Stabbing the Oligarchy in the Back

The Black Hundreds march in Odessa in 1905

Without socialist reform, every capitalist country is primed for civil war – including Russia

by Phil Hall

Russians are good chess players, but life is not a game of chess. It is far more complicated. Putin and his confreres correctly identify the real challenge they face – and that faces all the representatives of criminal capitalist oligarchies around the world. Vladimir Putin’s real enemy, and the enemy of the class he represents, are his own people. Any socialist worth their salt understands this. The spectre of class warfare is ever-present in every capitalist society: in the USA, China, the UK, Nigeria, South Africa and Brazil – in every capitalist country in the world.

In his speech, given during Wagner PMC’s attempted mutiny, the Bonapartist Russian president, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, compared the attempted insurrection to the Bolshevik Revolution which caused the capitulation of the Russian regime to Germany in 1917. His speech was hardly an endorsement of egalitarian, internationalist, communist and socialist ideals.

Every capitalist country in the world is faced with intense internal contradictions arising out of increasingly accentuated class conflict, with greater and greater wealth accumulating in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Unless wealthy elites and corporations reform and sustain enlightened social democracies in every capitalist country, civil wars are primed and ready to be unleashed. We saw evidence of this in France over the pension reforms and now there is rioting over the brutal behaviour of the police -mainly towards migrants. The riots have now spread to more than one European country.

To understand the limitations in the analysis of Russian strategists and game players, one must understand the following: Russia has always been relatively insular. It is hard to govern as a whole because of its great size. Despite all the many achievements of Russia’s literature, art, science and technology, the majority of the country is rural and socially and culturally backward.

For example, Russia, in the time of the USSR, did not undergo the same cultural transformation in the 1960s that much of the rest of the developed world underwent. The increased tolerance, equality and individual liberty promulgated by young people in the 1960s was regarded as bourgeois decadence by the government of the USSR.

The USSR was not an advanced communist society, although it possessed some aspects of an advanced socialist society. On the whole, the communism of the USSR was a distortion and a sham. The USSR inspired the Orwellian idea. The dictatorship of Stalin installed a vacuous and frozen ideology into the Soviet educational system. It crammed this ideology into the heads of every school child. Any questioning of this ideology resulted in being blacklisted and marginalised. The government by the Soviet communist party was pharaonic, pyramidal and tolerated no opposition. After an initial period of hope, the USSR ended up being the exact opposite of the original ideal; that of a country governed by people’s Soviets. The people did not govern in the USSR.

Unscrupulous real-politick kept the nomenklatura in power. But when the moment came to transition to capitalism, the ‘communist’ nomenklatura was ready. It had absolutely no compunction or hesitation in seizing state assets. Yes, these were the personable ‘тунеядство’ that the African, Asian and Latin American socialists hob-knobbed with uncritically; grateful for the intelligence received, for Soviet jeeps, Kalashnikovs and SAMs. When it came to a critical evaluation of Soviet society, they looked away.

Since 1990, Great Russian chauvinism has raised its troll-like head. These can sometimes be very unpleasant people. Many of us had the experience of being cornered in a bar at an airport or in a hotel by some hard-drinking Russian in the 1970s or 1980s in the USSR. He (because it was always he) would then tell us how much he hated black people and Soviet Jews and how much he liked Apartheid South Africa and, oddly, Israel.

I lived and worked in the USSR. First in 1984 and then between 1990 and 1991. The slugs of the nomenklatura, who paid lip service to socialist ideals, then morphed into monster slugs in the 1990s. After 1991, the Black Hundreds were back on the march in the Russia. They became an acceptable part of the political mix.

Ukraine has the Banderites, but Russia has the new Black Hundreds. Pamyat are reactionary, monarchist ultra-nationalists. The current ruling elite rejects any of the progressive elements it may have inherited from the time of the USSR and, instead, takes care to reaffirm the older traditions of Russian autocracy, obeisance and pre-revolutionary religious bigotry. All the Russian empire’s greatest authors lamented Russia’s extreme backwardness during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and if people like Chekhov and Tolstoy and Goncharov were alive now, they would still be lamenting it.

Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-73)

Turning to those who shout and tout uncritically for Russia, we see people among them who say they are socialists. These so-called socialists are the same people who punch down at immigrants and transgender people, and at the usual targets of the national socialists of the 30s, including homosexuals. They are demagogues with no respect for democracy who quickly turn into reactionary nationalists and supporters of Russian and Chinese nationalism. The loud-mouthed, demagogic narcissist George Galloway is a good example of one of these anti-democratic faux socialists. He plays to the ultra-right crowd.

Chavez, Lopez Obrador, Morales, Bolsonaro, Trump and Duterte. These are all populists who either bypass democratic institutions or traduce democracy when they achieve power. Demagogues pop up in lieu of anything better. They are political opportunists; flotsam and jetsam. They conveniently forget what Russia actually is and who controls it. They ignore the fact that the Russian people might actually hate their own oligarchy. These Europeans and Americans side with the Russian oligarchy and have the cheek to call the Russians who oppose their oligarchs ‘traitors’.

Falling for the old trick; the SUN newspaper on sinking the Belgrano

Whipping up nationalism is a useful tool to manipulate the masses of people. Nationalism binds societies together into a bundle perforce, into a fasci. The war on Russia for its resources by NATO, and the great Russian nationalism of the Putin government that opposes it (acquiring its neighbour’s territory in the process) binds Russian society together in its support of a Bonapartist-like leader. If some of the humblest Brits hanker for the glory days of empire and look admiringly at the pink on the old the maps, then so do some of the humblest Russians.

Nationalism is a temporary unifier. We have seen this trick before so many times, now. We should be wise to it. How does it go? Forget inequality. Forget exploitation. Forget injustice. Rally round. Rally round the billionaires: billionaire Putin, billionaire Sunak, multi-millionnaire Ramaphosa, multi-millionnaire Biden.

It is an unfortunate truth that wars and economic crises precipitate social chaos. But they also catalyse social change and revolution. Or, as Putin explained it, ‘stabs in the back’. Putin equated the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 to a stab in the back. Putin and his oligarchy would deserve it! Just as Sunak would and so would Biden. Socialists, what may be coming, what may be precipitating out is not a world war, but a world revolution of sorts – and a chance to eliminate an especially vampiric form of corporate capitalism.

A footnote: Despite all appearances, don’t count European social democracy out of a multipolar world. With our immigration policies, with the egalitarian education of our young, with Europe’s embrace of human rights, with its regret for past colonialism and nationalism, with its partial avoidance of fratricidal wars, European society has become advanced and comparatively tolerant. Tolerance and multiculturalism are precisely the values that recidivist nations like Russia reject. If any society is prepared for a multipolar world, then it is European society, not BRICS.

Photographs through an art filter

Experiments with photo art applications, in particular the PRISMA application.

by Philip Hall

Passing photos through ready-made filters hasn’t really taught me much about how paintings and drawings are made, but doing this for a decade has taught me how important it is to have an artist’s eye and how the artist’s eye – even when it is automated and a little sugary – can be so transformative.

My first experience of art was difficult. I was six and my father dragged me around the Louvre in Paris and all I wanted to do was to sit down. I tried to show interest. I remember the little picture of the Mona Lisa at the end of our long walk through the galleries.

There was a cordon to stop you from getting too close. It was a little dark. There, a lady with a smile looked at me from the painting. She had a strange, high, wrinkle-free forehead. It was mysterious; why was my father showing me this? I wasn’t tall enough to see the pictures, either, so I had to crane. There was another small picture my father looked at for a while. What was he looking at? I asked him. I think he said it was a picture of Adam and Eve. Well, my mother’s name was Eve, so I looked up at it. But it was quite a dark painting. I couldn’t make anything out.

The art that my parents seemed to value was African art. Even the drawings and paintings on the wall. Wherever we went, our parents bought handicrafts and the creative work of the people of the countries in which we lived. Pride of place were Makonde carvings, ancient and abstract. They showed circles of people intertwined or holding hands and forming one sculpture made from ebony. Dark, hard, ebony.

My next encounter with art was in France, where my grandfather – despite the fact that he said he didn’t like modern art – took me to all the modern art galleries along the Cote d’ Azur. I visited them arm-in-arm with my grandmother. The highlight for me was the Chapel Matisse, which, strangely, at age 14, made me cry. I came back 40 years later with my wife to see it again and I cried again. And I hardly ever cry.

When I was older, I read John Berger and John Berger said something that made a lot of sense. Art was paid for by the rich and very often reflected the concerns of the rich and so, the artists had to paint beyond the intelligence or understanding of the mercenary aristocrats and merchants. Or s/he had to paint with their complicity. Like a sort of court jester, or a confidant.

I saw The Draughtsman’s Contract. An aristocratic and childless couple hires a young artist. The husband is infertile. The draughtsman thinks he has been hired because he is talented and witty and good company. What he does not know is the wittier and cleverer he is, the more he seals his doom. He is there to impregnate the character played by Janet Suzman and then be killed.

The wealthy are more concerned with conserving their wealth and power through inheritance than they are with wit, science and art. The movie was off-putting because there were sex scenes with Janet Suzman, who got down on her knees like a brood mare (Peter Greenaway was being obvious here) and Janet Suzman was my mother’s best friend throughout school.

