Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

The SOE's Greatest Hits

The Special Operations Executive was set up in July 1940 in response to Winston Churchill's call to "set Europe ablaze". A band of secret agents trained for sabotage and assassination, this was a massive case of "poachers turned gamekeepers", or rather the other way round, as the British Empire was now copying the very resistance movements that had sprung up to oppose it.

Lieutenant-Colonel Colin Gubbins had fought against the IRA in the Irish War of Independence, and he had used his experience to set up the Auxiliary Forces, who would have fought a guerrilla war against the Nazis if Britain had been invaded in 1940. He proposed a force to carry out "terrorist acts against traitors and German leaders". The government took him up on his idea and he set to work organising "movements in every occupied territory comparable to the Sinn Fein movement in Ireland".The set up base in a number of buildings on Baker Street in London.

Not everyone appreciated this move into "ungentlemanly warfare". 'Bomber' Harris, of all people, initially refused to allow the RAF to carry it's agents as he regarded assassins in plain clothes as against the rules of war. His preferred method of fighting was obliterating entire cities from the air.

7. The Swedish Steel
Operation Rubble January 1941

SS Elisabeth Bakke
Swedish steel and heavy engineering was vital to both sides in the Second World War. However the fall of Denmark and Norway cut off Britain from Sweden. France had ordered several thousand tons of iron, steel, machine tools and ball bearings from Sweden before it fell, and whilst the order was taken up by Britain, the problem was getting the goods to the UK. There were also 26 Norwegian merchant ships in Swedish waters, and which belonged to the Norwegian government-in-exile, but were trapped too. The government desperately wanted to get is hands on those Swedish balls, so the SOE was put on the case.

The plan was for Norwegian volunteers, helped by the survivors of two Royal Navy destroyers, who had made their way to Sweden after their ships were sunk in Norway, to sail them back to Britain. A trial run had discovered that the alleged German minefields in the Skagerak were a bluff, and so in January 1941 they were ready to go with four ships carrying steel and a tanker in ballast. The vessels were modified to make them easier to scuttle of things went wrong, and the wheel houses were reinforced with concrete to give some protection to the crew.

SS Tai Shan
Snow covered their escape, and kept German aircraft grounded for the morning. When they were finally spotted, the German saw the Norwegian flags and assumed they were friendly. Eventually the penny dropped and the last two vessels were attacked with bombs and machine guns, killing the captain of the tanker. However by this time they had cleared Swedish waters and the Royal Navy was able to come to their assistance and escort them to Orkney.

Operation Rubble had been an unqualified success. One million pounds worth of Swedish steel, and the same value of merchant ship, had been saved from the Germans and delivered to Britain.

The Gay Viking
Rubble was followed by Operation Performance in 1942, when ten ships tried to break out. Five had to be scuttled, one after taking heavy damage, two returned to port in Sweden, but three made it to the UK. The Swedes weren't pleased and no more ships were allowed to get away. However the war effort still needed Swedish ball bearings, so another plan was hatched, this time to use fast Royal Navy Motor Gun Boats to take off the cargoes of the two ships marooned after Performance.

Appropriately perhaps for such a queer mission, one of the MGBs was called Gay Viking.

6. Maid Honour Force
Operation Postmaster 14 January 1942

SS Duchessa d'Aosta
The island of Fernando Po, now called by it's real name Bioko again, lies off the coast of West Africa. During the Second World War it was owned by Spain.  Spain was fascist, but neutral, and so regular British forces couldn't go there. Not so the SOE, who were very interested in the Italian freighter Duchessa d'Aosta, which they feared could be used to send intelligence on shipping movements.

By chance there was a small party patrolling west Africa, in a trawler called Maid Honour, searching for any secret German U-boat bases up African rivers. The SOE hatched a plan to use the Maid Honour force to cut out the vessel. The crew of the Axis vessels were apparently all pretty miserable, and most of them had caught VD, so the cover story would be that they had mutinied and, by chance, had bumped into the Royal Navy. The mission was incredibly sensitive politically. There must be no evidence left that Britain was involved. 

The SOE started planning, and they were helped by catching the Spanish governor with his native mistress, after which he stopped being suspicious of their motives and was very helpful. The wife of the chief electrician was bribed with a diamond necklace, and she ensured the worker on duty would cut the power when necessary.

The plan was for the Italian officers, and those of two smaller German ships, to be lured ashore with the offer of a party, with free booze and the best of the local ladies of the night, whilst the assault team stole into the harbour, blew the anchor chains, coshed any crew that resisted, and towed the vessels out to sea to meet a Royal Navy corvette, who would take them off their hands in international waters.

And that is exactly what happened. As far as the citizens of Fernando Po were concerned, there was a bang in the middle of the night, the town's lights went off, and when they turned them on again the Italian and German ships were gone. The only casualty was a ship's cat who had been sleeping in the anchor locker.

The Calcutta Light Horse in 1944
So successful was the operation that SOE effectively repeated it in March 1943 with Operation Ehrenfels in Portuguese Goa, but this time the operation was rather less James Bond and rather more Dad's Army. Instead of elite raiding forces, the assault team was made up of middle aged civilian of a unit called The Calcutta Light Horse, that had last seen action in the Boer War and was now little more than a social club.
Creek. This time the target was the German freighter the

Again, the ruse of a free party ashore worked and the Calcutta Light Horse snuck aboard, sank the ship with explosives and escaped with no serious injuries. Again everyone knew who'd done it, but the secret was kept until 1978.

5. The Gorgopotamos Viaduct
Operation Harling November 1942

SOE and Andartes
The SOE rarely worked alone. Usually they linked up with local resistance groups, providing weapons, communications and expertise to help their struggle. In Greece they were hampered by rivalry between the National Republic Greek League (Εθνικός Δημοκρατικός Ελληνικός Σύνδεσμος or EDAS) and the much larger communist Greek People's Liberation Army (Ελληνικός Λαϊκός Απελευθερωτικός Στρατός or ELAS). 

