We Shall Fight Until We Win

We Shall Fight Until We Win: a Century of Pioneering Political Women,
Edited by Laura Jones, Heather McDaid & Sha Nazir,
404 Ink / BHP Comics

Two small Indy Scottish publishers, BHP Comics (who are also behind the Glasgow Comic Con and the Edinburgh Comic Art Festival) teamed up with 404 Ink to create this anthology of “pioneering political women”, We Shall Fight Until We Win, which marks the century since (some) women got the vote in the UK with an all-woman creator team (nicely diverse line up too in terms of age, orientation, ethnic background, all encouraging to see) with short pieces on women from different decades across that century.

It’s a very interesting read, some tales being several pages, others being but a single page, and I admire the fact that they decided this would not take the route of only picking subjects most can admire, it also takes in subjects such as Margaret Thatcher because, even for those who loathed that very divisive politician the book cannot ignore that she was the first woman prime minister and the effect she had on changing politics in the UK, for good or ill, and while I personally cannot stand her I think it was indeed important that an anthology of this nature acknowledged her.

The range of subjects is as wide as the backrounds of the creators here, some well-known – Emmeline Pankhurst, Nicola Sturgeon, Dianne Abbot – while others may only be familiar to those who have an interest in specific parts of history. That’s a good thing, of course, because it means even if you consider yourself fairly well-versed in history there is a good chance you are still going to find out about a remarkable person you hadn’t heard of before. I like that aspect of these kinds of works, it is no bad thing, regardless of age, to be exposed to new people and ideas and events.

I’m not going to go through each individual chapter and creators, but I must mention a few that stood out for me personally. I liked Kathryn Briggs and Heather McDaid’s The Glasgow Girls right from the first page; I loved the style, infused with touches of Mackintosh and Art Noveau, and the title, riffing on the famous Glasgow Boys art movement. While most of the entries here opt to highlight a particular individual, this one has a warm, cooperative, social, community feel to it, celebrating a group of young women – school girls at the time – who saw immigrant families being settled into their local neighbourhoods in and around Glasgow, many of whom had fled terrible circumstances.

The children of these refugee families would attend local schools and they became part of the community, so when the seemingly eternally short-sighted and cold-hearted Kafkaeque monster of the Home Office opted to eject some from the country, placing entire families (including children) into detention, these young girls acted, they organised, they protested, they whipped up support, they stood up for their friends, and by god they made a difference. I was very touched by this particular story, partly because it showed the power of good will, well directed, but also because it chimed with an element of Scottish identity which is dear to many of us, that “we’re aw Jock Tamson’s Bairns” (essentially meaning we’re all the same, regardless) and that no matter where you came from, when you live here with us, you are one of us. Which is not to say we don’t have bigotry and racism in Scotland, sadly we do have that ignorant hatred too, but there is a song social and community strand to the national identity that still wants to embrace that inclusivity and standing by one another, and it was wonderful to see such young women taking that lesson and applying it to help others.

Jenny Bloomfield and Grace Wilson’s Life and Times of Mhairi Black, the very young, working class woman who became an SNP MP and brought her blunt, no nonsense approach to the stuffy, rule-obsessed House of Commons and showed it what she thought of their arcane rituals and customs (she was there to represent her electorate and didn’t give a damn about the games and rituals older MPs played by, much to their ire), had me smiling as it summed up this firecracker. Hannah Berry told of a woman I hadn’t heard of, Jayaben Desai, who stood up not just against misogyny and racism but the simple exploitation more than a few uncaring company’s have used on their workers over the years, organising together, as a union, to fight for their rights, something that affects all of us.

Hari Conner and Durre Shahwar’s story of Noor Inayat Khan was remarkable, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, who volunteered to serve in the WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Airforce) during WWII, then trained by SOE and parachuted behind into Occupied Europe as a wireless operator, risking life and torture by the Gestapo to help liberate it from the Nazis, and paying the ulimtate price. I could read a whole book on that unbelievably brave woman, who was executed in the hell of Dachau, her last word reportedly a defiant “Liberte!”