John Berger said that there was a fetish about original art and that there was very little difference between a reproduction and the original. The original was used as a way of monetising something because there was only one of it. He pointed out that the art of the rich shows off the possessions of the rich and presents the picture the powerful and wealthy want to present as a form of propaganda and that the art of that time objectified women.

I did not know at the time that Berger was responding to a much greater, deeper and interesting set of observations made by Kenneth Clark in his series Civilisation. Neither did I realise that Berger was contradicting the art critic Walter Benjamin, who believed that original art retained an ‘aura’.

When I was 18, suffering like hell, I travelled across to France to see my old school friends and my first proper girlfriend and then broke up with her. But it was a messy breakup. As we always did in Paris, we visited modern art museums and saw art house movies. I wasn’t as pretentious as my friends, but I tried to catch up. It didn’t come as naturally to me as it did to them. That’s where I first noticed Gustave Moreau. I still like his work.

We met again in Switzerland and I had an awful time with no money in Italy and finally had to try to get back and hitched across Austria. And I mention this because in Austria an artist gave me a ride from Vienna to Innsbruck in his combi. He was working for a quiz show programme where people answered questions from a telephone box and his job was to set up the telephone box. He said he would give me a lift if I helped him and I did. I set up his telephone box in the rain and the bright lights of the TV switched on and the quiz show hosts suddenly switched on their charm, too. Just like that. It was rather shocking and sinister.

But on our long drive, the quiz booth man explained conceptual art to me and told me about the marvellous Marcel Duchamp. He himself was a conceptual artist, you see. I and I saw what he meant and why Duchamp was great.

Remember, in literature and art, with semiology, the question of authorship is disputable. We are talking about the subjectivity of the viewer, mediated by society, and the subjectivity of the artist and his or her intentions and unconscious intentions and the influence of society on that author and so on and so forth. The 80s and early 90s were the time of post-modernism when D.Js like Fatboy Slim were mixing other people’s music and experimenting with it and calling it their own. It was the age of commercialisation, theft and sarcasm.

In Madrid in the late eighties, briefly, I spent time with an aspiring Australian film director who had just made a film called ‘Saliva‘ and who wore ski pants. I annoyed her a lot because I argued, having read something in El Pais, that the CIA had supported the abstract art of people like Rothko and Pollock and later Schnabel, as a way of undercutting the influence of radical figurative art. They didn’t want any Diego Riveras, thank you very much. They didn’t want political art, they wanted Andy Warhol. The Australian was furious with me. Abstract US art was sacred to her.

And I could continue to recount all the experiences that formed my appreciation of art, but I won’t. I just want to explain why I decided to take using an art app with a phone seriously. Without any pretensions to being an artist, I wanted to experiment by trying to take the pictures that I wanted to and then layering them over with filters.

In an age of a billion photographers, what does it matter? I can co-create. Did the app create art from my photo or did the photo allow the app to make it more like art?

Moreover, the technology is a phone. So, I have been using phones, which are annoying because the designer of the phone camera always automates it and tries to second guess the user. The photo that you take is already ersatz before you actually pass it through a filter. The following pictures are the selection of result of a decade of amateur experimentation with art filters, mainly from the application PRISMA.

Passing photos through ready-made filters hasn’t really taught me much about how paintings and drawings are made, but doing this has taught me how important it is to have an artist’s eye and how the artist’s eye – even when it is automated and a little sugary – can be transformative.

And now, in a strange turnabout, I have met an artist who says he is willing to contemplate turning some of these pictures into actual paintings, changing them again in the process. We shall see.

Pete in Rahima (2013)

The Other Side of the Sun (2014)

Southern Trains (2014)

Eve (2020)

For we like Sheep …(2018)

Fair at the Museum (2016)

Barbican (2021)

Ventilator (2021)

Sea Horse (2015)

Winchester (2019)

Fallen Tree, North Downs Way (2018)

Sodium Light of the Gulf (2012)

Self Portrait, Saudi Arabia (2014)

River Itchen (2018)

Thames Path (2022)

Flowers (2015)

Richmond Park, Ladderstyle Entrance (2022)

Pilgrim’s Way (2018)

Gertrude (2018)

Train to Venice (2013)

The Triangle (2021)

Gertrude (2021)

Stone Lamb (2022)

Brothers after COVID (2022)

Mini (2021)

John and Tere in Richmond Park (2022)

Flowers (2012)

Kitchen Still Life (2022)

Carmen Drinking Coffee (2017)

Piccadilly (2015)

View over Ranmore Common (2019)

Trees in Winter on Coombe Hill (2020)

New Malden Station (2014)

Peter Cowlam (2022)

Ice Cream, Venice (2013)

Net Curtains (2020)

Kingston Rowing Club (2020)

To and Fro (2014)

Vaporetto (2013)

Fox (2020)

Pollarded Tree (2021)

Eve’s room (2016)

Flower (2017)

Epping Forest (2022)

Pembroke Lodge Approach (2022)

Tea Shop in Skipton (2022)

Twickenham (2020)

River (2022)

Night Tree (2016)

Window (2021)

Screen (2021)

Skipton market (2022)

An Easter-Passover-Eid reflection: Why is everything the way it is?

Not-God is simply not enough.

By Philip Hall

The alternative to God is not Not-God. Rather it is something INSTEAD of God. But then what in heaven’s name would that be? Applying Ockham’s razor must not produce an absurdity. You cannot dispense with the notion of God without producing an absurdity (Try not to stumble over the irony in that statement.). And, by the way, William of Occam was a Franciscan Friar.

God is not an unwarranted presupposition. God is just a placeholder linguistic term for human existential angst. We do not know why things are the way they are, so we have faith that they are the way they are for a reason, though we do not know that reason. The alternative is nihilism and irrationalism and strange, inhuman belief systems which go against humanity and our values, like dog-eat-dog social Darwinism, so harmonious with predatory late stage capitalism.

You cannot replace the idea of God with nothingness. This is what the Soviets discovered. This is what all atheists discover. What is very amusing is to watch just how weird people’s ideas become once they remove the concept of God. For example. You ask a rational and scientific minded person the reason for human existence and they couldn’t tell you to save their lives. So they have to say weird things like: ‘Oh it just is.’ or ‘It’s all an illusion generated by the brain.’ All kinds of squittering non sequiturs.

These are people who claim to be rational who say this strange things. Still, they certainly don’t trust their own imaginations or subjectivity. Even worse, they follow strange comfortably exotic belief systems without really believing in them; merely for the benefits they feel they get from them. So, in removing God, they now develop a system of thought with self deceit underpinning it.

grayscale photography of chessboard game
Late stage capitalism equates competition with health. Photo by Felix Mittermeier on

One mustn’t misunderstand the nature and importance of language and the human imagination. A lack of a faith in human morality and imagination can lead us into some very dark places: nihilistic existentialism, for example. Euthanasia, eugenics, racism, gender bias, worship of the rich, despising the poor failure, eliminating disabled people. Things like that.

People look around them and see order and beauty and wonder – everything. And then they infer that something (or someone) is behind it all. Now what that someone or something is they don’t know. So they invent a word for something they do not understand. The meaning behind it all.

To describe what is (which is all science can ever do) is not to describe why it is. But perhaps people have some ideas about why it is that do not require a place holder concept like ‘God’. Ask any truly religious person about God and they will say God is utterly unknowable and unfathomable. What’s in a name?

God is a deictic concept for why everything is the way it is. It is just a finger pointing. Don’t confuse the finger for what it points at. Don’t confuse religion for divinity. It is the product of the human mind.

‘To say: ‘it is what it is’ is nuts because we live in a universe or structure and causation, of complex systems.

But remove the placeholder concept God and you are still left with a question: Why is everything the way it is? To say: ‘it is what it is’ is nuts because we live in a universe of structure and causation, of complex systems. Who made the rules? Who caused causation to be? Who made it so that things panned out the way they did?

grayscale photography of crying woman
Depression and loss of meaning are the emblematic diseases of  late stage capitalism. Photo by Kat Smith on

Well, let’s get rid of the who. If you do that, then there must still be a what. I am in complete disagreement with people who say everything emerges from matter. Meaning does not emerge from matter. What a ridiculous statement! It is an alienating asseveration. The programmer creates a programming language and is then programmed by his own language – basically this is to allow yourself to be manipulated, narcissistically, by your own fossilised thought processes and inventions.

Forget the word God. It is just a stupid debating point for bullies and trolls who are full of certainty – on both sides.

It upsets me when the human imagination, poetry, philosophy and art are all relegated into behaving like the pot boys of scientism. This is a form of philistine, intellectual self-mutilation. The imagination should stand at the prow.

I don’t need anything instead of a god’ says one person.

And I think that that is the problem. Because if there is nothing instead of God (and the word God is only a word – according to respectable religious people themselves – for something utterly unknowable) then what is the explanation for why things are the way they are?

Not HOW they came about, mind you, but WHY they came about.

