Happy Yule and New Year!


‘The whole point of Christmas is that it is debauch.’ – George Orwell, 1946

My last blogpost of 2013. I could have done a lot more, I guess, but then again I could have given it up entirely. I am going to have a Festive break from it and start afresh in 2014.

Wishing you all a great Festive Season and New Year!

Published in: on December 24, 2013 at 6:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Mandela: Bono Speaks!


From Time magazine’s website– I hope nothing has been garbled (H-T: Alex Gordon for spotting this!):

‘Humour, humility and the ability to compromise were the marks of the man…but enough about me until the next paragraph, what about Mister Mandela? This historic photo was taken I think at that historic moment in history when he said to me “You know something, your music has really gone downhill since I’ve left prison…you seriously telling me that stuff with Pavarotti and Salman Rushdie writing lyrics about his new drop dead gorgeous girlfriend is anywhere as good as even the filler tracks on The Joshua Tree?” He started talking about the evils of tax dodging and I said “Back in a mo, Tony Blair’s just texted me for advice on Northern Ireland”…’

Sorry- my research staff say this might not be the correct text. We will change it when we can be asked to find the original…

Published in: on December 6, 2013 at 11:32 am  Leave a Comment  

Remembrance Day

‘Eight to ten million soldiers will strangle one another, and in the process will eat all Europe more bare than any swarm of locusts. The devastation of  the Thirty Years War, comprised into three or four years and extended over the whole continent: famine, pestilence, general barbarisation of armies and peoples alike through extreme want.’- Friedrich Engels, 1887. (Tristram Hunt, 2010, The Frock-Coated Communist, London, Penguin, p.347).

australiansmarchingthroughypresoct251917Australians marching through Ypres, 25 October 1917

Published in: on November 11, 2013 at 10:14 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

Norman Yoke- Myth or Reality Update

‘Mythology is the loom on which [we] weave the raw materials of daily life into a coherent story.’ David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner (quoted in Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, 2011, Sex at Dawn, New York: Harper Perennial, p.32.)


‘O what mighty Delusion, do you, who are the powers of England live in! That while you pretend to throw down that Norman yoke, and Babylonish power, and have promised to make the groaning people of England a Free People; yet you still lift up that Norman yoke, and slavish Tyranny, and in the People as much in bondage, as the Bastard Conquerour himself, and his Councel of War.’ Gerard Winstanley, In The True Levellers Standard Advanced, December 1649.

Over five years I wrote a piece about England and Englishness for the What English Means to Me website. I was pretty upfront about admitting that the idea of a post-1066 ‘Norman Yoke’ being imposed upon England plays a significant part in how I look at Britain and British history. The only major difference in my attitudes since 2008 is that I would be quite happy with a British Confederation rather than out and out English (and Scottish, Welsh etc.) independence- blame the unifying effect of last year’s Olympics for my change of heart!

However, the idea ‘Norman Yoke’ is just a myth, albeit one which for me is a lot more edifying than a lot of myths doing the rounds. Furthermore, a lot of people get the idea of ‘myth’ wrong. To quote Ryan and Jetha:

‘The word myth has been debased and cheapened in modern usage; it’s often used to refer to something false, a lie.  But this use misses the deepest function of myth, which is to lend narrative order to apparently disconnected bits of information, the way constellations group impossibly distant stars into tight, easily recognizable patterns that are simultaneously imaginary and real.’ (ibid, p.32)

It was this idea of myth which informed Plato’s belief in The Republic that the statesman’s task is to ‘offer people good myths and to save them from harmful myths.’ (quoted in Tom Nairn, 1981, The Break-Up of Britain, Second, Expanded Edition, London: Verso, p.266)  People who believe that Actual Existing Capitalism in the US and UK is the ‘free market’, the ex-Soviet Union was under ‘workers’ control’ or the world is run by a Jewish-Masonic Conspiracy are just as bigger believers in myths as anyone who thinks that the ‘Norman Yoke’ has some explanatory value when trying to understand post-1066 British history. Out of those four, I’m pretty sure which myth is least harmful.

