NETFLIX REVIEW: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965)

From the opening, dreary and drizzled scene at Checkpoint Charlie, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold creates an atmosphere of muffled, bureaucratic routine. Like all wars, the Cold War was characterised by constant waiting, a meandering sense of paranoia and anticipation, before the inevitability of cruelty and death.

The first time we see Richard Burton, we don’t confront the the Hamlet-like handsomeness of his presence, but rather his back, a rain-stained trench coat of a man in a lifeless booth, pouring whisky into his coffee. The almost contemplative, lingering shots of Burton’s concentrated gaze are then punctuated violently by a spy being gunned down after trying to sneak through the checkpoint.

Burton’s character Alec Leamas is everything James Bond is not. He manifests the strained brow and air of degeneration of the post-war British man, a rotting soul kept alive by a residual, near-forgotten sense of duty. His job is to lie and charm his way through the underworld, to forget himself, to be become a nihilistic foot-soldier, to kill, drink, abuse and deceive, all for Queen and country.

The scenes in the purlieus of Hammersmith and South Kensington are beautifully dreich, the landscape of dusty libraries, secretary’s offices, cold bus stops, dull and silent grocer shops and the Labour Exchange. Burton scowls and hunches his way through this atmosphere with a tensed, terrified glare in his eyes, the ragged emotions of a man clinging to himself.

The spies who surround Leamas are equally strained and disillusioned. ‘Control’, played with diffident subtlety by Cyril Cusack, is not the M of Ian Fleming, a far cry from the clipped, decisive, self-assured British Colonel type. Rather, you get a sense right away of a glorified clerk, a functionary, someone who is not really in control at all, but equally as beholden to murky, unspoken agendas as Leamas.

This is a theme through the whole chain of espionage. As Burton’s character travels further into the bowels of Communist Europe, he meets a string of sophisticated-seeming spies and goons, each of which turns out to be another lost soul, patronised by the next, higher-ranking link in the chain of command. The fetish of rank, and the pettiness of superiority is a subtext throughout the plot.

As a love interest, Nan Perry, played by Claire Bloom, is the only character who seems to capture anything of the idealism of the sixties. This reveals the fact that the nostalgia we have for the cultural revolution suffers from an amnesia about the boredom and ennui most people seemed to feel in that time. The Britain we see in this 1960s classic is more 1950s-kitchen-sink than the swinging London of Antonioni’s Blow Up, which came out only a year or so later.

Perry’s character is brimming with intelligence and hope, and a worldly sexuality brought to the role by Bloom saves it from sentimentality. Bloom’s kindness and womanly affection for Burton are indeed the result of an aloneness and desire for emotional adventure, and the fact that Leamas is equally drawn to her reveals the remaining streak of humanity in Burton’s otherwise tormented and condemned cynicism.

Oskar Werner plays Fiedler, in some sense Leamas’s nemesis. Werner plays what could have been a very routine and stereotype Communist flunky, as a deeply human, confused, determined and vulnerable man. He is ambitious and cruel, but Werner gives the character a positive charge, not loveable, but accessible and sympathetic. You can tell that affection for Leamas and the sense of duty that drives his own machinations are both real and rooted in a sincere vision of life. Fiedler, is far more than a product of his ideology or social conditioning.

The film is a brilliant spy movie, and a captivating example of British noir. But it is also a spiritual portrait of a society hollowed out by the collapse of empire and the punishing consequences of war. The result is a panorama of thwarted, depressed individuals who struggle to navigate a grey, prosaic Britain stripped of pretension and romance.


The artist in society

Fear Of A Black Planet Ep39 – The artist in society

In this episode I talk about consumerism and its effect on the artistic life. I am chiefly concerned with the role of the artist in the humanist tradition. This is based on the ideal of an artist as the conserver of a set of values that have little bearing on mercantile concerns, and only overlap with business and the economy in an incidental way.

However, as I say in this podcast, the commodification of culture itself has led to a state of affairs where it is very hard to be an artist outside the marketplace, and the temptation is always to sell your artistic abilities to the business world, and become a ‘creative professional’. This is all very well, and don’t begrudge anyone who chooses to live like that, but how do we maintain humanist values, the ideal of human flourishing for its own sake? I would argue that that ideal is far more responsible for the emergence of civilisation that some economic theory. The free market itself is a product of civilisation, not the other way round.

I also talk this wee about Donald Trump’s intervention in Syria, and how both Neocons and Lefties are guilty of imposing past models of conflicts onto the current situation in Syria, which is actually hugely more complex than that. The moral value of an intervention can only be determined by taking the individual case on its own merits, not by reference to previous interventions like Iraq or Vietnam.

For more info on my writing and my music visit:

or follow me on @JacBlack on Twitter

Superstition and wisdom: Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris

Sam Harris’s recent podcast featuring psychologist Jordan Peterson is a debate about how we should view religious meaning in a scientific context.

Jordan Peterson’s project is part of his Jungian attempt to answer Nietzsche. The essential problem here is that since Christianity was a disciplining force in human civilisation, perhaps the strongest, the cultural coup d’etat of science and Darwinism leaves us with a problem of where we are to get our values from.

When God is dead, how do we avoid nihilism?