However the Greeks weren't the only ones failing to get along. MI6 and the SOE both had separate Greek missions, and their failure to cooperate delayed operation in Greece.

Eventually a small SOE team was airdropped into Greece, carrying the entire Middle Eastern supply
The aftermath
of plastic explosives, and managed to get the two guerrilla groups to work. Their target was a vital bridge on the main Thessaloniki to Athens railway. 

Andartes, armed with British hand grenades, attacked the Italian bunkers guarding the bridge whilst the SOE explosive experts set their charges on the steel pillars. A train carrying Italian troops was stopped by the Greek covering party before they could influence the battle. 

It had all gone well and hopes were high for more cooperation between EDAS and ELAS in future. However it was not to be. Within weeks the two groups were shooting each other and Greece was sliding towards civil war.

4. The abduction of General Kreipe, April 1944

In Crete resistance to the Nazis started as soon as the first German paratroopers landed in May 1941, with andartes fighting alongside British and Commonwealth troops. When British troops left the island, the guerrillas fought on from the hills. The SOE were sent to assist and they were joined by Allied soldiers left behind during the evacuation and even escaped Russian POWs.

When Italy signed an armistice in September 1943 the Germans occupied the whole of the island and the Italians were interned. General Angelica Carta, who had not gone in for the wholesale massacres practised by the Germans, didn't fancy this much, so he made contact with SOE agent Patrick Leigh Fermor, who arranged for the General to be smuggled off the island by the Royal Navy. This gave the SOE man an idea, and with fellow agent Bill Stanley Moss he returned to Crete with a  plan to take a German general next.

One dark night the two SOE men dressed as German police and stopped the car of General Heinrish Kreipe as he returned to his villa and commandeered his car. With Fermor wearing the General's hat in the back seat Moss was able to drive through 22 German roadblocks before they abandoned the vehicle and made their getaway.

The German garrison turned out in force once they realised Kriepe was missing, but with the help of the Cretan Resistance the party made an escape across Mount Ida and met up with a Royal Navy landing party. Once his staff finally realised Kreipe wasn't coming back they responded by - drinking a toast, as they'd never liked him much.

3. Heavy Water
Operation Gunnerside October 1942

The fall of France left Hitler with all the ingredients he needed to make an atomic bomb: Europe's only cyclotron in France, uranium mines in Belgium, and Heavy Water in Norway.

Fortunately Hitler regarded quantum mechanics as 'Jewish science' and the allies were always ahead of the Germans in the race for the atomic bomb. Knowing how to make one themselves, they also knew how to stop the Nazis making one. Top of their list was stopping the Heavy Water needed to moderate a nuclear reactor getting to Germany.

The SOE had sent a team to stake out the Norwegian plant, called Operation Swallow. The first attack was made by paratroopers in gliders. It failed disastrously, so the SOE decided to do the job themselves. A team of four Norwegians were parachuted in.

The operation was mainly an exercise in survival in arctic conditions. Armed with intelligence from a
spy in the plant, they attacked by stealth. When a bridge over a river was found to be guarded they crossed undetected via an underwater ice bridge.

The Gunnerside Team
The explosion in the bowels of the factory was initially ignored by the Germans, but when they eventually realised what had happened 12,000 soldiers turned out to search for the SOE agents, but the team managed to make a clean getaway, skiing 250 miles to neutral Sweden. They were back in Britain by the end of the month.

Swallow was still out on the plateau though, and one of the team, Claus Helberg, bumped into three German skiers who pursued him. He out ran two and killed the third in a gun battle. That wasn't the end of his adventures and not long afterwards he found himself on a bus taking him to a concentration camp. Despite a broken arm he was able to jump off and escape.

The SOE later evaluated the operation as their most successful sabotage of the war.

2. The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich
Operation Anthropoid June 1942

Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis
Heydrich was one of the most ruthless of all the Nazis, but also one of the least mad. Put in charge of the Final Solution in Europe he was probably responsible for the deaths of two million civilians.

The task of assassinating him was given to seven members of the Free Czech army operating in England. The were parachuted into Czechoslovakia by the in June 1942, and set about planning the hit. Ruling out an attack on his train or an ambush in the woods, the team opted for the dangerous option of an attack in the middle of Prague.

Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis were the agents chosen for the job. At 10:30AM on 27 May 1942
Heydrich's car
Heydrich set out for his daily commute to Prague Castle. Too impatient to wait for a police escort, Heydrich and his driver were alone. Gabcik stepped out into the road and tried to shoot Heydrich with his Sten Gun, but British technology failed hum and the gun jammed. Heydrich tried to shoot back, but his German gun didn't work any better. Gabcik threw a grenade and ran, pursued by Heydrich's driver, who the SOE men shot with their American pistols.

The SOE team were convinced the attack had failed, but in fact Heydrich had been wounded. The Nazis didn't trust a local Doctor to operate on him, so Himmler sent his own team of surgeons. However, either because of infection in the wound, or because Heydrich had become a rival to Himmler, the Reichprotector died.

The German's reprisal were brutal, including the complete destruction of two villages, and made the SOE wary of assassinating any other senior Nazis. Despite this the death of the ruthless, but resourceful, Heydrich probably ultimately saved lived.

7. The French Connection
Station F May 1941 to August 1944

France was the main target of SOE operations. 480 agents, including 39 women, and 10,000 tons of gear, were sent to help the Resistance. But it was also the most difficult country to operate in, with the average life expectancy of an SOE radio operator was six weeks, and overall one in four of the French section were lost.