Plus, unlike the other 3 myths just cited, the evidence for a post-1066 ‘Norman Yoke’ keeps popping up. For instance this and this. The only caveat I would make is both articles say 1170 was 4 years after the Norman invasion, when it was 104. In 1070 the Normans were still acting like a bunch of war criminals, not least in the North of  England  (‘Half the vills of the North Riding and over one third of those of the East and West ridings [of Yorkshire] were wholly or partially wasted.’ Peter Rex (2004) The English Resistance, Stroud: Tempus, p.106).


1066: Normans burn down a house in Pevensey- because they can. Starting as they mean to go on in England….


Thinking about the Norman invasion, I was reminded of this, which is even older (June 6th 2006) than my contribution to What England Means to Me. Not much to add, except that The Last English King will probably appeal to anyone who likes The Game of Thrones books (Sean Bean would make a good King Harold if they ever make a film/TV series of it- he has that flawed medieval-era hero down to a tee.)


Uruk-hai arrows, Norman arrows, they’re all the same to me…

I’m just looking for a new England…


One of the best novels I’ve read in recent years is Julian Rathbone’s The Last English King (originally published in 1997, I have an Abacus 2001 edition). It tells the tale of Walt, the last surviving member of King Harold II’s bodyguard in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings and the Norman takeover of England. Walt travels towards the Holy Land in the hope of redemption and in the process tells the story of England from the end of Danish rule in the early 1042 until 1066.


Walt, on the left, having the worst day of his life…

It is told in modernish English vernacular, contains some minor but not annoying historical inaccuracies & anachronisms, and contains enough swearing, sex and violence to make it a worthwhile read! However, it is quite clear where Rathbone’s sympathies lie. That is, with the ‘freeborn’ English, not the ‘Norman Yoke; that was imposed upon them after 1066. When I say about one day my writings perhaps helping to create an English Mutualist Party [perhaps I should have deleted that!], Rathbone’s description of pre-1066 English society will have played its part (p.99):

‘…while the country was, yes, an intricate web of interconnections and interdependencies seen both horizontally from farmstead to manor, from village to burgh, from sheep-farmer to fisherman, from charcoal-burner to iron smelter, or vertically from the King to serf, each community accepted responsibility for itself and all its members- the aged, the sick, the women, the children and even the wrongdoers. Step out of line in a way the community felt brought it into disrepute and it could well treat you more harshly than the laws of the land. “There had to be a word to describe this interlocking of self-interest and genuine altruism. The Latin words mutuus and communis suggested themselves. English society could be said to live and act per mutua, mutually: thus Mutual Help was the process by which it all worked.’

Furthermore, Rathbone outside of his fiction has identified ‘two Englands’, whose origins stretch back to the Norman Invasion. The talk below was made a few years ago on behalf of the British Council (the link to his piece seems to have disappeared, so consider this as me saving the late- he died in 2008- Mr Rathbone’s talk from disappearing down The Memory Hole):

I am not a scholar or an academic. I am not a historian, sociologist, ethnologist, anthropologist… or even a cultural critic. I am an undisciplined creative artist, more specifically a writer, a novelist. I am also emotionally if not intellectually, a Romantic – as will become apparent. I’m here because I have written two books that, amongst other things, explore my ideas of Englishness, The Last English King(1997) and Kings of Albion which was published by Little, Brown in May 2000.

A general assertion: a culture is self-perpetuating as long as nothing intervenes to change or destroy it. At a micro-level you can see this in schools where the entire pupil population can change every five years but traditional patterns of behaviour repeat themselves over decades, even centuries without being codified or imposed – the songs sung at the back of the bus that takes teams on trips to away matches, initiation rites, and so on. There’s a PhD thesis waiting to be written about back-of-the-bus subcultures. Therefore my thesis that what is English has its roots in pre-conquest culture, though warped horribly by the Normans, is not vitiated by the thousand years that separates us from that terrible date.