I think the one that most emotionally affected me was Sabeena Akhtar and Erin Aniker’s The 60%. Like The Glasgow Girls this wasn’t about an individual, in fact this time not even about a small group, it was about, well, about most women. Not the ones in the history and politics texts who are remembered for their deeds and thoughts which changed the world, but for all the other women who didn’t have the “privilege to fight and franchise”, the mothers, aunt, the working women who then went home from that work to raise children and look after husbands. Your mother, my mother, our aunts, sisters and others who changed the world in other ways while raising us, carnig for us, teaching us, setting an example while nurturing us. I think that particular story is pretty universal “and though you haven’t read their names, I’d wager you know their faces.” Of course we know their faces, they are our own family and friends.

I was lucky enough to hear BHP’s Sha Nazir and Heather Palmer, and 404 Ink’s Lauren Jones (see below) discuss the project on the opening day of the Edinburgh International Book Festival (my report on some of the comics and SF events from this summer’s festival is here), and it was fascinating to listen to how they went about this collaboration between the two Indy publishers (404’s first forary in comics). Not just in terms of embracing creators from a diverse number of backgrounds (something BHP has a strong ethos about, to their credit), but also from the production side – much of this work from new talent and established creators like Hannah Berry and Denise Mina (and our old chum and former FP blog reviewer Nicola Love, who I must give a shout out to) was solicited and completed and edited within two or three months.

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(Heather Palmer, Sha Nazir and Lauren Jones signing after their Edinburgh book fest talk, pic from my Flickr)

If these were two big publishers cooperating they would still be working out a legal document before they had started at that point! But being small and nimble BHP and 404 could push ahead quickly on that deal and the actual project to have it ready in a remarkably swift time period. I’m also heartened by hearing that copies have been going out to many school libraries in Scotland, and after chairing an event later at the festival with Sha Nazir several school librarians came over to chat about the book and other titles BHP had, and to note down other suggestions for graphic works they could use to help kids learn about complex subjects. It’s nice to know that this will be read in many of our schools.

Reviews: the eternal tangle – Best of Enemies

The Best of Enemies:a History of US & Middle East Relations Volume 3,

Jean-Pierre Filiu, David B,

SelfMadeHero

I have been waiting for this third volume in the Best of Enemies series for a while – back in the summer of 2015 author Jean-Pierre Filiu (a former French diplomat and now history lecturer) was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, on a double bill with Martin Rowson and chaired by Teddy Jamieson. At that point the second volume had only just come out, and the audience were treated to a fascinating discussion by an author who didn’t just have deep academic, historical and cultural knowledge of the issues, but a lot of first hand experience from his years working in an NGO and as a diplomat.

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(Jean-Pierre Filiu signing previous volumes of Best of Enemies after his event with Martin Rowson at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2015, photo from my Flickr)

Ally this with some quite remarkable cartooning art by the great David B and you had two totally fascinating volumes of recent and modern history that has shaped – and continues to shape – our planet’s geo-politics. Jean-Pierre explained that the amount of work involved in researching and then illustrating the books had taken quiet a toll on David B, hence a bit of a gap between those two and this third volume, which covers US and Middle Eastern relations from 1984 -2013. And that right away makes an already absorbing read even more compelling, because we’re moving from history, both older (18th century and the earliest foreign policies of a young USA) and recent (mid twentieth century) to events most of those reading will have lived through, have watched on the news, often with varying degrees of anger and despair.

And this third volume also takes a quality all of the best histories have, the ability to show that history in today: why our world is now as it is, because history is never just the past, dates, facts, events, it’s a rich tapestry, perhaps the most elaborate tapestry humans have created, so many inter-connecting threads all forming the today. The previous two volumes had this too, but with volume three covering such recent periods it really, really brings that aspect of history home to you, and that’s a damned good thing. In fact that’s one of the reasons many of us like to read history – we know the here and now is an expression of so many elements and events that preceded it, and we cannot hope to have any understanding of the now without that grasp of the earlier woven segments of that vast and never-ending tapestry.


And even though the book comes to an end at 2013, it leaves things open, because that history is still rolling on, as we know all too well just from our news bulletins – this volume takes in events we’re still reeling from in horror right now, such as the vile slaughter in Syria. It is all but heartbreaking as Filiu and David B show how policies and events from decades before in different capital cities created the scenario whereby Syria could fall into the seemingly endless civil war that has horrified us all and which the world seems powerless to stop. We see American and European activities with Israel, Iran and Iraq and how they pulled in Egypt and Syria, adding dominoes to the line that would later fall with such horrendous consequences.

