Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sobriety as Spectacle

There's a touching Soviet film called "Autumn Marathon", in which a random Dane gets thrown into a Glorious Socialist drunk tank. He returns to his Leningrad hosts the next morning with the sort of look in his eyes that you'd get after a particularly invasive bout of alien abduction. "There were many new words there," he muttered into his kvass.

That Mr Putin is a ghastly man by any standards. When not punching bears or switching off Belarus, he's throwing away the good bits of the Soviet legacy and hanging on to the rotten ones.

So Stalinism and screwing up the Middle East are ok again, but the cosy violence of your local yokel bobby is not. Instead the Russians have to put up with armour-plated sacks of steroids with guns that work and a licence to park their giant motorbikes in the crack of your arse.

Most shameful of all is Putin's decision to close the drunk tanks. The вытрезвитель (sobering-up station) predates the Revolution, but the Bolsheviks gave it the lacquer of pseudo-science, priggishness and theft that helped it endure to this day.

The Soviets scorned the sentimental, bourgeois practice of encouraging doctors to shelter alcoholics and their families until they were fit to return to serfdom. Instead they handed over the drunk tanks to the the police and let them:

  • hose down random drunks, not necessarily with water,

  • steal their remaining shoe,

  • show them a graph correlating the impact of drinking "Natasha" perfume on the output of self-combusting television sets,

  • kick them in the danglers; and

  • dump them in a snow drift
but not before billing them two kopecks for the trouble. One minute you're warming up for a midnight Stockhausen serenade outside the ex-wife's flat, and the next some single-cell Siberian soaks are trying to use you as a wind sock. Once you manage to stagger home the first thing you need is a stiff drink and a fight, and back to the tank you go.

This may sound reactionary, but in fact it displays Scientific Socialism at its most exquisite. Capitalists require a professional police force to repress the workers and their annoying middle-class representatives, while feudal rulers intimidated, entertained and sometimes fed the cowled masses with spectacular public punishments.

A Socialist society, requires no such agencies of doom. The Soviet police simply brought members of the drinking classes together and allowed them to exchange teeth, fluids and experimental impregnation techniques in the seclusion of a basement urinal until their anti-people manifestations were spent.

The police then put the given parasite's actions in their socio-economic context, provided "look-no-hands" washing facilities and returned him to society. Seizing items of the visitor's clothing provided him with a tantalising glimpse of the Victory of Communism, when money is abolished and goods and services are simply exchanged.

The two-kopeck fee was a reminder that this dazzling future when, to quote Engels, "state interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself" (Anti-Dühring), had not yet arrived.

The kick in the nuts was free.

President Gorbachev, like all busy little reformers, had no time to sit back with a glass of horseradish vodka and a crackling pipeful of perique to peruse the lessons of history. That's why he thought Prohibition would sort out the problems of alcoholism, falling output and commodity fetishism, just like it didn't in America.

The result was tumbling mortality rates as the man in the stalling trolleybus took to drinking flight fuel, the total collapse of the economy as everyone spent all their time making, procuring and drinking red-eye, and the rise of the Russian Mafia. Oh, and the Soviet Union shrank from super-power status to the back of Gorbachev's limo, which had had its hub caps stolen and fashioned into rather fetching earrings by the eternally drunk President Yeltsin. Cheers!

Putin is so busy that he can't even be bothered to learn from Gorbachev's mistakes, which is why his new big idea is to shut down the drunk tanks and shunt their clients off to the Accident & Emergency ward of the nearest hospital.

Perhaps he's trying to return to the medical as opposed to dialectical approach to sobriety pioneered in Tsarist Russia. If so then he, above all, should know what happened to the Romanovs. Another country that adopts this approach is Britain, whose record on public drunkeness is admired only by dead Vikings.

From a strictly Marxist point of view, there may be some benefits to this. Even if you have never been to Russia, you should be able to conduct the following thought experiment:

  • Imagine a British hospital that was last equipped and cleaned in 1964
  • Imagine it staffed by angry, underpaid medics
  • Imagine it full of know-all hypochondriac grannies.

Now imagine this happy scene flooded with bellowing men in piss-stained brown flares, waving pickled gherkins about their bandaged heads, and draw your own conclusions about Mr Putin's chances of completing his third presidential term.

I never made it to a Soviet drunk tank, despite the best efforts of friends and colleagues, but a couple of my fellow students in Voronezh were once called upon to bail out "Major" Farid Bouaouni, an Algerian Situationist shepherd who looked like Major Easy.

