Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Why I have left the Labour Party


I have been a member of the Labour Party since 1983, and I’ve stuck with it even when I disagreed with its policies (I still miss Clause IV).  Admittedly while Tony Blair was Prime Minister I refused to vote, on the grounds I could not endorse someone I considered a war criminal, but I was not tempted to leave the Party.  Now, however, I have lost patience and today resigned my membership.  This dissatisfaction has been brewing for some time and has a number of strands, all converging on Jeremy Corbyn.

He has been a disaster electorally; the last General Election was hailed as some kind of victory despite not gaining a majority, but the victory comprised a relief that Labour’s showing wasn’t a disaster, a poor reason to celebrate.  At this writing Labour is still behind the Conservatives in the opinion polls, which bearing in mind the chaos reigning in the Tory Party is in itself some kind of achievement.  This is largely due to the perception nationally of Corbyn as a potentially disastrous Prime Minister, a perception I think is justified.  He is unelectable unless the Conservatives rip themselves apart to such an extent he is able to sneak into Downing Street by default as the least worst candidate, which if it were to happen would not be a vote of confidence in his abilities.

However, as the Blair example shows, leaders come and go but the Party, one likes to think, will be there forever.  So rolling my eyes at Corbyn’s unfitness for high office would not in itself be enough to make me resign.  The breaking point has come with the controversy over anti-Semitism.  Clearly there are anti-Semitic elements within Labour, whether or not it is falsely dressed up as anti-Zionism, and the way in which these are being dealt with has been inept and leads me to question the sincerity behind what little is being done.  Several incidents have brought me to this pass.

I was concerned when Corbyn had to apologise over having questioned the removal of Kalen Ockerman’s anti-Semitic mural painted on a wall near Brick Lane.  Corbyn had initially defended his concern about its removal on grounds of free speech (though the Jewish Chronicle noted his hypocrisy as he also attended a rally against the Jyllands-Posten Mohammed cartoons).  However, as Baroness Julia Neuberger said, and which should have been obvious to Corbyn, if you can’t see a problem with the painting you lack sensitivity to what constitutes anti-Semitism.

On the other side of the coin, Corbyn has referred to Hamas and Hizbollah as ‘friends’.  Agreed that does not make him an anti-Semite himself (though Margaret Hodge, who happens to be Jewish, seems to believe he is), but he is happy to be their bedfellows.  As further evidence of Labour’s ambivalence on the subject, the Chakrabarti enquiry two years ago hardly cleared the air, and feet shuffling rather than action followed its report.  The Livingstone affair was a long-running embarrassment brought to an end only by his resignation.

Still, I hoped the situation would resolve itself.  When the Board of Deputies of British Jews criticised the Party and organised a protest against it, they were accused of being largely Conservative in their make-up and not having Labour’s best interests at heart.  It was possible the issue was being used as a convenient means to attack Labour by those whose political affiliations lay elsewhere, or even by those within the Party wishing to undermine Corbyn.

There is probably an element of opportunism in the attacks on Labour certainly, though if this is in part a ploy by the Tories to divert attention from their difficulties it isn’t being terribly successful.  Yet when it comes down to it, the anti-Semitism isn’t being made up, and if I were a Jewish member, I think I would have quit in disgust some time ago; after all, who wants to be seen as a kapo, as one Jewish member of the Party was called?  For me, it has taken a little longer to reach that decision.

Now, despite a valiant rearguard action by the PLP (though even that I have seen dismissed as simply an attempt to undermine Corbyn), a code of conduct on anti-Semitism was adopted by the NEC minus some of the key elements contained in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.  The Campaign against Antisemitism accuses Labour, in so doing, of dictating to Jews what they may call anti-Semitic (gentilesplaining as the Campaign memorably calls it).

