Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class

By Owen Jones.

A well-written book which contains many many pertinent ideas regarding ‘chavs, class and how it relates to Britain, and other countries, today. Class is definitely not dead – even if conservatives choose to not define things in this way for their own ends.The occupations that traditionally related to the working class have changed from the like of manufacturing and skilled labour to call-centres and supermarket – but class still exists and the income gap has widened dramatically. We are not ‘all middle class now’.

One (of many) really good points Jones makes is that the narrative we are fed is that British manufacturing in the late 70s was uncompetitive and finished – so that justified the lack of government support and destructive economic policies of the Tories. However, in other parts of Europe industry was supported and while it wasn’t unscathed there are still strong manufacturing sectors and more balanced economies than we have in Britain. The government bailed out the banks in 2008 to help them through a difficult time so they didn’t ‘fail’ – why couldn’t that have been done in the 70s and early 80s with manufacturing? This would mean that the current economic woes partly caused by an over-reliance on the financial sector wouldn’t be as extreme.

There is much food for thought in this book. The discussion relating to the bias of the middle-class media is excellent as is the analysis of aspiration.  It’s easy to read and understand and quite immersive. Following are a couple of good quotes.

This was from a conservative MP off-the-record:

‘What you have to realize about the Conservative Party,’ he said as though it was a trivial, throwaway comment, ‘is that it is a coalition of privileged interests. Its main purpose is to defend that privilege. And the way it wins elections is by giving just enough to just enough other people.’

And another good point.

‘Clearly not everyone can become a middle-class professional or a businessperson: the majority of people still have to do the working-class jobs in offices and shops that society needs to keep ticking. By putting the emphasis on escaping these jobs rather than improving their conditions, we end up disqualifying those who remain in them. We frown upon the supermarket checkout staff, the cleaners, the factory workers—slackers who failed to climb the ladder offered by social mobility.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Virgin Soil

By Ivan Turgenev.

One thing I like about Turgenev is that it is like renewing an acquaintance or conversation whenever you return him. With most of his work he never clearly comes down on one side something he was criticised for regularly. I think this is a real strength, he presents ideas, characters and situations and leaves it to the reader. This novel directly deals with the revolutionary networks in Russia in the 1870s. He presents the young revolutionaries in a sympathetic light but also brings to light contradictions, namely that most of them are of the middle class and as such they can’t relate to the working people. There are exceptions though in every case – but Turgenev poses the question. He is unsparing in his criticism of the right-wing reactionaries however – Kollomietzev is exposed warts and all but the obviously right-wing mayor is shown as a decent man. Turgenev is equivocal. This old saying was quite apt: “Moscow lies at the foot of Russia and everything rolls down to her” – you could substitute it with London and Britain, possibly.

 

 

 

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Ghost Milk

By Iain Sinclair.

I started reading this on the day the Olympics started in London in order to give a balance to my experience of the event. I like watching all the various sports, but the official narrative that is given to each event or athlete is something that I do not relate to. Let’s just have their actions do the talking. I am also suspicious of the overall story that surrounds the games by the sponsors, officials, community leaders and politicians. This is where reading Sinclair’s book at the same time provides a useful counterpoint. It is an enthralling book – not just because of the subject matter –  but Sinclair writes in a very captivating way, he makes many literary and filmic references which direct further reading or research. This really is a broad canvas with ideas, thoughts, people and places. A very worthwhile read – here is an excellent quote.

In the age of the spinner, content means nothing; the apparatus of explanation, the word-weaving, tells us what we are looking at and how we should react.

 

 

 

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Open Veins of Latin America

By Eduardo Galeano.

I’m not sure I will ever recover from reading this book. I had no idea the extent of pillage exacted against the latin American people for so many centuries.

You can read the PDF here. I think Galeano must have allowed the book to be copied and available at no cost as it can be found a number of places on the web.

There is too much to summarise, but the question I had never really asked myself was how a continent so rich in natural resources could be so poor? The answer is that the wealth of the country has been appropriated by the european powers for the last five centuries. Britain has probably gained the most in reality, though few of the countries were ever officially colonies. It was British business that looked after the  interests of the plutocracy. Initially, indirectly through the Spanish and Portugese but in the 18th and 19th centuries directly.

The issues and politics here are complex but what we are left with is a study of man’s inhumanity to man. A couple of excerpts:

“Latin America continues exporting its unemployment and poverty: the raw materials that the world market needs, and on whose sale the regional economy depends. Unequal exchange functions as before: hunger wages in Latin America help finance high salaries in the United States and Europe.”
 
“The IMF–which not disinterestedly confuses the fever with the disease, inflation with the crisis of existing structures–has imposed on Latin America a policy that accentuates imbalances instead of easing them. It liberalizes trade by banning direct exchanges and barter agreements; it forces the contraction of internal credits to the point of asphyxia, freezes wages, and discourages state activity. To this program it adds sharp monetary devaluations which are theoretically supposed to restore the currency to its real value and stimulate exports. In fact, the devaluations merely stimulate the internal concentration of capital in the ruling classes’ pockets and facilitate absorption of national enterprises by foreigners who turn up with a fistful of dollars.”
 
 

 

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Gargantua and Pantagruel – Book One

By François Rabelais.

This first book is quite cohesive. I guess Rabelais didn’t know himself  if he would write another and the impetus seems to be his own amusement and that of his friends. This was a very enjoyable experience and  as a result I took my time reading Book One. I like the way the episodes aren’t really connected they just sort of flit about and are not as linear as most novels.