He had refused to pay his bill at the Hotel Brno, prompting a visit from the police. They were minded to let him go with the standard clout and shake-down, but he insisted that he only wanted to "converse with socialists". So off to the tank with him.

The desk sergeant was delighted to deliver The Major into the custody of Her Britannic Majesty's student corps, as the boy had caused major delerium tremens among his cellmates by enacting Berkoff's "Metamorphosis" while swinging from the ceiling with his unusually adhesive palms.

This made Farid the only man to have emerged from a Soviet drunk tank drier than when he went in, and with his genitals largely in the same location and configuration.

He celebrated his release by stealing the wreath from the Tomb of the Unburied Soldier, placing it on his chest and trying to ignite it through an act of gastric acrobatics on Red Army Day. He was deported to Algiers on two separate flights.

The Russians were proud of their drunk tanks, and sought to share their cultural wealth with other, meaner nations. While holidaying in Soviet Armenia I read in the local paper that the first drunk tank had opened in the capital, Yerevan.

I asked my hosts what the point was, as Armenians drink in the Mediterranean style - wine with meals - rather than in the Slavonic traditions - turps with knives. Tigran the Jeans-Wrangler flipped the paper over to the Stop Press column, which noted "Yerevan Police Dogs Congratulate Man From Omsk On Becoming First Drunk Tank Customer".

Readers dismayed at Russia's abandoning its worthy Soviet heritage need not despair, for there is always Ukraine. With their Neapolitan attitude to public service and legal mildew, Ukrainians continue to bask in the Soviet glories of nepotism, unregulated shed building and policing as a form of improvisatory street theatre.

A friend has a wooden summer house in a village outside Kiev, where his good lady wife was spending a pleasant morning grinding chillis into her baby food. A drunk approached, demanding 7.35 hryvnyas for a bottle of monkey juice. She demurred, as had a number of neighbours already. The drunk declared that he would burn the village down, and was still trying to drop lit matches onto his amber stream of urine when the police arrived.

As the coppers dragged the drunk away, the lady of the house asked how long he would get in jail - attempted arson being a serious crime in Ukraine.

"Jail?! D'you think we're going to feed this git for five years? Don't worry ma'am, we'll just take him to those woods, macerate him thoroughly with the help of these excellent new Polish truncheons, point what's left towards Obukhiv District and tell him never to come back again. All in a day's work. A couple of chillis? Why, thank you - they'll come in handy if his attention drifts! Mornin' all!"

British stag parties must have tired of using the Baltic States as lavabos by now, so drunk-tank tourism is one of the many income funnels that Ukraine may yet drain. Russia misses the boat once again. But then Putin reserves the right to sink it any time he chooses.

It's good to be the Tsar.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Untergang heut Morgen

Whenever I hear Miriam Makeba my thoughts naturally turn to Spengler's theory of pseudomorphosis.

Spengler, a ponderous interbellum Teuton, was not keen on jazz or any other form of "negro" music, so it's fair to say he would not have enjoyed Mama Africa's democratic syncopations any more than the on-beat flow of Ices Cube or T.

Ms Makeba is the name I always associate with the anti-Apartheid campaign, the cause closest to the lapels of my fellow students in the 1980s. And Spengler springs to mind whenever I think of students.

Oswald Spengler's insufficiently underrated book "The Decline of the West" falls into the same category as the works of Ayn Rand, namely philosophy for people who don't like philosophy.

Nonetheless, the old boy died in the happy knowledge that he was the only man in 1930s Germany who could get away with belittling Hitler as an "heroic tenor", thanks to the popularity of "Decline" among damp-palmed Prussian professors and their pimply charges.

"Decline" is an attempt at a cyclical analysis of history. Cultures rise, atrophy into civilisation then decline, because people are basically a bunch of clowns and everything new is rubbish. Egyptians, Chinese, Europeans - none of us stand a chance.

Democracy, hip-gyratin' music and priest-baiting are particular signs that the West is finished. Perhaps a military dictator might help. Spengler wasn't sure, and took two volumes a decade apart to say so.

Anxious youths - the sort who think "Steppenwolf" is all about them - loved this sepulchral sludge. Kissinger gave the already miserable Richard Nixon a copy for his bedside table - proof if ever it were needed that Henry was a Democrat mole.

Still, a book that size can't all be wrong, unless it's written by Quakers, and "Decline of the West" has its moments. Pseudomorphosis rather appeals to me - new, vigorous cultural growth cannot break out of the trappings of senile civilisation, and so turns on it with Oedipal fury.

