Saturday, 31 January 2015

What makes a Jihadist? - Sunday sample

London Mayor Boris Johnson, who has never hidden his ambitions to be Britain's Prime Minister some day, this week shared his analysis of the psyche of homegrown Jihadis. Claiming the evidence of psychological profiling, he pronounces Jihadists to be losers rejected by women and "obsessed with pornography". While the psychosexual makeup is a contributory element of the overall mindset, it's worth pointing out that many Western Muslims regard our societies as over-sexualised, with what they deem as pornography being far to prevalent within society.

In my novel "Not In My Name", I give what i hope, is a rather more detailed and sophisticated analysis of the journey to radicalism undertaken by Jihadis. It's not enough to just put it down to "brainwashing", you need to understand what processes are employed in order to tackle it. Here is a sample from my novel.

"The bottom line sees the human spirit remarkably tenacious at preserving itself. The body is stockpiled with a whole battery of reflexes to resist its own cessation and death. Its default setting is for life. So mental illness aside, the only way for this to be overridden, is by brainwashing. An abstergent, yielding a blank screen upon which any message can be projected. Including graduation from a human being, into a human bomb. The knack, is to change the bomber’s desires from embracing life, into a hankering after death. 
Interview after interview, I was presented with similar, reedily intoned versions of how this was brought about. One strand had them sat drooling at the feet of some hierophant in a madrassa, as he categorically untangles the frayed threads of life, while they scratch their carpet-fluff beards and nod accordance. I’ll tell you something, if I was promised myriad virgins in the Afterlife, I’d probably enlist myself. Blissfully blow myself to Kingdom Come. Presumably, it’s one virgin to tend each bit of the body atomised by high-explosive. Of course, rather than nubile women, why couldn’t it equally be the ghosts of the 72 camels slain for Fatima’s wedding? That’s the drawback with numerical symbolism. It’s open to double counting. 
Alternatively, they paraded before a paramilitary hawk, sharpening the recruit’s claws on his steel gauntlet. The logic he advances, is that the mission should be beyond fear, for no other soldier has such certainty of whether he will return alive or dead from his next action. Whereas the suicide bomber knows to the precise minute. What a boon.
By whichever method, these fellows are striking a deal with their egos. They don’t shut them off, rather they believe they are swapping a pretty squalid life not for death, but for another, improved life up in the clouds. A literal leap of faith. Trouble is, when their heads are blown upwards off their body towards Heaven, sure as hell it hurtles back down to earth under the prosaic ministrations of gravity. Does each bomber actually possess the finer shades of understanding, exactly what the Holy Text suggests is in store for them? Ultimately, they remain just teenagers on the most extreme and ugly of promises. And as to the secularist bombers, they too are left in no uncertain terms that they will become pin-up poster boys on the walls of Gaza and Baghdad. This is the poor man’s version of celebrity. A pension from Iran or Syria will see that their family is well provided for, a sort of posthumous dower. Or a divorce settlement.
When one of the plump-bellied commanders or hierophants squeezes into a belt, rather than a whey-faced waif; when one of those educated-in-the-universities-of-their-foes strategists puts his own body on the line, then I’ll afford them credence that they’re not just exploiting and manipulating these bomb mules. Winding up the key of taut and tutored desperation in their backs and setting them off towards mayhem. See, the thing with successful missions as the Japanese kamikazes demonstrated, is that you cull your elite talent. No such thing as a suicide veteran. You need a constant stream of fresh volunteers. But unlike Iraq, where Jihadists are crossing over the borders all the time, Palestine is sealed off. So the quality of the bomber pool declines. They started sending children and simpletons. I saw them in the prisons too, though I didn’t abuse them any further by requesting to interview them. Even those with the slightest sympathy for the strength of will of the suicide bomber, ought to be repulsed by this abasement. Bad strategic decision.
So I return to these prompters, these whisperers from offstage. The puppet master, pedlars of death. What these men do so successfully, is to take the everyday currency of death in their blighted land and raise it to the ultimate value. The reward they offer, confirmed as instantly as a scratch-card, is the status of martyr. They market death as a lifestyle. Conferring an off the peg posterity. Of soldier; freedom fighter; liberator; hero; martyr; patriot; bomber. When life circumstances have prevented the volunteer from being secure in the roles of lover, father, son, worker, provider, man of leisure. Such appeals strike at the very core of anxiety and neurosis. Become a sapper rather than merely sapped.
These manipulators, these programmers, are marketing geniuses. For being able to turn death around like that and make it an attractive option. An aspirational choice. They ought to be employed in Soho and Madison Avenue, having their work plastered across giant hoardings and on TV. Then they’d be earning enough money to send back to revive their homeland economy. But these mavens of destruction would presumably baulk at the job title of ‘Creative Director’."