We see Reagan, Bush (Snr) and Gorbachev, the USA and USSR both involved in talks in the Middle East, only for fledgling peace processes to falter and stall. We see that USSR collapse a little after those attempts to broker talks, then some years later the revived Russia under Putin intervening forcefully in those same regions. Of the globalisation of the “war on terror”, going from a supposedly noble aim (if you believe the propaganda about who we were supposed to blame, sometimes, but not always clear or true) to an easy excuse for any power to use for overt, powerful, often illegal actions.

Extra-judicial killings and torture? This justifies it. Breaking the terms of a peace process? We have to, because we are fighting the same terrorists as you, so you have to support us. As Israeli PM Sharon says by way of an excuse “Everyone has his own Bin Laden”, to justify breaking the terms of peace talks and use of military force. Putin uses similar excuses in Chechnya, leaders even in supposedly democratic countries use it to justify civilian deaths in military adventures, torture and the erosion of civil rights. Yes, this will leave you not just upset, but angry, bloody angry, and you should be. Of course we have the benefit of hindsight here, always useful, those who made the decisions that started these various dominoes did not, but they also failed to make much of an attempt to look forward at the potential repercussions of their actions and policies, sacrificing the tomorrows to the expediencies of today, as politicians all too often do.

David B’s artwork is, once more, absolutely superb – this is the work of a comics master at the height of his powers. He summons both humour and horror, satire and sorrow – invading armies during the Gulf Wars are shown as giant soldier’s helmets on legs with giant cannon barrels projecting from them, he again uses differing sizes to denote the relative power of different players (so the US presidents and generals are shown as huge frequently compared to other leaders, despots like Saddam are small compared to US presidents in the art but huge compared to some of his own enemies like the Kurds). There’s humour to be had – a bellicose Saddam Hussein yelling threats takes the form of a giant thunderstorm of a speech bubble, like an adult version of the “swearing” in an Asterix album, or Clinton depicted with Pinocchio nose a he lies about Monica Lewinsky, but distracts everyone with a missile strike against terrorists, only for one of the missiles raining down to turn out to be his Pinocchio liar’s nose.

And of course the artwork conjures disturbing, even horrific imagery. A panel depicting an Israeli-Hezbollah war in the Lebanon where, as usual, there were no clear winners but very clear losers – the civilian population (as in so many wars). The panel only shows a little, the bare feet sticking out from under the blankets covering the bodies, but it is more than enough, and it is echoed by later pages on the ongoing slaughter of civilians in Syria. Another panel depicts uniformed skeletons, all that is left of large numbers of Iraqi soldiers after the mass bombing on the “highway of death”, or the gunning down of protesters and crushing of suddenly raised hopes during the Arab Spring, yet another a starving child in Syria, hungry mouth open but the only thing falling into it is barrel bombs, all depicted in clear, powerful black and white artwork.

These histories take in cultural movements, political posturing, chicanery, greed, opportunism, nationalism, religious zealotry (Christian as well as Muslim), but also attempts at peace, noble aims of freedom and equality. In short these pages take in much of the worst and best of human nature, and they do so in a way that doesn’t point one accusing finger, for there is no one guilty party here. What this book and the preceding two volumes make eminently clear is how interconnected it all is, the actions and reactions and counter-actions from many different leaders in different years in different countries, all contributing to lead us to this point where we have madmen murdering innocents with airplanes into towers and others dropping bombs on civilians, and all of them in the name of some imagined higher purpose.

These are immensely complex woven threads in the grand tapestry of history, but Filiu’s expertise and deft analysis coupled with David B’s remarkable comics art makes it far more accessible and understandable than many prose works could. And we need to understand these things, we need to be aware of them to try and have some grasp of what is happening and why, and so what could be done to steer towards a more peaceful course eventually. Sadly I doubt many of the world leaders who could really do with learning from these books will ever read them, but that should not stop us from doing so – this is essential reading, and a fine example of the power of the comics medium to make such a complex subject accessible and understandable to readers. I highly recommend this and the preceding volumes.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Much is taken, much abides…

I’m revisiting Babylon 5 at the moment, just into season four. A man Earth president who schemed to get power, who conspired with dark forces to get that power, who establishes a cabal to enforce his rule, suspecting anyone who offers criticism of being disloyal, harping on about alien influence ruining the purity of Earth and of “fake news” spreading anti-government propaganda. Twenty two years old and it seems very sadly relevant to today.

