or because society is flawed. The Utopia cleanses humanity of these flaws and either allows their ‘true’ humanity to shine through or makes them into the New Man. Dystopias are the cynic or realists response where attempts to make the New Man fail with disastrous, frightening, totalitarian consequences.

The Culture is neither Utopia or Dystopia because human nature in Banks’ vision is not a blank slate or human putty to be perfected or damned. Or more correctly ‘person’ nature - whether that person is human basic, human enhanced, machine or alien – arises from its evolutionary and contingent history and the very nature of sentience and social being itself. The lives of persons can be enormously enriched by a better society, but they do not become wholly New.

The protagonists of the Culture remain recognisable. They have fears and flaws, loves and hatreds, pettinesses and jealousies, egotistic personal drives and altruistic self-sacrifice; this is a mirror that holds up human nature as a complex constant. The new civilisation is about creating a better place for the great Bell curve of sentient beings to live their diverse lives in, not about creating a trillion Stakhanovite Aristotles in some endpoint socialist paradise. 

When Iain Banks appeared on The Book Show a year or two back he appeared to argue that artificial divisions between literary, mainstream novels and the genre novel can be misleading. He made the point that the literary novel itself is a genre novel with its own sets of rules and suppositions. It might be argued that Banks himself has been hamstrung by the artificial division he himself (or his publisher) has created between the science fiction writer Iain M. Banks and the mainstream novel writer Iain Banks.

Or, just perhaps, Banks has been enjoying a near three decade long private joke at the assumptions and labellings of the critics. His ‘mainstream’ work is very fine, of that there is no doubt. The Wasp Factory, Espedair Street, The Crow Road and Whit are all excellent reads. But for all of the reasons outlined above I am arguing that Bank’s greatest contribution to literature are his Culture novels, and that perhaps that will only be finally seen and understood in the fullness of time.

Further, I would argue that the left, in the main, has ignored the Culture as a potential source and reference point for discourse and that Banks, in his Culture novels, whether instinctively, or consciously, or a bit of both, has made a major theoretical contribution to socialist and progressive thought. He has sketched for us, like a fine architect or landscape artist, a superabundant, egalitarian and free society and shown that the human condition is retained – with all of joys, absurdities and beautiful flaws. The idea of fiction as a potential source of theoretical discourse may be new, even alien to many readers, but in this particular case I believe it to be true.

But an essay on a whole body of work can give only a flavour – and a flavour through the perceptions of one person at that. The proof of the pudding is in the reading. Go spacewards, young barbarians, and find new worlds.

Oh, and one final, throwaway, teasing thought.

What if something like the Culture actually existed?

 

 

Steve Arnott

 

Read more about Iain Banks at

 http://www.iain-banks.net/

 

 

Spirit of 45 - Film Review

John Wight takes a look at film maker Ken Loach’s documentary about the postwar Labour Government of 1945.

 

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Utopia


 

Adrian Cruden reviews the hit TV series and looks at some of the issues it raises

 

"I see a desert planet and ten thousand million starving souls."


There is little in the way of Thomas More's imaginary sixteenth century "good-place-land" ("eu-ou-topos") in the recently broadcast Channel 4 serial Utopia, whose first series completed its run on 19 February. Written by Dennis Kelly and directed by the trio of Marc Munden, Wayne Che Yip and Alex Garcia Lopez, the six episodes quickly summoned up a dystopian combination of eugenics, electronic state surveillance, and corporate capitalism underpinned by an elitist philosophy redolent of Plato's philosopher-king Republic.

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Do You Hear The People Sing?

- A Review of Les Misérables

 

The Point sent a rather reluctant Graeme McIver beyond the barricades to review the phenomenon that is Les Misérables as it moves from the theatre onto our cinema screens. Read on and prepared to be dazzled by talk of revolution, deism, and Russell Crowe’s dodgy singing.

