Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football lists his top ten political books to help avoid being surprised by anything in 2016.
The end of history? 2015 well and truly put paid to the age of the smug.
Syriza win in January, call the Troika’s bluff with a referendum and a landslide victory rejecting the terms and then #thisisacoup derails most of the hope. In Britain, the polls and the pundits are united in predicting a hung parliament while the Tories sneak back into office behind all their backs. Scotland follows up losing the independence referendum by going SNP. And Labour gobsmackingly elects Jeremy Corbyn leader, a result an indecent chunk of Labour MPs clearly still don’t accept. In the US, a socialist is running a Clinton close in the Democrats’ race for the Presidential nomination. In Spain, a party barely 18 months old that grew out of the Indignados movement busts apart the two party system that hitherto ruled their country. In Portugal, the Left Bloc makes a surprising comeback too. While on the streets of Paris terror reigned twice and the British Parliament votes to bomb Syria with Hilary Benn leading the charge; sadly in 2015 there are some events that are less of a surprise.
My all-time favourite Billy Bragg lyric “When the world falls apart some things stay in place” is a pretty good starting point when things move and change with a degree of unpredictability. It’s a line from Billy’s Levi Stubbs Tears where Billy is accompanied by a superb trumpet solo from Dave Robinson. A Lover Sings contains the lyrics to this song, plus a host of others personally selected by Billy. For those of us of a certain age, and of a certain politics, they tell us the story of the past thirty years, and in line after superb line provide us with a hope and a vision for the next thirty too.
Looking back to find a way forward can trap us in a certain kind of conservatism. My next two choices for 2016 are a pair of books that challenge this in the way they address the past. Eric Hazan uses a single instrument of resistance and rebellion to produce a unique history of the processes of social change in A History of The Barricade. Kate Evans has produced a graphic biography Red Rosa to bring the life, times and ideas of Rosa Luxemburg alive in a vivid and striking manner that text alone will never match for impact and engagement.
One of the more pleasant surprises of 2015 was the failure of UKIP to stage any kind of electoral breakthrough, and in particular Farage not being elected an MP for the embarassingly umpteenth time. Though the former was principally down to the rotten electoral system we are lumbered with. On the basis of the scale of the votes they did attract in coming second, third or fourth in constituency after constituency, they certainly merit more than just the one MP – like it or not. Matthew Goodwin and Caitlin Milazzo meticulously map UKIP’s politics and appeal in their book UKIP: Inside the Campaign to Redraw the Map of British Politics. This is essential reading ahead of the Euro Referendum in which UKIP will no doubt feature strongly. My prediction? SNP win overall majority in May Scottish Parliament Elections then campaigns successfully for yes vote in Scotland to stay in EU. England votes to leave. The Union is finished, UKIP reinvents itself as the English Independence Party leaving Tories hopelessly divided over whether to save the Union or exit the EU.
Syriza began the 2015 political year; Podemos more or less ended it. The latter is looking increasingly likely to be of more lasting political significance. Not only by breaking Spain’s own version of the two-party duopoly, but in transforming how politics is done. Podemos combine a politics of populism with a party culture of popular participation. Pablo Iglesias sets out the scale of his vision in Politics in a Time of Crisis. If Corbynite Labour is to mean anything, it will need to conjure up something similar to transform what was an increasingly moribund party into a social movement. The 2016 clock is already ticking on that one.
The era of the protest song showed some signs of a return in 2015 (a subject I will return to in a future, musical review). For now, most signs of a revolution in sound remain firmly located in a more distant past. It is a subject the author Jon Savage is superbly well-equipped to address, as he proves in his splendid new book 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded which details twelve months of CND, Vietnam, Warhol , Motown and The Beatles.
One of the characteristics of the musical movements that Jon Savage records was their global appeal – all pre Web 2.0. English culture naturally remains inward-looking, despite the revolution in information technology. Challenging this is the project of the always brilliant Pushkin Press, via the translation of the very best in modern European Literature for an Anglo audience. My pick of their bunch from 2015 is the Spanish writer Iván Repila’s allegorical novel The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse. Human desperation vs the necessity of hope, told via fairytale; this is big picture writing at its most imaginative and unpredictable.
All things culinary in 2015 continued to dominate the terrain of popular culture. It’s a space where the political is typically absent, yet absolutely necessary. This has become a kind of peculiar obsession of mine: why doesn’t the Left take what it eats more seriously when a huge chunk of the population seems absolutely transfixed by the subject? What if this was to change in 2016? For a textbook version of the creativity of utilitarian cooking, look no further than Leon: Family & Friends by Kay Plunkett-Hogge and John Vincent – the latest in their series of cookery books.
A business book may appear at first sight a strange choice to include in my top ten for 2016 political books. But then as a co-founder of self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ I’ve found on more than a few occasions such texts provide just the kind of organisational acumen conventional politics so sorely lacks. My choice is no ordinary business book either: cult beer label James Watt’s Business for Punks. Whether or not you are part of that happy band who combine commercial ambition with political principle, this is a hugely educational book on how to get organised for change. Real ale was one way to define a counter-culture for a period in the 1980s; today the same can be said of craft beer. This is the book to read and find out why.
My number one choice of book to read in 2016 effortlessly mixes politics, punk, poetry, football and beer and it is because he makes that combination so much fun that Attila the Stockbroker’s autobiography Arguments Yard is such a compelling story. Those who trample the past in their headlong rush to find the new won’t give such a book more than a second glance, writing off the 35 years Attila has spent helping to establish a radical culture of live poetry and ranting rebellion. That will be their loss – don’t let it be yours. A book to read, a mission to sign up for, a practice to learn from. A truly wonderful piece of writing, thanks Attila.
Note: No links in this review are to Amazon, if you can avoid buying from the tax-dodgers please do.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football. His new book 1966 and Not All That is published in May.