This evening I just reached the point where, preparing for a final battle he may not return from the captain quotes from Tennyson’s Ulysses: “Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

It’s a harkening back to previous generations, measuring ourselves against their historic deeds and considering ourselves unworthy of them, not their equals. And yet this looking back to a lost, golden age of great heroes who strode through all problems with their mighty deeds is a peculiar faculty of humans that we have had going right back to at least the time of Homer – the Iliad and Odyssey are replete with those ancients even then looking back to the centuries before them, marvelling at great heroes and deeds with a “we shall not see their like again” feeling for their own era. And yet each of those eras too had their own great turmoils, and usually those generations too overcame them. Which gives us hope for our own troubled times. We must not yield.

Mother of Exiles

Retronaut has a a great set of historic photographs of all sorts of immigrants from around the world – men, women, children, young, old, black, white, Asian – photographed by Augustus Francis Sherman, chief registry clerk at the old Ellis Island facility, which was the main port for something like twelve million emmigrants to the United States between 1892 and its closure in 1954 (here are just a few). What a change between then and now – to the xenophobic “no more immigrants” (I bet the Native Americans thought that when the White Man first turned up centuries ago) and a land where nazi scumbags openly walk the street knowing a bright-orange excuse for a president will let them.

I wonder how many of these immigrants helped shape and change the growing America of the 20th century – the America which stood up for democracy and which joined in the fight against fascism. The ones who embraced the ideals enscribed on Lady Liberty and the opportunities offered by their new home, probably far more than most of those who today demand border walls and would cheerfully deny the rights and liberties of fellow citizens, ignore the rule of law and even the venerable constitution and bill of rights.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!‘”

New Colossus, Emma Lazarus, enscribed on the tablet in the Statue of Liberty

Mrs May should have just stayed away…

Theresa May made her regal way,

To the ravaged Tower Grenfell,

But the PM spoke to not a single survivor,

Because ordinary people make her feel quite ill

After the horrendous inferno that engulfed Grenfell Tower, burning upwards, trapping god knows how many in upper floors who phoned or texted desperate messages knowing they were going to die, horribly, the lame duck prime minister arrives on the disaster scene. And by all reports spoke to not a single survivor. Survivors who are enraged because it looks very much like a report sat upon for years by the government into fire safety, and a later parliamentary bill to improve the standards and safety of rented housing that was defeated by the conservatives (many of those who voted against are landlords themselves, a clear and shameless conflict of interest), have paid a part in this awful calamity. And she doesn’t speak to a single survivor, for “security reasons”.

So security, not fear, not cowardice, not outright callous disregard for the simple human compassion any decent person should show another in such circumstances? Meantime those same ordinary people she ignored have donated so many items – clothes, kid’s toys, toiletries and more – to entire families in their community who have lost everything bar the pyjamas they had on their back as they fled (and those were the fortunate ones) that the local community centres and churches organising help have said they have enough. Local families offered food, drink and a place to rest for their suffering neighbours, people of every age and ethnic stripe. People of Kenginston rising to show strength, compassion and dignity while our feeble excuse for a government (and by all accounts the local council there are no better), flail hopelessly, and a prime minister who can’t even speak to the people involved when she visits. Utterly craven, shameful behaviour on her behalf and a clear signal that the same authorities who allowed a situation to evolve that could create this disaster still do not care one jot.

“Come together, right now….”

“This year, after a period of intense debate over the right future for our country, there is a sense that people are coming together and uniting behind the opportunities that lie ahead”. So speaks unelected prime monster Saint Theresa, the devout Christian Vicar’s daughter in her Easter message to her parishioners. She also likes to witter on about her “christian values” and those of the “nation”, despite the fact the majority of the nation doesn’t identify as Christians.