 Available on Amazon Kindle

War songs - 15 songs with a war theme

1) Pere Ubu - "30 Seconds Over Tokyo"
A song about the dropping of a nuclear bomb, even though neither of the two that were dropped were over Tokyo. Still, unnerving sounds for an uncomfortable track.

2) Mickey Dread - "World War Three"
I grew up in an era when we did talk about the possibility of a third world war with due seriousness and dread. But somehow, when transposed in a reggae idiom, it doesn't quite seem as apocalyptic.

3) DOA - "War In The East"
White man reggae, so yes the threat and menace are back in it. Still I like the almost jaunty rise in timbre of the line "War only brings destruction".

4) Dead Kennedys - "Chemical Warfare"
So you steal some chemical agent and who do you target with it? Only the Country Club Sunday golfers!

5) Minutemen - "Dream Told By Moto"
Yes we really did think about what would you do with the 4 minutes left of life before the bombs hit. And this seemed to be the unfailing response. Typical male perspective, 4 minutes being sufficient.

6) The Pogues - "The Battle Of Brisbane"
In which Shane Macgowan accompanies himself by beating a tin tray against his head.

7) The Clash - "Washington Bullets"
The Clash sing about Latin American politics, of the American government's interdiction against anything faintly Marxist on the continent and the murky world of drugs, guns and money deals.

8) Fund-a-mental - "Sbrebrenica Massacre"
From an album called "All is War", one of the angriest albums you will ever hear as they catalogue the West's campaigns against Muslim states. This is haunting.

9) Black Sabbath - "War Pigs"
Ozzy and Co po-faced for once rather than camping it up.

10) Flipper - "Sacrifice"
There is something primal and primeval about Flipper's basic sound and that seems to fit perfectly for this song.

11) Rage Against The Machine - "Killing In The Name Of"
I was never really into them, so this is about the only one of their songs I know and that really only from the crowdbombing campaign to get it to the Christmas Number One instead of some TV Talent show dreck.

12) Gang Of Four - "Armalite Rifle"
This was only ever a B-Side on a single, but demonstrates their political aesthetic which informed all their early songs.

13) Stiff Little Fingers - "Wasted Life"
The band from which I was the most spoiled for choice for songs about war, hardly surprising that they came from Belfast, but they managed throughout it all to remain pretty non-aligned, quite an achievement in that community torn by strife.

14) Ian Brown - "Illegal Attacks"
Ian Brown the spokesman for Britain's illegal invasion of Iraq with America, based on a fictitious report into Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons capability. It's a long way from Madchester's non-stop party vibe.

15) Discharge - "Visions of War"
Discharge, the band that would be invited to soundtrack the apocalypse.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Campanile - Friday Flash

The government troops came and took the church bells away to melt down for the war effort. 

The people in the village had no tocsin for when the enemy columns were spotted from the spire. 

They had no means of raising their god to come to the defence of his sacred temple.

They couldn’t call the farmers in from distant fields to come raise a prayer to entreat for their safety.

Nor could they toll the dead to their graves in the shadow of the campanile.

