Owen Jones at the Blackie, Liverpool, 15/05/2014

 

Owen-Jones-web

Sat alongside Liverpool’s impressive Chinatown Gate is the looming figure of the Blackie, a former Congregational chapel besmirched with over a century’s inner-city smoke and grime, giving the building its blackened façade and its playful name. Now serving as a cultural arts community centre, the venue played the perfect host to an evening of socio-political discussion sprung from Owen Jones’ ‘Rebel Rant’, a headline act of Liverpool’s Writing on the Wall Festival. The rant meandered through an array of themes and concerns, and the discussion which ensued demonstrated the extent to which Jones engaged his audience in his appeal for solidarity amongst the working classes for the hope of social change.

9781844678648

Jones, a self-proclaimed socialist and columnist for the Guardian, rose to prominence after the 2011 publication of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, described as ‘a work of passion, sympathy and moral grace’ by the New York Times who considered the book one of the top ten non-fiction publications of 2011. He has since featured in numerous televised political debates on programmes such as the BBC’s Newsnight or Daily Politics as a spokesperson for the political left. Jones set his ‘Rebel Rant’ in motion by evoking the rich British heritage of a working class who fought for social change, beginning with examples from as far back as the 14th century and stretching through to modern Britain with examples of working class heroes who in some cases went as far as to die in their struggle for positive social change in Britain, such as the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. Reminding his audience of such examples, Jones laid down his theme that positive social change—whether it be improved working conditions, increasing the minimum wage, female emancipation, the abolition of slavery—is never gifted by a generous elite of officials at the top, but rather it is something which is battled for, through protest, the voicing of discontent and sometimes through blood, but it is always something which comes from below, from the working classes. A message which doubtlessly coursed through the minds of his audience as he proceeded to discuss the problems which afflict our contemporary society.

this8

Over quarter of a million people relying on food banks to feed their families, while energy companies hold millions to ransom over ever-inflating energy prices, their bosses stuffing their pockets with profits while families count pennies deciding whether they can afford to heat their home or feed their children. Incessant job cutbacks leaving 27 million Europeans without work and economic growth at a standstill while monstropolous corporations such as Google, Amazon and Starbucks exploit tax havens to avoid contributing to the economies of countries whose people which put billions of pounds in their pockets every year. The institution that Brits are most proud of, the NHS, being threatened by privatization and thus the potential that another set of already-wealthy businessmen might stick their fingers in our pockets and clear us of our hard-earned wages on the back of something as indispensable and essential as healthcare. Relying on politicians for social change, the same politicians who themselves avoid tax and use the taxpayers money to fund unnecessary second homes and extravagant expenses. Governments tapping into the phones of political leaders to watch over their every move yet people such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange being condemned as criminals for exposing the corruption taking place in the dark recesses of the political world. Five million Brits on housing waiting lists while house prices continue to rocket up 10% a year. A national media which targets minority, often immigrant, communities and uses them as scapegoats to every problem that the United Kingdom faces and leaving the working classes fighting amongst themselves and believing that if we got out of the EU, put a cap on immigration all our problems would magically evaporate, and amidst all this fighting the people on top sit contentedly licking their cream. The same national media which also demonizes users of social benefits, a system established to support those put out of and unable to find work, but despite huge job losses, mass unemployment, the UK in billions of pounds of debt, the people who use this system are nonetheless branded as ‘lazy’ ‘scroungers’ who ‘sponge’ off tax-payer’s money, draining the country of its supposed unbounding riches. And it cannot be a coincidence that this demonization takes place during a time when job centre employees, who Jones claims to have interviewed himself, are pushed to cut individual’s benefits for the slightest and most inane reasons (turning up 2 minutes late, not being able to go to the job centre because you are out job-hunting) as each job centre battles against each other to save the most money and earn its branch a presumably minor reward. Rule, Britannia! These are all things we are aware of on some level, that we have read about in newspapers and been repudiated by. But Jones was able to frame all these different elements to give a startling and rather nauseating image of a Britain on its knees, and when juxtaposed with his evocation of a truly Great Britain whose working classes fought for social change, this image become suddenly deeply saddening.

