politics


Risky strategy is something that Ed Burns and David Simon, the creators of The Wire, know all about. They are the kind of dramatists who let a story build, rather than straining for the cheap thrills of televisual shock and awe. But in the space of the seven episodes making up Generation Kill, the risk doesn’t quite pay off. This is a slow, laboured war story about blunders and military stupidity rather than heroism. The problem is that it only manages to take off in the last two installments, and whilst you can afford to do this with a project like The Wire which consisted of five series of thirteen episodes each, a seven-parter like this needs to get going much earlier than episode six.

There is fine acting here; it’s wonderful to see the very talented James Ransone at work again (he plays Ray in Generation Kill; he was the contemptibly rat-like but compelling Ziggy Sobotka in series 2 of The Wire). However, unlike the brilliantly complex ghetto characters in The Wire, the Iraqis in Generation Kill are not given a voice or an identity, and the marines themselves, based on real-life characters, never really come to life. This is probably a result of the fact that the series is an adaptation of Evan Wright ‘s book-length account of his encounters with 1st Recon. In other words, Burns and Simon are hampered by taking on someone else’s research, and they don’t have the freedom to be truly creative in devising their drama. They would have been better off writing their own composite characters: in The Wire,  Bunk, Omar, Ziggy and the rest are all powerful because they are composite creations based on local Baltimore inhabitants, not dutifully represented cut-outs from ‘real life.’  With such stylized creations, perhaps, the series might have been a truly great and angry indictment against an illegal war. As it is, all Burns and Simon manage is to make a handful of points about Operation Iraqi Freedom that have been made just as well by a good number of other journalists. After the adrenaline rush of The Wire’s intricate and passionate social commentary, this war yarn looks like merely competent drama. Generation Kill sinks a few punches but never manages to land a knockout blow.

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Some issues call for plain talking, a democratic and inclusive rhetoric. Not going round the houses. Breastfeeding is one of those, and yet talking about feeding babies naturally, from the breast, is one of Western culture’s strangest and most irrational taboos. Recently, on the Facebook fansite ‘The Politics of Breastfeeding,’ one mum wrote that when she asked an official at an unamed London tourist destination if there was anywhere she could go to feed her baby the official replied ‘Would that be bottle or non-bottle feeding?’ He or she felt there was some sort of indelicacy or a taboo in using the word ‘breast.’ Was it disgust at breastfeeding that prompted this linguistic choice? Or was it a sense that mentioning this woman’s breast was somehow sexually inappropriate? Or a combination of both?

Either way, it is clear that breastfeeding is something that makes many people uncomfortable even to talk about, let alone witness. And yet it is breastfeeding that has kept us alive as a species. Breastfeeding is older than all aspects of our culture: older than science, medicine, agriculture, war, artistic endeavour, or using fire to cook food.  Humans are mammals. Mammal: from the word mammary, or breast. Humans are animals that feed their young with their milk. Breastfeeding is what defines us as human.(1)

How has it come to this? That we can’t even talk openly and without embarrassment about breastfeeding; that women get thrown out of some public places for breastfeeding; that many women in the west find breastfeeding so difficult they give up before their babies are six weeks old (50% of mothers abandon breastfeeding in the UK at or before six weeks); that many teenagers, and especially teenage girls I have spoken to, seem to find the very idea of breastfeeding disgusting (although many of the girls might be quite happy to countenance the idea of major surgery in order to ‘enhance’ the appearance of their breasts).

One reason breastfeeding has become difficult is the increasingly porn-saturated world we live in. In women’s magazines, men’s magazines, on TV, in films, on the internet, breasts are fetishized as sexual objects and women have internalized it all, worrying constantly that their boobs are the wrong size or shape, that their breasts are not sexy enough. These days, the ‘perfect’ breast is not a real breast but an artificially pneumatic and pert surgically altered one. Are you starving yourself slowly in the name of fashion like Victoria Beckham? Well pump up those shrunken malnourished mammaries with a couple of globes of silicone. Childrearing given you a pair of spaniel’s ears? Get them lifted and re-shaped like Ulrika Jonsson.  This kind of self-loathing is tolerated and normal these days. But breastfeeding is not.