Both the village and its god’s passing were marked by a silent death knell.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

In Triplicate - Friday Flash

The Boss arrived and strode into his office, with the swagger of his strut beckoning me in after him. He had assumed his customary stance, presenting his back to me, arms outstretched at the level of his shoulders. Like Rio’s statue of Christ the Redeemer; like a footballer celebrating a goal with mock diffidence; like a pop singer gathering the audience’s acclaim at the end of a song. A humble messiah would have his hands clasped together, but then I wouldn’t have been able to get the arms of his coat over them.

With his garment over the crook of my arm, I approached the coat stand. I carefully enveloped the plush mantle over two of the wooden spikes and stepped back to check the flawless symmetry to stave off creasing. With the upturned talons for hats remaining empty, the array looked like a primitive pagan idol with antler horns; like a hollow man penitent bearing a crown of thorns; like a well-groomed scarecrow not yet gone to seed. 

I was snapped from my reverie by the sough of compressed air, like a refuse lorry hitting its pneumatic brakes; like a hospital respirator; like the discharge of a paintball gun. Even without looking, I knew it to be the sound of his blubbery corpus inclining into his leather chair. I quickly plopped into my own lowly supplicant’s berth and wheeled round to face him. 

He was already sweating, with a sheen of beads above his lip, like the glue waiting to receive a fake moustache; like careless crumbs from a breakfast pastry; like the accusatory powder residue of an excessive cocaine snort. 

“Some Dick-tation” he enunciated, part dyspneic wheeze, part self-satisfied susurration, fully libidinous pant. I turned to a pristine page in my spiral notebook free from my murderous doodles. He started his address. I watched his bulbous hands carve through the air as he hewed his bureaucratic inveigling; like an arthritic orchestral conductor; like a cricket umpire signalling a boundary; like a man swatting away a fly. The mote of his own thoughts at the very limits of his creativity, destroying any comprehensible rhythm when read back to him from the page.  

He clicked pudgy finger against stubby thumb with a squelch like a clown’s outsized footfall; like snapping a saturated twig; like the very sough of his chair each time he toppled into it. “Yours sincerely, signed, etc etc. Three copies in triplicate please, top copy go out second class post with my signature. My copy and file copy as per normal”. Yes indeed, how well I knew the drill. Since it had been exactly the same every day for three years. I rose up from my chair to go type.

"You know, I can never read you. I never know what you’re thinking Miss Givens. Behind those tri-focals of yours”. His lips rolled back to reveal his yellowed teeth in some sort of smile Like caterpillars emerging from their leaf cover by consuming it; like skittles being released in the bowling alley from their metal pinsetter; like a stage curtain being raised to reveal hammy pastel sets. 

“There is one more letter I’d like you to transcribe… If you please…” He handed me a hand-written sheet of paper, the first occasion of such a thing. “I hope you can read my scrawl. Probably looks like a spider dipped in ink has crawled across it!” Not a spider, more like a, oh never mind, I can’t be bothered. 

I perused the letter. More bureaucratic film-flam, part hectoring, part wheedling, wholly platitudinous. But then I noticed the signature at the bottom. Not a whole colophon, just the first letter of his name, plus three ‘X’s’. Perhaps three blown kisses; or implying a triple-X certificate content to follow; or the thirty pieces of Roman silver cost of betrayal. “And if you wouldn’t mind nipping out at lunchtime and buying a present for my wife. it’s our anniversary you see. Here’s the catalogue number…” The sweat above his lip had now multiplied; like an outbreak of translucent cold sores; like a clump of frogspawn; like a- Gaaaa! I snatched the money proffered and beat it from the room as rapidly as I could. 

I sat down at my desk and picked up three sheets of A4 paper. I slipped two carbon papers separating the leaves, then began drawing. The Boss in outline, then a knife at his throat, a gun to his heart and a bomb against his blubber. A trinity of death. I removed the carbon papers. Execution now not just in triplicate, but nine-fold. Signed etc, etc…

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Second Class Citizens

Britain has for the last two parliamentary terms, one Labour, one Conservative-Lib-Dem coalition, had a black hole of debt. Although the current Chancellor George Osborne claims a growing economy will fill this hole, whoever triumphs at the next election will almost certainly tackle it with a swingeing raft of austerity cuts.

