So last night’s pub philosophy circle was one of those classic subjects: art. Tim Cross led the discussion which was lively if full of assertions and opinions but lacking in philosophy. Tim’s talk was great, but our audience let him down, I feel. What it did demonstrate is that philosophy of art remains an area of much debate and it fuels a lot of entrenched opinion.

My feelings on the subject were pretty agnostic going in. I enjoy art and, in fact, my favourite genres are photojournalism and photo-realist painting. Both schools often touted as not art at all. My view is that photo-realism adds something almost intangible which is the slippery essence of art.

But any debate on art quickly falls into what is / isn’t art. From there you get to the categories of what makes art ‘art’. These are often pretty distracting traps of little consequence. At a push I came up with a simple triad of qualities to define ‘art’. I am not yet certain how many of these qualities need to be in place to qualify, at least one, probably two but sometimes all three, but I’m happy with that ambiguity, just as what is/isn’t art can be slippery and open to debate.

Here it is; I’ve gone with the 3 c’s purely to keep it simple.


All art has to engage at least the creator but ideally the creator and the viewer. It is like a human without a self – it needs reflection. To regard it is to engage in it. If a piece of art fails to communicate with you then it probably isn’t art but rather it is just an object. But that is not to say that absolutely all viewers need to be able to comprehend its message. There’s no magic number in consensus but some general acquiescence to the fact there is something more than an object. In fact, it is probably easier to say try and think of a piece of art which doesn’t communicate with you in some. Which is different, of course, to not liking what’s being communicated – it is still communicating with you.

It is easy to regard art as beautiful (the art communicates beauty to you) but there is also other means of communication at play here: the beguiling (Mona Lisa) or horror (Bacon or Guernica, for example) to name but two other expressions.

The most obvious quality. Obviously, not everything needs to be made from scratch to qualify as craft; the craft might be the ability to capture something already in existence.

The choice of subject, place and materials all bring the craft into being.

The mix of all these three, by varying degrees and in different forms is what makes art.

Arising out of these are other factors which might explain why some things become art or in some cases ‘great’ art after a period of time. Things like context, subject and whether the art is novel or innovative. These are all linked to choice. Sometimes, however, something may be crafted (like a steam engine) only to become like a piece of art overtime because of the context has changed (scarcity and changes in train design now reveals the art of the steam train). You might disagree with the example there, but the same process might explain the increasing regard for some art over time, such as the Mona Lisa, or some novels.

The creation of art turns it into a commodity. Questions of who buys art, why and at what value, is a separate debate as to what is art. That is a question rather of what do we mean by the value of art, normally in a commercial sense, but sometimes in a critical sense.

Debates around art tend to miss the people’s arts. Gardening, cooking. Or in modernity maths and programming can be an art. We debated whether the London Underground map is art. I said yes. Others said it was merely good design. I said it is also good design, but it is art. And that is why now it has gone beyond design, not least because people are compelled to buy and hang prints of it on their walls with no intention of it serving its original purpose.

Finally, I wanted to consider the question ‘why is the question ‘what is art’ important to us?’ It is my opinion that all shared human endeavours and experiences that we hold in common will eternally be important questions and considerations for man. Probably because it is one of the characteristics which make man human.

Art is like all universal experiences – invaluably human.

I was talking about last night’s Tintern Philosophy Circle pub meet and a talk by Tim Cross ‘Art – some philosophical questions’. Next month (each 3rd Tuesday, 7.30pm) is Prof. John Clarke on ‘Sartre: on authenticity & sincerity’ and December has a guest speaker on ‘Religion & Science’.

{early, un-edited version of my next Forest of Dean Clarion magazine article}

Where Conrad journeyed into a Heart of Darkness, in September a friend and I took an excursion into sadness. Together we embarked on a foray into what might have been and what was betrayed: we went looking for the GDR/DDR in modern Berlin.

The GDR could have been an example of socialism but became instead a state racked by paranoia, a state of 90,000 Stasi agents and 175,000 Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (informers).

But I still believed in the possibility. That, at an everyday level there were elements of East German socialism which hinted at socialism as it might have been. After all, it is a fine line between Ostalgie (nostalgia for the East) and gawping at the worst of Totalitarianism. Was the GDR a workers paradise or a Stasi Hell?

Like many such binary questions, the answer is probably somewhere in between, a plurality of truths and realities. And that certainly was my experience. Nowhere was this more apparent than standing on the platform of the Wall Documentation Centre on Bernauer Strasse.


This free memorial gives an overview in words and pictures of the construction and division created by the Wall but, most strikingly, it allows you to climb to a platform to overlook a snapshot of the wall, death-strip and watch-tower exactly as it was. Un-touched, graffiti-free this living memorial is a stark symbol of the worst of the GDR’s predicament. A symbol of a state struggling with losing its workforce to the West, paranoid in its inability to keep control of its own citizens’ faith in socialism, all set against the best as in the background towers over all of Berlin the remarkable landmark of the East – the incredible Fernsehturm – or TV Tower as it is known in the West. Nearly all my guides placed the TV Tower as the most important thing to visit when in Berlin, but it is one of the very few symbols of the former East.