Sam Harris’s project is to show that we can source moral truths, truths about how to act, from the world of science. We can avoid the historic crimes of religious belief, and find equally compelling ethical systems that are sourced from our scientific view if the world.

For Peterson, Christianity, although Sam Harris perfectly lays out its problems, gave us the primacy of the individual, the purifying honesty of the word. It gave to us a model of honour and integrity in the face of suffering that is unmatched by any other religion. So the issue is not about how do we deduce moral laws from the world of facts. Peterson accepts Harris’s arguments on this – he does not have any argument with the idea that moral truths are grounded in fact, rather than decrees based superstition.

Peterson’s point is that religious imagery and tradition has a more powerful connection to our basic evolutionary impulses than mere scientific deductions could ever have. The critical task here is for the cultural excavator to go through the tradition and salvage these primal rituals and images and place them in the very ethical context that Sam Harris has laid out in The Moral Landscape and Waking Up.

The first conversation between Harris and Peterson got bogged down in the question of truth. Harris takes a hard, materialist line about truth. He accepts that mind might play a part in what we call truth, but he is not prepared to accept that the goal-posts of what is true can change. Truth has to be grounded in facts. It has to be scientific.

Peterson, though completely committed to scientific method, thinks there is a need for an notion of truth that is more expansive. Peterson is concerned with how we retain the moral truths of our religious and mythic past in the face of science.

Harris has deep worries about any such attempt if it means modifying the standard of measured fact in the scientific method. If we accept any other idea of what truth is, we are in danger of relativism and ‘playing tennis without the net’. It’s this free for all that in Harris’s mind, has caused the great crimes of religion.

For me, the key moment was Peterson’s challenge about the wisdom contained in fiction. The intuition at the heart of Peterson’s more ‘evolutionary’ or ‘pragmatist’ concept of truth (truth is what works), is not a desire to get non-scientific claims in through the back door of intellectual discourse. Rather, it is based on the fact that we know there are profound truths about ourselves contained in Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, that are grounded in scientific existence, but cannot be claimed to be truths based on fact.

Peterson, reflecting on the stalemate in his previous conversation with Harris, distinguishes between wisdom and truth. Truth is scientific, wisdom is cultural. Peterson then is concerned with salvaging the wisdom that religious traditions and images are uniquely placed to bequeath to us. This uniqueness is based on our evolution, our needs and desires and our recognition of ethical self-transcendence, even before we can put such a need in conceptual propositions.

Harris remains sceptical amid all of this. His worry is when fiction starts to pass itself off as fact, and he is correct in asserting that this is the recurrent habit of religious institutions. They go from storytelling as a form of primal ethical discipline, to claiming those stories are representations of fact, as statements of authority about reality. This is what makes them descend into factionalism, tyranny and dogmatic barbarism.

One core objection from Harris about Peterson’s project is its Joseph Campbellian tendency to create a kind of industry of interpretation about religious claims, that somehow gives them legitimacy they don’t deserve. It’s not hard to claim that even the most absurd stories, the most brutal and psychopathic representations of God, could have some basis in evolutionary truth, that they are descendants of a primal ethical instinct.

Again, for Harris, this is tennis without the net, and it is not really that productive. It doesn’t serve the modern individual in his  or her moral challenges now, and in fact can just get us bogged down in more absurdities.

Peterson accepts this challenge. He is not advocating uncritical acceptance of any story that can be told about religious claims. He is simply attempting to rehabilitate tradition in the face of post-modernism, which he sees as a dangerous amputation of human culture and therefore a threat to civilised life.

Both Harris and Peterson left a question unanswered. For Harris, he could do more to explain why Dostoevsky and Shakespeare continue to offer ethical truth that are non-scientific. Why do we find truth, even when such truths are not factual? I think in exploring this more deeply, it will make his position about moral truths more persuasive to non-scientifically minded people.

Peterson would do well to demonstrate his system of critical analysis as regards to what is salvageable and what is dangerous superstition in our religious traditions. If we don’t find some standard of wisdom that is as rigorous as our standard of factual truth, we will continue to face the danger of religious violence and sectarian tyranny.

Peterson’s claim about mythic truth, as opposed to simply factual, propositional truth, is an important one. It is important not just because it is clear that we all have some tendency to find truth in fiction, but also because it is a primal, non-linguistic or conceptual need within us to do so.

There is something unique about the power of myth and imagery and ritual that conveys ethical truths. Attempts to relay these truths in conceptual reflection tend to be prescriptive and authoritarian, like the Ten Commandments. Seeing the truth in beauty, allows us to arrive at wisdom from within, as individuals, and this is a crucial requirement if society is to be coherent, rather than held together through fear of retribution.

The most powerful show of solidarity is dissent

If something is right, it is not right by virtue of consensus. The popularity of a view has nothing to do with the truth of that view. The prejudice of mistaking popularity with goodness, and uniformity with love, is very primal, perhaps having its origins in our tribal roots.

Equally important to tribal unity, however, is the creative power of individual intuition, the ability of the human conscience to break free from the common habits of the flock. In many ways this defines what it is to be human. It proves we are not governed by instinct alone, that we can fight against our biology, and it is that fighting, ironically, that makes us supreme in survival.

