Archive for May 2008
if there are those of you that are unlucky enough to have not been reading Annabel Crabb in the Sydney Morning Herald over the last 18 months or so, you are really missing out.
This woman has risen to be one of the most consistently clever, brilliant, intelligent, insightful and witty journalists at the SMH and in Australia.
Here is her latest article.
Guilty of grievous oratory harm
May 31, 2008
‘Police are currently investigating the possible prosecution of offences regarding the act of publish indecent article under the Crimes Act”.
These are the exact words with which the NSW Police announced their intentions vis a vis Bill Henson, photographer, eight days ago.
A million more words will be expended on these events, of course.
But while we’re cooking up offences against respected citizens, why not turn the eyes of the law towards a grammatical crime committed with increasing regularity by uniformed officers?
Forget “publish indecent article” for a moment. What about “omit indefinite article”?
This offence, among others, has been stealthily on the rise among NSW’s finest for some time.
A quick glance at the NSW Police’s website reveals that the luckless Henson is by no means the only perp to have his collar felt on a grammatically absurd charge.
Only days earlier, a Lakemba man was charged with “disseminate child pornography” after a police raid on his market stall in Campsie.
“A man will face court after being charged over alleged break, enter and steal offences around Newcastle”, the cops announced on Wednesday, May 7.
Then it was the turn of a 46-year-old finance sector employee, who according to NSW Police on May 21, has been charged on 26 counts including “make false statement, make/use false instrument, and obtain benefit by deception”.
And just last week, the cops issued a press release advising that a 21-year-old Cartwright man and his 260 hydroponically-grown cannabis plants had been parted, after a brief but potentially lucrative cohabitative relationship.
“The man has been charged with cultivate larger than commercial quantity of a prohibited plant and bypassing the electricity meter”, the press release reported.
As you can see from the last example, the odd clause does escape the language mangler – clearly the work of some rogue conjugator deep within the public affairs department, who probably never gets invited anywhere.
But on the whole, copspeak is nothing more than a serious rap sheet of crimes against the English language. Why do our police have to sound like they learnt English from a mobile phone instruction pamphlet?
Is this a funding issue? Is it possible that our police force has been so starved of finances by the NSW Government that it can no longer afford the luxury of joining words?
If so, it’s a real cheek; you’d think this Government would be generous in funding its law enforcement officers, if for no other reason than that its own MPs seem to devote so much of their private lives to the creation of extra work for them.
A closer look, however, suggests that the problem is more one of resource allocation. What the cops save on the regular omission of the indefinite article, they tend to splurge elsewhere.
If we examine the case of the Sydney man who has been done for “obtain benefit by deception”, for instance, we find that he was nabbed by an outfit called “Task Force Foamcrest”.
It’s hard to see how NSW Police could possibly justify kitting itself out with all manner of fancy taskforce titles, when elsewhere there are officers forced to chop back whole sentences in a brutal austerity measure.
Many officers also are guilty of substituting expensive verbs where cheap ones would do.
How many times have you heard an officer declare that a murder or accident victim was “deceased at the scene”, when “dead” would probably cover it just as well?
The field of police communications is littered with offenders who “decamped in a westerly direction” instead of just running away, like anyone else would.
Or who “discharged their weapon intentionally into the vicinity of the victim”, rather than taking the cheaper and easier decision simply to shoot them.
And do you know the worst thing about this entire racket? It’s a conspiracy. Journalists cover it up all the time. You wouldn’t even know about most of the instances of “omit indefinite article”, because we in the fourth estate tidy everything up so you don’t find out.
When the Rose Bay commander, Superintendent Allan Sicard, outlined to the cameras on Friday last the clunky crimes with which Henson and his henchpersons were to be charged, a team of clean-up experts went to work straight away.
The ABC’s PM website now blandly records that Superintendent Sicard referred to the offence of “publishing an indecent article”.
The Independent newspaper in Britain was one of dozens who used the same sanitised version. Readers, this cancer runs deep. Everybody’s in on it. There isn’t much time – any minute now, I shall hear the tap on the door and it will be the troopers, come to bust me on 800 counts of “aggravated take piss”.
What are the characteristics of society and politics and the evolution of political institutions in one of the following countries or regions in the Middle East?
Iraq’s history, society and politics have been marked by five main competing forces – colonialism, oil, religious sectarianism, ethnicity and the military. All of these have significantly influenced the Iraqi nation ever since its formation under mandate in 1920, and even today we see these five issues as paramount to future Iraqi society.
Despite the war-time promises of self-determination made to their Arab allies, after the creation of Iraq by mandate in 1920 the British set about establishing Iraqi political structures that would continue to give the British a significant element of control. Firstly, the British established the monarchy, and installed Amir Faisal as king. Faisal was a calculated appointment – he could trace his descent from the family of the Prophet, his ancestors had held political authority in Mecca and Medina since the tenth century, and he could claim leadership of the Arab emancipation movement due to his role in the 1916 revolt against the Turks – but was reliant on British support due to the cultivation of tribal allegiances. As Mark Lewis describes it:
a major goal of the British policy was to keep the monarchy stronger than any one tribe but weaker than a coalition of tribes so that British power would ultimately be decisive in arbitrating disputes between the two.
