Sunday 31 May 2015

Street art in Brick Lane

The other night science fiction author, Roger Levy and his wife, Tina, invited us on a tour of the East End led by the beautifully-named Bliss from Undiscovered London. We walked around the Brick Lane area and learned about its incredible history: from the Huguenots' arrival in the 17th century, to the Jews in the 19th and the Bangladeshi community more recently. The East London mosque has been a place of worship for all three. But the best part of the tour was the street art. Banksy's London work started in Brick Lane and there is something to see and wow at on every corner, side street and parking lot. I had heard about the tradition in Buenos Airies, but hadn't realised that Argentine artists are at the forefront of wall paintings here in London. A superb example is Blu's 'Muto' animated street art. And look at this powerful image of the 'clown' which recently 'arrived' and which Bliss thinks the police may remove soon – so go check it out now and see if you can guess why they might want it gone. This morning I read on FB that Martin Smith's book on street art is out soon. Of course, we ended the tour with  a curry, and yes there is some street art in 'Left Field'.

Photo: Anne Aylor

Friday 29 May 2015

Missing kidneys

Soon after the wars in former Yugoslavia, politicians from all sides actively nationalised their languages. Antun Vrdoljak, Croatian TV chief in the 1990s, declared that,"Language preserves the nation's history and culture ... language is the womb." At its most xenophobic, the Croatian Education Minister, Jasna Gotovac, said, "The fight for our language and culture is a part of the war." Alija Isakovic, a linguist who published a Bosnian-language dictionary in besieged Sarajevo warned against a purge of Turkish words. "If they do," he said, "none of them will have a kidney." The common word for kidney being 'bubreg'. This might all seem to be archaic thinking, but this process applied to contemporary words as well. 'Helikopter' was to be zrakomlat, 'telefon' – brzoglas, 'aeroport' - zračna luka; making the internationally comprehensible into a jumble of incomprehension. We were criticised for calling the music centre in Mostar, ‘Muzički Centar Pavarotti’. Croatian politicians had recently discovered an ancient term for music, 'glazba' and were offended that we were not using that in place of a word recognised from Beijing to Buenos Aires. When a politician from the west side of town visited my office I gave him coffee from a džezva, served with rahat lokum (turkish delight). At that time, even coffee breaks could be political acts. Read more about the politics of language in 'Left Field'.

Tuesday 26 May 2015

Café Slavia

We are surrounded by fakes. There are fake pearls, fake fur, fake blood, fake signatures. Some fakes are not just meant to deceive, but to impress as well, like fake books that fill the shelves of people who wish to appear more learned than they are, or fake aristocrats who purchase their fake titles. Fakes can be used negatively, such as documents created to justify the attack on Iraq. Or positively, inflatable tanks placed on the cliffs above Dover before D-Day. The art world is rife with fakes where they are called forgeries. They are as old as the Old Masters and often the Old Masters were the greatest forgers of all. Michelangelo produced replicas of Domenico Ghirlandaio's drawings that were so good, Ghirlandaio thought they were his own. You can read the whole chapter Café Slavia here
Photo: Jacopo Bassano

Saturday 23 May 2015

Dogs of War

Torni didn't make any noise. He knew he mustn't bark. The enemy were metres away. He moved forward carefully, turning his head every few paces to make sure everyone was all right. He never stopped wagging his tail. This breed of mountain dog thrive in the cold. His owners followed him carefully. He seemed to know where the mines were. After twenty hours, they reached the top of a mountain where there was a large tent for escaping refugees. This was the “road” to Sarajevo and they passed soldiers, pack mules, old and young people - all on the move to greater safety. No vehicles could travel on these tracks and horses and mules were used to carry humans and their cargoes. A few weeks before Torni and his family made the journey a horse had become so wearied by his load that it was said that he deliberately jumped over the side of a cliff to his death two hundreds metres below. Read more about Torni in 'Left Field'.

Thursday 21 May 2015

A Bosnian 1905?

On 5 February 2014 anger over factory closures in Tuzla, Bosnia Hercegovina, spilled into the streets. Two days later, demonstrations spread to Sarajevo, Mostar and other towns and cities. In their wake, People's Plenums were set up to express and give organisational strength to this new movement. This was taking place in a country where more than one in four of the workforce is without work and the average wage for those with work is less than 400 euros a month. By contrast, politicians get 3000 euros a month. The Guardian estimated that 60% of the country's money is spent on the political set-up and 40% on its people. In April 2014 I was doing research for 'Left Field' and visited Zagreb, Ljubljana, Mostar and Belgrade. A month later, many of the roads I had travelled on were under water, hit by the worst floods for centuries. An already bad situation was now made much worse. While in Mostar, I addressed a Plenum demonstration. (Start video at 1:20 if you don't speak the language). In retrospect, it may seem to have been over-optimistic to have aligned the Bosnian movement with the political undercurrents at work in other parts of Europe. Time and the people will decide.

