Category Archives: Culture

Book review. Don’t Hold My Head Down: In Search Of Some Brilliant Fucking by Lucy-Anne Holmes

Book review. Don’t Hold My Head Down: In Search Of Some Brilliant Fucking by Lucy-Anne Holmes
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
February-March 2020

‘If feels like we’re always talking about it, but never really talking about it’, British author Lucy-Anne Holmes observes about sex.

After reading her very funny and very explicit sex memoir, I can safely say no one will ever accuse Holmes of not discussing sex ever again!

The book starts with Holmes, circa her mid-30s, coming to the realisation her whole sexual history has been full of usually drunken, sometimes painful, ultimately dissatisfying sex – what she calls ‘normal, slightly porny sex’.

She pledges to seek out better, ‘beautiful sex’, centred on her own sexual pleasure and not that of her male partners. This journey takes her to sex festivals and sex parties, workshops on Pussy Worship and Female Erotic Leadership, navigating an open relationship and exploring BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission and sadism and masochism).

Accessible and hugely relatable with many laugh out loud moments, Holmes deftly weaves practical sex tips and serious arguments and concepts around the often Bridget Jones-level farcical situations she gets into, including complex ideas of consent (‘an ongoing conversation, liable to change at any point’) and Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent.

She rarely mentions the word, but feminism – the liberal, ‘sex-positive’ kind – underpins the whole book. Holmes was, after all, the founder of the successful No More Page 3 campaign in the early 2010s. For example, she links her body hatred and low-confidence to growing up in a patriarchal society, and ends with a humorous, though pointed potted Herstory of Women and Sex.

While many feminist activists will love Don’t Hold My Head Down, I think the book is most useful in  introducing feminism and feminist framing about sex, relationships and society to those who might not see themselves as being activists, or even politically active.

She makes her aim clear in her conclusion: ‘If telling this story inspires just one young woman not to feel she has to compare herself to the images she sees in magazine, or take part in sex that she feels uncomfortable with, or it inspires her to start a petition and challenge something that makes her feel small… then I feel it is a story worth telling.’

I would add one thing – men, too, have much to learn from this brilliant book. File alongside the equally vital Girl Up from Everyday Sexism’s Laura Bates.

Don’t Hold My Head Down: In Search Of Some Brilliant Fucking is published by Unbound, priced £14.99.

Best books of 2019

Best Books of 2019
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
6 December 2019

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” From its first sentence The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (Penguin Books) by US writer David Wallace-Wells is a deeply frightening book chronicling the existential threat the climate crisis poses to humanity.

He notes all the commitments made at the 2015 Paris United Nations climate summit by the 195 signatories would still mean a deadly 3.2oC of warming by 2100. If this isn’t terrifying enough, he explains that as of 2018 “not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfil the commitments it made in the Paris treaty”.

Answering Amitav Ghosh’s call for more fiction devoted to climate change, John Lanchester’s allegorical novel The Wall (Faber & Faber) considers how British society and politics could react to a climatic event called “the change”. Giving a nod to George Orwell’s 1984, Lanchester imagines a dystopian near future in which a colossal wall has been built along the entire coastline of the nation, manned by conscripted soldiers (“Defenders”) tasked with keeping out climate refugees (“The Others”) trying to get into the country.

Two other novels made an impression on me this year. Set in Chicago, Halle Butler’s The New Me (Orion) is a cutting, pathos-filled exploration of millennial work and social life, the bored and depressed female narrator is full of loathing for her work colleagues, so-called friends and, most of all, herself. Comic novelist Sam Lipsyte’s Hark (Simon & Schuster) also has a laser-like focus on the foibles and hypocrisies of contemporary Western culture, brilliantly skewing self-help gurus, hipsters, liberal parenting and mid-life crises – hell, pretty much everything and everyone is a target for satire. Rarely have I read an author where each sentence is so full of rich, imaginative language. And like the New Yorker’s 2010 novel The Ask it’s also hysterically funny, often in the most dark and delicious ways.

The new Glasgow Media Group (GMG) book Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief (Pluto Press) is an essential read for anyone interested in the accusations of antisemitism directed at the Labour Party. In addition to showing how the media have played a key role in massively exaggerating the scale of the problem, the authors provide some welcome advice on how Labour can communicate much more successfully to the general public on this crucial issue. Heavily influenced by the GMG tradition, Mike Berry’s The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan) highlights how the British print and broadcast media, including the BBC, played a key role in narrowing the national debate after the 2008 financial crisis in ways that suited elite interests.

Taken together these two books have much to teach about contemporary British politics and the hugely negative role played by the media. As US media analyst Robert McChesney succinctly put it, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.”