Women's March On London

Some might say that solidarity is the chief virtue of the Left, that by dissenting from the collective one risks betraying the cause. This is, among many competitors, the most persistent and dangerous myth of the Left.

Solidarity is the ability find common cause, to see that other people, under wholly different circumstances, have their own struggles for self-realisation. Despite the differences in circumstances, I can empathise with them, because a core sense of human empowerment unites us.

Solidarity is what makes me able to feel invested in the struggles of Kurdish female fighters and working class men in the USA. Solidarity is a leap of the imagination that moves past and through the barriers of time and space.

None of this says that I have a duty to fall into line, and march in unison with anyone that I feel this solidarity for. If anything, the very thing that drives my sympathy and common humanity is the recognition of individual will versus the forces of conformity. Solidarity is a product of individual conscience, not collective thinking.

In many cases, the greatest act of solidarity is dissent. The most important thing is preserving the human ability to act upon personal conscience. Without personal conscience all morality and love is a sham.

Human rights are not the final end of any progressive movement. They are just a convenient approximation of what we need to preserve in order to maintain human dignity.

Human dignity, ultimately, comes from this very ability to conceive truth independently and to act upon our conscience.

Democracy is not good in and of itself, it’s good to the extent that it empowers us to act on our conscience. Human rights are not ends in themselves, they are just as close as we can get to making an institution of liberty of conscience.

The charge of contrarian is a conformist tactic. Perhaps the most insidious one. Dismissing those who insist on arriving at truth on their own terms, as being infantile, and reducing defiant conscience to a kind of adolescent tantrum, is a totalitarian reaction.

People tend to confuse dissent with mass protest. They think that it is progressive to join the march, to “unite” in crowds, show strength in numbers. Sometimes these things are good. One of the more heartening aspects of the women’s march after Trump’s inauguration was the sheer diversity of the women involved. It was just too big to be about one agenda, despite the best efforts of the lunatic organisers and desperate celebrities.

However, too often mass protest gives license to mob tactics. Collective action too easily becomes collective thinking. The many objections to the current state of the progressive Left are not always grounded in a distaste for change. Some reactionaries are jumping on the flaws of the psycho fringe, but most objections come down to a fear of purely ideological thinking.

Solidarity, or even love, does not require total compliance. It has become all to common to dismiss people as ‘alt-right’ because they have reservations about certain tactics of protest, and the way a commitment to one cause requires an automatic commitment to a range of other causes.

Too many people are being driven to the centre or the Right by the tendency for automatic thinking on the Left.

It has become too easy to dismiss progressive values now, on the basis of the mob tactics and conformist mentality of a great many protesters.

What will save the Left is dissent. Though Thomas Paine and George Orwell were excommunicated in their own time for showing dissent in the ranks, their legacy was actually to prolong the life of socialism. Without them, it is difficult to imagine what the Left would have been like after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Embracing dissent means putting individual conscience before ‘the movement’. It means placing the individual before ‘the cause’. Why? Because dissent is a far better insurance against delusion and propaganda than consensus.

Alasdair Roberts at The Slaughtered Lamb – REVIEW

Farringdon is a good place for a winter walk. At night the streets empty of office busy-bodies, and the closes, vennels and crooked church gardens are bathed in a cold, sleepy stillness. Mists rise up from the grasses, and Victorian streetlamps burn in muffled light.

St. Andrew’s Day for me is always a day of transition, a day for going inward. Advent is a time of contemplation.

When St. Andrew’s Day comes you know it is time to climb back inside yourself, to refuse the duties and dissatisfactions of modern living. It’s a time to reconnect with the ancient culture that keeps you alive, to let the sounds and voices in your bones deliver you a message for the coming year.


Alasdair Roberts will be releasing a new album called Pangs in the new year

Alasdair Roberts returned to London last week to play a beautifully intimate and poetic set at Farringdon’s Slaughtered Lamb pub.

Kicking off his set with Pangs, which is a track from his new album set for release in 2017, Roberts channeled a more physical, rock and roll stage presence than the previous gigs I have seen him play.

Typically, Roberts’s music is a refreshing tonic to the overabundance of Americana in the folk world, but Pangs is positively Dylanesque.

It’s also a perfect piece for Robert’s folk trio, a kind of Glasgow supergroup with Alex Neilson of The Trembling Bells on drums, and Stevie Jones – AKA Sound of Yell – on bass.

If Pangs doesn’t get serious 6 Music radio play I’ll eat my bonnet.

Following that came renditions of The Fair Maid Of Northumberland, In Dispraise of Hunger and The Whole House is Singing.

The Fair Maid Of Northumberland is a regular feature of Alasdair Roberts’s sets. However, I have heard him do it a cappella and I prefer it.

In Dispraise Of Hunger, from his last album, came alive in this performance. The trio format, with a rhythm section and a front man on guitar, places a lot of emphasis on the vocalist. As a result the lyrical texture of this mysterious and deeply philosophical song was put centre stage.

There is no doubt that Alasdair Roberts inherits a great deal from the “folk baroque” tradition. His accompaniment style is a fingerstyling, articulate mode of playing in the line of Martin Carthy.

