Radio 4


I had the pleasure this week of appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze, discussing the morality of work. Michael Portillo and Melanie Phillips gave some particularly perceptive questions. You can listen to the programme here:

On the topic of Radio 4 and self-promotion, I was also interviewed by Tom Holland for the Making Histories show, talking about digital learning and pedagogy. That is here:

Island Story – out with Repeater Books next year

Originally posted on Searching for Albion:

Day 23 094

Island Story: Journeying through unfamiliar Britain will be out next year with new imprint Repeater Books. Read an excerpt of my rides through the North-East here.

It’s a concise and fresh write-up of the journey meticulously detailed here. Readers will be familiar with what happens (all the beer, breakdowns and renegade tents…), but the analysis and reflection on those extraordinary conversations and adventures is new. I hope it’s a fitting tribute to the generosity and friendship I encountered out on the road.

Further news on publication date and launch will appear here soon. Special thanks to the readers of this blog, and those kind and thoughtful comments and messages of support that kept me riding through.

Dan – August 2015.

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Is blindness valid
Or the loss of a limb
In tallying the counts
Of a war lost or won?

Ink spilt, books closed
Paper poppy’s repose
“Compare and contrast…”
Porto, portas.

Toy men, pink map
Beat the enemy back
Duly step in your place
Donkeys, lions, lambs.

Bent double, strange hells
Never, never again
Sweet and proper it is –
Cliché that ends all wars.

Will mother remember him?
Private Smith (oder Schmidt)
Charging over the ridge,
The one they retook the next day.

Enlisted by abstractions
Schmidt J, never looked at twice,
Glories in his hero garb,
Salutes the name of the Kaiser.

Lottery of gunfire,
Smith gobbled up by the mud.
“One side loses more slowly”:
Breath expires with the wind.

Traffic loops the obelisk,
Bears “Schmidt” and dozens others.
Namesake stands beside me.
“An honourable sacrifice”.

Odd honour, being sacrificed,
Potlatch of the civilised world.
But words are only as good as
Who or what they’re aimed at.

No columns in this ledger for
Recommending righting wrongs.
Oblivion’s concise, cuts to the chase.
When clichés repeat, abstractions fixate.

Future historians


Around 37% of voters on 7 May 2015 voted for a Conservative MP, giving the party a majority to form government. The election was, characteristically, defined by an aggressive and well-organised campaign across the national newspapers and broadcasters that effectively produced opinions of economic recovery and SNP menace in the people’s minds. FPTP effectively produced the characteristic result: key marginals and negative voting deciding the outcome (a common position would be “I choose Tory over Labour-SNP, even though I prefer Lib Dem”). The Commons now has some more Conservatives and few Lib Dems; meanwhile the unelected House of Lords and the unelected head of state carry on unperturbed.

Hand-wringing about a rightward shift in public opinion isn’t entirely justified. True, if we incorporate the 12.6% vote for UKIP, which resulted in one MP, and add this to the Conservative vote, then we could, arguably, claim that almost half of voters expressed a right-wing choice. And true, BSA surveys have traced a growing hostility to unregulated immigration, and a growing lack of sympathy to benefits claimants. But as my interviews last summer for Searching for Albion indicated, behind this common opinion are anxieties and struggles about low pay, unaffordable housing and a depressed lack of future. An effective deception-operation has migrants and claimants given as cause, but again I couldn’t say a majority of people I’ve met have taken on all the rhetoric. Questioning the narrative’s inconsistencies soon unravels it (how many migrants/claimants do you know? What proof have you they do this? Maybe instead it’s the case that… Etc.) The power of this operation is regularly indicated in surveys that trace a vast gulf between public polled opinions of various scandal-stories, e.g. number of immigrants, number of Muslims, and their actuality.

