Capital Ring I (Section 13)

As part of the latest round of maternity leave excitement we’ve decided to walk the Capital Ring. We did the first section from us (Stoke Newington to Hackney Wick) last week and intended to do the next section (Hackney Wick to Beckton) today but because the beer and pizza at Crate were so good we ended up starting quite late and decided to walk the first section again but in the other direction. We’ll hopefully do the second on (Section 14, officially) on Friday.

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View from Springfield Park overlooking Walthamstow Marshes with Walthamstow (and Essex) beyond

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Barges at Springfield Marina

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A pair of Egyptian (?) Ducks

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Middlesex Filter Beds Weir

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Junior yomper and Hackney Henge

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One of those bits of Hackney Wick that thankfully has managed to remain definitively Hackney Wick in spite of the olympics

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Novelty table decoration at Crate Brewery

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London Planes in Wick Woodland

Published in: on January 13, 2015 at 8:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Book Review: “Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy”

A review I wrote of John Gurney’s recent book. N.B. This review has appeared elsewhere.

 

‘Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?’

– Gerrard Winstanley (The New Law of Righteousness, 1649)

For those familiar with the excellent (if rather odd) 1975 film Winstanley, these lines may ring out in actor Miles Halliwell’s serene, well-spoken, home-counties voice. While we can never know what Winstanley really sounded like, enough is known of his life to give a fascinating insight into much of his personal and political journey. Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676) was of the ‘middling sort’, a cloth trader from Wigan who moved to London, lost his business and became one of the founders of a lasting radical tradition: that of the Diggers.

As John Gurney points out in the introduction to his recent book, the time seems ripe for a reappraisal and wider dissemination of the thought of Winstanley. Issues of gross inequality, pressure on the natural environment, the oppressive role of the state (and its favouring of the wealthy), and the alienation of people from the product of their labour all gripped Winstanley, and they of course remain key problems for the contemporary left. This volume cuts to the heart of Winstanley’s thought on these topics and many more, yet it goes beyond the work of one man and successfully puts the Digger movement in its historical context.

After a stirring introduction, the second chapter gives a good outline of the material links between Wigan (and Lancashire more generally) and London through the burgeoning textile industry and its associated guilds; this was the tumultuous world of early mercantile capitalism. Winstanley’s retreat from London, caused seemingly by failure in his chosen trade, led him to Cobham in Surrey. His radicalisation there took place during personal economic difficulties but Gurney sensibly declines to assign direct causality; we should not automatically assume that it was only because the system failed for Winstanley that he turned against it.

Indeed, Gurney’s excellent contextualisation of the religious (moral) framework embraced by Winstanley and others suggests that egalitarianism was a growing concern at this time. This is a similar line to that taken by Christopher Hill, whose work should probably be read alongside Gurney’s biography. Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down (1972) paints a broad picture of the many contemporary political and religious radicalisms which erupted in seventeenth-century Britain. While Hill covered the Diggers only relatively briefly, Winstanley emerged, according to Gurney, as ‘the real hero, and the true revolutionary’ (p.7).(1)

The third chapter traces intellectual parallels and antecedents relating to Winstanley’s ‘Digger’ writings, but again Gurney declines to speculate on direct influences, instead pointing to the more general milieu of common radical and millenarian ideas. Gurney identifies two major innovations in the Digger movement, both important strands of Winstanley’s works: the consistent complaint that the English were still living under the Norman Yoke (that is, an aristocratic, arbitrary elite imposed from without), and the failure of that elite to honour the social contract. Winstanley argued that the common people had opposed the king with both money and blood, and had paid a disproportionately high price in both.

There follows a very useful summary of the longstanding historical debate over the precise relationship between the Diggers and the Levellers. Gurney’s approach is rather unusual but refreshing; he essentially tells us that the issue is not all that important, and certainly should not obscure the radical demands of either group. Much of the confusion centres on a particular Winstanley pamphlet called The True Levellers Standard Advanced (1649). Note the lack of apostrophe; Gurney suggests that it refers (in the singular) to Christ, the True Leveller. This would negate a great deal of historical debate over why the Diggers (who did not seem to refer to themselves by that name either) had given themselves a name so close to that of an already-existing radical movement, the Levellers. Gurney also brings out very well the viciousness of the attacks on Winstanley himself, on his livestock, and on the land used by the Diggers.

Leftist traditions are divided over whether Winstanley represents a true precursor to later incarnations of socialism or communism, but Gurney makes a powerful case for the Diggers as genuine proto-communists. It is difficult to argue with this, though some leftist traditions of course do; Winstanley favoured a national strike, attacked wage labour, believed that all things are held in common and railed against the clerical and secular authorities and their wealthy masters. That said, readers may find it a step too far when Gurney insists that Winstanley’s final important work, The Law of Freedom (1652), fits with this radical set of ideals. There are bold attempts to smooth the differences between the earlier and later Winstanley but those extracts from The Law of Freedom included (in a very fair and even-handed manner) by Gurney still convey a retreat into a more conservative and patriarchal line of argument.