But the institutional misogyny that we live with day-to-day is not the only reason breastfeeding is so beleagured. Much of the blame has to be laid at the feet of the formula industry, whose aggressive marketing tactics were angrily and systematically detailed by Gabrielle Palmer in The Politics of Breastfeeding twenty or so years ago. As the new edition of the book makes clear, those strategies have only become more sophisticated despite WHO recommendations that children be breastfed for at least a year and increasing medical recognition of how vital breastfeeding is to the long-term health of both infants and their mothers. These days, Nestlé and others can use the internet, and especially spam bloggers on sites such as Facebook, to market their products, and can rely on the supermarkets to reinforce the message that bottle-feeding is the norm (the sign for baby changing rooms in some supermarkets is a baby bottle, for instance, and the packaging on Tesco’s own-brand newborn nappies recently featured an image of a woman bottle-feeding a baby). Of course the supermarkets love formula: there is no money to be made when women breastfeed. There is no profit-margin on breastmilk.

Profit is to be made in abundance by the food giants whose position as market leaders is often largely determined by the amount of formula they sell.(2) And so the formula companies continue to aggressively promote their products in the developing world to women who can barely afford to feed themselves (Nestlé, for instance, recently ‘donated’ substantial quantities of ‘food products’ to the people of Haiti: philanthropy or an attempt to secure ‘brand loyalty’ in an emerging and potentially lucrative market?) .(3)

As we can see, breastfeeding is a feminist issue: breastmilk is a superior product and breastfeeding is a political act: it says that a mother does not subscribe to the idea that breasts are for male sexual pleasure and that she is resisting the body-fascism which is endemic in our society. It’s a health issue, as we all know: breastmilk is a live substance which changes in its composition to combat the pathogens in a mother’s immediate enviroment, and which gives the correct proportion of proteins, fats and vitamins for the stage of development a baby is at. It protects against allergies, obesity, cancer–the list goes on. It is also an ecological issue: breastfeeding does not involve packaging and the use of carbon involved in making formula. It doesn’t require you to use electricity to heat a feed to the correct temperature. Nor do you need to use plastic bottles and disposable teats to feed your babies. There is no waste: babies take what they need and no more–not so with formula, where it is a matter of safety to discard unused formula from any one feed after an hour or two. Breastfeeding is also a fiscal issue: many of the chronic healthcare problems which financially bog down the NHS (e.g. obesity) could perhaps be alleviated if more babies were breastfed (formula feeding is controlled by the person giving the bottle and does not allow the baby to regulate how much they take in; breastfeeding allows the baby to regulate their own food-consumption).

But who cares about breastfeeding? As a breastfeeding mother of twins, I do–very much. But apart from a small number of breastfeeding women, some medical professionals and charities such as Save The Children, who else does?  When I got Gabrielle Palmer’s book out of the library a few months ago, I spoke to the librarian about the book. It turns out she had breastfed her daughter for two years out in Kenya thirty or so years previously. But when she first saw the book’s title she commented ‘Politics of Breastfeeding?’ I didn’t think there was any politics inloved in breastfeeding’. It seems that most people, even many women who have breastfed, have internalized the idea that this fundamental issue isn’t an issue at all–because it isn’t glamorous or profitable or sexy and because it concerns women, who don’t even regard themselves at important. Politics? That’s what men do, isn’t it?

1) Gabrielle Palmer eloquently makes this point in The Politics of Breastfeeding.

2) Save the Children, which today (15 May 07)  publishes a report on the baby-milk industry, reckons that the total value of baby-milk and baby-food imports is worth almost £16m a year in Bangladesh alone. Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2007/may/15/medicineandhealth.lifeandhealth] This article is an excellent summary of the marketing tactics used by Nestlé and others to promote formula.

http://pinterandmartin.com/epages/eshop274295.sf/en_GB/?ObjectPath=/Shops/eshop274295/Products/978-1-905177-16-5

