The oldest surviving music hall on the planet, entered down a wee inconspicuous lane, just off the Trongate in Glasgow city centre. First opened in the 1850’s, the Panopticon (then called the Britannia Music Hall) was an escape for the industrial workers of the booming Glasgow mills and forges. The Glasgow crowd was renowned for their heckling, which sometimes included ship building rivets being flung at the performers.
The performers ranged from comedy acts, singers and of course dancing girls. One of the most famous acts that is still celebrated today was none other than a young Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame. The Panopticon was also one of the first music halls to get wired into the electricity grid. This meant that the hall could also show movies. Although in the end, the rise of the cinema is what sealed the Panopticon’s fate. Unable to compete with the growing number of Picture Houses in the city, the building was sold in 1938.
The new owners rearranged the layout of the building, converting the front entrance and box office into a shop and sealing up the balconies and upper auditorium. Effectively preserving them to be found in 1997.
Fast forward to today and the music hall has so much charm, it is the perfect place to host a drag show. A little bit quirky, a little bit weird, awkward and battered, but done up and making an effort, charming and with a specific aroma. The theatre is as fabulous as any drag queen I’ve seen.
And Drag-Opticion did not disappoint. These were queens I had never seen before. Usually when you go to a drag show, you will be familiar with who is performing, you know the routine they will do and their style of drag. I went into this show totally unaware. I was so excited to see the building I didn’t do my usual internet searching for the performers. I was pleasantly surprised.
I have seen some of the best drag performers on the planet and some of the worst. The amazing thing about drag though is how varied it is. Some folk who aren’t into it presume it is just some guys dressing up as women and lip syncing, it is not. It is an art. High artistry is required to conceptualise, produce and perform several acts on stage, all while in stiletto heels.
And having Drag-Opticon at the Panopticon couldn’t have been a better fit. A venue as beaten as the queen’s contours, with just as many highlights. The shabby sheek of the building just emphasised the fabulousness of the queens. Dark and gloomy corners were brightened with fairy lights and rainbow flags, original features of the music hall peaked through as high fashion garments swirled on stage with performers.
The performers were a range of clearly young queens and experienced seasoned professionals. The compère was a Drag Queen called Alana Duvey, she was as expected, fabulous and funny. Charming and chatty. She made the audience feel at ease, went with the flow and kept the camp flowing.
There was fabulous high fashion from Dharma Geddon and an especially “wow that’s amazing and like nothing I’ve seen before” second act. There was a lot of comedy, it is a drag show after all, CJ Banks delivered humour on so many levels and made me cry tears of laughter. Soofae SooFierce was beautiful and quirky. Lucy Stewpid was a refreshing new take on drag with a big Anime flavour. Clare S. Fully brought a clear Sasha Velour flavour. And I would be amiss to not mention the ever present stage hand, Pebbles.
The outfits were fabulous, there were some who needed a little bit more attention to detail, but I’m sure they will learn with experience. The make up was varied and each look was appropriate for their wardrobe changes. I was particularly impressed with Dharma Geddon’s fencing outfit. I want, nae need, her brown leather shoulder cuff and collar.
Overall the whole show was superb, we have already purchased our tickets for the next show. Downsides include accessibility, however this is to be expected in any historical building. There are three short flights of stairs, there are handrails and it isn’t too steep. There is also no accessible toilet and the auditorium can get a bit chilly. But the show is worth it. The Friends of the Panopticon are currently trying to raise money to install some central heating, please go visit the website to find out more… www.britanniapanopticon.org
Drag-Opticion is a clearly a grassroots show, produced and performed by the people who love the art of drag. It was heartfelt and engaging, set in a majestic building steeped in history of performance in the city. There were some technical sound issues, but I feel it was minor. Nothing detracted from the fact you felt you were in a secret club, a speak-easy vibe with a small bar and few patrons.
This for me was an amazing show, I laughed, I awed and was most definitely entertained. I would recommend this show to anyone, but due to lack of access to the old building I can only give it a 4/5* review. This does not reflect the quality of performance.
Two of our Ungagged team, David McClemont and Victoria Pearson, review Poverty Safari; Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass by Darren “Loki” McGarvey.
I really enjoyed reading Poverty Safari. I found I related to a lot of what Loki said both in a personal, professional and political capacity.
On a personal level I found I related to Loki’s book aversion growing up. This would puzzle many people who know me as I was always a child that liked to learn facts (The 10 year old me definitely knew Ankara was the capital of Turkey) and I was known to read “serious” books about politics and history. But the fact I read “serious” books was because reading always felt like a rewarding chore than a fun activity so I was going to trudge through 300 pages I wanted to come out having learned more than a story.
