Click the link for Spotify playlist. Along with many others, my single of the year is undoubtedly Call Me Maybe – a track I initially dismissed as asinine and bland. I was a fool! My song of the year has not, however, been released as a single – Taylor Swift’s astonishing All Too Well floored me when I first heard it and still does so, its dissection of a break-up displaying an understanding of the power dynamics in relationships which belies Swift’s age. Various pitch-shifted versions can be found on Youtube but you’d be best just buying it on iTunes.

Happily, quite a few songs floored me this year: Solange’s Losing You is appealing and accomplished in an almost cursive way while iLL Manors remains powerful despite its adoption by hand-wringing liberals as ‘the voice of the London riots’. The most recent addition to the list is Don’t Rush by Kelly Clarkson – I first heard it only about a fortnight ago and its gloriously relaxed bliss quickly burrowed its way into my affections. Meanwhile, acts I have previously loved but whom I’ve drifted away from in recent years recaptured me with brilliant tracks like Let’s Have a Kiki and Cut the World. The Misha B and Azealia Banks songs already point to an exciting 2013.

The list:
Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen
Losing You – Solange
iLL Manors – Plan B
We Take Care Of Our Own – Bruce Springsteen
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together – Taylor Swift
Born to Die – Lana del Rey
Turn Up The Radio – Madonna
Your Body – Christina Aguilera
Wide Awake – Katy Perry
Let’s Have A Kiki – Scissor Sisters
Every Single Night – Fiona Apple
Try – P!nk
Melancholy Sky – Goldfrapp
Don’t Rush – Kelly Clarkson
Cut the World – Antony & the Johnsons
Magic Chords – Sharon van Etten
1991 – Azealia Banks
Leaving – Pet Shop Boys
Do You Think Of Me – Misha B
Die Young – Ke$ha 

My Singles of 2012

Click the link for a Spotify playlist of my albums of 2012. I tried to reflect what I actually kept returning to this year against albums I admired but rarely listened to. Whenever I look at previous lists I’m always surprised by the ones which endure in my affections. There is no strict order here but it’s safe to say that the first 10 dominated my year. I’m particularly pleased to have ‘discovered’ Akala and Sharon Van Etten. Further down, however, albums from Admiral Fallow and The Magnetic North are the kinds of subtle pleasures which pop into your mind on some idle afternoon and cause you to fall in love with them all over again. I don’t think efforts from Taylor Swift, Alanis Morissette and Garbage were their strongest work but they had enough knock-out songs for me to keep returning.

The albums:

MDNA – Madonna
Old Ideas – Leonard Cohen
Wrecking Ball – Bruce Springsteen
Knowledge is Power Vol.1 – Akala
iLL Manors – Plan B
The North – Stars
Tramp – Sharon Van Etten
Lotus – Christina Aguilera
Mid Air – Paul Buchanan
Red – Taylor Swift
The Idler Wheel… – Fiona Apple
Tree Bursts in Snow – Admiral Fallow
The Spirit Indestructible – Nelly Furtado
Not Your Kind of People – Garbage
Out of the Game – Rufus Wainwright
Play for Today – Ultrasound
Orkney: Symphony of The Magnetic North – The Magnetic North
Havoc & Bright Lights – Alanis Morissette
Misty Eye – Aiden Grimshaw
Piramida – Efterklang
 

My Albums of 2012

Another Games is Possible

A couple of days ago the liberal sorts on Twitter worked themselves into a lather over this Guardian column about a mother’s reasoning for sending her child to private school. Given the credentials of many leading the charge, the author would have provoked less ire had her reasoning been that she wanted to give her child the greatest possible chance of a writing gig for a British broadsheet, but that’s besides the point. What really seemed to rile people was the way the author presented left-wing principles as some convenient, ill-thought out folly which quickly crumble when faced with ‘reality’. This is a slur as old as the hills – a variation on ‘a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged’ – but the addition of the wellbeing of children and the implication that anyone really looking out for their offspring would go private was predictably toxic. The response was swift and it was brutal.

