Saturday 11 October 2014

Saturday Interview: Harry Paterson

Harry Paterson is a socialist activist from Nottingham where he has spent his political life. His first book, an excellent history of the 1984-5 miners' strike in Nottinghamshire, Look Back In Anger was published this summer. You can follow Harry on Twitter here

- Do you regularly read blogs? If so, which ones?

I do. Yes. Your own, of course. Richard Seymour’s, too. I dip in and out of the hilariously-named Socialist Unity from time-to-time. Although far less frequently than I once did.

I used to be a big fan of David Osler’s blog before he shut it down. He’s a good mate is Dave, despite us being about as far from each other politically as it’s possible to be – while both occupying the space known as the far left. He’s a thought-provoking and skilled writer.

I’m reading a lot of Scottish indy-oriented blogs, currently. There’s an energy and passion in the country, at the moment. Huge swathes of working class people engaged in and energised by politics as a result of the independence question and that’s reflected in some great blogs.

I’m an addict of Mick Wall’s blog as well. For those who don’t know, Mick’s a music journalist, broadcaster and author. One of the biggest names in that particular world, as it happens. He’s also a close personal friend and he often makes heavy use of allegory and metaphor in his blog entries. I have a lot of fun deciphering those and working out to what and whom he’s really referring. If at all! Where Mick’s concerned Freud’s famous maxim is often very apposite; sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar.

I’m also an avid follower of a number of columnists; Matthew Norman at The Independent is a huge favourite of mine. One can say what one likes about his politics – and I often do – but as master of the language there are few better.

Seamus Milne is another. Seumas brings out the fanboy in me and I was truly humbled and honoured that he was so supportive of my book and rated it so highly.

Owen Jones would be another. Again, politically he and I are poles apart on many questions but I kind of think of Owen as ‘one of us’, you know? Despite his frequently awful wishy-washy old Labour liberalism, I take an odd kind of avuncular pride in his success. Seeing one of the original UKLNers graduating to his current status – heir apparent to Tony Benn – always makes me smile.

- You write quite a bit at The Sabotage Times. Have you been tempted to strike out on your own blog-wise?

Well, I’ve had my own site for quite a while but a constant stream of technical problems has meant keeping a regular online presence has been difficult. I’m currently \here where I write about politics, music, culture, life and anything else that takes my fancy.

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

Aye, very much so. I’ve mentioned UKLN already but that was an eye-opener for me. It really was ground-breaking. These days, I don’t see how any political activist can function effectively without social media. Facebook, for all the slagging it gets, is an invaluable resource for networking, keeping current and exchanging information and ideas. I have furious and thought-provoking exchanges on my own wall almost every day. Ditto, Twitter; although for someone like me keeping things to just 140 characters is a challenge I feel I’ve yet to meet successfully! Of course the danger with these things is that they can be a substitute for effective engagement in politics; there’s still no worthwhile alternative to getting into the real world and interacting with real people.

- Who are your biggest intellectual influences?

I’d say Lenin would be number one, although I’m no slavish devotee. I thought Rosa Luxemburg, for example, taught the old man a couple of very worthwhile things.

- What are you reading at the moment?

I usually have three books on the go at any one time. Usually a non-fiction work, a crime thriller and something a bit more obviously literary.

Currently, I’m doing Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, the latest Jack Reacher thriller from Lee Child and I’m seriously enjoying Gorky Park, which a friend gifted me, recently.

- What was the last film you saw?

An awful Brit gangster ‘thriller’ called St. George’s Day. These days, despite previously being a very passionate lover of cinema, I find TV is where the real kicks are at. I think since The Sopranos broke the mould and showed what could really be done with the medium, it’s revealed mainstream cinema to be tired, dull and formulaic. Breaking Bad, Damages, The Shield, The Wire, Spacey’s rejig of House of Cards, Mad Men and countless others, have taken TV into entirely new areas. I’m definitely much more a TV man, these days. The 70s were mainstream cinema’s golden era. TV rules now.

- Do you have a favourite novel?

There isn’t a hope in Hell I could pick just one. Not a chance. Some of my favourites, which I’ve read and re-read countless times over the years, would include: The Picture of Dorian Grey, 1984, A Clockwork Orange, Brideshead Revisited, Animal Farm, Stan Barstow’s Vic Brown trilogy and more contemporary fare like IG Broat’s The Master Mechanic, Nelson DeMille’s Spencerville and Marcel Montecino’s The Cross Killer and Big Time. And anything by Ian Rankin, James Joyce and Brendan Behan and the other great Irish writers; I’ve very wide-ranging and eclectic tastes with a serious weakness for crime fiction.

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

That’s a great question! So few of us do change our minds, or if we do we certainly don’t admit to it. And there’s half the problem with the appalling Brit left right there.