Being from a working class background I could also relate to the quiet undercurrent of potential violence working class boys face particularly in their teenage years and how inhibiting it is. I remember it just wasn’t the done thing in class to voluntarily answer a question unless you were directly asked by the teacher and even then the answer shouldn’t be good enough to raise eyebrows. I remember being sat next to another boy for two years in a Science Class. I didn’t know much about him except he had a reputation for being able to handle himself, was from one of the rougher corners of the catchment area and rumoured to be head of a gang. Over the course of the two years we got to know each other and got friendly although I wouldn’t have dreamed of approaching him outside of the science class setting. One day I was walking along a corridor and saw a group of boys lined up either side leaving not much room to get passed. I knew they had already clocked me so if I turned back they’d have saw I was intimidated, and that would’ve invited future trouble. So I tried to walk past as briskly as possible without making eye contact. As I did they started barging me and tripping me up. While I was doing a quick calculation as to the safest course of action, run (they’d have caught me), ignore it (would’ve been the same as turning back upon first seeing them) or square up to one of them and get a doing. All three options seemed risky and none particularly palatable then at the last minute I felt a pair of arms wrap around my shoulders and a voice say “fuck off, he’s awright”. I realised it was the boy from my Science Class! I muttered something to him and continued down the corridor. I realised he was the undisputed top dog of that group, if he hadn’t been he would not have helped as it would’ve left him exposed and a possible target but he was in charge and was able to dictate the internal culture of that group. A couple of years after school I heard he’d have been stabbed to death. I never heard the specific circumstances but I remember feeling that there was a tragic inevitability to it.
In a professional capacity I could relate to a lot in Poverty Safari. I used to work with people who had a history of homelessness and alcohol abuse many of whom had been in and out of prison. Loki’s stories about working with offenders was very familiar. When discussing group facilitation I often espoused the importance of “using silence” in order to encourage people to open up. The theory being that a group of people can’t abide a shared silence and if you as the facilitator can fight your own instinct to speak then someone else will fill the void with their own words. It’s a solid tactic and it works but it’s also true that most of the time I deployed it because I didn’t know what to say. I can also say that my anecdotal experiences of working with homeless alcoholics absolutely corresponds with Loki’s view that most offending stems from a history of experiencing/witnessing violence as I never met a single Service User who had not experienced extreme trauma of one form or another. People talk about the “Demon Drink” but from my experience the demons proceed the drink and they used alcohol as a form of temporary exorcism.
Loki’s thoughts around responsibility and poverty reminded me a lot of things I though about while studying addiction. In John Booth Davies “The Myth of Addiction” he talks about the fact that progressives created the concept of addiction because the prevalent view at that time was that addicts were just weak willed deviants. This attitude did nothing to foster change and so the idea of addiction as a “disease” was born to allow a more sympathetic view of addicts that would give them the space and motivation to change their lives. However today, in the world of huge paternalistic third sector organisations this has lead to a narrative that often disempowers people and tells them that they have no control over their lives. This isn’t true, of course there are bigger sociological factors at play but that doesn’t mean individuals are powerless to improve their lives. I always found it a difficult balancing act, trying to get people to realise they were in control of their drinking and had the power to stop while trying to keep them from being crushed under the guilt they felt for everything that had happened as a result of their drinking. I do worry about how we do that balancing act in a political context. If those of us on the Left open that discussion around taking responsibility we’ll face a stampede of reactionary forces eager to blame addicts for their addiction and poor people for their poverty and use that as an excuse to cut and starve valuable services of funds and resources.
I would recommend Poverty Safari to anyone and I get the feeling my friends and family will soon be sick of hearing me talk about it. I think Loki has a valuable perspective and I hope he writes more books as he definitely has important things to say.
I’ll preface this review by saying I expected Poverty Safari to make me angry. All I knew about the book was the title, and I wasn’t familiar with the author, so I was expecting yet another poverty porn-esque, poorly disguised gawp-fest at the working classes, in the same vein as TV shows like Benefits Street. I couldn’t have been more wrong. By the time i reached chapter 3, I had started texting friends to tell them to read it.
This is obviously written from the perspective of someone who has lived what he is talking about – a perspective that is desperately needed in any kind of political or solution seeking debate around poverty, a perspective that, as Darren points out, is sadly lacking. It’s raw, unflinchingly and unapologetically honest, and at times darkly funny.
My overriding sense when reading this book was one of recognition and kinship. Darren shares anecdotes that might seem shocking to many, but that to me seem familiar, authentic and almost self evident. This is refreshingly so clearly not another intellectualisation of working class behaviour from someone outside of the community, this is obviously an account from someone who has lived these experiences, who understands the nuances of the community he is talking about, and I think it is one of the best texts I have read about the culture of violence and vigilance in the forgotten class.
“This is the other deficit we rarely talk about or acknowledge…It’s the belief that the system is rigged against you and that all attempts to resist or challenge it are futile…A belief that you are excluded from taking part in the conversation about your own life. This belief is deeply held by people in many communities and there is a very good reason For it: it’s true.”
Although it is set in Glasgow, Scotland where he grew up, and most of the reminiscences he shares focus on that area, many of the anecdotes and experiences he shared reminded me of my own childhood in Luton, England. My overwhelming sense when I finished this book was that it doesn’t matter where we are from, there are certain experiences the forgotten class share, that the more privileged among us would struggle to understand. I found a lot to relate to in it.
