Sunday 21 September 2014

Saturday Interview: Anna Chen

Anna Chen is a London-born writer, poet, broadcaster and Orwell Prize shortlisted blogger. She was the co-ordinating press officer for the Socialist Alliance (2000-1) and the Stop the War Coalition (2001-3). Her documentaries for BBC Radio 3 and 4, pioneering explorations of race and class, include the groundbreaking 10-part series, Chinese in Britain (2007). She writes and presents an arts series, Madam Miaow's Culture Lounge, for Resonance FM. You can follow Anna on Twitter here.

- Why did you start blogging?

I started blogging as Madam Miaow in 2007 to stop me chucking heavy objects through the television screen. I needed not only to vent, but to order my thoughts when faced with the all-pervading mess out there. I'm sure there are many of us who have been kept sane by having the option to communicate our views to an audience, even a small one. It's a healthy way to make sense of an increasingly chaotic world.

- What's been your best blogging experience?

Being shortlisted and longlisted for the Orwell Prize and then being invited to hold a poetry workshop for them for schoolchildren in Wigan.

- Have you any blogging advice for new starters?

Be aware that blogging has peaked. Every journo now has a blog so the brilliant democratising platform that was blogging has already been skewed in favour of the establishment. It's significant that the Orwell Prize dropped their blogging prize last year.

Having said that, it's very useful as a personal journal and a great way to place your world-view on the record. Don't write humungous long screeds unless you will otherwise burst. Try to keep it to 400-800 words per post, and be entertaining and witty as well as wise and wonderful. Everybody's pushed for time nowadays — make it worth their while spending a little of it on you.

- Do you think blogging's changed much since you started?

There are a lot more of us and a plethora of platforms. It's a boon for general literacy — I've seen various writers grow and improve their craft over the years.

- Do you find social media useful for activist-y-type things?

Anything that helps communication and gets different perpectives out there challenging the status quo must be a good thing. Useful for shining a cleansing light in all those nooks and crannies. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

- Who are your biggest intellectual influences?

George Orwell for giving us the language tools to nail what the Stalinists were doing; Patrick Heron on art (especially on what the CIA did with modern art when imperialist hegemony was played out on canvas); Robert McKee on cinematic story structure; Joss Whedon on televisual story structure; Greg Benton and Jonathan Spence on Chinese history; Maya Angelou; bell hooks; Rosa Luxemburg; the NME writers of my childhood who were like big brothers and sisters navigating me around the culture ... I'm quite eclectic and a working-class autodidact, having left school as 16, so it's difficult to pinpoint.

- What are you reading at the moment?

The Origins of the Boxer Uprising by Joseph W Esherick. Ricky Rouse Has A Gun, a graphic novel by Jorg Tittel and John Aggs.

- What was the last film you saw?

Southland Tales. My first was Disney's The Sleeping Beauty and George Pal's The Time Machine. Now THAT was a really powerful influence — who are the Eloi and who are the Morlocks? And who is the Traveller?

- Do you have a favourite novel?

I had a Chuck Pahlaniuk craze for a while (Fight Club and assorted novels and short stories). Animal Farm and 1984 have been faves, as was The Magus when I was a teen. I loved Evelyn Waugh's savage humour when I was a kid.

- Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

I was sympathetic to the Yes-vote in the Scotland independence referendum until I was won over to the argument that this was actually about class solidarity over nationalism. Emotionally, I'm with them and share their disgust over Westminster's austerity policies — and I remember how they got the Poll Tax before anyone else. However, some Scots nationalists seemed to be saying screw you to the English working class. Instead of uniting to get rid of the unelected Tories and their LibDem shills, it was "devil take the hindmost".

It looked more like a battle between contending ruling-classes than liberation for the Scottish people, which is how it was being sold by SNP "Tartan Tories" tacking left for the vote. Would it really have been an improvement being ruled by Brian Souter, Ann Gloag, Rupert Murdoch and Angela Merkel?

- How many political organisations have you been a member of?

The SWP and their reboot of the Socialist Alliance (SA), and I also established and ran the press for their offshoots, the SA, Globalise Resistance and the Stop the War Coalition. See this.

- What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

A rising tide floats all boats. Rosa Luxemburg's warning that the choice would be between socialism or barbarism grows truer by the minute. Socialism is supposed to about an egalitarian, freeing society; from each according to their ability, to each according to their need, not a wholesale troughing down by power-hungry opportunists.

- What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?

Nationalism, anti-immigration, racism, sexim. I would include reformism if only there was a socialist alternative.

- Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

R D Laing's Knots when I was 16. The George Orwell canon.

- Who are your political heroes?

Rosa Parks and her compadres who were defying America's racist laws. The Wobblies who recruited American Chinese farmworkers into the labour movement when scumbags such as Denis Kearney and his Workingmens Party of California were stoking up lynchings. My father who came to Britain in 1927/8 as a seaman, helped establish the Chinese Seaman's Union and campaigned against the Japanese occupation of Manchuria (1931) and invasion of China (1937) — it got heavy!

- How about political villains?

Anyone who rises through the left only to take an axe to the movement as soon as they see an opportunity to climb the greasy pole — they have done so much damage to the movement and proper socialism which should represent liberation for the majority. The SWP analysis in the late 1990s predicted that Blair would be right-wing and betray the working class who would move rightwards so it was vital that we build an alternative to Labour. They were correct in that instance yet here we are over a decade later with the left worse than ever following pointless sectarian punch-ups mostly initiated by the SWP when a strong principled left has never been more desperately needed.