It’s also terribly nice that while she attacked a chocolate company for “undermining Christianity” by not having Easter in the headline of their annual egg hunt (although they had it multiple times in the accompanying copy, maybe Theresa didn’t read that far, or more likely care), she was in Saudi Arabia. A despotic regime of corrupt oil-rich sheiks who pay lip-service to their own supposed religion while oppressing their own people, torturing and executing them, and she was there to pimp British weapons sales to these vile people. Stuff your Christian values, Theresa, you do not get to do that then pretend you are some good “Christian”, Jesus would be sick over your hideously expensive designer leather trousers that you claim to stand up for Christian values while peddling weapons to murderous dictators. If you are Christian then bloody act like it.

Then few days later the so-called “rape clause” in your new social welfare bill, a vile, evil, hideous piece of legislation that I cannot concieve of anyone with a conscience creating. I am glad to see Scottish politicians almost universally decrying it, save, predictably, for the two-faced wee Scottish Tory Ruth Davison who has tried her best to ignore this issue – quick to shout at Nicola Sturgeon, when it suits her, not so good to respond to things like this from her own party.

And now St Theresa the “good Christian” tells us we are all “coming together”. Is this just mad delusional or just a willful fuck-you to the huge slice of the population who voted and demonstrated against Brexit? Is this willfull fuck-you to Scottish voters who demanded to stay in the EU? Is it a fuck-you to the Scots parliament that asked her, please, at least soften the Brexit stance, which she totally ignored and went for the hardest possible option? No we are not coming together, you delusional mad woman, and the fact you claim this shows how utterly removed from reality you are. Either you are trying to impose your version of twisted reality on us all, no matter how we feel, or else you are simply laughing at the millions who disagree strongly with you and your bigoted, right-wing, hate-lead minions. Either way you are pathetic, lying, delusional, and by doing this you actually contribute to the continuing division of the UK.

Know your enemies…

The vile Farage, within a short few hours from the vote in the Houses of Parliament on allowing the government to trigger Article 50, has pointed his followers to a list of the minority of MPs who voted against it, branding them all “enemies of the people” and demanding they pay for their temerity in not agreeing with him and his friends at the next election.

So basically this little creep, who already branded high court judges as enemies because they dared follow the law and say yes, parliament has to be consulted on constitutional changes like Brexit (how dare they do their job!) now tries to publicly bully the small number of MPs who don’t agree with him and his chums. Even though they didn’t affect the outcome, they must pay. No, not divisive or vindictive at all… Oh, no, wait, it is, it’s also threatening and bullying, an attempt to intimidate anyone who might speak out with a contrary view because when he and others screamed rabidly about “taking back control” of UK affairs they meant as long as we all did what they wanted – anyone wishing an actual democratic right to debate opposing ideas is an “enemy of the people”. This is how dictatorships are born.

Oh and Nigel? Nearly half of those dissenting MPs were from the Scottish National Party, the party which took almost every single Westminster parliamentary seat at the last election, in the country that voted overwhelmingly to remain IN the EU. So how can they possibly be “enemies of the people” when they were standing up for exactly what the people of Scotland who elected them wanted them to do??? If you think they should have voted differently from what their electorate wanted then by your own twisted logic you become an enemy of the people, you vile little hate-monger.

“These are the times…”

As Brexit Britain and Trumpian America seem hell-bent on descent into bigoted, hate-mongering, ignorance-fuelled darkness, not for the first time I find myself turning to dear, old Tom Paine.

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

This has never meant the simple analogy of military service, but the standing up for the values that your nation and society is meant to represent. It can be a march like the million of women we saw protesting in cities in the US and around the world last weekend (sorry, Piers, I know that offends your pathetically inadequate masculinity, you poor wee ball-less thing) or something as simple as standing up against targeting ethnic and religious groups and saying no, you’re not treating my fellow citizens that way, it’s unfair, it’s illegal and morally wrong.

Also I suspect Tom would have given Trump a kick in the arse if he’d met him…

The Trumpenfuher

Hugely amused to see that the crowds for the massive women’s marches in Washington (and all round the world, including Berlin, London and my own beloved Edinburgh) vastly outnumbered the crowds the day before for the inauguration of Trump. And then Trump, after ordering the gagging of the park ranger’s twitter feed which estimates crowd sizes, had his new White House press spokeperson Spicer, in one of his first briefings to the international press, tell them they were all liars and that the inauguration was the biggest ever. Period. Then stalk off before the world media could ask him why every news agency around the entire globe said otherwise. Mind you it is a common problem for sad, elderly, insecure white men to worry that their inauguration was a lot smaller than a cool, younger black man’s…

