Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Apologies if you are getting a spam warning when you visit this blog. Blogger is assessing whether I am a person or an evil spamming automaton. If I am the former, Homo Ludens will continue in its usual sporadic fashion; if the latter, I shall be struck off.

But you, dear readers, know the truth: that I am a bear. The nature of Blogger's policies towards bears is unknown, and I shall naturally be following the assessment with a keen interest.

Sunday, April 26, 2009



The nearest relative of Thorpeness, a Suffolk village created almost from scratch in the 1920s and 30s, is Portmeirion. They were both dreamt of and built by wealthy, peculiar men who wished to fashion alternatives to modern twentieth-century Britain, and who wanted to generate profit from the vacationing classes. Both villages remain in their own unique categories, though the cosmetic strangeness of Thorpeness has not yet been used for a television show. But where Portmeirion and Thorpeness are very different is in the fantasies they create; for where Portmeirion is decidedly Italianate, Thorpeness is a mixture of bastardised English vernacular styles.

Thorpeness was built by Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, a rather directionless Scottish dandy who inherited the land from his mother. Ogilvie’s oversight of his “Art Village”, which began the century as a tiny fishing settlement, was single-minded and autocratic. He was inspired by Ebenezer Howard (the creator of Hampstead and Letchworth garden villages) and William Morris’s News from Nowhere, but his vision was altogether less utopian: his Thorpeness was to be a fantastical escape for wealthy holiday-makers. And escape implied elitism and exclusivity.


In his youth, Ogilvie had written some modestly successful plays, and he used his fanciful poetic style to set out the grand plan for Thorpeness:

Thorpeness is endowed with the Beauty…of wide Suffolk wolds and woodlands fringed by amethystine sea – the land of Viking Vigour and of sea-borne health. Thorpeness is absolutely English…in her beauty…in her healthy Home-Life…in her social amenities…in her devotion to every one of those popular athletic open air exercise.

His bucolic vision, shaped by the moral purity and virtuousness of outdoor living, was shaped by Romantic nostalgia and a loathing of industrialism and urbanness. He claimed that “the soul of Thorpeness is reflected, Narcissus-wise, in the still waters of her sometime Elizabethan Meare,” which was to be “a Temple of Tranquillity, where the Soul of over-civilised Man may escape the thraldom of the Great Cities and find its Self alone with Nature and at one with God”. There was, in this Midsummer Night’s Dream fantasy world, an anti-Enlightenment spirit, a desire to regress a stage, to repeal the avant-garde pre-war spirit, a return to the womb.

Such conservatism was an inherent part of Ogilvie’s outlook, but by the time the construction of Thorpeness began in the early 1920s, the horrors of the Great War had made such an attitude widespread. Ogilvie got round the post-war shortages of labour (and especially bricklayers) by exploiting the local abundance of shingle and new technologies in concrete slab manufacture. Producing cement using a machine imported from Australia did not require skilled labour, which meant that Ogilvy could use unskilled, non-Unionised farmhands from Sizewell to whom he could get away with paying low wages. Ogilvy paid just four pence an hour to the workers who dug the Meare, the centrepiece of his commercial vision. Like Letchworth, the land on which Thorpeness was built was owned by one man. All its houses were owned by the building company and sold as leasehold. Most bungalows, houses and flats were leased on a short-term basis, remaining empty in the winter.

I visited Thorpeness during the Easter weekend, as part of a long walk up the coast towards Minsmere and back through the Sizewell Belts. I don’t suppose it has changed much in the last hundred years. It remains out of keeping with the local area (even with Aldeburgh, an eccentric town a couple of miles down the road), and one does not get the feeling that it has many permanent residents. The golfing fraternity dominates, and the whole scene recalls, or tries to preserve, an almost feudal hierarchy. It is, most likely, terribly popular with Freemasons as well as golfers. People know their place and forelocks are symbolically tugged.

And what of the buildings themselves? Ogilvy rather fancied his talents as an architect, and to be fair, he immersed himself in the surprisingly rational design of the village. His approach was overwhelmingly Mock Jacobean (the village is stuffed to its gills with gables and eaves and decorative columns), with dashes of Mock Tudor, and soaked in local vernacular styles.



So the Workmen’s Club, which the paternalistic Ogilvy built for local workers so that they could be integrated into the village (though he never admitted it, Ogilvy needed to preserve a certain amount of solidarity to keep the otherwise transient nature of the village together), looks rather like an old Suffolk barn.

The Almhouses were based on Hampton Court (note the choppy eaves, suggesting that the houses are older than they really are).


