A MATTER OF RATS
A Short Biography of Patna
By Amitava Kumar
116 pp. Duke University Press. $19.95.
When he first discovered youtube, my elder son Emile was an avid viewer of videos about locomotive trains, and the very best of these was the ‘Riding the Rails’ documentary on the history of the railways narrated by Johnny Cash.
We must have watched this 30 or more times, and this was while I was getting to know Antonino Pasquale D’Ambrosio’s book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears – the book IS one of the greats, about the Great, Cash, and Bitter Tears, this Great album (am I overdoing it a bit?) was like a mind worm for many many years. I was glad to meet and hang in NYC bookshops and record stores with Antonino a few years back, (thanks Jen Otter) and now it turns out there is a new covers/tribute album and a documentary film about Bitter Tears coming too. This is excellent news fans. Here is part of what David Kennedy has to say about Bitter Tears and the new revisited album [must get] and the forthcoming documentary:
‘It was during this time that Johnny Cash would find his way to the New York folk scene and, in particular, to the work of songwriter Peter La Farge. La Farge is not a household name by any means, but it is safe to say that his work is remembered largely thanks to Cash. While the civil rights movement gained steam in 1963 and ’64, Native American issues began to emerge due to problematic government policies and land grabs that continued the United States’ historic mistreatment of Indians and thievery of their land. Peter La Farge gave a voice to these issues with a string of protest songs that emerged in parallel with the folk movement’s wholehearted embrace of African Americans’ civil rights movement. As Johnny Cash (along with several other celebrities) found himself increasingly aware and committed to Native American issues – with demands and circumstances quite different from those of African Americans – the idea formed for yet another concept album, this one sure to cause further tension between Cash and his label. The seeds of Bitter Tears were sown from a unique set of circumstances, both social and personal, and the record proved to be polarizing and often forgotten among Cash’s body of work.
The social, political and musical context surrounding Bitter Tears is wonderfully captured in Antonio D’Ambrosio’s2009 book, A Heartbeat and A Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears. D’Ambrosio devotes only a few pages to the actual recording of Bitter Tears (notably, the only time Cash and La Farge spent any significant time together) and instead traces the events and experiences that would lead Peter La Farge to write his songs and Johnny Cash to record them.
Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited was no doubt inspired by D’Ambrosio’s book (he is credited as Executive Producer on the new album), and a forthcoming documentary directed by D’Ambrosio will cover both the original Bitter Tears as well as the tribute album. However, it was producer Joe Henry who assembled the players and produced Look Again to the Wind, which, in equal measure, is a testament to the talents of both La Farge and Cash (who contributed two originals, “Apache Tears” and “The Talking Leaves,” to Bitter Tears). Musically, Look Again shares as much (if not more) with La Farge’s original interpretations, which in some cases were nothing more than solo acoustic performances. As you might expect, Henry did not recruit big-name country stars for the project but rather marquee names from the world of Americana, the genre of music most indebted to Johnny Cash these days. As Bitter Tears has its roots in the folk scene of the late ’50’s and early ’60’s, it’s only fitting that some of today’s leading lights in folk music –Gillian Welch & David Rawlings and The Milk Carton Kids – provide the musical backbone of most of the tracks here. Norman Blake, the only living veteran of the original sessions, fittingly contributes a track (as does his wife, Nancy Blake). Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle represent the generation who most directly inherited the torch from stars like Johnny Cash. The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens puts here signature on “The Vanishing Race” (the lone tune penned by neither La Farge nor Cash, but Johnny Horton), and Native American artist Bill Millercasts a spell on the title track (a La Farge composition that did not appear on Bitter Tears). Kris Kristofferson tackles the indelible “Ballad of Ira Hayes,” still the standout song here (and easily the most widely recognized, as it became a staple of Cash’s live repertoire).’ (David Kennedy August 19 2014)
So, if you have. Indeed, revisiting is the occasion of this very visit.a flood of stuff that you need to get into if you have not yet, and a bunch of stuff worth revisiting.