Terry Hall, best known as the frontman of 80s groups like The Specials and The Fun Boy Three,  has recently turned up in my mind in the way that buried and unsettling memories, unexpectedly set loose from their time and place, often can. A few days ago I was reading W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Sebald’s description of Manchester in the 60s was making me think of my earliest memories of visiting the city when– there he was: Terry Hall, with his exquisite sad face, driving through deserted city streets at night with his fellow Specials singing ‘This town is ‘comin’ like  a ghost town.’ Watching the video now I see the humour and the political anger in the song: this was 1981 and Hall’s lyrics are a direct reaction to the high unemployment and hopelessness experienced by a generation in Thatcher’s Britain. But at the time I first watched it, I was 8 years old and along with two other pop videos (Julian Cope and The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Reward’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’) this was the most frightening thing I had seen on TV. Of course, at 8, you don’t understand the politics of these songs, but you are able to understand desolation, and this was my experience. It was the music and images in these pop videos, especially ‘Ghost Town,’ that gave me my first taste of insomnia and the strange way the mind works when you don’t sleep. In the insomniac state, ordinary things– blackened brickwork, a man lifting a trumpet to his lips, a car swerving as it rattles over broken tarmac and cobbles–are tainted and become more tainted as the images and sounds that frightened you repeat and strengthen themselves. The dark becomes dirtier.

And somehow, Terry Hall’s physical beauty makes all that decay seem worse.  Hall, in 1981, looks like a male Garbo: huge eyes, an almost deathly pallor, a smile that passes, occasionally, like a cloud over his face. The face is sensitive and alert but also somehow mask-like; a living being in a dead world. Watching him, Julian Cope and the Floyd in the early 80s dropped me into another world. The comforting, sugary froth served up by bands like ABC and Duran Duran melted away when you watched and listened to music like this. Life wasn’t men in linen suits cavorting with models on yachts. It was something rainier and sharper and it could be lived more truthfully. Terry Hall both attracted and frightened me: he was political in ways I didn’t understand and was sad and honest in ways that I somehow did. His was the first voice I can remember that sang about life in a minor key. He said a lot in a few words, and quietly.

versus

‘Hallelujah’ is an infinite song. That’s the conclusion I came to last night as I sat down to Guy Garvey’s excellent hour-long documentary on the subject. Half asleep as I write this, I know it’s infinite because I have a feeling I could continue talking about it forever. Perhaps, in some recess of my mind, I will. Talking ‘Hallelujah’ will serve me well when I’m down in hell; all I’ll need as my get out of Sheol card will be a couple of blogs on ‘Hallelujah’ and the Prince of Darkness will be powerless to resist me. I’ll breeze past St Peter with a snappy rendition of ‘Kung Fu Fighting,’  and before you can say ‘space-time continuum’ Beatrice and Dante will have put the kettle on, I’ll be talking about generous pronouns and Jeff Buckley will be tuning his guitar.

Garvey’s programme was gentle, intelligent and he himself was wonderful when talking about Buckley’s rendition of ‘I Know It’s Over’ in the midst of a live recording of ‘Hallelujah,’ and about the guitar intro Buckley wrote for his version of the song. He was even better than wonderful when he told us that the song is powerful because it uses ‘mantra’ (the word ‘Hallelujah’) and that, writing for Elbow, he uses the mantra idea a lot: listen to ‘One Day Like This’ and you will understand what he’s talking about; by the end of the song, not only will you be singing too, but Dante will have fished out another mug with your name on it, in anticipation of your arrival.

Although Garvey’s show was a real treat (great not to have a presenter who speaks like they’ve been to Presenter Academy) I did feel there were one or two things I wished I’d been there to add. Some talk of pronouns for one thing. Last night, no one mentioned those little functional words and how they deliver the experience of the song to the listener and the singer; how they also allow the song to take on an almost infinite variety of political meaning. The pronouns are powerful, man. Look what happens when I alter them:

She tied me to the kitchen chair,

she broke my throne and she cut my hair,

and from my lips she drew the Hallelujah.

 

Well, ‘she’ is still OMG sexy, but suddenly the song seems firmly personal. Garvey showed how Cohen’s song really ceased to belong to Cohen the moment it had been released as a record. But if he’d written it like this it would simply have been a lovely conversation you overhear on a bus, say, or in a restaurant, and it would still belong to Cohen. But switch back those pronouns and feel the difference:

She tied you to the kitchen chair,

she broke your throne and she cut your hair,

and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

 

Suddenly someone has broken into your memory, bypassed all the security and has reached the vault where all the precious things are, the ‘Casket of Dreams’ if you like. No guards or weapons can help you and you are utterly defenceless. The speaker can really hurt you now, and he does. But, and this is the amazing thing, he hurts you in a way that makes you thank him and sing back ‘Hallelujah,’ purely or brokenly, depending on how the song finds you at the time.