Too bad then, that it is now little more than a London Eye-style novelty. Constructed in the mid-to-late 1960’s it was the beacon of socialist achievement. Its lift doors open at bar and restaurant level to look out along the avenue of in front of the Brandenburg Tor (gate) – the Strasse Des 17 Juni – the symbolic avenue from the West to the centre of Berlin. And there’s nothing in the Western skyline that comes even close to matching the achievement of the TV Tower: socialism reigns supreme. And yet as I drank a Berliner Wasse with the traditional cherry juice I felt this wasn’t the East Germany as the workers knew it. Moreover today, despite its setting in Alexanderplatz the TV Towers feels almost disconnected from the GDR. And what’s more, the tourists around me didn’t seem to care about its history – the old symbol was now just a spectacle.

We stayed in the OSTEL Das DDR Design Hostel just off Paris Commune Strasse in the old East, not far from the East-Side Gallery (a long strip of the wall given over to graffiti art). SS851926

No TV, no mod-cons, just a basic 1970’s-era recreation of the GDR in each room. A portrait of Cabinet Minister Horst Sindermann keeps a watchful eye as you check-in at reception, complete with a TV playing a loop of GDR speeches and news. SS851974 SS851823The furnishings and wall-papering of each room are GDR-era and it lends a space for contemplative reflection, of simplicity and scarcity, of sacrifice and suppression, of hope and ideals. The rooms are cheap and the place unique, friendly, spare but touching if you like your travel with a sense of history and place. On the day we drove out into the country in our hired Trabant, the OSTEL provided a brown paper bag lunch at only €5 adorned with their own ‘Guten Appetit!’ label.


On the opposite side of our OSTEL’s citrus-fruit coloured building is the Volksammer (Das Design Restaurant), with the familiar GDR emblem emblazoned everywhere. A huge painting of Der Palast der Republik (my favourite building of the GDR – sadly now demolished) nestled alongside the TV tower and red flags adorns the length of one wall, and the menu is authentic GDR era cuisine. Much of which reminded me of school dinners or the food my mum made me as a boy in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Except for more fish, more pickled vegetables and, thankfully, more beer. The restaurant was a perfect partner for the OSTEL.

Another ‘Ostalgie Resturant’ is the Käsekönig just off Alexanderplatz (on Panoramastr.1), but the service here wasn’t quite as friendly and sitting outside on the street was a mistake as the weather turned. Neither could it boast the authentic furnishings and ornaments of the Volksammer, but the menu seemed more than appropriate. If you can’t stomach the food of 3 decades ago, don’t worry, one certainly won’t go hungry in Berlin – there’s an abundance of foreign restaurants.


With so much to do and see, more to write about than we have space here, I offer my essential things to do in Berlin if, like me, you want to sense its history, all within walking distance of each other, especially when based at the OSTEL.

SS851866(FREE) Visit the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe 2 minutes’ walk from the Brandenburg Gate, along Eberstrasse. Not only is this a moving experience (especially the poignancy of the Reichstag in view), but also it is an incredible piece of immersive sculpture. On the way you can also pay your respects to the homosexuals and gays murdered and persecuted by the Nazis (pretty much opposite), and nearer the Brandenburg Tor is the Memorial to the Sinti & Roma of Europe Murdered under the Nazi regime.SS851869SS851979

(FREE) Visit Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation centre along Bernauer Strasse; the story of Bernauer Strasse deserves an article of its own, and you can easily spend half a day immersed into the tragedy of the Wall here (do this over a visit to the East Side Gallery as that just lacks a sense of the everyday division)

SS851953Visit the Stasi Museum in the former HQ just off Ruschestrasse – highly detailed and a place of history in itself

SS851879(FREE) Visit the excellent Topography of Terror exhibition which documents the Gestapo and SS main offices, along with another intact Wall section

Stay at the OSTEL DDR Design Hostel

Eat at the Volksammer (Stasse der Paris Kommune 18b)

SS851873(FREE) Spit on the ground at the spot where Hitler spent his final hours (about 2mins walk from the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe) – his bunker will be under your feet (deservedly just a parking lot, a small green space where dogs fittingly defecate)

(FREE) Marvel at the scale of the Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten, and the two Soviet T34 tanks and consider their victory over Nazism

SS851859If you can afford it, book dinner (at least 2 months reservation necessary) with a window seat at the TV Tower, otherwise settle for the bar and try a Berliner Wasse

Hire a Trabant and drive into the countryside of the former East (good luck!)

But avoid the Western view of the Wall: Checkpoint Charlie. You couldn’t find a less authentic experience in Berlin if you tried.

There is so much history to be seen, and so much to consider. But mostly I left saddened by all the focus on failure. The persecution and loss of life all weighs so heavy. Saddening too was the fact that there was little room for the debate that socialism might offer much, even if we agree the price of totalitarianism is not one worth paying. Only the DDR Museum offered some sense of everyday life, some redemption and only then in part, balanced as it was with Stasi exhibits.