This piece on the Olympics, however, has provoked no angry response. Yet it is another variation on the same theme. The author half-heartedly tosses off his reasons for hating the games:

The outrageous corporate sponsorship deals, the exclusivist ticketing model, the broken promises of community engagement, the lack of investment in youth sporting provision, the ground to air missiles on tower blocks, Seb Coe’s smug half-smile

before noting that he’s ‘caught the Olympic bug’ due to watching a ‘brilliant documentary’ about an Olympic athlete. His previous complaints are recast as ‘grumbling’, suggesting they were trivial reasons for a negativity which has been washed away by the inspiring tale of athletic achievement. Again, left-wing principles are portrayed as a silly distraction. The most extraordinary sentence in the column is:

For the first time, I thought about the Games in a vein outside of politics. This was about the Olympic dream in all its battered and worn reality.

Well, indeed. ‘Politics’ being concerned with power, principles and relationships, looking at anything ‘in a vein outside’ of this would tend to remove any tendency towards critical thought. I’m sure Guantanamo Bay seems quite nice when thought about ‘in a vein outside of politics’. After all, the US government tells us that it’s about keeping everyone safe – it’s not about politics, it’s about basic safety!

Aside from the author’s shaky hold on his own principles and mind, the big problem with this piece is that it conflates the current Olympics with the ‘Olympic dream’. You can read about the ‘Olympic principles’ here – suffice to say that the current corporate mega-event is far, far removed from any sense of ‘equality’ or ‘respect’. Private concerns override all else, with even the laws of the country being subservient to corporate interests. We have indeed come a long way from the 1896 Olympics, when the first regulation agreed by the IOC enshrined amateurism into the event.

This extraordinary puff piece makes the same error of being unable to separate the organisation of the Olympics from the athletic achievement displayed in them. I have heard no-one being critical of the latter, yet everyone who seems remotely inspired by this achievement seems unable to separate the two and becomes defensive about the entire event. Of course, this idea that critics are attacking athletic achievement perfectly serves those elites who wish to portray dissenting voices as spiteful moaners.

Yet another Olympics is possible. I’m about halfway through this book which is very good at examining how the Olympics strayed so far from its original principles. I did not realise that corporate sponsorship only entered the Games in 1984 when it was held in Reagan’s America – the neoliberalisation of the Games perfectly illustrating the lie that they are ‘apolitical’. The book also examines the truth behind the propaganda usually wheeled out in support of the Olympics – economic regeneration, employment, a sporting legacy, increased tourism, community engagement – each is examined and each is found to be at best wanting, at worst utterly false. Studies looking at previous Olympic Games and previous sporting mega-events have found that, without exception, they lead to the displacement of the poor (and other ‘undesirables’) from the host cities and increased living costs for those who remain. They even found that jobs were displaced from the Olympic areas once the Games left town. We are already seeing these effects in London, to go along with the militirization of our streets, the weakening of our civil liberties (including, astonishingly, efforts to prevent anti-Olympics speeches at a Counter-Olympics protest in Tower Hamlets), the privatisation of public space (at public expense) and a complete betrayal of the promised ‘legacies’ for the host boroughs.