“At the age of ten I was well adjusted to the threat of violence. In some ways, violence itself was preferable to the threat of violence…you become detached from the violent act as it is being perpetrated against you…Acts of violence are terrifying, but a sustained threat of violence is sometimes much worse”
Adjusting and adapting to living in a climate of violence is something I think a lot of working class people can relate to. We all know someone from school who passed on far too young, through violence or drugs, or general rough living, and we weren’t surprised when they did. That’s something I think people with a different kind of upbringing would struggle to understand.. This book attempts to bridge that understanding gap and explain working class anger, but I like that it doesn’t apologise for it. It delves into the roots and causes of that anger, the psychological effects of the environment working class people live in, and pulls no punches when it comes to discussing the inadequacies of support services in place, who, after all, are only trying to contain symptoms of what are perfectly reasonable human responses to trauma and deprivation.
“People end up homeless for all sorts of reasons. However must like those who end up in prison, one recurring factor in the lives of those who become residually challenged is family breakdown and dysfunction. Issues like child abuse, addiction and homelessness are often discussed in isolation but as anyone working with homeless people, addicts or victims of abuse will tell you, the problems are often interconnected”
My own anecdotal experiences working with (and being close friends with) people struggling with addiction match the sentiments in the above quote. Every addict I ever knew had a backstory of abuse, deprivation, or trauma, and they all related it in such a deadpan way. To a whole class of people, having to be constantly hypervigilent, constantly expecting violence, constantly worrying about survival in some form or another, is perfectly normal. It’s easy to judge people from a position of comfort, particularly if you’ve no experience of those issues within your family or friendship group. Darren manages to foster understanding, and provoke empathy for the people effected by these sorts of problems, but without making excuses for people, which I think is a fine line to walk, and one he does well.
Poverty Safari is well written and thought provoking, and it left me thinking about the issues raised – and more importantly the people who are effected by those issues – for a long time after I’d finished it. If you’ve an interest in sociology, politics, changing the world for the better, or you simply want to gain a deeper understanding and empathy for people struggling with anger, mental health problems, or addiction of any kind, throw your textbooks out and have a read of this instead.
Day 15 of Edinburgh Fringe and the mood has changed.
76% of performers are hungover and 39% of performers dreams have been crushed forever . Flyer guys and gals have lost interest mostly and nobody that I know has seen a show yet. Everyone just walks around handing out or accepting bits of cardboard.
Everyone gets distracted and spends the full day walking around diagonal cobbled lanes that even makes google maps shite themselves.
There is no internet reception. Either because too many instagram cunts or because internet is shite. Nobody truly knows.
Every drink costs a fiver until you say ‘really?’ to the barman, then discounts appear like bagpipes outside a chip shop.
We all pretend we love Runrig because our patriotism has better tartan than everyone else’s patriotism and that’s a good indication that we were randomly born into the best country that ever existed and perhaps the time we exist is more important. But that’s for historians to decide. I met one of them tonight. They gave me cardboard and I promised to go to their show, but I didn’t because I got lost walking in Edinburgh.
This fuels our economy. Apart from the oil, it’s all walking and cardboard interactions that keeps us ticking over. 5000 shows today and only 40 audience members.
But 5 million shortbreads sold and twenty homeless people arrested for being outside.
I don’t think we can change the world we inhabit but it would foolish to think we definitely cannot, so I will be spending Saturday night putting it all to the test. Stramash. 9.30pm. Girobabies. Free entry. Edinburgh Fringe. The Moods. Micky 9s. Dopesickfly.
And now I will say some hollow words that mean very little so people versed in my writing don’t scroll down and think ‘this is probably an advert‘ because even though it may look like it. This is environmental.
No cardboard was harmed in the making of this post.
So when you get sick, and I mean really sick, hospitalised and IV drip sick, you kinda don’t want to know what is happening in the big bad world of politics. So I tend to go into binge watching series on streaming sites.
This time I watched Orange Is The New Black season 6 on Netflix. I’ve been a fan for a while, watched all the other series but hadn’t got a chance to watch any of the new episodes. So amidst my sick bowls and venflons, I settled down to watch the amazing work of Jenji Kohen.
OITNB is not just your usual Bad Girls, Cell Block, Wentworth vibe. There are familiarities that we all expect, there is something more. From the real life inmate portraiture as opening credits to on the button social commentary. This is Jenji’s forte, as she delivered in the epic series that is Weeds. I remember limewiring episodes for hours and hours just to keep up with the story when I was in college. Getting CD Roms off people to just sit and watch on the PC. So strange, but that opening title song still drifts in my thoughts frequently. “Little boxes on the hillside…”
If you haven’t seen or heard of Weeds, its basically a white American mother becomes a cannabis queen, a quirky, fun and often violent story. It is as though Saving Grace was Californian. And if you haven’t seen Saving Grace, do you even movie?
But back to Orange Is the New Black, the level of acting in this series surpassed all my expectations. Amazing women, with behaviours and characters can recognise from real people I know and love. The way the storytelling is presented is really unlike anything I had experienced in the previous series. Even though this is almost conclusive in its delivery, I feel anybody could watch this series alone with real intrigue and satisfaction. 13 episodes of magnificence.