Forget the word God. It is just a stupid debating point for bullies and trolls who are full of certainty – on both sides. To me the concept of God is a patch on the sun. The concept of God is just a finger that points at reality. People who define God with certitude and what God ‘wants‘ are pulling your leg. I think we can all agree on that. But people who point at God are not. God is just a word for the reason and meaning of everything.

What is the non-religious explanation for why things are the way they are? Is there one? There has to be one in the end, because here we all are. What do you want to call it? Nature? Buddha?

Capitalism relies on people like Keir Starmer and Neil Kinnock

Strategic betrayals are always rewarded

By Phil Hall

In the Middle Ages in 1381 the mayor of London, William Walworth, killed Wat Tyler at a parlay with a knife by stabbing him in the stomach and then cutting off his head. The mayor’s coat of arms then became the Saint George’s cross with a dagger drawn in one corner. This should be the coat of arms for all traitors to progressive causes.

From the Anonimalle Chronicle cited by John Simkin of Spartacus Educational:

When the king reached St. John’s Fields he was joined by a fine company of well-armed men. And they kept the commons like sheep within a pen. Meanwhile, the mayor went to kill Wat Tyler. When he came to Smithfield he asked what had become of the traitor. He was told that Wat Tyler had been carried by a group of the commons to the hospital for the poor near St. Bartholomew’s and put to bed. The mayor went there and found him, and had him carried out to the middle of Smithfield and had him beheaded. The mayor had his head on a pole and carried before him to the king at St. John’s Fields.

When the commons saw their chieftain, Wat Tyler, was dead, they fell to the ground like beaten men, imploring the king for mercy for their misdeeds. The king kindly granted them mercy, and then they went home. The king knighted William Walworth. The same day he made three other citizens of London knights for the same reason. These are their names – John Philipot, Nicholas Brymber and Robert Launde. The king gave Sir William Walworth £100 in land, and each of the others £40 in land.

Of course, to some extent, we are all sell outs. So, when we say someone sells out what exactly do we mean? We mean they have a choice. What choices do you have in China? Stand in front of a tank?

There are good professionals of all sorts, often well paid, who contribute plenty to society: doctors, engineers, pilots, architects, researchers, chemists. Do their politics really matter? We need these people. The wealth of a country can be measured by the quality and number of useful, highly educated people it has.

Many honourable liberals fought colonialism the Nazis and apartheid and all forms of injustice, too. They didn’t sell out socialist dreams because they were never socialists in the first place. Liberals have fought for democracy in many places in the world at different times. In contrast, there are quite a few toxic, dogmatic and tyrannically minded people calling themselves socialists who couldn’t give a damn about democracy. Does it matter if they sell out or not?

Ralph Allen

The Bath entrepreneur Ralph Allen is an example of how strategic betrayals are always rewarded. At the age of 24 in 1716, the nosey parker opened a letter from James Paynter and betrayed the Cornish Jacobites. After this, he was awarded contracts to run post offices across England.

In British politics the ‘left wing’ Labour MP, Neil Kinnock convinced Joan Lestor to vote against Tony Benn in the key deputy leadership contest. He helped turned the tide against Benn in 1981 and so Denis Healey got into the Deputy Leadership. Kinnock received a lot of support from the media and won the Labour Leadership after his strategic betrayal. Even the Financial Times can make a clear analogy between the betrayal of Benn by Kinnock and the betrayal of Corbyn by Starmer. ‘Starmer faces his Kinnock moment.’ reads the FT.

Christopher Hitchens is a good example of a successful strategic betrayal. There are intellectuals who play the enfant terrible for a long time, but turncoat at exactly the right moment in order to get maximum advantage. Hitchens was lionised and well rewarded when he supported the Gulf War, praising George Bush and Tony Blair.

Even the Financial Times can make a clear analogy between the betrayal of Benn by Kinnock and the betrayal of Corbyn by Starmer.

The key to a successful strategic betrayal is that you are consequential enough to be in a position to betray trust in the first place. What most of these people are doing is clawing their way into visibility through socialist organisations in order to sell their souls at a profit. It’s important to show your willingness to stab a close left associate from the front or the back. Throw Jeremy Corbyn out of the party. Accuse him of antisemitism despite his reputation for being against all forms of racism. If you want to signal your willingness, demonstrate that you are utterly ruthless.

Once the sell outs have been noticed, they start signaling to the establishment. A For Sale sign lights up. We see this with Labour MPs: they make a little remark defending Israel here. They refuse to criticise US bombing raid there. They make a harsh remark about the current enemy of choice here: Russia, Libya, Syria, The Serbs

Michael White at the Guardian claimed that the explanation is quite the reverse. Benn was not betrayed in 1981, you see, Benn was a purist, an uncompromising ideologue. Benn was not a realist. For Michael White, Benn was a case of the self-styled perfect being an enemy of the good. Michael White, by the way, was the person the Guardian chose to put the pin into Benn after he died.

What the argument for compromise really stands for is the willingness to betray fundamental principles. Anyone arguing for real social justice and redistribution must be sidelined. The sellout, from the days of the abolitionists and before, always labels the reformer and revolutionary as a fantasist and Don Quixote and attacks them for being unrealistic.

Many of the enfant terrible in the left-wing alternative media in 2021 are just people looking for decent, well-paid, secure jobs in journalism.

When the teenager says: ‘I hate you, Mum’ she doesn’t hate her Mum. Not really. We know. The BBC knows, too. Novara Media was careful to be onside when it came to the antisemitism hoopla. Novara Media were signalling.

Novara insults people who deserve to be insulted, like Laura Kuenssberg. In private, many people in British journalism must have the same view of Laura Kuenssberg as Novara. Laura Kuenssberg’s over enthusiastic hatchet jobs on Jeremy Corbyn were not exemplary or balanced, though she was rewarded with the silver chaff of a journalism prize to throw people off.

Ultimately, Kuenssberg’s bias made her useless as a political editor. The BBC held on to her only long enough to save face. She is the equivalent of the manager sent out to fire everyone who is then, herself fired. Novara wasn’t being brave in criticizing Kuenssberg. It was merely boxing clever.

The real function of these seemingly strange and contradictory invitations is to help generate an intellectual immune response to socialist and revolutionary ideas.

A lot of intellectuals are invited to work in US universities despite their left-wing politics. They go, but we all know why. They are hired as a sort of vaccine. They vaccinate the US body politic against radical political analysis and activism. The real function of these seemingly strange and contradictory invitations is to help generate an intellectual immune response to socialist and revolutionary ideas. Slavoj Žižek and others are the political equivalent of the Pfizer vaccine.

But to betray successfully and get rewarded you have to be willing to go the whole hog. If you are merely tricked into changing sides rather than making a full-on strategic betrayal, you won’t be trusted or rewarded.

A good example of this was Clare Short, who was against the war in Iraq. She was the minister for foreign aid in the New Labour government (DFID).

Tony Blair did his best smiling impression of Mephistopheles and offered the good-hearted Clare Short an increased aid budget to help the poor of the world – in return for support for the Iraq War. Short agreed, but almost immediately regretted it.

Short at a rally in Birmingham in January 2009, in support of the people of Gaza, photo Faizan Bhat

Too late! She was then disappeared from media view almost immediately. Instead of the opponents of Blair, like Short, the BBC still constantly serves us up with his supporters, people like the hateful Alister Campbell, that dysfunctional crocodile.

If capitalism could buy everyone out, there would be no contradictions in capitalism. But that’s not the way it works. Capitalism needs to extract labour surplus. It lives for exploitation. It thrives on greater and greater levels of inequality. Corporations are not going to suddenly hire everyone and pay them a decent wage. Forget that. If you think that then you are either a disingenuous fool, or a liar.

Isn’t encouraging systematic strategic treachery the key to the political-philosophical contribution of John Rawls? Wasn’t Thatcher’s shareholder, house owning democracy just that? If you can give just enough people a stake in the continuance of the status quo, the status quo survives. It’s a balancing act. You don’t want to be too generous, but neither do you want to provoke an insurrection.

If capitalism could buy everyone out, there would be no contradictions in capitalism.

An act of strategic betrayal can soon disappear from view and get washed away out of thought and memory, because its result is only the destruction of what might have been. We, the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and the reforming left in the Labour party are well aware of who betrayed our shared vision of a more equitable society in Britain.

Who knows what might have been?

Open letter to Nick Bostrom

Never mind existential risk, what are your politics?

An open letter to Nick Bostrom, Director of The Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University

By Phil Hall

Dear Nick,

I think you should be using H. G. Wells’s version of futurology, the one he explores in his book Anticipations and elsewhere and move away from the narrower, logical-philosophical-statistical definition you seem to be relying on at the moment.

H. G. Wells was political!

Are logic and statistics really the correct basis for a useful futurology? Are they sufficient? Of course they aren’t! Not unless to be a Quant is to be a futurologist. Can you really put a more profound discussion of understanding of the nature of human beings and their society and culture in their environment to one side? There is no ceteris paribus here.
Our psychology, shared needs, expectations, values and cultures shape our world, especially in the time of the anthropocene. They do so far more than ‘science’ or ‘technology’.

Science and technology have no agency. They are not independent actors. Developments in science and technology are mere trajectories based on the culture and values of the people who control the development of science and technology. We haven’t reached a stasis where we can make assumptions about what these are and forecast trends based on abstract technocratic principles.