Les Mis, the film so good Graeme went to see it twice… 

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Raised from the Ground

 

                                    

 

Anne Edmonds reviews a novel by the Portuguese socialist writer, Jose Saramago

 

It wasn't until Jose Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998 that his novels were translated into English. Born in a village of landless peasants in  northwest Portugal in 1922, he avoided real agrarian poverty as his parents moved to Lisbon when he was two; but his family were always poor - he was at grammar school for two years but had to leave as  academic education was too costly. He trained as a mechanic at technical school where compulsory literature and French classes inspired him to self educate via Lisbon's libraries. After years as a mechanic and foundry worker, he briefly edited a Lisbon newspaper during the Carnation Revolution of 1974 which ended the long dictatorship of Salazar and his successor, Caetano. But a counter-revolutionary coup a few months later meant he lost his job - he had joined the Communist party in 1969, remaining a member until his death - amongst the flowers on his coffin were tributes from Fidel and Raoul Castro.

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John Cooper Clarke

I’m not the one who will

have his life turned into legend.   

It won’t be me…

 

It will be John Cooper Clarke

Tony Wilson

 

                   John Cooper Clarke – The Arches, Glasgow 13/10/12 pic by G McIver

 

John Cooper Clarke – the best hair in the world

 

The rumble of overhead trains rolling in and out of Central Station mixes with the ubiquitous thud of techno from the club next door. The punters, all standing, all expectant, stare towards the stage waiting for the arrival of the headline act. The crowd’s demographic ranges from the trendy young things to those on the edge of antiquity and all stops in between.  To all intents and purposes this has the look, the feel and the smell of a music gig. Yet tonight Glasgow’s Arches, self proclaimed “leading European cultural venue” will not be rocking to the sound of guitars or bass but to the earthy northern drawl of one of Britain’s most enigmatic and mythical cultural figures. Performance poet, wit and raconteur extraordinaire - John Cooper Clarke.

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We - The First Revolutionary Dystopia

√ -1 = Reason Without Reason: A review of Zamyatin's "We"

 

Adrian Cruden

 

 

"We" - 2006 edition from Modern Library (New York)
ISBN 0-812907462-X

 

Yevgenny Zamyatin was a revolutionary: a Bolshevik agitator against the Czar, he was arrested and beaten up by the police in 1905, kept in solitary confinement and then sent on internal exile - the punishment of choice of the Romanov authorities: Russia was large enough to send dissenters far enough away to neutralise them, but still within the purview of the God-anointed Father of All-Russia.

After the collapse of the Imperial regime in 1917, Zamyatin's hopes were high as the social liberal experiment of the Soviets began - initially unsullied by the dogmatic centralism of the Leninist Bolsheviks. He enthusiastically participated in Maxim Gorky's House of Arts at Ryabushinsky in Petrograd, blazing a trail with others in developing Soviet "NeoRealism" in writing - the florid, repetitive language of the Old Days was to be swept away. The Revolution was not just about breaking down the old barriers and extreme inequalities; it was also about a new way of thinking, living and expression - rationale, efficient, and all the more powerful for it. One word should convey what in the past a dozen were used to describe; "written with 90-proof ink", as he put it.

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Class Distinctions

            

A review of two films – Anne Edmonds

Films about characters the Tory chief whip would label “plebs” are less frequent than those about the middle class – still rarer if they do not feature what David Cameron calls “problem families” on “sink estates”. The British director Shane Meadows specialises in this genre with Nottingham based films like Twentyfour Seven and, my favourite, A Room for Romeo Brass; Andrea Arnold’s excellent Fish Tank, about a teenage girl on an Essex council estate, is in the same mould.

The French director Robert Guediguian concentrates instead on working class characters who fit Ed Miliband’s  “hard working families”, which cliché seems to mean drug free manual workers with jobs and not known to the police. Guediguian‘s films are set in L’Estaque, the dockyard area of Marseilles where he was born and bred. He works with the same actors in most films, rather like Mike Leigh who frequently casts Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville and Jim Broadbent. Guediguian’s  latest film is The Snows of Kilimanjaro which, despite its title, shares the Marseilles setting.

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