Documentary review: Combat Obscura directed by Miles Lagoze

Documentary review: Combat Obscura directed by Miles Lagoze
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
29 April 2019

IN 2011, Miles Lagoze deployed to the Sangin-Kajacki area of Afghanistan as a combat cameraman to shoot and edit videos for the US Marine Corps.

Those videos, shot in northern Helmand province, were “a PR tool for the military,” the 29-year old veteran told The Intercept website. With Washington keen to publicise the Afghan army taking over from US forces in the fight against the Taliban-led insurgency, his job was to document marines working with the Afghan army, “giving candy to kids — hearts-and-minds type of stuff.“

The big three no-nos were “no cursing, no shots of guys smoking cigarettes and they have to be in full gear. And then no casualties. That was a big one, not too much bloodshed.”

Lagoze did all this for the US military – and then kept filming. Combat Obscura is made up of the footage the US military didn’t want you to see.

Taking a grunt’s-eye view of the war, there are long periods of boredom interrupted by short bursts of intense, adrenaline-fuelled combat. Soldiers smoke marijuana, disrespect the local population and kill an unarmed shopkeeper.

At one point a marine aggressively waves a gun at a group of children demanding “Where’s the fucking Taliban?”

With no narration or explanation, Combat Obscura is a confusing, impressionistic take on the ongoing military occupation of Afghanistan. Yet it it highlights some uncomfortable truths for the US and British political and military establishments, with the media in tow, who initiated the war and have backed it since 2001, an incredible 18 years ago.

In one of the film’s longest scenes, a group of marines search a village for a “high-value target.” Local men are detained, photographed and fingerprinted and one US soldier is filmed shortly after taking a shit in the garden of a house.

With no arrests made, the marines hold a debrief meeting. “Are they pissed off at us?” asks one soldier. “I would be pissed,” answers his superior.

This understanding that the very presence and actions of the foreign occupying forces is likely energising the armed insurgency is not confined to US troops.

As British lieutenant Jimmy Clark explained about an operation to secure a road in northern Helmand in the 2012 BBC3 series Our War, “one of the problems, especially with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on the route 611, is that the insurgents aren’t trying to blow up the ANCOP (Afghan National Civil Order Police), or even the civilians, they are just trying to blow up us.

“So we are actually in a position where we are protecting a route which only needs protecting because we use it.”

Having experienced the war first-hand, Lagoze himself is highly critical of the US intervention. “While we were there, we created an almost uninhabitable environment for the Afghan civilians,” he told The Intercept.

“Before we were there, they were oppressed by the Taliban. While we were there, they were caught in the middle between two oppressive forces. And how many times did we bomb their houses? How many times did we mistakenly kill innocent people?”

Combat Obscura is available for viewing online, download details: combatobscura.oscilloscope.net.

Book review. The Econocracy: On the Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts

Book review. The Econocracy: On the Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts by Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 February 2018

Endorsed by Noam Chomsky and the economists Ha-Joon Chang and Martin Wolf, the publication of The Econocracy is effectively a hand grenade thrown into the middle of mainstream economic thought.

Studying economics at the University of Manchester, the three authors became disillusioned with how little their education was helping them understand the causes and aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. In response, they set up the Post-Crash Economics Society, and are now members of the Rethinking Economics network, which consists of 40 groups in 13 countries.

Their broad thesis is that economists wield a huge amount of influence in society (think of the importance the media gives to the post-budget analysis of the Institute for Fiscal Studies) but have become dangerously disconnected from the general population, with little public oversight. Furthermore, they argue that economics as it is taught in universities today means economics graduates are “grossly underprepared” to understand how the world works.

To prove this the authors conducted an indepth review of the curriculum at seven Russell Group universities, finding “a remarkable similarity in the content and structure of economic courses.” Capitalist-friendly neoclassicial economics – with its mechanistic focus on rational and self-interested individuals – dominates, as does textbook learning, theoretical models and multiple-choice questions. Frighteningly, they note the 83% of exams on economic courses at the top-ranked London School of Economics “entailed no form of critical or independent thinking whatsoever.” For the authors this amounts “to nothing less than the dictionary definition of indoctrination.” The narrowness of the curriculum is not an outcome of conspiracy, they explain, but of historical forces and a market-orientated higher education landscape in which funding, publication and career advancement is largely predicated on adhering to a single strand of limited economic thought.

Those looking for how change can be forced on this conservative world will be interested in the book’s short section detailing the growth of student groups attempting to reform the teaching of economics. Believing that economics is too important to be left to the experts, in 2015 the authors launched a pilot Community Crash-Course In Citizen Economics, a six-week evening class for interested members of the public.