Photo. Tuzla Plenum session, 'Freedom is My Nation'.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

War Child at London Zoo

War Child emphasises the charity's historical connections with the music world, but the first money-raiser for our work involved animals. Over the 1993 August Bank Holiday we organised a three-day event at London Zoo. There were sitar and sarangi players near the elephants. Peruvian pipers serenaded the llamas and didgeridoo players the kangaroos. There were African drummers at the giraffe enclosure, gamalan players entertaining the Indonesian rhinoceros, Brazilian berimbau players silencing the normally squealing squirrel monkeys. The Chinese percussionists were kept well away from the giant panda, Ming Ming, because she needed all her concentration to breed. The most amazing sights for me were a string quartet playing Bach in the Butterfly Grotto and a lone cellist in the shadowy depths of the Aquarium entertaining the circling sharks. On the lawns, pathways and courtyards there were clowns, jugglers, stilt-walkers, magicians, dancers and acrobats, story-tellers, poets and pavement artists. Inside the Monkey House we held children's workshops, art and photo exhibitions. During those three days, London Zoo, with the help of its animals, came to the rescue of another endangered species – children threatened by the thirty wars then raging across our planet. Read more here. I don't usually put animal videos on my blogs, but I can't resist this one.

Monday 18 May 2015

Ned of the Hill in Sarajevo

A week before we left for Sarajevo we were at a Ron Kavana gig at the Stags Head in Camden Town. He is a folk/rock singer After he had sung 'Young Ned of the Hill', composed with the Pogues, he told us that he had enjoyed performing this on tour with them to enthusiastic British audiences who appreciated its message – that Oliver Cromwell rot in hell. We told him we'd add his albums to the CDs we were taking into the city for radio stations. Ron said he'd like to join us. 'Why do you want to come?'  I asked him. 'My grandma was a fiddle player in Limerick'. That didn't seem to answer the question. A long pause. 'She was killed by the Brits in 1921. What you've told me about Sarajevo reminds me of her. She used to perform in cellars, out of sight of the Black and Tans.' He didn't need to say more about them. They were British ex-First World War soldiers and released prisoners with a reputation for murderous brutality. They were recruited to support the Royal Irish Police in suppressing the war of independence. 'One night they heard her playing, took her away and shot her. If I come to Sarajevo I will play music and will be honouring her memory.' More about Ron in Sarajevo here.

Friday 15 May 2015

Brian Eno and Bosnia

I have blogged about Brian Eno and his backing for Reg Keys ten years ago in the 2005 election. This was when I was working at Stop the War. But my association with him goes back a further ten years when he was a leading supporter of War Child. Remember the Help album? Brian was also instrumental with his wife, Anthea, in the decision to build the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar, Bosnia. He then supported me when I was sacked for whistleblowing. He has said this about Left Field (to be published in Feb 2016): “This is an excellent and inspiring book. David is an adventurer and a free-thinker who, despite the best efforts of an education designed to equip him for obedient anonymity, somehow did something truly useful with his life. His stubborn and yet self-effacing commitment to his ideals carried him through many daunting situations ...” Here is a recent interview he did with me.

Photo: Brian Eno with child at a music workshop in Mostar (1998)

Tuesday 12 May 2015


After Sarajevo, we drove to Mostar along an alpine road, except that mosques, with their elegant, stone-needle minarets, stood in place of churches. The town took its name from the bridge which spans the turquoise waters of the Neretva River.Most’ means bridge, andstar’, old. Rebecca West was there in 1936 and wrote in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, ‘It is one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. A slender arch lies between two round towers, its parapet bent in a shallow angle in the centre. To look at it is good; to stand on it is as good. Over the grey-green river swoop hundreds of swallows, and on the banks, mosques and white houses stand among glades of trees and bushes.’ Constructed in the 16th century by order of Suleiman the Magnificent and designed by his architect, Hajrudin, the stones were held together with horsehair and manure. When the scaffolding was removed, the architect had disappeared. The Sultan had threatened to cut off Hajrudin’s head if his bridge fell into the river. For many centuries and despite earthquakes and wars, it didn’t. We spent a scorching afternoon walking through the narrow streets of the Old Town, trying to keep in the shade. After drinking at a riverside café, we walked onto the bridge and it was pleasant to stand at its centre, as Rebecca West had done, and feel the breeze from the mountains. The tourist office told us there was a campsite west of the town on the road to the Adriatic coast. We couldn’t find it and, as it was getting dark, we drove off the highway down to the river. In the middle of this wilderness we met a family from Tuzla. They had pitched an old canvas tent and beside it was a chicken coop with five scrawny hens. The father told us that they holidayed at this spot every year. I asked how long they had been there and he looked at the hens. ‘We came with ten,’ he said, ‘and eat one a day.’ ‘Are there wild animals in the woods?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he said, 'but it’s the people you should watch out for.’ I thought it was an odd thing to say, but I would have good reason to remember his words. Eighteen years later I came back.

