(excluding ones about The Cramps, that is)
Sukhdev Sandu – Night Haunts: A journey through the London night (Artangel/Verso 2007)
Sukhdev gave Woofah a nice review in New Statesman and this book came highly recommended by History Is Made At Night amongst others. Each chapter is meander through the life of a particular aspect of London’s night – taxi drivers, Samaritans, cleaners, nuns, sleep researchers, exorcists and police inna helicopter. There is a literary/poetic blurriness to it all which I like very much, as well as some good sideswipes at the New Labour project. “The side of London that the tourists never see…”
Lynsey Hanley – Estates: An Intimate History (Granta, 2007)
Lynsey grew up on an estate near Birmingham and this combines her account of growing up there (and escaping) with a well observed social history of council housing in the UK.
It’s a thorny tale of politicians, architects and planners whose schemes (no matter how well-meaning) end up as political footballs which are kicked about and then consigned to the dustbin. Hanley makes the point that the overwhelming majority of these professionals will never live in their creations and that this inevitably leads (at best!) to a class-based short-sightedness.
Hanley is especially cutting about the architect Le Corbusier and his disciples, and their construction of concrete “streets in the sky” which are intended to be “machines for living”. This is topical again now that some architects are calling for the preservation of Robin Hood Gardens in East London, against the wishes of its residents.
It’s not all social policy though, there are a load of anecdotes from her own life and other estate dwellers, as well as a mention of topics such as psychogeography and the classist bullshit such as the “pram face/council facelift” phenomena emanating from Popbitch, the gossip e-newsletter edited by Oxbridge graduates.
Overall though, Estates is a story of the early idealism of “housing for all” being poorly implemented and then fucked over by market forces.
James Surowiecki – The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than The Few (Little, Brown 2004)
A fascinating book which overcomes its “business/psychology” category to reveal some crucial points about creativity. The thesis is essentially that collaboration trumps “genius” and what the ultra-left call “the myth of the great man”. This is especially useful for me as it counteracts some of the elitist individualism of some of yer social darwinist neofolkers. Indeed the author begins by considering (and providing evidence to reject) the ideas of Gustave Le Bon, someone who is much loved by Boyd Rice.
The overall slant is geared towards people who have control over the placement of staff or resources (with the general advice that “silo” working with specialists is counter-productive is most cases) but don’t let that put you off.
Drew Daniel – 20 Jazz Funk Greats (Continuum 2008)
Part of the 33 1/3 series in which seminal albums are written about in depth, the essays appearing in cute pocket books. This one is about a Throbbing Gristle album, a group who have always had interesting things to say.
At times this gets too much into the musicality and equipment rather than the context (you will probably have noticed that I rarely write about the actual notes, noises and chord progressions of things I cover here). But there is a great deal of interesting information about the people involved from their own mouths, and the times in which the album was made (for example there is an extended conversation about the parliamentary politics of the time and Thatcher being elected in 1979).
As Daniel notes in his introduction, anything on da Gristle is overshadowed by Simon Ford’s definitive Wreckers of Civilisation, but to my mind this has allowed him to do away with too much background stuff and focus on specifics. I especially enjoyed the discussion of the photo shoot for the cover at Beachy Head and how the album was designed to confound the expectations of the increasingly camo uniform-ed TG fanbase. Other highlights include Cosey offering up a musical and clothing set list from her days as a stripper, plus some discussions about disco, Martin Denny and Nic Roeg. Genesis P-Orridge is on good form as ever.
On the downside, I wasn’t exactly thrilled by the following exchange:
Drew: “What about the taped [voices] on ‘Persuasion'”
Sleazy: “I’d have to listen to it again. There are some recordings that I made of a friend of ours who was a pedophile in LA but I don’t think I had them at the time. I don’t think I used them until the first Coil album [which was released in 1984 – JE]. […] Actually I have a feeling that this guy sent some tapes of him and some ten-year old boy or something, and the boy was just laughing basically, just giggling and screaming and stuff, but there was nothing sinister about the activity on the tape, it’s just that it became sinister in that context. I was very interested in how people’s perceptions change as a consequence of context. […] The guy who I’m talking about had to leave the US in a hurry in 1982 and then moved to Amsterdam and then had to leave Amsterdam in a hurry in the late eighties I think.
Drew: “Even though the recording that you used doesn’t constitute a document of pedophilia.
Sleazy: “No, and I wouldn’t have included it if it had. It’s just a context thing. Everything’s to do with context.”
I wonder what context would lead a pedophile to have to move in a hurry on two occasions? And where that ten year old boy is now? And if he has heard the record
Monsieur Dupont – Nihilist Communism: A critique of optimism – the religious dogma that states there will be an ultimate triumph of good over evil – in the far left (2003)
Dupont is the collective pseudonym for a pair of UK based left-communists. The Monsieurs’ thorough critique has forced them into a completely new area of cynical reflection. I’ve mentioned their work in passing before on here and this work takes their black humour and unabashed iconoclasm to a new level.