 

But Jones stressed to the packed Blackie crowd that this wasn’t simply an event organised for people to come together, vent their frustrations and become nostalgic about a distant, ‘lost’ Britain. Together, as it always has been and always will be, the working classes can achieve change, because that change never does come from the top, but always comes from a battle-cry from the bottom. His was a message of solidarity, of organisation and being active in the face of the crises faced by Brits today. But not only Brits. Recalling a time when he visited Portugal in 2011, Jones pointed out that riots in that country took place within a week or two of the London anti-cuts protests of that year and that the demonstrations in both countries were calling for virtually the same things. Many of the issues we face today are international and must be addressed on that scale. How? Jones referred to the power of social media to engage and communicate, reminding his audience that social networks have the power to make revolution possible as shown by the example of Egypt and other African countries during the Arab Spring. Indeed Jones himself followed this event by jetting off to Barcelona and Madrid where the Spanish translation of his book has took off and clearly sympathises with the millions of unemployed Spanish struggling make a living and even survive in a country suffering from economic disaster.

spanish

Jones’ almost-listing of the multitude of problems faced by Europeans and indeed people all over the work may be deemed by his detractors as simply a means of inciting anger and his rather basic, idealistic response of solidarity and protest might be deemed inane and futile. After all, only four years ago thousands of students reacted to governmental intentions of hiking up prices in further education by demonstrating in London. The reaction of the government? To turn a blind eye, gleefully imagine the extra-revenue and increase Universities fees threefold. Is it then any wonder that there seems to be a generation of apathetic voters (or non-voters) who feel futile to creating significant change, who distrust politicians and have little or no optimism for their future? But Jones demonstrated that change can be provoked by the working classes, by the people who fight for their rights and what they believe in. And so if change is to happen, it will only be achieved through solidarity, organisation and demonstration. In a democracy, this is our right and it is this right that gives us optimism and hope for the future. Plus, as Jones puts it, the British working classes ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’—an empowering image and message which certainly resonated deeply with his applauding audience.

10350534_520802204696526_4315260563797588976_nWriting on the Wall Volunteers pose for a snap with Owen Jones

 The Writing on the Wall Festival continues tonight (21/05) with Spy in the Camp at the Bluecoat withPhil Scraton, Rob Evans and Janet Alder discussing deceit and betrayal by the police, unmasking espionage, phone-hacking and privacy violation.

It will then continue until the end of May. For the full listings of events, please click here.

Owen Jones will release his second book, The Establishment and How They Get Away With It comes out in September. To pre-order, please click here.

And finally thanks for reading!

 

 

 

Advertisements

Irvine Welsh at Oh Me Oh My, Liverpool

Bm9_73fCMAAzNRm

Sat in the impressive West Africa Room of Liverpool’s Oh Me Oh My and taking in the décor—‘vintage’, paint-splashed doors draped with fairy lights leaning against white walls, white wicker chairs, stately wooden tables decked with vases of flowers and simple candles—I was intrigued to imagine Welsh’s first impressions of the place. Known for his gritty, visceral, brutally honest novels, notably Trainspotting, Filth and Marabou Stork Nightmares, perhaps I was expecting a rock-god-esque, taciturn but exuberant sort of character to burst through the door gushing with the virile masculinity of many of his characters. Yet when he did arrive, strangely on-time, weirdly genuine, warm and humane, he was instead a man at ease, very laid back and approachable. Welsh seemed genuinely pleased to be in Liverpool and greeted all with a large smile. A smile only interrupted by a mildly excited rounding of the lips at the proposal of a sandwich and snacks-accompanied rest. As he headed off for some good scran and a moment’s pause, I was left to rue my misled preconceptions, but I could only be taken in by the man’s genuine and friendly demeanour.