To suggest that somehow the International Definition precludes criticism of the Israeli government’s actions is a red herring and is incorrect.  The full International Definition of Antisemitism has been widely adopted, including by the UK government and large numbers of local councils, putting the NEC out of step and leading to the suspicion of ulterior motives.  There may be legal challenges to the code and further consultation with Jewish groups, but the fact this should be necessary suggests a lack of coherence and an unwillingness to take an unambiguous stand on what is acceptable within the Labour Party.

That Corbyn has had such a tin ear on anti-Semitism for so long is exasperating, and his lack of vigour – apart from occasional anti-racist platitudes – leads to the suspicion he is concerned to appeal to a constituency he values more than the Jewish one.  As a result I do not feel I want to continue to belong to an organisation unable to tackle the issue with decisiveness.  While this is not the only subject which has left me disenchanted with Labour, it is the final one, so after 35 years I decided to quit.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

‘Post-Soviet Visions’ at Calvert 22 – How Useful is ‘post-Soviet’?


Last week I caught the tail-end of a photography exhibition at the Calvert 22 Foundation’s gallery in London devoted to Post-Soviet Visions: Image and Identity in the New Eastern Europe, curated by Ekow Eshun and Anastasiia Fedorova.  The accompanying leaflet and booklet describe it as ‘A group show of photography from the New East’, and the text accurately talks about the display ‘exploring new visual representations of lifestyle and landscape in Eastern Europe’ by younger artists ‘a quarter century after the end of Communism’.

In the show were 14 photographers (two working collaboratively) from Azerbaijan, Georgia (x2), Germany (x2), Latvia, Poland (x3), Russia (x3), Ukraine (the introduction in the booklet states Ukraine, though the gallery caption diplomatically refers only to ‘Crimea’, where the photographer lives), and Uzbekistan – the last an honorary addition to Eastern Europe.  The pair working together hail from Munich, which doesn’t sound like the New East, or the Old East for that matter.  These geographical confusions proved to be significant.

I enjoyed the exhibition greatly but found myself, as an outsider, questioning the emphasis on post-Soviet, and the bracketing together of photographers who come from widely differing backgrounds.  The press release confidently declares that the show ‘takes place at a time when the term “post-Soviet” has become a byword for bold, innovative creativity in cultural fields from high fashion to film,’ and the booklet tells us ‘In recent years, the rise of the so-called post-Soviet aesthetic has turned a historical term into a trendy buzz word.’  I do not mean to criticise the curators who are to be applauded for promoting this impressive work to a British audience in an energetic way, but I have to take issue with the use of ‘post-Soviet’.

It may be a handy label for curators, but it does not help artists trying to break free of the constraints of the past, even if they are happy to deal with certain aspects of that past, such as its architecture.  Using post-Soviet as a catch-all links photographers who are mainly joined by accidents of geography and the shared history of their forebears, but whose futures will increasingly diverge.  As that happens, this emphasis on the past will become increasingly unhelpful.  After all, these are young photographers who will probably have only vague memories, or perhaps no memories at all, of the Soviet era.

The use of the alternative expression ‘New East’, which Calvert 22 defines as ‘Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia’, also strikes me as problematic.  Apart from possible confusion with the established Near/Middle/Far East trichotomy, it too lumps countries widely separated geographically and culturally.  It is still defining the ‘new’ east against the ‘old’, i.e. the ex-Soviet bloc, though it has to be better than post-Soviet, with a more positive ring to it.

The curators themselves note how technology is erasing the old borders as the world becomes increasingly interconnected (four of the 14 photographers work in a different country to the one they were born in).  The present is certainly affected by the past history, as can be seen in many of the photographs in the exhibition, but these are photographers who in various ways want to get away from it, not be defined by it.

As the leaflet concludes, ‘Instead of old binaries of East vs West, socialist vs capitalist, their images capture a generation shaped by issues that are personal rather than political; by questions of sexuality, gender and style.’  It also refers to ‘new identities emerging across the region.’  The probing of issues of sexuality, gender and style may have reasonably common roots in the past as their home countries were constituents of the USSR, though they had their differences even then, but enough time has elapsed to diminish the Soviet Union’s relevance and allow the foregrounding of more contemporary concerns.