Science and technology have no agency. They are not independent actors.

We haven’t reached the ‘End of History‘. We are living under capitalism, which is full of contradictions. The market rules, which means the rulers of the market rule. It is impossible for people whose principal aim is profit, to harmonise that motive with rational action for the social good. The two forces are incompatible. The interests of the many and the few are irreconcilable. People who are exploited will always rise up together against the people who exploit them. These forces, science and technology, have no agency in themselves. They are the product of our culture and we have the agency.

Zuckerberg’s Meta.

The uses of technology are too unpredictable to extrapolate. Watch Mark Zuckerberg talk about The Meta, his new company. There is nothing new here. In fact, Facebook is also a great place for discussing politics and collaborating and social organising. A new Facebook called Meta will not, primarily, be about gaming or business meetings or hooking up. Gaming, business meetings and hooking up are just the activities that Zuckerberg values. Neither is Facebook simply a ‘social acid’ meant to dissolve opposition to capitalism in consumption and provide the illusion of connection. as Catherine Liu suggests. Facebook is also a catalyst for collective resistance to exploitation – like the telephone.

The job of economics is to make capitalism work. To identify existential risks to capitalism and work around them and make it function better. That’s not your remit.

I do like your analysis and extrapolations. They do provide insights into Artificial Intelligence and existential risk, but they seem bloodless, and abstract to me. Your insights provide a veneer of objectivity to something deeply subjective; individual and social behaviour. The job of economics is to make capitalism work. To identify existential risks to capitalism and work around them and make it function better. That’s not your job. To me, your insights are far too technophiliac and techno-centric.

high angle photo of robot
Photo by Alex Knight on

Where, in your work, is there evidence of a broader concept of futurology that doesn’t make easy assumptions about the nature of people and society? You seem to ignore many of the insights available to society we can find in sociology, history, anthropology, psychology, literature and art? Where is the evidence of any ‘input’ from these disciplines in your techno-centric analysis? You are the director of The Future of Humanity Institute. Before you try to project the future of humanity, define what you mean by humanity. I challenge you.

Where, in your work, is there evidence of a broader concept of futurology that doesn’t make easy assumptions about the nature of people and society?

The greatest power to transform our society and our environment and to direct our efforts comes from our subjectivity not post facto trend analysis. Statistical correlation only has validity when talking about human society when it demonstrates that it understands human society.

If you love nature and animals and people, you protect them and that can shape everything around you. You spend money in a different ways; on hospitals and schools and not on roads and spaceships. That, in turn, affects existential risk and the nature of the AI we develop. And by AI I don’t mean conscious artificial life, simply advanced, autonomous expert systems.

Before you try to project the future of ‘humanity’ into far futures, define what you mean by humanity, I challenge you.

If profit and power are the motivations of the people in charge, technology takes a different route. Futurology for the Soviets or the fascists was not the same as futurology for capitalism or fascism. Politics shapes our world. Yet you present your findings as if they were apolitical. That’s strange. H. G. Wells was highly political. What are your politics? Behind the techncratic facade, your politics shape your version of the future, just as H. G. Wells’ politics shaped his version of futurology.

You are writing your magnum opus. Kindly make your politics explicit in the prologue to that magnum opus.

Kind regards,

Philip R. Hall

Socialist arguments against religion

Joe Hill

Will there be pie in the sky for us when we die?

By Phil Hall

Socialist arguments against the use of religion are not always arguments against the idea of an ordering presence in the universe, or against an Earth and a cosmos full of meaning, or against a transcendent expansive all including love, or against beautiful metaphors that equate prophets of love to sons and messengers of ‘God’.

Nowadays, socialist arguments tend to put questions of spirituality to one side and focus on developing practical ways to achieving social justice for believers and non-believers alike. Enlightenment socialists believe in the freedom of belief. Liberation theologists are welcomed with open arms into the socialist ranks.

The socialist argument against religion is that it has been used as an ideological tool to control ordinary people. The socialist argument against religion can be summed up like this: the rich tell ordinary people, using the megaphone of a church pulpit, that being a victim, that allowing themselves to be exploited, used and abused, makes them better people.

Ordinary people, robbed of control over their own lives, working like dogs for private companies and then cast aside onto the rubbish heap, according to religion, should comfort themselves with the possibility of receiving a future reward in heaven. The rich told ordinary people for centuries, through the religion they sponsored and supported, that there would be pie in the sky when they died.

People who own less, or little, or nothing usually feel that they have had their labour and human potential stolen. We work to make a profit which other people steal from us. This is a cause for depression and despair.

But we have our injured sense of self soothed by religion; by priests, ministers, imams and gurus. These religious authorities ask us to view our relative poverty and lack of power over the outcomes of our lives as a condition of moral superiority.

Of course, the wool of religion can only be pulled over people’s eyes so long as ordinary people are uneducated, and so long as they need religion as a mental refuge and way of self-comforting and justifying their feeling of failure and helplessness. As George Monbiot, the British journalist ecologist and social activist says: ‘If wealth were the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.’.

The poorest of us make great sacrifices and often work incredibly hard. But when ordinary people are uneducated and busy trying to survive, they don’t always have the time to study in order to identify the actual reasons and causes of their difficult economic situation, and rise up to change thier society to make it fairer. There is no time to read Paulo Freire or Robert Tressell.

Confronting the power of a mafias takes enormous courage, and support from your whole community; whether that mafia is a criminal organisation selling drugs under the counter or a criminal organisation selling drugs over the counter.

Religion asks you to have faith your life will get better if you ‘trust in God’, when the reality is different and contradicts the belief in things getting better. Things will not get better until we uproot capitalism! the whole aim of most companies is to pay you less for more work and make you work in worse conditions. It is easier to hide your head in the sand like an ostrich when facing corporate mafias that are so powerful. Some of these mafias own vast arms companies. They declare war at the drop of a hat and are responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands. Instead of opposing them and suffering the consequences, we prefer to imagine everything will get better.

Nowadays, religion is less and less the preferred ideological tool of the oppressor. They, the powerful and wealthy, own the mass media and exert most of their power to influence and persuade through that. But when religion was the preferred tool of the powerful, it taught nonviolence because a peaceful response to violent oppression (submission) is always preferred by the oppressor. The people who suggest it are lionised.

First, to throw off the chains of the slave drivers in factories and offices requires unionisation and solidarity: organised collective opposition to exploitation. There are only a handful of good capitalists and eventually, even these sell off their companies to people whose only motivation is to squeeze even more profit out of people.

Next, opposition to oppression requires the creation of political parties. You need new laws and political parties to push them through. Political parties who, alongside the Trade Unions, fight for pensions and safe work conditions, for free health care and education.

But when all that is achieved, we must face the cruel reality that changing the rules of the game is not enough, because there is no game. Ultimately, when ordinary people really try to get more control over their lives and the fruits of their labour and partially succeed under the existing rules of democracy, the response is a fist: subterfuge, targeted assassination, eventually a coup and then the imposition of tyranny. How do you confront this? Religion argues for submission. Socialism opposes that cop out.

The socialist argument against religion is also that it can sometimes prevent people from thinking clearly. If you are a mystic, lost in mystical thoughts and mumbo jumbo about nature and guardian angels, djinns, destiny and reincarnation, and the idea of a big angry eye in the sky judging your every little movement, then you are far less likely to behave rationally and in concert with others; far less likely to be able to develop a clear strategy to combat oppression and exploitation and change society.

The socialist argument against religion is not a spiritual argument, and socialists are only concerned with the spiritual beliefs of religion when they are disempowering. It is true that socialism, as a product of the enlightenment, looked down on religion as obscurantism, but they were not concerned with debunking unprovable ideas that were intrinsic to people’s culture and well-being, rather they were concerned to oppose the use of religion by the powerful as a tool of social control.

When religion ceases to be a useful tool for social control and instead starts to become a rallying cry against oppression, when progressive religious ideas that stress social solidarity and social justice come to the fore, then that is the moment when the powerful abandon religion as a useful tool of social control and rely more on the mass media and think tanks. When religion begins to oppose the powerful and wealthy, that’s they begin to search for a new kind of priesthood to oppose it.

The Preacher and the Slave

By Joe Hill

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ’bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

And the starvation army they play,
And they sing and they clap and they pray,
Till they get all your coin on the drum,
Then they tell you when you’re on the bum:

Holy Rollers and Jumpers come out,
And they holler, they jump and they shout
“Give your money to Jesus,” they say,
“He will cure all diseases today.”

If you fight hard for children and wife,
Try to get something good in this life,
You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell,
When you die you will sure go to hell.

Workingmen of all countries, unite,
Side by side we for freedom will fight:
When the world and its wealth we have gained
To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain:

You will eat, bye and bye,
When you’ve learned how to cook and to fry;
Chop some wood, ’twill do you good,
And you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye.

How to celebrate the Day of the Dead

and a calavera for the selfish

By Phil Hall

So you have lived deep and extracted all the sweetness out of life, and you have had your last meal. But, what food and drink would you like people to remember you by? What wafting smell would have the power to conjure you up from the grave, or draw you back down through the portals of heaven; to tempt you back onto this lovely balls-up of a planet?

