Creative Writing


‘Fly Away’

Fly away, plug in to your chosen third world metropolis with the arrogant urgency that accompanies our civilisation, departure lounge to lounge, no sense of progression or gradual change necessary within this flying tube. Watch out for those greedy beggars at the airport entrance, you look on with pity and disdain…throw them some change.

Anywhere you want to go, bring your inflated currency and manufactured aspirations. Find motivation in those dark days of expedition fundraising in the home colony in bartered rumours and mythic narratives, parties on the beach, a summit of Uluru; all possible you’ve been told. Ignore the trail of disruptive distortion you bring to ‘lucky’ hotspots. There’s no problem, you’re bringing in hard cash aren’t you? Yes, a boost to the local economy, a splurge of unthinking assumptions related to trickledown surely follow. The world is open, I can go anywhere, I see no fundamentalists looking on from neighbouring hilltops on hustling, moonlit beaches brimming with vomit. Their conception of this landscape, its people and culture are not afforded thought; money enables us to do it. One may perhaps even embark upon some noble development work for a brief window, a break from hedonism to share some of that all-important western knowledge. Hush now, the elixir of progress is being imparted from the lips of these chosen Caucasian few. There are no limitations, absolute poverty and pleading eyes seeing dollars through white skin to mixers, promenades, suburban chatter and, don’t forget, rubbish collection day- all in a week.

The imperial caravan marches on towards its undisclosed but undoubtedly brilliant end point along the path of progress. A now, for the most part, secularised divine lady providence leads a death march, the world in step behind one, narrowed from a multiplicity, warped European vision of modernity. But out of choice? These nations surely saw that this was the only way, just as the Mesopotamian man unquestioningly left his savage neighbour hunting in the bush to cultivate his sustenance from the earth, so too does the world follow the path of national government, mass consumption, infrastructure obsessions, a purely exploitative approach towards the earth and its resources: the toxic drive of GDP.

We drift from essence; the children of the righteous people, as determined by their lead in the march of progress towards the cliff edge, may, and shall, continue to globe trot as they please. Hedonism will be moderated by selfless philanthropy, with the added prize of digital self-affirming proof. Little guilt will be felt, a drive to change? No. The metropolis welcomes back with its open arms, forget the trueness and visceral nature of what your eyes have witnessed, it doesn’t matter now. The bubble remains inflated, aid continues to flow, status quo as the bedrock of progress- just another aspect of its illusory nature. Come, another destination beckons, we escape the advanced concrete soul vacuum for the savage amongst his quickly vanishing culture, (an end we hasten with our presence) he too has seen the flashing lights.

(A Review of a Civilizational Situation)

 


‘We are where we are’

 

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The children of the globalised earth can reject an inheritance they made no request for.

Reject the passage into the post-historical state of progress, the journey into the realm of the immortal: an illusion well-spun by those who rarely cared to ask why.

On the far shore and separated from almost all practices previously associated with communal human habitation, an elite few look back at those still in states of savagery, pitifully attempting the climb of the ladder which has an unbridgeable gap in the rungs. A neo-liberal Huxlean distortion, a Brave New World whose fundamental basis is an obscene contradiction with a man-made construct of economic ‘growth’ and conception of progress pitted against the reality of the state of the planet which supports all life. As the first increases indefatigably into the infinite, the latter speeds in an inverse manner towards degradation past the point of offering dignified habitation.

The coca-cola, education pathway to security dream. We will equip you for the market so you too can become a worthy generator of capital to help fuel this vessel. Ease above all else, a human tendency pounced on and enlarged so as to consume and dwarf all others; ease as king, ease as the unquestioned dynamo driving the earth towards a spluttering end.

The dream is sold implicitly and constantly to those in the globalised metropolis. The beating consumptive heart whose tentacles reach out to those providing the exploitable goodness. We here at source are given no real possibility to see but briefly above the wall, beyond the blinkers, to challenge the unbearable weight of the obese rider never seen.

 


Feature Writing


Paying homage to overlooked contributors

Our society has a gift for being able to neatly overlook provenance, whether that be in relation to so called eco-knowledge and ‘green’ attitudes which have been in existence for thousands of years within tribal societies, or in the field of music. This is an attempt to provide some redress and recognition to a consistent strand which has played a massive role in almost all musical genres, bar classical, in the 20th, and what little we’ve had of the 21st century.

This strand is music emanating from the descendants of Africans taken from their home continent through the human trade cargo, as practised on the continent of North America and surrounding areas. African-Americans have played a huge role in the formation of much of what we consider contemporary music. It is an often overlooked tale and one made even more intriguing given the scale of contribution in relation to population size.

There was undoubtedly music-making and rhythms from the start, through the 17th and 18th centuries when the greatest number of people were being brought over to America from West Africa. There is obviously no audio and a very limited historical record of what was being played during this period but there would have been the mixing of a huge range of musical traditions hailing from modern day Senegal, the Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, Guinea Bissau and further south along the coast. With the slave trade in full swing new first generation West Africans were bringing with them the contemporary music traditions of their respective countries, adding anew to the mix of traditions established by previous generations of slaves brought over from Africa at earlier dates. Polyrhythms, counter metre and different folk forms brought together in a brutal way but undoubtedly the building blocks from which later developments would rise.

It was in the early to mid-19th century that plantation work music, chants and field songs first gave rise to a new genre; the blues. A pentatonic-based musical juggernaut which emerged from the deep heat and oppression of the Mississippi Delta, the earliest bluesmen and women are lost to us but it is still possible to get a window into that world with some of the early recordings made of bluesmen as part of ethnographic recording projects of the 20’s-40’s (see the work of Alan Lomax).

