Sunday, November 29, 2009


"The course notes contained a detail which at first reading had escaped me, namely, that the so tender and delicate zinc, so yielding to acid which gulps it down in a single mouthful behaves, however, in a very different fashion when it is very pure: then it obstinately resists attack. One could draw from this two conflicting philosophical conclusions: the praise of purity, which protects from evil like a coat of mail; the praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life."

Primo Levi, "Zinc" from The Periodic Table

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Having just watched Synth Britannia, I don’t recall a ‘pop history’ with such an engaged set of participants. Although the founding synth-punks were generally unaware of each other's existence and scattered across England's industrial cities, there are a clear sets of cultural and historical inspirations for this most sustained period of experimental, popular music.

Ballard; Burgess; Burroughs; brutalism; Tangerine Dream; Moroder & Summer; Rolands; Korgs; Yamahas; and, most of all, Kraftwerk. The early synthers were electronic punks, prepared to meld that movement’s DIY ethos and agitative politics with the alienation of sci-fi and of the declining industrial cities in which they made music. The latter synthers were electronic soul boys and girls, masters of ice and fire, where the synthesizer became a one-man orchestra and the singer’s heart was worn on his or her sleeve. The bridge between these two stages was Gary Numan, whose breakthrough single with Tubeway Army reached number 1 six weeks after the 1979 general election.

Funny how you can pinpoint the transition between post-war settlement and neoliberalism almost to the day. Callaghan is in power – there is a winter of discontent – Richard Kirk and Chris Carter buy build machines from kits to make apocalyptic soundscapes – we know these experiments (social democracy, Vorticist pop) are doomed to fail, but it’s hard not to see them as Utopian. Late 70s Britain and late 80s East Germany – both are inherently lacking, compromised by what they have sown, corrupted from the start. And yet, both hold a promise, a promise of something that could Really Exist.

Fast-forward to 3 May 1979, and the promise is broken. Fast-forward to 30 June 1979 – the boy who makes no bones about wanting to be a pop star is at number 1 with “Are friends electric” and the Human League threaten to call it a day. Politically, economically and culturally, these dates signify the end of what should have been and the beginning of what is.


Throbbing Gristle and John Foxx could not to let the passing of an era dissuade them from making incessant, spectral records which haunt the new world order (in 79/80, and still today). Foxx’s Metamatic is music for a lost London, a city where docks and manufacturing industry had vanished, where underpasses, plazas and burned-out cars scarred the glassy, greasy, greedy landscape. It also recalls a childhood spent in post-war Lancashire:

I used to travel by bus a lot when I was a kid, and I used to look out of these windows and see these gaps in the buildings, and overgrown places where we used to play, that had been bomb sites. The war seemed a long time before that, it seemed like ancient history to us, but of course it was only five years, really, or maybe a little bit longer, but not much — ten years at most.

And then the other layers of ruins, where I grew up in the north-west, when factories were closing down, and we used to play in the factory buildings, enormous buildings, and they became overgrown, and I used to walk into the offices and see all the paperwork. I remember seeing paperwork with brambles growing out of it, because they’d decayed so much that it was able to support another form of life. I remember thinking how, all the accounts were written by hand, and I remember thinking how interesting it was that someone would spend their life on this stuff, and now it is just fodder for a blackberry bush growing out of it.

Like Ballard’s Concrete Island, Metamatic eulogises “the unintended, forgotten, abjected corners of town planning,” the bombed-out tabulae rasae for the Modern Movement. The album was recorded in the East End, just down the road from 10 Martello Street, where Throbbing Gristle recorded 20 Jazz Funk Greats in a subterranean studio level with the plague pits, with the lost things and forgotten dead on which the city is built.


“It was grim,” agree Cosi Fanni Tutti and Chris Carter, living among “the endless dead who, if they returned from their graves beneath the London soil, would far outnumber the living.” TG turn away from the dawn of a new era, recoiling from the post-industrial glare back to a primordial and desolate darkness. Trusting in the environment in which they live and work, they build synthesizers to remake the world, uncovering layers which have been paved over in the pursuit of progress. Under the paving stones ... the boneyard.

The world is made afresh with every generation, and evil prevails. But just as evil may justify the existence of God (for without God, where lies the root of all evil?), it also justifies Utopia. We must blame our ills on failed Utopias, so that we can seek new Utopias that can redeem us. The end of history cannot be. We need new creations to deliver the justice denied by the present.