The institutionalisation of Faisal’s dependence on Britain came with the creation of the both constitution and the 1922 Anglo-Iraqi treaty. Although the constitution gave the monarchy considerable powers, the Treaty made the monarchy beholden to Britain in several regards – Faisal was obliged to consider all British advice on fiscal policy for as long as Iraq was in debt to Britain, British officials were to be appointed to specific posts in eighteen government departments, and Iraq was required to pay half the cost of supporting these officials. William Cleveland argues, however, that the British recognised the inherent dangers in Faisal’s government being seen as a puppet of the British, and thus allowed Iraq “an increased degree of autonomy in the administration of its internal affairs.” So much so that, by the final treaty in 1930, Iraq was to gain full independence within two years, Britain was bound to come to Iraq’s defence in case of war. However, the treaty also ensured the continuing influence of the British in the Iraqi army: any Iraqi military personnel trained abroad had to be trained in Britain, any foreign military instructors in Iraq had to be British, all the arms for the Iraqi army had to be supplied exclusively by Britain, and Britain had the right to maintain two air bases in Iraq. While many Iraqi nationalists argued that this was “an impediment to Iraq’s real independence”, Faisal regarded the 1930 treaty as “the corner-stone for protecting Iraq’s independence, and…the basis of an extended Anglo-Arab friendship.”
Despite Britain’s attempts to give Faisal’s monarchy at least a shred of legitimacy, there was no ignoring the fact that oil was becoming increasingly important in European affairs. “This”, Cleveland suggests, “produced a contradiction in British policy”, simultaneously trying to promote the appearance of an independent Iraq and extract a favourable oil concession from the same government they had only recently installed. The ensuing lease negotiated a 75-year lease for the Iraqi Petroleum Company (IPC), and while it provided for the payment of royalties the lease specifically excluded Iraq from even partial ownership of the company.
Throughout Iraq’s history, oil has been a major focus of both internal revolutions and external threats. By 1952 new pipelines to Lebanon and Syria increased government oil revenues to US $112 million, but corruption among government officials, the inflation caused by the oil boom and the relatively low number of Iraqis employed by oil companies contributed to the widespread dissatisfaction with the government of the day. This was underlined following the 1958 revolution when the monarchy was overthrown and, following Abd al Karim Qasim’s ascent to power, Public Law 80 was passed, dispossessing the IPC of 99.5 per cent of its concession area and dramatically increasing oil revenues to the government.
Although both have had other catalysts, both Gulf Wars have, fundamentally, been about securing America’s oil supply. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 was sparked by Saddam Hussein’s claims that, firstly, Kuwait had stolen Iraqi oil from the Rumaila oilfields, and secondly that it had flooded the international oil market, causing prices to fall. The West’s immediate response to the invasion was based on concern that, should Kuwait fall, Saudi Arabia was next, and thus 40 per cent of the world’s oil reserves would be in Hussein’s possession. And although the ongoing Iraq War was supposedly based on weapons of mass destruction, numerous White House reports had emphasised the increasing importance of foreign oil to US oil consumption. Michael Klare writes:
Growing worries about the stability of Saudi Arabia…heightened by revelations of Saudi extremists’ involvement in the September 11 terror attacks, have prompted US strategists to seek a backup should future instability lead to a drop in Saudi oil production, which could trigger a global recession. Some strategists have proposed Russia as a backup, others the Caspian Sea states of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. But only one country has the capacity to substantially increase oil production in the event of a Saudi collapse: Iraq. With proven reserves of 112 billion barrels of oil (compared with 49 billion for Russia and 15 billion for the Caspian states), Iraq alone can serve as a backup for Saudi Arabia. At the same time, control over Iraqi oil would allow US leaders to more easily ignore Saudi demands for US action on behalf of the Palestinians and would weaken OPEC’s control over oil prices.
Klare’s argument clearly shows that not only has Iraqi oil been formative in the creation and the ongoing internal conflicts within Iraq, but it has also significantly influenced US policy not only in relation to Iraq, but as concerns oil supply the world over.
Indeed, the reason for this may not just be attributable to America’s voracious energy needs, but by the oil producing nations themselves. The 1973 oil crisis was chiefly caused by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raising oil prices by 70 per cent and cutting production by 25 per cent. In addition to this, OPEC once again highlighted the geopolitical significant of oil supplies by banning oil sales to both the US and the Netherlands, due to their support of Israel. The resulting inflation, unemployment and even recession in many Western countries could only have served to reinforce their vulnerability to foreign oil, and the need to have a dependable supply.
One of the more significant clashes throughout Iraq’s history has been that of sectarianism, but also ethnicity. Both have played an important part in the internal evolution of Iraq, but perhaps more importantly have had vital roles in relation to foreign policy and international relations.