As blues develops through into the twentieth century it leads on to jazz and another musical world. Around the turn of the century New Orleans begins to feature this new sound which burgeons and gives rise to a whole new raft of genre break-offs and interpretations. This includes its spreading Northwards and into all the big cities in the form of 1940’s and 1950’s bebop.

By the mid part of the last century the African-American musical contribution was already hugely influential and arguably dominated the whole music scene around the western world in the form of jazz and its branch offs, for instance swing and the dancehall music popular in 1940s Britain which was directly inspired by the work of African-Americans players. Their influence permeated almost every musical field and the rhythms and energy provided proved irresistible to listeners from across the world, there was something unique in these musical forms’ ability to get a hold of listeners, engaging and pulling them closer. To see this power in action, one only need go back to performances by key messengers in venues across Europe, for instance in the footage of Ray Charles playing in 1960’s Antibes or Nina Simone in London during the same period, the power and energy of the music and its effect on European listeners is visible, audiences otherwise used to the reserved social norms of the day struggling to contain their bodily reaction to these new sounds.

As the 1960’s approached and with the brewing of a new cultural movement, the blues was about to get the spotlight in the same way jazz had been doing for the past half century. As a new generation grew up in the 50’s many now had access to blues recordings, and as the decade passed on a new interpretation of that same music was added to this with the sounds now coming from Elvis. This blues-come rock and roll led directly into the 60’s and a whole raft of groups, genre of music and arguably a cultural movement which could not have been more directly inspired by the music of bluesmen who had been playing down in the delta through the 20’s,30’s and 40’s. This direct branch off, which can include Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green, The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones (whose Keith Richards speaks of being “blessed” by the blues), the Who, Jefferson Airplane, Zeppelin and many others led on to the more contemporary stories and all the genre break offs we know of, and often deem as variety today, including Punk, Prog-rock and so on. These may not have directly emanated from African-American musicians as blues, jazz, soul, funk and others did but they were brought into existence only through the work of those figures.

Travelling then into the 1980’s there is the advent of Hip Hop which can be seen as a continuation of this hugely creative ethnic narrative with many shared elements with bebop and Parker’s bouncy licks. Emerging from New York and spreading quickly, Hip Hop possessed a power and potential social and political potency which it gained through the combination of thoughts and poetry with sampled beats. Almost all these early samples were jazz-based with new drum loops added on top. An intoxicating combination of lyricism with music; the marriage of thoughts and ideas with the headiness of jazz (a marriage which, interestingly, was something Kerouac and his beat compatriots had begun to delve into as well back in the 1950’s). Hip Hop leads on then to Jungle, the beginnings of electronic dance music and what now forms the backbone of much of our contemporary music scene, the branch offs from drum and bass and dubstep which also increasingly finds its place in the formulaic pop hits of today, if through nothing else via the practice of sampling as a backbone of the music.

The intention here is not to categorise or divide music along racial lines but rather to recognise this huge wealth of creativity and soul which has given so much. To ignore the role African-American, and going back further, essentially African rhythms, beats, feels, syncopation and so much more has played in the music we love is to allow another bluesman to die in obscurity and poverty in a delta shack whilst those, such as the Stones, who drew their fame and success directly from the blues get on the tour bus again.

It seems that in fact all of the music of the 20th century, minus classical, has been brought about in large part through the influence of Africa, as expressed through those from that continent forcibly relocated in the US. A story of brutality which in a strange turn of events gave rise to some of the most creative and influential musical fields of our times. Blues, Jazz and all its later advents such as soul and funk stand towering over our musical landscape, alongside many of us still today. Exactly how an ethnic group that currently make up less than 14% of the American population have had such a huge impact on the field of music as a whole is complex. I would argue it is a story of hope and also inspiration that from some of the greatest oppression done to any peoples in recent times they gave the world some of the most potent and rich musical genres, styles and sounds. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, B.B King, Howlin’ Wolf to Hendrix, Ray Charles, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Etta James. The list is long and can be suited to almost any musical taste.

In light of the huge contribution it seems it is right to pay homage and recognise this extraordinary cultural thread, a thread with many faces but essentially the same foundations; a soul jarring ability to connect with the self and cause an emotional reaction. To see this one only need go back to some grainy Skip James recording or hear one of Parker’s disciples blasting out a heady bop lick with compelling, jittery urgency.

Jazz, Kerouac, Hip Hop and Dylan in the same breath. Only with recognition can come appropriate action, which in this case could be a number of things including a rebalancing of how we judge the value or worth of cultures or continents, to imagine a day when the music an ethnic group has gifted the world is considered as equally important to the GDP or wealth this or that country is able to generate. In this respect Africa truly is a land of superior wealth.


Aboriginal Australia and the continuing violation of rights

There are many countries across the globe which have a very poor record in their dealings with indigenous people, but Australia stands out for a few key reasons: it’s relatively recent settlement, the fact that it happened directly as a result of the actions of Great Britain, the continued deep collaboration between the two nations and the pervasive nature of racism within Australian society to this day. Whilst Australia projects itself onto the world stage as a ‘developed’ and moral nation it seems necessary to try and bring back issues into the light of day which have been so successfully hidden away and, crucially, remained unaddressed by successive Australian governments, Australia’s largely European-descended citizenry and the global community more generally.