A song like In Dispraise of Hunger, however, shows that Roberts is far more than just a cerebral instrumentalist. It’s not all about the obscure chords and tunings.

Roberts has a poet’s relish of wordplay, a witty and even sarcastic way with folkish images, and In Dispraise Of Hunger is an example of his ability to deliver complex ideas and delve fearlessly into the knotted conflicts of the human heart.

Roberts’s songs are complex in their structure, but his lyricism is also deeply sophisticated, and grounded in a bardic beauty.

His performance of The Whole House Is Singing was a highlight of the evening. The mischief and courageous idiosyncrasies of his writing are again present in this song from his 2003 album Farewell Sorrow.

It was the performance itself that stuck with me. Roberts is a singer who draws on hidden powers to drive home his point. In the singing of this song there was rage, fragility, belly-laughing absurdity and spiritual honesty, all combined at once in each stabbing phrase.

A rasping, Viking cry punctuated the characteristically brittle and jagged tenderness of Roberts’s normally composed and restraint vocals.

In the second half of the set The Amber Gatherers was a beautiful highlight, again benefiting from the spartan, direct playing from the band and the emphasis on the vocalist brought out by that format.

The poet Robin Robertson joined Alasdair onstage for an inspired and arresting rendition of a song written for the album Hirta Songs, which the two artists co-wrote together.

Robertson’s voice drags you back into an intimate past. For all those who say that performance poetry should be free of the “poetic voice”, and should be as akin to direct conversation as possible – you should listen to Roberts and Robertson’s collaborations.

The poetic voice is a musical instrument. And Robertson’s use of place names and the incantatory qualities of Viking and Gaelic language residues activate parts of a cultural consciousness that are unavailable to the modern mind.

The evening was rounded off by a solo encore from Alasdair Roberts singing the hilarious and touching ballad Jock Hawk’s Adventures In Glasgow.

Telling the story of a young country boy let loose on a merciless city, the ballad is one of booze, prostitutes and disillusionment. It’s a perfect vehicle for Roberts’s ironic but deeply honest wit as a performer.

What struck me most about this gig was the lyrical performance from Roberts. Backed by the ingenious and constantly inventive drumming of Alex Neilson, and the seemingly unbeatable musical instincts of Stevie Jones, Alasdair was free to show what he was made of as a vocalist.

In terms of sheer pathos and power, Scarce of Fishing and The Whole House Is Singing were notable moments of rapture and grace.

Roberts’s lyrics are crafted, ironic and deeply imbued with a poetic sensitivity.

I have long been a fan of him as a musician, and as the best ballad singer alive today.

However, I have a renewed respect for him as a solo performer and as a poet, someone who has the ability to tap into my cultural subconscious without being heavy handed, who has both delicacy and fearsome talent in his use of imagery and voice.

Alasdair Roberts’s new album Pangs will be available in early 2017

A Scottish blues: Alasdair Roberts and the ballad tradition

The word ballad has the same root as ballet. Ballads were originally dance songs, but overtime became more associated with storytelling.

Though you couldn’t breakdance to his music, and you don’t feel like bursting into a drunken reel, Alasdair Roberts’s folk accompaniment style has traces of the balladic dance tradition.

The opening bars of his version of The Cruel Mother, from his 2005 album No Earthly Man, have the feel of a courtly dance – the composed, restrained drama of the baroque.


Alasdair Roberts (centre) with Alex Neilson (left) and Stevie Jones (right)

The first stanzas seem to tell of a violent birth, ominously expected, a royal birth even, that may throw a nation into chaos.

The creeping percussion, and abrasive lilt of the accompaniment, paint their own picture of tragedy and moral outrage.

As a solo performer of ballads, it is easy to fall into repetitiveness, and rely the recurrent simplicity to create hypnotic effect.

Alasdair does not do this. This song, already lyrically complex and epic in its scope, is arranged so that the subtle shifts of narrative suggestion are given an added, hidden momentum by the music.

The Cruel Mother ballad has a lot of variants, but each version of the song tells of a murder, and the haunting of the mother by her dead children.

When she sees the ghost of her child, the mother says she would give him fine silks, dress him like a prince. However, she didn’t see fit to dress him that way when he was living flesh.

In this version, there seems to be something political in the song’s currents, a prophesy of disorder and war.

Either that, or the song itself is a curse, and the symbolism of the lion, the fish in the flood, the streaking sun across the walled city, are images that contain dangerous spiritual power.

In any case, it doesn’t matter. Alasdair’s arrangement and performance bring a song otherwise clenched in the museum of British heritage, into full bloom.

Alasdair’s voice is a reedy, sometimes scorching, but always versatile, storyteller’s voice. There is a crooked, Germanic, gothic texture in his phrasings, but also a luxurious wit and self-awareness.

His instrumentation and musicianship demolish the assumption that to be powerful and create an intimate experience, the arrangements should be “stripped back”.

Rather, it is the the space, and carefully measured emotive pace of the arrangements, that give a song its power.

Alasdair makes traditional songs like this seem worryingly immediate. You can’t hide behind the abstractions of tradition, you have to face the murders, the betrayals and sickly heroics in real time, as they occur in the moment of the story’s telling.