Despite comprising a vast majority of Iraq’s Arab population, perhaps as much as 65%, Shi’as “have been both politically impotent and economically depressed”. Here, once again, we see Iraq’s history of colonialism casting long shadows even today, although in this case it is not European, but rather Ottoman imperialism. However, this is not the result of a calculated and systematic repression, but rather an accident of history and necessity. During the reign of the Ottomans, they favoured their Sunni ideological brethren for positions of administration and governance. Then, once the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the new Iraq was being formed, King Faisal really had no choice but to choose experienced administrators as government officials, and thus Iraq’s bureaucracy for much of its history has been Sunni-dominated. Perhaps the clearest manifestation of this is that, of the five men who shared the premiership of Iraq thirteen times between them from 1921 to 1941, all were Sunnis with experience in the Ottoman regime.
Issues of sectarianism have also been important factors in Iraqi foreign policy, most significantly in relation to Iran. One of the great fears following Khomeini’s revolution in 1979 was that an increasingly Shi’a Iran might inspire uprising from Iraq’s suppressed Shi’a majority. As Hourani states, “the Iraqi regime faced a double challenge, as a secular nationalist government and as one dominated by Sunni Muslims”. While Iraq’s invasion of Iran was a successful pre-emptive move against Shi’a resurgence as it did not split Iraqi society, “to some extent it split the Arab world” as Syria supported Iran while most other Arab states gave military or financial support to Iraq. Here we can see clearly how sectarianism is not only a huge concern within Iraq, but is an issue of such magnitude that it was worthy of fighting a war in order to avoid any manifestation of it.
But perhaps even more complicated than the sectarian divisions of Iraq are those divisions in ethnicity, specifically in regards to the Kurdish peoples of northern Iraq. There are areas of Iraq, Iran and Turkey that are predominantly Kurdish in their ethnicity, and are arguably the largest nationalist bloc in the world without their own state. This is largely because, throughout history, the Kurds have never banded together to form an independent political entity, and thus have been ruled by Armenians, Persians, Byzantines, Turks and Arabs. Perhaps the strongest push for an autonomous Kurdish state took place during the decline of the Ottoman Empire with the establishment of several Kurdish newspapers and societies. Although these were shut down by the Ottomans, Kurdish appeals to Britain for autonomy proved successful with the declaration of the Treaty of Sevres, wherein the Allies recognised the right of both the Kurds and the Armenians to form their own independent states. However, Mustafa Kemal’s ascension to power in Turkey saw Turkish reclamation of the Kurdish regions in its east. Furthermore, Mosul’s importance as a source of oil led to Britain including it as part of Iraq under the 1920 mandate.
Once again, as with much Iraqi history, the military has played an important role in regards to the Kurds, most obviously apparent in 1964-65. Iranian-supported Kurdish attacks in the north of Iraq prompted Iraq’s Prime Minister Bazzaz to propose a comprehensive peace settlement with the Kurds, including; predominant use of the Kurdish language in Kurdish areas, Kurdish administration of their educational, health and municipal institutions, and proportional representation in national and provincial governments. The acceptance of these terms by Mustafa Barzani, a Kurdish leader, suggested that the conflict was over. However, the army, who feared the potential damage to the armed forces if Bazzaz, a civilian, remained prime minister, strongly denounced any and all reconciliation with the Kurds, leading to President Arif asking for Bazzaz’s resignation.
Interestingly, Mark Lewis argues that the entrance of the military into Iraqi politics came about following the massacre of Assyrians at a village called Simel in 1933. This massacre was ordered by a Kurdish general, Bakr Sidqi, and set precedence for military intervention “that would be followed throughout the 1950s and the 1960s.” Perhaps, in a cruel twist of fate, were it not for the actions of a Kurdish general in 1933, the Kurds would have attained statehood thirty years later.
However, the greatest tragedy for the Kurds in Iraq centres on Saddam Hussein and the remarkable, monstrous shift in his treatment of Kurdish people during the course of his reign. Beginning in 1969, when Hussein was vice-chairman of the Ba’ath Party, “the party continued its efforts to win over the Kurdish people by gradually granting the Kurds a number of political rights and adopting measures aimed at encouraging reconciliation.” These included:
“the establishment of the Kurdish new year Nawruz as a national holiday; the teaching of the Kurdish language in all Iraqi schools and universities; the establishment of a new university in Sulaymaniyya; the establishment of a Dohuk province (an old Kurdish demand for the establishment of a Kurdish province in Mosul province); the publication of Kurdish books and periodicals; the creation of an Academy for Kurdish Culture within the Ministry of Information; the elaboration of a departmental law based on the principle of decentralisation; an increase in the number of Kurdish programs on Kirkuk television; the granting of an amnesty to all civilians who participated in the fighting in the Kurdish area.”
And indeed much of this agenda was adapted in the March 1970 Manifesto, including:
“recognition of Kurdish as the official language in those areas where Kurds constitute a majority. Kurdish and Arabic would be taught together in all schools; participation of Kurds in government, including the appointment of Kurds to key posts in the state; furtherance of Kurdish education and culture; requirement that officials in the Kurdish area speak Kurdish; right to establish Kurdish student, youth, women’s, and teacher’s organisations; economic development of the Kurdish area; return of Kurds to their villages or financial compensation; agrarian reform; amendment of the constitution to read “the Iraqi people consist of two main nationalities: the Arab and Kurdish nationalities”; return of the clandestine radio stations and heavy weapons to the government; appointment of a Kurdish vice-president; amendment of provincial laws in accordance with this declaration; formation of a Kurdish area with self-government.”