My view is that, in the end, the world lost more than the toll of its victims. It lost the chance of a possibility.

This wasn’t a holiday. It was reflection, a memorial. Just as one might travel to WW1 war graves. Perhaps we ought to make such journeys in order to remember the danger in the states we elect and therefore in our consent we all carry in us the possibility of darkness or failure. In that darkness I hoped to find hope. I think it’s there, but it flickered dimly and fleetingly, supressed by Totalitarianism.


{this article formed part of a much larger research project, reflecting on the GDR}


I have been writing for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine under the column ‘Left Inside’ for about 18 months or so. It was intended to be a quiet expose of trying to stay left within a local Constituency Labour Party (Forest of Dean) under One Nation Labour, and being on its Executive Committee. In that time I was nominated the lead in the 2015 General Election FoD Labour Party manifesto drafting group for the District Council (in which we also laid out our Parliamentary Candidate’s priorities) and was Social Media Officer for the CLP on the Executive, and finally the Electoral Agent for our Parliamentary Candidate. That experience – but mostly the experience on the organizing body, and its conduct particularly since the Election – leads me to finally come to terms with my place in local Labour. And this, then is my final Clarion ‘Left Inside’ column…

LEFT INSIDE: welcome home. Time to leave.

After the defeat of Ed Miliband’s One Nation view of socialism under Labour, and despite a very progressive local manifesto (I should know, I lead the Manifesto Drafting Group who authored it, and it included all the things we so desperately need right now: a strong anti-fracking, anti-cuts and pro-public Forest stance), who would have thought that Labour would come back to its natural home?

The success of Jeremy Corbyn shows, to me, just how out of touch the Parliamentary Labour Party was with its own grass-roots membership.

But, while supporting Tom Watson as Deputy, Forest of Dean CLP actually voted to back Andy Burnham for leader.  And now there are rumours afoot within the CLP that Corbyn’s success and the left is tearing the local branch apart. But they’re just rumours. What I’ve seen is a fractured bureaucratic CLP Exec concerned more with rules and in-fighting than changing lives and building socialism, whichever brand you support.

And that’s why this will be my last ‘Left Inside’ column for the Clarion.

The Executive Committee, in my experience, despite its aims and objectives turns out to be an inadvertent vehicle for losing members and quelling activism.

On social media I touted the idea of a Red Labour campaigning group, but there just isn’t the support for that locally. Nationally, however, new members joined in their thousands following Corbyn’s success, but locally they’ll be (rightly) directed to the CLP first. But our CLP is, to me, little more than an extension of the District Council Labour Group, not an independent campaigning and organising committee for the success of the next Labour MP in the Dean, working to win a socialist sitting in Parliament for the Dean among other socialists in a majority Labour government.

Besides, in the meantime, we need to build support for the Dean anti-fracking campaign. Then there’s TTIP. Instead our CLP is bent on a long-running internal investigation on the appropriate use of members’ e-mail lists. A process so painful that even the incumbent acting Secretary won’t be seeking re-election in that role, after only a matter of months in the post.

As Agent for Steve Parry-Hearn (your Labour candidate in the last General Election), I continue to meet with Steve and his Campaign Manager, the hard-working Roger Gilson. All three of us welcomed Corbyn’s success. But I for one don’t feel that our current CLP is the vehicle to locally show that support let alone build on it. I will vote and continue to support Corbyn’s Labour but I no longer feel I am the ‘left inside’ in the local LP. Hopefully there are others, new faces which will re-purpose the CLP Executive.

For me, for now, thanks for the ride.

The above is an un-edited edition and might therefore differ from the printed edition of issue #119 (Oct/Nov. 2015). I expect to continue to write for the Clarion, but not in the Left Inside capacity. I will continue to support Labour. Especially Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.

Reviewed by C. Spiby for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine.

Maxim Leo’s book ‘Red Love’ is so much more than the story of a family from the GDR; it is the story of WW2 anti-fascist heroes, the relationship between parents and their children, and a state and its people. Clarion subscribers will find it a truly fascinating read.

With the unique perspective of author Maxim turning 19 as the Wall comes dored_love_coverwn, and his father, Wolf being 19 when the Wall went up, this family history traces three generations of German socialism.

But as each generation comes of age, there is a lessening of the cause, a lessening of the hope of socialism.

Under Walter Ulbricht and the Soviet Union this road to socialism is replaced at first by a paranoiac state and then by the 1980’s, by a generation who have become so remote from the cause and the possibilities of socialism that the freedom they seek seems indistinguishable from the freedom to be just like those in the West. In the end Maxim feels that “Society isn’t the main subject of my life. I am.” A view probably shared by his entire generation.

Their story is the story of their state. Maxim writes “Our family was like a miniature GDR…where ideology collided with life.”

While his father, Wolf, was not a Party member, it was not because of his opposition to socialism, but his opposition to that particular kind of socialism which destroyed the people’s trust in their own state, the son stating at one point “He sometimes laughs at me for needing so many things to be happy.”

