Sometimes over certain things, I feel long in the tooth.

When those much younger than me learn or discover and are convinced that the lesson is unique or the discovery new, despite it being obvious (to me) that’s not the case, it’s often difficult to hold back to just a knowing smile and remain schtum.

When I do hold back, perhaps it’s in recognition that we all, in our own ways, have to learn for ourselves; some things can’t be taught except by experience and sometimes not even then. So it’s not kind or charitable, simply realistic and encouraging.
Is it cruel or arrogant then to sometimes go beyond a knowing smile and gently rib or pointedly remark on long-made discoveries and old lessons mistakenly awarded novelty or even left unlearned?

Maybe not holding back is born of frustration at all the seemingly valuable stuff it’s not possible to pass down the years and so has to be, perhaps painfully, re-learned once more, sometimes at great cost. And maybe that strength of feeling is triggered in me only for those causes I care about or those in whom I recognise elements of a younger self.

The piss-take here, if harsh, is intended in that spirit and not by coincidence comes in at a rule-breaking 501 words.


Keeper of the Sacred Flambé

Guys, here’s lil’ ol’ me, inveterate sexy lefty, fem-anarcho, poly-curious empathist, hunched – on a Saturday night (no, really) – beneath a niffy blanket on the once sprung settee, feet tucked under me and sipping cheap sherry from a chipped china mug whilst my squat-mates are down the pub drinking next months’ gas-bill out of their £100 lottery winnings.

An opportunity for measured, calm, reflection; self-examination even? Not a chance (no, really).

Tuesday’s my deadline for The Pakora and Thursday for Literal Complicity – both awaiting 500 words of polished but edgy prose from the youngest, sassiest, political game-shifter out here.

Oh Karl Marx, how I do want to bash you: great intention, socialist credentials even, and on your day a fine writer of your time. But really, the old staple of “philosophers interpret the world – the point is to change it” simply fails to convey for my generation of young, brooding, self-assured, intelligent deviant, reprobate women, the compelling and challenging energy of “Don’t reflect or regret – rant”.

What really takes the entire gluten-free cake is the uncomplicated irresponsibility of our forbears- (that’s you, Mum and Dad, and others of your ilk) in failing to address or resolve the patriarchal, class-ridden mess that it’s fallen to me to deal with. I’m forced to find my place in a world of domination and subjection. To break these shackles has meant facing the unrelenting pressure to perfect myself.

Only selfless duty and plain day humanity have made me the literary serrated-edge, keen – in an enthusiasm matched by sharpness kinda way – to slice through the hardening crust of post-modern oppression.

To slice, of course, without leaving crumbs on the floor for some anonymous dyson-hag – paid below the minimum wage and weekly remitting half, by money transfer, to their estranged family in the shantytown periphery of a sprawling West African conurbation – to clear up after me.

No, really – this is NOT easy.

Perpetually positioning myself in solidarity with self-defining minorities, losing neither nuance nor integrity, is tough. Maintaining safe non-white, contra-male and counter-heteronormative ground in which the seeds of my better tomorrow might germ, flourish and be celebrated is tougher still.

Achieving these in the teeth of arcane, often bitter, debate within an atomised, confused Left, whilst simultaneously, and apparently unselfconsciously, disclosing sufficient of my own identities (sometimes fact, sometimes fiction, but ever heartfelt) to help cement the bonds of struggle – this IS not easy.

Slowly and carefully cleaning and dressing the suppurating wounds of webattle, wittingly enjoined against a bullying, invective-equipped, adhomortar-firing mercenary force that draws ample rations from the paymaster of witchuntery, actually hurts.

No, really, I am but ladyflesh.

Brought manacled to the dock, facing spurious charges of indefensible, unacknowledged, privilege from gross charlatans irredeemably ignorant of the percentage scholarship I qualified for, who gratuitously discount my work ethic, disparage my background and mistake my privilege for power: this hurts.

THIS is not easy.

Why do I do it? Well fuck, why do my mates always go down the pub without me?



November 27, 2009

So how come this blog, named after the myth of French C19th women incendiaries, is illustrated above by two blokes, one on his knees, the other on his arse, working on a highly polished wood floor that reflects light coming through what appears to be a balconied opening?

Fair question, and the answer is – coincidence.

The picture is cropped from a painting, by Gustave Caillebotte, a French C19th painter associated with the Impressionists, entitled Les Raboteurs de Parquet; widely anglicised as The Floor Scrapers (despite a rabot being a French woodworking plane, more of which later).

Caillebotte, son of a wealthy bourgeois, switched from his famille-ordained destiny in business and law to train as a painter and, when he came into their money, spent a fair bit buying paintings from his talented-but-poor mates to help support them. Many so helped became more admired and better known painters than himself.