Finally, we should remember to look a bit further afield. The context of the outbreak of radicalism is not only the ‘English Revolution’, as Christopher Hill dubbed it, but a wider series of economic and social upheavals ranging across Europe during the transition from late feudalism to early capitalism (c.1350-c.1700). However, the intricacies of these conflicts are often lost to modern leftist traditions because of their close ties to religious conflict. Beginning with the Peasants’ Revolt in England and the Wycliffe-inspired Lollard movement, the continuing outbreaks of rebellion by the poor, often supported by radical dissenting clerics, spread across Europe and reached a numerical peak in the enormous (but relatively little-known) German Peasants’ War of 1524-26. In this conflict we may find many strands of egalitarian and millenarian thought which later were fused with the specific English complaints about the Norman Yoke to form a hotbed of radicalism in the 1640s. It is very hard to read Winstanley’s work without thinking of Thomas Müntzer, for example. Müntzer, a cleric, was beheaded in Thuringia in 1525 having proclaimed ‘omnia sunt communia’ (‘everything is common’, usually taken to mean ‘all things belong to all people’); a Winstanleyian sentiment to be sure.

Notes

1. Hill went into greater detail in The Religion of Gerrard Winstanley (1976).

Published in: on August 19, 2014 at 10:48 am  Leave a Comment  

Highgate Cemetery

We went for a wander around Highgate Cemetery in the pouring rain on Friday. Here are a few of the more notable graves.

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and of course…

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Published in: on June 23, 2013 at 6:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pre-Raphaelites

I managed a brief rush through the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at the Tate last week. Much of it was familiar to me thanks to the prevalence of the more labour-oriented and allegorical works among the municipal galleries of our provincial cities, though I’d also been to a wonderful Holman Hunt show in Manchester a year or two ago.

My opinion on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had, before I went to the Tate exhibition, been rather fixed for some time: that William Holman Hunt was the only true master among them, that Ford Madox Brown (not a PRB member but a close associate and prominent in the Tate show) had moments of genuine greatness, that John Everett Millais could paint but perhaps wasn’t so hot on composition/subject selection, and that Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the biggest hacks going, the Damien Hirst of his era.

This show, while enjoyable and rewarding, did nothing to alter my opinions (except perhaps raise Millais somewhat in my estimation). Holman Hunt towers above the rest, a real artistic giant, oozing pain and piety but melding his palette beautifully and imbuing the whole enterprise with a real heft. Of course everyone loves The Hireling Shepherd, The Light of the World and The Scapegoat, but I’m was most taken with The Shadow of Death and Isabella and the Pot of Basil.

Madox Brown has a few absolute gems. The Last of England has long been a favourite (those who know me won’t be surprised), but Work and The Pretty Baa-Lambs are both wonderful; Work and An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead draw me in particularly for their London-explorer interest.

Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents (or Christ in the House of Bobby Charlton as it was always known in our house) was another highlight, though it dawned on me that as a child I always thought the dark-haired youth on the left was Jesus and that the stigmatised boy in the foreground was an interloper who had wandered into the workplace.

I can take or leave Burne-Jones and the rest of the mythological guff, but Rossetti really takes the biscuit; I think he’s a really terrible painter. The hype machine around him reminds of me of Damien Hirst and the Emperor’s New Clothes of crap Brit-Art. I almost said Rossetti reminds me of Peter Doherty, but that strikes me as rather unfair on the latter, for while he similarly is claimed as a sort of fin-de-siecle polymath, he at least is pretty good at one of his trades.

Anyhow, all told, I didn’t learn a great deal (which saddens me in a big exhibition) but then the boy was shouting his head off all day and we couldn’t linger, so perhaps I missed some subtleties. I’d never pass up the chance to see the wonderful Holman Hunts and Madox Browns though, so it was very much a worthwhile visit.

Published in: on January 19, 2013 at 9:33 am  Comments (3)  
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Yndi’d

Saw the wonderful Yndi Halda at Hoxton Hall last week, showcasing some new songs in gig which (along with the previous night) was raising funds to pay for a new album. The recent material was fantastic, and it is always a heavenly and transcendental pleasure to hear an old favourite like ‘Dash and Blast‘. Their new bassist fitted in very well indeed too. Here are some pics:

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Published in: on July 26, 2012 at 7:54 am  Leave a Comment  

City & Northern Light Railway

The Thameslink franchise is up for grabs soon and one of the bits that is being bundled into it is the oddity that is the Northern City Line (from Finsbury Park to Moorgate via Essex Road). It’s a bit of useful infrastructure that is woefully underused (not at all during later evenings and weekends) and I strongly feel it should be integrated into the underground network. FCC or its successor could run all its trains from Hertford East or Welwyn into Kings Cross, and the NCL could join up with the old line from Finsbury Park to Muswell Hill (which is now Parkland Walk) to make a useful line comprising thirteen stations and intersecting with the Northern Line (at Highgate, Old Street and Moorgate), London Overground (at H&I and at a new interchange station at Stapleton Hall Road), with the Victoria Line (at H&I and Finsbury Park) and with EC/Thameslink services at Finsbury Park. Current commuters from Harringay out to Hertford etc would have a relatively simple crossover onto the new line at Finsbury Park and ticketing could mean they weren’t disadvantaged by the change.