What clearly started as an exercise in family history has become so much more. Its topics range from

  • history (Werner, one of Maxim’s grandfathers shifts from almost ambivalent Nazi supporter to Communist Party member, expressing with real authenticity the experience of life in WW2 and post WW2 Germany)
  • politics (“Others became Communists because they felt drawn to the world of ideas. For Gerhard it’s a matter of experience, of feeling, of friendship.”
  • philosophy (“Man is different from the animals primarily because he deliberately applies laws and thus creates a just coexistence.”)
  • socialism and humanism (the disgrace with himself that Maxim feels when he is interrogated by Stasi and capitulates immediately, giving them the information they seek in a moment while recalling Gerhard, his grandfather who resisted days of torture by the SS for his role in partisan activities is among one of many touching moments – this time of pride and shame).

‘Red Love’ is great journalism: it’s engaging and informative, revealing authentic experiences of real people through hope and trauma. But just as the example of the GDR saddens me, so too does Maxim’s underlying conclusion.

The “GDR was the result of the struggle, the reward. The point of life. He {Gerhard} couldn’t get out of it without losing himself. ‘That was my country,’ he said in that interview. And it sounded sad, but also a bit proud. And I reflected that it couldn’t be my country for precisely that reason. But I said nothing.”

For me the GDR is not something consigned to history. It is a tragedy of what could have been.

From it we can still learn much; of how far it swerved on the road to socialism, how it can warn us, but also that it was not an utter failure. In ‘Red Love’ we are introduced to people who believed in something greater. Totalitarianism and the end of the Cold War never killed that.

‘Red Love’ is published by the Pushkin Press (2014 paperback, English translation).

an early un-edited edition of my latest Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine article…

Never have I have invested so much so emotionally only to have been so heavily defeated.

It is with a heavy heart that I have mulled over Labour’s loss. I have been engulfed in shame and guilt that I didn’t work harder for local people and our local candidate Steve Parry-Hearn. Often I have been driven to anger. At other times I have been simply listless.

We fought the right campaign with the right candidate and – looking now at the new pretenders – the right leader. Our campaign was flawed only in its morally correct view of modern Britain. For me it was like Iraq all over again:  marching against the war, being on the losing side of the debate only to be proven right; to be on the side of the just counts for little in defeat.

And in my anger I know that it wasn’t Mark Harper or even the Tories who beat us, but by Murdoch and the Mail Group.

For sure there were gifts to the opposition of our own making. Our argument on austerity wasn’t strong enough. Scotland is proof of that.

And we failed to win the argument on the issue of the economy and the last Labour government’s rhetoric during the worldwide economic downturn. Damn that idle, stupid joke at the Treasury stating ‘There’s no money left’ which Cameron waved about with relish. If only it said ‘There’s no money left because we spent it all on building schools and hospitals and eliminating NHS waiting times.’

As Mark Serwotka said on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’ 3 weeks after the election, the narrative the potential Labour leaders have seemed to swallow is a need to move to the Blairist right within the Party. Because Ed Miliband was ‘too left wing’. And yet as Serwotka makes clear under Blair and Brown from 1997 Labour lost millions of votes. With Ed Miliband that trend had been reversed, which suggests a different story. The success of the SNP and their anti-austerity and anti-Trident message also suggests a different direction of traffic.

Or to put it another way, John Trickett, Labour MP for Hemsworth pointed out that “The average income is £26,000 a year or thereabouts. The tax we were proposing was for those on £150,000 or more. People on £26,000 are not aspiring or expecting ever to get to £150,000. And yet we have leadership candidates arguing that it is an obstacle to winning an election.”

Steve Parry-Hearn and Forest of Dean Labour’s manifesto was a manifesto which Clarion readers would recognise as their kind of Labour candidate and programme. Anti-Trident, anti-new nuclear at Oldbury, anti-fracking, strong on the protection of our Forest, strong on apprenticeships and even stronger on anti-austerity than the national Party line. Di Martin repeatedly lamented the bedroom tax and she carried her local comrades with her. A Labour-controlled local council was set to pause the destruction of our District Council and scrap local car parking charges. Nationally Labour would scrap the bedroom tax, bring in a mansion tax, and protect the NHS from the clutches of TTIP. But we’ve lost all that. That is the sum of our loss, not our lack of electoral success. The danger to our NHS now is truly frightening.

And yet while support for Labour in other constituencies plummeted, Steve Parry-Hearn and his campaign team lead by the inexhaustible Roger Gilson slightly increased our share of the vote in the Dean, snatching thousands of Lib Dem votes only to see our working class support slip through our fingers to UKIP and the Tories.

We shared muted elation at the strong performance of our Greens, beating the Lib Dems and gaining their first District Councillor for the Dean, but we were furious that Harper survived selling off our forest by proxy alone: the Conservatives won here despite their candidate not because of him. Their successes were in the media, not at the dispatch box and nor in the TV debates, their campaign merely exploited the media’s insatiable appetite for nationalism and fear.

But what now? What’s left for Labour? Is there any Left in today’s Labour?

In these vital coming months for our movement my advice is that we swell our numbers: join Labour today and have your say in choosing a left-wing candidate for the leadership.