To illustrate this point, Turkina Faso is a Russian-born but London-based photographer, a background which says much about the international perspectives of young artists today.  She participated in the panel discussion to launch the exhibition and gave a brief interview to the website Russian Art + Culture.  In her interview she stated ‘I am not a post-Soviet photographer – this is just a tag that people put on me.’  Quite.  I wonder how many of the others represented in the exhibition would say that the label is irrelevant to their practice and merely a marketing tool.

She was not able, or willing, to define what post-Soviet meant in this context, even though she was specifically asked; the closest she could get was to suggest that for her, ‘Soviet photography is associated with something worn out and awkward’, and all she wanted to do was take photographs and be recognised for that.   She ended with a plea not to be pigeonholed and categorised, which surely undermines the use of the term Post-Soviet.

In a factual sense, to describe those countries which made up the Soviet Union and its satellites as post-Soviet is relevant, but when it comes to the cultures of those countries as they forge their own identities, it is hard to see how it is helpful.  As Anastasiia Fedorova says in her introductory essay in the exhibition booklet, ‘Former East, New East, Former West, Post-Soviet – none of these terms offer (sic) a liberation from the Cold War narrative’.

Why use them then?  Like the Soviet Union itself, such phrases may have had their day.  Perhaps it is time to focus on the countries the individuals come from, not what bound them at an increasingly remote point in the past.  I enjoyed the photographs, which were well selected, but grouping them according to the criterion that they were post-Soviet added nothing to them.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

My afternoon with Emily

Hartley Booth makes the front of the
Eastern Daily Press, 15 February 1994

Last Sunday, 8 April, I was listening to Open Book on Radio 4 when I heard novelist Emily Barr interviewed by Mariella Frostrup on the ‘Book You Would Never Lend’, which in her case was The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber.  This provides a name-dropping opportunity to write about my afternoon with Emily (and her dad, and my family).

Some time after I began a PhD at the University of East Anglia, my supervisor Charles Barr, a senior lecturer in the film studies department, kindly invited my then wife and me to come to his house in Norwich for Sunday lunch.  This was in 1994.  We drove over from our home near King’s Lynn with our two children.  Charles’s wife was away, so I never met her, but Emily, his daughter from a previous marriage, was there, along with Charles’s young son.

Charles cooked pasta, though Emily did not eat with us.  We all had a pleasant time, marred only by Charles’s son making my 7-year old daughter cry by hitting her over the head with an inflatable plastic hammer.  In the afternoon, as conversation was flagging, we went to the local park so that the kids could play on the swings.  Emily accompanied us and was very good with the children.  After tea at the house, my family and I drove back along the A47.

Nowadays Emily is well known as a novelist but back then her main claim to fame was involvement in a Westminster sex scandal, at a time when every week seemed to bring a fresh revelation about sleazy behaviour in the Conservative Party.  This had occurred at the beginning of the same year, though it was not something we chatted about over the spaghetti.

Aged 22, Emily had been working as a researcher for a married 47-year old Tory MP bearing the suitably caddish-sounding name Hartley Booth, and he had had what he termed an ‘infatuation’ with her, though he unconvincingly denied it was a sexual relationship; it did however involve him writing terrible poems to her..

Booth’s protestations were insufficient to prevent papers calling it an affair, and in 2005 the New Statesman referred to Emily as Booth’s ‘former mistress’ without being sued by either of them.  Whatever Booth’s description, when it all came to light he was forced to resign his post as a foreign affairs PPS.  What somehow made it worse was that he was the MP for Finchley, which he had taken over from the morally upright Margaret Thatcher when she resigned in 1992, and he was a Methodist lay preacher.