Alasdair Roberts doesn’t do folk songs as historical curiosities, but as works of art with tangible, jugular, theatrical impact.

Roberts is the closest thing the Scots tradition has to a genuine blues singer. Not in the sense of white-man-sings-the-blues, but in the sense of an individual voice reigniting a tradition with each phrase and carp.

Alasdair Roberts plays London’s Slaughtered Lamb pub in Clerkenwell tonight. He will be touring a great deal in the New Year with various collaborations. For more information visit

You better free your mind instead: The age of revolution is over

John Lennon’s Revolution turned the ideals of 1960s on their head – challenging the outrage and fire and wilful chaos of the age.

All this coming from someone who had already become a figure head for the momentum of change. A distinct, revolutionary and individual voice was now confronting the egotistical destructiveness of the moment, and throwing it back in the generation’s own face.

I first fell in love with The Beatles through The Anthology series that was released around 1995. To this day my understanding of the band is through the prism of demos and outtakes – all their backstage humour and experimental creativity.

The Anthology’s great achievement was in giving listeners a sense of how completely tight these four creative giants really were. Even in the years that relationships broke down, the music was as intuitive and committed as it ever was and that standard never faltered.

It’s this that makes The Beatles unique. Not just their genius, but their ability to sustain that genius, and for it to survive and even be fuelled by, the clash of creative egos.

Revolution is a spiritual song – it’s yoga. The great revolution is in the human heart: “we all wanna change your head.” But it’s also a direct critique of the sloganeering and follow-my-leader activism that is still fetishised about the sixties.

It takes the baton from Dylan’s My Back Pages in satirising party politics and ideology, this time naming names. It goes even further in damning the ideal of destruction, something which was held up as a virtue in the sixties.

Today, we still hold destruction and disruption to be virtuous, albeit in the modified, baby-boomer bourgeoisie nostalgia of Silicon Valley and corporate branding. But the idea is the same – change is automatically good and the old world is the ancient regime – the oppressor from which we must wriggle free.

That Revolution is a balls-to-wall rock and roll song of the Sun Records variety is part of Lennon’s great artistic statement.

Yes, he is saying, rock and roll is revolutionary, but it’s not political. The great liberation is being able to decide for yourself, create your own identity free of cultural determinism. To replace the old repressive values with new party lines, defeats the whole message of hope that rock and roll once delivered.

The last verse is the most significant and tackles the dangers of revolution for the sake of it:

You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You’d better free your mind instead

But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow

When I heard this song for the first time, finally getting a hold of a copy of the White Album, I felt deflated and confused. My 15-year-old self was already sold on The Wonder Years-style sixties nostalgia. A time of upheaval and revolution was far preferable to me than a John Major Britain, an age of yuppies, Lovejoy and Kylie Minogue.

Here was Lennon challenging my lust for rebellion and my hatred of authority. Yes, I did want to change the constitution. Yes, I did hate institution.s These things represented my teachers and arbitrary rules and the conformist expectations of my peers – the celebration of obedience and going along with the crowd.

Everything about these ideas meant the suppression of individuality. In a way, I felt betrayed by the lyrics of the song.

However, this was my first taste of the intellectual power of pop music, and indeed popular art. Lennon had a piercing ability to get under your skin, to get right in your face, just with a few lines. That very talent, as I was later to discover with Dylan, is far more powerful than some feel-good political anthem telling me what I want to hear.

Revolution is a song that challenges the euphoric, cultish conformism of the 1960s and which we are still suffering from today.

The time for revolutions is over.

We have become addicted to the memory of the sixties, to the narrative of revolution and the glory of change.

These things are making us blind to where we came from and how far we have come; they make us see bigotry where there is only discourse and reactionary forces where there are time-tested values.

Liberty does not come from permanent revolution. Freedom is not synonymous with discord and upheaval.

What we need now is a return to the root – “the roots that clutch”, as Eliot said.

That does not mean fascism, that does not mean nativism or nationalism. It does however, mean pride, identity and civic duty.

It does mean mean deference, obedience and honouring good office.

The time for hedonistic revolution is over. Drugs do not emancipate the mind. Indulgence and license are not the roads to freedom.

The road to liberty is narrow, and grown about with thorns and briars. It’s a road of struggle, and fumbling and slow progress.

Liberty, as opposed to liberation, requires patience, and putting faith in our past.

This is not the age of innovation, or disruption or of permanent change. What we need is now is to go back, reconnect with a pre-industrial ideal of community, citizenship and culture.

That’s not a Luddite argument. I am not talking about dialling back the clock. I am talking about cultural introspection, affirming what is good and worthwhile in our culture.

There’s a tendency to think that progress means a permanent year zero. We like this idea because we are obsessed with the romance of revolution, with the idea that we can break free from our personal demons through social activism.

We believe emancipation, liberation and revolution lead to greater agency and personal self-command.

In fact, revolution very often robs us of agency, just as drugs and intoxicants rob us of our sense of self.

We must return to the western canon, the through-line of history that binds us to our heritage, and we must do this of our own accord.

It’s not about government. It’s not about equality. It’s not about human rights.

All these things are just words on paper unless we understand their place in history.