The English. There are two strands in Englishness which I believe achieved a sort of uneasy meld, uneasy because of the basic contradictions between them, by about 1450, and remain dominant right down to present times. They derive from two cultures.

First, the Anglo-Saxon-Danish. The Anglo-Saxons were teutonic, Germanic. When their conquest of what we now call England began they were a split culture – the males were warriors and focussed on their leader or king. Women lived in an almost separate realm where they were powerful and respected. It is arguable that the Freudian conflict between war and work on one side and hearth and sex on the other was not entirely resolved. On the male side at least obedience and loyalty were the most highly-rated virtues.

The Danes, whose more or less assimilated descendants amounted to at least a third of the population by 1066 but had their own traditions and laws, the Danelaw, were also a warrior culture but perhaps based on smaller units whose size was circumscribed by the number of men in a long-boat. They valued individualism and individual feats more then the Anglo-Saxons did, individual pride over-rode a loyalty that could become servile in the Anglo-Saxons.

The political organisations of both retained strong traditions of a democracy an anarchist like Peter Kropotkin would have found congenial. A sort of mutual-aid ran through village-based society, moots or meetings at all levels took decisions after endless discussion, all principal offices including kingship were elective, and so on…

Then came the Normans who were, and are, like their leader, bastards. It is true that they were descended from Norsemen who had arrived in northern France a hundred or so years earlier, but during that hundred years they had lost their language and most of their way of life. If I may interpose a thought here, I think historians generally have failed to make enough of the effects of intermarriage between conquerors and conquered. Conquerors rarely bring their women with them and certainly never enough women. The Danes arrived in England and intermarried into a culture that in many ways was significantly similar to the one they brought with them, and they thus retained much of their own identity. The Normans, from the same roots, arrived in a France where the culture was very different, and within a hundred years no longer lived, nor even looked much like the Norsemen they were descended from.

Following 1066 the Normans imposed a rigid hierarchical, ethnically-based authoritarian bureaucracy on the anarcho-democratic systems they found. They were anal, dull, cruel. They practised ethnic cleansing in the West Country and South Yorkshire, in the latter case reducing a well-populated, prosperous area to what the Doomsday book itself, twenty years later, called a barren wasteland. They did not assimilate. Laws were not written in English until the 1390s, and the first postc-onquest king to speak English easily was Henry V. Imagine Germany had won the last war. It is as if the official language would not revert from German to English until 2,300.

However, the Normans were few in number, not more than 10,000 initially, maybe less, and they brought few women with them. They therefore relied on Anglo-Saxon collaborators to fill the minor posts of government and the lower echelons of the church, and to some extent they interbred – initially by rape.

The result of 1066 is the English: two, possibly three conflicting strands which I believe are with us today and make us what we are. On the one side individuality and the rights of the individual are more highly valued here than almost anywhere else in the world. Most of us object to government, do not respect politicians, hate and fear bureaucratic interference. We are hedonistic, pragmatic, empirical, pluralist, hate dogma. We like a good time. We do not understand spirituality because we reject the duality that is a precondition of the concept of spirituality. We are Roger Bacon, William of Occam, John Wycliffe, Jack Cade, Wat Tyler and the Lollards; Langland, Milton and the Levellers; Blake, Tom Paine and the Chartists; Turner and Darwin. We are lager louts and we hate the French. We are adventurers. We believe a change is as good as a rest.

On the other side we are Normans. We are superior, we rule by right, we obey the rules, though we congratulate each other when we get away with breaking them. We are one of us. We are control freaks. We are bossy. We like systems so long as we are in charge of them. We march, we do not amble, we fire as one and not at will, and we take our hands out of our pockets when we speak to me. We tabulate, order, divide. We are deeply prejudiced (God is an Englishman – a Norman actually) and intolerant.

