Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Murder in Notting Hill
By Mark Olden
Zero Books
Pbck 196pp

‘Sunday May 17 1959. It was late when the phone rang at the Sunday Express. Frank Draper, a junior reporter on the night shift, reached for it. When he was interviewed by the police five weeks later, this was how he described the conversation that followed; “Are you interested in a murder?”’ That’s how Mark Olden’s investigative Odyssey begins. It could be the opening of a classic detective novel, but this is no fiction.

On that early summer day, a young Antiguan carpenter called Kelso Cochrane was stabbed to death on his way home in Notting Hill. Only a year previously the infamous race riots had given the area a new notoriety. Cochrane’s name, like that of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993, soon became symbolic for the state of race relations in Britain as well as a rallying focus for campaigns to free Britain of race hate.

Kelso Cochrane’s murderers were never caught. Mark Olden, TV producer and writer, undertook the arduous task of trying to do what the police failed to: discover the truth about his murder. He had already made an investigative documentary about Cochrane’s killing for the BBC, but with this book he has now turned that into a more in-depth analysis. It is un-put-downable read and, like any good detective story, follows a riveting forensic trail. However, Olden does not just tell the story of a murder, but places Kelso’s killing within a vividly painted social and political context: of Rachman’s infamous slum landlordism in the area, in the wake of the Tory’s abolition of regulated rents, of police corruption, of youth unemployment and a heady mix of new black immigration into an already volatile social milieu.

As with many killings of black people before and since that of Kelso Cochrane, many black people believe that if these murder victims had been white, then the investigations would have been pursued with vigour and more prosecutions would have followed. The chief investigator on Cochrane’s case was Ian Forbes-Leith – an ex-RAF officer who wore a bowler hat to work and whose very traditional, upper crust background seemed particularly unsuitable for an investigator put to work in a deprived working class area of which he would have little understanding or sympathy.

While much has changed in Britain since the late fifties - Britain as a multi-cultural society is now accepted by all, bar a marginal few, and the police have undergone serious race-relations training - a latent racism is still deeply embedded in the psyche of our society. A deterioration of the present economic crisis, rising unemployment and an exacerbated housing shortage could at any time, one feels, awaken that atavistic racism.

Interestingly it was the Labour MP, Barbara Castle, who immediately spotted a possible connection between this racist killing and the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in Kenya. ‘If the British people are going to allow those responsible for the beating of 11 detainees to death in the Hola concentration camp in Kenya to go untraced and unpunished we shall have given the green light to every “nigger-baiting” Teddy Boy in Notting Hill,’ she said. Does that not resonate with Iraq and Afghanistan today, as well as the recent demands for compensation by Kenyan victims of Britain’s imperial brutality in the fifties?

At times, as Olden’s investigation proceeds, it reads as if he were really talking about today. Payment of the police by the media is not apparently, as some may believe, a recent issue. Olden relates how there was corrupt and intimate liaison between top police officers and the media already then, there was also a refusal by the authorities to see this murder as racially motivated and a political elite was desperately trying to put a lid back on the tinderbox. Political myopia is also something common to most governing elites. Olden illustrates how deprivation, unemployment and disaffection by sections of white working class youth fuelled racial hatred and played into the hands of Moseley’s resurgent fascists and Colin Jordan’s abhorrent White Defence League.

Olden also shows how a small anti-racist movement was active even then, led by such figures as the black Communist Claudia Jones. He illustrates how the Conservative government, in cahoots with right wing Caribbean Uncle Toms, attempted to smear the left anti-racist campaign rather than damn the right over Kelso’s death.
While Olden can’t quite prove who the murderer was – many witnesses had died in the meantime, including the putative killer – he leaves little doubt as to who he was. This book is not simply a look back at the past, but a useful historical document that still has resonances for us today.
Mark Olden’s documentary: ‘Who killed my brother, Kelso Cochrane? Was broadcast on BBC 2 in April 2006.