There is a golf course and a strangely muted golf club, which is very appropriate, for just as golf is played in the pretend-countryside, Thorpeness is a pretend-village.


The holiday homes are more Suffolky in style, but each has a neurotic little folly or figure to mark it out from the crowd: the diagonal chimney on the Haven houses, the asymmetrical roofs of the Whinlands.




There are two, equally weird towers in Thorpeness. The Westbar water tower, a horribly kitsch Mock Tudor confection in Westgate (itself a flurry of architectural styles, spanning the centuries, spinning round a Gothic core) dominates the village.


More surreally charming is the Gazebo, better known as the House in the Clouds. The gazebo, described as “a monstrous pigeoncote” by the Sunday Referee, was once part of a network which supplied water to Thorpeness. It was linked up to a shortish, stoutish, rather marvellous windmill.



The gazebo, like so much of Thorpeness, is now a luxury holiday home. But should you choose to visit the mill, you will be shown around by my father, who defies Health and Safety regulations by working a six hour shift without an onsite toilet. He will tell you all about this overlooked Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and if you mention me by name he may even give you a free poster (he gave me three!).

(asterisked photos, and much more information about Thorpeness, can be found within this very detailed long essay)

Sunday, April 19, 2009


David Harvey:

The total economy back in, say, 1750 was about $135 billion. It was $4 trillion by the time you get to 1950. It’s $40 trillion by the time you get to 2000. It’s now $56 trillion. If it doubles in the next ten years, we’re talking about $100 trillion. And by 2030, you’re going to have to find three trillion [...] profitable opportunities for capital to operate at that point.

Now, there are limits [...] and I think we’re hitting those limits environmentally, socially, politically. And I think it’s time we started really thinking about an alternative. In other words, we have to think about a zero-growth economy

And that means [...] it has to be non-capitalist, because that means there’s not going to be any profit around for anybody to have. In effect, you’re going to have to have a nonprofit economy.

Interview with David Harvey on Democracy Now! here.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


I'm not devout, but I will say a little prayer to somebody on Easter Monday. I usually watch University Challenge on Mondays, but lately I have been learning to tango instead. Each class lasts three hours. and the whole business is thoroughly regrettable for all concerned. My feet aren' usually fleet, and I tend to walk down stairs like a hunchback, even though I am less than 5'10". My coordination is deplorable, and my hiccupping movements lack any semblance of purpose.

Nevertheless, DV is rather good and we all agree that, while she does not take direction well, she moves beautifully. After three lessons my ocho cortado is beginning to pass muster, and though there was nobody around to see them, my pivots across the linoleum floor today weren't bad. I'd be lying if I said these lessons were fun (on the contrary, they are often hellish), but I think we're making progress. Still, thank God there's no class on Easter Monday.

The Old Guard style of tango brings me out in a rash at the moment, but Astor Piazzolla's tango nuevo is something else. It's impossible to overstate Piazzolla's contribution to twentieth century music: his popularity comes from his embrace of the avant-garde, and from his inscription of Modernism (influenced by his heroes Stravinsky and Bartok) into tango, which had until the 1950s been steeped in tradition and orthodoxy. Before he wrote "Adios Nonino," Piazzolla had been playing his bandoneon to Argentine cabaret audiences, which is only one step up from playing Widow Twanky at Great Yarmouth.

When I met [Nadia Boulanger], I showed her my kilos of symphonies and sonatas. She started to read them and suddenly came out with a horrible sentence: "It's very well written." And stopped, with a big period, round like a soccer ball. After a long while, she said: "Here you are like Stravinsky, like Bartók, like Ravel, but you know what happens? I can't find Piazzolla in this." And she began to investigate my private life: what I did, what I did and did not play, if I was single, married, or living with someone, she was like an FBI agent! And I was very ashamed to tell her that I was a tango musician. Finally I said, "I play in a night club." I didn't want to say cabaret. And she answered, "Night club, mais oui, but that is a cabaret, isn't it?" "Yes," I answered, and thought, "I'll hit this woman in the head with a radio...." It wasn't easy to lie to her.

She kept asking: "You say that you are not pianist. What instrument do you play, then?" And I didn't want to tell her that I was a bandoneon player, because I thought, "Then she will throw me from the fourth floor." Finally, I confessed and she asked me to play some bars of a tango of my own. She suddenly opened her eyes, took my hand and told me: "You idiot, that's Piazzolla!" And I took all the music I composed, ten years of my life, and sent it to hell in two seconds.

—Astor Piazzolla, A Memoir

This mini-symphony for the bandoneon is about as far from Gardel as it is possible to get while remaining true to tango.