The uber villains are the vulture capitalists (as exposed by investigative reporter Greg Palast in his book Vultures' Picnic) who want it all but, in a grisly way, they are the logical conclusion of capitalism in old age. And, of course, Tony Blair and all the Labourites who allowed this monster to take the helm. I mean, trousering £2-3 million a year from J P Morgan, the bank that just happened with be awarded the lucrative co-ordinating role of extracting money from Iraq after Bush and Blair's war? WTF?!! Talk about the banality of evil.

- What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

Demonstrating that proper socialism can actually function for the majority, not an easy task when you see the destructiveness of so-called socialists: from the guys who rose through the ranks to rule the Stans, to our own homegrown efforts in the UK. The creation of so many billionnaires in China just makes me weep. So often it is merely a conduit to power for sociopaths. May we be honest and look at why socialism is such a dirty word for so many who would actually benefit from it?

- If you could affect a major policy change, what would it be?

Taxing the rich is a perrenial favourite. Lobbying for an international tax system that challenges evasion and havens (hello Britain!). TTIP is an evil the world can do without.

- What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

The constant upward suck of wealth with our resources accreting in the hands of a tiny global elite. This can't carry on without major crises and a battle to redistribute fairly. Trouble is, they now have the technology to hang on to their ill-gotten gains and leave us behind. Recent "revolutions" have not been inspiring, they've simply meant a change of personnel at the top as die alte scheisse takes over.

- What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

Beware inadequates — they loathe you. Learn to tell the difference between lip-service and action. If love isn't part of your politics, then you have no business telling others what to do and how to run the world. Far from being romantic nonsense as so many cynics would have it, love is the highest plane on which human beings as social animals interact. We need to develop 360 degree abilities and wider bandwidth.

- What is your favourite song?

It changes but at the moment it is the Dusty Springfield version of Windmills of Your Mind, turning trite hippy lyrics as sung by Noel Harrison into something genuinely profound. Also, Why'd Ya Do It?, lyrics by Heathcote Williams and sung by Marianne Faithful.

- Do you have a favourite video game?

I got all the way to the end of Doom. Does chess software count?

- What do you consider the most important personal quality?

Capacity for love — not the romantic kind, the other bigger one that encompasses generosity, solidarity and comradeship. Intelligence versus cleverness.

- What personal fault do you most dislike?

My own? Naivety. Over-eating. Being useless at maths.

In others, cowardice. Not physical cowardice, but personal, ethical, intellectual and moral.

- What, if anything, do you worry about?

The lack of any social force in the world that can challenge the feral ruling class and its mechanisms for extracting money, labour and soul. And a dehumanising callousness at every level, in every sphere, spreading like ebola and threatening to be the death of us all.

- And any pet peeves?

Mockney accents on posh leftists who tell working-class people how to be working-class. Purported progressives and anti-racists I've never met projecting their yellow peril fears onto me. Leftists who fall over themselves to appropriate your labour and the comrades who turn a blind eye. The snowy blinding WHITENESS of the left groups and the obvious lack of diversity, often manifesting as outright hostility towards Other. Organisations that bolt themselves to the front of other people's struggle and then claim leadership rights. None of this helps us advance our political cause.

- What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Use softening rose water instead of tonics that strip your skin and dry it up. Don't smoke or stay in the sun too long.

Don't go anywhere near the British far left. Too many charlatans, careerists and snake-oil salesmen and women with ambitions who are happy to plant their boot in your face if it means personal advancement as soon as something's up for grabs. Suddenly, gay rights are no longer a "shibboleth", that rape never happened and "what's yours is mine". Wise up to the fact that, just because someone says the right thing, it doesn't mean they live it. No-one on the left has your back if you are already a marginalised minority because so many of them are insecure, chasing status, career, youth and power, and they harbour a deep contempt for those who they see as occupying at the bottom of society, whatever lip-service they pay otherwise — it's their own self-loathing projected out. Just because you are comradely, principled and non-sectarian, it doesn't mean everyone else is, too, simply because they've read the right books. Watch out for the middle-class ones who sneer at ethics and morality as "bourgeois", forgetting that Trotsky wrote a book called Their Morals and Ours, not Their Morals and We Ain't Got None.

- What do you like doing in your spare time?

Reading, gardening, cooking, writing poetry and fiction. I enjoy performing poetry. I have a collection out, Reaching for my Gnu, which has a political dimension, both explicit and implicit. I used to draw a lot — that's something I'd like to take up again. And playing chess.

- What is your most treasured possession?

A lock of hair from my late boyfriend of 23 years ago.

- Do you have any guilty pleasures?

Oh yes! Watching Big Brother and I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.

- What talent would you most like to have?

I'd like my old eiditic (photographic) memory back. I used to have one until I had some sort of aneurism when I was 19 and then spent ten years relearning how to string a sentence together.

- If you could have one realistic(ish) wish come true - apart from getting loads of money - what would you wish for?

To live a happy, productive life surrounded by loved ones in a peaceful world.

- Speaking of cash, how, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?

My NICS and income were disrupted when I worked for the left for no pay on top of the ten years I was ill, so some sort of a pension would be nice. It would mean no more fear of dying in poverty.

- If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

Edward Asner, Mary Shelley, Hong Xiuquan (the leader of the Taiping rebellion). I met Ed and found he was my ideal father figure. I developed a little crushette on him.

- As a non-Labour labour movement person, do you think Labour will win next year?

Not if they carry on the way they are, trying to out-right the right — we have one of those already, thankyou. The Tories and their Lib Dem human shields are so loathed that they should be a shoo-in but I wouldn't put it past them to nause it up.