Were you the Queen of buttered, slightly crisp and salty asparagus? Were you the King of French Cognac? Were you the Polish Prince of English wild forest mushrooms? Were you enslaved to Arabica? Were you an advocate for English cheese? Did you murder for a drink? Were you an innocent victim of chocolate? And, did you see the world in a grain of rice and eternity in a glowing coal of truffle?

On All Hallows, on November 2nd, in an act meant to both evoke and invoke the dead, Mexicans put up altars and lay out the favourite food and drink of those that they loved, respected or just plain put up with.

Traditionally, Mexicans are both comforted and comfortable in the company of their dead.

Altar tradicional de día de muertos en Milpa Alta, México DF.

How to set up an Altar to your Dead

Only two months to go to the day of the Dead. Why not try setting up a homemade British altar of your own; fumigate the demons of Halloween with some Mexican magic. The day of the dead is beautiful, spiritual, and it is also therapeutic.

Push two tables together and cover them with sheets of orange, blue, white or purple crepe, with ribbons cut out into patterns of the same material. Decorate the surfaces with lots of Marigolds and then place photos of your dear ones on the table.

Carefully, lay out the food and drink they liked, together with a few of their possessions: those tortoiseshell glasses, the hand illustrated book of German aphorisms, the teddy bear, a handful of garden flowers.

Then, before you go to bed, scatter a trail of bright yellow petals right up to the window ledge. Leave the window slightly ajar. Light the candles on the altar. Think of your muertito and go to bed. If you are lucky they will come back in the early hours, and keep you company once more.

In the morning, have a nibble or a sip from the food and drink on the altar. You will find, as Mexicans have repeatedly pointed out to me, that the food and drink have lost a little of their flavour. This is the positive proof that the essence of the food has been consumed by visiting relatives and friends.

When I die, on the altar, next to my picture, I want a bowl of cold purple beetroot borsht with sour cream, and a taco or two made with cuitlacoche and melted Oaxaca cheese. Don’t forget the tequila.

Bread of the Dead on sale in Coyoacan, photo by Cristina Zapata Pérez

Bread of the Dead for Masterchef

Another key signifier of the Day of the Dead is a special bread. I made it to try to get onto Masterchef. I remember Bread of the Dead from Xalapa. I was studying at the university of Vera Cruz in 1984. It was a chilly November morning.

Xalapa is the centre of a coffee growing region. It has a view of two volcanos: the Pico de Orizaba, rising in the distance like Kilimanjaro, and the Cofre de Perote, a smaller, broken little thing.

It’s the day before my birthday, the Day of the Dead, and at the university, in the cafeteria they are selling a simple lumpy looking cake-bun sprinkled with sugar. And they are selling cups of hot, chocolate, pineapple and vanilla flavoured atole, serving it from large aluminium pots.

My classmates laugh.

This is Pan de Muerto. they say and point out that it is made in the shape of a corpse.

Is it? I look at it. It tastes better than Panetone, buttery, fragrant and yeasty. The sticky atole warms me in the autumn morning.

I make the Pan de Muerto carefully for Masterchef and it rises three times. Then I make the rompope and they both taste as I imagine they should, and I am sure its good because my Mexican family eats the whole batch. My wife tells her mother:

Yes, he really did make bread of the dead and it tasted just right.

I make another batch. The crust is a little darker this time, better, ready for tomorrow morning.

They have asked me to come at breakfast time. My Pan de Muerto and rompope will go down well.

London is almost deserted. It’s early. I arrive and they take me to a room and a tall young woman with glasses films me and smiles. A more serious and older woman interviews me.

But she doesn’t seem too concerned about the food or what it means.

I take out the green Tequila shot glasses and pour them a taste of the cold yellow Rompope, and then I take out the Pan de Muerto and place it on its large decorated clay plate and they both try a little piece and drink the rompope.

The interviewer says:

Cake. Hmm, nice. But she doesn’t take another piece.

She asks me. Why do you want to come onto Masterchef?

It would be nice. I say. And I smile, relaxed.


Well, I love Mexican food.

I see.

What would you do if you won? she asked.

I’d be really pleased, and…


Well, perhaps a restaurant.

You would be the cook?

Not really. My wife would be in charge. I would help.

Do you cook Sunday lunch?

I help my wife.

Why don’t you ask her to come along?

No, I don’t think she would like that.

There was a silence.

Well, thank you for coming. ‘I’d just like you to know that you reached the final stage of the eliminations. Very few people do that.’

Thank you. I left the building, walking out into a cold, bright empty street, the shutters just opening.

I walked into a smart Italian restaurant and ordered Eggs Benedict by way of consolation.

The Eggs Benedict were very good, with their Hollandaise sauce, and before I left the waiter came back and I told him what had happened. He sounded interested.

I’ll take some to the cook.

It’s like Panetone, I called after him as he went to the back of the restaurant, but with orange water, more butter and a little anise.’  

The chef tried it. He liked it. The waiter smiled at me, ‘He wants to know the recipe.

I noted the recipe down for the chef, contented, and then left.

Calavera for the selfish

Another essential part of the Mexican tradition is the Calavera. You have to write a poem ending in the punchline, Death. In it you make fun of people’s foibles. My calavera is dedicated to the supporters of Adam Smith and the idea that greed is good.

Death came today and gave me some advice.
She said;

‘Good news: I’ve designed a special diet for you.
If you follow my instructions
Two years from now you’ll be as thin as I am.
After all, isn’t your health the most important thing?
And your own happiness must be your prime concern.
If you know what I mean.’

And death winked, knowingly and smiled.

Only when you are happy can you make others happy.
Do you agree?
Only when you are satisfied can you satisfy others.
Only when you have gathered enough money
Do you have money to share.

Forget thinking about what’s wrong before you act.
It’s not your job to put the world to rights.
And all your reading and writing. What’s it for?
It’s intellectual masturbation, and changes nothing.
It won’t change anything.
Stop pretending to be nice.

Human nature is human nature.
Get real, you shlemiel!

The body is where it’s at, not the mind.
Exercise instead: swim, run around, cycle about
Exorcise the ghost of your conscience.
It’s an illusion anyway, a category error.

Enjoy the things you choose to buy!
To live needn’t be to suffer.
Be detached from the poverty and unpleasantness
That very occasionally surrounds you.
You’re not responsible for it.
Think of other people’s misfortune as instructive.
These are not your problems, they are someone else’s.
“Il faut cultiver votre jardin” remember.

Look, my little Arjuna, be all that you can be!
It’s meaningless anyway.
Be consummately free.’

Then death smiled again.

‘But one day, perhaps, even sooner than you guess
When you’re fed up with your, precious Atman, and your self
Meet me in Switzerland, and I’ll put a stop to your life
And crush your wizened little heart, like this.

She closed her fist.

And you’ll get what you deserve.
That heaven of nothingness
You always secretly believed in
Will be your place of rest and
Proof of your

Part of this article was originally published in the Guardian, the Word of Mouth section

Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

The USA broke Afghanistan, now it must own the mess.

The USA Bugs Out

By Phil Hall and Tony Hall

The decisive battle that the USA has lost is the battle to rebuild Afghanistan and win hearts and minds. Let’s start by injecting a little historical memory into these farcically simplistic and convenient narratives of invasion, counter invasion and withdrawal. ‘We tried. We came in to rescue women and girls.’ Really?

We crossed the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan in 1976. The names of British soldiers were set into the rock of the pass in brass plaques. Churchill, the aristocrat who hid under a commoner’s name, when he was a young subaltern, a lieutenant in India, said of the Afghans – before running away from them:

“The danger and difficulty of attacking these active fierce hill men is extreme. They can get up in the hills twice as fast as we can, and shoot wonderfully well with Martini Henry rifles. It is a war without quarter. They kill and mutilate everyone they catch and we do not hesitate to finish their wounded off. I have seen several things which have not been very pretty since I have been up here.”

From the letters of Winston Churchill

We were the fighters, a former Afghan Mujahadin told me, who centuries before slaughtered our wives and children before going off to fight the Golden Horde; there was nothing left for us to lose. We are the men who defeated the USSR’s elite fighting force, the SpetsNats, the best in the world.

The Halls by a river near Herat in 1976, photo credit Eve Hall

When we passed through Afghanistan in 1976, it was still part of the hippy trail. I remember its fast, clear, pebbly rivers. I remember beautiful, unveiled women. As a joke, a young soldier at a petrol station pretended to run me through with his bayonet.

After the Second World War, Afghanistan was gradually pulled into the orbit of the Soviet Union. After all, Afghanistan was on its border. The idea was to ‘bring it along’, as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were brought along.

From the late 50s onwards, the former Soviet Union positively indulged regional identities, and, at the same time in its clunky and unsubtle way, unenhanced by the exquisite weaponry of PR, the USSR encouraged equality of opportunity for women, secularism, public works, and the rest of what was commonly and clumsily associated with progressive society.

The world in 1970 was going into the last phase of a long period of standoff, if not balance, between post-colonial, state mediated capitalism, and giant state socialism. The Soviets had a stake in Afghanistan’s stability. The USA, on the other hand, developed an interest in its instability.