The problem with this, at least as manifested under the current government, is who suffers from the cuts. Despite government claims to the contrary, we are not in this together. Irrespective of the maths which deem cutting benefits and services of the poorest and most needy will reap the required amount of savings, rather than increased taxes on the rich, and passing over the ideological strand behind this decision, the problem is what it says about the people you will target for savings and those you won't.

Mrs Thatcher also inherited a financial black hole. She went about it through a mixture of increased economic growth (share ownership, the financial Big bang, buying council homes for private ownership) and cutting back services and benefits (local government funding, the arts, student grants, unemployment benefit). Everything had to be justified in terms of the free market. Did it turn a profit, or did it cost the State to provide? People were formally costed, either as productive, or as a drain, as a burden to the State. The productive elements of the working class were welcomed with offers to buy shares and council houses and to do everything on credit (for which we are now paying with our debt crisis). Those less well-off were pretty much left to sink in unemployment, sink housing and failing schools. And before you think this is merely a case of Thatcher or Conservative-bashing, Blair and Brown did nothing to reverse these policies of any significance. Those places that rioted in London in 2011 were the same as had rioted under Thatcher in the 80s. This was the next generation, the children and grandchildren of the earlier rioters. Nothing had materially changed within their communities in 30 years.

With Mrs Thatcher having executed the first raft of cuts to welfare benefits and services, what else remained for the current government to make savings on? They have gone far further than Thatcher ever did, targeting the disabled, people in social housing with spare rooms (a punishment for not buying your Council House?), police and army numbers cut back t5o the bare bone and despite Lib-Dem promises, an increase in student loans to pay for tuition. Yet no one is held responsible for the economic crisis that blighted so many people's lives against which this backdrop of cuts was taking place. The Power companies went unchecked on their price rises and recently laggardly response to the collapse in the oil price. Unmerited bonuses to executives leaving their jobs in failure are also allowed to proceed, unless the resignee has the grace to forego what they are entitled to, their reward for failure.

So here's the thing. All people having been costed. the decision has been made that money will be clawed-back from those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, those more vulnerable and needy, rather than those higher up. This implicitly, or maybe even explicitly, avows that such people are worth less to the government and the State than those higher up the ladder. A two-tiered system of favour and prejudice if ever there was one. The calculation is these people cost the state more and are likely to return less to the coffers, therefore they are the ones ripe for plucking for savings. Rather than tax those more able to cope and who can contribute more to State coffers. This is what happens when people are reduced to financial assets or liabilities. What does it behove a State to do to earn the loyalty and allegiance of its citizens? Not to scare off the rich with higher tax rates, or to provide a minimum level of help and assistance for those who are the worst off in society? If the rich can be frightened away so easily, then they are not really that committed to Britain, but only to their money. If the poor have their safety net shredded and ripped away from them, then that is not a State I want to pledge my allegiance to either.

This is not the politics of envy, this is the politics of decency and propriety. The terrorists win if in the campaign to defeat them, we sacrifice so much of what it means to be free and living in a democracy. Similarly, Great Britain ceases to be great if under economic burdens it strips away every welfare benefit and service that makes us a civilised society that looks after its most vulnerable citizens.

Oh and don't be fooled, if Ed Miliband acceded to power, he might tinker around the edges with things like a freeze on power prices, but he would still make swingeing cuts because he had to. How much would he tax the rich when push comes to shove? Blair didn't. Brown didn't. they are too scared of alienating some of that cohort who they know they need their votes to obtain power.