Héctor Roberto Chavero Aramburo, better known as Atahualpa Yupanqui, was Argentina's most important folk singer and musical ethnographer. He died a mere six weeks before Piazzolla in 1992, but Atahualpa was an important musical and political figure by the 1930s, actively promoting Latin American unity and supporting Yrigoyen against right-wing terror groups. Atahualpa starred in the classic Argentine rockumentary Argentinisima, and this no-holds-barred warning about the dangers of writing fine words about parsnips which have not been buttered ("Vive junto con el pueblo; no lo mires desde afuera, que lo primero es el hombre, y lo segundo, poeta") is from that film:

Skipping forward half a decade in time and several lifetimes in style, Vox Dei were one of the biggest rock bands in Argentina in the early 1970s, and in 1971 they released the country's first homegrown concept album, modestly titled La Biblia. The album's Wikipedia entry describes it as "hard-psycho" - the whole LP is available on Youtube, and it is indeed a thumping concoction. My Spanish isn't quite up to translating the lyrics, and with song-titles like "Genesis," "Cristo y Nacimiento," and "Cristo Muerte y Resurreccion," that's probably just as well. But fans of hard, offhand proggish-rock should seek out La Biblia immediately - it's the equal of anything Purple or Sabbath or Floyd produced in this period - seriously ("Moises," in particular, is a dream of a track). This is "Las guerras" - it rocks like a bastard and the video has footage of a moderner-than-now Buenos Aires from the 70s:

More Argentine psych here.

Friday, April 10, 2009


Even those not present at the G20 protests on 1st April can now reconstruct the events which led to the death of Ian Tomlinson from reading eyewitness testimonies and watching videos filmed by bystanders.

In the weeks leading up to the demos, the Met had whipped up a storm, which was duly parroted by the media, by predicting that packs of violent demonstrators would be baying for blood, and that the the Police must therefore use unprecedented tactics to control them. The public were encouraged to be scared, and the Police have been drilled to respond to protestors with force.

By seven pm, the Police had been trying to manage the demonstrations around the Bank of England for several hours. A large group of protestors, most of whom acted peacefully during the day, were now being "kettled" around the Bank - trapped in a small space without food, water or toilets until they boil. The Police, pumped up with fear and aggression, had stopped differentiating between violent and non-violent members of the public. They had beaten and clubbed many people as the evening set in (as they were instructed to do), and police dogs had been set on people perceived as troublemakers.

Ian Tomlinson left his news-vendor friend just after seven and walked down King William Street. Seeing the kettled protestors blocking his way, he cut through to Cornhill Street. Wearing jeans and a grey long-sleeved top with a purple t-shirt over the top, he didn't present as a well man. He looked vulnerable as he shuffled along with his hands in his pockets, and we now know that Mr Tomlinson was a recovering alcoholic who had recently been living in temporary accommodation in a hostel. He passed a group of police officers. We don't know if words are exchanged, but the video taken by the American fund manager shows that Mr Tomlinson did nothing provocative - he was simply trying to get home.

An officer, who had removed the ID number from his shoulder and had donned a balaclava, suddenly hit Mr Tomlinson with a baton for no apparent reason, and then lunged at him, pushing him forcefully with both hands. Mr Tomlinson fell to the ground, banging his head hard against the concrete. Two bystanders helped Mr Tomlinson to his feet, while a group of policemen looked on. Mr Tomlinson stumbled away, apparently concussed, and collapsed again three minutes later on St Michael's Alley. Some bystanders moved towards Mr Tomlinson to help him, but were pushed away by police. A member of the public phoned the emergency services, but the police refused to get involved. Contrary to a police statement released later that evening, no attempt was made to obstruct the progress of police medics, and the majority of protestors were angry at the few who threw missiles. The second video shows that by this time all police officers in the vicinity had pulled their black masks halfway up their faces to conceal their identity. Very shortly afterwards, Mr Tomlinson had a fatal heart-attack.

The witness statements and videos (another film, shown by Channel 4 news, shows the attack from a different angle) corroborate this account of events. The video evidence, in particular, is unambiguous. But it is an account completely at odds with the insipid police statement released at 11.30pm that evening, four hours after Mr Tomlinson died, in which no mention was made of the police officer throwing Ian Tomlinson to the ground, and in which the obstruction faced by police medics was grossly exaggerated. Why did the Police leave it so long to release a statement? Why did they fail to mention the assault? Why did they lie about protestors throwing bottles?