Bit by bit you are taken on a journey with each of the characters, in that pleasant way the previous series also delivered. Although this time, you don’t realise the significance of each little bit. You are swept up in the journey and really get hit hard, fast and you will be left with a gaping jaw on several occasions.
Not only will the actual story be a pleasure for you, everything is so relevant today in the global environment of corporate power and political fallout.
For me, a gay disabled political activist, this is a Must Watch season. 5 star review!
On a walk through a balmy, sexy, uncomfortably culturally zeitgeist-y Glasgow today, sipping mojitos whilst listening to live jazz, live folk and flicking through racks of vinyl, books, contemporary prints and eating pretentiously unpretentious vegan scran, I ducked into the Tontine at the Trongate to cool off and take in the Degree Show by The Glasgow School of Arts.
I love art. All art. Viewing creativity, ingenuity and the ability to manipulate emotions using ink, paper, paint, soviet phones, wood, fabrics, sounds, lights, and melted plastics with a good cup of coffee in hand (perhaps the biggest surprise in my life has been the seemingly sudden prolification of amazing coffee available in paper cups throughout this city!), is something I could do all day, every day. And Glasgow has some prime sights in which you can do just that. Kelvingrove Art Museum is a massive favourite of mine, where many a rainy day are spent gazing at Salvador and the rest wi’ a wee swally in my brass hipflask.
This, though was something different. Vast in the sheer amount of work, and vast in scope. And mostly from the minds of unmuddled people still in their very early twenties. This old carcass creaking through the vibrancy, and the hope and the smiling, fresh faced young folk and the ultimate pieces of their four years of study was done with a lump in my throat. There is nothing that points a scrawny, bony, long nailed finger at your very laboured, slowing heart like young people starting their journey.
I won’t review work, but the journey from private bathrooms of disembodied women, through operating rooms carefully and intricately cut, through sound scapes, horses on wheels, cowboy boots and grotesques, and scenes so beautiful I cried. Some installations shook me, and some questioned what I knew about Scotland’s political landscape (including the political flags and political pottery) and some took me into lives that are unpublished and unsung. Some made me laugh, and some had obviously stunned judges as prizes adorned the entrances to some of the pieces (the best being, the self ascribed, “Future Underachiever Award.”)
Glasgow needs this fresh wave of creativity every year. This exhibition is one I have stumbled, raced and ranted around through the years. It is the lapping new tide, washing over dry sand, renewing and shaping the years that come. And like the tide, it is regular. And it changes things subtly but relentlessly.
But on this uncharacteristic muggy, tropically oppressive, hot, Glasgow day, in this uncharacteristically tropical fortnight, I stood cooling at the last, almost shy, exhibit and I pondered on my two hour journey around an exhibition that by rights, I should take a few days to revisit and revisit (and will this week). And I realised as I stood there removed from the carribean sweat soaked honking, shouting, drunken accident that is a sunny West Coast of Scotland; amongst leaves and lush cooling ivy’s and lichens, that this one was my favourite. Its layered, creeping green unpretentious simplicity, yet intricate and obviously painstaking in detail, was the unembellished, unadorned but so apt and so Glasgow, Summer 2018 best of show, for me. Thank you Alanna McElroy.
I bonded with my dad over science fiction. I’d read everything of any interest in the kids’ library and I was still a few years too young to join the adult one, so I started looking a little more closely at what he was bringing home. There were a lot of yellow jackets. He could borrow half a dozen at a time, so he did, and I was curious. So he started letting me have some. Anthologies of short stories at first then, once I was on the hook, the hard stuff – novels. I loved the ideas. He was your classical sci-fi enthusiast – young in the 40s and 50s, an engineer, an amateur futurist. When I was four he kept me up to witness the moon landing, while he assembled an Airfix model of the lunar module. I didn’t really get the momentousness of the occasion at the time, but later I was glad to have the memory.
Anyway, one day he came in and handed me a paperback, saying only, “I think you’ll like this,” and walked off. Now when I’d first started reading sci-fi he’d pointed out a few basics. All those yellow jackets, for instance, were from a certain publisher who we can’t mention who published almost exclusively sci-fi and fantasy. And if something had won a Hugo or a Nebula Award, it might well be pretty good. If you don’t know what those are, they’re a bit like the Oscars and the Golden Globes. Is it the Golden Globes? Whichever one is by popular vote anyway. The Hugo is voted by fans, the Nebula by other writers. Occasionally they agree. This novel had been nominated for both. It was The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin, and he was right – I liked it a lot. It was the best thing I had read, and it began what will be, for me, a lifelong relationship.
It’s an odd thing to describe, though I’ve seen quite a few attempts, the relationship you have with a writer. Entirely one-sided, nonetheless profound, a relationship entirely of the mind. They needn’t even be alive when you encounter them, but some are, and some are there in person for 40 years, and then they go, and you feel as if you’ve lost an old friend. That happened to me when I heard of the passing of Ursula Le Guin in January. And what a friend I lost! For a purely intellectual relationship, she brought an awful lot to the table, and she drew on all of it in her work. I don’t know how to even begin to approach that body of work, and the sheer scope of her knowledge and her imagination, except the way I did first time round.