Afghanistan was trying to play regional Soviet involvement off the long distance strategic opportunism of US foreign policy. Half the highway we drove over, the one that crossed the country, was paved by the Soviets and the other half was paved by the United States government. You could actually see the join. The different types of road surface met in the middle of the country.

The bellicose US agent in the region was Pakistan and, with its help, the US plan was to first destabilise Afghanistan and India and then use any opportunity that arose to try to bring both countries into the western sphere of influence, out of the semi-neutrality they had enjoyed until then.

In 1976, there was no war in Afghanistan and all the women did not wear hijabs. Kabul was a nice peaceful city. The western flower children, in search of enlightenment in India, passed through Afghanistan on their way. They read in Lonely Planet that the Afghans were so hospitable that they would look after foreign guests for weeks expecting nothing in return. Some hippies stayed for months. Still, in their hospitable fashion, the poor Afghan farmers hosted them.

The broadminded King Zahir Shah in 1963, photo Afghan govt.

The Afghan king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, was a reformer, He liked western ideas and liberalised Afghan society. He is quoted as saying:

I am “not a capitalist. But I also don’t want socialism. I don’t want socialism that would bring about the kind of situation [that exists] in Czechoslovakia. I don’t want us to become the servants of Russia or China or the servant of any other place.

But land reform was important to farmers and there was no sign of it. The king was removed in 1973 in a coup by his cousin Mohammad Daoud Khan. Still no land reform came.

In April 1978, according to John Ryan, the army intervened after demonstrations. The Afghan government stood down and the army took power. Noor Mohammed Taraki, a Marxist university professor, became president. This, even the CIA has admitted, was without the involvement of the USSR. The vital point, however, is to remember that the Marxist government in April 78 came about through a totally indigenous change, that good things happened under Taraki’s leadership, and that, for most Afghan people, bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.

Although the takeover was not part of a democratic process, John Ryan, a retired professor of geography and senior scholar at the University of Winnipeg who was in Kabul in 1978, wrote:

it is important to understand that if the U.S. had left the Marxist Taraki government alone there would have been no army of Mujahideen.

In an article written in 2006, Ryan, describes how he perceived the popularity of the new Marxist government:

Labour unions were legalized, a minimum wage was established, a progressive income tax was introduced, men and women were given equal rights, and girls were encouraged to go to school. On September 1, 1978, there was an abolition of all debts owed by farmers. A program was being developed for major land reform, and it was expected that all farm families (including landlords) would be given the equivalent of equal amounts of land.

The immediate response of the USA was to oppose the new Afghan government, and it started training conservative Muslim opponents to the regime, bringing into the fight the USA’s Muslim Arab allies from the Gulf region to participate in the process of the destabilisation and Islamisation. This was a terrible mistake. The USA should have pushed for a democratic election and not immediately tried to organise a coup d’etat.

Story after story in the western media, on the TV channels, on the covers of Time and Newsweek, throughout the whole of the establishment press, commended the brave mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet-backed regime.

Afghanistan had been turned by the USA from a relatively secular country where women had some freedom and the right to an education, into a misogynistic, warring hellhole.

In the second half of the 70s, capitalist exploitation and speculation, and religious extremism, were operating globally, feeding off each other – with socialism so left out, and secular nationalism so constantly slapped down that almost the entire geo-political stage was taken up by two mad, ungovernable forces pitted against each other. Criminal Lunacy Sans Frontieres.

The key to the US strategy of destabilisation was to plant an agent provocateur in the Afghan government. That agent provocateur, according to Afghan Marxists, was Hafizullah Amin who had been, allegedly, recruited by the CIA when he visited the USA. He was given the job of working inside the Afghan government to alienate Afghan society and, especially, the traditional minded Muslims in Afghanistan. He became the defense minister. He had Taraki killed in September 1979 and Amin rooted out Taraki’s supporters.

The Soviets were invited in by Babrak Karmal in 1979 to get rid of Hafizullah Amin. The involvement of the USSR was a desperate and ill advised measure. They engaged in an unwinnable war of attrition. The Soviets were unlikely to succeed in the face of the 40 billion funding organised by the Pentagon and with the participation of 30,000 non-Afghan fighters joining a global jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Perhaps Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, Brzezinski, was inspired by John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle, to harness Islam as a political force. In doing so, he released a terrible Djinn that still haunts the world.

Afghan anti-Mujahidin militia fighter in the 1980s, photo credit Afghan govt.

The Soviet withdrawal, when it came, was greeted with great cheers by the Western media. But there were no cheers when the USA’s chickens came home to roost and extremists took over the capital three years after the Soviet withdrawal. The mujahadeen won out and conquered Kabul in 1992, killing the Afghanistan president, Mohammad Najibullah, horribly. torturing him to death and castrating him and hanging his body from a lamp post. The Taliban gained ascendency in 1996.

However, the fact that it took the Taliban so long to overturn the government, in the end, is testimony to the fact that there was still strong opposition to them.

We know what happened next. The most misogynistic government in modern times took over. There are so many horror stories about Taliban rule, but I remember one story in particular. A young Afghan refugee told me that she and her whole family were in their house in Kabul and that the bullets were whizzing through the mud walls. Her aunt was nine months pregnant. They couldn’t take her to hospital because the Taliban were outside. The aunt died in agony in childbirth. The young woman swore at that moment that she would become a doctor and she told me that she now hated all men, and in particular, bearded men. She was as good as her word.

Afghanistan had been turned by the USA from a relatively secular country where women had some freedom and the right to an education, into a misogynistic, warring hellhole.

The strategists in Chief in President Carter’s government were Holbrooke and Brzezinski

Brzezinski encouraging the Mujahadin to fight

In this light it is interesting to read an extract of Brzezinski’s responses in an interview given in Le Nouvel Observateur (France), Jan 15-21, 1998.

Question: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?

Brzezinski: It isn’t quite that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.

Question: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?

Brzezinski: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Question: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic [integrisme], having given arms and advice to future terrorists?

Brzezinski: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

In terms of responsibility for the outcome of the situation in Afghanistan, Zbigniew Brzezinski was the secretary of state but Richard Holdbrooke was the Assistant secretary of state. Zbigniew was the self proclaimed ‘Architect’ of the policy designed to support the Mujahidin and put the Soviet Union under pressure but Holbrooke was the constructor. The builder, the doer. He probably built the key alliances. Later Holbrooke was hired by Obama to deal with Afghanistan and Iraq.

The effect of 9/11

In the second week of September, 2001, large numbers of innocent occupants were killed in the bombing of big city buildings in New York at the instigation of Islamist terror groups run and financed by Arab Muslims.

Responding to a wave of anger and revulsion, staring at the prospect of a centre that could not hold, of a state no longer able to protect its citizens, the President of the USA ordered his armed forces to move in and to bomb and blast the perceived source of the terror located in Afghanistan.

NATO, a cold war organisation well past its sell by date after the fall of the Soviet Union, intervened in Afghanistan in the wake of the US decision to attack. The Tony Blair and George W. Bush governments bypassed the UN and ignored the wishes of Germany and France. Was this the opportunity for a reset? Would the USA be able to make up for the past and, finally, establish a legitimate democracy and help an Afghan government defend the rights of women?

I taught a woman in the government of Muhammad Karzai in who was in charge of the social programme and had a huge budget in 2005. Her remit was to focus particularly on helping boost income generation for Afghan women. Most of the money came from the US but it was guaranteed by the world bank. She was hopeful. She was working as hard as she could to bring about change and making some headway despite resistance from the extremists. This was in 2005.

Growing nationalism in Afghanistan

But what also seems to be ignored and revised now that it is no longer part of Holbrooke-think, is the extent to which the rejection of the Soviets created a legitimate sense of nationalism. Is nationalism under-estimated as a force in Afghanistan and Islam overestimated. Who were the nationalists?

There can be no such thing as Afghan nationalism, it doesn’t exist, sputter the left-liberal historians, look, there are many tribes in Afghanistan and they occupy different areas of a so-called country and they have been at each others throats since time immemorial with the Pashtuns as the dominant tribe. The Americans are trying to create a nation that never existed. So called Afghan nationalism is Pashtun nationalism.

Warning bells ring. The influential historian Ernst Gellner oversimplifies when he defines the formation of national identity and emphasises different kinds of homogeneity. The consequences of this analysis have been disastrous in places like Yugoslavia, justifying the splintering of countries into component parts by meddling outside forces.

Nationalism, not just religion, drives the forces currently arrayed against the US and the Afghan government.

On close examination, Gellner’s approach is laughable. Look at countries like India and China. They are not homogeneous, they shouldn’t exist. Was the Soviet Union a country? If it wasn’t a country, then why is China considered to be a country? Why can’t different groups of Afghans see themselves not only as members of a tribe, but as members of a nation, too.