Liberty is not something made up of good policy. It can’t be enforced. It’s a spiritual condition, a state of civilisation, consisting of individuals.

Liberty is the balance of the harmonious individual, and harmonious relationships.

All the emancipation of the sixties – all the good stuff, gay rights, civil rights, breaking class barriers and giving women the right be flourishing citizens – all of this is under threat, because we are addicted to revolutions, instead of honouring the ideas and ideals that inspire them.

It’s time to stop basking in the narcissism of innovation and change. It’s time to return to the roots of our culture, the “known laws of ancient liberty.”

All the vanity of politics and ideology and technology is irrelevant. What matters is man’s own relationship with himself, the moral recognition of his own value, and the value of life itself.

The good news is that we have the resources for that, and those resources have nothing to do with Google, Mark Zuckerberg and Netflix.

We need to lean on the tall oak of our culture, the oldest songs and poetry, the most lasting wisdom of our elders and our forefathers.

Cultures do not survive through revolutions, for revolutions are like wars – they destroy the old and fetishise the new.

Cultures survive on the resources handed down generation to generation, on the accumulative ideas and principles of human growth.

Don’t talk to me about Artificial Intelligence. Don’t bore with with the new genre of dance music. Don’t lecture me on the cool new drug.

Don’t talk to me of technology, change and innovation. It’s done. It’s over. It’s all a scam.

The real truth is in the past. The real truth is in our bones, in our blood, in our ancient mind.

Everything else is a distraction, a false promise.

Nothing can change our quest for love, our terror at death, our hunt for belonging. These are the ancient principles of life, and you can’t paper them over with plastic or polish them up into something new.

Modernity is compulsively utopian, always looking for the quick fix – from toothpaste and iPhones all the way up to government policy initiatives.

We need to let go of all that, and introspect, look within. We need to go back. Progress is just an excuse for the worst kind of smug conservatism. It’s over.

Be heard or die trying: There’s nothing humble about keeping quiet

People will forgive anything but a person speaking out. In our culture, humility is equated with silence.

For the poet, the artist, the bohemian, however, the most humble thing you can do is raise your voice.

Of course the height of stupidity is talking without having anything to say. But in our culture that’s fine. That’s humble, because it doesn’t make anyone insecure.


The minute you start to make sense, or have anything resembling a coherent world view, people will resent you and hate you and do all they can to put you back in your place.

Being an artist requires that if something is said, there must be a process at work. You are always working to distill the inner voice in the outer song, the outburst.

The creative noise of the fearless artist is no more narcissistic or vain than the robin’s song, or the trumpeting wind in the trees.

Those who would call someone raising their voice and making themselves heard narcissistic or pathological, are those who despise nature, and despise God.

They may consume art like a drug, a distraction. They may walk in nature seeking an emotional certainty.

But they are the enemies of life. They hate the crooked bark, the dark woodland hush. They are philistines.

So they have to call you arrogant. They have to call you vain. They have to reduce your creative courage to self-obsession, because they cannot match that emotional fearlessness.

I repeat – to be able to speak out, you must be able to listen within. This is what the philistines can’t understand.

In recent months I have been reassessing the idea of success. I always used to say it was about being free, creative, passionate etc.

But I was still harbouring, and still harbour, the Hollywood image, the status of wealth and power.

However, as I get older, I realise that these things, even when achieved, are almost impossible to sustain.

The only form of success I can conceive of, that can be sustained day-to-day, regardless of opinions, smirking comments or backhanded put-downs – is the freedom to listen within.

Inner listening is the artist’s craft. And for that, we must be ready to put away “work”. We must be ready to appear lazy and useless.

Like that Dylan line – “he’s sure gotta lot gall, to be so useless and all…”

Being successful for me is being able get up each day and have the freedom to listen to that voice. And that means that what modernity tells me is successful, is the enemy of the spirit, the enemy of creative thinking, and therefore the enemy of human individuality and flourishing.

Your only duty is to go within, and listen. But the listening would be pointless without communication.

Let the spirit give your tongues utterance. Listen to the rushing winds. Do your duty.

There’s is nothing sage-like about silence, for silence’s sake. There is nothing superior about holding your tongue.

There is nothing more narcissistic than neglecting your talents, or failing to discover your talents for fear of seeming vain.

The real vanity lies in not taking the risk of ridicule. The real arrogance is in thinking you don’t have a duty to communicate the voice of your soul to others.

Yes, we live in an age of saturated culture. Yes, many people are talking and there are few arenas left to discover.

But just because there is so much senseless noise doesn’t immediately imply a need for no noise at all.

We don’t have too much culture, we have too much fruitless culture. The seed is scattered on the rocks.

What we need is good sense, fearless songs that free the spirit of life from the predictable and generic.

The point is not the seek beauty through perfection. But to unleash beauty as we falter.

There is nothing humble about keeping your mouth shut. There is no virtue in staying quiet.

The humble voice is the voice that obeys an inner calling.

And all you who think this is posturing, are the enemy, the philistines.

You make your neurosis a virtue, and your silence wisdom. Of course you do.