When I read that first novel, set in her beloved Portland against the backdrop of majestic Mount Hood (those who have read the book will be chuckling now, others will have to read it to find out why), first she lured me in with a delicious, juicy sci-fi and philosophical what if – what if you dreamed, and your dreams became reality, but nobody else realised what was happening, only you? I mean, how good is that? What would you do? People would think you were mad if you told them. Then she introduced a character, not a hero, not a sci-fi stereotype, but a real, ordinary but nuanced character, George Orr (thought to be a reference to Orwell), who has this power and is terrified by it. He can’t stand the responsibility of determining reality, regulated only by his subconscious. He begins to dread sleep, and becomes addicted to ‘uppers’ in an attempt to avoid it. As a result of this he is caught using an illegally obtained prescription and sent to compulsory psychiatric evaluation.
We now meet his psychiatrist, the well-meaning but grandiose Dr Haber. He has a particular interest in sleep and dreaming, and using a combination of hypnosis and a machine of his own invention, designed to augment dreaming, he puts George under and directs him what to dream. Over the course of a few sessions he comes to the stunning realisation that Orr is telling the truth, that his dreams really do change reality, and begins to attempt to use him to remake the world as he, Haber, thinks it should be. This is probably the point where I should say, “Spoilers!” and discretely draw a veil over any further discussion of the plot. So lets see, she’s given me a great sci-fi idea, characters I care about, oh and did I mention that she writes beautifully? In prose that was at once sparse and sparkling she opened the doors of literature to me, far more than anything I ever read at school did.
But it doesn’t stop there. As I began to look for her work and discover it, I could not fail to be impressed by the sheer scope of her knowledge and understanding. The child of two anthropologists, she assimilated psychology, political theory and Taoism, studied French and Italian Renaissance literature, understood environmental truths, before they became inconvenient, or even fashionable, and she used all of it to craft fascinating, challenging novels which imagined an array of possible human societies, such as an androgynous one, in ‘The Left Hand of Darkness,’ and an anarchist one in ‘The Dispossessed,’ as well as exquisite short stories like those in ‘The Wind’s Twelve Quarters’ (don’t ask me where that title comes from, I assume it just sounded good, it has no obvious connection to the stories, of which there are seventeen). This she opens with the tragically beautiful ‘Semley’s Necklace.’
Before I talk about that however there is something I have to explain. Ursula Le Guin wrote both science fiction and fantasy. The readers of these genres form two discreet groups, although there is some overlap. I will mostly be talking about her science fiction, but I cannot fail to mention her acclaimed Earthsea Trilogy and associated works. A Wizard of Earthsea, published in 1968, was the first of three books exploring the life of Ged, a young wizard. Spoiler alert: Ged grows and matures into an adult, starting with his attendance at a secretive school for wizards, where he is scarred on the face by a dark power (which he discovers is inextricably linked to him), and that he subsequently defeats. Sound familiar at all? There are words for that. Ugly words. But ugly words are not what Le Guin did. She said only that J.K. Rowling should have been “more gracious about her predecessors”.
She herself was more than gracious about her own predecessors, but never less than original in her vision. Being pigeon-holed as a ‘genre writer’ meant that for much of her career she lacked the recognition by the mainstream literary establishment that she so richly deserved. It was only in recent years that this began to change. She was awarded the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (presented by Neil Gaiman, whose many literary accomplishments include an honourable mention from me for slipping a relatively arcane Le Guin reference seamlessly into an episode of Doctor Who), and in 2017 that she was finally voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The genre itself has been more forthcoming, and she has won many Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards, far more than is practical to list. Let me just mention that she was only the second ever writer to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards for the same novel, with The Left Hand of Darkness in 1970 (behind Frank Herbert for Dune), and was the first of only five writers in history to achieve that feat twice, in 1975, when she won for The Dispossessed (ahead of Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama/The Fountains of Paradise). Asimov only managed it once.
I mention those names because when you look to place Le Guin in the sci fi pantheon, it’s way up there you need to be looking. For my money she is the best of them. They were great storytellers, but none had her psychological or political depth. They didn’t move me, and challenge me, and delight me the way that she did. She loved to challenge assumptions, not only within the genre, but in literature more generally, and in society as a whole. Her beautifully crafted prose always had a sharp sociological edge. She consciously set off to question the norms of fantasy and science fiction, especially in terms of race and gender. She was outspoken, for instance, about the “colour scheme” of her Earthsea series. She wrote:
“I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now.
She kept to this approach in her work from then on, not only in her Earthsea books, but also in her ‘Hainish Cycle’ works (so most of her sci-fi including those books already discussed). You’ll notice white characters are the exception rather than the rule. I was going to say her ‘hard’ sci-fi works, but in the course of research for this tribute it’s come to my attention that not everyone has the same definition of hard sci-fi as me, and here I must bring my dad in again. I read somewhere that there were those who felt that works like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed were not what they considered hard sci-fi because they concentrated too much on characterisation and sociological analysis. In other words, too much about people, culture and society, not enough space ship battles. My dad had a different definition of hard sci-fi, and I’ve always followed that one. It is that in order to be considered ‘hard,’ sci-fi writing must rest on actual science, and not speculation or easy cop-outs.