So do I have any solutions? Of course not. But I do know a society has to look at itself and decide what its values are, what living in that country means and stands for. And I know treating your citizens as economic indices and wealth-earning units is not the way to go. I also feel Great Britain should lose some of its self-aggrandised credit-rating, not the formal financial rating, but that of calling itself 'Great'. If we are perennially to face a financial black hole and decisions attendant on that, maybe we are not a powerhouse in the world anymore. Without our sense of self-inflation, then perhaps we wouldn't feel such a compunction to fight long-term foreign wars that are such a drain on our finances. Forget our glorious history, in the here and now we are a second division country,  acting and strutting as if we were still in the Premiership of nations. Of course no politician will own up to this because it is electoral suicide. The myth of Britain's greatness is to prevail. So to keep that neon sign illuminated, we punish the weakest and most vulnerable of our citizens, without even providing them a Band Aid for the sake of appearances.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo, The Power Of the Image and Stereotype

Just over a week ago I'd never heard of Charlie Hebdo magazine let alone read it. Apart from following the tragic events and inevitable conclusion of the manhunt, the aftermath has also prompted huge debate about freedom of expression versus stereotyping, caricature and racism. It all comes down to the nature of the image it seems to me.

Cartoons are great. Just witness those which came out to express their support for the slaughtered cartoonists; images of pencils erasing terrorist guns; pencils severed by bullets, regrowing leads out of both ends. But there are some cartoons which rely on the instant recognition of stereotype and caricature for their power, leading some people unable to pronounce themselves "Je Suis Charlie" because they see some of the cartoon output of the magazine as racist. Not all Jews wear homburg hats and have peyote (the curly sideburns), yet this is the image resorted to by the CH cartoonists to represent a Jew. Because it provides instant recognition, it is a shorthand that carries the payload for whatever else the cartoon wants to deliver. Such a shorthand relies on certain key features, which after all is the 'art' of the caricature, but such features also represent a form of racial profiling. The Nazis used such techniques in their propaganda campaign against the Jews. Is the only difference the injection of humour?

Last week I sat with a French citizen familiar with CH and she proceeded to translate many of the captions of the CH front cover cartoons. In doing so I realised that there was much subtle wordplay and punning used to lash cultural and political icons to the mast of their satire and critique. Such wordplay was completely inaccessible to a non-native speaker not immersed in French cultural and political daily life such as me. So the overriding image someone like me takes away from those front covers, is of the stereotypical portrayal of the caricature. As a constructor of images through words rather than picture as I am, I am forever struck by the resonances of Magritte's painting.

The painting would not work without the words contextualising and subverting the image. Were there no words, it would just be an uninvolving painting of a pipe. With the words one sees that the artist is pointing out that this isn't a pipe, but the image of a pipe and one painted at that. Without the complex captioning of the CH cartoons, it would just be an image of a stereotypical Jew, or a Muslim cleric or an archbishop (again, as if a bishop stood for all Christians, or an Imam for all Muslims).

Far more informed practitioners than me can try and decide whether CH's layering of caption across image pulls them back from accusations of stereotyping and racism or not. But I want to focus entirely on images of the Prophet Muhammad. Charlie Hebdo published their post-killing issue today with an image of the Prophet on the front cover. Without the context of the last week, I wouldn't have known that was Muhammad, since no images of Muhammad exist so we don't know what he looks like. But since the media are reporting that it is a representation of Muhammad, and the fact that it feeds back into previous depictions of the prophet by the magazine, I am forced to accept that it is a representation of the Prophet. (it could to my mind be a caricature of a Muslim, maybe an Imam, coming to stand for all Muslims). The issue is not whether this particular image is offensive, for in the eyes of Islam NO IMAGES of the prophet are ever to be made, rendered straight or as caricature. The image itself is profane within Muslim doctrine. Just as depictions of the Jewish god are forbidden as idolatrous, because no-one knows what he looks like, nor are we meant to know (nor even know his true name). This seems to be the heart of the matter for me. Can any group in society, or even society as a whole, prohibit the representation of any image?

Images are controlled all the time. Warnings on the news that 'these images may be upsetting to some', or the faces of dead bodies pixelated out 'out of respect for the dead and their families'. We have film certification and TV watersheds to restrict the broadcasting of certain images. There are certain sexual images deemed to be obscene and likely to corrupt and offend that are beyond the pale and outlawed from pornographic publication. However, there are circumstances when an image deemed too upsetting for society as a whole, would still be inflicted on an individual; consider this, crime scene photos of an appalling murder scene might be withheld from the general public, but a person thought to be a witness may very well be shown them in a bid to prompt their recall. Some of these are held up against extant laws, such as the case of obscenity, others are judgement calls such as the case of pixelating faces.