Coming in at a quick 210 pages, it’s a tightly-argued, level-headed critique of the dominance of neoclassical economics. If there has been a more important book written in the last ten years about the role of economics in society I’d like to see it.

The Econocracy is published by Penguin Books, priced £9.99.

My favourite books of 2017

My favourite books of 2017
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 December 2017

Published a long twenty years since her Booker Prize winning debut novel The God Of Small Things, Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s new book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton) is a sprawling epic about contemporary India – from a guesthouse for trans women in Delhi, to grassroots protest movements and the dark arts of the intelligence services. Since her initial success, Roy has turned her attention to activist politics, eloquently questioning and criticising the government and corporate elites in her own country and across the world. These concerns worm their way into the narrative, evidenced by her vivid descriptions of India’s brutal actions in Kashmir and the perilous lives of those enduring and resisting the military occupation. Though it doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of her first book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’s ingrained left-leaning politics and its yearning friendships and romance between school friends make for an affecting literary journey.

Tom Mills’ The BBC: Myth of a Public Service (Verso) is an essential corrective to mainstream journalists and commentators blowing a gasket about fake news and alternative media. From the 1926 General Strike to the 2008 financial crisis, Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University, highlights the BBC’s long history of towing the British establishment line on key issues. The censure of the BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg by the BBC Trust for erroneously editing a 2015 interview with Jeremy Corbyn, the BBC’s shameful lack of coverage of the UK-enabled humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and the corporation’s North Korea-style coverage of Prince Harry’s recent engagement suggest little has changed.

Somewhat amateurish in its presentation, George Paxton’s Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis (YouCaxton) is nevertheless one of the most important books I’ve ever read. While Western political culture unquestionably repeats the idea that violent struggle against Nazi Germany was the only option, Paxton, a trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, tells the stories of those who non-violently resisted the Nazis in Europe. Even in the most authoritarian circumstances there was, it turns out, opportunities to challenge – and sometimes win small, but important, changes to – Nazi policies. A 1941 strike in France against food shortages involving 100,000 miners won more food coupons, while in Berlin in 1943 the non-Jewish wives of Jews protested in the street and stopped the threatened deportation of their husbands. Fascinating and inspiring in equal measure.

Book review: Tales Of Two Americas. Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation

Book review: Tales Of Two Americas. Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation edited by John Freeman
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
27 November 2017

Made up of contributions from 36 contemporary writers, Tales Of Two Americas explores what it feels like to live in the inequality-riven United States today.

As the US billionaire businessman Warren Buffett famously said in 2006, “There’s class warfare, all right but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Since the financial crash class politics have taken on a renewed importance, especially in the past couple of years. “America is broken”, editor John Freeman argues in the introduction, noting the unease created by the soul-crushing neoliberalism that has dominated US politics since the Reagan Administration “became the pivot point of the 2016 presidential election”.

Mixing short stories, journalistic essays and poems, the collection includes some literary big hitters, including Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Patchett and Richard Russo. Rebecca Solnit explores the connections between a 2014 police shooting of a Hispanic young man and the gentrification of San Francisco, while Roxanne Gay provides a piercing story of a working class woman living in oppressive circumstances, determined to escape. My favourite piece is Sandra Cisneros’s moving and eloquent love-letter – of sorts – to Chicago, where she spent her poverty-stricken childhood. “In the neighbourhoods we knew, booze was easier to find than books”, she remembers. Also impressive is Karen Russell’s long, personal account of getting on the housing ladder in the liberal city of Portland amidst some of the highest levels of street homelessness in the country.

As with any edited volume, some pieces are more memorable and insightful than others. Rather than reading it at a gallop as one would a good novel, I found myself dipping in and out of the book, savouring and considering each contribution before continuing. At the very least the book is a brilliant opportunity to discover new writers who have a deep concern for the wider social and political world.

And it’s not all doom and gloom. In-between all the misery, violence, wasted talent, resignation and desperation highlighted by the authors, chinks of hope shine through. Fictional characters and real people endure, flourish, empathise, cooperate, resist and organise – qualities that will need to be seriously upscaled if President Trump is to be toppled and a fairer, more just and humane America established.

Tales Of Two Americas is published by OR Books, priced £15.

If you are asking ‘Where is all the protest music?’ you aren’t looking hard enough

If you are asking ‘Where is all the protest music?’ you aren’t looking hard enough
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
4 September 2017

Every now and then an opinion piece is published in the press lamenting the lack of political songwriting today.