In defence of Patti Smith: a rebuttal to Ian Penman in the LRB

Ian Penman’s tiresome review of Patti Smith’s book M-Train in the London Review of Books ends with this withering paragraph:

“Smith’s wish-upon-a-star bohemia is all in her head, or up on her bookshelves. It doesn’t, it couldn’t, exist out in the workaday world: the rents are too high, and social media is too quick to smother the first tender shoots of difference. The likes of Harry Smith, Robert Frank or Sun Ra (or indeed 1970s Smith herself) wouldn’t stand a chance of a slowly nurtured career in the New York of today. M Train is fixated with the mourning process one case at a time, but there is surely cause for a wider social mourning that Smith doesn’t begin to voice or articulate. She was 15 in 1961, and her airy worldview is anchored in that time: it’s a mix of cool beatnik empathy, early rock’n’roll hysteria and (still) the idea of those supernaturally funky folks on, uh, the dark side of town. (Don’t get me started on her rap about how she learned to dance with all the funky ‘spades’.) T.S. Eliot once said of Baudelaire that he was ‘in some ways far in advance of the point of view of his own time, and yet was very much of it, very largely partook of its limited merits, faults and fashions’. Virginia Woolf said of another great street philosopher, Thomas de Quincey: ‘He shed over everything the lustre and the amenity of his own dreaming pondering absent-mindedness.’ So it is with Patti Smith: you just have to take the rough with the smooth. She is great at reminding us all of our own youthful dreams; it’s just a whole lot tougher to make them coincide with reality these days than she suggests.”

Penman seems to think there is a moral failure in an artist describing an inner world that butts heads with the consumerist culture of our times. As if it is somehow pollyannaish, quaint and childish. The subtext of his review seems to be that an artist should agree with reality (whatever that is supposed to be), that an artist has a duty to get in line with the times.

What Penman has seems to miss however, is that Patti Smith’s art has always been an attempt to fight the prevailing nihilism which she witnessed growing around her in the early seventies. The idealism of the sixties turned into a commodity, and we are still living in the shadows of that glorious revolution. Like all revolutions it has its “year zero” and that could be said to be 1977.

Penman’s career began around this time, and he describes his disappointment at realising that far from being the goddess of punk nihilism that he and his contemporaries yearned for, Patti Smith had all along been a devotee of the “Electric Church” spirituality of the hippies, and the “typewriter-is-a-holy-cock” sacredness of the Beat poets.


Ian Penman’s attempt to burst the boho bubble of Patti Smith and her fans reveals the dangers of the punk conceit: that meaningless is safer and more reliable than any notion of the sacred

The punk aesthetic immediately assumes that iconoclasm is more “authentic” than a sacred image. That tearing down heroes is more truthful and honest than venerating one’s elders. The punk conceit is that believing in nothing is more grounded in truth than holding the world to a set of ideals that may not yet exist.

If this attitude had prevailed throughout history, we would not have the speeches of Pericles, the Buddha’s eightfold path, the Italian Renaissance, the American constitution, the British reform acts or rights for women.

That the 20th century disillusioned us of the dignity of man can’t be doubted. But the eventual recourse of punk was to abandon any belief in human goodness, in the hope of coming to some basic therapeutic peace with the tragedies of war, genocide and totalitarianism that haunted the post-war generations.

The punk conceit is that hope is the cause of misery, because hope is almost always disappointed. Far better to face the selfishness and degradation of human beings, than it is to believe oneself or anyone else capable of rising above the “nasty, brutish and short”.

While presenting itself as the world-weary wisdom of plain-speaking, puritan individuality, the punk conceit of people like Penman actually betrays a Soviet-style ready deference to the prevailing chaos of the times. Rather than admit that it is in fact individuals that create history, the likes of Penman prefer to see these forces as faceless, inevitable and always bent on destruction and meaninglessness.

That is why a book like M-Train is such an affront to what became of the punk movement. It is a movement that we are still living in the shadows of. Freedom becomes chaos, emancipation becomes selfishness, and the only defence against toxic ideology becomes nihilistic cynicism.

Could there be any better breeding ground for consumerism than the anti-ideology of the punk conceit?

Could mass corporations who want to illicit thoughtless responses in their “target markets” hope for a more pliable, perfectly formed audience than the post-marxist nihilistic millennial, who believes any amount of idealism and hope is a sign of a weak will?

Rather than being the picture of a woman living in the clouds, M-Train is a witty journey into the joyful eccentricities of a lonely hippy. Some of the book’s strengths are the stories that seem to fall away without ending, the mini-disasters and foibles that give this book its human texture.

Whereas Just Kids did seem to depict an idillic bohemian love story – one that hipsters long to imitate in their Shoreditch flats and overpriced Brooklyn bedsits – M-Train actually gives you the picture a woman whose domestic rituals and habits of everyday worship are the mark of true defiance.

Ian Penman needs to put down the post-structuralist theory books and go and read some William Blake. At certain points in history, when industry, war and inequality turn human beings into willing machines, the most powerful form of rebellion is the pastoral or the sacred.

At times, Penman’s review simply contradicts itself. He chides Smith for claiming to be “of the people” when in fact she has supposedly long been a high living rock star, detached from ordinary people (like Ian Penman) in her own personal Abbotsford of bohemia. Later, however, Penman mocks Smith for being a devoted mother in Michigan daring to have dreams of Jean Genet and Baudelaire. Which is it that he dislikes the most? The dreamy, wannabe Symbolist poet of downtown Manhattan? Or the wannabe mother peeling potatoes in Detroit?