Antonio Gramsci, up the other end of the geographical, political and coherence see-saw, had a similar insight in his "Prison Notebooks", when he wrote that the "old is dying and the new cannot be born". Gramsci saw this as a mere stumble on the trek to progress.

But when you look at student political engagement since the heroic tenor days of 1936, it's hard not to agree with Spengler that the "morbid symptoms" are really here to stay.

In 1936 the cause was Spain. A few Papal oddballs saluted Franco from the safety of their armchairs as the Condor Legion thundered over their tonsured, straw-filled heads. But the Republic was joined on the battlefields of Málaga and Madrid by Oxbridge's finest poets, Wales's hardest miners and England's better Blair.

It's easy to point to Soviet skullduggery behind enemy lines, as I've done before, but Spain was the opening skirmish of the Second World War. Hitler wasn't truly defeated on the Western Front until Franco died, and anyone who fought the squat Galician is all right by me.

British youth has since had its native Beserker genes blunted by the pacifist bromides of higher education and its rage against tyranny sapped by a spurious sense of pseudo-socialist solidarity with the Soviet. This explains how its epic performance in Spain and Normandy was followed by the shameful slouch towards Aldermaston in the 1950s, and the reduction of Vietnam War protests to grandstanding for Ho Chi Mindlessess.

Things improved in the gritty '70s and '80s - perhaps due to unemployment and the declining quality of smack. Chile, in particular, was a noble and often practical campaign against a squalid dictatorship, despite being tainted in Wales by Dafydd Iwan's neverending "Cân Victor Jara".

But those decades were defined by anti-Apartheid. The movement had its fair selection of heads both hot and soft, but even a strong aversion to Desmond Tutu couldn't stir much sympathy for the Vogon Bothas.

In Wales the political is personal, and the personal is critical. My sympathy with the Anti-Apartheid Movement stemmed from having had to listen to my distant cousin "Uncle Robin", who had emigrated to South Africa to join the Bureau of State Security. The last time I'd seen him was May 1979, when he'd popped back to Britain for the general election in order to see "that Communist, David Owen" lose his seat.

With such sawtooth political sense it's frankly a miracle that Apartheid lasted as long as it did. I was glad to see the sunburnt back of it. Uncle Robin was last heard of in a Christmas card from "Zimbabwe-Rhodesia" before decamping to Bournemouth with a lady from Lourenço Marques.

As May turned to December and Mandela made way for whoever, I would sometimes bump into the anti-Apartheid scarf-wearers of my college days and ask them how they thought the new South Africa was getting on. This sobering but far from sober experience helped to formulate the No Good Boyo Iron Rules of Student Politics, applicable to all causes:

1. The Dana Condundrum: All Kinds of Everything was happening in Africa, but getting rid of Apartheid was the only one that mattered, and somehow made the others go away, even though it didn't.

2. The Ilf & Petrov Thesis : Once Apartheid was defeated, everything in South Africa was ok. Based on the novel "The Twelve Chairs", by the aforementioned Soviet writers, in which we find the slogan "No one can save the drowning but the drowning themselves" ("Дело помощи утопающим — дело рук самих утопающих").

3. The Fintan Stack Amendment: Evidence against points 1. and 2. suggesting that Africa still had problems, and that South Africa was letting the side down over Mugabe and AIDS, were met by a blank look that said "I had my fun, and that's all that mattered".

Very patient readers will recall that my unfinished doctoral thesis concerned university unrest in Tsarist Russia, and one of the reasons I gave up - apart from finding out that some rotter had already written it - was the realisation that politics at the student stage suffers from precocious senility.

The charity-shop shufflers get involved, get laid, get jobs and get lost. They then leave quotidian politics to the dullard dynasties of Kinnocks and Milibands and single-string campaigning to the tone-deaf sectarians of the far left.

Meanwhile, their place in the student trenches is taken by more Home-Counties Hillaries on a three-year stretch. It's like a First World War opera by Philip Glass - slight tweaks to the same theme, with some modulation but no development. And then you graduate.

University College Swansea, where I studied slate maintenance and cockle husbandry (joint honours), was one of the least political campuses in Britain. Seventy year of drunk Labour MPs and the conviction that Mrs Thatcher wasn't really prime minister because she's a "bird" had dulled the already rusty hoe of student activism.