Yes, I can think of at least three areas here; Scottish independence, over a ten year period or so, has seen me swing from opposing it to positively and openly supporting it.

Feminism, too, once saw me dismissing all of it as a ‘petit bourgeois deviation’ or a ‘distraction from the class struggle’ – like any good Brit Trot white man should – to realising it’s an incredibly diverse and wide-ranging field. It’s the jazz of politics, really. Some of it is groundbreaking and worthwhile and should be taken very seriously. That took me to intersectionality and while I wouldn’t claim to be entirely convinced by all it yet, I feel these things have enriched my thinking and my politics. Let’s face it; women’s oppression is something generations of men have only ever paid lip service to. If they even went that far. Look at the current celebrity abuse scandals and then on the left we’ve had Gerry Healy, the Sheridan mess and the SWP debacle and it’s clear we have a long way still to go on these questions.

Finally, Dave Osler quipped that I’m the only Trot he knows who moved to Stalinism after the fall of Stalinism. It’s typically amusing nonsense of Dave’s but it does make a serious point. Despite my education and training in the Trot tradition, I’ve ditched a lot of it, these days. Similarly, it’s been a long time since I was able to pretend that the USSR was a historical crime or the grotesque aberration devoid of all moral, social or political worth that the likes of the AWL et al, would have us believe.

I think there are a lot of Brit left political compasses that are still in need of resetting. Socialists should stand with the oppressed and as a very simple rule of thumb you’d think that would be a sound foundation on which to base your politics. Sadly, much of the left can’t seem to manage it. All this so called third camp bollocks and the like ends up objectively depositing its supporters into the camp of pro-imperialism. Just look at the AWL and Israel/Palestine. Beyond dreadful, frankly.

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

Labour, Militant Tendency (then the rebrandings; Militant Labour, Socialist Party), plus a sort of affiliation to/with the CPGB for a bit.

I’m currently a member of Left Unity, Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Stop the War Coalition.

I’m probably closest to the RCG/FRFI mob, politically, and they get a sub from me, but I’m not a member; they have no presence in my area.

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

That we can be our own agents for change. All history is the history of the working class or its ancestors. We make history, we change history and we can shape the future. We need to destroy the idea we’re merely the passive recipients of whatever ‘great men’ – it’s always bloody men – decide to do.

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

Apart from the obvious – racism, sexism etc – the one that really sets me off is the justification for the greed, cruelty and inequality of capitalism as being somehow an intrinsic part of ‘human nature’ so, therefore, this is as good as it gets. We can aspire, as a species, to nothing better because we’re ‘naturally’ greedy and ‘naturally’ power-hungry. It really is such infuriating bollocks.

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

Absolutely. Lenin’s State and Revolution was seismic in its impact on my eighteen year-old, post-miners’ strike self. That’s the big one for me, right there.
There are others, of course, but they came later.

- Who are your political heroes?

Lenin, Arthur Scargill and Rosa Luxemburg are the obvious ones who spring to mind. Also, despite differences with their respective politics, I’ve got a lot of admiration for the moral integrity and sheer unbreakable guts of Nelson Mandela and Bobby Sands.

- How about political villains?

Thatcher’s the obvious one for my generation. Ariel Sharon and then Netanyahu would complete the Unholy Trinity. Pitiless monsters, all three of them. But it’s a long list. Tony Blair, both the GWBs, Pinochet, Hitler, the Bullingdon mafia, Ian fecking Paisley and so on and so forth. International class traitor Gorbachev and the worm Kinnock never fail to arouse my ire, too.

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

Actually getting people engaged and involved in politics in the first place. Has there ever been a period when so many were so alienated, disconnected and actively turned-off?

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

If I could only have one, I’d be very tempted to introduce a Leninist maximum wage. Or the complete abolition of the monarchy. Banning, outright, zero-hours contracts would be cool, too.

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

The USA and Israel tie for top spot.

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

Feed your family before you buy your whisky, always tell people how you feel about them; both your loved ones and your enemies, always stand your round and never, ever cross a picket line.

- What is your favourite song?

Like picking a fave novel, this is impossible to answer! I’m a music fanatic, have about 2000 albums and listen to music every, single day of my life. Just one song? Jesus! Off the top of my head just three of my faves would be A Town Called Malice by The Jam, Strange Fruit by Billy Holiday and Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd.

- Do you have a favourite video game?

Never been big into the gaming, as it happens. Although my wife and I had an intense spell twenty-odd years ago now where Streets of Rage 2 and Speedball 2 on the old Sega Megadrive were ridiculously compelling.

- What do you consider the most important personal quality?

Saying what you mean and meaning what you say.

- What personal fault do you most dislike?

Treachery, cowardice and/or greed.

- What, if anything, do you worry about?