This is not simply a list of historical wrongs, of which there are a huge number in Australia’s dealings with Aboriginal people, but more a call for change in the present. This is important as, too often, indigenous issues are conceived of by Australians, and the global community, as rooted in the past and relating to irrelevant groups of people who may need a symbolic apology at some point but little more. This is a diversion on the part of a citizenry unwilling to open their eyes to the wrongs they carry out in the present through their support of a national system which ensures the continued denial of justice to the Aboriginal population, and a government who has strong vested interests in maintaining the landless and marginalised status of peoples who once roamed the huge landmass as their own. Worth noting here is that the majority of Australia’s strong economic ‘growth’ in recent years has been fuelled directly by the extracting of resources from the interior, a far easier process with the land essentially vacant and with no guardians to prevent the plunder of the earth.[1]

australia-export-stats

Source: ABS, Australian International Trade in Goods and Services, 5368.0 [2]

In keeping with a long tradition in Western society, it is fitting to start this tale not at the beginning but very near to the present and act as if this was the beginning. Our start date is the one that counts. This has been the rule which has applied to all western settlement drives. The goings on of the ‘savages’ prior to the arrival of Europeans was not important, the native only served as a means of self-affirmation; a blank template upon which to project European ideals. They were peoples who, it was decided upon, had no claim to the land upon which they lived, with it declared as terra nullius, or vacant land, and as such deemed ripe for the taking. It was with this attitude that the settlement of Australia was undertaken beginning in the 1780s. Dispossession was generally not regarded as in any way untoward, if anything it was believed the natives would eventually be civilised by it in line with the highly racist unilineal or social evolutionary development model dominant at the time.[3]

European settlement brought a savage end to an illustrious, uninterrupted period of human habitation of at least 30,000 years.[4] First came the crippling bouts of disease, to which there was little native resistance, and then a continuous line of dispossession working its way outwards from areas of European habitation as and when they lusted for more acreage. A landmass with a staggering range of tribal groups and customs, all united by an animistic conception of the world around, were, in a relatively short period of time, slaughtered in large numbers, harried, hunted and resettled into ‘stations’, quite similar to the reservation model used in the United States. The Aboriginals were deprived of all that they had known and forced to become sedentary, holding a front row seat to witness the decay of their own culture. Communities deprived of air were left to fester, over time witnessing the breakdown of past norms, their huge array of languages, their complex and far reaching religious practices and the essence of everything which once was. Hope was, and continues to be lost, and substance abuse continues to be self-prescribed as a remedy to the gaping hole left by the actions of white Australia.

It is to this backdrop then that the concerned Australian state emerges. After hundreds of years of flagrant cruelty, dispossession and the denial of rights (most Aboriginal People were still regulated under the Flora and Fauna Law up until 1967 when they were granted citizenship),[5] the Australian government now speaks of their concern for the Aboriginal peoples. Apologies are offered for the past (see Rudd’s address to parliament in 2008), National ‘Sorry days’ declared,[6] and solutions presented to help in some way ameliorate what is clearly a fairly extreme situation in regards to the discrepancies between Aboriginal-dominated communities and those of their Australian counterparts. Papers are written and policies announced, not usually paying attention to the wishes of the Aboriginal people themselves, naturally. How the white-dominated Australian state can be in a position to present ‘solutions’ to the issues affecting Aboriginal communities when the vast majority of the problems stem from the dispossession carried out by the now concerned party is an important precursory question to consider in any evaluation of this issue. It is not to say that because something awful was done in the past, a very recent one in Australia’s case, that the same party cannot act in a positive way in the future, but rather that until the basic reality of the direct causality between the actions of white Australia in regard to settlement and brutality against Aborigines and their current predicament is accepted, Australia will not be able to move onto a real consideration of what, by the least exacting standards, could be considered somewhat just redress for the situation experienced by the Aboriginal population.

The need for change is pressing. Even if, to begin with, this means only discussing the issue of the continuing violation of a peoples’ rights. There is no real established narrative in our society concerning the plight of indigenous people in the present day. From the reservations of the U.S where life expectancy squats in the early 40’s, to the tribes of Brazil facing bullets from loggers lusting for hardwoods and to those Adivasi in India waging a suicidal insurgency against the state. It is important that we recognise the suffering and wrongs in both the past and present as a prerequisite to moving forwards positively alongside indigenous communities into a shared future.

Allowing Aboriginal Australians to find the suitable mix between their original cultures and European Australia’s without state pressure is crucial. A real offering of justice would also include the speeding up of the return of land rights and Aboriginal ownership over areas traditionally inhabited by tribal peoples as well as increased autonomy for Aboriginal schools with them permitted choice over how they want to balance the Australian national curriculum alongside their own traditional cultural education. Crucially, in the short term, it would also involve a fair distribution of funds, most sensibly a proportion of government revenue generated from the sale of minerals and coal extracted from Aboriginal land. Whilst undoubtedly unpopular with a large number of Australians there would be little argument against it being a fair way to move forwards alongside Aboriginal communities when taking all considerations, both historical and present day, into account. With increased funds and a real opportunity for communities to take ownership once again of their own futures there would be the real possibility of radical change within Aboriginal communities and also the opportunity for the Australian nation state to move forwards no longer so horribly blighted by the wholesale mistreatment of a whole segment of its society.

[1] Mineral exports (excluding oil & gas) worth approx. $107 billion in 2012-13, accounting for around 59% of goods and services exports and 71% of merchandise exports. One of the world’s largest exporters of coal- http://www.ga.gov.au/scientific-topics/minerals/basics

[2] http://www.minerals.org.au/resources/coal/exports

[3] http://anthropology.ua.edu/cultures/cultures.php?culture=Social%20Evolutionism

[4] Aboriginal settlement of Australia- http://australianmuseum.net.au/the-spread-of-people-to-australia

[5] Flora and Fauna Law- https://www.culturalsurvival.org/news/3-horrendous-anti-indigenous-laws

[6] http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/sorry-day-stolen-generations


‘COP21 and the battle over the climate change narrative’

 

In the wake of the Paris negotiations last month there certainly are many positives which can be drawn from the debate. Levels of public interest in climate change and the recognition from politicians across the globe of the need to address the issue is undoubtedly higher than ever before. The COP21 talks will almost certainly galvanise more action than any of its predecessors, especially if agreement is maintained on a tougher target of 1.5 degree maximum warming levels over the previously discussed 2 degree rise. However, it is clear that the biggest challenge remains how to translate this increased political will, increased public engagement and increased pressure from campaigning organisations into tangible action on the ground within a relatively short space of time, with most estimates agreeing on the need for a near complete transition to renewables within 50-70 years.