The SOE used a variety of techniques: from blowing up railway lines to planting fake rats filled with explosives, which would explode when the driver or fireman of a locomotive tried to dispose of the body by throwing it into the engine's firebox. Other tactics were more sublte. Trains would have their axle grease removed or their travel plans switched so they ended up hundreds of miles from where they were supposed to be, without anyone even knowing the SOE had been involved.

The greatest success in France was on D Day, when sabotage operations destroyed another 52 locomotives and cut the railway in 500 places in the 24 hours before the landing. The SS Das Reich Panzer Division, based in the South of France, should have been able to get to Normandy in a day. Instead a series of attacks by the SOE and the Resistance lengthened the journey to nearly two weeks. They missed the main battle and ended up being surrounded and destroyed by the American Army.

By the end of the war, Station F had destroyed more trains and locomotives in France than the entire Allied air force had managed. According to Eisenhower the SOE played a "very considerable part in our complete and final victory


The SOE was officially dissolved in January 1946. However it lived on in a series of books and films: Operations Postmaster and Creek were combined into the 1980 film The Sea Wolves, elements of Operation Harling inspired 1961s The Guns of Naverone, Moss and Fermor wrote books about their war, as did George Psychoundakis of the Cretan Resistance, and Moss's book, Ill Met By Moonlight, became a film in 1957 in with Dirk Bogart playing Fermor, Operation Gunnerside became the 1965 film The Heroes of the Telemark whilst Operation Anthropoid has been filmed no less than ten times, most recently in 2016.

The main fictional legacy of the SOE, and its secret agents with unusual weapons and a license to kill, is of course James Bond. However, given the original inspiration of the organisation, the film that you should really watch to understand how a resistance group can defeat enemy occupation using unconventional tactics, is Michael Collins.


Ill Met By Moonlight by W Stanley Moss
Churchill's Secret Warriors by Damien Lewis 
Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45 by Max Hastings
Sabotage and Subversion: The SOE and OSS at War by Ian Dear 
The use and effectiveness of sabotage as a means of unconventional warfare -  an historical perspective by Captain Howard L Douthit III

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Harold Porter: A Real Dunkirk Hero

Porter is an uncommon enough surname that I'm always interested in where we turn up in history. It's doubly interesting when we turn up in a bit of history I'm particularly interested in.

Christopher Nolan's film Dunkirk renewed my curiosity about the crucial events of May and June 1940, when the British Expeditionary Force found itself outmanoeuvred the German Army and had to fight, with occasional help from the French and Belgians, a tenacious defence against Hitler's panzers.

King and Doyle take on Rommel
It's a terrifically emotive bit of history. The British Army fought as hard, and as well, as it did in any other theatre of the war.. At Arras, a British armoured counter-attack caught Rommel by surprise. Two British Matildas went on a rampage where they took out a German supply convoy, destroyed five panzers, squashed a battery of anti-tank guns, and even came out best in a duel with one of Rommel's feared 88mm guns. Had they been German Sven Hessel would probably have written an entire trilogy about them. Alas Major King and Sergeant Doyle's exploits are almost forgotten.

However what is remembered most is the armada of little boats that rescued the soldiers from the beaches, and rightly so. In Nolan's film we have the story of Mark Rylance's Mr Dawson, who takes his day cruiser Moonstone to France and back. As he is leaving, his son's friend George, played by Barry Keoghan, jumps aboard. We learn that George dreams of one day doing something important enough to feature in the local paper, something that, we suspect, at the time seems about as likely as the BEF escaping Hitler's tanks.

George doesn't return, but he does get into the paper. He's a fictional character, as is everyone in the
film, but Nolan's story is based on real events, and the person who's story most matches George's, is a Porter; Harold Graham Porter.

Harold was eighteen in 1940. The son of a fisherman from Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, he had just finished school. His health had not been good, and probably because of that he had done badly at schol. He felt a failure. Shortly before he finished, he told his father he intended to do something, one day, that would make his school proud of him.

Like most people in Britain, Harold would have had no idea how dire the situation had become across the Channel. Belgium had surrenedered, and France was unlikely to last much longer. The 400,000 soldiers of the BEF, almost all of Britain's trained soldiers, need to get home, or Britain would be next. The task of rescuing them fell to Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsey.

The operation was put together in a matter of days, and Ramsey rapidly saw the limiting factor was getting the troops off the beach and the mole and onto the destroyers, ferries, freighters and fishing boats that would take them home. That's where the little boats like Moonstone came in. Able to operate in shallow water, they could go inshore and bring the soldiers out to the bigger ships. Fortunately, a few days earlier, the Royal Navy had compiled a list of all the small ships available to help. Ramsey ordered the job of rounding them up to begin.

But it wasn't just middle class pleasure boats that made the trip to France, working vessels went too. Amongst them was a flotilla of cockle boats from Leigh: the Letitia, the Endeavour, the Resolute, the Reliant, the Defender and the Renown.

Renoun had been built in 1928, and belonged to the Osbourne family. The crew on the day consisted of two fishermen, Frank and Leslie Osbourne, a young seaman from the Merchant Navy, Harry Noakes, and Harold.

31 May had been a difficult day for the evacuation. A heavy swell had stopped the smaller boats getting to the beach for part of the day. The minesweeper Devonia had been beached and abandoned after being hit by bombs, but it was actually the French that taken the heaviest losses that day: the destroyer Sirocco had been damaged by a German E-boat and then sunk by aircraft, at a cost of 180 of her crew and 600 soldiers. The French merchant marine had lost the trawlers St Achilleus, Puissant, Costaud and Adjader and the steamers Ain El Turk and Cote D'Azur.