Furthermore, within one month of the agreement a nine-man high commission, chaired by Saddam Hussein, was created to carry out the implementation of this agreement. A 1970 amendment to the provisional constitution declared that “all citizens are equal before the law”, the Kurdish language would exist side-by-side with Arabic, and the “Iraqi people are composed of two main nationalities, Arab and Kurdish.”
However, all moves towards Kurdish nationalism ceased following this declaration, and 1974 saw renewed fighting. The Algerian Agreement between Iran and Iraq led to a cessation of the shah’s support for the Kurdish resistance, which led to the forced relocation of nearly 250,000 Kurds to the southern parts of Iraq. Furthermore, Ba’ath Party officials forced Arabs to move to northern regions, diluting the Kurdish presence even more. And the drastic turnaround in Hussein’s policy could not be more morbidly underlined than with his use of chemical and biological weapons against Kurdish towns, such as at Halabja in the 1987 Anfal campaign, allegedly killing 5,000 men, women and children within 30 minutes.
Mark Lewis offers a general explanation as to the primacy of the army throughout Iraqi history, stating that “in Iraq, as in much of the developing world, the military establishment has been the best organised institution in an otherwise weak political system.” This organisation came, at the very beginning, from the British, who established the Iraqi army at the Cairo Conference of 1921, and since its inception the army has been responsible for close to a dozen coups. Including the 1936 Bakr Sidi coup, the 1941 coup led by Rashid Ali, the 1948 Wathbah uprising, the 1963 bloodless coup that installed Arif into power, and of course the 1968 coup that established the Ba’ath party in office. And we have already seen how important the army was in relation to the answering of the Kurdish question, especially in 1964-65. Furthermore, the Sunni minority that has so often held political power in Iraq has usually tried to keep all leadership positions in the army occupied by Sunnis, with the rank and file comprising mostly Shi’a. Thus we can see that the Iraqi military has always been a microcosm of Iraqi society, full of sectarian and ethnic divisions, controlled by power-hungry leaders, and seemingly haunted by the long shadow of British colonialism. Although the military has not been a factor in every aspect of Iraq’s social and political history, countless Iraqi leaders come from military backgrounds, and the frequency of coups meant that, at time, the army became the arbiter of Iraqi politics. The absolute power of the army, especially in regards to the early period of the monarchy, is perhaps explained by Lewis, who argues, “while Iraq’s body politic crumbled under immense political and economic pressure throughout the monarchic period, the military gained increased power and influence.”
One of the greatest examples of the importance of the military can be found in the rise and rule of Saddam Hussein. Despite international opposition from the US, UN, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria, until the US-led invasion in 2003 there emerged not a single serious Iraqi opposition leader ready to challenge Saddam’s leadership. Hourani argues that this is because Saddam enjoys ‘asabiyya – a corporate spirit oriented towards obtaining and keeping power – largely based around the dominance of his al-Bu Nasr clan and the large numbers of Tikiritis who remain loyal to him. It was from this region that a “significant part of the officer corps had been recruited” prior to the 1968 revolution that installed Hussein and Hasan al-Bakri to power. It was this same ‘asabiyya, specifically within the Republic Guard, that upheld Saddam’s power following Kurdish and Shi’a uprisings in 1991.
The history, society and politics of Iraq are all remarkably complex, interwoven as they are with the history of world wars, cold wars and colonialism to name but a few. At various moments sectarian and ethnic divisions have been paramount; at others, the military has been ascendant; and at yet others oil and geopolitics have been irresistible forces. There is perhaps no country in the world whose past, present and future is as difficult to analyse or predict, as it is impossible to know which of these competing forces will next achieve supremacy, no matter how temporary it may be.
1. Amatzia Baram, Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba’thist Iraq, 1968-89 (St Martin’s Press: New York), 1991
2. William L. Cleveland. A history of the modern Middle East (Westview Press: Boulder), 1994.
3. Edmund Ghareeb, The Kurdish Question in Iraq (Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, New York), 1981
4. Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Belknap, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts), 2002
5. Abbas Kelidar (ed.), The Integration of Modern Iraq (Croom Helm: London), 1979
6. Michael T. Klare, “Oiling the Wheels of War”, The Nation, October 7, 2002
7. Helen Chapin Metz (ed.), Iraq: a country study (Library of Congress: Washington), 1990
8. Benjamin Shwadran, The Power Struggle in Iraq (Council For Middle Eastern Affairs Press: New York), 1960
9. Mohammad A. Tarbush, The role of the military in politics: A case study of Iraq to 1941 (Keegan Paul International: London), 1982
 Mark Lewis, “Historical Setting”, in Helen Chapin Metz (ed), Iraq: a country study (Library of Congress: Washington), 1990, p.35,
 Lewis, op cit., p.36.
 Lewis, op cit., p.36-7
 William L. Cleveland. A history of the modern Middle East (Westview Press: Boulder), 1994, p.203.
 Cleveland, op cit., p.204.
 A. Shakara, “Faisal’s Ambitions of Leadership in the Fertile Crescent: Aspirations and Constraints” in Abbas Kelidar (ed), The Integration of Modern Iraq (Croom Helm: London), 1979, p.36.