Herein it seems lies the crucial problem which is the way in which the debate is presented and the actions of vested interests on attempts to enact significant changes to our current and unsustainable energy model. This battle for the narrative around climate change and the role of key vested interests in the debate via the PR and lobbying firms which they employ could well be the last and most challenging sticking point in any effort to ensure a sustainable future for the planet.

 

Role of corporate interests in the steering of the climate change narrative

Different techniques are used by some of the key polluting corporations and industries to achieve their financial aims. These include the blocking of climate action by directly funding disinformation and climate denial campaigns (Exxon Mobil with the help of their PR firm Edelman for example) or in the way in which companies and consortiums seek to present themselves as part of the solution to the climate change issue whilst continuing to carry out heavily polluting activities. This is achieved in a number of ways, but notably in recent years can be seen in the promotion of discredited and ineffective approaches such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and the presentation of natural gas as a ‘bridge’ or ‘clean’ fuel. By pumping millions into lobbying in these areas and ignoring, in relation to natural gas for instance, how aggressive extraction methods often bring it up to the same level as coal in terms of pollution, companies are able to re-position themselves as agents of the change which, behind closed doors, so many of them oppose.

The revolving door between policy-making and PR firms means that companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron are able to bring to bear great leverage on policy-making which could be seen at the Copenhagen climate summit of 2009 with heavy lobbying by the International Chamber of Commerce and others who were pushing for a rejection of binding carbon reduction targets and an emphasis instead on CCS and the addressing of climate change issues through market based mechanisms.

 

The wider context and public engagement with climate change

Whilst specific lobbying techniques on the ground may have changed, the wider strategy is one which we have seen time and again over the years, most notably in relation to the Tobacco lobby and its attempts over a period of many years to delay and derail attempts at increased regulation. The stakes now are even higher and the profits at risk far greater so it is understandable that the situation has become a veritable minefield of complexities. There is undoubtedly also increased subtlety in the lobbying approach as compared to the days of the tobacco battles, especially in Europe where outright climate denial gains limited traction (the same cannot be said for the U.S here). The backroom lobbying of policy makers, the movement of talent between the fields of policy into PR as well as broader attempts to shape and influence the public narrative around climate change are all key tools in the armoury of organisations attempting to put brakes on the process of change and transition to renewables.

Moving forwards it seems a separation between lobbyists and policy makers is key and, at a minimum, we need publicly available information on which firms are paying which PR companies to lobby on their behalf. In the meantime though it seems public awareness is crucial. As outlined in an article earlier this week by Charles Donovan and Christopher Corbishley on this blog, in a lot of places renewable energy is already cheaper than fossil fuels and ready for highly effective deployment. Whether in regards to wind or solar PV there have been huge advances made. This, however, flies in the face of the often-heard public narrative of the ‘gap’ which remains in terms of cost and efficiency of renewables as compared to fossil fuels. This is just one example of how the public narrative needs to be re-shaped around the facts rather than the narrative peddled by those with a huge financial stake in the continuation of our current fossil fuel-based energy model. If more businesses both in the UK and across the world were made aware of the financial gains available through a transition from fossil fuels to renewables rather than the moral argument in isolation then we could start to see the real change needed on the ground. Here also it will be crucial for government involvement in the form of both public awareness and information dissemination but also schemes which support businesses transitioning to renewables.

With this intelligent mix of increased public awareness on climate change issues and solutions available on the ground locally in tandem with increased transparency on the activities of firms lobbying on behalf of key polluters there may be time yet to realise the change necessary to keep warming levels below a runaway level. One thing is for certain though, that is whilst negotiations such as those currently taking place in Paris are crucial to setting the overall framework and agreements between nations it is just the start of the necessary action on the ground by national government and a whole range of educational and civil society organisations.

 


Travel Writing


‘Of transvestites, tea and trains in the Indian Subcontinent’

Journeys on the rail network of this country all possess a kind of incandescence, a maintained crescendo of a huge variety of human activity which has been known to overwhelm those unaccustomed to its nature. A throwing together of colours, smells, classes, frantic boarding sessions, patrolling transvestites collecting cash and perennially open carriage doors packed full of smokers leaning out precariously over tracks speeding away below.

Huge trains chugging on over distances unimaginable to us here in these small islands. Twenty to forty hour journeys as normal in which one’s small berth, sleeping six or more, becomes a slightly insane moving home frequented, most regularly, by wallahs of various sorts offering everything from chai to puri, subji, samosas, fruit of all kinds, clothes, electronics and every PepsiCo-owned Indian drink you could dare to dream of. The distant drawn out calls of “chaiii, coffeee” travel almost constantly down carriages. Ten pence a pop and off they hop at another station to ply their wares on another train.

Travel-weary and groggy, it was into this exemplary form of highly organised Indian chaos that I was somewhat unwillingly thrown on a recent passage from Guwahati in India’s North East provinces back to the capital of Delhi. A rushed tuc tuc journey to the station through quiet dawn-lit streets saw me arrive at the station just in time to see the blue diesel juggernaut pulling in. Massed alongside crowds of pilgrims and holy men there for a religious festival, and with the customary waft from the latrine sections hanging in the air, my carriage was hastily found and boarded.