Saturday, November 07, 2009


From Left Turn:

Royal Mail always make promises to negotiate with the union, like they did in the deal they agreed in 2007, and then they ignore them and impose 'executive action'. They lie. By agreeing to postpone industrial action until next year, the union are throwing away all the momentum built up through the sacrifices postal workers have made up to now, especially those involved in local disputes in London and elsewhere, as well as throwing away the best chance of making strike action effective by doing it at the busiest time of the year.

More here.

Thursday, November 05, 2009


"The assault on post workers is a sign of things to come." You wouldn't know it from reading the papers or watching the news, but the postal strike has brought industrial action back into common currency. The strikes planned for tomorrow and Monday may have been called off, but it seems likely that this is a postponement rather than a cancellation.

DV noted the other evening how odd it is that the only vaguely mainstream media outlet which is covering the postal workers' side of the story is the London Review of Books. A BBC News report this week depicted the dispute as if it was between two equally culpable sides, with the Unions inevitably coming out as the more loggerheaded of the two. There is very little inquisition into what the Royal Mail's management mean by "modernisation," nor any challenge to its claim that the number of letters and packages they handle each day is down (a conclusion they have reached largely by fiddling the figures).

In September, "Roy Mayall" debunked the "figures are down" myth:

People don’t send so many letters any more, it’s true. But, then again, the average person never did send all that many letters. They sent Christmas cards and birthday cards and postcards. They still do. And bills and bank statements and official letters from the council or the Inland Revenue still arrive by post; plus there’s all the new traffic generated by the internet: books and CDs from Amazon, packages from eBay, DVDs and games from LoveFilm, clothes and gifts and other items purchased at any one of the countless online stores which clutter the internet, bought at any time of the day or night, on a whim, with a credit card.

According to Royal Mail figures published in May, mail volume declined by 5.5 per cent over the preceding 12 months, and is predicted to fall by a further 10 per cent this year ‘due to the recession and the continuing growth of electronic communications such as email’. Every postman knows these figures are false. If the figures are down, how come I can’t get my round done in under four hours any more? How come I can work up to five hours at a stretch without time for a sit-down or a tea break? How come my knees nearly give way with the weight I have to carry? How come something snapped in my back as I was climbing out of the shower, so that I fell to the floor and had to take a week off work?

Royal Mail has become unprofitable because much of its activities have already been privatised. TNT, for example, have a lucrative contract with BT, where they collect BT's mail, deliver it to Royal Mail's offices, where it is sorted and then delivered by Royal Mail staff. For Royal Mail, who do most of the work, this is not a profitable contract. In other words, "if ‘figures are down’ that doesn’t mean that volume is down."

Royal Mail has responded with redundancies, a flurry of initiatives to get employees to take on more and more office and delivery work for the same pay, and a carving-up of jobs so that part-time and casual (non-unionised) staff gradually replace full-time workers. Those who don't comply with the management's directives become the victims of bullying:

“They started me on the new walk earlier this year. When I realised that it could not be done in the time allotted, I followed procedure and rang my manager to explain. I said that there was too much mail and that the route made no sense. But they didn’t want explanations. They’re just like some of the teachers I had at school – they’re just bullies. When I got back to my office the top manager shouted, ‘I want him in the office. Now!’.”

A letter in this fortnight's LRB describes the Royal Mail's new walks. They have reduced the number of delivery walks, but made them much longer. Christmas means that the bulk of mail delivered on a particular walk increases, which means staff face the double-whammy of a mailbag so heavy it becomes unsafe to carry, and a walk which is so long that they cannot complete their round until 7 or 8 o'clock in the evening. Royal Mail has stopped paying overtime, so whatever hours a postie is forced to work to complete his excessive round, s/he will only get paid a basic salary.

The LRB correspondent suggests that Royal Mail is being wilfully hostile towards its staff because it wants to replace them with casual (non-unionised) workers. It has certainly (and probably illegally) embraced the idea of a scab workforce. Neither Labour nor Tories have any time for a public Royal Mail - even though experience shows that privatisation causes unprofitability and redundancies, it remains the plan for the Royal Mail. A Tory Councillor in Ipswich has even drafted the staff of his firm "Experience Connect" to join anti-strike protests.

Maybe I'm being naive, but you would have thought the Mirror would have covered the dispute in a bit more detail. The Guardian have published a number of pretty mealy-mouthed pieces. For anybody who places a grain of faith in the idea of justice, taking sides in this dispute is a no-brainer. Yet the Socialist Worker and the LRB are alone in supporting the postal workers.

The strikes are off for now - but where does this leave us? As Seamus Milne wrote last month,

The test will come in the next few days: do Royal Mail managers, and the ministers behind them, want a deal to give a more progressive future for a popular public service – or a self-defeating, confected confrontation with one of the strongest workforces in the public sector? We'll know soon enough.