 Shakar, ibid., p.36.
 Cleveland, op. cit., p.204
 Lewis, op cit., p.50.
 Michael T. Klare, “Oiling the Wheels of War”, The Nation, October 7, 2002
 Klare, ibid.,
 Lewis, op. cit., p.63.
 Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Belknap, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts), 2002, p.432.
 Hourani, ibid., p.432.
 Edmund Ghareeb, The Kurdish Question in Iraq (Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, New York), 1981, p.5.
 Lewis, p.56.
 Lewis, ibid., p.42.
 Ghareeb, op cit., p.79.
 Ghareeb, op cit., p79-80.
 Ghareeb, op cit., p.87-88.
 Ghareeb, op cit., p.101.
 Ghareeb, op cit., p.101.
 Cleveland, op cit., p.399.
 Jennifer R. Ridha, “The Trouble with the Tribunal: Saddam Hussein and the Elusiveness of Justice”, Middle East Report, No. 232 (Autumn, 2004), p. 40-43
 Lewis, op cit., p.36.
 Lewis, op cit., p.36.
 Hourani, op cit., p.461-2
Manning is the student bar at Sydney University
Surry Hills is a “trendy”, “edgy” area of Sydney, where many students live
I had just finished my mid-morning latte, the act of drinking it a habitual cleansing of the palate, removing the bitter, sexist taste of a boorish HIStory lecture from my mouth. I was walking towards Manning, planning for an afternoon of Barthes and Foucault, sharing Fedora-maintenance and chardonnay-sipping with my coterie of elegant, en-scarfed intelligentsia, when your voice wafted to my ears on the crisp Autumn breeze.
“Are you thinking of voting today?”, you asked.
Truth be told, I hadn’t been. I was occupied with deconstructing the Marxist dialectics used in the recent outer Mongolian provincial elections, but your calm, confident expression lured me back to the here and now, like an electoral Siren in Ray Bans.
“I beg your pardon?”, I replied, genuinely distracted by the resplendent fluoro sticker on your breast, proudly proclaiming your participation in the present polling.
“Help me make a perfect Union”, you gently implored, seducing my suffrage. The connotations of your request did not escape me, a Gender Studies major, but I must admit it threw me momentarily.
In a daze, I accepted your tenderly proffered pamphlet, but reading your chosen candidate’s proposed programs focussed my mind. I knew, in that instant, above all else, I had to deconstruct you.
“I’d love to discuss this some more. Are you free now? I know a quiet place, somewhere we won’t be disturbed.” My calm reply belied my nervous interior, but you eagerly acquiesced to my request, and before I knew it we were reclining on the futon in my Surry Hills living room, discussing the pros and cons of social welfare in a free-market economy, and your candidate’s plan to lobby for an increase in student payments.
As our eyes met, I saw the reformist zeal in your eyes.
“But enough about my candidate”, you whispered, “show me your platform.”
As I revealed my firm, hardline stance, your eyes lit up, the corner of your mouth pulling back into a small smirk.
“You really are left-leaning.”
What followed was an in-depth examination of the issue at hand, and I was amazed by your grasp of policy. So much more than mere lip-service to the ideals, you displayed your natural ability as a mouth-piece for public policy.
It was a vigorous exchange, the heat of the debate building inexorably to consensus, you warmly accepting me into the party folds.
And as I cast my ballot deep inside your polling place I knew that, no matter what, our Union would be sustainable.
CONSIDER HOW AND TO WHAT EFFECT LANGUAGE IS USED AS A FORM OF POWER
Of all the socio-political issues in Britain today, very few carry the weight, the history or the popular fascination as does class. In a nation often associated with its royal family, and bearing a long history of feudalism, many people still believe they are fighting the class war, and despite Tony Blair’s declaration that “we are all middle-class now”, a 2007 poll by The Guardian found that a majority of respondents saw themselves as “working class”. What is most interesting here is that both Blair and The Guardian have identified a majority bloc of the British people, the difference is that the middle class that Blair speaks of identifies itself as working class – the disagreement is one of language. Perhaps unsurprisingly, class emerges as one of the most significant issues of concern in two of the finest manipulators and users of language in modern British culture – the poet Tony Harrison and the comedy troupe Monty Python. Harrison, the working class child who, via grammar school and university, became a celebrated poet, is always acutely aware of his own class, but also of the importance of language as a symbol of class struggle. His poem Them & [uz] is a scathing attack on those Harrison saw as hoarding poetry, reserving it for the upper, educated classes as thought the right to self-expression was a part of one’s M.C.C. membership. Similarly v., arguably Harrison’s best-known work contains examinations of language, expression and poetry, only this time it is Harrison representing the intelligensia against a skinhead vandal. While perhaps less immediately apparent, the comedy of Monty Python is similarly scathing of superiority, whether religious, social or military, and spent a significant proportion of their career portraying hopeless, incompetent “upper class twits” getting their comeuppance at the hands of the lower classes – both on screen and at the hands of the writers.