And worst of all, somewhere in between, we are collaborators- In exchange for security, a certain status, we will keep order for the Normans, we fear change, we are tidy, we clip our hedges, we keep off the grass (pun intended), we do as we’re told.

With these contradictory strands, no wonder we don’t know who we are, but I believe, in spite of 1066, we are at best Vikings with some of the stolidity, reliability, even dullness of the Anglo-Saxons, and, well, pardon my Anglo-Saxon, fuck the Normans and the collaborators. I really do believe that at last, like the House of Lords, they’ve had their day.

Well, the House of Lords is still here…I need to embrace my inner Anglo-Saxon (with some Celtic and Danish attitudes thrown in) a bit more…

‘Can A Marxist Be A Patriot?’ asked The Week magazine back on October 11th


I just wanted to use that as a feeble excuse to put this picture up, which was on The Week’s front page, drawn by Neil Davies. For many people this will have the phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’ written all over it!

‘The theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s great historical failure.’– Tom Nairn (1981) The Break-Up of Britain  Second, Expanded Edition (London: Verso), p.329.

Published in: on November 8, 2013 at 8:40 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , ,

‘Great Fangorn wood to high Isengard hill’: ‘The Scottish Play’ and Middle Earth, Part 1


Bath-time for Isengard…

I was inspired to write this piece by a post on the Shakespeare Globe blog saying how the 1605 Gunpowder Plot influenced Macbeth. It reminded me of how  Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish Play’ influenced others.

Tolkien has a reputation for not having much time for Shakespeare. At King Edward’s School in Birmingham study of English Literature was mainly confined to Shakespeare’s plays, which he ‘disliked cordially’ (Humphrey Carpenter, 2002, JRR Tolkien: A Biography, London, Harper Collins,,  p.46; Letter to WH Auden, 7 June 1956, in Humphrey Carpenter, ed., 1995, The Letters of JRR Tolkien, London, Harper Collins, p.213). Tolkien was particularly aggrieved at Shakespeare’s use of ‘Elves’, In a letter to Hugh Brogan, dated 18 September 1954 discussing The Lord of the Rings :

‘…I now deeply regret having used Elves, though this is a word in ancestry and original meaning suitable enough. But the disastrous debasement of this word, in which Shakespeare played an unforgivable part, has really overloaded it with regrettable tones, which are too much to overcome.’ (Letters, op cit, p.185) 

Tolkien also mentioned this in a 1951 letter  to Milton Waldman, giving an overview of Middle Earth’s history when it seemed Collins, not Allen and Unwin would be publishing both The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings:

‘…to those creatures which In English I misleadingly call Elves* are assigned two related languages…’  ‘*Intending the word to be understood in its ancient meaning, which continued as late as [Edmund] Spenser- a murrain on Will Shakespeare and his damned cobwebs.’ (ibid, p.143)


Tolkien would probably cite Spinal Tap’s ‘Stonehenge’ performance as an example of Shakespeare’s bad influence…

However, Tolkien’s relationship to Shakespeare’s works is rather more complicated that simple condemnation. In July 1944 he saw a performance of Hamlet at Oxford Playhouse and commented in a letter to his son Christopher:

‘…it emphasised more strongly than anything that I have ever seen the folly of reading Shakespeare  (and annotating him the study), except as a concomitant of seeing his plays acted. It was a very good performance, with a young fierce Hamlet; it was played fast without cuts; and came out as a very exciting play. Could one only have seen it without ever having read it or knowing the plot, it would have been terrific….to my surprise the part that came out as the most moving, almost intolerably so, was the one that in reading I always found a bore: the scene of mad Ophelia singing her snatches.’ (ibid, p.88)

It therefore appears Tolkien thought Shakespeare is better watched than read, which to me is a pretty valid point. (Mind you, in recent years I’ve only seen good-through-to-excellent performances at Shakespeare’s Globe and Bard on the Beach, so I might be a bit biased!)

