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Along Battersea Road

ALONG Battersea Road, north of Kingston, Ontario, there is one of the many memorials erected by family and friends to a young man or woman killed in a car accident.  Often, they are victims of drunk driving, either killed by the idiocy of others or slain by their own.  This particular memorial was themed, with a heart on a telephone poll (the one he or she struck?) of tape and cellophane tattered by the weather; clustered around funerary corteges of flowers mostly matching that hollow tape heart.  There is something ostentatious and gaudy about this spectacle, no matter how understandable the grief, anger and disbelief of family and friends.  They demand to show that this young life wasn’t wasted because, through the sheer number of flowers, proof can be made that yes, he was loved and did make many friends. They are also intimately tied up with the act of driving: almost impossible to access without a car, and without a single word about the causes: most people do not want to be reminded they died stupidly. If anything, these displays are compensation.  A grave is never enough, and the accident site, and death by car, a relatively and sadly common form of death, is made into tragedy. 

ALONG Battersea Road, north of Kingston, Ontario, there are many corpses.  Most of them have been smeared into complete oblivion by the action of cars day after day pressing the corpse further into the asphalt, and by the slow desiccation of beating sun, the opportunities of scavengers.  The freshness of the blood is always the most shocking, at least in passing, and the way in which the corpse breaks apart in lumps of flesh, fur and gristle.  As it ages, the blood fades into maroon, the fur or feathers become a grey homogeneous mass where bone and fibre became one with sky and ashen human stone.  The complete corpses are always scattered on the side of the road, but whether they are moved there by the roadkill patrol or the actions of predators is hard to say.  Very few are pristine: that too, is a shock, when the one blackbird is encountered whose feathers, head, beak and frozen claws lay in state.  Usually even the roadside corpses are fragments returning to the soil, and only the grey curve of a beak and the last fan of a wing remain to mark the disintegrating corpse.  The worst were the turtles, shattered as if by a hammer, half the body missing, a stretched and rubbery neck and three triangular shards of shell connected by the remnants of tendons.  The frogs, their pointed toes and stretched out, lank remains were redolent of fallen flowers than amphibians.  Across from Joyceville Institution, a penitentiary constructed in the 1950’s (and still looking every bit as institutional and oppressive as then) and alongside the toppled remnants of graves weathered and crumbled by a century of forgetting, was the ripped in twain remnants of a hare, perhaps: the head was gone, but what other animal could have been large enough of the dappled brown and reddish fur? The most pathetic: a smeared bird, species unrecognizable, with a single wing still, remarkably, intact, flapping with mechanical determination in the breeze. The numbers of these dead are surprising, and only on a bicycle is the extent of the death be noticeable.  André Gorz vilified the “aggressive and competitive selfishness” of the car and its culture, and it is hard not to see the extent of this roadkill as another function of the car’s ability to make others “merely… physical obstacles to his or her own speed.”

Amherst Island

Along the northern shore road of Amherst Island are picket signs, taped or propped up against iron grates, stone walls and old farm fences, denouncing wind power and angrily demanding the island stay free of turbines.  At first, cycling along a road in which farms have disappeared to be replaced with the expansive, expensive wonderlands of the wealthy professional class, these signs seemed like nothing more than rank hypocrisy.  How many of these homeowners would have to commute for thirty or forty minutes to get to their jobs in Kingston or elsewhere?  How many would continue to burn fossil fuels to support their own selfish, if understandable, desire for solitude and a life, however unrealistic, free of the clamour and masses?  The signs were an ugly reminder of the Not in My Back Yard attitude that had stymied and fought against wind turbines in Scarborough and other districts in the GTA: we do enough, we drive small cars, we recycle, but those turbines are just so ugly and noisy

 Biking towards the western end of the island, the wind turbines on Wolf Island were hazily visible many kilometres away, slashing in the strong winds driving a squall towards us, patches of light interspersed by dark rolling clouds.   On the western end of the island, the road veers 90 degrees southward and suddenly the forest that overgrew the dirt road and fields full of sheep that lined it gave way to a savagely windswept plain, with stunted and isolated trees standing alone all the way to crashing surf.  Forward progress was extremely difficult here: the bikes wavered and eyes were kept closed as much as possible.  Separating the field from the road was a relatively new fence, hung with wire and more anti-wind turbine signs.  The number of birds was incredible, and of species, swallows, for example, I have never seen in their striking plumage and angular shape.  They dipped and sped across the road, as stymied occasionally as we were; unbeknownst to us, the entire western edge of the island had been converted into a bird sanctuary with impressive success,  encouraging a splendid variety of birds to nest beyond the familiar (because rugged and adaptable common sparrow, robin and black bird).  Crucial chronology: was the bird sanctuary first, and thus, because of the disruptions caused by wind turbines, in danger?  Or was it opened after, in a cynical bid to keep the island free of wind power?