So for my dad, the fact that Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle books were premised on an Einsteinian universe where faster than light travel is not possible put them firmly in the hard sci-fi category. Writers who relied on unexplained, wishful-thinking props such as warp drive (looking at you Star Trek) to circumvent Relativity could make no such claim (and yes, I know, there is some theory to support it. These days. There wasn’t when they made it up). All of which brings me back to the opening story of The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, one of the finest anthologies of short stories ever published. Because there are narrative problems with an Einsteinian universe which must be addressed. Le Guin decides to meet them head on and make them integral to the plot in the story Semley’s Necklace. Semley, a member of a society which has fallen back to a pre-technological state, seeks a priceless, fabled family heirloom. She learns that it is in the possession of another culture with whom hers shares a planet, but which is a hi-tech, spacefaring society.
On hearing her request they deny knowledge of it, so she turns to a third group, the Gdemiar, who manufactured the necklace. They agree that she may reclaim the artefact, which is in a museum. On a space station. Light years away. She insists on journeying with them to recover the necklace, despite their attempts to explain the problems of Relativity this entails. She experiences the journey as ‘only one long night’ but when she returns nine years have passed, her husband is dead and her daughter is grown up. To those used to the cop outs, this comes as something of a shock. It was certainly a surprise to the 12 or 13 year old me. The rest of the anthology lived up to the promise of that opening tale, and finished with three absolute gems – a story from the perspective of a tree (the name of which I’ve borrowed for this tribute), ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,’ a timeless moral conundrum that many of us on the left find defining, and a poignant prequel to her novel ‘The Dispossessed’ in which we meet Laia Asieo Odo, the semi-mythical theoretician whose writings underpin the anarcho-syndicalist society of Anarres, on the last day of her life, ‘The Day Before the Revolution.’
As Odo, or Laia as she thinks of herself, reminisces about her life we get to know a character who is achingly human, and at the same time a true revolutionary, throughout her life dedicated entirely to her people, often to her own detriment. It’s an exquisitely beautiful portrayal, and it demonstrates what is incomparable about Le Guin. It relies on a comprehensive knowledge of political theory, revolutionary movements, sociology, psychology, and a deep understanding of the human condition. Only a highly empathic polymath could have written it, and that’s a surprisingly rare combination. She was my introduction to most of those subjects. If you’re political, if you think about society, about how it is and how it might be, if you question what others take for granted, then I can assure you, Ursula Le Guin is the science fiction writer for you. She was the one who walked away from Omelas, she has shown us the direction of the road, but she has left us the day before the revolution. She has not left us empty handed though, so get down to your local library and make a friend for life.
This piece originally appeared on Neil’S personal blog
Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy, is a strange read and it is so for a number of reasons, not least being the fact that it was published in 1888 and is about the socialist utopia the writer envisages for the 20th century. In it he predicts credit cards, radio, television and covered pedestrian malls.
Julian West, a middle class insomniac, employs the services of a hypnotist to put him to sleep at night. When he awakes, he finds he has slept over 100 years. It is the year 2000.
As well as being a critique of the social, economic and political situation of his own times, it is a romance and a science fiction fantasy.
Bellamy’s 20th century is a time when everyone shares in a common wealth. There are no wars, no private profit, no starvation, and retiral on full pension at 45 – so you can, just with that fact, see that his prediction was wide of the mark!
It’s a very 19th century idea of utopia. Everyone speaks in the way the educated middle classes spoke in the 19th century, the dialects of the working class having been eradicated by equality and education.
There is an equality of sorts between men and women – though his 19th century mind could only imagine an “imperium in imperio” organisation of the “weaker sex”. Women do work and are paid equally but their working hours are less and “careful provision is made for rest when needed,” because women are “inferior in strength to men and further disqualified industrially in special ways.”
Though these things are telling of the middle class Boston Bellamy is from, his ideas on state capitalist organisation and equality were revolutionary enough to make the book the third biggest seller of its day after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
One of the most interesting parts of the book for me comes towards the end when he revisits the 19th century. He takes a walk around Boston, commenting on advertising, the banking system and poverty. He then goes to his fiancée’s house where he sits at a luxurious dinner table. Someone in the company asks him where he has been:
“‘I have been in Golgotha,’ at last I answered. ‘I have seen Humanity hanging on a cross! Do none of you know what sights the sun and stars look down on in this city, that you can think and talk of anything else? Do you not know that close to your doors a great multitude of men and women, flesh of your flesh, live lives that are one agony from birth to death?
“Listen! Their dwellings are so near that if you hush your laughter you will hear their grievous voices, the piteous crying of the little ones that suckle poverty, the hoarse curses of men sodden in misery turned half-way back to brutes, the chaffering of an army of women selling themselves for bread. With what have you stopped your ears that you do not hear these doleful sounds? For me, I can hear nothing else.”