Furthermore, Tom Shippey notes that:

‘If there is one work to which The Lord of the Rings is indebted again and again, it is Shakespeare’s Macbeth.’ (Tom Shippey, 2000, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, London, Harper Collins, p.191)

This is in spite of  Shakespeare using, via the Three Witches, language in Macbeth which makes Elves sound like ‘Little People’:

‘And now about the cauldron sing/Like elves and fairies in a ring.’ (Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1)

So where is the evidence that ‘The Scottish Play’ influences The Lord of the Rings?

To begin with, Tolkien told WH Auden that the Ents appearing in The Lord of the Rings:

‘…is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of “Great Birnham wood to high Dunsinane hill”; I longed to devise a setting in which the trees really march to war.’ (Letters, op cit, p.212)


‘As I did stand my watch upon the hill/I looked toward Birnham, and anon methought/ The wood began to move.’ (Messenger, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5.)

The Witches said ‘Macbeth shall never vanquished be until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him’ (ibid, Act 4, Scene 1), which he believed made him invulnerable. He also was assured by another prophecy they made:

‘Be bloody, bold, and resolute. Laugh to scorn/The power of man, for none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth.’ (ibid, Act 4, Scene 1)
In The Lord of the Rings, Glorfindel the Elf made the prophecy at the Battle of Fornost in 1974 of the Third Age (a mere 1,045 years before The War of the Ring) that the fleeing Witch-king of Angmar:
‘…will not return to this land [the ruined Kingdom of Arnor]. Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall.‘ JRR Tolkien, 1995, The Lord of the Rings,  London: Harper Collins, Appendix A, p.1027).
Trouble with a capital T
In time it is revealed that the Witch-king is in fact, the Lord of the Nazgul, the leader of Sauron’s Ringwraiths, and he remembers the prophecy about his fate, declaring  at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields that ‘No living man can hinder me!’ (ibid, Book 5, Chapter VI p.823)
You should always read the small-print when it comes to prophecies…
However, just as Macbeth is killed by Macduff , who ‘was from his mother’s womb/untimely ripped’ (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 10), The Lord of the Nazgul is killed by a woman (Eowyn) and a Hobbit (Merry).
Apart from two of the Witches’ prophecies being adapted by Tolkien, other elements of Macbeth make an appearance in The Lord of the Rings. In Act 4, Scene 3, of Macbeth King Edward of England heals the sick:
A most miraculous work in this good king/,Which often since my here-remain in England/ I have seen him do. How he solicits heaven,/ Himself best knows, but strangely visited people,/All swoll’n and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,/The mere despair of surgery, he cures,/Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,/Put on with holy prayers. And, ’tis spoken,/To the succeeding royalty he leaves/The healing benediction. With this strange virtue,/He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy,/And sundry blessings hang about his throne,/That speak him full of grace.


..and match-maker?

In The Lord of the Rings a common saying in Gondor is ‘The hands of the king are the hands of a healer.’ (Lord of the Rings, Book 5, Chapter VIII, p.842). Aragorn saves Faramir, Eowyn and Merry in Minas Tirith’s  Houses of Healing.  ‘And word went through the City: The King has come again indeed.’ (ibid, p.853)

To Be Continued…Part 2 will appear pretty soonish- I hope the gap is not as big as between  Parts 1 and 2 of Ralph Bakshi’s cartoon version of Lord of the Rings…

Chris Mullin’s Diaries


I had a speed-read (as one does) the other day (still took a few hours!) of all three of Chris Mullin’s series of diaries. Up there with Tony Benn’s for having worthwhile nuggets to quote at leisure. Three stick with me (all from Decline and Fall: Diaries 2005-2010, edited by Ruth Winstone):

