Sunday 18 December 2022

In Albia

On New Year's Day I gave my heart to a land
where no more lives are ruined by royal command,
where the beast who squats on Jersey twiddling his sausage-fingered hands
is riven with frustration at a world he cannot understand
(and sharing just the one house with a family he can't stand)

I dug a hole on New Year's Day
and in that hole I gave away
my whole heart, my one heart and soul
for Albia.

On New Year's Day I dug a hole in a piece of blasted ground
and eagerly embraced the most amazing grace that I have found,
a body and a country both of which I'm proud to have around,
a nation-state of lovers, to each other each is bound
in so much more than servitude, a service most profound:

I took a vow on New Year's Day
and pledged that all my life I'll strain
my might, my very might and main
for Albia.

And every day since that day when my heart was buried deep
I make like Willie Blake and from this mental fight I will not sleep,
there are butchers bearing down on us who dearly wish that we were sheep
but at long last we are lions and the butchers we'll defeat,
knowing they can never force our revolution to retreat

and the day after we beat them
then as equals we will meet,
and we will meet,
yes we will meet
in Albia.

Thursday 15 December 2022

The Prisoner: the long and crucial final act of David Bowie

 Republic of Albia, 11.01.2016

Most of us, by now, have heard the news: that David Bowie, the musician, painter and, briefly, before his sojourn as a guest of the Republic at Battersea Artists' Prison, actor, has died at the age of 69. In some ways, that makes today a difficult day to be a David Bowie fan. In some ways, it makes it much easier. 

Being a Bowie fan, for me, for anyone who came to him primarily through his work of the 90s and 2000s, has always been complicated. 1. Outside was my first: one of his earliest prison albums, its title considered by many to be ironic given his new living circumstances - the 'bunk with two sheets' mentioned in 'I Have Not Been to Oxford Town'. Bowie himself always denied the accusations of irony, pointing out in a later interview that 'I think it's perfectly natural to call a prison album Outside, because that's where your focus is. Particularly during my first years here, I was consumed by thoughts of the exterior. Like Peter Fonda in that acid scene in Easy Rider. "What's Happening Outside?" And, of course, my own guilt over what I had done on the outside - in a different country and a different time. And besides, calling it Inside would have been too obvious, wouldn't it?' 

What I had done on the outside - in a different country and a different time. It's easy to see that as a self-exculpatory gesture, the same kind of excuse many were giving in the wake of what we gradually agreed to call the Savile Wars: it was a different time and everyone was doing it and that was just the way things were and besides, the wench is dead. We heard those a lot in many of the early court cases, both those attempted under the Windsor regime (leading to the bizarre spectacle of criminals being tried by a Crown which was itself irrecoverably tainted with the crimes under discussion) and, later, by the Republic Judiciary. But what distinguished Bowie's trial was the absence of this kind of pleading. His trial lasted a day: he came to court, plead guilty, and became one of the first artists to be sent to Battersea - and the first to go voluntarily. As so often in his earlier career, he was a pioneer; as earlier, many others followed his example. 

Some chose otherwise, of course - perhaps most notoriously Jimmy Page, whose death while resisting arrest during the Siege of Tower House made him a martyr for holdouts from the Windsor era. But it was Bowie's act that resonated more. He had, after all, been training for the role for most of his life, from the messianic posturing of Ziggy Stardust to his role as Jack Celliers (subtle initials, those) in Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. Bowie resisted this reading of his decision to willingly accept imprisonment ('Look, the facts are these. In the 1970s I fucked some thirteen year old girl. That was accepted at the time, but it was an act of moral and artistic dereliction. I am, quite literally and pace Python, not the Messiah, but a dirty old man. I didn't go to prison as some kind of Christ-like sacrifice. I'm not Oscar Wilde. I'm not a prisoner of war. This is where I belong!'), but it was a reading taken to heart by many, not least those in the Glampop movement who saw Bowie's act as a necessary sacrifice to redeem the positive elements of that genre - the sexual and gender fluidity, the playfulness, the utopianism - from their association with the sleaze supremos. 