Sunday 10 May 2015

Museum of Broken Relationships

Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, has the usual museums and galleries found in most big cities. But there is one which is unique—the Museum of Broken Relationships. Set up by former lovers, Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić, it is a place ‘to store all the painful triggers of memory around us, creating a safe place for both tangible and intangible heritage of past love’. The displays include an axe donated by one woman. ‘I used it to break up the furniture of the girlfriend who left me. Each day I smashed a bit more. When she returned for her furniture all she had were bits of wood.’ A Virgin Mary holy water bottle has the accompanying words: ‘My lover gave me this as his “special” present. He didn’t know I’d opened his bag and found a plastic bag full of them.’ There is a stuffed toy caterpillar: ‘Every time we met, we tore off one of the caterpillar’s legs. When all the legs were gone, we would live together. As you see, the caterpillar never became a complete invalid.’ Most sadly, a suicide note from a mother to her daughter: ‘To write a letter under these circumstances is impossible . . . Lots of love and happiness, Your mama.’ I have more to say about this museum and why I was there in 'Left Field'. And Becca Bland from my writing group has recently started Stand Alone, a charity to help people like me who have a family estrangement to deal with.

Friday 8 May 2015

Military Families Against War

Ten years ago, at the time of the 2005 election, and two years after Iraq had been invaded, Brian Eno told me he would put up money for an anti-war candidate to stand against Tony Blair in his Sedgefield constituency. Reg Keys was the father of Lance Corporal Tom Keys, one of six military policemen killed at Majar al-Kabir in Iraq. Tom and his fellow soldiers had been sent to a police station where they were ambushed. They had no radios and had been issued with limited ammunition. In Reg’s words, ‘They were let down in life by the men who sent them to their deaths and they have been let down in death by the people who continually deny responsibility.’ As one of many parents of unnecessarily killed soldiers, Reg was campaigning against the Ministry of Defence and was supported by Military Families Against the War. He had been planning to stand against the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in Blackburn. I had worked with the journalist, Felicity Arbuthnot, when making a film for ITN on attitudes of Iraqis in the UK to a possible attack on their country. She said we should contact Reg and, through her, I did so. He agreed to switch his candidacy to Sedgefield and I organised his first press conference at Brian’s studio. I got to know Reg, a lovely man, and soon after became a friend of ex-SAS trooper, Ben Griffin, of Veterans for Peace. (VfP) You can read more about the Sedgefield story and about Ben in 'Left Field'. And watch Reg's brilliant put-down of an edgy-looking Tony Blair at the election count. Thanks to Reg and Ben my memoir (to be published in Feb/March 2016) is now linked to VfP and if the book goes into profit, they will get my support. They will get my support even if it doesn't.

Thursday 7 May 2015

Fucking up the fuck ups

This was written a year ago!  "All very well to put out a string of populist policy announcements - end the pasty tax, free dentures for the long-term unemployed, fuel allowances for cabbies, new tramlines in Maidenhead, whatever - but this is just noise until it's part of a resonant 'vision'. And Labour just doesn't have a clue what its 'vision' is … Because not only does the Labour leadership love the smell of its own farts - so does the media chorus. Every time Miliband pops out another vaporous soundbite, the news - always desperate for novelty, fond of power, and particularly fond of right-wing Labour leaders - makes it sound as though he has written the Grundrisse. Now these thematics must be heavily focus-grouped and polled, yet I see no evidence that they catch the remotest echo in the popular imagination. And there's a reason for that. It's that they are utter, uninspiring, incoherent bollocks. It is not just that they do not represent any systematic alternative to the policies being pursued by the coalition. It is that, as with both 'Blue Labour' and 'One Nation Labour', these themes attempt to hybridise an extremely mild reformist language with a half-hearted co-optation of reactionary traditionalism, an ideological blend that neither pleases nor motivates anyone … What are we supposed to think? "Let's have compulsory apprenticeship schemes because We Are One Nation"? Or "Cap fuel bills to save the squeezed middle"? Who the fuck would go out and vote on that basis, much less - I don't know - form a picket line or mount a barricade? Of course Labour are going to lose the next election ... They are an opposition which can barely bring itself to oppose. They cannot even act intelligently, because they are structurally compelled by their investment in neoliberal accumulation strategies, to be stupid. They even fuck up the fuck ups. The Tories don't have to actively win it. They just have to play their hand in a reasonably smart way, placate their base, and wait for Her Majesty's opposition to defenestrate itself."
Richard Seymour -“Why are Labour going to lose the next election”, May 15 2014