I await Spicer holding future press conferences where he reminds us that War Is Peace, Oceania and Eurasia have always been at war and that the White House Press Office was now being renamed The Ministry of Truth. I would like to try and be constructive and positive here, but there is now real way of getting round the fact these people are lying scumbags, with their “post fact” politics, who cannot accept actual reality or even the lightest criticism without a rabid response of nonsense and counter accusations. Somewhere in Hell the ghost of Goebbels is laughing his Nazi arse off – defeated in war by the heroic sacrifice of so many British, Americans, Canadians, French, Norwegian, Polish and others only to find several decades later their modern ilk grabbing power in Brexit Britain, Trump America, Erdogan’s Turkey, marching again in upcoming elections in Germany, France, even the long lovingly tolerant Netherlands. Those who gave all in the 30s and 40 to crush the evil of fascism must look at what is happening our modern democracies and wonder why they sacrificed so much. We need a modern version of the International Brigade.

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. “Reality control,” they called it: in Newspeak, “doublethink.”” George Orwell, 1984.

Probably one of the books Trump would like banned, just as he tries to remove funding for independent broadcasting like NPR and PBS in the US because, like most such ego-maniacs who spin their own version of reality, he is terrified of actual facts and truth and learning and reading, the pillars which underlie those faculties critical to democratic society, thought, consideration, learning, toleration and the ability to criticise. They are terrified of real journalists who check sources and facts, of teachers, of librarians, of educated people capable of considering reports and thinking for themselves. And they should be. We don’t carry guns. We carry sharper weapons within.

Meanwhile, do not surrender to despair as the Black Shirts march again, instead think of the Marseille singing scene in Casablanca, filmed in the middle of WWII when the outcome was far from certain, a defiant chorus declaring that in the long run the good guys would triumph. And also to all the women (and men) of all classes, creeds and walks of life who marched on Saturday, more power to you, sisters and brothers. We’re going to need that unity and strength, and we need to remind these people who have seized power that we too have a voice and we too have power. And that we remember the sacrifices of those who came before us to protect those freedoms, and by god we will not allow anyone to take them from us.

Spare a thought for elderly people in decaying, substandard housing…

No, not the many pensioners who have to decide if they can afford to feed themselves or to turn on the heat this winter, but the Queen and the His Royal Bluntness the Duke of Edinburgh, as Buckingham Palace is to have some £369 million pounds spent on refurbishment. Given we have endured years of austerity cuts in public services across the board and are in a country where some are homeless, others, despite full time work, teeter on the edge of homelessness because so much of their pay goes to soaring rents from gouging landlords (including a number of our MPs who make a good income from renting properties out and, coincidentally, get to set the laws on how that area is regulated), the chances for many to now every dream of owning their own home is gone, how exactly is this to be sold to the nation? A Buck Palace spokesperson said they hoped it would “appeal to their sense of nationhood.”

Really? People are working god knows how many hours a week and they still can barely put a basic roof over their heads because most of their income goes on rent, and this idiot talks about “sense of nationhood”? Well a sense of nationhood goes both ways – why the feck doesn’t Buck Palace show some of that sense back to the rest of the community who are struggling to stay in a home, heat that home, feed their families? If the government can grant millions to this incredibly ugly building that needs so much work because it has been so badly mis-managed over the decades then they have no bloody grounds to then tell the rest of us that sorry, we only have so much money in the pot, we must cut out suit to our cloth, and all the other excuses put forward to excuse cuts which usually affect the worst off disproportionately (to say nothing of being happy to spend billions on new nuclear missile subs or a high speed rail link).

Here’s an idea to fund the repairs without raiding an already badly depleted public purse to pay for dwelling for super-rich royalty – put in lots of cameras, all through Buck Palace, live streamed to the web, a 24 hour a day reality show. Given the (to me anyway, inexplicable) popularity of that sort of viewing they could more than earn the money to fix up the crumbling eyesore that is the palace (a building so hideous Londoners voted it one of the ugliest in the city)

A fairer world: The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia

The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia,

Mary and Bryan Talbot,

Jonathan Cape

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I’ve been eagerly awaiting this new work from the Costa Award-winning Mary and Bryan Talbot for month, and Mary and Bryan’s recent guest Commentary post whet my appetite even further. Was it worth the wait? Well let’s put it this way, I read it last week then found myself re-reading it twice over the weekend on a train trip back home; it’s one of those books that very much deserves another pass because there is so much going on here, between the history, the politics, the biography and, of course, the detailed art, that it rewards you handsomely for re-reading.