1. Monday 21st November 2005: ‘Joined at lunch by a Yorkshire MP, a mild-mannered fellow…’I think we will lose the next election. The Tories will come to some sort of understanding with the Lib Dems and we’ll find that we’ve opened the door to the market in health and education. And when we protest they will reply “But it is your policy, you started it.” We’ll be vulnerable for years. Our benches will be full of ex-ministers who won’t have the stomach for the fight.’ (p.87)

‘All political parties die of last of swallowing their own lies’, as John Arbuthnot wrote in 1735. Mullin’s diaries mention more than once Peter Mandelson’s abortive plans to sell off 30 per cent of the Royal Mail, and refer to Alistair Darling’s claim that the next Labour government would have to make bigger public spending cuts than Thatcher. All this seems to have gone down the political Memory Hole, although I would not be surprised if the Coalition Government parties revive them in time for the 2015 General Election. Mind you, Mullin also reminds readers that the removal of tax credits on dividends, which the Conservatives and much of the Thatcherite Press like to blame on Gordon Brown, was actually started by Norman Lamont (p.163). A reminder that no political party has a monopoly on using Memory Holes, and that Norman Lamont is very much to ‘the Right’ what the SWP is to ‘the Left’ -if you want a policy or issue discredited, get them associated with it! Speaking of Memory Holes…

2. Wednesday 28 October 2009: ‘Lunch with Charlie Glass, the former Newsweek man who was kidnapped in Beirut 22 years ago. Charlie, who has spent much of his career reporting the Middle East, reckons Lockerbie was the work of the Iranians, not the Libyans- in revenge for the passenger plane shot down by the Americans. “We’ll only find out when the regime falls” he says.’ (p.385)

Not 100 per cent sure if Mr. Glass is the talking about the Iranian or Libyan regime. However, it is a real triumph of the Memory Hole that people forget that, prior to Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait in August 1990, Libya was not in the frame for the Lockerbie bombing of December 1988, and many suspected Iran was behind it (using Palestinians) in revenge for the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes in July 1988. Then after Kuwait became Iraq’s ’19th Province’, Iran was kept onside during the subsequent conflict, and other culprits for Lockerbie had to be found. Ironically enough, whenever there is now talk of war with Iran, the claim that the Islamic Republic was ultimately behind the Lockerbie bombing cannot be used as a reason to attack.


Makes perfect sense to me…

3. Saturday 13 March 2010, Glasgow: ‘Tariq [Ali] recalled a heated exchange with Michael Foot, at Oxford in 1965, when everyone was up in arms about Wilson’s refusal to condemn the Americans, for what they were up to Vietnam. “Someone shouted, ‘bring him down.’ I have never forgotten Michael’s reply. “What you don’t realise is that Harold Wilson is the most left-wing prime minister we will ever have.” He was right.’ (p.432)


I have heard that story before in Tariq Ali’s introduction to interviews with Ken Livingstone back in the mid-80s called Who’s Afraid of Margaret Thatcher? It is also reminds me of a comment Livingstone made to John Pilger in an interview (I wish I could find the source) from roughly the same time ie when the GLC still existed where ‘Red Ken’ said that if he was West German he would be regarded as a typical centre-left Social Democrat local government leader. Only in Britain can he be regarded as a ‘Red’. Anyway, it seems few on the British Left seem to have considered the implications in 1965, 1985ish, 2010 or now of Michael Foot’s claim that Harold Wilson was as good as it gets.

Quick rant


Oh, if only there were more honest types like this…

About 25 years back there was a newspaper called ‘7 Days.’ It was a journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain. It had started publishing in the aftermath of the big, and what turned out to be terminal, split in the CPGB of 1985-6, which saw  supporters of its daily newspaper The Morning Star  expelled from the Party (they are now to be found in the Communist Party of Britain, formed in 1988). Without the Star, the CPGB needed a regular publication (not counting Marxism Today, which apart from being monthly, was going through its transition from supposedly analysing ‘Thatcherite hegemony’ to becoming a leading outpost for propagating it), so ‘7 Days’ was born.