Someone on wikipedia has done a version of the line in LU style here as it was planned in the 1930s – my version would not be part of the Northern Line – in fact it wouldn’t use underground rolling stock at all (see below) – and would include the extra station at Stapleton Hall Road and is shown below in more of a sketch style! Obviously the loss of Parkland Walk (a lovely green space which I use a lot, though not too useful in actual transit terms) would need to be offset somehow – let’s say by the guarantee of two ‘greenways’ (i.e. for foot and cycle users, with ample space/separation), one for the Highgate/Muswell Hill crowd, and one for the Stroud Green end).

I would be inclined to run it as a DLR type service, since many of the platforms on the northern end would need to be short. A frequent service would be well-used and extremely useful in my view, not only linking parts of London which are somewhat tricky to get between but also getting people into town quickly from some poorly connected areas (Crouch End, Muswell Hill, Tollington). Between the DLR style and the Northern City Line designation, something like the CNLR might be a sensible name for the whole thing.

 

Published in: on July 18, 2012 at 8:06 am  Leave a Comment  

Sod the Olympics

There’s too much wrong with the London Olympics to go into in any detail at the moment – the categories of ‘commercial rapaciousness’ and ‘egregious authoritarianism’ are full to bursting point. One particularly illustrative example has, though, been today publicised by Ben Goldacre and Cory Doctorow – that LOCOG don’t want you linking to their site unless you are saying nice things about them. Well, like many others, I think they are the scum of the earth, selling out (alongside the IOC) any remaining integrity or romance in sport (not unlike FIFA and UEFA of course) for the benefit of an extractive, undemocratic and self-serving elite. So I’m linking to the Olympics site on that basis.

Published in: on July 16, 2012 at 10:16 am  Leave a Comment  

The Literal Collapse of Social Democracy: Robin Hood is (Nearly) Dead

I wanted to write a long and probably boring piece on this, but I don’t have time, so thank your lucky stars. The basic points I wished to convey were as follows, in shameful brevity:

1) Robin Hood Gardens, the Smithsons’ (subjectively) beautiful but (objectively) run-down social housing development in Blackwall, east London, is due for demolition. Built for ‘the socialist dream’ and now, in classic neoliberal fashion, a public good which has quite intentionally been allowed to malfunction and decay in order that a private alternative would seem attractive. See also, for example, inner city state schools, and, shortly, the NHS. When Jonathan Glancey went to visit in 2009, he took a rather skeptical view, but almost all of the documented complaints refer to maintenance, not architecture. When I visited, the streets in the sky concept – which I love – was in full swing, with groups of kids playing football and cycling up and down.

2) Social democracy and the welfare state as a linked pair of historical phenomena seem to be just as run down (or to have been run down just as much!) as Robin Hood Gardens. In the cases of Italy and Greece elected governments were earmarked by the EU for demolition and replacement with private-finance friendly technocratic post-states. In Britain we are consensually daydreaming our way to something similar. Here was a physical representation in east London of the grand political shift of our era.

3) But wasn’t the social democratic ideal always like the Robin Hood of legend? Couldn’t a capitalist welfare state only ever survive as long as there was money coming in, strongarmed from the rich in times when there was gold sloshing around to be thrown at foreign wars and other follies? What happens when Robin Hood is dead? Weren’t such handouts always dependent on the goodwill of an enlightened member of the nobility (the mythical Loxley, the actual Beveridge) to sweep crumbs from the table into our grateful paws? Where do we go next?

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(Note, there are two photos of nearby, more modern buildings – hopefully it’s obvious which ones!)

So I went to look around and take some pictures before it is gone. A few things struck me. In relation to the surrounding monstrosities of Canary Wharf (and other faux-marble or glass-and-steel yawnfests slightly further north), Robin Hood Gardens is a fine piece of architecture. It is elegant, sweeping and open, with its deck access ‘streets in the sky’ and setting around a shared garden. It’s not too high so even in early spring (when I went) the sun comfortably enters the communal space. The ratio of windows to wall is extraordinary compared with most more recent mass housing (whether social or yuppie). Even in its decrepit, boarded-up state, there is something friendly and hopeful about it. It’s a great shame that it has been deliberately run into the ground. I really liked it.

Published in: on May 15, 2012 at 3:04 pm  Comments (3)  

Pro-Choice Rally

Some pictures from the  Bloomsbury Pro Choice Alliance demo earlier tonight against 40 Days for Life and their hateful, insidious obsession with women’s reproductive organs.

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Published in: on March 30, 2012 at 8:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Protest at the Syrian Embassy

Here are some pictures from the beginning of the afternoon protest at the Syrian Embassy today. You can see the scene-of-crime police paying a great deal of attention to the paint splashes and broken windows. We never got that much help when our garage got broken into. But then we’re not a Middle Eastern dictatorship… I missed out on the later part (which is still going on I think) as I had another appointment so this is more a snapshot of the protestors setting up (and praying).

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Published in: on February 4, 2012 at 5:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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