However, just as dusk fell Rear Admiral William Wake-Walker, in charge of shipping off Dunkirk looked out to sea and "saw for the first time that strange procession of craft of all kinds that has become famous. Tugs towing dinghies, lifeboats and all manner of pulling boats, small motor yachts, motor launches, drifters, Dutch schoots, Thames barges, fishing boats [and] pleasure steamers." Amongst them were the Leigh cockle boats.

The sea was still too rough for them to go onto the beach, so instead they operated a shuttle service from the end of the mole. As the little vessels made their way out for the third time, a shell burst between them. Never-the-less, they turned round and went back a fourth time.

Endeavour today
Their last run finished at about a quarter past one in the morning. Each cockle boat had probably rescued about a thousand men each.

It had been a long day for the boats, and the strain was too much for the Renoun's engine, which started to fail. The crew signalled to Letita to take them in tow. Letita was being towed herself by a tug, and soon the Renoun was bobbing along behind her, on a ten yard rope, heading back to England.

It was pitch dark in the Channel and the boats were unable to see each other. About thirty five minutes had gone by since the Renoun had been taken in tow, and everyone was starting to wind down after the excitement of the day. Suddenly there was a huge explosion. Splinters of wood rained down on the deck of the Letita and the tow rope went slack. The Renoun had gone. Most likely she had hit a drifting sea mine, and the crew probably killed instantly.

A few days later Harold's parents received a letter. It said that their son had "died doing his duty ... helping to evacuate troops from the coast of Belgium" and added that he had "done well". His parents were sad for their lost, but not only were they proud of their son, but they knew that he had died doing something that would have made him proud of himself, and that he had achieved his dream of making his school proud of him.


Operation Dynamo was expected to rescue 40,000 men, but in the end over 338,000 made it back across the Channel.

Admiral Ramsey was in charge at Dover for two years. He was then put in charge of organising the invasion of North Africa in 1942, Operation Torch, and Sicily in 1943, Operation Husky, before being given the biggest job of his life, Operation Overlord, or D-Day. Eisenhower said he was the only man who could have done it. He never lived to see the end of the war he did so much to win, dying in a plane crash in January 1945.

There is a memorial to Harold Porter, and the other cockle fishermen who died, in St Clements churchyard, Leigh-on-Sea.

The Osbourne family still fishes for cockles there today.


Dunkirk: Fight To The Last Man by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Woodsmoke and Wild Garlic

This is my diary describing my arrival at the protests against Manchester Airport's Second Runway.

Sunday 23rd March 1997

Pack my tent into my rucksack, put on my combat jacket and head off to Manchester. Yesterday two van loads of riot police arrived whilst myself and half a dozen others were leafleting a BP station in Cosby so I'm in the mood for a bot of radical direct action. The police were actually very nice. The weekend traffic to Southport had backed up towards Liverpool and someone had seen us handing out our leaflets. The message had been passed on to the police as 'Greenpeace are blocking the road'.

Greenpeace's campaign is about stopping oil drilling in the wilderness of the Atlantic Frontier, a campaign set to run over the summer to build up to the Kyoto Conference on climate change at the end of the year. Greenpeace want an end to the supply of new oil in order to prevent global warming, at Manchester Airport we will be opposing the fastest growing users of fossil fuels - aeroplanes.

However Manchester Airport's PR department has been putting out the story that 50,000 jobs will be created by the project, and as I arrive at Piccadilly Station and make my way to the bus station I see why a line like that will sell here. Despite my own ragged appearance, I am approached by beggars as I walk, and some of the city's homeless can be seen sitting in the sun in Piccadilly Gardens, surrounded by the concrete buildings, noise and pollution of the city. By comparison with the life of this urban underclass, the prospect of living in a makeshift camp in the middle of the wilderness is highly desirable. Poverty isn't just a lack of money or housing, it is being cut off from the natural world that should be our common heritage.

I end up on the slow bus to the airport, which winds its way through grey suburbs to the main entrance to the current site, where I leap out. I am in a different world to the concrete and brick jungles I have passed through. This is a land of  verdant hedgerows, stone walls and black and white houses set in lush gardens. Away from the main road I walk along country lanes. Immediately I see the first red and white 'No Runway Two' signs. These people evidently are doing well for themselves and don't need the dubious employment prospects beign offered by the airport.

I meet my first eco-warriors on the lane just before I get  to the site. These are Adrian, a tall young man with a pronounced West Country accent, and a young woman who is very well spoken and truns out to be local. They lead me to the main entrance to the site, a gap in the hedge by the main road. A few years away is the main entrance for the contractor's vehicles. I can see the start of the fence that was started earlier in the week, and which caused the first confrontations with the security guards employed by the construction company.

Adrian leads me up the grass slope towards the woodland that crowns the heights. All the trees are bare of leaves, and the tree houses, 'twigloos', can be seen looking like overgrown birds nests of plastic and wood.From the two occupied trees up ahead a banner reading "No Runway Two' hangs defiantly. This is Flywood. A shallow ditch and barbed wire fence surrounds the camp as a defence against dawn raids. A more effective defence is the clinging mud that surrounds the entire camp. Two planks cross this and lead to a couple of rough benders and a central fire pit. A couple of crusty characters are sitting in a bender drinking cider. Other benders on the edge of the camp appear to service the tree houses and tunnels. One of the tunnellers emerges as I enter, caked in red clay, with his head torch like a third eye.

I am greeted cordially and I explain I'm here to stay and ask where people are needed. I an told that a camp called Wild Garlic has just been set up and needs people. I ask for directions and are given some meaningless stuff about avoiding Cliff Richard, going through Zion Tree and past Bollin Bay, and I'm pointed vaguely in the direction of the current runway.