Not representing the Prophet in any image is a fundamental tenet of Islam. Should it be enshrined in British/European law or not? That representing the Prophet is actually an incitement to racial hatred? If it does become law, then it is a victory for violence and intimidation to get the law changed. What about certain laws pertaining to other religions who might start demanding legislative change? Both Islamic and Jewish methods of slaughtering animals for meat are under constant challenge for animal cruelty. Where do we come down on that issue, for at present there seemed to be two different standards applied, one for Halal and Kosher, another for all other slaughterhouses. Can one religion legislate to all others, having special case status? Well it already exists as in the case of animal slaughter.

I don't think you can prohibit an image. In a similar vein that you can't unthink an idea that has already been thought and exists in the human pool of knowledge and ideas. The Swastika is an illegal image to display publically in Germany, but people still know its image and what is represents. Yet how can you know the image of the prophet who has no determined image (unlike Jesus Christ, even if these representations are fanciful and far removed from what he actually looked like)? I really don't have any answers on this one at all.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Playing Detective - A Couple Of Unanswered Questions From The Paris Slayings

I'm no different from anyone who doesn't work for the police or intelligence services, although I have published a work of fiction about terrorist actions. And my amateur spidey sleuth senses are twitching over a couple of aspects of last week's terrorist outrages in Paris.

Firstly, at least one of the terrorists may have seen action in Syria, but Kalashnikovs and Rocket-Propelled grenade launchers are not just something you can smuggle back in your suitcase like hotel towels.

So how did the terrorists get their hands on such hardware?
1) The radical Islamic terror networks have excellent quartermasters who can secure this kind of ordnance
2) The terrorist bought them from the criminal underworld.

Either way, the two converge in the sense that even the quartermasters have to source the guns from somewhere, so at some point someone is trading them illegal weapons

Have Europe's borders become so porous that guns flow as freely as people? Where are the security checks on baggage (if smuggled by individuals) or freight (if sent commercially)? At some point in the transport cycle this hardware is likely to have originated from outside the EU, from the former Soviet Union, or Syria and Iraq perhaps. But the moment it comes into the EU it has to be discovered by the authorities or we remain totally vulnerable.

The French underworld has always been heavily tooled up, with machine guns to the fore. So it is quite conceivable that the guns were purchased locally. In which case it behoves the criminal classes to rediscover some notions of loyalty to the state they operate within, by keeping their sixth sense open as to the possible use of desired purchases and refuse to deal with terrorists. After all, it could be their wives and children hit in the crossfire. It's true that some terrorists have backgrounds within the criminal underworld, but if they drop out of circulation to go fight in Syria and then reappear trying to hook up with their old contacts again, it ought to sound alarm bells to the crims.

Secondly, Jihadists who declare war on their home state, cherish and welcome death. They don't hand themselves up for arrest of their own volition. And yet seemingly this is exactly what the third member of the Kouachi cell did in Reims. Could he possibly be entirely innocent, but his name came up in the frame because some identification material of his was found in one of the cars stolen by the brothers during their spree? Could he have handed himself in just to clear himself as an entirely innocent party? If that is the case - and we've heard absolutely nothing since his arrest - then the third gunman from the Charlie Hebdo massacre is still at large as well. Some more information on the status of this other accomplice (or not) would be welcome to clear up the fog.

I am also slightly confused by the role of Hayat Boumeddiene, the common law wife of the third gunman Amedy Coulibaly. Coulibaly's video sees him declaring his allegiance to ISIS, yet ISIS purportedly don't allow women to fight in their cause because of their lesser role in society to men (I'll refrain delving into the psychosexual exploration of that anxiety). Boumeddiene is said to have been a planner for her husband and exchanged 500 phone calls with the wives of the Kouachi brothers. Were these all just bolstering of their spirits, a reaffirmation of their commitment to the missions of their husbands? Or was this the means of planning communication that meant their husbands could remain off the grid? Boumeddiene is also over the internet pictured aiming a crossbow. If she is in Syria as seems likely, is she being feted as a war hero's widow? Or is she being allowed to apply her nefarious talents to ISIS' operations in the field?