I first saw the renowned version of this painting, live as it were, in the Musee d’Orsay. This was on a political/learn-some-French trip to the red-belt Paris departement of Seine-St Denis for the local Parti Socialiste ‘Red Rose’ week celebrations in the early 1990s.My hosts and I were sneaked in free by a friend of theirs who we had to accompany before opening-time for the start of her Sunday morning shift at the Musee.

Since then the painting has been a great favourite and returned to more than once. From my fiftieth, when my prescient and resourceful wife gave me an uncannily true reprint on stretched canvas just slightly smaller than the original, Les Raboteurs has been continuously hung in a prominent position at home.

Both versions, the one I’ve used at the top of the blog and the more renowned, were exhibited at the 1876 Impressionists’ exhibition, just 5 years after the Paris Commune, but there is a connection I twigged only recently and a puzzle I haven’t fully bottomed out.

Kirk Varnadoe, a professor at NYU reckons:-

“This work brought instant notoriety when it was shown” and was “best remembered of all his works at his death”.

He tells us that:-

“We must put aside the experience of the C20th in politics as well as in the conventional distortions of photography to understand fully the impact the Raboteurs had in 1876. First, the “vulgarity” of the subject offended ; as with Degas’ washerwomen shown in the same exhibition, the celebration of the urban worker was taken as a debasement of art, and possibly, as a leftist political statement.”

Now Kirk should be in the know as, by the account of an NYU colleague, Robert Rosenblum, his 1987 monograph on Caillebotte was “of such superlative quality that it should set new art historical standards of both scholarly fullness and interpretive precision and insight.”

Now forgive my pickiness, but I missed the scholarly fullness part of being invited to put aside “the experience of the C20th in politics”, partly because I had assumed there might be more than just the one and partly because I wasn’t sure if I’d had it in the first place, to put aside.  No matter. His sources for the offensiveness of the painting, its notoriety and its ongoing renown are very likely impeccable.

Running somewhat counter to this take on Les Raboteurs is that of Albert Boime from over the water at Princeton NJ.

David A. Shafer in “The Paris Commune” of 2005 cites Boime for this:-

“Reconstituting the bourgeoisie as masters of Paris and re-establishing the pre-Commune social-class hierarchy lent a sense of predictability and order that rendered the city less ominous and chaotic. For example, in Floorscrapers (1875) Gustave Caillebotte positioned three workers, consumed by their labors, in refinishing the flooring in an upscale dwelling, beneath the gaze of those observing them; no longer in political control of the capital, the workers have once again been returned to a subordinate position, both in terms of their labors and their spatial relationship to those viewing them.”

So which is it to be; a possibly leftist political statement or reassuring pictorial confirmation of a return to ordered ante-Commune class relations? Are both possible? Again, more later.

Meantime, back to the rabot, the French woodworking plane, and from Kirk Varnadoe:-

“Tradition has it that the occasion for the painting was the reconditioning of floors in the family home. The activity depicted, however, is more familiar in connection with a new building where humidity trapped during construction has caused the floorboards to buckle upwards along their edges. The dark shining surface of the floor does not owe to old wax being removed but to the water with which the scrapers initially soaked the bare floor to prevent splintering of the wood. The ‘stripes‘ in the floor are dry wood exposed by the first step in the process, the passage of a heavy-duty two-handled plane, the rabot, over the buckled edges of the planks. The right hand worker here holds the rabot”.

The second stage was to finish the floor with a racloir, a metal scraper, being used by the left hand worker in the foreground. This is pulled towards the body rather than pushed away as with the rabot. (In my blog crop of the less renowned painting the foreground worker is using the rabot.)

No-one should dispute the standard of Varnadoe’s scholarly fullness here. However, though sourced from a personal interview with a Parisian floor scraper who, in 1972, had 50 years in the trade, this raises almost as many questions as it answers. For example:-

– Why is the floor significantly darker in one version of the painting than the other?
– Does wet bare wood shine?
– If wood is bare and unfinished with wax, how is humidity trapped by construction when it can be lost to the air through the top surface of the boards?
– Is reconditioning part of what happens in new-build?

However, taking Varnadoe’s views at face value, for a moment, raises further possibilities. The painting is plausibly a realist documentary.

In 1875, work would have been continuing on the restoration of the central urban cityscape of Paris – where Caillebotte had an apartment. The creation of that cityscape by Haussmann under the Second Empire had largely been completed by the time of the Commune and, following it’s brutal repression, building work would have centred significantly on its rebuilding and restoration after the destruction wrought both by Versaillais artillery and the fires set by Communard(e)s retreating in the face of their forces.

Restoring Paris would have meant the installation of very many new wood floors to replace those destroyed by fire in damaged buildings so by 1875 this work activity was common and well known to both bourgeois rentier and those of the working class who survived the repression and were able to remain in Paris during the 1870s.

Is it not possible, therefore, that M.Caillebotte in his notorious paintings of Les Raboteurs de Parquet was, in actuality, representing work then being undertaken to replace floors burn-out as a result of Communard incendiaries?