One supposes that the police had had a rough day - they had been fired up by the situation and by the preparation they had received from their superiors. A policeman assaulted a man who clearly wasn't a city worker (and was therefore, by the police's own dehumanising logic, a possible menace), pushed him to the ground, and then continued to assault him. His colleagues did not try to stop him, and presumably felt more loyalty and compassion for him than for Mr Tomlinson. We don't know if the second group of officers knew that Tomlinson had been assaulted by one of their own, but they refused to let bystanders intervene and waited for the medics to arrive. The cover-up began that evening with a statement which at best was misleading, and at worst contained untruths designed to smear the very protestors who had attempted to help.

There is no need to comment on this story. It speaks for itself. Upwards of 900 comments have been left on this article, but there is no room for debate. We know, either anecdotally or through experience, that the Police use violence against the public. They usually get away with it, and would have done again - but this time, through the clarity of video, we can see this incident from start to finish. All that remains for the individuals concerned is to establish whether there was a link between the assault on Mr Tomlinson and his subsequent. If there is, a manslaughter charge must be brought.

As for the institution, it will be investigated by the Indepedent Police Complaints Commission, whose record for upholding complaints and pressing charges is abysmal. Prior to launching their criminal investigation, the IPCC had virtually given up on the story, telling media outlets that there was nothing in the Guardian's footage. The Police will not be reformed, but at least now we can all watch the reality of Police work.

Friday, April 03, 2009


As comebacks go, the return of Karl Marx has been pretty impressive. Sales of Capital have increased exponentially in recent months and in November many German bookshops sold out completely. In Japan, too, there has been a fictional revival in Marxist thought. But the most interesting place for this resurgence is China, where academics are rediscovering the works of Marx and Mao and where Capital: the Musical is hitting the big stage.

Since Mao's death, the PRC’s economy has undergone a revolutionary restructure. Given the size of the country and its population, this transformation from rural-collectivist to urban-capitalist is barely comprehensible. The four faces on the cover of David Harvey's Brief History of Neoliberalism are Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Augusto Pinochet and Deng Xiaoping, and Deng is perhaps the greatest cheerleader of them all (his reputation for pragmatism glosses over his steely determination to marketise China).

Politically, the CCP's rejection of Marxism has been more gradual and more subtle. On the one hand, since Hu Yaobang’s admission in 1984 that Marxism could not solve all of China's problems, politicians have renounced Marx's critique of capitalism outright (though they have kept the Leninist party structure). Yet, if China is arguably now the most extreme capitalist country in the world, why is Mao still defended and excused? Why does his portrait still stand in Tiananmen Square? And why does most of the Chinese government still consider itself Marxist?


Zizek suggests that, just as the Maoist call for young Red Guards to rebel paved the way for capitalism, Marxism is promoted in order to anchor the Chinese state, to provide a theoretical platform for capitalist development. This is not Zizek being perverse - when Deng launched his reform programme in the early 1980s, he placed it within an explicitly Marxist framework ("Our experience in the twenty years from 1958 to 1978," he said in 1985, "teaches us that poverty is not socialism, that socialism means eliminating poverty. Unless you are developing the productive forces and raising living standards, you cannot say that you are building socialism."). His successor Jiang Zemin followed the same line, arguing that China needed rapid economic development to reach a higher state of socialism.

OPPOSE ECONOMISM (Shanghai, 1967)

The reformers eventually (in the early 1990s) seized power by portraying themselves as the true heirs of Karl Marx, playing on the belief that the Chinese people had been cheated out of genuine Marxism-Leninism, and claiming that elements within the Party itself were the main obstacles to achieving socialism. While Mao rejected Deng's economic determinism and opted for perpetual social and cultural revolution, his methods were similar: he, Mao, was the true socialist, and the only way for the Chinese people to live in a truly socialist society was to purge the Party of the germs (known as the Four Olds) which infected it. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution may have a lot to answer for, but one of its most positive legacies is a real search for "genuine Marxism-Leninism" which persists to this day.

In his superb book on modern China, The Changing Face of China, John Gittings describes the influence of the Cultural Revolution on the Democracy Movement of the late 1970s. The Movement itself was sparked by Deng’s defence of the protests which followed Zhou Enlai’s funeral in 1976. These had been put down by the Gang of Four and Mao’s anointed successor, Hua Guofeng, and the Movement’s belief that Gang elements still existed throughout all tiers of government helped Deng to portray himself as the purger of the Party.