It could be the last chance we have to save our Party for at least a generation.



an early un-edited edition of my latest Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine article…

There are many reasons to vote Labour come the General Election. Some might argue there is also reason not to.

I’ve written before in the Clarion about compromise, but some still feel a vote for the Greens is still the best way to deliver a left-wing agenda in Parliament.

The Greens offer much, but what can they actually deliver? The stark answer to this question is: very little without any MP’s – even Caroline Lucas will struggle to retain the Green’s only seat in Parliament. Recently though, the Greens do offer a leader to rival Labour’s own in terms of unpopularity – but that’s shallow thinking. The kind of which the media is so obsessed with.

Locally, James Greenwood – a prominent organiser for S.T.A.N.D. (Severnside Together Against Nuclear Development) – is a passionate and skilled public speaker and a good Green candidate, but his party’s support is, as our own Clarion Comment editorial states in this issue, starting from virtually square one.

So we turn to Labour’s Steve Parry-Hearn. How might he fare?

On core local Green Party issues he pretty much cleans up. Steve’s pledge card lays it down clearly: Parry-Hearn is against new nuclear power at Oldbury, against fracking in the Dean and against Trident renewal. All these policies are cornerstone reasons to vote Green. But you can get them locally and for real by voting Labour.

Furthermore, Steve Parry-Hearn is also a strong supporter of the NHS, apprenticeships and green industry but is equally passionate about scrapping the bedroom tax. The difference is, Labour can win here – the Greens will not.

Voting Green means the Tory will retain the seat (or possibly worse, what with UKIP having made the Forest a target seat). Either way, anything but a Labour win will mean your next MP will support Trident renewal, support back-door privatisation of the NHS and will be pro-nuclear.

Meanwhile Labour’s Parry-Hearn takes a risk with his position on these topics of nuclear power, fracking and nuclear weapons as Steve is running contrary to current party policy on all three issues. That’s good news for Clarion readers as it finally means we’ve got a candidate who is a strong independent voice in Labour. A man of conviction built from a bedrock of core Labour principles. What Clarion readers might recognise as one of their own.

But many will call this tactical voting. I call it pragmatic voting. It is all very well having a strong view on an issue, but to trade that passion for an unwillingness to compromise is a self-defeating way to hand victory to those supporting the exact opposite of one’s own view.

When I started writing for the Clarion many years ago I was politically adrift. Back then in 2003 I was secretary of our local Stop the War movement but I belonged to no Party. I had left the Communist Party of Britain because it could never win an MP in my lifetime. At that time I couldn’t join Labour because New Labour supported Bush’s war. So the Lib Dems temporarily won my vote but like many I was let down.

Now I support Labour which is post-New Labour. I do so firstly because of my desire to retain the NHS as Labour built it; but I am also in the Labour Party because Ed Miliband was the choice of the trades union movement – the voice of the working class; and I am proud to support Forest Labour’s Steve Parry-Hearn precisely because of his position on the topics mentioned above. All this would be for nought if a Labour victory didn’t represent the only realistic opportunity of keeping the right out of power in the Dean and in our Parliament.

Please join me in defeating the Tories.

An early un-edited edition of my next Clarion article

It’s time for One Nation Labour to set out its electoral stall for real now. Scotland has force the point, chased hotly by doubts over Ed Miliband’s ability to lead our party or being a suitable Prime Minister.

Scotland – and in particular the huge turnout of the Independence referendum – has given Westminster-based politics the kick up the arse voters knew it desperately needed.

Now there’s a leadership contest there and it proves to be shaping what Scottish Labour ought to look like and represent. Is it just a branch of Parliamentary Labour or something distinct in the Labour movement in Scotland?

Clarion readers will probably agree that the latter might also prove the kick up the arse our Parliamentary Labour Party needs to become meaningful for the electorate.

Given a meaningful choice on Independence, the voters demonstrated they are hungry to engage in proper change. Indeed, I doubt whether a remote branch in Scotland was what John Robertson and Jim Sillars had in mind when they first set-up the breakaway the Scottish Labour Party back in 1976. Instead they sought to be a voice distinct from Westminster.

I believe there’s appetite for more of that kind of independent thinking within Labour, and furthermore we can have that without having to abandon our Party. In fact, I’d wage it might be a way to electoral success.

I certainly witnessed this desire for local distinction among some of our number in the 2015 District Council Forest of Dean CLP Manifesto Drafting Group which I had the honour to lead. But this doesn’t have to be a binary thing: you can follow Labour Party principles and rules and still have a distinctive voice in local politics. In fact, I rather think it’s what the electorate expect of us.

Difference and choice are vital to voters. I am reminded of what George Monbiot once told me in an interview…

“Its mainstream parliamentary party politics we’re all pissed off with. You can choose between the party of big business and bombing, or the party of big business and bombing.”

It’s in looking for new choices that some have been persuaded by the shadowy repulsiveness of UKIP. We need to demonstrate that our Party and our local candidate, and indeed local and country councillors offer the electorate meaningful choice, not just more of the same.