Bm-ZRrIIgAAnK-F

And the venue too surprised, providing a peculiarly fitting background to what was a relaxed yet intriguing affair. Kevin Sampson (Awaydays, Stars are Stars, Powder) led the event and was instrumental to the fluidity and engaging nature of Welsh’s performance. Both men were slung back in armchairs below dimmed lights, legs stretched out intertwined, completely at home sipping their drinks. You would have thought they were just two guys having a chat down the boozer if it wasn’t for Sampson’s incisive questions which allowed Welsh to meander freely and openly through the evening’s many subjects. The chat ranged from his early influences to writerly routine (or lack of), Saturday Night Fever to the politicization of the word ‘c**t’ in the English Language and the power language has over individuals who fear such words. Sampson and Welsh’s openness was engrossing and loaded the gig with a personal, intimate feel. As too did Welsh’s humour, with the spurts of comedy filling in the gaps of the discussion as they do his novels, and laughter was the only sound uttered by a fixated audience during Welsh’s performance. Talking of Saturday Night Fever, Welsh declared that ‘if you don’t like that opening scene, then you haven’t got a pulse’, and when discussing books that had influenced him, he spoke frankly of being influenced by ‘bad books’; ‘If I read a good book, I’d think “Bastard!”, but when I found a bad book’, his face lit up, a beaming smile forming, ‘I’d think, “here we go! What a load of crap! I’m gonna take yer down!”’ The crowd loved this honesty and so did I. There were many moments like this that made me think “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel! That’s exactly how it is!”, a feeling Sampson claimed Trainspotting gave him the first time it was thrust into his hands by a friend in the early 90s and influenced the way he thought about literature. Often when an author is questioned about his or her influences, you get a standardised list of ‘classic’, ‘acceptable’ authors reeled off—Joyce, Dickens, Wodehouse, Woolf, Eliot, etc. But Welsh’s claim that it is also the badly-written novels that inspire, that make you think ‘d’ya know what? I could do better than this crap!’ is spot on and it’s refreshing to hear an author speak with such genuine openness. And it is this openness which is on-show in his works. Many critics claim that Welsh has an ‘impulse to shock’ and be, as Anthony Cummings recently called him, ‘full-throatedly yucky’ (I think what he means here is more gritty, gory and in-your-face explicit) but Welsh didn’t seem to be some sort of sadist who took a gruesome pleasure from creating brutal characters, but instead he struck me as a man who simply saw and accepted the world for what it was, in all its colours and glory. He suggested this himself when discussing his characters, explaining what he enjoyed about creating them was their absolute unpredictability. So demonstrating the benevolent qualities of his most grotesque characters by having them do something positive, or inversely having an inherently good character lower himself to get mixed up in some nasty business. Why? He didn’t explicitly say. But again, Welsh seems to have a desire to take in the whole spectrum of the human condition in his characters, to portray the complex nature of mankind and the real experiences of the working class man.

 

A Q&A followed, and continued in the relaxed tone set by Sampson. Lots of interesting questions were posed from the floor and the session was wrapped up by a former docker who thanked Welsh for giving coverage to and supporting the docker’s strikes in the late 1990s. A respectful round of applause sounded and Welsh went on to sign books for fans, with copies of his latest novel The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins (released last Thursday 1st May) on sale from Liverpool booksellers News From Nowhere and Peter Hooton of The Farm took to the decks to fill the air with British nostalgia of the 80s and 90s. Welsh’s amicable personality never wavered and he appeared tireless in greeting fans with hearty handshakes, personalised signatures and posing for photographs. After fulfilling his duties, he unwound chatting to Hooton and co and enjoying the feel-good music which gave an apt ending to a great evening enjoyed by all. Including Mr Welsh himself, it seems…

welsh2

welsh1

 

Thanks to all at Liverpool Writing on the Wall Festival for organising the event, to the staff at Oh Me Oh My, to Kevin Sampson and to Irvine Welsh for a superb evening!

The WoW festival continues throughout May, for more details click here. For a full brochure, click here.

Kevin Sampson’s latest novel, The Killing Pool, is on sale here.

Irvine Welsh’s latest novel The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins is on sale here.

81nDh2UVupL._SL1500_

Thanks for reading!