Believing that the entire public has taken on Tory myths about a collective negative solidarity over the deficit also seems unwarranted. The collapse of the Labour and Lib Dem vote (to be measured, in fairness, only in Scotland and English suburban/small town marginals) could itself be explained as expressive of a hatred of politicians, and the entrenched opinion that they are not credible, will lie if necessary, and have no relevant life experience. Memories of the Expenses scandal are sharp, and stories of mass surveillance, covered-up child abuse by politicians and newspaper hacking have coagulated into a glug of cynicism and distrust about ‘the Establishment’. Curiously the Lib Dems have been worst hit by this backlash in attempting to present themselves as something alternative. It was always likely that Miliband’s party would’ve collapsed in similar fashion over five years due to its commitment to austerity. But the narrative of Miliband’s rapid demise will probably be rewritten: too socialist, not aspirational enough. But he came across as robotic and fake (“as they all do”), and had no obvious policies. His inability to justify the previous Labour regime’s work in propping up the banking system also didn’t help. But the SNP and UKIP have absorbed the socialism that Miliband could’ve successfully advocated, drawing on trade union and left wing grassroots movements, instead of the bowdlerized hardworking families Blairite schtick.

Spinoza asked ‘why do people fight for their servitude as if for their salvation’? Five years of this government may well result in England and Wales leaving the EU, the loss of the protections of the Human Rights Act rendering employment in the UK an even more precarious experience, the collapse and privatisation of the NHS, the disappearance of social housing, the normalisation of suicides and deaths related to benefits sanctions and poverty, and the mass immiseration of the working class as in-work benefits are cut too. The City of London as a booming tax haven, the future a mess of debt repayments. It’s going to be awful. But it is not popular. So why do people fight for their servitude? Spinoza’s answer was that they do not. Populations are ‘enlisted’, as Frederic Lordon has recently phrased it, into servicing and experiencing the desires of their masters as their own (strong economy, tough on law and order, striking through red tape, punishing scroungers…).

We can read Spinoza, rightly, as a revolutionary. But his point is to understand how this kind of enlistment takes place. Always suspicious of free will, recognising that the ‘self’ was an internalised cultural by-product, Spinoza tells us that ideas and activities are produced by political institutions, languages, histories and customs, and emotional narratives we tell about ourselves. A total change has to capture these institutions, cultures and narratives by producing a unified public movement of its own. A counter-public with the aim of becoming the public. Because power is immanent in Spinoza’s system, models of total revolution or unleashing inner potential won’t help. Discoursing online or in the street, joining an already-arranged march, or voting for an independent left-wing party are good, but not enough. What’s required is this production of real counter-institutions. To aim for success without breaking current frames of reference and creating new ones is impossible. Entryism is an illusion with no proven long-term efficacy; it surprises me that it still remains voguish, though perhaps this reflects the ambitions of various activists thriving in the London media bubble. Producing counter-institutions rather than those with popular disenfranchisement built into them. Inevitably, what’s needed is the ground and virtual ability to counter the state’s violence and media fear operations with a counter-violence and counter-fear. The problem of violence, direct and indirect, faces the oppressed in this country every day, and protesters on occasion. To not have a position on it is to reinforce the status quo. And, above all, it belongs to the young, most disenfranchised of all by FPTP, whose minds are still open and willing to become a new public, one focused on the common good now and of the future.

Spinoza’s interventions into politics in his own life were always too theoretical, often occurring too late, and dangerously jeopardising his own safety. It is unlikely that the English Left will manage to change its ‘fortunes’ by 2020 (again, Spinoza instructs that fortune itself is a form of servitude to events we either refuse or are unable to understand). I’ve no illusions that this inarticulate note will be read by future historians. It felt like a good title. Those that do will already think like me. The same result will be repeated, because it always will, because such opinions and votes are socially produced. But it is not impossible. All things are as difficult as they are rare. The mobilisation of social democracy in Scotland indicates, even in the short-term, an inoffensive, winnable strategy. But facing the Scots after their probable independence in 5-10 years, and the dispersed English Left at the moment now, is what next?

Paradoxes of a Spinozist


The more one lives by reason, the less one prioritises reason in others.

A mind is only as active as its body. A body is only as active as its mind. Both are one, yet irreducible to the other.