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo and artists' dereliction of duty

So suddenly we’re all Charlie and we’re all in solidarity with freedom of expression. Sorry, not buying a word of it. In Britain artists of print, stage, music and whatever passes for indigenous film have all fought shy of the political in their subject matter. With a few honourable exceptions, not least within the cartoon and graphics community and the odd stand-up comic (Jerry Sadowitz reviled for his extreme comedy, ‘outed’ Jimmy Savile in his act 30 years before society caught up to him).

In Britain ever since Mrs Thatcher demanded that our art be self-financing so that market demands shaped content, and also since the arts community miserably failed to get to grips with the ideology of Thatcherism with god-awful ‘little’ films about relationships set against the backdrops of riots or demos, we have increasingly detached our artistic output from having any political message at all. And this was in the decade of the Rushdie Affair let us not forget. The ironic thing is that in an era when public discourse on anything has been eroded by the authorities (Blair happily carried this on from Thatcher), art failed miserably to step in to fill the breach. (Nor can twitter usefully redress the balance for that matter). The fact is our artists have been censoring themselves for the past twenty years, be it for economic or political reasons. And now we are proclaiming that we are all about the right to express oneself freely… 

In continental Europe, they just don’t even make the distinction between art and politics. Camus, Sartre and De Beauvoir went on every march going, while Malraux was Culture Minister in the government. Can you imaging an Amis leading a demo, either Kingsley or Martin? Sadly now that Harold Pinter has passed, there is no one to lead our artistic intelligentsia and get them out on the street (although he tended to favour agitation by dinner party). Europe’s refusal to categorise art as political and separate is exactly why you can have a radical magazine like Charlie Hebdo exist in the first place. But as more and more artists cede the political ground through fear of reprisal (or libel), then that leaves fewer arts’ bodies, each operating in isolation and therefore very vulnerable to attacks such as these. If there were a myriad of arts organisations making challenging, provocative, radical art, then those offended by it wouldn’t be able to strike at them all. They wouldn’t know where to bloody start. 

You want to show solidarity? Make some flipping political art for a change. I know I have. It’s what I do. 

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Charlie Hebdo Slayings In Paris

The first thing I want to say is that until the French authorities have definitively established the perpetrators of this atrocity, it doesn't do to leap to conclusions in pinning blame. Remember how in the aftermath of the Madrid rail bombings, the Spanish government blamed the Basque Separatists, so that when it turned out to be Islamic terrorists, they were made to seem completely out of touch and unable to protect their population and promptly got booted out of power at the election that followed soon after. That's how terrorism works, it engenders a sense in the population that they are vulnerable and unprotected by the powers that are charged with just that responsibility.

I am not taking it for granted that Islamic terrorists carried out this attack. But if one was a betting man, they would be the favourites, but the fact that we have a multi-billion global betting industry shows that the favourite doesn't always come in. However, this is such a specialised target (I'd never heard of the magazine before), a bit like going in and shooting up the offices of "Private Eye", whoever is responsible it represents an attack of the right to free expression. Satire is a means of poking fun and subverting whatever it is targeting and while that may cause offence, it is not illegal, it doesn't point a gun at anyone and it doesn't pull a trigger on anything except to fire words or images into the pool of human thought and cogitation.

Yet when people wring their hands about such an injustice, or that the right of free expression is inalienable, or even use the word 'atrocity', they are frankly failing to deal with the issues. Gunmen who would shoot up a magazine office full off journalists have a very different concept of justice than all the handwringers. They seek to make free expression a wholly alienable right, through the force of the bullet. Of course it is an atrocity in our eyes, but in theirs it is an act to politically advance their cause. These assassins are not troubled by the act of murder of unarmed civilians. Chances are they see themselves at war with that which they are opposing. Words like 'atrocity' actually manage to tamp down further useful discussion, because it admits that this act is so incomprehensible, so off the scale of understanding, that there is nothing more that can be added. Wrong.