It was available in my local library and I used to have a gander through it. To be honest, I don’t remember much of the content (although I do remember a reference to the ‘1956 Hungarian counter-revolution’, which is not the sort of phrase you expect from a supposedly ‘anti-Stalinist’ publication) but one letter sticks in my mind, written by a female CPGB member. She had been at some ‘Leftie’ meeting or other trying to sell copies of the paper alongside most of the other proverbial 57 varieties of British Marxism with copies of  their publications. She then wrote that trying to distinguish herself and her paper from the other publications on offer, she started bawling the phrase  ‘7 Days- the socialist paper without all the answers!’ Apparently this helped sell more copies of her paper than any of her many rivals.

Now, quarter of a century on, it would take someone with a lot of nerve, and/or no self-awareness, to try and claim that their avowedly socialist newspaper or political organisation has all the answers. Or indeed any of them. However, there still seems a fair few people out there who are fearless and/or lack self-awareness despite ‘The Left’ (for want of a better quick catch-all term) being not so much in a hole as doing another round of sight-seeing through the Seven Circles of Hell. However, despite going from screw-up to screw-up (and a lot of Messiah-following and Baldrick-type cunning plans) much of ‘The Left’ seems to be having a bloody good go at confirming Trotsky’s belief that ‘All through history, mind limps after reality.


Uncle Junior Soprano: never a member of the SWP’s Central Committee…

I’m 44 at the end of this year, and it seems much of ‘The Left’ in Britain seems to have learnt nothing since I was a fresh-faced teenager flicking through ‘7 Days’. I don’t want to spend the rest of my days being some sort of ‘Stupid Git Whisperer’.  Now Winter is almost upon us (today is the last day of that near-constant provocation to the Trades Description Act, ‘British Summer Time’) I have found myself a project for the dark nights ahead.

Published in: on October 26, 2013 at 12:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

A Spectre Is Haunting Wigan Pier? A Quickish Note.



At long last I’ve managed to blog something apart from glorified apologies! It was hard work, and I think my mind is a bit rusty. Furthermore, this post is definitely not an attempt  at a final be all and end all on the subject. I’m prepared to be rectified! However, as promised a while back, I am finally getting the blog back together!  So without any more ado…

During 1935 George Orwell lived at 50 Lawford Road, Kentish Town with Rayner Heppenstall and Michael Sayers. (I’m not sure about the building itself, but the street, which Sayers said had ‘an air of decay about it’, still exists). [1] Among many other topics, Orwell and Sayers talked about The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels. They both agreed that the Manifesto was:

‘one of the most powerful and beautifully written political documents imaginable…an epic poem in the magnificence of its vocabulary and passion. [2]

At this point Orwell was not a socialist, but rather a Tory Anarchist  and Tory anti-Imperialist. It was only after his trip to northern England in 1936 (immortalised in The Road to Wigan Pier) and his participation in the Spanish Civil War in 1936-7 (the subject of Homage to Catalonia) that he became a self-professed writer for  ‘democratic Socialism’. [3]

Now it is easy to compare the first part of Wigan Pier with the subject matter of Engels The Condition of the Working Class in England– basically how much of the working class in northern England got screwed over by capitalist industrialisation. (These days any similar work would concentrate on how the working class in northern England suffers from de-industrialisation.) However, did Orwell ever read Engels’ work before or after he went in search of Wigan Pier? (I honestly do not know. Any enlightenment out from anyone out there would be appreciated!)

However, did The Communist Manifesto (which stylistically he obviously appreciated) influence Orwell’s writing? I would say there is some evidence of this in Part 2 of Wigan Pier. Subject of Part III of the Manifesto is ‘Socialist and Communist Literature’ in 1840s Europe. In it Marx and Engel attack ‘Reactionary Socialism’, ‘Petit-Bourgeois Socialism’, ‘German, or True, Socialism, ‘Conservative, or Bourgeois Socialism’ and ‘Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism’. [4] In a similar manner Orwell spends much of Part II of Wigan Pier attacking self-professed socialists in 1930s England. [5] Did he get the idea to criticise the socialists of his day from the Manifesto?