Ahmed Sha Massood, a nationalist leader

One of my students, an Afghan in his 20s, said that he was a follower of Sha Massood. Ahmed Sha Masood had been instrumental winning the cruel war of attrition against Soviet Forces. He had been an ally of the United States in the late seventies and 80s. He was assassinated by Al Qaeda on September the 9th 2001. This former supporter of Sha Masood, remarked that, with the presence of US forces and the failure of the government they supported, the issue was rapidly transforming into a nationalist war against a foreign invader. The Taliban were not the main problem now. He said, the USA should leave. Nationalism, not just religion, drives the forces currently arrayed against the US and the Afghan government.

The question is not whether Americans or British historians think that Afghan nationalism exists, or whether the concept, prior to their year zero strategy, was real enough. The question is do Afghans think there is such a thing as Afghanistan? Apparently they do!

The Taliban Cartel invokes nationalism and Islam

In addition to the nationalistic clarion call to get rid of the foreign invader, it became clear that another force was in play; the drug trade. The Afghan Chief of Intelligence, Amrullah Salah, was forced to resign by Hamid Karzai. The reason was he exposed a $500 million drugs deal that Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai carried out of Bagram airbase – with the approval and involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America.

At that time Amrullah Salah, the chief of Afghan intelligence, was arguing for a greater US military aid and more constructive cooperation and engagement from the USA; more support in getting rid of the Taliban. His appeals were ignored.

Taliban drug lords travel to Dubai to live high on the hog.

A UN report that came out during that period explaining how the Taliban were now deeply embroiled in the drug trade. The stories go that Taliban drug lords travel to Dubai to live high on the hog; to gamble and sleep with women and men and luxuriate in all that sinful western consumer society has to offer, while their foot soldiers, peasant fighters, are duped into fighting a patriotic religious war.

Taliban foot soldiers are paid around $500 a month. This is a lot in a country with so much subsistence level poverty. A substantial part of what these foot soldiers do is protect the drugs and arms trade. Attempts by US strategists to find substitute crops like saffron for Afghan farmers, and replace poppies, have failed.

On the one hand, there is the legitimate nationalist yearning for Afghanistan to be free of foreign interference. On the other hand, the USA is facing an unwinnable war against an international drug cartel that hides behind the increasingly flimsy disguise of fundamentalist Islamic ideology.

This doesn’t harmonise with the simplistic clash of civilizations story that the BBC and other influential outlets rely on to explain the current situation and the reasons for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

There are other complicating factors. There is the problem of the ineffectiveness of US and Afghan government troops; a territorial army man, tall and fit, a family member, went to train the Afghan police. He pointed out when he went he witnessed drug taking in the British army. He said drug taking is a big problem in the US army and in the Afghan army, too. Drugs bring corruption.

Drugged up and disillusioned soldiers offer little resistance to a determined enemy,  especially a determined enemy with both nationalism and Islam on its side and an enemy who pays ordinary Afghan farmers a good wage to fight.

Moreover, there are also bad, trigger-happy elements that discredit foreign involvement in Afghanistan, elements within the private military contractors – the companies which constantly change their names,

I met young European men about to go to Afghanistan in 2011 to fight. I asked them why. They told me.

‘To be a soldier and go to battle and kill people is part of what it means to experience the fullness of manhood.’

In its desire to undermine the Soviet Union and get strategic control of Afghanistan, the USA shattered the country. Now, despite desperate pleas from the Afghan government – corrupt as it may be – after all the damage US foreign policy has caused that country, the USA is withdrawing its ineffectual troops and abdicating from its responsibility to clean up the mess it has created over decades. It has decided to leave Afghan women and Afghan secular society to the mercy of the Taliban.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

Tony Hall initially worked as a reporter at the Johannesburg Star. He joined the Congress of Democrats after Sharpeville along with his wife Eve Hall. He interviewed Nelson Mandela in hiding. Tony Hall was the first journalist to be banned from a major newspaper in South Africa when, after interviewing Potlako Reballo on a forthcoming insurrection, he was questioned and refused to give information to police.

Tony went into exile in Kenya and worked on the Daily Nation. He wrote the column ‘On the Carpet. However, when Tony helped to drafted the platform of KANU his involvement with KANU was discovered, he was fired from his job as the communications officer for the East African Community, and he and his family were forced to leave the country.

In the United Kingdom Tony worked for Oxfam and then moved with his family to Tanzania to work as Training Editor for The Standard with Frene Ginwallah. From there Tony was appointed Oxfam information officer for East Africa and was the first to reveal to the world, the 1973 famine in Ethiopia. After Ethiopia Tony and Eve shared the job of Oxfam Information officers in India.

After India Tony Hall worked as an editor of international Newsmagazines focused on the Middle East for eight years. Then he left to join his wife in Somalia where he worked for UNDP starting IMR, a trade magazine. He trained a team of Somali journalists to run the magazine.

In the late 80s Tony and Eve were in Harare. Tony was Editing the Magazine Africa South and East under the aegis of editor-in-chief Govan Mbeki. It was at this time that Mandela was released and Tony and Eve were unbanned. Africa South and East moved its headquarters to Yeoville. When Allister Sparks resigned as head of Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, which he founded, Tony Hall was offered a senior management job at the institute, however, once again, he left to join Eve who was working in Addis Ababa. There Tony become the Communications Director of the Economic Commission for Africa, a branch of the UN.

Why do ordinary South Africans like Zuma? Isn’t he a bad guy?

Are you mystified? Well, allow me to enlighten you!

We are watching ordinary South Africans riot as they see Jacob Zuma tried and sentenced to jail for corruption. If you live in the UK or in Europe or in the USA then your media cannot explain to you why this is happening. Why are people defending Jacob Zuma? As Adam Curtis put it, when the media doesn’t inform us properly about what is happening then all we can do is throw up our hands, shrug and say: ‘Oh dear!’

Great Britain, the USA, Australia and New Zealand are now full of embittered white South Africans who left because Apartheid ended. Don’t let them bend your ear and drip poison into it, either. They are not a reliable source of information on South Africa. When you meet them at work and in pubs or bars, remember who they are and take what they say with a big pinch of salt.

Jacob Zuma earned the respect of the majority of ordinary South Africans the hard way.
Jacob Zuma was jailed for 15 years on Robben Island from 14th February 1964 to March 1979. After his release he organised internal resistance for two years and then, after setting up ANC intelligence networks, he joined the Central Committee of the ANC.

Great Britain, the USA, Australia and New Zealand are now full of embittered white South Africans who left because Apartheid ended.

In comparison to Nelson Mandela (may he rest in peace) Jacob Zuma is what the Chinese would call “an uncarved block”. Although Nelson Mandela was a high-ranking member of the Tembu Royal House who rejected tribal customs and ran away from an arranged marriage. Jacob Zuma, on the other hand, had no formal education. He was self taught, and he behaved and lived like a traditional Zulu chief with six wives and twenty children. In contrast, Nelson Mandela studied law at the University of Witwatersrand and set up his own Law practice.

Perhaps it was partly this unpolished traditionalism that helped Zuma in the early 1990s, as ANC Chairperson of the Southern Natal Region, persuade the Zulus to turn away from bloody civil war, and to persuade Inkatha to sign peace accords and channel its energies into democratic competition in the elections of 1994. It was not Mandela who stopped the civil war, but Zuma. I can hear some of you now.

‘What civil war?

Machete and spear-wielding Inkatha party members massacred ANC supporters in Boipatong- June 1992

In succeeding by preventing the civil war, Zuma sabotaged the last gasp effort of the Apartheid regime, in collusion with Inkatha, to Balkanise South Africa: to shatter the new born ‘Rainbow Nation’ and set up black enclaves and white enclaves.

But, five years later, Zuma attracted the enmity of the neoliberal wing of the ANC being groomed by foreign and domestic capital, Thabo Mbeki and Cyril Ramaphosa. This enmity started after he began to speak out against Mbeki’s neo-liberal policies and the failure of Thabo Mbeki’s government to redress the structural problems of inequality created by Apartheid.

Zuma sabotaged the last gasp effort of the Apartheid regime, in collusion with Inkatha, to Balkanise South Africa

The riots that you see happening now in South Africa are as a result of these failures. Don’t blame Zuma for the structural inequalities. In criticising neoliberalism, Jacob Zuma, nominally a socialist, also attracted the support of many people on the left in South Africa in the ANC and the Trade Union movement (COSATU) and in the South African Communist Party. The knives came out. Jacob Zuma was now targetted by forces at home in South Africa and abroad.

It was no surprise then when an orchestrated campaign against Jacob Zuma began. Zuma came to represent the alternative to Mbeki. The “Zuma Matter” – as it was known in South Africa – began with a press conference given by Thanda Mngwengwe, the Head of the Scorpions.

Zuma attracted the enmity of the neoliberal wing of the ANC being groomed by foreign and domestic capital, Thabo Mbeki and Cyril Ramaphosa.

Subsequently, the corruption charges brought against Jacob Zuma were dropped. But the attempts to stop him from reaching the presidency continued. On the following two occasions the charges were dropped against Zuma because, according to Judge Chris Nicholson and then Mokotedi Mpshe (head of the National Prosecuting Authority), the judicial process against Zuma was manipulated by Thabo Mbeki.

In the second instance, the accusation was backed up with evidence: recordings of Thabo Mbeki caught discussing how to make political capital out of the Zuma Matter with Leonard McCarthy, the former head of the disbanded and discredited elite anti-crime unit, the Scorpions – initially responsible for bringing Zuma to trial and investigating him.