But the pronouns’ power doesn’t end there. They gift the listener many other things; great sex for one. If you’re lucky enough to have had sex like that, it makes the memory suddenly, overwhelmingly present (‘so that’s what happened, was it? Jesus!’); if you haven’t, it gives you such a powerful sense of being there that for a few glorious seconds you can imagine what that feeling is like. Either way, you experience a kind of ecstasy of imagining. You experience the pain and glory of ‘The Vision of Eros.’ You are more than half a poet.

However, if you’re the right kind of singer or listener, ‘Hallelujah’ can make you more than half a revolutionary too. I’ve already hinted at the political drive in k.d. lang’s interpretation. What happens to me, feminist me, when I listen to the song? One female contributor to Garvey’s programme described how she felt it was a man’s song, because of its use of that pronoun ‘she.’ I found that strange: I have never felt it was a man’s song, as though women were somehow excluded from its ‘Hallelujah.’ Rather, I feel the song is an opportunity to change gender. I become a man when I listen. I am Samson. I am David. I am the strong man tied to the kitchen chair, I am the poet-king. And nobody, the song gives me courage to say, can gainsay my claim–  watch those impish, insurgent pronouns go.

But women, too, can see their own strength reflected in the ‘she’ of the lyrics. How many times, in poems and songs, are women hated and scorned for their beauty or sexual power? Not here. ‘Hallelujah’ is revolutionary in its understanding of female sexual power, just as it also, simultaneously, teaches us about acceptance of sorrow, humiliation and loss. OK, so she cut your hair, Samson, but, you know what? you still got that broken hallelujah, and that’s worth just about everything. Her beauty overthrew you? Christ that hurt but bring it on– give me more– don’t stop–please. You are nothing now, but what a glorious nothing, an infinity of nothing. Submit, let go, be thankful.

‘Hallelujah,’ though, isn’t a political manifesto (no ‘victory marches’ here, no banners, no slogans). But it is poetry. Yet, there’s a paradox. It is only poetry when sung. The lyrics on their own are very fine indeed:

The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

I’ve highlighted the stresses in this line in bold to point out to the poetry anoraks amongst you that this is a deft iambic pentameter line that uses a feminine unstressed syllable at its close in a lovely, breathy way. The line drifts off ‘upstairs, downstairs, somewheres’ at the end, wherever you want it to go. And ‘baffled’ is so just. Overwhelmed by the song, not even understanding what he’s doing or what love is doing to him, the poet-king keeps going, in a state of negative capability.

But the song doesn’t stand up as poetry on its own because the words ache for the melody; dammit, the chord sequence is even described in the lyrics, they’re on such intimate terms. The words, beautiful as they are, need the music to keen properly. More than that, they demand the right interpreter.

‘Hallelujah’ does not render its cover artists magically equal, as Garvey’s programme demonstrated. In fact, the contrary is true–it renders them glaringly unequal. Garvey included many interpreters of the song, but, even he, democrat that he is, still couldn’t help suggesting that there was one supreme singer of ‘Hallelujah:’ Jeff Buckley. All ‘Hallelujahs’ to date lead to him. And the mystery deepens. Cohen’s masterpiece appears to be a bit like the Sword in the Stone: it demands a King Arthur to pull the prize from the rock. Not that Buckley is the only King (Katherine Williams emerges from the programme as a contender) but it does demand a supreme sensitivity in the artist to get ‘Hallelujah’ to fully yield. But to get the song to yield, the artist must first fully yield themselves to it. It’s that thing about risk again, that thing about duende.

So Garvey, here’s a gauntlet. I know you said you’re scared to take on ‘Hallelujah’ (who, after all, wants to end up in the seventh circle of the abyss where Bon Jovi will be doing their tight-trousered ‘Hallelujah’ till kingdom come?) But I know you can take on this song of songs and win. You won’t be able to help it, you little sod. You’re too intelligent, too sensual for that. Go on, give it a go. I dare you.