But it's Bowie's prison records that are the real triumph. Both a fascinating document of a man coming to terms with his guilt and resolving to live better, and as an endorsement of the Artists' Prison system, in which prisoners, though deprived of liberty of movement, are provided with the necessary facilities to keep creating their art, profits from the sale of which are used by the Government of the Republic to fund initiatives to help survivors of sexual violence. Bowie was particularly enthusiastic about this financial aspect - so much so that he refused the option to have a percentage of the profits from what we now know to be his final album, Blackstar, placed in a fund to help with living expenses on his release. 'I'm hardly going to starve on the outside,' he told reporters in his final interview. 'People are going to want the first post-prison interview, so if I want money I can always start a bidding war for that if necessary. Or sell some paintings. Or do some acting! I've missed films. There are lots of options and even if I do fall utterly on my arse, Albia has one of the most comprehensive social welfare systems on the planet. I can live quite comfortably on my Republic Pension if I have to, a lot more comfortably than I remember people living before the war. The Blackstar money should be treated the same as the others. I'll be fine.'

It seems likely that Bowie knew he was dying at that point, whatever brave face he might have put on things. He knew there would be no return to movies, no more paintings, no need to draw on that pension. The last track on Blackstar is called 'I Can't Give Everything Away'. But he came close.

It's impossible to know what kind of records Bowie would have made if he hadn't spent the last two decades of his career in Battersea. Would a Bowie without the enforced reflection time prison provides have written something like 'Bring Me the Disco King' or 'Where Are We Now?' It seems unlikely. It might be flippant to say that one of the horrors the Albian Civil War saved us from was yet more Tin Machine albums, but it did. From the middle of the 90s, Bowie was forced to confront his past - the things he did, the people he hurt, the flaws in the dream he was selling - and he did so the only way he knew how - in a series of remarkable, revelatory records. None of that changes the fact he did the things he chose to go to prison for. Nothing wipes the slate clean, but those records helped people. And that's something. Godspeed, Citizen Bowie. 

Tuesday 6 December 2022

Elon Musk's future is out of date

'Kim Stanley Robinson, whose Mars trilogy helped inspire some of the recent interest in colonizing the red planet, has called Musk’s plan “the 1920s science-fiction cliché of the boy who builds a rocket to the moon in his backyard” and one that’s dangerously distracting us from the real problems we face here on Earth.' - Paris Marx, 'Elon Musk is convinced he's the future: we need to look beyond him'

'Ark of Space' is an illustration by the Japanese artist Shigeru Komatsuzaki. Komatsuzaki, who died in 2001, was a prolific artist who did paintings for model kit boxes and magazine covers. You can see a selection of his work at Pink Tentacle. I can't tell whether this design was for a model or a magazine, though I have managed to find a version of the picture with text on it, in the retrofuturism subreddit, which leads me to suspect it's a magazine cover. 

So far, then, Elon Musk is trying to sell us a future which is 54 years out of date. But there's more! Because it seems Komatsuzaki is inspired by an earlier source in making his illustration. That source? The cover of the November 1939 edition of pulp sci-fi magazine Startling Stories

The rocketship might be a little more Flash Gordon than Thunderbird 1, but the 1939 illustration - credited, by pulp scribe Jack Williamson, to artist Howard V. Brown - is in the right place, as are the procession of paired animals (with giraffes and elephants centre stage) and the uniformed guards forcing back the crowds. It's pretty obvious Komatsuzaki used Brown's cover as a template for his more detailed version. Indeed, it's possible he was illustrating the Japanese republication of Williamson's 'The Fortress of Utopia', the eighteenth chapter of which is indeed called 'The Ark of Space' (you can read the whole issue at the Internet Archive). 

So the Bold New Future Apartheid Clyde is trying to sell us dates back to 1939 - eighty-three years ago. This is one of the things I mean when I talk about the death-grip nostalgia has on contemporary culture: even our ideas of the future are out-of-date. 

Not that Musk has given this any thought. He just nicked the image off TV Tropes. That's how lazy he is.