World turned upside down

What is happening out there? Billionaire investor Warren Buffett, in a recent interview with the New York Times, called for the ‘mega-rich’ like himself to pay more in taxes. Is this a rare case of turkeys voting for Christmas?
Buffett noted that the mega-rich pay income tax at 15 percent on most investment income but practically nothing in income tax. Most workers in the USA pay between 15 and 25% in income tax. Buffett says he knows many of the mega-rich well, and most wouldn't mind paying more in taxes, especially when so many of their fellow citizens are suffering. He also said he has yet to see anyone shy away from investing because of tax rates on potential gains. ‘People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off,’ he said.
Then we have Nouriel Roubini, a New York University professor, arguing that Karl Marx's critique of capitalism is being played out in the present global financial crisis. ‘Karl Marx got it right,’ he says, ‘at some point capitalism can destroy itself. We thought markets worked. They're not working.’
He characterises the free market as: ‘The rich run a global system that allows them to accumulate capital and pay the lowest possible price for labour. The freedom that results applies only to them. The many simply have to work harder, in conditions that grow ever more insecure, to enrich the few’. Roubini earned himself the nickname ‘Dr Doom’ for being one of the first economic commentators to declare that there was something rotten and the core of the world's economic system.
These are not isolated cases. Leading newspapers in many countries are today discussing Marx, only a few years after the ‘end of history’ was declared with the demise of the socialist countries of Eastern Europe.
However, the real power brokers - most global financial institutions and political leaders are still advocating wholly orthodox approaches to managing budget deficits and economic instability. The truth is perhaps too scary for them to contemplate. Either that or the temporary winners in the current system are simply filling their pockets with as much as they can before the next even bigger crash.
While the recent riots can hardly be described as working class uprisings, they do reflect the dire situation the present capitalist system finds itself in despite their inarticulacy and wanton vandalism. Those, like Cameron and his fellow Bullingdon boys, who regard these riots as ‘criminality pure and simple’ will see no connection between Roubini's declaration that Marx was right and young people from the inner cities lifting TVs and brand labelled goods from high street shops.
Few would argue that those who took part in the riots were motivated by any higher sense of political insight, but for many it was probably a gut response to a system that pampers the richest and most privileged while ignoring their concerns. They might not be able to list the reasons for their anger and preparedness to simply rob to get what they want, but the unashamed greed, corruption and venality at the top of our political system cannot have completely passed them by.
Schools Minister Michael Gove raged against ‘these criminals’ on Newsnight. This is the same Michael Gove who confused one of his houses with another in order to avail himself of £7,000 (or £13,000, depending on which house you think was which) of taxpayers’ money to which he was not entitled.

Or take Salford MP Hazel Blears, who was loudly calling for draconian action against looters. Is there any ethical distinction between Blears’s expense cheating and tax avoidance, and the robbery carried out by the looters? She cheated apparently forgot which house she lived in, and benefited to the tune of £18,000. Then there was Gerald Kaufman who submitted a claim for three months’ expenses totalling £14,301.60, which included £8,865 for a Bang & Olufsen television. And I could go on listing many more offences committed by our ‘outraged’ leaders. We have to ask who the real looters in our society are.

Even the police, charged with preventing crime and prosecuting criminals are up to their necks in corruption. Former Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman thought nothing of enjoying free champagne dinners with those he was meant to be investigating, and then joined Murdoch’s company on leaving the Met. Or Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson who accepted £12,000 worth of health spa treatment from Champneys, which had an ex-executive editor of News International on its board. Nothing wrong with that, he claimed with outraged dignity. Can these people really be surprised when the country’s culture is swamped in greed and a lust for consumer goods of the most base kind?
We also have the chief political commentator of the Daily ‘Torygraph’, Peter Oborne, in his commentary on18 August, giving his readers a rare dose of home truth. What is the world coming to?