Catch up or rerun, its worth the time – you can read the whole of the Kennedy blog post here. You can get Antonino’s Heartbeat and a Guitar here, buy the original – the Great Johnny Cash – album Bitter Tears album here [a non-Amazon link, sorry Jeff], and the new Revisited album now has a whole FB thing going on here. All in tribute to the memory of Peter La Farge, in itself important.
I updated my books page at last, but it still needs some tinkering with, click on any image and please let me know if the links are bust.
Really pleased that The Rumour of Calcutta is available again, and now with those soft buttery covers that I’d wanted when it was first published way back in 1996.
One night two summers ago, I was in a car speeding across the border into the eastern Indian state of Bihar. The unlit, pitch-black freeway didn’t deter traffic from barreling forward at breakneck speeds. In the inevitable accident, a young man was shredded by a truck. A politician showed up, but instead of taking charge, he distracted the police with laughter and gossip.
Preventable death or official callousness is not unique to Bihar, but this particular incident seemed, to me, typical. Bihar is a state that until recently took the troubles that bedevil all of India and amplified them to levels that were unbearable even by Indian standards. In Bihar, an accident was carnage and apathy was criminal neglect. Although matters have since improved, to survive, the poor still traffick their children and the rich still get out.
Few writers are better placed to examine this near-dystopian state of affairs than the novelist Amitava Kumar, a native son, although now a professor of English at Vassar College.
“A Matter of Rats” calls itself “a short biography of Patna,” the capital city of Bihar, but like Kumar’s other books, it is many (perhaps too many) things at once. A memoiristic essay that strives to reconcile his feelings for his hometown — despair on the one hand and concern on the other, for it is where his elderly parents still live. “There is no way to avoid it,” he admits. “When I step on Patna’s soil, I only want to see how much older my parents look.” It is an insider’s alternative to the scornful narratives of Patna made popular by Western writers, and which the author, with even greater scorn, calls “hysteria as travel writing.” It is also an adventure in pursuit of witnesses to stories both real and apocryphal — a 1967 visit by Marlon Brando, the rumor that Napoleon’s bed lies in a decrepit old Patna mansion. (There is a bed in Patna that belonged to a Napoleon, just not that Napoleon.)
It is, in all, an intimate and whimsical book, but one that truly shines when the author turns his gaze to the ordinary people who still live in Patna — the rat catchers of the lowly Musahar caste, the tutor who helps poor children crack the entrance tests to India’s exalted institutes of technology.
The chapter on the rat catchers is the book’s finest, skillfully evoking the circumstances of chaos, filth and absurdity in which even the city’s middle-class professionals are forced to live.
Patna’s vast number of rats, the author tells us in a marvelous bit of anthropomorphizing, appear like “stout ladies on tiny heels, on their way to the market.” Nurses at a city hospital play the radio at night in the hope of keeping the rats from nibbling their toes. The rats haven’t escaped the attention of a local bureaucrat. But instead of trying to get rid of them, he sets himself the loftier ambition of ending anti-rat prejudice. If middle-class people would only appreciate rats, he rationalizes, they would also appreciate the Musahars, who are condemned to catch the rats. A Musahar whom the author accompanies on a rat-catching expedition isn’t holding his breath for change. “High-minded abstractions weren’t among his pressing concerns,” Kumar tells us. “His worry was finding food for that day and the next.”
That food was rats.
A MATTER OF RATS
A Short Biography of Patna
By Amitava Kumar
116 pp. Duke University Press. $19.95.
“A writer is a productive labourer not in so far as he produces ideas, but in so far as he enriches the publisher who publishes his works, or if he is a wage-labourer for a capitalist.”
Well, I had to post something on this because the debate on the accessibility of the texts is important and interesting, and the various statements in the links below are worth reading for what they say about publishing and history, both from the Lawrence and Wishart and from MIA sides.
[I'm amused that so far I've not seen anyone quote the obvious bit of Marx that applies, and which I've used above as banner quote - reader, please insert your own gender correction to the ancient pronouns (if we must get all scriptural about it - the quote is from Theories of Surplus Value - manuscripts of 1863-64, chapter 4, p303 in the Progress Press version)].