The future for my kids. OK, they aren’t scaling chimneys, being forcibly conscripted into African militias or ending up raped and trafficked by monsters but there’s never been a period in my lifetime when prospects for young people have been so bleak.

- And any pet peeves?

Millions. I’m a perennially angry and cantankerous auld bastard. Bad manners, messy eating, finishing food or drink and leaving the empty containers in the fridge, ‘drivers’ who stare blankly at each other at roundabouts because no one can grasp the simple rule that you give way to traffic from the right, 4X4 bullies tailgating me at 90-plus miles an hour. I’ve pulled off motorways and followed these bastards for miles until the killing rage eventually dissipated or, unfortunately for them, they stopped their vehicle and I caught up with the fuckers... What else? Spoiled tantrum-indulging bairns, weak parents, the hypocrisy and futility of recycling, selfish bastards who park across two spaces at supermarkets, people mistreating books and anyone who, in any way, is rude, selfish and ignorant toward the elderly. I think I’d better stop now.

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

Fight less, drink less and listen more. Much more.

- What do you like doing in your spare time?

Spending time with my granddaughter and the rest of the family, reading, listening to music, following Alloa Athletic, drinking whisky, playing chess, poker and pool and attending gigs and concerts.

- What is your most treasured possession?

My books, albums and my hi-fi which comprises a Cambridge Audio class A amp, Cambridge Audio DAC Magic digital-to-analogue convertor, tuner and a pair of Acoustic Envelope three-way bi-wired floor-standing speakers.

- Do you have any guilty pleasures?

As a confirmed hedonist I don’t think any pleasures should be guilty. That implies we’re cowed by cultural snobbery or bourgeois mores. Having said that – and I can’t believe I’m outing myself here – I’m not proud of the couple of Barry Manilow albums that have inexplicably made it into my collection.

- What talent would you most like to have?

I’d like to be able to dance. I’m lucky in that I’m naturally musical. I’m a long-retired classically-trained trumpet player and I’ve been in a string of rock and covers bands, playing guitar and singing, back in my distant youth, but I can’t dance for shit. At all. My feet are entirely independent of my central nervous system and simply can not follow instructions. If and when my kids get married I’m going to set new lows in the horrors of dad dancing.

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

That all the people I love live long, happy and healthy lives.

- 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?

It would change my life enormously. What’s the point otherwise? I’d pay off all my family’s and pals’ mortgages and debts and then I’d think very seriously about how to use the cash to further various worthwhile causes. I’d like to supply the Palestinians with some serious weaponry, for example. Let’s see those Israeli butchers waging war on a level playing field for a change. Once that was sorted, rebuilding schools, hospitals and so on would be a great use of my vast stack of smackeroonies.

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

Brendan Behan, Oscar Wilde and Mae West or Billie Holiday.

- Your history of the miners' strike in Nottinghamshire - Look Back In Anger - is a must-read for every trade unionist. Did you find it a challenge to put together?

That’s very much appreciated. Thank you. Honestly? Not at all. The miners’ strike was my political baptism. The single most influential event of my political life. I knew it inside out and felt, still feel, incredibly passionate about it. In many ways, it was already written years previously, internally, and once my publisher said ‘go’ it was really just a case of letting the words pour out on to the page. Of course there was a lot of research, fact-checking of dates, names and places and so on and the many first-hand interviews with the various protagonists took a lot of work. There are few things more soul-sappingly tedious than transcribing but the narrative spine, if you like, was as natural to me as breathing. It really was. I knew what I wanted to say and exactly how I wanted to say it.

- And has it changed your life?

Well, I can’t retire just yet and it doesn’t look likely next week, either, so not really, no; not in any meaningful material sense. Seriously, though, it has in ways I never expected. For example, I did a lot of promo work once it was published and the exposure seems to have kick-started an unexpected career sideline in punditry and talking headery. I’m getting constant invitations from TV, radio and press to appear on debate shows and so on to offer my twa bob’s worth. It’s mainly regional stuff and Jonesy needn’t feel threatened any time soon but it’s been a definite change to my normal routine.

The biggest change, though, has been of a personal nature. The feeling of satisfaction, euphoria even, when you finish writing a book is like nothing else I’ve experienced. Knowing you’ve done something maybe only – what? – ten percent? Twenty percent? of humanity has done is quite a spooky realisation. Then the fear of being a one-hit wonder kicks in! I’m near to closing on deals for two more books which is both brilliant and terrifying! It’s a whole different thing to my day gig of music journalism.

- Lastly, as a non-Labour labour movement person do you think they will win the election next May?

I certainly wouldn’t say I was a ‘non-Labour movement person.’ A non-Labour Party member is much more accurate. There’s a great deal more to the movement than just the bloody Labour Party!

I can see them just winning but without an overall majority. But that’s now. I could just as easily see, by next week, say, Miliband throwing it all away and letting the Tories back in.