What really seems to bother Penman is Smith’s catholic tendency to worship and praise. His distaste for Patti’s follow-up albums to Horses, Easter and Radio Ethiopia probably exists because they rely on religious imagery, homage and worship.

Yes, Ian, she did grow up catholic, and far from being a contradiction to her rock and roll claims, Smith’s religious tendency could be viewed as her greatest contribution to the form. Following on from her Beat mentors, Smith’s brand of rebellion shuns riotous icon defacing, for the more imaginative, empowering and truly threatening art of relighting the votive flame of individual consciousness.

M-Train begins where Just Kids left off – and it is all the better book for it. In M-Train, Smith reveals how she maintains her optimism and relish in human life, even in the face of random acts of meaningless destruction like Superstorm Sandy, or a horrible, humiliating vomiting spree in Mexico. She shows how she maintains her sweetness in the face of bullies and cynics, and how that sweetness usually wins out.

But above all M-Train is a book about everything that punk rock could have been, had it not given way to the cocky nihilism that Ian Penman seems to prize so much. It is a book about how one individual can live life as they see fit, not as the world tells them they should. How the small, habitual details of our lives can become political weapons in the hands of a writer in command of her craft.

True rebellion, and therefore the true life of an artist, is the ability to harness one’s individual peculiarities to make a general statement about human life. The stubborn bohemianism of Patti Smith is not an anachronistic delusion. Rather it is a testament to the prosaic defiance of living your life your own way, of being exactly who you are, without compromise.

The strange and sinister truth behind the fetish for Penman-esque nihilism, is that it seems to affirm individual intelligence while promoting compliance to faceless social forces. Therein lies the big threat of Patti Smith’s humble but dangerous little book.

Against Hipsterism: The Fake Freedom Of Nihilism

‘How surprising that men blame the gods, and say their troubles come from us, though they, through their own un-wisdom, find suffering beyond what is fated.’

Zeus addresses the Olympians, The Odyssey, Book One.

The hipster seeks to make a virtue out of degradation and hopelessness, because she lacks the imagination to see the world in any other way.


Nihilism has now become a badge of honour. The rise of TV shows like House Of Cards reflect how meaninglessness has become the religion of our time

There’s nothing intelligent or smart about being nihilistic. It is a bimbo’s philosophy masquerading as astuteness.

It’s much safer to believe the world is, as Peter Hitchens puts it, a meaningless car crash, than it is to accept responsibility for your own existence.

Nihilism, atheism and hipsterism resemble the decadent religion of the pre-reformation world, where cynicism and realpolitik gave people an excuse to make no effort to be human or moral.

Your humanity does not come for free. It is something you become, it is something you earn and cultivate.

You become a soul, as Keats said. You are not born with one.

Nihilism is just the flip side of ideology.

Both nihilists and ideological fanatics seek to relinquish the power of subjective reason. Both seek refuge in the higher authority of fate, and both justify their doing this by predicating their world views on a philosophy of human nature that is degraded and cynical.

In order for a human to claim their full potential, they can’t rely on either traditional religious thinking or nihilistic godlessness.

In fact, these are one and the same thing.

In order to live and flourish, we need faith. God or no god. Ideology or no ideology.

Faith is the belief that our individual will can positively affect our environment.

An athlete needs faith just as much as an NGO worker in the Congo.

Human life can only exist if the laws of chance are ignored. Great achievements can only be made only if hopelessness is made the great original sin.

The hipster hates this idea. She is enraged just reading this. She has to be, she has to fight it with every bone and nerve pulse in her body.

Because the hipster seeks certainty in meaninglessness.

In that sense the hipster is as conservative and fearful of mystery as much as the worst witch-burning puritan.

Hipsters make a big show of their ironic world view, their adherence to chaos and the void.

But they arrogate themselves a Buddha-like gravitas, that is not theirs to claim.

While seeming to allow themselves to rise above false dogmas and ideals, to free themselves of illusions, they live by the greatest, and oldest, delusion of all: that man is powerless to affect his own fate.

There is a lot to be gained in cynicism and nihilism. If nothing can change, there’s no need to try.

If all the good things have been said, then let’s not bother saying anything new.

There is a pagan fatalism to this concept of the world. It is the world of unholy bullies and tyrants, where all consequences are attributed to the capricious gods.

It is typical of the hipster to claim existential insight. As if to see clearly into the reality of things, makes chaos and meaninglessness inevitable.

However, as Sartre said in Existentialism Is A Humanism, to reevaluate the role of God in life does not necessarily lead us to nihilism.

In fact, the dignity of the individual is what takes the place of God – not the void.

When the nihilistic hipster replaces God with nothingness, they resemble the worst of medieval usurpers, or the terrorising mob after the French Revolution.

They replace one tyranny with another. Whereas traditional religion offers a puritanical tyrant, hipsterism offers the tyranny of boredom and emptiness.

Far from freeing culture of dogma, it condemns it to the most catholic of punishments: eternity in limbo.