I’m still digging.

Tell it as you see it, Libby

November 27, 2009

Memo to self – trust your gut feeling more than you do. A thought prompted today by the 400-odd reponses to Libby Brooks article “The Jane Andrews I Knew” in today’s Guardian. I should have contributed but I didn’t.

It seemed a classic case of a genuine and insightful piece by an informed and discriminating journalist that was then taken to pieces – both the journalist and the article- by a pack of baying hounds who scented blood.

And what drew them to the kill? An apparent concern that the relatives of someone brutally killed could be distressed by the journalists’ repetition of what close relatives at least had previously heard, live in open court, during the trial that convicted his killer (who was also his partner) for murder. What they heard then was the defendant’s actual testimony of an abusive relationship involving anal rape, domination, bondage and role play that she had found degrading. Available to read in the Guardian article were no more than the words in the sentence before this one.

The indignation this provoked was both disproportionate and contagious.

What stood out for me as astonishing was:-

-A naive faith in the court system to arrive at the essential truth of matters, with no higher authority than because a judge and jury said so rendering that truth unquestionable,

-That the delivery of a jury’s verdict establishes with finality the truth of all evidence heard in a case,

-Allegations presented in court about a victim, but not accepted, should not subsequently be publicly reported or repeated, especially if the victim is dead

-Evidence, if it comprises later testimony from a convicted murderer is not evidence; it is invariably self-serving and may be discounted on those grounds,

-Where a defendant claims abuse by the victim of the alleged crime their testimony counts for nothing unless corroborated by claims of abuse by individuals having had an equivalent earlier relationship to the victim,

-Where a defendant suffers from a established mental health condition, one indicator of which involves suffering from some form of delusion, none of their evidence can be true,

-To believe evidence rejected by a court is to suffer from Stockholm Syndrome,

I find this shocking and, were I ever to be tried and plead not guilty to a charge, would insist on objecting to any jury member having contributed to a Libby Brooks thread. I was angered and disappointed. The sense of certainty in assertions about circumstances no-one can ever know the truth of was suffocating.

All the good liberals suggesting it should never have made it into print was disgraceful. All the usual characters who have never managed to allow a bandwagon to pass without jumping on it chucked in their unoriginal and gratuitous tuppence-ha’penny and a sloppy but arrogant complacency seemed to emerge as posters became aware that they formed part of an overwhelming majority.

There is comfort in crowds and a frisson from their directing a collective wrath towards institutions they see as remote and unaccountable but simultaneously representative of themselves. That’s why they are sometimes dangerous.

What I find most disheartening however, is the near complete absence of scepticism.

I’m no lawyer, nor an expert on domestic abuse, but from experience, of people and of representing them when faced with allegations at work I know this: many get stitched up for lack of evidence.

From dealing with cases of bullying at work I also know that the key to establishing it has happened, and giving oneself a chance of persuading others of this, is to work out and describe the significance of often plausibly innocent and normal behaviours that have well understood but different meanings for perpetrator and victim.

I know neither Jane Andrews, Thomas Cressman, the man she killed, nor the journalist Libby Brooks. I know none of the posters whose contributions have animated me. But I do know how vital it is for the pursuit of justice that in the teeth of posters’ adverse, and often worrying, reactions, Libby Brooks should continue telling it as she sees it.


Fear this, eugenicists…

November 4, 2009

I used to work with a bloke who had 7 kids and a job as a builders’ labourer.

He was a proud and caring man. He was a smoker, but only part-time – during the few days after getting his weekly pay.

Many is the time he would say to me that poverty isn’t a crime and that though he may always be poor he would never be lonely. He looked after me and my safety as a new young worker with the same patience he showed to his kids; I was never allowed first up an untied ladder. He had earned good money in his time working away from home on the motorways and then all over, helping convert the country to natural gas.

He had had a tough upbringing though he didn’t talk about it much. What he talked about most were his kids, how they were doing and his hopes and aspirations for them. The eldest two, one of whom had left home already, did well for themselves; not doctors or lawyers but each got a trade under their belt and looked forward to an easier working life than their parents. This meant a lot to him.

Of course, he was on and off benefit all the while. As he struggled to read and write, the problems this posed were rarely solved and I would be surprised if he ever got the entitlements that paying his stamp entitled him to. Some of his kids were undoubtedly conceived or born during periodic bouts of unemployment; he could have smoked all week if he didn’t always put a little by to cushion the next time he might find himself back on the dole.

He expected, if he was lucky, nothing more than to continue working 40 hours a week and to remain poor – though he did check his pools coupon each week when the results came on. He couldn’t afford his children and his small home was a complete tip. He never tired of saying that his wife was one in a million.

Though he was a gentle, non-judgmental person and generous of spirit, I think he would have taken up arms against anyone trying to remove the right of him and his wife to have kids.

And I wouldn’t have blamed him.