In short, it’s difficult to conceive of how anyone who identifies as ‘left-wing’, certainly anyone who identifies as ‘socialist’, could not oppose these Games. Yet you find these very people loudly cheerleading the event and repeating the lies fed to them by the Government and the IOC without question. Why? Because, as noted above, they cannot separate their excitement for the sporting events from the ‘Olympics themselves. Their principles become embarrassing distractions from ‘getting behind’ their team. I’ve seen an increasing tendency for people to combat criticism of the event by referring to the ‘enthusiasm’ of those turning out to see the torch procession, a great irony given the event’s origins as a propaganda tool for the Nazis. It’s also not without irony that the global torch procession was scrapped after the countless protests against the Chinese last time around. It is propaganda, pure and simple, and ‘politics’ or indeed any kind of critical thought is not welcome. This is carried through into our national media which, sure, prints a scattering of op-ed columns criticising the Games and articles criticising transport arrangements, but on the whole unquestioningly pushes the narrative of a ‘country united’. Of course many are going are going to ‘give in’ and catch the ‘Olympic bug’ when faced with such a barrage; when told repeatedly that their criticisms are ‘grumblings’ and they are witnessing a ‘once in a lifetime event’. Anyone using this ‘enthusiasm’ as a defence for the Games needs to learn about ‘manufactured consent’. The very transformation of London into a ‘state of exception’ itself creates a sense of an extraordinary event, building excitement on the basis of retracting democratic and civil liberties.

As an aside, I walked through Stoke Newington last Saturday while the torch procession passed through the area and the turn-out was truly pitiful. I wasn’t surprised that the evening news didn’t show images of smatterings of people drinking cider outside a chicken shop. I attended a barbeque at a house on the torch procession route and, of the 30 or so people gathered, approximately 5 went out to see it.

What surprised me was how eloquent and informed people were in their anti-Olympic sentiment. In being surprised I suppose I had allowed myself to be partially seduced by the idea that people were just ‘grumbling’ but this convinced me that it’s not the case.

By all means I expect many with anti-Olympic feeling to be inspired by the sporting achievements. I certainly expect them to be inspired by the Opening Ceremony – it is, after all, the entire point of that event. Yet we mustn’t lose sight of the alienating, harmful effects of the current Olympic model and allow ourselves to become cheerleaders for the transfer of wealth and power to private bodies and individuals. Another Games is possible. Believing this is not ‘grumbling’, it is holding onto important principles and beliefs and those ready to swiftly abandon these in order to cheer on athletes are the ones who should be defending themselves.

The Great British Summer

Despite the ever-present rain we are smack bang in the middle of what has been dubbed ‘The Great British Summer’, a dazzling celebration of patriotism which began with the Jubilee and climaxes with the Olympics. Major events which take place every year, such as Wimbledon, have been claimed as part of the proceedings; new ones, like the Radio 1 Festival in Hackney, proudly insert themselves. Union Jacks are ubiquitous while advertising has adopted an almost monolithic tone of jolly patriotism. The talk everywhere is of a country ‘coming together’. Hooray for Britain, and hooray for Britishness!

What ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’ mean, however, is not open for discussion.  To look beyond the surface, beyond the flags and the banal celebratory rhetoric, is to be ‘negative’. It is expected, then, that critical thought should take a leave of absence during this Great British Summer. If you are not an active participant then you had at least better be passive and silent; to be vocal in any opposition is to be portrayed as ‘bitter’, ‘a ‘spoilsport’ (terrible crimes in our insipid age of fun-loving ‘positivity’).  It’s not a stretch to observe that there is a sense of enforced celebration – indeed, the ‘Jubilee’ Bank Holidays ostensibly involved taking two days off to partake in the revelries and, if you were critical of events, you were inevitably told that you should ‘go to work’ instead.

The shutting down of criticism takes place in subtle ways, invariably with a jocular tone. I experienced it repeatedly during the Jubilee. Questioning the existence of the monarchy was viewed as an amusingly cranky view from an angry Scotsman. Questioning the celebration itself was viewed as adolescent posturing. I was repeatedly told to ‘join in’. The harshest opposition I received was to be told to ‘lighten up’ and to ‘leave the country’ if I didn’t like it.  It was done almost unconsciously but the clear aim was to contrast the light-hearted, fun, mature patriots with the dour, unhappy and juvenile critics. When Republic staged their anti-monarchy protest on the day of the flotilla, Twitter was filled with people proclaiming that the ‘spoilsports’ wouldn’t ruin their fun. The closest most people got to criticism was to ‘live-tweet’ the day with a weary air of sarcastic detachment – meaningless as this ironic detachment looms large over an entire generation’s engagement with anything and it did not even begin to question why the viewer felt detached.