Buckley does a ‘Hallelujah’ on a fine Smiths song and utterly transforms it. Imagine this inserted into a live version of ‘Hallelujah.’ Or, better still, find Garvey on Listen Again (Radio 2) if you still can.

A link to Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’:  http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=hooPU2mdsH4

It’s almost biblical isn’t it? 42 days is now, as of today, the amount of time H.M. Government can detain us British citizens without charge. 42. For 40 days and nights Christ hung around in the desert having hallucinations about Satan, and in general, 40 days is around the time ancient wisdom suggests is enough to test one’s sanity to destruction. This, presumably, is what the entirely arbitrary figure of 42 days is all about. Like all forms of torture (and make no mistake, imprisonment without trial is psychological torture, on a par with electrodes on the genitals or ‘waterboarding’) it’s about theatre, it’s symbolic. And this figure, ’42,’ tells us of the Godlike powers of our masters. As I remember my RE teacher at school saying, ’40 days’ stood for a long, unmeasured, indeterminate stretch of time, just short of ‘forever’ in its power to terrify and subdue the devil, the adversary, the alien amongst us.

But what can we do to protest? I have a suggestion. I propose 42 days of mourning, biblical style: sackcloth and ashes, beating the breast, howling and sobbing in public. For all people of good will should mourn the events of today, for they amount to the passing of democracy, the extraordinary rendition of decency. Our British humanity has been whisked away before most of us even noticed and now begins its indefinite term in some nameless, stateless oubliette.

So, on day one of my 42, I will howl with the rest and keep on howling: ‘Down with Bush, down with Brown…’ and how very apt the rhyme is, as if our PM’s very name was destined for execration on the placard. Bring on the teargas, bring on the barricade. That is, if we’re not too Bush-whacked, B-liar-ed and cowed. Please note, George W. makes his valedictory visit to the UK in a few days, in time for Brown to deliver him a final gift: forty-two days, courtesy of a few Unionist desperadoes and two Tory/UKIP nutters. Plus that core of spineless Labour MPs whipped into submission. It isn’t only Brown who has let us all down.

And The Boys Next Door begat The Birthday Party; The Birthday Party begat Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; The Bad Seeds begat Grinderman…(1)

With some embarrassment, I realise I am about to write yet another public love letter to Cave–my ‘erotographomania’ appears to know no bounds. Like Mr Sandman in ‘Today’s Lesson,’ Cave appears to be stalking my thoughts, even my dreams. Here’s the latest dream I’ve had which he steals and conducts.

***

I can’t help but think of Nick Cave’s musical history in terms of some kind of biblical genealogy, a geneaology of the kind found in Genesis (1) and some of the Gospels. In these long lists of who begat whom, the writer weaves together generations, each generation being part of one giant organism; protean and yet always retaining its distinctive identity. What’s impressive about Cave’s genealogy is his ability to turn himself inside out, riding time like a river. He hasn’t, like Orpheus or Lot’s wife, turned back to try and recapture what has been lost. Instead his music remains strong because he wrestles with what is.

Most rock stars struggle with the present tense once they’ve hit forty. Rock, as any damn fool can tell you, is about youth. Once that ‘fair flower’ is gone, the rock musician’s raison d’etre easily withers and dies unless that musician’s talent is exceptional. Take R.E.M., for example. I was once the most passionate of R.E.M. fans: I was in the fan club; I read ‘Remarks,’ a band biography, about 15 times; I bought every album, every dodgy bootleg I could find. I can still tell you the name of the street (Oconee Street) in Athens GA where they played their first gig in a derelict church–such was my pathological adoration. Then, finally, after an epiphany over ‘Crush with Eyeliner’ some years ago, I realised with huge sadness that everything after Green (1989) was merely a competent travesty. Now, each time they release a record, I hear reporters reiterate that terrible kiss-of-death phrase, ‘return to form.’ In fact, it is ‘returning’ that is really R.E.M.’s problem. 