The defence for the leadership of Milliband is mostly characterised by the principle of having to stick with the choice made a couple of years ago at the Leadership Election. But by that logic we would allow Ed Miliband to do virtually anything to destroy our movement before we’d kicked him into touch. Although I’m not saying he has or will destroy Labour, I’m just questioning the principled stand of permissiveness just for the sake of a principled stand. To me that’s not much of a defence.

The argument also goes that ‘we’re only 6 months away from an election!’ Agreed, not a desirable time to switch leadership. But again, says who? Based on what? If there’s evidence that the leader is not polling well when actually he should be at his strongest (into the final term of opposition) then that is an argument for decisive change not capitulation. If total unity isn’t the current, it won’t appear just because we’re running out of time. What you’ll get instead is internal maneuvering for the post-defeat Labour Party. Put another way, sticking with an unelectable leader just because we’re running out of time is not a good reason to stick with an unelectable leader.

The final argument appears to be that there’s no willing or able candidate to replace Miliband. Is the shadow cabinet really so moribund to not one capable shadow minister willing to stand up for our movement? I don’t think it is. So that too is a false defence.

If the NHS is the one binding element of our campaign which universally moves British people of voting age, then clearly the robust, capable and comparatively natural leader is the person leading that part of campaign: Andy Burnham. I’d support that move in a second, and I think the British people would too.

Voters would see a Labour Party willing to listen to the public (in their dislike of Miliband) and make meaningful change. If Burnham is seen as the saviour of the NHS in austerity, then he might just save our movement and the legacy of Labour. It should also guarantee us success at the next election.

True, a Burnham Labour won’t take us back to the manifesto of Michael Foot in 1983, but it wouldn’t be New Labour either.

Those who agree with my general argument might also take heart that when asked during the local Parliamentary candidate hustings as which member of the current shadow cabinet did he/she most admire or ally themselves with, our chosen candidate – Steve Parry-Hearn – cited Andy Burnham.

Andy BurnhamNOTE: The views expressed in this column are the personal views of C. Spiby and not the Forest of Dean Labour Party or Steve Parry-Hearn.

{un-edited edition of my submission to the Clarion magazine and my ‘Left Inside’ column, writing as a communist within the Labour Party}

To all open-minded people of the Left {see footnote}. That is, to all those who have still yet to be convinced to vote Labour in the next General Election but are swaying dangerously close to the Green Party, Left Unity or other minority party to the left of Labour.

I want to appeal to your powers of logic and reason over your rightful anxiety on many issues facing British working people today. And suggest why you must vote Labour in 2015.

Perhaps we might begin by agreeing on a few basic principles. Firstly, that we want rid of the current Government: the ConDem coalition. Secondly, that we do not wish to replace it with a Tory majority government or a Tory/UKIP coalition.

We want a government that is left of centre. In fact, we’d probably settle for a centre-left government in order to keep out an even more right-wing government than the ConDem coalition. Wouldn’t we?

Irrespective of our wont for more: we all must be able to agree on at least that. Surely?

But not all of us see politics as a compromise.

I’d go so far to say that politics without compromise is essentially fundamentalism. You can read my blog on the topic but I believe that eco-fundamentalism is the only valid fundamentalism. All other forms of fundamentalism are merely rejections of reason and flaws in humanity.

My point is that an unwillingness to vote for Labour as a compromise on one’s ideals only places principles before logic. And that’s a fundamentalist point of view.

Not entirely happy with all Labour’s policies, I am, however, not willing to tolerate a right-wing government just to satisfy those principles alone. These things have value to me, they form part of my integrity, but they are an abstract. And they won’t stop a right wing government taking power. And by their nature and philosophy they will form policies which are even more an affront to socialist principles than those of Labour which might compel some to stand up for their principles alone.

Failure to vote Labour runs the obvious risk that such a tactic results in the kind of right wing government we just agreed we collectively oppose.

But a compromise which recognises the reality of our current system, our current realistic choices does not have to be a sell-out. It’s not capitulation, it’s progressive. By building our movement within Labour both locally and nationally, you build the Party you want. And that’s just what happened at the recent National Executive Committee elections, where Labour MEMBERS voted for a left-wing Executive, defeated the Blairites soundly.

And, in Stephen Parry-Hearn, we have a local candidate who is willing to attend a vigil for Gaza, calling for peace on all sides and to halt the despicable killing of children. In Parry-Hearn we might have a voice in Parliament calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons and nuclear power (see earlier Clarion interviews/articles). In Steve we’d have an MP who cares about the Forest of Dean and its heritage, who supported and supports HOOF.

Then, in Labour councillors, we have a team who really do carry Labour principles into each and every difficult debate, seeking to serve local working class people in the way they serves local jobs, welfare and livelihoods best.

Together they form a version of Labour Clarion readers must recognise as anything but Blairite and New Labour. We don’t want Harper or UKIP locally and we certainly don’t want unabated right-wing Tory rule in Britain.

Help us all by working for the Labour choice you want.