The Student Union was largely concerned with scrabbling around for a quorum, every mention of which prompted a bellow of "scrotum!" from the Rugby Club props who seemed to think the debating chamber was their changing room. It was so apolitical that we had an SDP Union President for about five years - the SDP being the political party for people who don't like politics.

The rare debates amounted to the curlew cry of the Athletic Union pleading to opt out of the college bilingual policy. This obliged them to submit every poster - "Headbutting Club members please assemble in the bins at Harper's Disco at 2300 sharp, please" - to someone like me, who translated it into Middle Cornish and threw the original English away.

There were also attempts to expel the Federation of Conservative Students. These porky date-rapists produced my favourite ever poster during the 1983 General Election: a picture of a British Army tank with the word "Benn" underneath it. Made me think.

The Union printed a newspaper called "Swansea Student", which sandwiched oddly prescient notices like "This Union deplores the US bombing of Libya" between music reviews copied from the NME and letters complaining about the Rugby Club's altruistic "bathe a lesbian" campaign.

The most active political group were the Socialist Workers - a shrill of Kentish girls in cardies led by a future accountant who looked like Béla Bartók. She focused on berating a politics lecturer for failing to see the sexism inherent in Tom Paine's "Rights of Man".

The only campaign that had any coherence or momentum was anti-Apartheid, although this largely amounted to shouting "Amandla!" at confused West Indians, picketing showings of "Zulu" and frowning at the Rugby Club's "Springboks" fashion range.

I have recounted one occasion when polishing a Silver Age college quip cost me dear in the coinage of love, and my sole contribution to anti-Apartheid at Swansea also dropped into the crusty sock of woe.

Everyone read the "Swansea Student", but I alone glanced at "College News", the university administration's tedious and ill-set bulletin. It was even printed on bilious orange paper - the eternal colour of the loser, from 70s porn actors to the Continuity Liberal Party (Meadowcroft Faction).

"College News" announced one day that our first principal, Professor Fulton, had died, and that in his honour College House would be renamed Fulton House. Sure enough, the following day the sign went up on the main administration building.

The Student Union, which clung to the back of College/Fulton House like an amorous beetle, had voted to rename its drinking hole "The Mandela Bar" only the day before. This seemed appropriate enough, as it resembled the rumpus room of a condemned Congolese jailhouse with worse beer and less female company, but these were the 1980s and irony was only allowed on Radio 4.

(It was later renamed after a series of children's TV characters and most recently Rob Brydon, before being sold to a Saudi engineering student as a garage for his gold-plated vacuum bed.)

I was sipping a cloudy half of SA in "The Mandela Bar" that lunchtime with a group of Union activists, mainly because I was taken with the Women's Society secretary. This followed my lifelong pattern of being attracted to women who instinctively disapprove of me.

Kay, despite the stripey tights, undyed cheesecloth drapes and general air of umbrage of her calling, liked having me around as I represented the native Welsh in her selection box of oppression. I was just happy for her braided hair to hover over my coal-streaked shoulder as she head-tilted to me about our Great Vowel Famine.

Conversation turned to the question of College House. "Who is this Fulton, anyway?" asked Kay, with customary distrust at any college decision.

Now, I could have told the truth and impressed the Union Executive with my ace reporting skills. Maybe Kay would have thought I was tapping into some mystical Celtic ley line of matriarchal knowledge about the soil and committee meeting rooms of my ancestors. I might even have drawn wry comparisons between the then principal's bookkeeper triteness and Professor Fulton's scholarly humility.

Instead I glanced thoughtfully across at the poster of Mandela and mused "Fulton? Isn't he the governor of Robben Island Prison?"

It took a day or two and some urgent clarification before the pickets dispersed and the Cuban delegation found its way back to the docks, but Kay had firmly struck me off the list of Insulted and Injured.

Student politics still follows the Boyo rules of instant irrelevance, in so far as the gowned masses can be roused from their rent-book torpor at all. Spengler and Gramsci would have picked up the gamey reek of decadence and nihilism in their chosen causes - The war in Iraq was "Not in My Meme", and the "We Are All Hezbollahas" are indifferent to the bigots Medieval and modern who litter their rallies like trousers in a Whitehall farce.

But then single-issue campaigns are the stripped-down chassis of politics, and inevitably attract the superficial. The Anti-Apartheid Movement, despite its occasional false starts, was a powerful motor of human progress. And it certainly had the best tunes.

When its official history is written I may try my luck again, assuming that Kay & Co are now busy shipping kohl to Gaza, and submit my chapter on "The Fulton House Siege" and its part in my downfall.