When considering the power of language, particularly in relation to class, it is impossible to ignore Harrison’s own biography, and the continued recurring power of language inherent in it. Harrison was a working class boy who received an education, both at grammar school and university, which removed him from his class. And he is a man who has spent his working life as a poet, playing with words and manipulating language. Clearly, nowhere is the power of language more apparent than in Harrison’s own life. It removed him from the innate, natural unit of identity, his family, and immediately set him apart from almost everything he had known pre-education. And his continued education only led to a continued distancing from his home, his hometown and his family. And if that weren’t enough, the power of Harrison’s own language has enabled him to make a living as a poet – something that many attempt but at which few succeed. No wonder, then, that Harrison’s poetry displays such a focus on class and on language: these two competing markers of identity are pulling him in opposite directions, and he is left, torn, in the middle, attempting to find his niche where he can coexist between the class he was born into, the class conferred upon him with his high school diploma, and the class he has chosen for himself, as a member of the literary elites in the most literary-elite country on earth, Britain. These are Harrison’s very own ‘versuses of life’ that he details in v. – “Half versus half, the enemies within/the heart that can’t be whole until they unite.” This is the inner conflict displayed in Them & [uz], and the argument played out between Harrison and his skinhead alter-ego in v. – it’s the voice of Harrison, the “class migrant”, unable to return to the land of his parents, but equally unable to find a sense of home in the land he has chosen for himself.
Nowhere is this conflict more apparent than in Harrison’s poem Them & [uz], in which Harrison recounts his schooling and of ‘receiving’ Received Pronunciation, in which all dialectic and regional accents are completely removed from any reading of the poetry. Harrison vehemently disputes this idea that there is only one correct accent with which to read poetry aloud, and announces his opposition to this idea of “leasehold poetry” by using the military word “occupation”. Harrison declares that he saw this as “an aggressive occupation – I was going to usurp classical forms but fit them to what I wanted to say and the kind of language I wanted to use” . Indeed he succeeds at this from the opening line, juxtaposing the familiar (to academics) cry of the Greek tragic chorus with “the stand-up comedian’s popularly familiar “’ay, ‘ay”” , and continues in the same vein, alluring to the accents and regionalism of Keats and Wordsworth, and declaring gleefully his flouting of the accepted rules of grammar – “ended sentences with by, with, from”. Of course, the problem with Harrison’s quest for an accessible, egalitarian poetry is that you not only have to be reading the poem in the first place, but also understand the allusions to Keats, Wordsworth and the conventions of grammar – things that, realistically, the working class for whom he is writing will not do. Indeed, Harrison himself seems to admit this very problem in his poem when he writes:
You can tell the receivers where to go
(and not aspirate it) once you know
Wordsworth’s matter/water are full of rhymes,
Harrison’s use of the phrase “once you know” makes it abundantly clear that the poet himself knows what we as the audience have already realised – that while Harrison is raging against the elites he sees as holding a monopoly on poetry, language and expression, he is doing so in a way that is completely impregnable to anyone outside that elite group.
This calls to attention Harrison’s usurpation (as he sees it) of classical forms in order to make his poetry more accessible. The issue of the power of language is clearly highlighted here, with a poet using recognisable, manageable and approachable forms of poetry – quatrains, ABAB rhyme patterns, even rhyming couplets – in order to achieve wider readership. By making his poetry more accessible, Harrison is also making it more powerful simply through striving to reach more people. Here is a double-sided consideration of the power of language – it can be powerful, influential and significant, but only if it is being read. There is scarce experimentation in Harrison’s work – rather he is content to allow the form to welcome readers, and the language to affect and engage them.
In this way, Harrison’s poem v. has been made available to a much wider audience as a result of its presentation on that most accessible of formats: British national television. v. is a simple poem in its structure, featuring 112 quatrains in an ABAB rhyme scheme, and thus is a simple, straightforward poem to hear or read. There are no wild shifts in metre, narrative voice or rhyme, and this allows the power and force of the language to be greater and more readily identifiable. v. is not a poem that makes witty jokes concerning grammar and the pronunciation of written poetry, but instead explodes into a tirade of harsh, violent expletives during a heated argument about class in Britain in the 1980s, the stark divisions in British society and the blunt, brutal power of words. Indeed, the setting of the poem itself can be seen as a metaphor representing Harrison’s view of Britain following the 1984 miner’s strike – a graveyard, littered with empty beer cans, desecrated by anger and violence, and sitting precariously on an empty, mined-out pit.
Perhaps one of the more interesting considerations of the power of language is quite separate from any real analysis of the poem itself or its themes. The most interesting examination of the power of language comes instead from looking at the heated reaction to the profanity in Harrison’s poem. Although certainly not intended as such, the greatest compliment ever paid to the poem was by a coalition of conservative MPs who proposed a motion titled ‘Television Obscenity’ into the British Parliament, allegedly concerned with the effect that Harrison’s use of obscenities would have on the youth of Britain. Although slightly hysterical, this apparent belief that rude words can somehow scar and mark a child for life clearly subscribes to a belief in the power of language.