             At the south-western edge, where the road again veers 90 degrees, we stopped and ate lunch, among the worn slabs of the south shore, pummelled as the storm approached by muddy brown waves; spiders and centipedes were evacuating from the water line, scurrying for cover from spray and water.  We tempted the storm, it seems, watching cormorants soar low and effortlessly through the rising winds; geese huddled with their goslings ten metres away, while seagulls awkwardly attempted to keep alight.  My partner here, more travelled and wiser in these things, said at that moment, the skies gray and the air thick with the sound of water roaring against rocks, that this much like northern Scotland.  The wind was so strong it evaporated my stream of piss, turning into more sea spray.  Waves crashed over my shoes and ankles, soaking me; I laughed then, and laughed more when the squall hit and rain coming in sideways and storm-tossed Lake Ontario harassed us and drowned us all along the south shore.  Water leaked from our boots; eyes had ceased to be much use.  Spare clothing was no longer of much use.  A garter snake slithered across the road, cleaned and bright from the rain.  Taking the ferry back, we squeezed our socks and left puddles on the deck.    

    

  In lieu of actually writing about the anniversary of one of the most important and tragic events of the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, here is a book, available fully and freely online, by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick. I Saw A Nightmare is an excellent and (so far) thorough study of the June 16, 1976 riot by students against the new government policy of teaching Afrikaans as a primary language in school; in response to the peaceful protests and strikes of the students, 26 people were killed by indiscriminate police fire into a confused but mutinous crowd.  I haven’t finished Pohlandt-McCormick’s book yet, but she makes excellent use of the html format, providing easy links to running commentary, supplementary essays and key segments from other chapters.  Pohlandt-McCormick’s is aiming for a kind of total history, much like Paul A. Cohen’s History in Three Keys; she starts with a detailed attempt to reconstruct the narrative of what exactly happened on June 16, using the conflicting and fragmentary stories told by official documents, memories, interviews and testimonies.  The next section concentrates on the crafting of a narrative around the uprising by both the South African government, the ANC and other groups at the time, and then explores the conflicts and problems of historical memory, of who remembers, or is allowed to remember (publicly) what had happened, the appearances and disappearances of archival materials, and the failures or interpretations of other historians, followed by deep historical analysis of the long-term build-up to, and aftermath of, June 16, 1976. I Saw A Nightmare is a fine book, and an important contribution to historical memory in its own right.

Misha Collins as Paul Bernardo in ‘Karla’ (CTV-Movie, of all things)

Rarely do I encounter the truly aggravating religious in my day-to-day life. It is rare that the dogmatic and unpleasant (not always synonymous) intrude into everyday experience, especially not in the blunt manner forced upon me today.  A home school tour visited.  A tour like this is always something of a Russian roulette, with the majority pleasant blanks.  Today was a bullet. The problem was not the children.  They were eager, well-behaved, generally intelligent or at least inquisitive and far more patient than I would have been at a similar age.  This, perhaps, is the benefit of home schooling, but it wouldn’t take long to rummage up an equal number of publicly educated children with the same characteristics.

The problem was the parents.  One spent the whole time arguing with a volunteer about how useless rehabilitation of any sort was, using cooked up numbers and a complete misunderstanding of sociological information about crime to justify Biblical-style punishments.  (One of the children knew the standard number of lashes given by the Romans, because they whipped Jesus).  I was faced with a woman who repeatedly told me how crucial religion is for prisoners, but not because it brings, say, peace of mind or guidance to a troubled soul.  No, the solution was much simpler: if criminals were religious, they wouldn’t be criminals.  To her, and these are nearly exact words, “Paul Bernardo would never have murdered if he was a Christian.”

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Living History

Vulcan B2s at Wittering RAF, 1964

Today, I met a man who had risen to the rank of Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Air Force.  Currently, he leads walking tours of the historic districts of Kingston, Ontario, attired in the top hat and dress clothing of a well to do Upper Canada bourgeois. The people of the 19th century, especially the best dressed, must have smelt tremendously.  The movies that form our main mass cultural consumption of the past generally never deal with the stink and the sweat.  And they sweated.  A lot.  Their clothes must have been deeply stained and yellowed  especially if you, like most people a hundred years ago, couldn’t afford the labour to keep it clean, or new. This man was constantly wiping heavy dew from his smooth pate, and I was gently smouldering in three layers of canvas and cheap linen, jacket, vest and collared shirt, with a much appreciated straw hat for shade.  His beaver fur was an oven.