The possibility of actually turning a profit on any book nowadays, is of course also up for consideration.
Here from Hist Mat list:
As a consequence of Lawrence and Wishart’s decision to withdraw the Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) material under L&W copyright from the Marxist Internet Archive (MIA) website, Marxist scholars and activists all over the world have
Following a first petition and Lawrence and Wishart’s response, in 24 hours 700 people signed the following petition, including many leading scholars.
They have asked Lawrence and Wishart to allow Marx’s and Engels’s writings to remain on the MIA website and in the public domain.
“We are very grateful for the work you have done, along with International Publishers and Progress Publishers, translating into English and publishing the MECW. This is an extremely valuable contribution to the workers movement and Marxist scholarship not only in the English-speaking world, but internationally.
MIA has made these works available for free on the web to an even wider public, and they have now become an essential tool for thousands of Marxist scholars and activists around the world.
We fully appreciate the efforts and difficulties that running a small independent publishing house entails. But allowing free access to the MECW on the MIA website does not hinder sales. On the contrary, the publicity it provides increases them, and we would support any attempt to further improve this aspect.
But over and above any commercial considerations, there is a crucial matter of principle at play here. Having been available freely online for ten years, the MECW have become an essential part of the shared knowledge and resources of the international workers movement. We cannot take a step backward.
There is also the real danger that the laudable contribution that Lawrence & Wishart has made in the past would be tarnished. This decision would only damage its reputation without bringing any significant economic advantage.
That’s why we call upon you to reconsider this decision and reach an accommodation which keeps these essential resources in the public domain, where they belong.”
To support this petition, link: http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/lawrence-and-wishart-allow-marx-s-and-engels-s-writings-to-remain-in-the-public-domain?utm_medium=email&utm_source=notification&utm_campaign=new_petition_recruit#share
To read Lawrence and Wishart’s response to the first petition, see: http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/collected_works_statement.html
To read the statement of the Marxist Internet Archive collective, see: http://marxists.org/admin/legal/lw-response.html
Read it here
A brief review from Mark Perryman (Philosophy Football) on Socialist Unity where I am sandwiched between words on Arun Kundnani’s book (which I read and think is really good) and Andrew Hussey’s book (which I’ve not yet read):
“Arun Kundnani’s ‘The Muslims are Coming!’ links together the experience of Islamophobia, the framing of extremism/fundamentalism and the ongoing global impact of the west’s so-called ‘War on Terror’. Here the left is grappling with subjects it is more at ease with understanding, though the depth to which it is transformed via that process remains in question. An insight into what that transformation might look like is provided by John Hutnyk’s ‘Pantomime Terror‘ which imaginatively records how popular culture has been affected by a post 9/11 world and on occasion has offered signs of resisting the reactionary, racist, consequences of that process. The urgent necessity for this kind of engagement is established brilliantly by Andrew Hussey’s new book ‘The French Intifada’.”
I regret the reviewers have not noted the critiques of Zizek, Badiou and Buck-Morss in mine, or the importance of Spivak and Adorno to my argument, or the coda on Wagner, but still very good to have. See here. Thanks Mark.
I’ve two short bits of writing in this elegant little book from Jack Boulton, Stimulus Respond and Pavement Books. ‘The Politics of Cats’ and the bus part of the intro to ‘Pantomime Terror‘
Sophie Fuggle’s post on the wider context of the Prison Book Ban from her blog Limit Experience is getting some traction on twitter and I was asked to repost it so you might read it too. At least to take a moment to think what kind of malignant and parasitic bureaucracy would sit back while the mugwumps implement their mugwump rule. The original is here.