This “furore in the right-wing press” caused v. to receive “more tabloid coverage than any other postwar poem” , and following its airing on Channel 4 in 1987, many youth and community groups staged popular performances and poetry workshops, which drew a large number of young people. Indeed, in Bruce Woodcock’s experience, “young, unemployed people were unanimous about the power and general accessibility of the video version of v.”, but “at the same time, they asked some probing questions about Harrison’s presentation of the skinhead voice.” Woodcock goes on to explain how these young people felt Harrison was not entirely correct in his portrayal of the skinhead, as many football-supporting skinheads had been banned from stadia, and thus had to hide their identity by changing their clothes and hairstyles. And while Woodcock uses this example to address the problem of Harrison’s speaking on behalf of a class he no longer belongs to, what is most fascinating about this account is that these young, unemployed people were arguing about and taking umbrage with a poem. What greater reinforcement could there be for Harrison’s use of traditional, non-radical poetic form to better convey his message than this anecdote of “ex-NF ex-skinhead” objecting to the representation of skinheads in a poem?
John Cleese once said that a good deal of the Monty Python comedy came from a reaction against the system. In Britain, unavoidably, that system involved class. And while Python were certainly never class warriors like Tony Harrison, many sketches of theirs not only involved sending up the upper classes (“The Wacky Queen”) or lovingly mocking the lower classes (“Four Yorkshiremen”), but occasionally turning the entire class paradigm on its head to create something that was both recognisable and completely ridiculous all at once.
The perfect example of this is “The Working-Class Playwright”, where a recognisable father-son confrontation scene is entirely reversed. Indeed, this is perhaps a scene that Harrison himself would recognise: the son returning to the roots that he has outgrown only to be met with a father furious at what he sees as a complete rejection. However, just as the audience has identified the trope, the entire scene is subverted when it is revealed that the father, while outwardly working-class, is a playwright, and that the son with his suit, coiffed hair and Anglia accent is working in the mines in Yorkshire. In this instance, the language is where the joke is, as Graham Chapman echoes the working class Four Yorkshiremen, but now with a distinct culturally elite bent:
“Good! good? What do you know about it? What do you know about getting up at five o’clock in t’morning to fly to Paris… back at the Old Vic for drinks at twelve, sweating the day through press interviews, television interviews and getting back here at ten to wrestle with the problem of a homosexual nymphomaniac drug-addict involved in the ritual murder of a well known Scottish footballer! That’s a full working day, lad, and don’t you forget it!”
The power of the language is not only that it creates the humour, but that it creates the class as well. In a complete reversal of the norm, and indeed of Harrison’s poetry, it is language that controls class, rather than the upper classes controlling the language.
However, similar themes to Harrison emerge in “Romanes Eunt Domus” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Although it may be a comic scene, there is a parallel – Brian can only tell the buggers to get stuffed once he knows their language. Throughout, the Centurion has power over Brian because the Centurion knows the Latin, and Latin is the basis of the protest. As with Them & [uz], Brian has to master the language of his occupiers in order to fight back.
The difference though, lies in the accessibility of the scene compared to the accessibility of Harrison’s poem – the scene is in a popular film, screening in cinemas across the world, and even within the scene itself the Pythons explain why the joke is funny. All the audience members who have never done Latin can appreciate the joke because every step is translated for them. And even then Brian’s high-pitched squeals of “Ah. Ah, dative, sir! Ahh! No, not dative! Not the dative, sir! No! Ah! Oh, the… accusative! Accusative! Ah! ‘Domum’, sir! ‘Ad domum’! Ah! Oooh! Ah!” are funny on their own, whereas with Harrison, the audience cannot appreciate the wit or wordplay of the poem unless they know the conventions of grammar and of classical Greek theatre.
But perhaps nowhere do Python more explicitly show the power of language than in Dennis vs. King Arthur. This scene shows the opposite of “Romanes Eunt Domus” and of Harrison, as it is the peasant who has control over the dialectic that leads to the defeat of the class enemy. The king is attacked by language questioning his “divine right” to rule, and Arthur, like his less fictional descendants, has no answer as to the exploitation of the workers, or the fact that his “supreme executive power” does not derive from a mandate from the masses. In their own way, Python once again bring about the defeat of the upper classes. Only this time they are not defeated by the writer of the sketch (as in “The Upper Class Twit of the Year”) but rather are soundly beaten in a direct contest with the workers.
If, as The Guardian survey suggests, the majority of English people see themselves as working class, then perhaps this goes a long way to explain the enduring popularity of Monty Python. If most English people see themselves on the bottom rungs of the social ladder, then Python’s frustrated authority figures, triumphant peasants and ridiculous aristocrats not only serve as amusement and escapism, but appeal strongly to the majority of English people who feel judged by their social class, and thus enjoy a good skewering of those above them.
Both Monty Python and Tony Harrison clearly convey the power of language through their chosen medium. Harrison uses his poetry to rage against the literary hegemony of the educated elites, and even the reaction to his aggressive v. shows the force that words can have in the right context. Monty Python, meanwhile, play exceptionally clever games with the English language to satirise every aspect of British life. While Harrison forces his audience to examine issues of class and language by making his words impossible to ignore, Monty Python persuades their audience to laugh at themselves by making their words impossible to resist.