The Cultural Revolution had produced two truly influential texts: the Shengwulien group's programme for a People's Commune of China entitled "Whither China" and the Li Yizhe group's "On socialist democracy and legality," which accused the Party of acting like a "feudal social-fascist dictatorship". These critiques of the Party's monopoly of power, and China’s consequence plunge into Stalinism were the starting point for the Democracy Movement and provided a critical framework which, unlike the disparate programmes of the late 1980s, was explicitly Marxist. Revolutionary dazibaos (large character posters) and pamphlets began to appear across Beijing, all hanging on the question: which Marxism?

The Classical Marxists – Lu Min, Gao Jimin, Gong Ren, and Wang Xizhe from the Li Yizhe group – said that it was a mistake to attack individual bureaucrats, as the Left had done, without tackling the hierarchical structures which alienated public officials from the people they were supposed to serve. The old cadre system had survived the Communist takeover, but had severely compromised the Communist vision. The Chinese people had become rudderless, and the Party had become a bureaucratic husk.

Other neo-Marxists drew together a synthesis of historical materialism and bourgeois liberalism by arguing that China, by missing an historic stage in its leap from the war-torn feudalism of the Kuomintang to the all-out socialism of the Communists, had failed to benefit from the progressive institutions of democracy.


Drawing on Marx and Lenin, they proposed a new political system along the lines of the Paris Commune where officials are publicly elected and receive salaries correspondent to those of the workers. The very ordinariness of these proposals – where elections ensure that holders of official posts are competent and answerable, rather than select representational governments – were at odds with the personality cults of the Mao era. Indeed, their orthodoxy suggested that they offered a corrective to the counter-revolutionary Leftist deviation. Referring to Leftists, sacred Maos and more contemporary leaders, the Kexue Minzhu Fazhi journal even demanded the Chinese people’s right to recall:

Strictly speaking from legal point of view, all leaders, Chairman Mao, Premier Zhou, Chairman Hua, Deng Xiaoping… all could be recalled from office. Please comrades, do not get agitated. It just is like this in theory without any possibility of confusion. If it would not be like this, the people would lose its sole weapon in the struggle, as the Cultural Revolution demonstrated.

- Kexue Minzhu Fazhi, “On modernisations”, 1979


Of course, this was too much for Deng, who in any case had achieved his objective of out-manoeuvring the Maoists. In 1980, Deng cancelled the right to displays dazibaos, and not long after the Wall was moved from the centre of the city to a quiet suburb in the West, it was closed down altogether. Many dissenters were arrested, charged as being counter-revolutionary elements, and imprisoned. John Gittings tells the story of Xu Wenli, who was sentenced to 15 years in jail on the back of duff evidence.

Xu’s generation still believed in the power of selfless action: in his “self-defence” he quoted the last words of the Copernican Giordano Bruno before being burnt at the stake for denying the myth of the Deluge. [His account] ends appropriately with Xu’s invocation of the first dissenting martyrs of the Cultural Revolution: Yu Luoke, Zhang Zhixin, and Wang Shenyou. “In comparison with the great figures, these household names,” he wrote, “I am merely a minor counter-revolutionary element – uninformed, and of little learning or scholarship.” But he hoped that his would be the last generation which needed to join their struggle. It was certainly the last to engage in a struggle still grounded ideologically in Marxist thinking and with the declared intention of defending and improving socialism in China.

Gittings's book was published in 2005, when China's export-driven economy was at its peak, and when capitalism's victory over socialism appeared definitive. But, in the words of the dazibao at the G20 demo the other day, you spend decades trying to destroy capitalism, and then it goes and destroys itself. If growth falls beneath the magic figure of 8%, and unemployment rises much above 4.5%, and if Chinese workers can link up with each other and their comrades around the world (a very, very, very big "if" indeed, since China's labour organisation is crippled), the yawning gap of alienation which still characterises the Party's relationship with the people could become untenable.

In years ending in 9, there is a long tradition of revolutionary unrest in China (the Boxer Rebellion of 1899, the May Fourth Movement in 1919, the Communist takeover in 1949, the Tibetan uprising in 1959, the Democracy Movement in 1979, the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and massacre in 1989). What will 2009 hold for the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people?

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


In the early 19th century, the post-independence President of Paraguay, Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, passed a law forbidding any person from gazing at the Presidential palace and its police forces. Anybody caught looking in the direction of the Palace was shot on sight.

Protestors at today's G20 conference might like to see if staring too hard at one of her Majesty's rozzers carries the same penalty.

Meanwhile, here's another reason why people are gathering outside the Bank of England today: the buy-to-let debacle, another symptom of amoral finance (a burst bubble which Homo Ludens, with its Cassandra-like speculative powers, predicted 18 months ago).