Books vs. Cigarettes 2
Earlier this week, two news sites featured stories about the banning of books from inside UK prisons. The legislation brought in by Chris Grayling in November put a blanket ban on packages sent in to prisoners. As others who have now taken up the story pointed out – why did none of us pick up on this earlier? The ban of packages just before Christmas is akin to the measures taken by the French prison system in the early 1970s when it banned magazines and newspapers from prisons as well as the famous Christmas packages which allowed families to send in food parcels. This deliberately callous, heavy-handed action aimed at severing links to the outside world is often cited as one of several motiving factors for the work of the Groupe d’Information sur les prisons. To ban a child from sending a parent a homemade card because there might be some form of contraband hidden amongst the glitter and glue seems both archaic and futuristically paranoid. But I would suggest there is something else at stake here. As Charlie Gilmour’s article in the Standard last night points out – if you want to get rid of drugs in prison, get rid of the prison officers overseeing their circulation. Grayling is clearly basing his understanding of how contraband gets into prisons on having once watched The Shawshank Redemption. Moreover, the restriction on books now available in prisons as a result of banning packages should alert us to what is really going on within the prison system – instead of simply reiterating the myth of rehabilitation we have long held onto – we should look more closely at this myth. Why has it suited us, the UK public, to hang on to this myth when so much of what we hear about prisons suggests the opposite? For a start, it sets our prison system apart from what we see going on elsewhere, most notably, the U.S. but becoming a model increasingly transplanted to other Western countries. The warehousing of unwanted, unneeded labour. On a visit to Attica in 2012, I heard a Correctional Officer say ‘I don’t care if they get a degree or watch TV in their cells all day. As long as they don’t cause me any trouble.’ But at least there was the option of study. The prison library at Attica, from what I understand, is incredibly well-stocked particularly with law journals and even those in the Special Housing Unit (solitary) have access to the books via Mark Chapman, Lennon’s killer and self-appointed librarian for the SHU. But coupled with this refusal to recognize rehabilitation as possible within prison, there seemed to be an implicit understanding that people need to be given something to do and that not everyone wants to spend all day pushing weights. So what is different about Grayling’s prison industrial complex? On the one hand, he seems to be fully embracing a U.S.-inflected politics of fear – Grayling’s speech in October 2012, talks about the two strikes rule and evokes a similar right to bear arms (currently without the fire part) in order to protect one’s home and property beyond any reasonable force that led to Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman in February 2012. What Grayling is telling us here is that not only do we have the right to violently and potentially fatally attack those we perceive as a threat, but that we indeed should react in this way. There are people out there who want to take things from us, our hard-earned things, and we should be scared. Moreover, the rising university tuition fees and culture of student debt in the U.K., mean this fear and anxiety extends beyond the mere encroaching on material space to one’s intellectual capital. Grayling expected his speech and seems to expect his subsequent responses to the literary community to be well-received by a wider public, terrified that those in prison will receive the same, if not better access to learning and training than that available to their own children. Immediately, following my visit to Attica in 2012, I was at a conference in Buffalo during which a discussion of degree programmes in prison came up. A member of teaching staff from one if the colleges in Buffalo told us that when she first started there she heard on the grapevine that there was a prison teaching programme offered by the college. She asked a professor in the department how she might get onto the programme and if it was worth her going to talk to the Dean about it. The professor told her to never speak of the programme again. Apparently, there was a time when the college put in proudly on their prospectuses in order to emphasize the role they played within the local community. However, this was received incredibly badly by parents of students who were paying upwards of $40k a year for the same degree. The programme was only able to continue as a result of total secrecy by those involved which meant precluding new members of staff from taking part thus limiting the scope of the programme. The logic amongst parents is fairly obvious: why should they bankroll a programme which would see criminals achieving the same degree as their own children? Why should they be instrumental in turning felons into graduates who would then be competing with their own offspring for jobs? It is easy to see how this logic will be increasingly applied in the U.K. as a means of justifying cuts to education programmes in prisons before seeping into mainstream education. I have heard middle class parents justifying their decisions to ‘remove’ their children from highly regarded state schools based on the argument that such schools do more for ‘underprivileged’ children than their own offspring. The Tory party’s education reforms are always largely taken up with how to privatize state education through the back door. Warehousing begins here. Yet, on the other hand, there is a sleight of hand going on here which means that Grayling is able to channel the notion of rehabilitation hence his use of the phrase ‘Rehabiliation Revolution’ in ways not possible in the U.S. supermaxes. This is why for authors and other writers to scream blue murder about the banning of books is an empty gesture if it is not supported by further analysis as to what is really going on here. A far stronger link between the myth of rehabilitation and prison labour is currently being developed within the U.K. If the prison labour force in the U.S. is increasingly becoming obsolete due to the decline in U.S. manufacturing and pressure of unions not to buy prison-made goods, in the U.K. a whole spate of prison training and apprenticeships are being rolled out which situate prison labour within the continuum of unpaid and underpaid labour which also includes the placements and internships universities charge their students to do in order to get a degree and the workfare programmes imposed on the unemployed. Grayling speech focuses in this respect of the creation of a Timpson’s shop inside a prison (the irony about lockpicking should not be lost here) with the aim of training inmates to work for Timpson’s on their release. This is effectively the state selling slave labour to private industry under the guise of rehabilitation. Grayling is as much an advocate of rehabilitation as Philip Pullman and all the other authors who have come to the rescue of the prison. Only here Grayling recognizes the need to more clearly define the parameters of what constitutes rehabilitation so that this comes to mean the ability to take part in the (unpaid) labour force. More sinister here, is the coupling of such labour with the recognition of the economic value of the criminal subject qua social outcast. Grayling begins his speech by talking about his visit to The Clink,a restaurant run by inmates from Brixton prison. This is not simply about training inmates to cook and wait on customers. This is about capitalizing on the inmate as commodity fetish. To eat at The Clink is to embark on a form of dark tourism lite – to pay top dollar for the frisson of coming into contact with individuals who might have done something terrible whilst legitimizing this voyeurism and vicarious sense of transgression with the feeling you have done something positive to help such deviants by allowing them to serve you and your repulsive, bourgeois friends. The game-show style television programmes which often accompany such initiatives affirm this conflation of prison industry with culture industry. As does the work of charities like the Koestler Trust. If their work seems to go against the grain of what Grayling is proposing, I think more critique is necessary. How is the offenders art programme actually run in different prisons? How much choice in what is produced is given to inmates? Do they even know they are being entered into its competitions? Are they given full ownership of their work or is it deemed to be Her Majesty’sproperty? Does the ability to sell artwork produced while you were locked up mean you will make it as an artist when you get out? I do not want to suggest inmates should not make art whilst in prison and definitely don’t want to endorse Grayling’s view that practical labour such as working in Timpson’s is to be preferred to reading a novel in your cell. What I do want to suggest is the way in which all these activities work together to produce a certain type of subject able to reproduce the myths and discourses of rehabilitation at the same time as be obliged to sell him or herself as a fetish object for consumption by a public unable to think past the looming presence of the prison on society’s bleak horizon.
Click on the image to get to Daily Motion to play. 55 mins. Thanks Raul Gschrey: it is on the same material as the last section of the book Pantomime Terror
There’s a whole section on Wagner in this, and some humour. For the record… (you can order by clicking the cover to get to Zero then look for the sales tab lower right):
Click here to order: http://www.zero-books.net/books/pantomime-terror
Get this book! My endorsement is truncated on the publishers web page, but I endorse this as absolutely necessary, absolutely needed. A must have to comprehend what needs to be done in these times, renew, learn from the past, reconfigure and invent…
‘Black Star’s richly illustrated documentation of the political
struggles of the Asian Youth Movements proposes a national heritage
that would be something more than bland old Blighty (Vilayet). The
book’s archive speaks eloquently of a pressing Black politics, and
Anandi Ramamurthy cares for the lessons of anti-racist
anti-imperialist organising. The impasse of twenty-first century
war-on-terror murder-death-kill paranoid keep-calm-and-carry-on
proto-fascist anxiety is skewered by the sharp posters, the
enthusiasm, the dedication, the long vigils, and the styles and
phrasings of all those left-wing uncles and radical aunts who hoarded
boxes of leaflets and pamphlets in back rooms and in attics so they
could one day be retrieved as testimony to a difficult settlement in
multi-racial Britain. That this book retrieves this history as a
living, and urgent, heritage – with the principle of ‘self defense as
no offense’ still prominent – is a absolutely necessary triumph’ – John Hutnyk.