A few hours later a raised voice, almost scolding in nature, accompanied by a slapping together of the hands drifted down to me in my berth: the tell-tale signs of approaching transvestite money collectors. Still adjusting to the reality of the journey that lay ahead, this was not my time of choice for a visit. Yet this was India and no more out of place here than public urination or beautifully manifested acts of daily spirituality. Their technique is to instil annoyance to the degree that people pay for departure and after performing in our booth and playing on the insecurities of husbands sitting alongside their wives they receive payment from us and move on down the train, leaving me to drift back into a light sleep.

Countless chai’s and forty-five hours later the train pulled into Anand Vihar station in Delhi. With only a modest delay of five hours and probably about the same amount of sleep, I was relieved to step onto the platform and continue the next leg of the journey North.

 


‘The Brigadier in Bhimtal’

An early start into the lush Himalayan forest gave dappled light and dancing beams upon the leaves. Passing through and beyond the local forest village we were reminded of the relativity of the tranquility by sounds of frequent trucks passing along the road in Do Gaon below, itself a small one street town yet a sign of India’s rapacious ‘development’ even in these once-remote areas.

Chai’s were made hasty as our meeting with the Brigadier beckoned. Within a few minutes raised arms had brought a hitch and the open-back truck was eagerly boarded.

Warm morning air and sharp corners ensured an invigorating start to the day. Lower foothills rolling away into higher peaks graced both sides of the winding road as our driver attempted every overtake possible, accompanied by the characteristic horn use.

The absence of observed regulations in these lands and readiness of people to accept much higher levels of risk cannot fail to excite on occasions someone travelling from Europe. When it reaches a crescendo, the experience of travel on India’s road and rail network can quickly become an exemplary form of highly organised chaos, one which can cope with incredible strain and population pressure still maintaining continuous operation.

The quiet town of Bhimtal sits perched above a large lake and exudes a relaxed feel with its houses placed leisurely on the slopes. Finding the driveway set back from the road with gates suitably inscribed with title and retired status of Brigadier Pant we made our way up to find a quiet garden scene with helpers planting and their children playing on the lawn overlooking the lake below. Greeted by his wife, tea was quickly offered and a suitably accommodating patio lounger found.

An interesting and probing conversation with Kum Kum follows, characteristic it seems of so many here in the Indian subcontinent. Displayed is a supple association with global, domestic and general goings on. From economics and youth employment to the environment, farming and our global future, and all coupled with this knowing twinkle in the eye, a compassionate humility, in some way informed by an underlying recognition of the triviality and relative insignificance of so much to which we ascribe value in our modern times.

This, I have later decided, is in part the result of growing up in an environment in which one is exposed on a regular basis to human struggles of all kinds, a reality of existence which we in the western world have so shielded ourselves from, a reality that reaches us through news broadcasts rather than first-hand experience. And in part also the result of a sense of a spiritual underpinning to the life of many here in India of all different religions. Spirituality is present and displayed here in ways we have long forgotten in most of Europe, there is a huge shared bond between Hindus for instance, which exists as a result of sharing in, and having insight into, an ancient knowledge religious knowledge, and this at times inevitably translates across into informing worldviews on temporal, as well as spiritual, affairs.

Dragging hungrily on a gold flake a little distanced removed from the sensibilities of Kum Kum I see the Brigadier striding up the driveway. Looking at least a decade under his ripe age of seventy-three he dons his characteristic up-curling mustache and baggy joggers. A brief shouted exchange and embrace is followed by a jovial scolding concerning the unwise habit of poison-inhalation.

Unpredictable internet, chai, thali and chasing macaques later, we sit once more with the Brigadier in the fading Himalayan light. He has this certain presence in which one feels secure and light of heart. A deep humour coupled with great kindness, he was a man many respected. Born to Brahmin parents towards the last years of the British Empire in India; he had seen a great deal of change. A nationalist, as you’d expect from one who’d given so much time to the armed forces, yet not in a combative way, just an assured confidence and pride in his nation.

Vegetarian by birth and lifelong believer and practitioner of Ayurvedic homeopathy, his journey into farming and plant cultivation seemed natural. He had a huge wealth of knowledge on crop and plant varieties both in relation to food and medicine. This Indian- specific knowledge was then also coupled with an international perspective from his time spent abroad on projects such as the San Francisco Garden Project. This was the context to which people from all over the world were now able to come with purpose to this little known area of the Himalayan foothills to join an idea of immense relevance and value to the present day. As I sat there I thought that this project which I also had come to be a part of now was an example of inspired thinking and organic development imbued with a grace only afforded to things pure in heart.

Moving to depart in the blackness with newly-acquired seedlings held under arms, Mr Malik and I bid our farewells and headed off into the Bhimtal night, confident that the Brigadier’s blessings would protect us from the leopards which stalk our forest path home.

 


‘Never an empty pitcher’- Drinks with the President of the Achuar Nation

Things began unremarkably as we embarked on day two of our time in Puyo, a town located in Central Ecuador and the gateway to much of the Ecuadorian Amazon. A hasty rendezvous with our Achuar friend, who was living there at the time, was organised early morning and upon meeting he told us he had been in touch with the President of the Achuar Nation and that he was keen to meet us. The news was welcome, if not somewhat daunting coming completely out of the blue. After an impromptu machete purchase in preparation for our entry into the forest within the next week to begin filming, our unlikely three-man unit hastened towards the ad hoc street side bar owned by relatives of the President.

Upon arriving we enter through a door space created by the rolled up corrugated sheeting above. Hand-hewn wooden benches and tables are scattered across the floor of the one room bar. We see the President sitting on the table immediately to the left with an associate who looks to be from the government or a related ministry with a pass hanging from his neck and paler skin pointing to his non-indigenous ethnicity. Upon Pascal’s instruction we order a pitcher of the local beer, shake hands with the two of them, exchanging greetings, before sitting on our own table slightly removed and to the right.