Of course, once the job is done, then campaign within. Or, hold a Labour Government to account through campaign groups or opposition parties. That is the time to fight for those points of principle you feel are an affront to our heritage and run counter to one’s own view of modern British democratic socialism. But don’t risk inviting the right through the front door, while you stand un-moving on principle out in the cold.

There are lines in the sand. I could never vote for New Labour for many reasons. Their balance sheet of inequities reduced support and made Britain ripe for the right. In doing so they disenfranchised the working people of their vote. Immoral actions such as the war in Iraq made voting New Labour an impossibility for democratic socialists. The problem was there was nowhere else to go, so many of us retreated to campaign groups. I went to Forest Stop the War and Amnesty International to try and make a difference. But politically we are thankfully in a different place today. Ed Milliband was the choice of the Unions as leader of our Party and it is his team which pledge to stop the rot in the NHS, to reverse the Bedroom Tax and so much more which we might recognise as principles they can deliver on which are akin to our own. That is why it is our party. No compromise on that.

FOOTNOTE I say ‘open-minded’ as logic and reason is unlikely to change a closed mind – the position of the fundamentalist. And that is why this article appears to those who are truly willing to challenge their own position.

mwftearth_coverThe Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis

I’ve said it before in The Clarion: I am not a fan of sci-fi. Last time I was talking about ‘The Death of Grass’, which left me horrified. It was written with the calibre of John Wyndham, but will all the nightmare of the best apocalyptic fiction.

And it is therefore with equal surprise that I discover that it wasn’t a one-off experience. Despite some reticence I really enjoyed Walter Tevis’ novel ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, famously brought to life as a film of the same name in the 1970’s by visionary director, Nicolas Roeg.

Both books don’t feel like sci-fi at all, much to the credit of the quality of writing itself. In fact, Tevis’ other famous novel was ‘The Hustler’ (also made into a famous film), which is a gritty tale of pool sharks.

My edition was the original film tie-in, with a painting of the iconic image of David Bowie as the mysterious Thomas Newton/alien. A version of this also appeared on Bowie’s own ‘Low’ LP sleeve and while the paperback states the music soundtrack would be ‘available on RCA’, this never happened, although Bowie is said to have scattered musical doodlings for or influenced by his role in the film across albums in the 70’s. Indeed, another image from the film appear as the cover of ‘Station to Station’.

For sure, it is now hard to think of Newton being anyone but Bowie, and this is to the film’s credit. The casting and feel is spot-on and mirrors the book beautiful – complements it where you, like me, have seen the film, but have yet to read the book. And the book is far better as it simply doesn’t have those wayward forays into sexual exploration and nor do we have to endure occasionally shaky-acting.

But putting aside the movie, Tevis’ work is full of compassion, longing and thought on the notion of being a stranger in a strange land. It has more to do with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘The Bell Jar’ than it does traditional sci-fi. The writing is taught, dialogue believable and pace just right. At times it reminded me of ‘The Swimmer’ (also a famous book and film), and at others’ a feature-length and more mature ‘Twilight Zone’ or ‘Tales of the Unexpected’.

‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is also a deeply humane book. It takes the concept of a looking at man through the mirror of an alien point of view. But that alienation is one many of us feel. We feel it when we are teenagers and when we are alone in a crowd in a foreign place or visiting a new city. We feel it with wonder when we see ourselves in a moment of silence looking at art in a gallery or catch ourselves aware of ourselves as a species when at the zoo. But most of all, we feel when the world – full of humans – seems incredibly lonely.

Newton feels the gravity of earth heavy on his disguised frame; but he feels the pointlessness of existence and man’s folly just as heavily: “a heavy lassitude, a world-weariness, a profound fatigue with this busy, busy, destructive world and all its chittering noises.”

The novel ponders quietly the big themes without pushing any particular agenda or world-view. Newton considers, for example “this peculiar set of premises and promises called religion.” But finds solace in some types of music.

Providing counter-balance is Professor Bryce. He’s not quite the narrator and certainly not entirely likeable either. In the movie he’s an aging playboy, but the novel gives his character more tragedy and more drink. Imagine Charles Bukowski as a failed university science professor. He’s not an idiot and indeed, it is through his fascination with Newton’s inventions which drive the narrative to a truly horrible conclusion where, as Tevis puts it, the reveal has the monkeys performing the tests on the humans.

In their parrying Newton and Bryce become friends, comrades and critics. They argue over the philosophical position of science and its funding: “Somebody has to make the poison gas.” And this leads us with the primary concern of the novel: the destruction of mankind by his own kind.

This is a moving and tragic novel of apathy and alienation. It is expertly crafted and still yet a page-turner.

You might think that  – written in 1963 – and famously filmed in the 70’s with a very 70’s ‘feel’ ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is set in the 1970’s, but in fact it is set in the then future of the mid-late 1980’s. It predicts global nuclear war within 30 years of that. Of course, the Cold War was raging in the 60’s and Tevis rightly predicted it would still be so by the 1980’s. But the fall of the Soviet Union was not something explored then. This does not make Tevis’ forecast flawed as the same deadly arsenal continues to exist today and, as we see in recent months, it no longer requires opposing ideology to create the tension between old and emerging super powers: resource and territory dispute continue to be enough. It is a warning that we can all yet fall to earth.