There is nothing wrong with demonstrations of solidarity. I've heard suggestions of playing the Marseilleise outside Buckingham Palace, through to republishing the Hebdo front page cartoon in every magazine and newspaper front page tomorrow. I get these symbolic acts of standing together. I get the need for them too, representing both a collective grief and a show of strength. But what people need to do and I've said this consistently in books and blog posts, is not throw up our hands in disgusted stymied defeat at these acts being beyond the pale, but to come to understand how the terrorist thinks, acts and conceives. If we persist in dismissing something as unjust by our standards, then we will never come to comprehend his view of the just and the unjust. If we continue to vaguely wave a banner promoting free speech, then we fail to appreciate the nature of its threat to the terrorist, how and why he targets the agencies he does. If we blithely ascribe an outrage as an atrocity, then we miss how this is just business to their minds, their modus operandi. What lies behind, what are their aims, what generates their support, what are the economic, psychologically, social and cultural roots behind people becoming terrorists?

Time to get on the front foot people. And as the first act, that would be definitively determining who was responsible for this attack. It's no longer acceptable to ask 'how can this happen?' or 'how can there be people who act like this?' without also seeking the answer.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Hollow Point - Friday Flash

At the end of the tour they hit the gift shop. Her sightseeing hands explored blindly as she fingered the hanging trinkets and pendulous bagatelles. She rattled the wares as if divining for her elect through rhythm and resonance. And then she came upon the carousel of choice. Key-rings with die-stamped Christian names. “Five more minutes” her mother advised. She plumped straight to the tier with names beginning with the letter that initialled her own. She foraged through the rack but without locating her own cognomen. Nothing even close. Curse her parents for their impossible fancy for the foreign and the unfamiliar, yielding the exotic denomination they had conferred upon her. The locus for their dreams and hopes. She knew it was not long after her birth, that a prescriptive list of permissible names for babies had been drawn up and instituted into law. The registry offices would refuse to notarise any identification not on that list. Forlornly she started through other prefixing letters, in case her name had been misfiled. But when her mother yanked her hand to pull her towards home, she barely resisted for she knew her name had not been mislaid in the array. She was destined forever to be misplaced and unrecognised through the singular irregularity of her title.

A brown manilla envelope plopped through the letterbox and landed on the floor with a shrill reverberation. Since her grandmother had confined herself to her bed through unending grief, she stooped to pick it up. Something in the envelope shifted and clinked inside. She brought the package into her grandmother’s darkened room. As she proffered it in the direction of her grandmother, a hand shot out of the bedclothes and waved the envelope away. She retreated back to the doorway. She examined the typed label with the family name and correct address. She worked the sealed flap open and was met with the sight of a folded piece of paper hard up against the rear of the envelope. She removed it and opened it up to reveal a heading marked ‘INVOICE’. It was addressed or chargeable to her Granny saying ‘Expenses incurred (see enclosed contents) x3,  = 34,000 Pesos’. ‘Cost of burials at expense of the State x3, = 200,000 Pesos.’

She canted the envelope to spill its contents into the palm of her hand. Three bullets shook out. She gingerly picked on up between the pads of her fingers, as if somehow it could still discharge itself even without the accelerated access to barreling. It had something etched into its body. It was the name of her mother. Aghast she quickly referenced the second bullet, which bore the legend of her father’s name. She dropped it in her anguish, as if it really had discharged itself. She plucked out the third bullet still ensconced in the corner of the envelope. It had a name which bore some of the letters in that of her own, but not all of them. Nameless, rootless and stateless, her parents’ glamorous dreams of abroad had become her living nightmare here at home.

Taken form the Flash Fiction collection "Extra-Curricular" out now on in print or Kindle and I-Tunes