Furthermore, there is one part of Wigan Pier which stylistically comes very close to the Manifesto in criticising some socialists. Discussing ‘Conservative, or Bourgeois Socialism’, which ‘wish[es] for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat’ the Manifesto states:

A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances, in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society.

To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind. [6]

In Wigan Pier Orwell claims ‘Socialism in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle class’, with the typical socialist often being ‘a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaller [but not a ‘temperance fanatic’?!] and often with vegetarian leanings’. Like the Manifesto’s ‘Conservative Socialist’, this sort of socialist  has a ‘social position which he has no intention of forfeiting.’ If the Manifesto implicitly worries about the sort of people who are attracted to socialism in the 1840s, Orwell is blunt in Wigan Pier about his horror about those attracted to the idea in the 1930s:

…there is the horrible and really disquieting- prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England. [7]

From the Manifesto, Orwell appears to have taken the idea that there are certain ‘types’ who give the sort of socialism he wants a bad name. I should think Marx and Engels would have appreciated Orwell’s comment in Wigan Pier that ‘As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.’

Finally, Orwell  uses the Manifesto’s ending to inspire his rallying call at the end of Wigan Pier for the English middle classes (those who aren’t fruit-juice drinkers sandal-wearers, nudists, sex-maniacs etc) to be won over to Socialism. While Marx and Engels declare ‘The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains’, [8] Orwell says ‘we of the sinking middle class…

…may sink without further struggle into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for after all we having nothing to lose but our aitches.’ [9]


1. Gordon Bowker (2004) George Orwell (London: Abacus), p.173.

2. Ibid, p.174.

3. Orwell as Tory Anarchist, Bernard Crick (1992) George Orwell: A Life, p.254. In Politics vs Literature, his 1945 essay on Gulliver’s Travels, Orwell described Jonathan Swift as a Tory Anarchist: ‘despising authority while disbelieving in liberty, and preserving the aristocratic outlook while seeing clearly that the existing aristocracy is degenerate and contemptible’ (George Orwell: Essays, 1994, London: Penguin, p.380). Orwell as Tory anti-Imperialist Crick, op cit, p.174).  Only after his experiences in the Spanish Civil War ‘and other events in 1936-7’ could Orwell say that ‘Every line of serious work I have written since…has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.’ (‘Why I Write’, Essays, op cit, p.5)

4. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels ‘The Communist Manifesto’ in David McLellan (1988) Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp.221-247. Part III, pp.238-245.

5. George Orwell ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ in Peter Davison, ed., (2001) Orwell’s England, pp.57-216. Part II starts at p.139, with Orwell’s criticisms of Socialists starting around p. 165.

6.  Marx and Engels, op cit, p.242

7.  ‘Wigan Pier’, op cit, p.175.

8. Marx and Engels, op cit, p.246

9.  ‘Wigan Pier’, op cit, p.216.

Winter Is Coming…


It has been a few weeks since my holiday ended but between work and a few other noises off, the subjects of possible blogposts have been stewing nicely in my mind, but nothing concrete as yet.

While on holiday and since I’ve come back I’ve read the five books (so far) of George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series of novels, known to many (especially because of the TV series, which I haven’t seen yet) as A Game Of Thrones. I was very impressed (hence the graphic at the top of this post) by the novels and might start making cultural references to them in future posts. As yet I do  not think I could write something big and impressive about the novels,  in the way I could write about The Lord of the Rings or possibly Nineteen Eighty Four!

Anyway, I hope to soon serve up some of the stuff which is stewing in my mind…

Published in: on August 20, 2013 at 6:24 pm  Leave a Comment