This is my latest article for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine. This is the un-edited edition for the next issue (with different illustrations).

Spring sun beat down through the cloudless blue, its rays warming yellow rapeseed fields and lifting their soft invisible fumes. It seemed impossible that only minutes before I was taking in the magnificent shining architecture of the City of London’s skyline from the North Circular. But I was. This was England at her best. Spring had brought wild garlic and early bluebells into the shady woods and it all seemed so unnaturally calm to be making my way into the fenced area of the Government’s emergency Regional HQ for nuclear war at Kelvedon Hatch, Essex.

The façade of Kelvedon Hatch RGHQ and its surround are unsettling in their beautiful secrecy. Here a nuclear bunker was built especially in the style of a brick farmhouse, complete with a British brick veranda to its frontage. It sits snug amongst the trees and looks like a typical 1950’s brick cottage, not much larger than your average bungalow. But behind the standard white-framed windows lie steel shutters while its false roof hides a reinforced ceiling made from concrete 18” thick. Deeper inside is the 3-ton steel blast doors; a decontamination room; a BBC emergency broadcast studio and enough servicing equipment, supplies and machinery to keep 600 government civil servants, military commanders and scientists alive for up to 3 months after a nuclear attack on Britain.

Kelevedon Hatch has been a part of the post-war preparedness for a soviet strike on the UK throughout many governments and their varying approaches to civil defence and early warning. It was a R4 radar station and remained the RGHQ mentioned above right up to the 1990’s when it was sold privately. Today it is a self-service museum open to the public.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the scale of the bunker beneath, much in the same way someone who is new to the extent of post WW2 civil defence is likely to be astonished at the sheer amount of infrastructure that makes up UK Cold War architecture with its bunkers and monitoring posts numbering their hundreds across the entire country. The exterior Guard House/cottage is smaller than I thought, but the bunker much bigger than anticipated. The access corridor beyond the initial entrance and holding room is a mammoth 120yds long/deep on its own, and the whole bunker runs across three floors.

The power generators are run by 2 diesel Rolls Royce engines and the fuel storage holds enough for those 3 post-nuclear war months, by which time it should all be over. Shouldn’t it? It has always amazed me that there has been a gaping blind spot for Civil Defence and Emergency Planners. On one hand they advise us how to prepare for a nuclear blast (remove your doors, paint the windows white and sit under the kitchen table) and when it’s ‘safe’ to bury granny in the garden in between raining fallout. They insist we stay at home precisely because they say nowhere in the UK is safe from radioactivity. But then they go on to believe that after 3 months everything will be fine. Civil servants can return to their county council desks to carry on with the day-to-day of getting Britain working again. There won’t be any office and nor will there be much left of Britain as we know it, let alone any infrastructure. Einstein made this point clear when after considering World War 3 referring to the war after that being fought with ‘sticks and stones’.

Perhaps more senior figures in Civil Defence knew better, or was all for show. In room 110 at Kelevedon is the ‘strong store’ (in military jargon). This is where they keep the rifles for any internal judicial issues within the bunker (once sealed it cannot be opened for those 3 months), but also contains the cyanide for those not able to make it or – more likely – to deal with the reality of what they behold when those doors are finally opened after 3 months.

As a museum today I must say that the audio tour is excellent. It’s ideal both for those who know little about civil defence and its context within government and military protocol but also for those who want more detail on the equipment, its use and construction – some of which are particular to this R4 generation of bunker.

TripAdvisor has some poor write-ups where some guests seemed to take offence at the number of signs warning of having to pay to take photographs. But I feel this is misplaced. With so much of our Cold War heritage being destroyed, these museums of doom are being lost for whole generations. There’s a real need for independent museums like this to obtain income for the vast upkeep any way they can. For sure Hack Green in Cheshire is probably more hospitable and well organised but the Kelevedon audio tour and its unique setting more than make up for its basic approach. Other activities now attached to the site (quad biking and an amongst-the-trees rope climb) seem to be doing well so perhaps those ventures help to keep Kelevedon open, unlike Gloucestershire’s own Ullenwood which has been sold privately, had a big house built on the land while the bunker is apparently moth-balled.

The only disappointment was in locating the stand-by generator building which is located away from the main site but, like to the guardroom/cottage bungalow is built in a manner so local people and more importantly an enemy could not distinguish its use: this time with a modern chapel-like design. What a pity there’s not even a mention of it in the museum or its literature. Luckily it features in English Heritage’s superb publication ‘Cold War: Building for Nuclear Confrontation 1946-1989’ which I thoroughly recommend.

It would be immoral to sign off this piece without mention to the blindingly obvious fact that while the bunkers, the Royal Observer Corps and Civil Defence is all a thing of the past: the nuclear arsenal remains. And is to be renewed if Mark Harper MP and this Tory government get their way. Join CND to help us stop it. While ‘Protect and Survive’ is now merely of archival interest ‘Protest and Survive’ still rings true.


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