An unpleasant aspect was the tabloids digging into Emily’s background.  There was coverage of Charles accompanied by a photograph of his Norwich house and speculation on how much it was worth.  The ‘journalists’ even tracked down Emily’s mother in Bristol, intrusively prying into the lives of people who had nothing to do with the business.  A gleeful Piers Morgan later referred to Emily as a ‘nude model’, presumably to suggest she was no better than she ought to be, though in fact she had studied art history at the Courtauld Institute.

Perhaps the most surprising part of it all was that Emily, who struck me as very nice, and whose father was certainly left-of-centre, should be working for someone who held a significant post in the detested Major government.  The Prime Minister’s decision to emphasise ‘Back to basics’ and ‘family values’ laid the administration open to charges of hypocrisy (much of the Booth coverage noted he had three children).  Needless to say the now-forgotten MP, despite claiming his constituency party was behind him, was out at the end of the parliamentary term, having failed to be reselected for Finchley and unable to find another constituency that would have him.

One thing I vividly recall from the visit to Norwich is the shoes Emily was wearing when we went to the park.  They were big clumpy things I had seen her wearing in a photograph that had appeared in the Guardian in more favourable circumstances: as well as achieving national fame because of her association with Booth, in 1994 she also won the Guardian ‘Student Journalist of the Year’ award.

In that capacity she was interviewed in the paper, and the accompanying photograph showed her lying on a lawn, gazing directly at the camera with her feet raised, wearing the same pair of shoes.  It occurred to me that she probably wore them when meeting Hartley.  Rather oddly, I admit, recognising them felt like a piece of secret knowledge linking me to the seedy goings-on at the heart of a dying government.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

The SPR’s online Psi Encyclopedia


 Recently I listened to a talk given by Robert McLuhan as part of the online course ParaMOOC 2018, organised by Nancy Zingrone and Carlos Alvarado and sponsored by the Parapsychology Foundation.  The presentation was on the subject of The Psi Encyclopedia: A Window on Psychical Research and it took place on 23 January 2018.  It was a useful overview of the Society for Psychical Research’s Psi Encyclopedia, of which Robert is the editor.

Robert commenced by outlining the severe problems with Wikipedia as a source for psi topics because of the hostility of those who dominate the editing process; the availability of generous funding via the Buckmaster bequest to the SPR in 2013; the aim of the project to provide accurate and accessible information; and the launch of the Psi Encyclopedia in September 2016.  He then delved into the contents of the encyclopaedia and how it is laid out.

By January 2018, Robert continued, there were 224 paid-for articles amounting to roughly 750,000 words, which he has edited on his own.  These he said came from about 50 contributors who have a variety of backgrounds.  Most articles are between 2-8,000 words.  The focus is primarily on scientific research, and the editorial policy is to try to achieve balance; the encyclopaedia in his words ‘Broadly represents the view of the psi research community, but includes skeptical [sic] claims and comment.’  As is to be expected, coverage so far is not comprehensive, but Robert said he was working on it.  The target is to have 300-350 articles amounting to somewhere in the region of a million words.

Unfortunately because of the Buckmaster funding running out there was probably only a year or fifteen months left in which to add new paid content though after that it would still be possible to add articles on a voluntary basis.  Robert mentioned acting as editor for a further three years or so, and the situation afterwards is unclear.  The presentation was upbeat and well received by the audience; there was a great deal of enthusiasm for what Robert was doing and for the value of the Psi Encyclopedia.

I thought it would be worth giving my thoughts arising from the talk, but before discussing the encyclopaedia, I should say that while I recognise it is a valuable tool for psychical research and parapsychology, and helps the SPR to fulfil its charitable remit in the area of education, I personally have not contributed, out of principle.  This is because, as a trustee and director of the SPR by virtue of being an elected member of its Council, I was unhappy with the way part of the Buckmaster bequest was utilised.  However, I wish the Psi Encyclopedia well.