He looks around the table and sees the guests are shocked and he tells them he was not accusing them personally of the weaknesses of the 19th century system. The guests, rather than seeing his point, become “angry and scornful… ‘Madman!’ ‘Pestilent fellow!’ ‘Fanatic!’ ‘Enemy of society!’ were some of their cries…” He is then thrown out.
I don’t know about you, but I have been to parties like that.
After this revisiting of his former time he feels shame, “For I had been a man of that former time. What had I done to help on the deliverance whereat I now presumed to rejoice? I who had lived in those cruel, insensate days, what had I done to bring them to an end?”
This is an interesting read – giving an insight to the ideas that were being bandied about at the time and the belief that capitalism was in a state of imminent destruction. Bellamy was writing around the time when Marx’s ideas were becoming known to the world.
Looking backwards, perhaps, if all of those people with similar goals had come together and forced change, a time-traveller arriving today would not see the increase of death, destruction and broken lives that has actually happened.
Perhaps, if all of the people with the same goal come together in our time, a time-traveller in 100 years will find a utopia where “long ago oppressor and oppressed, prophet and scorner, had been dust. For generations rich and poor had been forgotten words.”
Read Bellamy’s works online – http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/b#a327
The Parable of the Water-Tank from the book Equality published in 1897
Lots of people are in to ‘Mindfulness.’ I don’t see it as a particularly bad thing at all. Yoga helped rid me of my aches and pains after all. Thinking about what I eat has changed my shape and given me energy- and my frazzled tastebuds back, so self help, in my opinion CAN help change society. Some little changes to your lifestyle can impact on how you see the world and interact with people. Eating reasonably healthily, not smoking and quitting drink has made me feel happier, more energetic and able to meet the world. Surprisingly, when I ate shite I felt shite. Which is a pity- because shite tasted good. A quick fix. A burger or a spicy chicken something or some other piece of dead, chemical pumped, pig fat filled flesh in a bit of fat injected pastry.
At present, British society is being dragged to the proto-fascist right. I read words of hate and hear reasonable, lovely people say the most unreasonable things about “Muslims” and “foreigners.” A wee bit of self help can help with this swing towards a KKK style, burning cross on the lawns of the semi-detached lower middle class majority. And the thing is, I recognise the words they spit when they speak about the outsiders they have met only in one place… Well, not met exactly- but read about or listen to fat rich fuckers on tv and radio cleverly demonise using references that on cross examination they can deny are racist- but are cues that can be picked up by people like us- cues that direct us to the great white telephone of racist boaking Huey.
I have a self help guide. How to rid yourself of the stodge that bloats your mind with hatred and fear and deflecting blame. It isn’t your fault that you have been targeted by these billionaires as their bastion against anyone taking their power from them. Your fat postuled mind, poisoned by their video, needs a work out.
Back in 1983, Debbie Harry starred in a film I probably wouldn’t have watched only for the fact Debbie Harry was in it.
David Cronenberg’s Videodrome.
At the time, across the world, the press were worrying and deflecting us with stories of depraved snuff videos, chess matches and horror, the USSR arms build up, Samantha Fox and Sylvester Stallone, while the billionaires and the Tories raped the country of its industry and stockpiled enough profit bleeding weapons to pulverise the world into a puff of smoke. The press deflected us from the robbery of our working class heritage- snatched by Thatcher, her pals and Reagan- while we blamed the Ruskies, the Argies, and Holywood for the terrible youths standing on street corners, dancing to Too Rye Aye and dangerous boys in eyeliner.
Videodrome, Cronenberg’s biggest hit at that time, predicted a world of reality TV gone mad and corporatise control of our heads.
Of course, people cite research they haven’t read, but have been “told about,” to argue against their having been manipulated or that young people don’t become violent or sexist or racist or hydrogenated fat filled because of messages on their many screens. The same people can also cite research they have never read (but believe they have as it was in the Sun or on daytime TV or radio) that says global warming is not real, or that the fucking illuminati control everyone’s ass except their fat one. And that smoking, regardless of it being a criminal industry that targets children in developing countries and is re- glamourising nicotine in this country, as almost like some sort of herbal remedy (or the £20 a pack every few days habit as being “my only pleasure sitting reading the Kentucky fried Sun and the Daily Heil, while glancing at poor people fighting each other on early morning TV).
I was that person. I read, drank, are and spewed that shite into the faces of other trapped, propaganda filled to bursting fat fuckers, until one day I found myself weighing up some now long ditched media god’s fucking tattoo and his fiery, violent and drunken relationship with Janet-Street Look at Me, I’m famous… What does this fucking Skateboarding, long haired clown matter when the factory I’m working in is now sending its work overseas to be stitched by a seven year olds bleeding fingers? I watched all the pulp the bbc, itv and channel four could throw at me. But did I stop? Did I fuck. But over the years that initial realisation built into recognising damage the distraction and their lies had on the world around me.
The miners begged and they fought, and they starved and sang and marched while the press demonised them for a whole year. And the police baton charged them and Thatcher and her nasties rubbed their hands as they smashed “the enemy within,” us. And distracted us with tales of Boy George and Marilyn and Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Morrissey. Thatcher murdered retreating young Argentinians, while we were entertained by Jim’ll Fix It and fucking Rolf Harris. And our industries were smashed, our protective unions stamped on by the Tebbit Jack boot while we sang -a long-a Kylie and are they or aren’t they Jason.