We saw much the same response to the Royal Wedding last year. This seemed even more bizarre as it was such an anachronistic event. Even as a republican, I can appreciate that many may have wanted to mark the 60 year reign of their Queen; marking the wedding of one of her grandchildren with a day of national celebration was lost on me. More than that – it seemed perverse. The backdrop to all of these events is austerity Britain. Whether or not you agree that we are seeing a sustained attack on the living standards of the poor and vulnerable, many independent bodies and observers have noted that we are witnessing a huge rise in wealth of those at the top of society while everyone else either stagnates or becomes poorer. The Institute for Fiscal Studies have reported that inequality has already risen to levels previously not seen for 20 years and continues to rise. They report that ‘the poor have undoubtedly been getting worse off in absolute terms’. They reported that in a single year, 2010, living standards had regressed to 2004 levels. They expect median household income to be lower in 2015 than it was in 2002. Youth unemployment has already reached historic levels while child poverty is widely believed to be rising. In contrast, the wealth of the richest 1% in the UK has risen to record levels. It’s surely not difficult to perceive it as strange that with all of this happening we choose to ‘come together’ to celebrate the wedding of a hugely privileged family, symbolic of our class system with its hierarchy, elitism and hegemony?

It’s easy to say that this is ‘taking it all too seriously’ and that it’s possible to join the celebrations while opposing austerity. Easy to say, impossible to practice.  These celebrations certainly form a part of the ‘we’re all in this together’ narrative. The aim is to push a cogent picture of a Britain united and it’s no mistake that ‘we’ are to be united around a Britain rooted in hierarchy. This is a political presentation of Britain as apolitical and anyone who doesn’t partake in the performance is not welcome. This is not opinion – as I have noted before, the police employed authoritarian measures in support of the Royal Wedding including pre-emptive arrests. The idea that people should be arrested on the basis that they may commit a crime is such a sinister one that millions of us went to see a Tom Cruise film based on it. When it happened in reality, in our own country, hardly anyone noticed or cared. Those arrested may not have done anything but they were undeniably negative, undeniably critical – that was crime enough.

We already know that similar tactics will be used in the policing of the Olympics. We already know that we will see the biggest deployment of military and security services on our streets since World War 2. We already know that the cost of the games is set to be at least 10 times more than originally planned and that much of this cost involves taxpayer money flowing into private hands, effectively privatising large swathes of land in London. We already know that the Olympics are being used as an excuse to remove ‘undesirables’, whether that be prostitutes or claimants of housing benefit. We already know all of this without even getting into the work practices of many of the involved organisations, the transformation of London into a playground for the wealthy (from ‘games lanes’ access to the lack of social housing and rising property prices and the absurd, repressive behaviour of LOCOG.) The Olympics offers not only a presentation of a united Britain – it does so while actively altering our city and transferring further wealth to the already-wealthy.

Perhaps as a result of this, we haven’t seen anything yet. If you thought that criticism of the Royal Wedding or the Jubilee was unwelcome, the Olympics will see the pressure towards (at least) passive acceptance hugely ramped up.  You will hear arguments that it is about the sport and you should be able to separate this from all of the above; you will hear stirring music on the BBC and speeches about how much Britain has achieved; you will hear exhortations to get behind ‘our’ athletes. Most of all, you will hear again and again that criticism is bitter, juvenile, negative, unwelcome. When the inevitable scandals break, few will take notice. Austerity Britain, our rotten financial system, our discredited media, our unaccountable and broken democratic system – all will be obscured behind the spectacle, a nifty real-life Hunger Games distracting us from the crisis our country is mired in. There will, of course, be plenty of ironic detachment and tweets making fun of the thing. Myself, I’ll stay bitter and juvenile. Fuck the Olympics.

For info and details of action you can take, visit Protest London 2012 and Games Monitor .