The encyclopaedia really is a useful source of information, well laid out and referenced.  Robert had initially envisaged mostly short articles, and my preference would have been for short articles with links, as some people will not reach the end of a long article yet might read the same volume of words by dotting around different sub-topics.  That though is a minor quibble.  Another is that considering the scope of the field, 300-350 articles will not really be enough to do it justice.

A pressing concern is going to be the requirement to keep the Psi Encyclopedia updated; there will be a need for top-up financing once the Buckmaster money has been spent. The Encyclopedia may possess greater authority than Wikipedia, but it is also more expensive to develop and maintain. If long-term maintenance is sporadic or does not happen at all, the articles will eventually become an antiquarian snapshot of the field rather than a working tool.  Some, such as the two on experimental parapsychology in Europe and the UK, and that on parapsychology PhDs in the UK, will need updating on an annual basis.  Even historical articles will need revision as new information becomes available.  Wikipedia’s articles, for all their faults, are constantly revised while the psi Encyclopedia’s are not.

Another problem is consistency of quality.  The Psi Encyclopaedia’s strength is that there is editorial control preventing pseudo-sceptics from monopolising articles.  The danger though is that the articles are only as good as the individual authors, and while a lot of the articles are authoritative, penned by an impressive roster of writers, others are being churned out.

At the time of writing, 52 contributors are responsible for about 245 articles, but while many have submitted one or two, others have produced large quantities.  This has had two consequences: a number of the articles are essentially hack-work based on what literature is to hand, and certain areas of psychical research are overrepresented.  To take an example of each, one contributor is credited with 38 articles, 15.5% of the total; and the category ‘possession and past lives’ is the subject of a disproportionately large group of articles in the database – a whopping 56, nearly 23% of the total.

If an author lacks deep knowledge of a particular topic but the editor has to go with whoever offers, the quality will suffer.  As a random example which caught my eye recently, the article on Lourdes fails to include a reference to Donald West’s 1957 book Eleven Lourdes Miracles.  Considering West’s long and distinguished association with the SPR, this is a disappointment.  If I seem to be focusing on one particular contributor with all these examples, it is because this person, primarily a journalist, has been so prolific.

A couple of points made in the discussion following Robert’s presentation are worth mentioning.  When Robert talked of the need for promotion of the Psi Encyclopedia, it was suggested social media be used more extensively.  Robert highlighted the twitter feed he set up dedicated to the encyclopaedia, which he admitted he rarely uses, but he did not say that new articles are regularly linked on the SPR’s Facebook page and Twitter feed (by me), and nobody else pointed it out either.  Clearly it is not just the Psi Encyclopedia which is in need of publicity.

Finally, the antiquated look and cumbersome operation of Lexscien, which hosts SPR publications (notably its Journal and Proceedings) was raised.  Nancy Zingrone, the moderator for the session, seemed to think it was an SPR project whereas it is an independent operation, the SPR’s main function being to throw money at it.  I have previously drawn attention to its deficiencies, but it is clear the SPR is being tainted by association.  The best solution would be for the SPR to take back control of its publications and integrate them with the Psi Encyclopedia, but it does not seem likely to happen any time soon.



Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Desmond O’Grady on Paros


In the summer of 1977 I found myself with my then girlfriend on the island of Paros, in the Cyclades.  She had been there the year before with other friends and was happy to go back with me.  We stayed ten weeks, resident for so long partly because we enjoyed the ambience, mainly because we were too broke to be able to travel to other islands apart from a short hope over to Antiparos on a day trip.  This was studenty dossing around before the term ‘gap year’ made the concept respectable.  During that time I read a lot of paperback fiction thanks to the visitors’ informal book exchange system (Agatha Christie featured prominently).  The weather was nice, food was fairly cheap and the swimming was lovely, so I was happy (apart from the day we got food poisoning).