A couple of assumptions lay behind this much repeated concern about popular music. First, ‘political music’ is taken to mean music giving voice to left-leaning, anti-establishment politics – AKA protest music. Second, that the Golden Age of political music ran from the 1960s to the 1980s, from Bob Dylan’s broadsides against the military-industrial complex and American racism to John Lennon’s feminist Woman Is The Nigger Of The World and a slew of anti-Vietnam War songs. Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi echoed the concerns of the emerging environmental movement, while artists such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder soundtracked the racism and economic disadvantage experienced by African Americans. In the UK Pink Floyd released bestselling albums making uncomfortable statements about consumerism and suburban living, while Canadian Neil Young sang about colonialism from the POV of first nationers on epic tracks like Cortez the Killer and Pocahontas.

With the turn to neoliberalism still being contested in society, Thatcher’s Britain was also a fertile ground for protest music, including songs and public statements made by The Smiths, working-class hero Billy Bragg and The Jam (see Going Underground and Town Called Malice). Robert Wyatt’s version of the anti-Falklands War song Shipbuilding hit the top 40 chart in 1983, while Ghost Town, The Specials’ spooky hymn to urban decay, reached number one two years earlier. Social and political concerns were also important to many of the bands that dominated the international stadium circuit during the 80s. On the electrifying Bullet in the Blue Sky U2 denounced US intervention in Central America, Tracy Chapman and Peter Gabriel sang about apartheid South Africa, and Bruce Springsteen gave a voice to working-class families struggling to make ends meet in Reagan’s America.

However, by the time New Labour was at the height of its power in the late 90s British popular rock music had come to be dominated by deeply bland music. Coldplay, Keane, David Gray, Dido, Travis and Robbie Williams all sold millions of records by saying nothing at all, to paraphrase another nondescript songwriter popular at the time.

Fast forward to today and a slew of hipster-friendly rock acts endorsed by the Guardian, Q, Uncut and Mojo magazines are in the ascendency, though they seemingly have nothing coherent or substantive to say about what’s going on in the wider world: Fleet Foxes, Australian experimentalists Tame Impala, Grizzly Bear, War on Drugs, Spoon, Wilco and Kevin Morby to name but a few.

Dominating the Latitude, Green Man and End of the Road music festivals, these bands are very obviously influenced by classic rock artists like Dylan, The Beatles, Young, Springsteen and Pink Floyd – but the influence seems to be solely musical, with their heroes socio-political concerns largely disregarded. US singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, who is often compared to the great wordsmiths of the past, has released sixteen albums since 2000, with pretty much every song on every record focussed on the never-ending ups and downs of his romantic life.

(As an aside, I should say I am a fan of nearly all of these bands – my critique is not coming from a position of ignorance or antipathy).

Of course, there are exceptions to my argument – Radiohead’s twenty first century ecological dread and critique of late capitalism (see Idioteque and all of their seminal OK Computer album) and PJ Harvey’s musical exploration of the UK’s foreign wars come to mind. However, these artists tend to be disconnected from the broader trends and fashions of popular music. For example, Asian Dub Foundation’s incendiary 2000 album Community Music attacking Blairism, corrupt cops, nationalism, racism, corporation-led globalisation and warning of an impending financial crash, stuck out like a sore thumb at the time and has been quickly forgotten since then. And let’s not forget Springsteen and Young have made two of the angriest political albums in recent years with Wrecking Ball and The Monsanto Years, respectively – a fact that should shame their younger musical peers.

Finally, these OAP rockers highlight a key third assumption behind the original lament about politics and popular music: it really only applies if you define popular music as mainstream ‘rock music’ or ‘guitar music’.

There is lots of exciting and interesting protest music being made today – just in different genres and away from the mainstream. Rapper Plan B’s 2011 riots-inspired Ill Manors is arguably the greatest British protest song of the last decade. In the US R&B star Beyonce’s message of feminism and black power has reached a mass audience with her hit 2016 album Lemonade, while hip hop’s man of the moment Kendrick Lamar’s Alright is sang at Black Lives Matter rallies. Kanye West’s 2012 track New Slaves draws a connection between slavery and the involvement of profit-seeking corporations in the US criminal justice system today. Across the border, on her latest album Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq sings about the rape of indigenous women and lands in Canada. Elsewhere, on her electronic 2016 album Hopelessness the brilliant Anohni turned her attention to Obama’s drone wars, climate change, toxic masculinity and the death penalty.

Finally, the Morning Star’s favourite singer-songwriter Grace Petrie has been skewering the hypocrisy of the British establishment since 2010 – and, amazingly, still doesn’t have a record deal. As she sings sarcastically on last year’s I Wish The Guardian Believed That I Exist, “We’re not on the radio because they don’t want to know and by this point it’s really pretty clear that the mainstream music press they just couldn’t care less”.