Our attire displayed, quite by accident, the dramatic class divisions of the time, though it seems unlikely our dichotomy made anyone think hard about themselves. Besides this man, I looked a dreg, in the one-size-fits all, standard issue uniform of a United Canadas convict: number 7041, Alfred Albion Welch, a 17-year-old highwayman sentenced for seven years to Portsmouth Penitentiary for highway robbery, north of what is now London, Ontario, in Middlesex County.  Welch was the antithesis of the anonymous (indeed, phantom, for he never existed) elite inhabited by the British tour guide.  A butcher’s son, foul-mouthed, cocksure, who took by violence the wealth of the rich of our colonial state, Welch was a troublemaker of a familiar sort: he delighted in breaking the strict code of silence used as part of the penitentiary disciplinary regime, singing, whistling, skipping church to spend time with friends, and unbroken by dark cells and bread and water diets.  Today, a simulacrum, hobbled, play-acting being humbled and beaten, was paraded in chains, themselves replicas of 1850’s screw handcuffs and leg irons.  I shrunk and disappeared into my overlarge collar.  7041, Welch, was a very real human, a man whose life was ever so briefly rendered legible by the Canadian state: through his arrest, punishments and release he was given a biography preserved to the present in archives and on microfilm.  His crimes and his incarceration are the only reason why Welch is even remembered to us today, a number picked at random from a hat. If he had lived a less desperate life, he probably would have lived and died without ever being noticed, certainly not by the historical ancestor of that sweating phantom bourgeois.  The tour guide, whose historical personality is a fiction imparted and animated by clothes and books, appropriate, respected and admired even in 2010 for his impeccable clothing and English accent: Welch, who was born in England in 1850, a source of laughter and amusement to comatose tourists.

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Marxists.org has done a wonderful job putting up, with the original colour covers scanned to boot, the run of the International Socialism quarterly, from 1958 on into the 1980’s.  That is a fairly exciting development, if only because the complete collection is a fine example of why online archives must continue to expand.  On the other hand, IS is rather dowdy compared to the sexy and ephemeral avant-garde, counter-culture and Situationist publications that grew in prominence during the 60’s, stealing the thunder of the ‘Old Left.’ Nor was IS a theoretical juggernaut, full of new ideas on organisation and ideology of the student movement, aside from what seems an interminable debate about bureaucratic collectivism and state capitalist that filled the letters and debate page.  Nonetheless, it’s an incredible treasure trove, especially for a fellow traveller and historical enthusiast.

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Machinisme (1913)

Extract from the first part (“What socialism wants”) from How We Are Socialists, by Sixte-Quenin (Socialist Encyclopedia, Quillet, 1913)

Today we can perceive that ‘mechanisation’[1] has rarified human labour.  Nonetheless, it has not begun its full development and capitalist concentration is not at its apogee.  When mechanisation has penetrated all production, and we cannot predict the multiple inventions that in the future will still create productive forces that abolish human labour, if man continues to work hours as long as he does currently, it will suffice that perhaps 20% or 10% amongst them will work to produce enough to meet the needs of all.  Problem: those that will not work, because the machine has replaced them, will not be able to buy from the capitalists what they need, so that there will be more and more accumulation of merchandise; the capitalists see that there is overproduction still abolishing work, even as they continue abolishing purchasers.  Eventually, we will one day see productive forces, of a power without equal that, if brought to bear, will furnish to Humanity all that will be necessary, resting absolutely inert, unproductive because the capitalists that possess them will have an interest in not producing.  The use of their machines will actually cost them, for they will not be able to sell their products, not out of lack of want by consumers, people die of hunger at the side of well-stocked tables after all, but because consumers lack the means, money, needed to buy.[2]

Additionally, it must be said that the workers who were shown the first machines had a vision of the misery it would bring; they burnt and destroyed and if there really was no other way to escape the impasse in which the proletariat was driven, if truly mechanisation would continue to be in the hands of the capitalist class a means of exploitation against the working class, we should return, to combat it, to the brutal and simple means employed against it at the very beginning.

Thankfully, it is not so; the mechanisation that, today, creates misery amongst the workers perhaps can, and surely will be, the instrument of its emancipation.  For them, it suffices that the means of production cease to be the private property of a privileged class and become the collective property of all.  The machine therefore will not deny some men of work, as it does presently, but it will diminish the amount of work of all, at the same time leaving production at a level wherein the needs of all can be satisfied.

Meanwhile, capitalist society puts on the mass on un-propertied a regime of misery and servitude that no long corresponds to mentality of today’s Man, and this contradiction between the needs of equality and liberty for which the modern world labours, and a social system that is the source of inequality and oppression, is the cause of the great troubles and convulsions we are witnessing, and will only end along with the regime that causes them.


[1]               I doubt that the work, strictly speaking, was in use: machinisme sounds more like machine-production-isation or machinising

[2]               This section proved difficult to translate: I’m not sure if I was missing the full meaning, whether it was vague and poorly worded to begin with, or the jargon of hundred year old socialists was too much for me.

Translated from an excerpt posted on Bataille Socialiste.  Part of my first attempt to do some translating work to spruce up and practice my French.  More on the way.

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