In his piece he said, ‘the moral decay of our society is as bad at the top as the bottom.’ He went on: ‘there was also something very phoney and hypocritical about all the shock and outrage expressed in parliament. MPs spoke about the week’s dreadful events as if they were nothing to do with them. I cannot accept that this is the case. Indeed, I believe that the criminality in our streets cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society. The last two decades have seen a terrifying decline in standards among the British governing elite. It has become acceptable for our politicians to lie and to cheat. An almost universal culture of selfishness and greed has grown up.’
He wrote of the ‘feral rich’ who live in their safe enclaves of Chelsea and Kensington. Surely this must be like writing a suicide note? It will certainly have had the dowagers and city gents spewing up their croissants as they read his words over breakfast.
Rotherham MP Denis MacShane remarked that, “What the looters wanted was for a few minutes to enter the world of Sloane Street consumption.” This from the man who notoriously claimed £5,900 for eight laptops, but of course, as an MP he obtained them legally through expenses.
Cameron speaks of morality, but only as something to be applied to very poor: ‘We will restore a stronger sense of morality and responsibility – in every town, in every street and in every estate,’ he intoned.
As Oborne put it, ‘These double standards from Downing Street are symptomatic of widespread double standards at the very top of our society. The culture of greed and impunity we are witnessing on our TV screens stretches right up into corporate boardrooms and the Cabinet. It embraces the police and large parts of our media. It is not just its damaged youth, but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.’
No, the recent riots are not the early sparks of a coming revolution, but they are the pus seeping from the ulcers of a system in terminal decay.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Karl Marx and World Literature
By. S. S. Prawer
Pbck £16.99

Prawer makes clear he is not attempting to discuss Marx’s theories of literary criticism, but to illuminate the role literature played in Marx’s life and development of his thinking. It is an absorbing and accessible investigation. He reveals a sensitive and highly perceptive approach to Marx’s relationship with world literature and the way it helped shape his world view. He has a deep understanding and sympathy for Marx’s political thinking and an exceptional knowledge of Marx’s work, and is thus able to make the relevant and appropriate connections.

As recipients of a solid German secondary school education, both Marx and Engels gained a thorough grounding in the classical literature of Greece and Rome as well as Biblical Hebrew, alongside the greats of the European enlightenment - Voltaire, Shakespeare, Goethe etc. While the future political ideas of both men would challenge some of the most determinedly held assumptions of western establishments, they found much of their inspiration in the literary works of the past.

As a young student Marx was more interested in literature than history or philosophy and one of his earliest dreams was to become a writer and he toyed with the idea of publishing his poetry. Even in his earliest literary efforts as a teenager one can find the germs of his later thinking. He identified closely with literary figures who were men of action, ‘world changers’, like Prometheus and Odysseus. In his own poems he expresses an overpowering drive to action, for ‘praxis’, rejecting romantic contemplation. A whole number of Marx’s mature ideas appear to have found their nascence in key images from literature. Certainly the evocative and fiery language used in the Communist Manifesto testifies to Marx’s eloquent command of language.

Much of his early writings are littered with preconfigurations of his later mature thinking. In the poem ‘Human pride, written as a 19 year-old, he evokes the ‘alienation’ and oppressiveness of a modern city, but emphasises that the city’s buildings did not create themselves, but were made by human ingenuity i.e. human labour. Even though strongly influenced by European romantic writers, he very early on rejects romanticism as a road to understanding society. He sees writers, poets and painters as ‘producers’ of works, in the same way that craftsmen and women are; not in the first instance as a different species of humanity - ‘creative beings’.

Marx recognised the dialectical connection between aesthetics and content. It was often the case, as with Balzac and Dickens, that the authors themselves were not political militants, but captured essential truths about the societies they wrote about. He and Engels were among the first to recognise that literature and indeed all the arts were dialectically related and connected to the societies in which they were produced. Marx considered literature a means of establishing complex connections between humanity’s economic and cultural activities. He made clear that not only economic and social struggle matter, but demonstrated how artistic works can and do enrich our world. He never fell into the trap of praising writers who held progressive ideas, but were poor writers.
Many crude Marxists have attempted to establish direct causal links between works of art and the economic system. Marx always emphasised, though, that the base-superstructure relationship between the arts and the economic system was not a mechanical one; works of art don’t simply reflect the societies in which they were given birth, but are refracted and may have only a tenuous link with the economic base. Only in a communist society, he argued, will everyone be in a position to express themselves creatively; as long as class society exists, the ruling classes will maintain their hegemony over creative labour.