Shortly after we arrived we met a local character called Desmond O’Grady.  We were sitting in a restaurant in Naoussa, Paros’s main town, with other members of the island’s transient population when he strolled up, introduced himself, sat down and started chatting to us.  Irishman Mr O’Grady we soon learned was a poet, but although I had recently taken a course on modern poetry at university his name was unfamiliar to me.  We spent a pleasant hour in his company, chatting inconsequentially but doubtless more about us than him, after which he went his way and my companion and I walked back to our tent on the beach just outside town, where we could fall asleep to the sound of the waves on the nearby rocks.

O’Grady was very sociable, and his MO was clearly to drop in to a restaurant, engage whoever happened to be there in conversation, and have a drink with them.  Not long before we left Paros he did precisely the same thing he had done with us.  As he made his way towards another group in a restaurant I saw him look our way and frown in puzzlement, presumably surprised to see the same people still there weeks later, when he would have been used to a complete turnover every week or so, Paros being the sort of place people tended to pass through rather than stay for an extended period.

That was the last time I saw him, and the memory of our brief encounter would have faded and eventually I would have forgotten his name, except that shortly after I returned to university in Canterbury I came across a book, Irish Poets 1924-1974, published by Pan in 1975.  O’Grady is represented by three poems, including probably his best-known, ‘Professor Kelleher and the Charles River’, which can also be found in Contemporary Irish Poetry (1980/1988).  He is among good company in the Pan anthology, including Thomas Kinsella (whose translation of The Táin I enjoyed at about the same time), Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon and of course Seamus Heaney.

Picking up and flipping through the book recently reminded me of the episode and I wondered what had become of O’Grady.  I learned he had been born in Limerick in 1935 and during a peripatetic career lived on Paros from 1966, and though he seems to have left at the end of the 1970s, he had continued to visit in later years.  I found some pictures of him taken on Paros in 1979, one of him sitting in his study, a very attractive workspace, and a couple with the Edinburgh Arts group having a meal and poetry reading at his home, of course looking very much as I remember him.

Eventually he moved back to Ireland and he died in 2014.  His obituary in the Guardian called him ‘a great citizen of world poetry’ and the Irish Independent as ‘arguably, with the exception of Yeats, the most international of twentieth century Irish poets’.  I had no idea he had been held in such high regard – the Irish Times noted the Irish president Michael D. Higgins leading tributes – and I was certainly unaware he had a PhD from Harvard and had acted in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.  Higgins was clearly a huge fan, unveiling a plaque to O’Grady in Limerick in 2015.

I was also surprised to learn from Irish Poets and Modern Greece: Heaney, Mahon, Cavafy, Seferis (2017), by Joanna Kruczkowska, that Paros was a magnet for Irish writers.  I remember a strong artistic community in Naoussa geared to tourism, and O’Grady must have been a reason for literary people to visit during his time there, but Kruczkowska writes that other poets came in the 2000s independently of O’Grady, including Heaney.  Why Paros rather than other islands isn’t clear, but O’Grady liked it, found it creatively stimulating, and it was a charming island (I read later it went downmarket and syringes could be found on the beaches, which is a terrible shame).  I even wrote a few poems myself as a result of my stay there.

I wish I had realised at the time what a significant poet O’Grady was and how well connected to other writers he had been, notably Samuel Beckett and Ezra Pound.  I would have at least asked for his autograph, and perhaps tried a few probing questions.  As it was we sat and chatted casually with him, just as we did with people most nights while we enjoyed leisurely meals (was there any other kind on Paros?), an amiable bloke we met in a restaurant who was easy to talk to, our paths crossing briefly by chance before we set sail in different directions.


References

Bradley, Anthony (ed.). Contemporary Irish Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980, revised 1988).

Kruczkowska, Joanna. Irish Poets and Modern Greece: Heaney, Mahon, Cavafy, Seferis (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Marcus, David (ed.). Irish Poets 1924-1974 (London: Pan, 1975).