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The Gare de Lyon, Paris, January 1905; our first glimpse of Louise Michel, political agitator, feminist, revolutionary, fighter for equality and a dreamer of a better, fairer world. And it is her funeral, a full-page, appropriately with a black border, mostly black, white and grey tones, save for the deep red of the funeral flowers and the red of revolutionary flags. Thousands have turned out for the final journey of Louise, and caught up in the busy procession and arriving American writer, herself no stranger to the ideas of Utopias or the fight for more equality, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, arriving at the station to be met by young Monique. Gilman is in the middle of a European lecture tour, and while they wait for the procession to pass Monique explains that the funeral is for Louise Michel “She spoke out for the people. We loved her.” Gilman recognises the name – the two had met on a previous lecture tour and spent a pleasant evening discussing Utopian fiction. Monique offers to tell her more about Louise, and this is the clever framing device which leads the reader into the story of this remarkable, revolutionary woman.

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It’s snowing heavily in the run-down streets of Montmarte on a December evening, 1870. Montmartre today still has a slightly different look and feel to it from much of the rest of central Paris, but back then it was more like a tumbledown village. A full page gives a wonderful impression of the place, a caped figure shivering through the snow, you can almost imagine the soft runch-runch-runch of footsteps in the snow and the quiet, damped sound that comes with the snow. Inside a group, mostly women share what little food they have, huddled around a lantern, its glow uplighting their faces, including the face of Louise, a face that combines compassion, intelligence and strength. These are people in a poor district who have little at the best of time, but as the Franco-Prussian War and then the siege of Paris drags on (these are events which would lead to the creation of modern Germany after France’s defeat).

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But despite the biting winter outside, the lack of food and heat, the war, the poverty, this is a warm scene, these are people who are friends and neighbours, people who help and support one another. And while this helps introduce Louise and the conditions which helped drive her desire to change the world, it also provides some beautiful little details – a cat happily snoozing on a woman’s lap, and its indignant expression when she leaps up – which brings the scene to life, makes these not just characters in a tale but real people, people we can recognise and empathise with. And that makes this more emotional, personal, relatable, not a remote moment of history, but events involving real people, and that enriches everything which follows.

And what follows… Ye gods, what an amazing life. I knew of the Franco-Prussian War, of the changes it lead to in French government and had heard a little about the Paris Commune. But I hadn’t heard of Louise Michel. And after reading (and re-reading) this book I’m wondering why I’ve not come across her story before. Perhaps it’s one not widely known outside Francophone histories. However that just added to the pleasures of this work; that wonderful, warm feeling that comes from having both an engrossing story and learning something new and fascinating. Our modern society is still hideously unfair and unbalanced – we need look only at protests in recent years over the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor and the influence and control the former accrue to themselves, or the way people – even in supposedly “advanced” cultures are mistreated because of the colour of their skin, their gender, denied opportunities for not having gone to the “right” school… And here’s this woman in a poor arrondissement of Paris in the 1870s fighting – quite often literally – for education for all (and girls to be taught the same as boys), proper political power from the people, ensuring resources of nations are used for the betterment of their people, not just a few at the top…

The Talbots take us through the heady days of the Commune, moments of brief triumph before the brutal re-imposition of Almighty Power (a government and army that couldn’t defeat the invading Prussians but was able to turn its guns on its own citizens). Thousands are killed, many survivors imprisoned or transported to the distant colonies. And still Louise Michel doesn’t stop fighting, she doesn’t stop studying and arguing and dreaming. Even exiled to the far side of the world she takes it as an opportunity to learn more, to expand her horizons. In a period of high imperialism she instead talks to the natives, learns their ways, language, culture and in turn teaches their children just as she teaches the children of the French exiles in her makeshift school, seeing in the colonial mastery over others the same blind, greedy power which she fought in the streets of Paris.