One of the protagonists in Videodrome says about the dodgy TV show the population in its world has become addicted to;
“It has something that you don’t have, Max. It has a philosophy. And that’s what makes it dangerous”.
That to me is the fucking rub- ideologies are stamped on- the working class are sold half truths and pretendy science and non-science by billionaires protecting their Cayman Island stores of rotting riches gained by starving people, murdering them and blinding them daily. Education is slowly becoming something only for a selected (self selected) elite as fees that didn’t exist in the eighties now soar, ensuring working class young people head for the telephones, Kwikfit McJobs that offer no security, and ensuring they are profit squeezing fodder for those educated only in how to squeeze the proles harder. Be fucking grateful they give you crumbs and quit grumbling. Robbed of the education our unions in our communities and workers clubs gave, we are their fodder- their targets – with little critical skills beyond weighing up what one fascist rich shit says against another.
The lies Geobals told- the lies the German people lapped up after their defeat and impoverishment post WW1- are being spun in a new way. The world’s economy was again, smashed by war mongering greedy bastards- yet the press -the propaganda organs subtly invading your Facebook pages, Twitter, TV and Titbit magazines have a huge proportion of people believing it was the Muslims; the foreigner; the immigrant; the disabled; the homeless; the gypsy and the refugee fleeing from the profit building rain of high explosives, phosphorous, gas and irradiated warheads who have meant your teenaged daughter is on a council house list as long as David “Pinocchio” Cameron’s fat piggy nose. In 1983, Cronenberg’s weird, at times funny, but very scary film teenaged me watched by mistake because Debbie Harry was in it, predicted the rise of propaganda- or at the very least- how far insidious -invidious- propaganda was going.
In my opinion, if you believed the Project Fear of the rich Brexiteers or the panicking London elites who thought they were losing cash cow Scotland, you’ve been Videodromed. Videodromed by Murdoch, the Mail, Sky TV, the establishment within the BBC and the fear and distraction they very carefully create. They ensure your ideology of fairness and peace is stripped and ridiculed and tortured in their Abu Ghraib like pages and magazines and quips and asides as you watch or read them castigate people fighting for you- or fighting for their lives.
Why the fuck would you want a free NHS/education/ mass council house building and service industries ran by your taxes when everyone knows Corbyn loves terrorists and dresses badly-their panel of experts say so. He lies, as does Sturgeon and the lefties in the Yes/Remain campaigns who hate our boys and our Queen who works her knuckles to the bone at tea parties meeting plebs who wave wee flags. It must be gruelling.
Question the elites place in the world and the Sun will come after you- just ask Gary Lineker who has suddenly become the voice of political reason in a world of Tories calling themselves Labour; and Labour Party members in Scotland voting to keep us shackled to a UK Parliament so corrupt, they can’t allow investigation of child rape until all of the rapist bastards peacefully pass away.
Instant therapy: Yoga of the mind. A friend has told me he buys the Sun because of its football coverage. My tip to that friend is STOP BUYING THE SUN. Yet he wouldn’t eat shite. Instead he crams it into his festering, increasingly racist brain. As another friend said to me – if he read the weather forecast in the Super Soaring Shitebag Sun, he’d walk outside to check. The Sun lies. Over and over again it’s been caught- not least recently when it was proved to have lied regarding the Liverpool 96. Liverpool is a wonderful place to visit. Liverpool does not read the Sun. Liverpool knows.
Do not read the Daily Mail. The Mail was, before WW2, a champion for Hitler and his British supports. The Mail hates anything beyond the Queens blue eyed white biscuit tin stare. The Mail lies. Dump it, you’ll feel better.
Be selective in what you watch on telly- Sky TV is partly (and very influentially) owned by Rupert Murdoch- the billionaire who travels the world without thought or barriers , who approves of poor people being housed in regions unable to move beyond their town of birth. He loves the wall around Gaza. It may be a wall around Liverpool next for the old Digger.
Question everything. War, economics, Brexit, disaster.
And just start accepting these words… There are shitebags who are white, brown, black, beige, able bodied, disabled, employed, Christian, Muslim, Jewish atheist and unemployed. And a huge proportion of those shitebags only care about how to ensure you keep your head down and don’t question how they broke the world’s economy or why they started wars.
Shitebags start wars, order young people to shoot/blow up/ other young people. And shitebags will ensure in the coming years, no champions of the working class will be allowed to rise from its decreasingly educated and increasingly indentured ranks. And we’ll allow them if we are more interested in talking Chelsea, Geordie Shore or the Beverley Hills Housewives than TTIP, war and justice.
Mindfulness is great- but concentrate on what they are telling you- what they don’t want you to know and what is churned out -for profit- to distract you.
Debbie Harry’s character got distracted in Videodrome -and it killed her. The ideology of profit and hate was driven by distracting viewers with gore and sex. No questions- just “look at this shite- be shocked and get a hard on, and we’ll merrily stock up in the Cayman isles while you wank in between your two McJobs.”