I slither off over the muddy grass and eventually come across a sign saying "Sir Cliff Richard OBE Vegan Revolution" and what appears to be a well fortified camp. Following the directions I was given I follow the edge of the woods and eventually come to a cheerful sign saying "Welcome to Zion Tree" which is at the top of a slippery, muddy slope through the trees. Struggling under the weight of my rucksack I slowly work my way down the hill and come out into the Bollin valley itself. A broad water meadow completely hidden from the surrounding fields, where the river meanders through the wooded slopes. A small copse by the water's edge contains an empty bender. Multi coloured ribbons are tied to the leafless branches.

To reach Wild Garlic I have to cross the Bollin. It turns out there are two ways of doing this:by a bridge made of planks and scafolding poles, or a rope walkway. Choosing the easier route this time I cross and scramble up the slope towards the camp. Separated from the grass by a channel of water, the camp is a wooded hillside covered by, of course, wild garlic. The trees appear to be a mixtures od ash and birch, and several tree houses are in in the process of being constructed.

The camp itself is reached by a rickety wooden bridge over the stagnant and filthy water. On the other side is a large, communal bender and two smaller ones, for cooking and tool storage. Various eco-warrior types can be seen moving around and doing things ....

Alas it ends there. After that I was too busy tunnelling to write ...

Friday, 24 March 2017

Top Five Misunderstood Songs

What do songs mean?

That's a more difficult question than it sounds. The process of creation is complex, and the writer doesn't always know himself. Lou reed wrote Perfect Day after a walk in Central Park, and that's what he thought it was about. When other people heard it they thought he was writing about drug addiction, and he seemed to believe them. Mike Oldfield wrote Moonlight Shadow shortly after the death of John Lennon, but claimed that wasn't what the song was about. Was he right? Who knows.

However sometimes it is quite clear what the song is not about, and sometimes it's also quite clear the people requesting it really don't get it. So here are my top five misunderstood songs.

Imagine by John Lennon

Is Imagine misunderstood? Surely everyone gets that it's John Lennon's atheist hymn to a more humane world?

Well, yes, but you wonder if he actually got that when he made the video. That really is the ex-Beatle playing a $40,000 piano in his $2 million dollar mansion whilst singing "Imagine no possessions". I wonder if he could?

However Imagine gets on the list because it is our most requested song at funerals.

Now if you actually are a humanist that's all very well and good, although personally I'd go for Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life. However as they're about 2% of the population, it isn't humanists who are making Imagine popular. Instead it's people who are nominally Christian sending dear old Aunty Nora's coffin through the curtain to Lennon singing "Imagine there's no heaven."

Perhaps not a bad little thought experiment to carry out, but there's a time and a place for this, surely?

Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen

A patriotic American song, often sung by patriotic Americans, who only know the chorus. This is a pity because it's actually a pretty good song, if only you listen to the lyrics.

"Got in a little hometown jam, So they put a rifle in my hand, Sent me off to a foreign land, To go and kill the yellow man" goes the second verse, which should give you an indication this was no simple Redneck hymn.

However that doesn't stop it being your number one singalong classic for 'Make America Great Again' voters. Which, of course, leads to the age old discussion of whether this makes The Boss a hero or a zero. I mean, it's one thing to write an anti-war song that gets banned from the TV, becomes a smash hit and gets sung by half a million hippies at Woodstock (take a bow Country Joe). But to write to an anti-war song that gets sung by Trump voters??!?

As Spinal Tap said, there's a fine line between genius and stupid.

Puff the Magic Dragon by Pete, Paul and Mary

1963 and the sixties were just starting to light up. Everyone was either smoking pot or writing songs about it.

Everyone except Peter Yarrow. Instead Yarrow decided to use a poem, written by a friend of an old housemate, to tell the story of an ageless dragon, left behind when the boy he plays with grows up. It's sad, it's poignant, everyone knows the words, and it's not about drugs.

The problem was nobody believed it wasn't about weed. Within twelve months of the song appearing Newsweek were reporting as fact that the boy's name, 'Jackie Paper', was a reference to rizlas, 'puff' meant smoking, dragon really meant "draggin'", 'autumn mist' meant clouds of smoke, 'Hanah Lea' meant a place in Hawaii marijuana apparently grows really well etc

Yarrow has now spent more than half a century denying this, and not from any puritanical motives. If he wanted to write a song about drugs, he says, I bloomin' well would. Meanwhile, stop corrupting a perfectly innocent song that children love.

Indeed, he appears to be so unrelaxed about the issue that it pretty much proves he isn't on pot.

The One I Love by REM

Romantic songs probably deserve their own category, although usually the problem is lyrics being misheard rather than misinterpreted. Jimi Hendrix not singing "Excuse me while I kiss this guy" has inspired a website.

However this song does achieve a special status, owing to the number of people who request it for their girlfriends in clubs, without actually realising what it's really about.

You should always try to listen to REM lyrics, although that can be quite a challenge. Having spent a lifetime around cars, guns and heavy metal bands, I expect that by the time I retire I won't be able to understand even Brian Blessed without subtitles. And if I want to imagine what this will be like, I just try to make out the lyrics of Radio Free Europe.

The One I Love though, can just about be understood by anyone with normal ears, so there isn't really an excuse for dedicating a song to your True Love that refers to "A simple prop to occupy my time", and where the woman in the last verse is clearly not the same one as in the first.

However, unlike the other entries in this blog, I very much suspect that the lyrics of this song were written to be misinterpreted, and that's it's REM having the last laugh here.

Summer of 69 by Bryan Adams

There are lots of songs that are believed to be really dirty, but in fact aren't. Madonna's Like a Virgin being an example, which has been misunderstood ever since Pulp Fiction came out. However here we have a song that is in fact really dirty, but nobody realises.