Keenly aware of the Ecuadorian government’s interest in projects such as ours and of meetings between journalists or filmmakers and indigenous leaders in the country, we awaited the presidents arrival with as much calm as we could muster. After ten minutes or so my friend, as dictated by formality, goes over to the President offering him a glass of beer and inviting him to join our table. Within a short space of time the he is seated opposite me and we are able to commence a dialogue.

He makes for an imposing figure. Of medium height and strong build with jet black hair hanging, untied, down his back to waist level. He emits a strong sense of pride and dignity, in large part through a kind of fierce eye contact. This sense of pride is also surely enhanced by his position within the nation, and it is clear to us that this is not an engagement in which missteps would go down favourably.

The format of the conversation is as dictated by custom with each individual taking it in turns to speak with set piece stints and without the constant interjection and toing and froing which characterises so many of our conversations here in the western world. The content however is not constrained and we are able to roam as freely as our political wariness, a justified wariness as it turns out, allows for. We take him over the film project and its aims. Of particular interest in the exchange are his responses to questions around resource exploration to which he says the laymen of the nation and himself are in near complete unity in their opposition. A later conversation with an associate of ours puts into slight question as to how long he has been so adamantly opposed, however, I have no reason to doubt his current commitment to this position.

We speak also of external diplomatic relations between the Achuar and their tribal cousins to the South, the Shuar, in which he alludes to possible tension of late, as well as the lineage of musicians to which he belongs and the way in which his current role has prevented him from returning to his home community for over a year. This makes me reflect upon life for an indigenous person here in this city, away from the traditions which had once so defined individuals within. Puyo it seems is not a place to which one would choose to permanently uproot to from the jungle interior without really strong reason. He also makes reference to a collective two day Ayahuasca punishment imposed on his community by the national Achuar body for their misdemeanour in regards to accepting the construction of a road which now runs through his community. His visible disquiet in discussing this topic means we steer the conversation away from the area fairly quickly.

He also provides interesting insight in the discussion of environmental protection. Like ourselves, he views the preservation of Achuar culture as inextricably linked with the protection of the forests and the latter as no more important than the former. Rather that both are connected in a holistic whole: Achuar life is the forest and that a well-functioning Achuar society so too means a healthy and protected forest. This is a view I am very much supportive of and one which has flown in direct opposition to much of the puritanical conservationism of some environmental NGOs and others in past decades who have seemed to believe in clearing land of all human populations, whether millennia-old inhabitants or not, in line with a kind of ‘wilderness’ preservation model.

After a few hours of a very interesting exchange, the many times replenished pitcher was emptied between the four glasses for, what felt like, should be the last time. Offering our thanks we arrange to come by his office before leaving Puyo to collect some sort of territory access pass in return for a small administrative payment, naturally. Undoubtedly feeling the effects of many a pitcher we then depart into the Puyo night.

 


 Reviews


Sun Ra & Cosmic Compositions Vol.3 Album

A piece I wrote in 2015 subsequently published with Public Pressure Magazine:

http://www.publicpressure.org/a-message-from-saturn/

I knew nothing about Sun Ra until some time last year when I was played a hip hop album called ‘Cosmic Compositions Vol.3’ dedicated to him and his work. A hazy attic in Leeds provided the backdrop to the overdue introduction and it is one I remain thankful for to this day. It reminds me of hip hop’s status as a unique and unrivalled musical art form in the way it has the ability to pick up old threads and musical lineages and, through sampling work or a dedication, draw attention to and revive interest in an artist or genre possibly overlooked by the current generation. Be it the jazz and funk of Mr Brown in the earliest ‘80’s sampling or this album and the focus on Sun Ra, one can see time and again over the years contemporary hip hop artists picking up and featuring music from previous eras. The primary purpose of this is to make great sounds but often also serves as a form of musical education for listeners.

Born Herman Blount in Alabama 1914, Sun Ra was a prolific musician, composer, pianist, poet and philosopher. Grounded in jazz and growing up with the sounds of Ellington and Fats Waller, a mystical experience in the late 1930s in which he believed himself to have visited Saturn left him convinced of his duty to, as instructed, speak universally through his music. Remaining heavily under-represented during his lifetime, despite his near constant presence as band leader with his ‘Arkestra’ from 1950 to his death in 1993, he was an individual who seemed to insist on looking outwards for inspiration, treating his music as a timeless universal space outside of the confines of past, present or future and a space in which he could represent and turn others towards his cosmic philosophies and approach to life.

A key pioneer of Afro-Futurism and a consistent promoter of peace and harmony on a planet he claimed to be only a visitor on, his musical back catalogue is large. He also delivered many lectures, including a series at Berkeley in the early 1970s, which are a great insight into his worldview and beliefs. For those interested in Jazz, Sun Ra is a master of a whole range of styles and approaches from swing to bepob and freejazz and is a great proponent of the genre.

The album, dedicated to the intriguing figure, is the third volume in the ‘Cosmic Compositions’ series by the New Zealand-run project. Featuring a wide range of producers and dominated by a jazzy feel with laid back and often cut up beat cycles it also showcases wide ranging sampling from Nas’ Illmatic in Pianosea to sections from interviews with Sun Ra. It is a piece of work which in part acknowledges a continuous thread in African-American music running from plantation blues through to early jazz, swing, soul right on to hip hop and, consequently, the majority of electronic music consumed today which relies on techniques of sampling and a certain mind-set pioneered by early hip hop.