Wednesday 6 May 2015

What Democracy Looks Like

Ambrose Bierce, the 19th century American journalist, short story writer, fabulist, and wit, said that politics is ‘a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.’ This is the 'Politics' that you take up as a profession, with its Privy Councillors (yes it did start in the toilet) and, pardon the pun, Standing Orders; the Westminster 'Palace' full of Right Honourables who barrack and ridicule each other, then go off to have cosy lunches together. I remember being on a trade union rally 30 years ago in Hyde Park when one of the speakers called on us to march on Parliament. Someone grabbed the mike and said he wouldn't join it because he didn't believe in disturbing the dead. At one of the massive demonstrations against the Iraq war I was in Parliament Square as a young woman pointed at the people sitting on the grass as she shouted, 'This is what democracy looks like,' then her arm extended in the direction of Parliament. 'That's not what democracy looks like.' But I leave the last word to Milliband. “Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic – not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system. Empirical and flexible about all else, its leaders have always made devotion to that system their fixed point of reference and the conditioning factor of their political behaviour. This is not simply to say that the Labour Party has never been a party of revolution ... It is rather that the leaders of the Labour Party have always rejected any kind of political action which fell, or which appeared to them to fall, outside the framework and conventions of the parliamentary system.” Which Milliband wrote this? Ed, Dave? … no Marxist father Ralph. Have you ordered your copy of 'Left Field' yet? Publication has now been set for early 2016.

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Camels and Needles

Canford School was High Church and today I can still recite, not only the Lord’s Prayer, but the Catechism: ‘I believe in God the father, maker of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ his only son . . .’ Towards the end of my first term there, we were ‘invited’ to put our names down for Confirmation. (Def: the sealing of the covenant created in Holy Baptism.) I was summoned to the headmaster's office. ‘Wilson, I am told that you have not registered for Confirmation.’ ‘I don’t believe in God, sir.’ ‘That has nothing to do with it. You are letting the school down.’ They couldn’t force Confirmation on me, but they could harass me. Summoned a second time I was told, ‘Wilson, you’re not kneeling in chapel.’ ‘I told you, sir. I don’t believe in God.’ Again I was told this had nothing to do with it. ‘Do you believe in God, sir?’ I asked. ‘My beliefs have nothing to do with you. We are not talking about God, Wilson. We are talking about loyalty.’ The last straw was when I confronted the school chaplain when he read Matthew 19:24: ‘And I tell you, it is easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the gates of heaven.’ My hand shot up. ‘Isn’t that about socialism, sir?’ ‘This parable is not to be taken literally, Wilson. Sit at the back of the class and get on with your Latin.’ There I remained, banned from religious studies, but I got a good grade in Latin. Cave ab homine unius libri -Do not trust a man with one book. Read more about my school days at 'Left Field'.

PS and here's some music about camels & needles

Monday 4 May 2015

Protest and Survive

 In 1961, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) organised protests at five bases where nuclear weapons were to be deployed. I told my mother I was going to see The Guns of Navarone, but headed to the demonstration at RAF Ruislip in north-west London. I arrived to see thousands of people with placards and some with ladders to scale the perimeter fence. Though I had no ladder, I was held in a police van for four hours. Released without charge, my incarceration had lasted a lot longer than Navarone so I rang from Ruislip station to tell my parents not to worry. My mother answered and I heard her shouting at my father, ‘I blame you for this.’ Soon after Ruislip, a police inspector turned up at our house. He wanted to question me about a march I was helping to organise as secretary of South London Youth CND. ‘Are you the organiser?’ he asked. ‘I’m one of them.’ ‘What is your role?’ he added. I was being introduced to page one of the police training manual: Locate the leader. I said nothing, but my mother tapped him on the arm. ‘He’ll get over this,’ she said. But I didn't. I read Robert Jungk’s Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with its account of the shadows of the dead imprinted on the earth. It left me in shock. The book’s title is taken from Robert Oppenheimer’s words when witnessing the first atomic bomb explosion in July 1945. He quoted the Bhagavad Gita, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I started to self-educate myself and read everything: from Marx to Dostoyevsky, from Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In 1965 I moved to Oxford and worked at Oxfam. I wanted to go to university, but didn’t have A levels. I took a correspondence course. Two years later, I was at Essex University. On the edge of Colchester, above the muddy River Colne, the half-built campus already seemed half-forgotten. We would change that. May came early for us. On 17 March 1968, 40,000 people marched to the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square to protest the Vietnam war. I helped a friend from the chemistry department make paint bombs, sealed inside plastic milk containers. These two Peter Kennard montages cover the forty years from 1961 to the Iraq war – more brilliantly in images than I can do in words. But my words can be found in my memoir, Left Field.

Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist is at the Imperial War Museum, London SE1, from 14 May 2015. And here's a short film about those early Aldermaston marches.