Key aspects would be include rejection of the role of class consciousness in revolution (and consequent rejection of the role of political parties who seek to transmit this consciousness to potential revolutionaries), and also a jettisoning of Marx’s “stages theory” which suggests that revolution leading to communism is an inevitability. Their message to hectic political activists is “do nothing”, which has obviously caused a certain amount of friction with people who are doing a great deal.
That probably makes it sound dull, though, which it isn’t. Whether or not you agree with the ideas being put forward (and I only agree with some of them), they are all argued in an entertaining and coherent fashion.
Michael Billig – Psychology, Racism & Fascism (Searchlight 1979)
An intriguing and critical look at “scientific racism” and the adoption of Eysenck’s ideas on race and IQ by the National Front and others.
Jason Toynbee – Bob Marley: Herald of a Postcolonial World? (Polity, 2007)
The cover just says “Bob Marley” but you’re only a few pages in when a torrent of academic methodology is unleashed. Admittedly the author does ask non-academics to skip Chapter 1, but like a fool I didn’t and soon got lost in a wilderness of Critical Realism, Agency, Bourdieu and the ‘transformational model of social activity’ or TMSA. And y’know, I don’t shy away from things with big words and footnotes in them!
If you take the man’s advice and pass over Chapter 1, you are into a pretty good account of Bob Marley’s life and ascendance to become “the only third world superstar”.
It is a thought provoking book which avoids trainspottery tick lists of facts and instead asks some new questions about Marley’s role as an icon after his death, and as a celebrity in which many saw messianic or political answers during his life.
There are some good observations. A section on the differences between Island-era Marley and JA reggae places the glossy stereo “Get Up Stand Up” against Dennis Brown’s rawer “Westbound Train” and asks:
“Why bother with chord changes when you can produce spine-tingling tension simply by bringing up the echo, or shifting your voice through twenty-five shades of mellifluousness?”
Whilst I think the book is positive and affectionate, the author doesn’t hold back from criticising the Myth of Bob, for example:
“Jamaican democratic socialism represents an illuminating contrast with Marley’s own politics in which advocacy of radical social change was combined with rejection of the sort of practical measures which might achieve it.”
Well worth checking if you are interested in the politics of reggae music, but a bit heavy going for me.
Anti-Fascist Action – Heroes or Villians? (1998)
A timeline of militant (i.e physical) British anti-fascism from 1933 until 1992. It’s inspiring stuff, the audacity of some of the anti-fascists should bring a smile to everyone except hardline pacifists. There are also some moments of wonderful black humour:
Michael Napier was fined £30 for punching John Tyndall in the face at a counter- demonstration against the NF in Edinburgh last year. His defence – “I was justified in hitting him six million times over. He has in the past committed himself to the extermination of thousands of Jews. My very mild blow cannot be compared with the gigantic crime he wishes to perpetrate.”
The introduction sets the scene (in some ways the text is a response to AFA being banned from holding its International Conference at Camden Town Hall on the grounds that it was prepared to use force against fascist groups) and is at pains to point out that the pamphlet is not designed to glorify violence. It asks the question: “At which point in this continuous tradition of confrontation do you draw the line and say physical opposition to fascism is no longer acceptable?
Daryl Davis – Klandestine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan (Vision, 2000)
Davis is a Grammy award winning blues guitarist who became obsessed with the Klan and decided to find out as much as possible about them. He ended up meeting up with various Klan members and even befriending some of them.
The book includes a fair bit of information on the origins of the Klan and the differences between various factions (including the fairly arbitrary membership criteria – whether or not native American Indians or catholics are allowed to join seems to vary the most) and some heated situations when Klan members are asked to explain their views and contradictory viewpoints. Davis always arranges his meetings with KKK members by phone which leads to some confusion when his interviewees meet him and discover he is black. Needless to say, some of the Klan’s most racist members have never really had anything to do with a black man before.
The author’s Christianity means that all of this is undertaken in the spirit of forgiveness and brotherhood, which provides for a few eyebrow raising moments. Having been a victim of racist policing, he is surprised that sometimes the Klan don’t get a fair deal from the cops either and this initiates a slightly unnerving sub plot in which he basically argues for civil liberties for organised racists. For example when he invites a Klan acquaintance along unannounced to a TV chatshow about racism, Davis is outraged when the Klan member is refused entry when his identity is discovered. Davis refers to this incident as “racism in the making”.
That aside the book is a worthwhile contribution to understanding the roots of racism in America and kudos to the author for putting himself in difficult situations during his quest. It seems to have paid off as well, his moderating voice leading some people to quit the Klan and others to reign in the white supremacist aspects of what they are doing.