Adams came up with a bit of catchy soft rock nostalgia here. Pretty much every thinks the '69' refers to 1969, the year of the moon landings, Woodstock and the end of the hippy dream. Who wouldn't want to remember 1969? The fact that Adams was ten when Country Joe was raggin' at Max Yasgur's farm is, presumably, considered a bit of artistic license.

However Adams has made clear that this is not so. It is about the band he put together at High School, and 'Jimmy' who 'quit' and 'Jody' who 'got married' were real people. The '69' was, and he has stated this on the record, a reference to the quantity and quality of sex they were all having at the time. For some reason though this interpretation hasn't really taken off. Maybe it's the lumberjack shirt?

So some people write clean songs that people think are dirty, some people write dirty songs that sound as if they're clean. Bryan Adams writes a dirty song that sounds dirty, and everyone thinks it's about the Beatles splitting up.

Once again, it's that fine line.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

The Language of Money

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.
This is how George Orwell described the new language that Big Brother was creating in 1984,  a language that would make it impossible for the citizens of Oceania to ever again discuss the old freedoms that they had once enjoyed.

In the world of 'Brexit means Brexit' and 'alternative facts' it certainly seems to be coming true. However in another realm of human existence it already has come true, and most of us never even noticed.


When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister she ushered in a radical new economic doctrine,
monetarism. From now on the only interactions that mattered were financial ones. Profits were more important than people and money was to be set free to invade very part of our lives.

It was new theory, that had been gestating since just after the Second World War, and which had recently been trialed in Chile. That had required tanks and torture chambers, but the revolution in the UK, and in America the next year, was more peaceful.

So why didn't we resist? I think because we were lost for words.

"Moneydoesn't talk, it swears"*

Think about these words; value, wealth, debt. Do they have clear meanings?

Do you 'value' a friendship in the same way you 'value' your shares? Clearly not, but how do you tell which meaning is which? Do you 'value' your record collection like your friends, or your shares? How about your house, or your lover? Would you sell, or buy, either? Perhaps I'd better not ask.

Then what do we mean by 'wealth'? Is it just the collective monetary value of things, or does it have a broader meaning? When Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, he did not the mean the same thing as John Ruskin, when he wrote 'There is no wealth but life'? But that was then, what about now?

Finally there's 'debt'. We have a national debt, prisoners pay their debt to society, and we owe a debt to our parents. The national debt usually means what we owe the banks, not what we owe those who died fighting fascism. However it's not just in Monopoly that you can buy your way out of jail, and you can certainly end up in jail if you don't pay your debts, although we do generally try to pretend this isn't the case. But what about the debt to our parents, assuming they were good parents that is. If they were bad parents we'd be talking about their debt to you. Either way, can this ever be turned into money?

The parents of nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton appeared to think so. On his twentifirst birthday his father presented him with a bill for all the costs incurred in bringing him up, including the fee to the Doctor who delivered him. Seton paid up, and never spoke to his dad again. No birthday cards, Sunday visits or worrying about which care home to put him in, he had paid his debt and that was that.

Seton may well be the exception that proves the rule, but it still appears that, like those citizens of Oceania, we have completely lost the vocabulary to talk about interactions in anything other than monetary terms.


This becomes a major problem when we talk about resources we hold in common, particularly Nature.  

When we value Nature, what do we mean? We may say you can't put a price on a beautiful view, or clean air, but it can certainly increase the value of your house. Both a Thatcherite and an environmentalist would no doubt consider The Lake District to be part of the wealth of the nation, although only one would consider selling it off. 

Our current model of economics considers natural resources a free gift from Nature. The only argument is whether their value should be measured by what it takes to get them out of the ground, or what someone is prepared to pay for them. That's like valuing your lover by how much you spent wooing her, or how much you can pimp her for after dark. 

But then if we lack words that allow us to distinguish the bonds that bind us through love and affection, from those of work and commerce, this debate become difficult, to say the least.

That's why when I write these blogs, I sometimes end up sounding like a mystical old hippy. If I say the land is not just valuable, but sacred, you know quite clearly that I will not exchange it for money. If I say my connection with nature is spiritual, you know it is different to my relationship with my bank balance.

Perhaps we need a new language, one that can't be mistaken for the language of money. Let's recognise this Newspeak for what it is, and talk about Nature in words our ancestors would recognise. 

Let's not speak the language of money, but of the trees.

* Bob Dylan It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) 

Further Reading

David Graeber Debt The First 5000 Years 
J B Foster, B Clark, R York The Ecogical Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth

Friday, 3 March 2017

Communication Management Units: America's Political Prisons

He had sat silent against the wall, jostled by dirty bodies, too preoccupied by fear and the pain in his belly to take much interest in his surroundings, but still noticing the astonishing difference in demeanour between the Party prisoners and the others. The Party prisoners were always silent and terrified, but the ordinary criminals seemed to care nothing for anybody ... The positions of trust were given only to the common criminals, especially the gangsters and the murderers, who formed a sort of aristocracy. All the dirty jobs were done by the politicals.
George Orwell 1984
The history of prisons is not what most people think it is.

Until modern times they were for holding the accused before trial. Then they were for debtors, before finally becoming places where criminals could 'pay their debt to society'. Previously punishment had been public and painful, now it was private and, physically at least, painless. But as well as debtors and criminals, prisons were also used to house the politically undesirable.

One of the reason the use of the stocks fell out of favour in England was that Luddites and other radicals could use them as pulpits to preach their message, and the general populace were more likely to listen than throw things. Prisons kept the radicals away from the exploited masses. Orwell, a journalist as well as an author, knew this. He also knew full well how the political prisoners were treated differently to the ordinary lags.