Sun Ra represents a proud figure within this narrative, standing up and taking ownership of this heritage but also looking to it futuristically as a means to raise people up out of temporality and oppression and communicate on a universal level. He is someone who seems to stand slightly removed and aloof from the 20th century’s musical discourse and a figure who, the more you look into, the more fascinated you become.

“In fact I would say musicians are supposed to be God’s harmony department, but most of the time they’re in discord and they’re in disharmony and they become commercial matter, but actually music is what’s supposed to keep people inspired and keep them seeing this invisible beauty of the mind and spirit. That’s what music is for.”

The full Cosmic Compositions album can be found here:

Bandcamp


Airhead ‘For Years’ Review

Despite this release not being brand new it seems right to feature Rob McAndrews (a.k.a Airhead). A true musical alchemist and deep bass aficionado, his album release ‘For Years’ is an eclectic mix of beautiful and varied songs ranging from the meditative, atmospheric droning of ‘Masami’ to the more disjointed and cut-up club feel of ‘Fault Lines’.

As James Blake’s touring guitarist he is not that widely known as an artist in his own right, but this will unlikely remain the case. He is someone who clearly puts a great deal of time into his production process, sampling methods and choices. One of the ways in which Airhead stands out is his understanding of spacing, as is the case with his co-musician Blake. There is no heady insistence on the over-layering of sounds or reliance on a catchy, vacuum-packed beat, instead he is comfortable pushing forward a new and alternative sound, which in respect to a song such as ‘Azure Race’, may see us forwards into future decades of electronic music.

Whilst much of the industry insists on turning lead into brightly polished lead, it is artists such as Airhead who undertake the full alchemical process; a painstaking and often under-represented venture in music production, yet one which will undoubtedly grow in importance as the dominant musical discourse continues to homogenise and bring more listeners into its fold, numbing us to what it means to put out something purely through passion rather than the pursuit of capital.

All in all this is a really enjoyable, ethereal album and one which marks out Rob McAndrews as an artist to watch for the future. In the meantime, with this next song ‘Autumn’, you can see winter in with nostalgic style.

 


Essays


Notions of holy war in Christianity and Islam

Holy war is a concept found in both Christianity and Islam and has made its impact on the history of both religions as well as the identity of believers. It has played a significant role in the interactions between the two faiths, determining relations of the past and present. In this piece a comparative analysis will be undertaken contrasting the notions of crusade and jihad in support of the thesis that, fundamentally, there is more of a precedent for holy war in Islam than Christianity. Less scriptural alteration is needed in Islam to implement, with moral and religious backing, holy war. An exploration of the early development of the concept in both religions will be carried out in an attempt to explain why it sits more comfortably in the Islamic faith as well an exploration of both religions’ reliance on the depersonalising sociological concept of the Other in enacting religious violence. Also under examination will be the idea of holy war as a somewhat inorganic phenomenon, controlled and directed from the centre, for example by an institutional power structure such as the papacy. In aid of this argument, direct comparison will be made between the actions of the Umayyad Caliphate, under whom jihadist expansionism was closely tied to imperial ambition, and those of Pope Urban II in the mobilisation of the first crusade. Running through this piece will be the fundamental assertion of the malleability of the concept and the way it is interpreted and re-forged to suit the needs of specific times and societies.

The concept of holy war has a far stronger scriptural basis in Islam than in Christianity. From its earliest decades following Mohammed’s revelation in 610 C.E, war and militant expansion played an important part in the newly burgeoning faith. It is thought Mohammed participated in, or had control over, at least eighty campaigns.[1] Unlike Christianity’s predominantly mission-led approach, Islam was almost immediately coupled with the sword. Following the prophet and his follower’s hijra to Medina, campaigns were embarked upon not only against old tribal enemies such as the Quraysh of Mecca but also upon polytheistic peoples in the area surrounding Medina, the new faith’s stronghold.[2] Territorial expansion coupled with the expansion of the faith took place at a rapid pace, spreading, within decades, throughout the Arabian Peninsula and the Quran reflects this early militancy in its numerous references to Jihad.[3] Many of the references concern an internal spiritual mission, often referred to as “greater jihad”,[4] others to the maintenance of the integrity of the religious community but many also to physical jihad in the field of battle against internal dissenters, polytheists and people of the book.[5]Attention is given to the glorious deeds of the early Muslim community in battle with the Quran demanding that the actions of these martyrs not be forgotten.[6] This is strikingly different to the image of the early pacifist Christian martyrs almost all of whom received death at the hands of a persecuting majority whilst attempting to spread the faith through mission work.

ISIL fighters in Raqqa Syria, 2014

ISIL fighters in Raqqa Syria, 2014

As demonstrated above there was a strong scriptural precedent for holy war in Islam, both defensive and aggressive, as well as an early tradition of warfare in the name of the faith, as exemplified by prophet come warrior Mohammed, which was engrained in the identity, and transmitted down through, the early Muslim community. Christianity conversely has almost no scriptural basis for violence of any sort. Taking the New Testament as the central text, no verses can be found instructing a defensive or aggressive war in the name of faith; in fact this concept is antithetical to Christ’s message of peace and love. The rejection of violence is such a central tenet of Christ’s teaching that it seems perverse that holy war could ever have found a place in Christianity;

Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword[7]

However we know that holy war did indeed find its place in the form of Christianity disseminated by the Roman Catholic Church,[8] this was only able to occur through large scale scriptural perversion, or imaginative interpretation as some may see it. This doctrinal alteration and gradual emergence of militarism in Christianity occurred over a long period of time and could quite easily form the basis of a study in itself. It was the entwining of Christianity and imperial power that marked the start of this change with Constantine’s conversion and Rome’s adoption of it as state religion. Carl Erdmann supports this idea of emerging militancy in his work The origin of the idea of crusadeciting a number of steps taken by the new state church in the legitimation of violence, including the declaration of military service as unobjectionable and a more general alignment between the church’s “ethical demands and liturgical prayers with the military functions of the state”.[9]  Christianity henceforth became tied to institutional centralised power and as a result the temporal aims of these institutions.