Pantagruel makes you laugh, consider things philosophically and stimulates the imagination: it doesn’t get much better than this. I can now see where many of the writers I love got a great deal of their inspiration. There were free translations I could have found for the kindle but I decided that if I was going to make the effort to read all five books then it should be with the best translation – by most accounts Professor Screech’s translation is the best. There are many footnotes – but they don’t get in the way as the book is the kind that stimulates you in bursts as it is all angles and the footnotes don’t interfere but add to the richness of the text. The rest are coming up shortly.

 

 

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The Shock Doctrine

By Naomi Klein.

This a very detailed alternative history of the last 50 years. It is well referenced and written. Reading this was actually quite a depressing experience – at various times it seemed that there was no hope and those with money and resources seem to keep themselves on top and also win the propaganda war. The way the book ends with some analysis of South America gives some grounds for optimism. I think I want to read about the history of Bolivar, he seems to be behind the desire for self-determination of many South American countries.

 

 

 

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A Thousand Peaceful Cities

By Jerzy Pilch.

This novel engendered a very strange phenomenon: I hated it most of the way and reading was a real struggle, but then suddenly about three-quarters of the way through, I absolutely loved the book, the prose, and everything about it. This doesn’t normally happen as your relation to a novel is usually static – or, at least, there is not the degree of polarisation that happened here. As a result, I am going to have to re-read and enjoy the ruminations, rants and absurdity again. This was very different from Pilch’s other novels but in the end perhaps more satisfying. A surreal and interesting journey.

 

 

 

 

 

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Strike For Freedom!

By Rafal Brzeski and Robert Eringer.

This book is quite unique as it was written at the time that events (the strikes  which created the Polish Solidarity union in 1980) were happening and from an outside perspective. Most importantly it was created without the benefit of grand hindsight with which history is framed. Well, a very slight hindsight of months rather than years.

Wałęsa is not admired by many in Poland nowadays: his lack of formal education, the gaffes and that it has been widely reported by the largely hostile media that he was in league with the communists. An ongoing investigation by the National Remembrance Institute  reported late last year that documents were fabricated by the communist government in the 80s. Of course this is the kind of stuff that can stick regardless of the truth.

It seems the qualities that made Wałęsa an effective mouthpiece are now those which are held against him. He was a working man and had not been taught the niceties of politics as all our politicians seem to know now. He was a maverick and had no fear, could think outside the box and was a talented improvisor. The communist authorities simply didn’t know what to do  – they couldn’t control him, he didn’t fit into their framework. While, in the short term, the Polish people didn’t change the system immediately, through the auspices of solidarity, these first steps gave confidence.

Back to the book: this is well written and it gave me a more complete picture of Wałęsa. Perhaps I will look for a full biography. There are many great quotes ascribed to him. Two of the best are:

I must tell you that the supply of words on the world market is plentiful, but the demand is falling. 

 I’m lazy. But it’s the lazy people who invented the wheel and the bicycle because they didn’t like walking or carrying things. 

 

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Lost and Found in Russia

By Susan Richards.

This book just  ambles along and somehow keeps your interest all the way through. Some reviews seemed to dismiss it because of this – but for me the lack or traditional plot arc was part of the attraction. The importance lay in the gaze and not the object – as Gide said – or probably paraphrased from someone else. The characters, who are actually real people, are very engaging and the encounters always illuminating. I wouldn’t call them ‘ordinary’ Russians as for the most part they are part of the new intelligentsia. I enjoyed the process of reading this book and learnt a lot along the way.

Yeltsin seemed to really mess things up for a Russia hoping to have a meaningful democracy. I’m part way through ‘the Shock Doctrine’ as I write and this seems to be borne out by many commentators. After reading, I am interested to find out more about the nineties and what actually went on in not just Russia, but the rest of the ex-soviet bloc. I already know a fair bit of what has happened  in Poland with the rise of the neoliberals, but to see things in a broader context would be good. At any rate, this is the best modern book I have read for a while – I wouldn’t call it fiction but still there are bound to be embellishments along the way. In addition to the political, the adventures relating to Russian spiritualism were intriguing as well.

The characters and people that make up the book ground it and give it focus, though if there is one criticism it is that they are framed too often from the writer’s perspective in quite an obvious way. Perhaps it wasn’t needed, because as the reader, you will have formed an impression and opinion of the people involved rather than being told how the narrator views them and the changes between each meeting. But this is a minor distraction. Well worth reading.

Soundtrack: Elena Kamburova – Pesnya Klouna.

 

 

 

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Happy Moscow

By Andrey Platonov.

It is the second time I have read Happy Moscow; though, this is a new translation. The novel really does have the most unique and unusual atmosphere – in the same vein as ‘Soul’. This was  unfinished and so it is likely that there would have been a substantial amount of changes.

Platonov moves his prose about as though it is a socialist realist movie camera. He follows minor characters for a while, who often never reappear, and then latches on to another character as they come in contact. I really wonder where the novel would have ended up had it been finished.

Reading this book made want to learn Russian. I want to see how exactly how the strange atmosphere is invoked and compare this to Pushkin with his French sentence structure, and Lermontov. The linear way the novel moves from one character to another is similar to reading habits: one writer leads to another and you follow them for a while until you catch another, sometimes they lead back to the original author but you were changed by the writers you followed in-between – and then you follow another. ‘Soul’ remains my favourite Platonov followed by the stories in ‘The Return’. I have a new translation of ‘The Foundation Pit’ and so will re-read that in the next while.

I really need to understand exactly how Platonov creates such an atmosphere in his strange world. In the mean-time here is a picture by Malevich which is a window into Platonov’s ‘Soul’ novel.

 

 

 

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