There is a prison system within a prison system in America called Communication Management

In CMUs the inmate's contact with the outside world is greatly restricted. Regular prisoners are allowed 56 hours a month of visits. In the high security Supermax prisons, where the most dangerous and violent prisoners are held, this is 35 hours a month. The CMUs allow just a single, one hour visit each week, and this is behind glass. Ordinary prisoners are allowed five hours of phone calls a month. In the CMUs it is just fifteen minutes a week, and these need to be in office hours and book more than a week ahead. Letters, usually unrestricted in prisons, are limited and read first by the authorities.


These units are not for the most dangerous, or badly behaved criminals. They go to the Supermaxes. Nor are they for the people who murder abortion doctors or commit their crimes in pursuit of their sick, far right ideology. They stay in mainstream prisons, where their first First Amendment rights to free speech are respected. CMU are almost exclusively for Islamists, and those convicted of crimes in pursuit of environmental or animal rights campaigns.

In other words what decides who goes in a CMU is their religion or their political beliefs.


CMUs are not designed to rehabilitate the prisoners. How could they be when all experience says that prisoners benefit from contact with the outside world? Hugging your wife or holding your baby makes prisoners want get out and stay straight.

We can probably all guess why the Muslims are in CMUs. But what's with the environmentalists?
ELF activist and former CMU inmate Daniel McGown

One theory is that is is just to make the CMUs appear more ethnically mixed. In the same way that white dominated companies might employ a black bouncer on the door to appear diverse, the eco-warriors make the CMUs a bit whiter.

However that doesn't explain why it's only environmentalists and animal rights activists who get sent there. Anti-abortionists are just as white as environmentalists, and the far right tend not to have too many blacks or Muslims amongst their number.

The only conclusion is that a deliberate choice has been made to put the Greens in. Extreme racists and anti-abortionists are a challenge for law enforcement officers, but they are not a threat to the ruling political ideology. Or to corporate profits. We are.

Indeed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which many of those in CMUs have been convicted under, specifically defines 'terrorism' as an act causing "loss of any property", including profits.

So far these units are only on the other side of the pond, but what happend in the USA tends to happen here before too long. We should all of us be worried about CMUs.


Michel Foucalt Discipline and Punish
E P Thompson The Making of the English Working Class
Will Potter Green is the New Red

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

So Where Did It All Go Wrong?

This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.
Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Pan Books, London, 1979
So where did it all start to go wrong?

With the exception of the most wildly optimistic Bright Green, most environmentalists believe what passes for Western Civilisation made a disastrous wrong turn some time in the past. This has resulted in us facing, at the very least, a Sixth Great Extinction, and at the very worst our own extinction.

But when did we go wrong? Perhaps not as far back as Douglas Adams, writing at the end of the 'Decade of the Environment' suggests, but perhaps not.

So when exactly did we go wrong? When did we have alternatives?

The combination of Trump and Brexit looks set to see a bonfire of environmental legislation, but we were hardly heading for paradise in 2015. The War on Terror has provided a huge distraction from more pressing issues, whilst Dubya's decision to ditch the Kyoto Treaty set progress on climate change back by fifteen years. However for my first junction I will choose:

1989 The Fall of the Berlin Wall

The end of communism in Eastern Europe was a moment of optimism. A system that had promised paradise on earth, but which had delivered only poverty and oppression, had fallen. Democracy had triumphed, and with it capitalism, although rather fewer celebrated that.

The subsequent closure of polluting communist factories led to the only significant drop in European carbon dioxide emissions since industrialisation has begun. Things looked good, but it wasn't to be all good news.

Capitalism in the third quarter of the twentieth century had been different to the rest of its history. Now it wasn't enough to just make the rich richer, the poor had to also be kept happy enough not to want to vote in the dreaded communists. In the UK we got a National Health Service and in the US factor workers got complementary health insurance. Trade unions were tolerated, a labour policy tried to keep full employment, and when Rachel Carson and others revealed the extent of the damage to Nature caused by industrial pollution, a raft of government bodies were created to try to deal with the problem.

But with the red threat gone, capitalism had no need to compromise with anyone any more.

When George Bush Senior went to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 he basically said no to any steps to deal with any of the problems discussed.

At the same time intelligence agencies, with time on their hands now, turned their well honed skills on Green campaigners. So effective was this that when the War on Terror gave them a new threat to worry about, plenty of time was still found to deal with the 'terrorists' who targeted fossil fuels.

The men and women who broke the Berlin Wall in November 1989 had not wanted this. They had wanted the best of both worlds, socialism and democracy. However those brave pioneers were naive about what they were letting in. The world on the other side of the wall was not what they were expecting, and it has become increasingly clear that without communism to keep it honest, capitalism itself became the monlithic ideology prepared to do anything to defend itself.

The difference is that the 1%, unlike the geriatric rulers of communist eastern europe, look unlikely to go quietly.

1971 The Rise of Neoliberalism

On 15 August 1971 President Nixon broke the financial system that had run the capitalist world since the end of the Second World War.

France had sent a destroyer to New York to claim its share of the US Federal gold reserve. In response Nixon took the US dollar off the Gold Standard.

Nixon was responding to a growing crisis in the US economy, caused by the state living beyond its means whilst trying to keep the cost of the Vietnam War off the books. However the move was the first victory for a group that had been plotting the downfall of the western model of capitalism since 1945.

This group were radicals, but not left wing ones. The Mont Pelerin society, named after Swiss hotel they met in, were followers of the economic theories of Freidrich von Hayek. Hayek told them exactly what he thought of the sort of mixed economy, introduced by Roosevelt to deal with the Great Depression, with the title of his book The Road To Serfdom.