Herein emerges a similarity between the history of holy war in the two religions; that is the entwining of the concept with the imperial aims of centralised power. The actions of the Umayyad dynasty and those of the Papacy in relation to the first crusade illustrate this relationship. Following the last of the rightly guided Caliphs in 661 C.E the Umayyad Dynasty assumed control of a now hugely powerful Islamic Caliphate.[10] Under the dynasty expansion was taken to new levels with the whole of North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula brought under Islamic control as well as expansion eastwards into Asia. Under their rule (661-750 C.E) extensive work was carried out on the development of a comprehensive doctrine of jihad. Michael Bonner argues that the body of work composed by Umayyad Caliphs, judges and governors would form the basis of the Islamic rule of war, which would later be ascribed to “more acceptably Islamic sources, such as the companions of the prophet”.[11] It is almost impossible to try and assess how much of the Umayyad’s actions were religiously or temporally motivated, however, what is certain is that the glory of a large empire was a great prize for the dynasty. From the centre, figures such as al-Awza’i developed a body of work concerning the obligation for Muslims to participate in physical jihad interpreting and clarifying Quranic content which was used suit the aims of the empire (perpetual expansion).[12] Mujahedeen in this period can, to some extent, be seen as pawns whose religiosity was exploited to further the aims of rulers. The religious necessity of expanding the “dar al-islam” was obviously emphasised as enlarging the empire of a self-interested Caliph would not have been as appealing a recruitment drive.[13]

Span of Umayyad Caliphate's Territory

Span of Umayyad Caliphate’s Territory

The mobilisation of the first crusade by Pope Urban II can also be seen as the manipulation by a central power of the religiosity of subject peoples. Given that there was no scriptural basis for holy war in Christianity one has to ask what the temporal aims were in motivating the papacy to mobilise such a large movement. One of these aims was undoubtedly bringing back into the fold the schismatic Eastern Church as well as creating an outlet for Christian violence. An important difference however was that the Umayyad Caliphate could espouse their interpretation of an existing message from the Quran whilst the Pope had to create a whole new raft of theology to enact mobilisation. Amongst other things he personally granted heaven to those who died on crusade through the power invested in him by God and presented a somewhat “debased” form of the idea of Christian love to fit the framework of a religious war talking of crusading as an act of Christian charity.[14] The involvement of this power structure was fundamental to the first crusade and is illustrative of the more inorganic nature of Christian holy war.[15]

A similarity which unites both religions’ notions of holy war is the base level reliance on the depersonalising sociological concept of the other. Despite all the religious overtones, a key pre-requisite for any holy war is a simplistic separation between the good, fighting for God, and infidels or heathens which they face. This dehumanisation is necessary for the conduct of most conflict yet it is especially clear in the context of religious war. The Quran, in reference to jihad, makes generalised allusions throughout to infidels, idolaters and kuffar,[16]whilst the Pope’s language recorded, to a disputed degree of accuracy, at the Council of Clermont is also full of what, in modern terms, may be termed hate speech. In the Fulcher of Chartres account he is reported to have said: “O what a disgrace if such a despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the faith of omnipotent God”.[17] This unquestioning confidence in the superiority of one’s own religious clan played an important role in the interactions between the two faiths and remains relevant in the conflicts which continue to be carried out in the name of God in the Middle East today.

Council of Clermont, 1095Council of Clermont, 1095

In conclusion holy war as a concept has played a central role in the relationship between the two faiths and the development of the identity of believers. As stated at the outset, holy war sits far more comfortably in the Islamic faith and in fact played a crucial role in its development and expansion. The early entwining of Islam and militancy, combined with the ample scriptural support for it, has created a durable and lasting concept which continues to hold great relevance today. To align Christianity with the concept of holy war however required far greater scriptural alteration and the involvement of power structures. The veil of religion only just disguised the temporal and imperial aims of the Christian crusades and, in large part due to the lack of scriptural support for the notion, it has not survived the test of time to the extent that jihad has.


[1] D. Cook, “Quran and Conquest” (2005) p.6

[2] Ibid, p.5

[3] Jihad taken to mean “struggle”

[4] M. Bonner, Jihad in Islamic History: Doctrines and Practice (2006, New Jersey) p.155

[5] Quran 4:74, “So let those fight in the cause of Allah who sell the life of this world for the Hereafter”

[6] Quran 8:16, “whoever turns his back on that day.. incurs Allah’s wrath and his refuge is Hell”

[7] Matthew 26:52

[8] And later protestant church in the wars of religion yet they do not form a part of this exploration

[9] C. Erdmann, The origin of the idea of crusade (Princeton Uni. Press, 1977) p.5

[10] H. Zawati, Is Jihad a just war? War peace and human rights under Islamic and public international law (New York, 2001) p.78

[11] M. Bonner, Jihad in Islamic History, p.122

[12] R. Arzina, Early Shia thought: the teachings of Imam Muḥammad al-Baqir (London, 2000), p.101

[13] Sphere of Islam, J. T. Johnson, The holy war idea in Western and Islamic traditions (Pennsylvania, 2005), p.65

[14] J. Smith, “Crusading as an act of love”, History, 65 (1980) p.191

[15] M. Bull, “Lay enthusiasm for the First Crusade”, History, 78 (1953) p.361

[16] Quran 9:1, 9:3, 9:5 : “Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them”

[17] Fulcher of Chartres from O. Thatcher and E. McNeal,  A Source Book for Medieval History (New York, 1905) p.382

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