Stipe and co always seem to be trying to return to what they once were, as if they don’t want to evolve but retreat. They haven’t realised that they can’t ‘get back’ because they’ve blanded themselves into stadium-rock nonentities. The wellspring that fed great albums like Murmur and Reckoning has run dry. They are chained to the lovesong (a genre in which Stipe becomes horribly saccharine; he can’t write decent lovesongs to save his life). They make political statements (off and sometimes on record) but they have stopped being political storytellers, connected to everyday America (can you imagine Stipe being able to write anything as good or as lucidly particular as ‘Old Man Kensey’ or ‘Driver 8’ now?)(2). Their money and fame grease everything they do. In interviews Stipe reeks of self-importance and the once fine flick-knife wit of Peter Buck seems addled and hopelessly jaded.

Perhaps someone is now going to write and tell me that I’m wrong and I haven’t done my research, as Geoff Barradale did over my Hawley piece some months back. If this is the case, I’d be glad to be convinced that I’m mistaken, such was my love for the band. But I doubt anyone can provide the evidence I need: for a start, I can hardly bear to listen to recent R.E.M. interviews or new tracks these days because to me everything they do rings hollow. They’ve long since ceased to create their own system, but instead are ‘enslav’d’ by Time Warner’s. Their moral independence is zero.

The fate of R.E.M. should act as a warning to all artists (musicians, poets, painters etc). Their descent into the anodyne demonstrates what happens to those who don’t know how to be true to their gift. Think of The Arctic Monkeys as a test case. They have such a distinctive sound: breakneck yet sometimes tender, it’s a tremendous thing: so few artists escape pastiche. But this very blessing becomes a curse if they remain trapped in that sound, if they don’t at once know themselves and know to burn, break and bend themselves into something new. Alex Turner has already attempted this with his latest project The Last Shadow Puppets,(3) where the sound is genetically related to The Arctic Monkeys’ but yet changed–utterly.  I hope Turner ignores any flak he gets for this or any other act of creative daring, because if he can eventually navigate his way out of the young dude rapids in which he currently finds himself, very interesting and even greater things will emerge.

But if the fate of R.E.M. helps us to think about gifted people like the Arctic Monkeys, it also holds up a mirror to something else that’s important about Cave’s gift. R.E.M.’s failings emphasise how rare is the genius for change. Cave is extraordinary because he won’t solidify; he refuses to cool to room temperature. How beautiful to burn as he so defiantly does. Perhaps at some point he will fizzle out,  relishing, as few have the courage to do, his infirmity and disintegration. Or perhaps he will continue to burn until the end: as the cold stars burn, as burns the ineffable rose.

(1) See Genesis 4:18: ‘And unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and
           Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech.’

(2) Compare these two clips, ‘Old Man Kensey'(1985) vs ‘Supernatural Superserious’ (2008).  I rest my case.

(3) a small but delicious sample:

 

‘And if you’re northern, that makes it even worse.’ (Morrissey)

for George Deane

In ‘Let’s Ballad: Richard Hawley, Voicemanguitar’ I talked about Hawley being ‘northern.’ On the Hawley forum later, there was some dispute about whether Sheffield (Hawley’s home town) is really ‘north’ at all. But to me, Sheffield is north. Sheffield has a good deal of affinity with the northern town in which I was born, Bolton. In both cases, being northern is about neglected beauty, postindustrial decay, political radicalism, battered dignity. I’ve lived in the Cotswolds for five years now, and love its landscape (it’s not the chocolate box it at first appears to be). But I crave, will always crave, the Victorian red brick, the blackened sandstone of the north. It hurts me to go there: Bolton looks more impoverished with each visit, eviscerated as it is by the blight of supermarkets and what my Dad calls the ‘sheds,’ the vast hangars full of consumer tat to be found on the Bolton Wanderers carpark that is the ‘Middlebrook’ out-of-town shopping centre. My north fights against this north. My stone and brick north is also a dream place, a place of whinberry-filled moorland. Whinberries could stand as emblems of the north: tiny berries that cling to the earth, that bruise your teeth and tongue with their purple; sour-sweet bubbles containing larksong, reedy streams, peatbeds. Whinberry–a taste I haven’t had for so long but which stays on my palate. Those berries: so many unhealed, stubborn bruises the hill wears like a blazon.  

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