1. Tony Harrison, v. in Joseph Black et. al., The Broadview Anthology of British Literature volume 6: Directions in Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Century Poetry, (Broadview Press: Ontario), 2006
2. Tony Harrison, Them & [uz], in Joseph Black et. al., The Broadview Anthology of British Literature volume 6: Directions in Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Century Poetry, (Broadview Press: Ontario), 2006
3. Graham Chapman et al., Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Just The Words vol. 1 & 2, (Methuen: London), 1989
4. Joseph Black et. al., The Broadview Anthology of British Literature volume 6: Directions in Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Century Poetry, (Broadview Press: Ontario), 2006
5. Sandie Byrne, H, v., and O: The Poetry of Tony Harrison (Manchester University Press: Manchester), 1998
6. Peter Childs, The Twentieth Century In Poetry: A Critical Survey (Routledge: London), 1999
7. Gary Day and Brian Ockerty (eds.), British Poetry from the 1950s to the 1990s: Politics and Art (Macmillan: Basingstoke), 1997
8. Joe Kelleher, Tony Harrison, (Northcote House in association with the British Council: Plymouth), 1996.
9. John O. Thompson (ed.), Monty Python: Complete and Utter Theory of the Grotesque, (BFI Publishing: London), 1982, p.9
10. Stephen Wagg (ed.), Because I Tell A Joke Or Two: Comedy, Politics and Social Difference, (Routledge: London), 1998
11. Bruce Woodcock, Classical vandalism: Tony Harrison’s invective, “Critical Quarterly” vol. 32, no. 2
(with apologies to Passion of the Weiss, who is much better than me at this sort of thing.
1. Dude can sing. I mean, really, he is good.
2. Dude can dance.
3. I heard it 20 minutes ago, and it’s still stuck in my head. This I hate Usher for because…
4. The lyrics suck.
5. If Usher did, in fact, fulfill his desire, he’d probably get arrested for it.
6. Referring, as the song does, to the successful sexual conquest of a woman as bagging groceries (as Young Jeezy does in his terrible, insipid 16 bars), is probably not the best way to get into anyone’s pants.
7. A thought. Usher is married. Usher has a son, also called Usher. What does Mrs. Usher think of this making love in clubs? Is the song directed at a woman other than Mrs. Usher? If so, this is a problem. If not, can’t he just wait until he gets home and save himself the legal rigamarole?
8. Young Jeezy is possibly the least talented rapper alive. As opposed to Weezy Baby, Lil’ Wayne, who is terrific.
Have just heard Part II of this opus. Thoughts?
- It’s not Part II of anything. It’s a completely different song with the same chorus. Come on O’ World of Rap/Hip-Hop/whatever – let’s not be too lazy about this sort of thing, hmm?
- Beyonce can really sing.
- Lil’ Wayne sounds like he is suffering from advanced emphysema.
- Even so, he if much more interesting than Young Jeezy, who just sounds like a dick.
- Lyrics like “come a little closer, let daddy put it on ya” really don’t do Usher any favours, especially when Justin Timberlake has spent the last couple of years redefining this sound, and this genre, and taking it to ridiculously sophisticated heights. LoveStoned it ain’t.
The usual strike against the Foo Fighters seems to be one of two things…
1 – people hate them because they aren’t Nirvana
2 – people hate Dave Grohl because he used his fame from Nirvana to launch his own career of the back of Kurt Cobain’s still-warm corpse.
Both of these are, quite frankly, complete crap.
Firstly, the Foo Fighters have never once tried to be Nirvana, making their sound completely different from the outset.
Secondly, the first Foo Fighters album was uncredited, and no one knew that it was Dave Grohl making the music until much later. In fact, much of the first album’s material was written while Nirvana was still going, and they were just sitting around as demos that Grohl had recorded on his own.
So as you might be able to tell by now, I’m a huge fan.
There are very few bands who have been so consistently terrific in the last 15 years.
The Colour and The Shape is undeniably brilliant, There Is Nothing Left To Lose equally so, and while One By One, In Your Honor and Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace are perhaps not quite so seminal, they are still jam-packed with terrific songs – Home, Let It Dies, Erase/Replace, But Honestly, Best Of You, The Deepest Blues Are Back, Razor, All My Life, Times Like These and Come Back. (I’m sure you will have your favourites, but these are mine).
I had seen them before, back in 2005 when they were touring in support of In Your Honor. It was at a free concert put on by Channel [V], an Australian music channel, and it was absolute bedlam. There were hundreds, maybe even thousands of people there, not only standing in the open plaza where the gig was taking place, but standing on the roof of the parking station 200 metres away. People were moshing, jumping, swaying and crying as this powerhouse just let fly.
A perfect example of the day: as the crowd was gathering, the roadies came out to check all the equipment and set everything up for the Foo Fighters. And the drum tech comes out, does a few drum rolls, and looks satisfied. Then the bass tech comes out, plays a chord or three, and looks satisfied. Then this 6 foot 2, overweight, dread-locked guitar tech with big, black-rimmed glasses comes out, plays a riff on the ol’ guitar, and looks satisfied.
Then, with a nod, the three of them rip into The Offspring’s classic hit, Come Out and Play – the whole crowd swaying and jumping, and singing along to the riff.
It was pretty rad.