The doctrine he espoused was neoliberalism. At its simplest it said that the only transactions that matter are those involving money. Industry was not important, unless it was a way to make money. Family, society and the environment certainly didn't matter. The only role for the state was to maintain law and order, meaning to maintain the laws that allowed corporations to do what they want, and the order where the rich were protected from anyone who might object.
When the US launched a military coup in Chile to remove a democratically elected communist, it gave neoliberalism exactly the conditions it needed to thrive - total chaos. Whilst the army rounded up the leftists to be tortured or killed, the military regime imported Chicago school economists to rewrite the rules.

The election of Thatcher in the UK in 1979 and Reagan in the US the next year saw neoliberalsim rolled out across the western world. Trade unions were crushed, taxes were cut, and environmental laws slashed. The result was that when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the USSR fell apart in 1991, the chaos that followed was ruthlessly exploited by the neoliberals.

Flooding in New Orleans, the invasion of Iraq, the Credit Crunch. All these provided opportunities for the neoliberals to extend their grip. Green capitalists belive that government regulation, smart taxation and a controlled market can make us sustainable. Neoliberals believe regulations, taxes and controllign the market are all morally wrong.

We cannot save the world whilst the neoliberals run it.

1945 The Triumph of Consumerism

Having lived my entire adult life in the chaos of the post-Cold War neoliberal world, it's easy to be nostalgic about the world my parents inherited after the Second World War ended.

Unlike the other eras in this blog, this one was carefully planned in advance. In 1945, with the world in ruins, the memory of the Great Depression still fresh, and Stalin's tanks in Berlin, Prague and Budapest, the free world met at Mount Washington Hotel in Breton Woods, New Hampshire, to work out how the capitalist world's economy should work. The genius behind it all was Britain's Maynard Keynes, although he wouldn't get things entirely his own way.

Compared to wht followed, the Bretton Woods was very sensible, It provided the engine for social democracy which made the West somewhere that most people were actually happy to live.

But something had to power the machine, and that thing was consumerism. This was not a new idea, but one that accelerated after 1945. Things were no longer manufactured to meet needs, but desires. Unlike need desire, if the ad men did their job properly, was unlimited. From cars to washing machines industry produced a house full of new gadgets for people to want, and new forms of credit allowed them to buy it. 

The result is that we entered the exponential age, when everything, except the earth's capacity to sustain us, increased by a little more each year.

Since 1945 we have been always buying, but never happy, whilst the planet has been always dying, but we never noticed.

1771 The Industrial Revolution

In 1771 the modern world was created in Cromford, Derbyshire.

Visiting Arkwright's first mill now it's easy to be beguiled it. Resting in a picturesque valley, and powered only by the water, it seems a far cry from the Dark Satanic Mills of Blake. But that is to miss what the Industrial Revolution was. Later there would be a coal revolution, and a financial revolution, but the first revolution was a social one.

Previously human life had revolved around the family and the village. It had been human scale. Work had ended with the setting of the sun and followed the rhythms of the seasons. Life could be nasty, brutish and short, and the main source of wealth - land - was not evenly shared. But the system was sustainable, both in balance with the earth and relatively unchanging over time.

Cromford Mill changed all that. Women and children were dragooned into the factories. The worked, not at a pace set by themselves, but by a brutal overseer. The speed of the machines was set by the power they drew from the water. The people kept up, or perished.

Welcome to the modern world.

1620 The Scientific Revolution

In 1620 Sir Francis Bacon published his great work Novum Organum, which aimed tofinally move western science on from where Aristotle had left it two thousand years earlier.

To many Bacon was the man who demystified nature, who removed the wonder from the natural world and severed the sacred bond with the organic world that was carried over from pagan times.

This is going too far. Science has given us ecology as well as ecocide, the Gaia Hypothesis as well as the China Syndrome. It is a tool to be used wisely, and it is not the fault of Bacon that we have chosen to use this tool otherwise.

But the fact remains that if, like China in Bacon's time, we had chosen stability over enquiry, we would not be where we are now. The rulers of the world in the seventeenth century had the power to make human life hell on earth, but without the revolution Bacon started the earth itself would have been safe.

c. 10,000 BC The First Agricultural Revolution

But if Bacon started the process that would eventually lead us to be able to win a war on Nature, he was not the one who started the fight. Anyone who puts a plough into the earth knows that they are starting a battle. As soon as you clear and till an area of land you are in conflict with weeds, pests and
disease. You don't have to resort to chemical warfare, but fight you must.

But it wasn't always this way.

12,000 years ago we were all hunter-gatherers. This may not be
everyone's cup of tea, but the evidence is that the agricultural revolution actually made things worse. Early agriculturalists worker harder, died younger and lived in more socially fragmented societies.

What's more, it is probably only in the last century or so that average human health improved over what it was farming, and we still work harder than our 'caveman' ancestors.

What farming did though was allow a small elite of kings, priests, warriors and so on to be supported by everyone else. You can see what was in it for them, by why did the rest of us go along with it? They probably didn't, voluntarily.

Agriculture also allowed more people to live on the land, and in a fight 100 half starved farmers will usually beat a dozen well fed hunter-gatherers. The agricultural revolution did eventually allow what we call civilisation. Everything from art to science, dentistry to Doctor Who followed on eventually to make our lives more pleasant followed on.

But twelve millennia on not still everyone enjoys these things, whilst the earth has less than a hundred harvest left in her. Was it really worth it?


We can't turn back the clock even if we want to. We can no more rewrite Breton Woods than we can unthink the scientific revolution. We wouldn't want to rebuild the Berlin Wall even if we could, and we couldn't return to being hunter-gatherers even if we wanted to.

We must continue the fight from where we are, not where we'd like to be. However by looking back at our history, and seeing how how many times what looked right at the time has turned out wrong, should at least make us more modest about our achievements as a species.

As Douglas Adams also wrote:
For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.