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Having young Monique, then later her elderly mother (a friend of Louise Michel’s, and one who stood alongside her) telling Gilman their account of this remarkable, revolutionary woman is a wonderful way to frame Louise’s story, leading us in easily to the events, adding human depth and emotion to these events, and it is little surprise given Mary’s academic background that the work comes across as well-researched and boasts an appendix of notes and sources which are also quite fascinating. The artwork throughout is beautiful, as you would expect from one of our masters of the medium, from subtle use of colouring around the pages (jet-black for the funeral and opening, a much lighter page tone for the scenes in distant New Caledonia, intimating the brighter light quality.

There are some memorable images – a line of soldiers marching but with their loaves impaled on the bayonets of their hoisted rifles (something thrown up by research but which makes such a lovely visual image), to the revolutionaries ripping up the street cobbles to erect barricades, in true, traditional Parisian fashion, sudden “terrible beauty” amidst the horror as erupting cannon fire causes the spring blossoms to rain from the trees, a ghastly set of double-page spreads showing the bloody aftermath of the brutal suppression of the Commune, dark, dark, dark pages of bodies and the suffering of the survivors, seen as if through falling soot and smoke from gunfire, the bright red normally reserved in the book for the flags and Louise Michel’s scarf here given to blood of ordinary citizens pooling in the Parisian streets. Coming almost midway through the book those pages are sombre, shocking and a reminder of the bloody cost that has been paid time and again by those trying to change the world.

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This is an utterly fascinating book, a beautiful meshing of history, story and art, telling the story of an inspiring woman and of causes that are still far, far too relevant in our own modern, troubled world. There’s a lovely mixing of the Utopian science fiction of the period, of that dream that all of this marvelous new technology coming out of that period, and what will come later, will be used to finally free all of humanity from drudgery and suffering, to essentially create something not unlike the Federation in Star Trek, and a number of references are made to the SF literature of the period and how it helped inspire those dreamers wanting to change the world (as many tales today still do, and thank goodness for them, because what would we do without those dreamers pushing the rest of us to try and make things a bit better, even if we never quite get there, but we keep stepping closer at least). And this also allowed Bryan to indulge in a nice scene showing one of those imagined Victorian SF futures, a little visual treat.

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In a lovely touch I was moved to see that Mary and Bryan had dedicated this book to another writer of Utopian science fiction, the late Iain M Banks, who I imagine would have heartily enjoyed discussing Louise Michel with the Talbots over a good dram. Powerful, moving, thought-provoking and fascinating. It’s only May and I already know this will be going straight onto my Best of the Year list come December.

You can read a guest Commentary post by Mary and Bryan Talbot talking about how they came to write the Red Virgin here on the Forbidden Planet blog

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog. Mary and Bryan Talbot will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on the 27th of August

The cutter complains about cuts…

This would be hysterically funny if the punchline wasn’t taken out on the bulk of the British population (and the most vulnerable part of that population, at that): Prime Minister David Cameron, in his role as a constituency MP writes to his local county council to complain about the range and depths of their cuts to many services. Cuts caused because of Cameron’s government and their pig-headed (and allegedly Cameron knows a lot about pig heads!) adherence to austerity and every increasing budget cuts. Worse than complaining to the council about cuts caused by his own government policies he then quotes facts and figures to the head of the council to explain why they shouldn’t need such large cuts, for the (also Conservative-run) council to reply that his facts are wildly inaccurate – in other words the blithering, shiny meat-faced Cameron doesn’t even comprehend the scale of the cutbacks his policies have imposed on local authorities.

Somehow I am not surprised – for starters it’s often clear that mega-wealthy Tories like Cameron have very little empathy for or understanding of actual life for most people and the problems they have to face, much less bother that they are increasing those problems with their damaging polices. And secondly I’ve heard from a number of those in the political loop, including a prominent commentator at the book festival this year, that Cameron is simply a figurehead anyway, and that the real power and push behind the Tories for the last several years has been from George “smuggest face in politics” Osborn. Thank you again voters of Englandshire for imposing this government on the other countries of the UK even though we didn’t vote for them…

As Monbiot notes in the Guardian piece on this too, our gutless national press is largely ignoring this story – why the hell is the BBC and other major media news not bringing this up then asking the Prime Minister how he can be so disturbingly out of touch with the effects and depth of his own cuts?? Isn’t it their job to hold public servants to account?