God? Nature. Nature? God. Infinity? Now. Now? Infinity.

The more selfless one becomes, the more forgiving one is of other people’s selfishness and one’s own.

Everything could be any other way. There is no other way things could be.

Every difficulty presents an opportunity for self-mastery.

Never relying on a true friend.

Freedom: living by desire, without free will. Living by reason, without any moral imperative to do so. Living as if infinite, without regard for tomorrow.

Before opening one’s mouth to mock, curse or moan, check: why.

As dangerous as empty fear: empty hope.

The problem of evil is that evil is not a problem.

Love’s reward is loving, its outward animation. Lovers harbour secrets, but there are no secrets to love.

Love is blind, and cautious like the blind.

Reality is perfection, and our perfection in this realisation.

A pebble tumbling from a roof; a drunk issuing home truths; a philosopher who reads the world as lines, planes and bodies: the first two know free will, though the latter alone is free.

Power is never over, only with. Power against is no power at all.

Express one’s contempt for misers, moralisers and killjoys by laughing with them gently and shaking their hands.

To recognise the impossibility of ever reaching the ideal one strives toward, and be reaffirmed by this difficulty.

Interrogate all superfluous punctuation.

Paper and razor


I’ve two oddball pieces in two collected editions by Pavement Books. “On Paper” is a short story, included by Jack Boulton in Hand Picked: Stimulus Respond, and “We hate humans!” is an article on skinheads and the demonisation of working class violence in Return to the Street, edited by Sophie Fuggle and Tom Henri. There are far better pieces in both collections and I recommend a quick peek, and the other publications of this relatively new press.

Manchester, impressions


Dawn, Albert Square

Golden light streaks down Mount Street, casting shadows over William Gladstone, cast in metal and stone. Pigeons are stirring, the occasional swooshing of a passing taxi’s interrupted by the gentle swishing of a sweeper-truck. I’ve landed here without a ticket or an alibi, into a city with no clear exit or entry. Cottoned in thick rings of terraced suburbia, brown brick and cramped, remnants of the dwellings where the working class built this city, roads snake in and out to a centre with no obvious centre. Lost, it might be 6am. Pause here.

There’s no statues to the textile workers, the dockers, the railway workers, the blood of this city. Who made this place might be a frustrating question to ask. Look up at the buildings. Money did, free trade, each shrieks. The Town Hall in its neo-gothic splendour, statuettes of knights and kings and queens. The extension next, Art Deco in style, a second wave, you felt sure of yourself. The Central Library with its classic pretensions, your belief that you had citizens, not subjects, that the working class would thrive through access to learning and culture, and your strange paternalistic assumptions about what that might mean. No pubs, regulated football. Then the Midland Hotel, red-brick and self-important, next to Bridgwater Hall, brassy glass façade of the modern age. I peer around each corner at these weird interruptions, the expressions of money filtered through different cultural presumptions: civic pride, crafts, a return to classic values, the adoration of property and free markets, each side by side. Was it always about the flow of money?

The bodies and stories must be hidden somewhere. You’ve knocked down the chimneys and rebuilt your city centre in the colours and forms of the future according to Corbusier, Richard Seifert and Tony Blair. Perhaps I’m looking in the wrong places. I might be better off heading out south to Moss Side and Hulme, where you once ghettoised your workers, or west to Salford, or out north to Cheetham, and north-east to Harpurhey. Friedrich Engels says you were made this way.

‘The town itself is peculiarly built, so that a person may live in it for years, and go in and out daily without coming into contact with a working-people’s quarter or even with workers, that is, so long as he confides himself to his business or to pleasure walks. This arises chiefly from the fact, that by unconscious tacit agreement, as well as with out-spoken conscious determination, the working-people’s quarters are sharply separated from the sections of the city reserved for the middle-class; or, if this does not succeed, they are concealed with the cloak of charity.’

Neat trick. But no matter how well you bred your children, the south-east clings onto its cultural hegemony. Anything with an accent is deemed to display its inferior class. It still plays out today, when prime ministers, business figures and journalists share the same school tie. Mothers on the back-to-back terraces with a little money on the side sending their sons and daughters for elocution lessons. ‘The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making’, that was E. P Thompson, writing about Halifax but writing about you too, about Peterloo, nearby. The bosses and merchants of the Free Trade Hall and Town Corporation didn’t want their workers thinking or discussing. Trade Unions began in Glasgow and they began in you, among workers in skilled trades like textiles, dreaming up something so scandalous as the right to vote. Labour, co-operatives, a working class that knew its own name, that had read Thomas Paine, William Morris, Keir Hardie and Karl Marx.

‘Down with class rule.
Down with the rule of brute force!
Down with war!
Up with the peaceful rule of the people!’

The rule of the ‘people’? That was Keir Hardie, 1914, making an appeal to the working class, and to you, on the eve of a coordinated European slaughter of the revolting industrial working class. But you had a people, you had a working class. They built this city, but you won’t let the people here remember it. A rough-sleeper shuffles through this square I’m in, the first person I’ve seen, face pale like a ghoul, eyes sleepless, city hobgoblins. Send him to a foodbank, he has no money for the gas to warm the food. It’s his own fault, attitudes to welfare hardening. God damn this in between moment in political history, in the age between the working class and the dead exhausted class. Late, skint, indebted, depressed. Anger brewing but frustrated, lashing out against nearby objects. Conversations in the night, falling out with your lover. Disappearing again, back in mental and spatial time-zones, thoughts of the past, thoughts of memories, a paralysing melancholia gripping the dreamers of revolution.

Your museum pays lip-service to their struggles. Class codes have been scrambled. Property speculators, credit cards, the still continuing divide and rule of race played out through the cipher of religion, Islam, Judaism. Education lifts you out of one class and puts you in no class. Skint, indebted, angry. Post your anger on a blog, on a placard, slap bang into the data stream that reaches oblivion a nano-second later.

‘The working class has been shafted, so what the fuck are you sneering at?’ MES, your son, his fifth pint in the Forresters, or the Woodthorpe, or wherever’s open in Prestwich, making no sense these days. Morrissey’s in America attempting to be relevant. Where’s your voice?

Now the textiles that you have made unmade you, an empire in decline. The soot and the fogs. Hard livers with hard livers. City hobgoblins, spectres, a ghost in my house til the slum-clearers pulled it down and sent us to Hulme Crescents, cities in the sky. Dreams of a socialist future that were pulled down and replaced with low-rise, low-intellect, low vision architecture. We’re in between again. A pigeon sits on the head of Gladstone and opens its bowels. Who is Gladstone, who is anyone. Morning’s further along, and people are rushing to work. Headphones in, checking their emails, their smart attire collides against my shoulders, their fragrances collide against the odours acquired through travel, through sleeping in a tent underneath electricity pylons across England and Scotland, and long unfamiliarity with a washing machine. Do they see what you saw, do they think what you thought? We’re in between moments, in between times.



Afternoon, Piccadilly Gardens

Football, kick a ball, score a goal. ‘This is what we live for’, a cheery son of yours tells me. We’re watching the milling crowds shopping with their eyes for some pleasant distraction. A new jacket, booze, chocolate, little treats, toys for adults who no longer look or live like adults. City or United pal?

I wish I knew. I’m been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand. If only these sensations would make me feel the pleasures of a normal man. University students from China and west Africa, learning here, finding knowledge here. I’m hungry, so I head into one of ten trillion local supermarkets that have erupted all over this land like Japanese knotweed. The supermarket veg is better travelled than most of your sons and daughters will ever be. Everywhere sells the same things. Under the pavements, the beach, said your children, now parents, out in Paris, out conspiring in squats and social movements forty years back. North and south becoming indistinguishable. Knock down your Albert Square, knock down your back-to-backs, and welcome into a dream age of cultural indiscernibility. A Ballard land of shopping malls where nothing matters.

‘All my people are lonely. Crowds are the most lonely thing of all. Everyone is a stranger to everyone else.’ Lowry’s wandering round here, cane in hand, trilby hat, feeling awkward amongst these crowds but compelled to record them. He’s sketching with a pencil on the back of That private misery that was once your average white male early Modernist’s, over-stimulated, under-socialised, now stretched out to these young folk here, headphones in ears, debts up to their eyeballs, political change beyond the horizon.

‘I was sorry for them, and at the same time realising that there was really no need to be sorry for them because they were quite in a world of their own’. Lowry’s cripples are today’s cripples, in a world of our own, adjusting the music and the scene, retreating into reproducible images of what are presented as our desires. Desire’s become a lack, dream’s become a need.

‘We like prosperity filtered through car and appliance sales. We like roads that lead past airports, we like airfreight offices and rent-a-van forecourts, we like impulse-­buy holidays to anywhere that takes our fancy. We’re the citizens of the shopping mall and the marina, the Internet and cable TV. We like it here, and we’re in no hurry for you to join us.”

That’s J.G. Ballard, driving through you in his mind from distant Shepperton. Your semi-detacheds and your malls could be in Staines or Twickenham, or Ickenham or Ipswich, or Preston or Prestwich, anywhere at all. Sending up these dreams that were not dreamt, desires that were not desired. Your sons and daughters hurrying hither and thither, late again. When do we turn actions into dreams, dramatise ideas into change, I ask to an empty crowd. Your suburbs are being regenerated, scrubbed clean, but there’s no hiding the grit and grime that is people’s lives. These malls, these glassy shite office blocks. They’re not enough, and I think you know it too.


Night, Salford

What lives beyond after a life well lived is spent? There is a light that never goes out, but drifting out by Salford Quays, one could be forgiven for thinking anything existed here before 2003. They’ll sweep you away too if you lose these dreams of civic pride, of the people that built you and made you. There’s these quays that mean nothing, avenues all lines with trees that lead to a half-full office block. No soul stalks here except the passing office worker, a tough day today.

‘I think that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent, to put himself under that government.’ That’s Thomas Rainsborough talking, addressing a large crowd of curious passers-by who are today flicking through Sky Plus, searching fruitlessly for some lost pleasure which won’t be found here, like trying to find a pearl in the sand. The decisions are made elsewhere, delegate and demarcate, lost in the post. Perhaps it’s too much struggle striving. I’m passing here just watching the lights flicker through the glass, wondering how dates these Norman Rogers’ dreams will look in thirty years time, and what will replace them. I see cleaners hovering between the windows.

‘They are ghostly figures … They are symbols of my mood, they are myself.’ I can’t help quoting Lowry, because sometimes only voices of the past make sense, like a parent, or singer, or the sound of the wind, the air that was elsewhere ten seconds ago, or the light of the stars, barely filtered through your ever thick clouds, transmissions from millions of light years. Escape’s always been on the tip of the tongue, ‘they keep calling me’, those dead souls stalking Ian Curtis, escapism into drugs, or travel, or dreams of revenge, the north will rise again. But it will turn out wrong. Perhaps it need not. The neoliberals put the torch to the docks, as they’ll put the torch to your civic pride, unless you stop them. Stop looking to London with fingers covering your eyes! Manchester, so much to answer for. But they will, because struggles are widening, fissures are deepening. There’s only so much money to be made, land to be speculated, energies to be burnt. You’re asleep, but you haven’t had a dream in a long time. The luck you’ve had could turn a good town bad.

Still, something’s unanswered. I’ve felt it in the conversations here, in the moods here, the disputes here. There’s promise without need for excessive pride. I’m lost again somewhere by MediaCity, lost as I started the day by Albert Square. Nothing points left or right, only up and down. Look up to the secret splendours of these buildings, to the joys and dreams in the minds of the people I’ve spoken to, it’s there. Let me finish with Lowry, talking about somewhere else, but let’s attribute it to Manchester, this proud city’s cocky enough to pull it off.

‘The battle of life is there. And fate. And the inevitability of it all. And the purpose.’

Written as writer in residence for Manchester Left Writers.