The opposition appealed and, with the help of judge Azar Cachalia, suspected (and with good reason) of having a personal vendetta against Zuma, and judge Louis Harms, (who conducted the “Harms Commission” in the 1980s in London which effectively exonerated the Apartheid regime of war crimes), they tried to reopen the case.

An enormous effort went into magnifying the charges against Zuma to discredit him. The tactic of domestic corporations and international agencies attempting to get rid of Zuma were successful and Zuma was recalled and replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa, a darling of the corporations. Remember, Zuma din’t lose in an election.

This tactic of highlighting questionable behaviour and corruption by representatives of foreign governments played no part in British foreign policy, for example, when it came to the one billion dollar bribe paid to Saudi officials by a British company to get a contract. But when it came to Zuma, and how he benefitted from being the President of South Africa, it became a priority of the British government to help take Zuma down. He was an opponent of rampant neoliberalism, and, as they perceived it, of British strategic interests in South Africa.

So, when representatives of the western media like Simon Jenkins and Simon Tisdall, and organisations like the Guardian and the BBC sided with the opposition to Jacob Zuma, it is probable that they were not offering high-minded independent opposition to a corrupt and discredited South African politician at all, but behaving as part of the British media-security apparatus.

There is a contradiction. If you don’t take the Guardian or the BBC seriously when it comes to reporting or commenting on socialism in the UK, then why should you take them seriously when it comes to their take on politics in South Africa? Now, because of their lopsided reporting on Jacob Zuma, they have no way of explaining convincingly what is happening.

An earlier version of this article resulted in Ros Taylor, the former Law Editor at the Guardian banning me from writing for that newspaper. It was probably a decision taken by several editors. I am grateful for the help of Dominic Tweedie in the writing of this article.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

My journey to the end of the world

By Phil Hall

For most of the journey I was slap up against a secretary from Mexico City. It was a cramped 36 hour drive.

When we got there Julie and I walked, slowly unfolding, heading towards the cheap hotel in the dark. It was 2 am. We could hear the leaves rustle, but couldn’t see trees.

There was a taco shop on the way. Three wide-awake people inside. The following evening, the secretary phoned me from her hotel room.

“Hello, remember me?”

“Yeah, I remember you.”

That first night they prepared our tacos Merida style with a filling of cochinita pibil.

Cochinita Pibil

First, fatty pork is marinated in achiote and the aciote is dissolved in orange juice. Achiote is a red ochre paste made from a type of berry native to the Yucatan. The pork is then baked slowly in banana leaves . The wrap is placed in a clay pot in the oven or in a pressure cooker. It’s ready in an hour and a half or so. When the pork is cool, practiced fingers shred the meat into its fibres and the fibres soak up the juice and oil. Then the cochinita is spooned onto hot tortillas.

“Some chili sauce, please.”

They look at me. “It’s very hot.”

I know.” They pass me the bowl.

Basic Salsa, Yucatan style

Habanero slices and chopped red onion rings soaking in sour orange – the same orange that grows on the trees along the Merida avenues.

The following morning we took a bus to Chichen Itza for the summer solstice. The journey was much shorter. We see the observatory, the Caracol. We wander around the site, admire the snake heads at the bottom of the flight of steps, climb to the top.

I stand at the top. Look down at the people below. A voice calls out over the loudhailer system.

“It is time. Will everyone please come off the monuments?”

I wait a minute. About fifty unfriendly, pale faces look up at me impatiently from the base of El Castillo. Most of them look like Americans. But, also staring at me, is a Mexican-American – at least I guess he is Mexican-American.

I am the last person on the pyramid, and I go down quickly before the solstice begins.

A few thousand people are at the base. Julie and I meet up and decide to stand at the fringe of the crowd. A hundred gueros start to circle the pyramid ceremoniously, setting up little eddies.

The glossy, steak fed Mexican-American takes off his coat and climbs up the pyramid as the equinox approaches. He is dressed like a Mayan.

He performs an ersatz dance on one of the ledges at the base. Voices in English call out, chanting. The dancing man moans and hums; it sounds rather like a Sioux Indian song.

A murmuring of irritation spreads through the Yucatan crowd and the loudspeaker makes another announcement:

“Will the tourists who are on and near the pyramid kindly show some respect for our culture and stop what they are doing, right now.”

The fraudulent Mayan does another little jig and then we are rid of him. He comes off the monument to the sound of boos from the Mexicans in the crowd.

We watch. The sun, when it arrives at midday, casts the shadow of the steps onto the side of the pyramid in the figure of a serpent. The shadow grows until the body of the serpent joins the Snake heads at the base.

The sun has hushed the crowd.

I watch carefully, and feel no uplift. All I see is stone, light, shade and people.

The next day Julie went on a side trip and I decided to go to on my own to the beach. I went to Progreso, a small fishing town by the sea, not far from Merida.

It was more nothing. The beach was broad. I walked along it. The waves were quite rough, so I decided not to swim. The sand was an oddly depressing grey, and heaped. There were a few battered fishing boats that had been hauled up out of the water and piles of rotting seaweed.

After an hour there I went back to Merida.

Later, in the library of the Anglo Mexican Cultural Institute I looked up Progreso and found that it shared a beach with another town; Chixulub, only a kilometer away. Progreso was the exact site of the K-T extinction. Progreso was the epicentre for the catastrophe that destroyed most of the species on the planet. My intuition had told me nothing about it.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

Include courses in Hygiene, Cleaning and Recycling in the Curriculum

This is a painful, personal and political subject that affects us all.

By Phil Hall

Cleaning can be enormously glamorous. It can also be one of the most important activities people can perform. If the rubbish people stop collecting rubbish, then it won’t be long before you start to weep. If the water supply stops, it won’t be long before you stink. Don’t you want to grow up to be a mafia cleaner like The Wolf in Tarantino’s movie, Pulp Fiction? Don’t you wanna be Marie Kondo and make people cry with happiness? How about owning a big cleaning company like FastKleen, or doing cleaning audits for the NHS? Or you could be the cause of much of the relaxation, safety and satisfaction experienced in a care home. If you are working in rubbish and recycling then you are a big part of the reason why people are proud of their neighbourhood.

Don’t you wanna be Marie Kondo and make people cry with happiness?

Being dirty can be associated with a lack of education, while being too clean, or hoarding can be a sign of a psychological problem like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Relationships break up because people have different ideas about what should be cleaned and how often it should be cleaned. Cleaning becomes a domestic battlefield. Many an otherwise happy couple have ended their relationships over the toilet bowl, or the sink. The weapons are toxic chemicals, brooms, dustpans and plastic brushes.

annoyed young ethnic couple quarreling in cozy apartment
‘I asked you to take out the rubbish.’ Photo by Alex Green on

Cleaning is stigmatised and considered to be lower class by some people. Yet think of all those high status managers bandying about their empty words, while they sit their arses down on chairs that are spick and span; in shining rooms; with windows which have been cleaned by people hanging hundreds of metres above the street. Who is really adding value to society?

Many an otherwise happy couple have ended their relationships over the toilet bowl or the sink.

The rich in the west can afford to pay for people to clean their spacious flats and houses, while in developing countries even the lower middle class can employ vulnerable young country girls. The young women clean and clean, while the whole family orders them about and sometimes abuses them. Men and Boys in Britain, for years, have leaned back while their mothers and sisters cleaned. Because they are just so ‘useless’ at it, you see.

‘Let me do that, son.’.

Such a useful incompetence, indeed?

‘I am no good at ironing. Ha ha ha.’

Grateful smile, indulgent smile.

Angry look!

If you examine our streets and our beauty spots sometimes you see the tragedy of the commons in action. Some young people don’t care about the common good. Yobs throw empty cans and sweet packets. They put their feet up on the tube train seats. They throw up on the sidewalks after the pub and leave half eaten pizzas for the rats. After all, it’s not their stuff. They deface walls with graffiti and piss in the corners like dogs. They throw plastic bottles into the river, into the sea, … but don’t lock them up, teach them.

Men and Boys in Britain, for years, have leaned back while women and girls cleaned.

Worse than hoi polloi are the get-rich-quick fly tippers and water company managers emptying sewage into the sea and rivers, the car companies that game the emissions standards agencies, the construction companies, the agribusiness, and the mining companies and metal, fossil fuel and chemical companies who silently and secretly release toxins into the environment.

The whole skimming, profiteering blood sucking lot of them! Scatalogical imagery is the correct imagery here! We are talking about getting rid of waste. What these companies do is the equivalent of pulling down their trousers to crap on your living room carpet.

cold snow wood water
Sewage, Photo by Tom Fisk on

People are stupid., companies think. The poisons companies release into the earth, air and water are invisible. People can’t see them. It takes a while to suffer the effects. The children and vulnerable people feel them first. Meanwhile, polluting companies carry on regardless. All of them! There are no friendly companies. No company is moral because they are all out for a profit and must compete to survive. So, they up the ante and start fighting dirty when you challenge them. Are you shocked? Did you believe privately owned companies were law-abiding? Really?

Cleaning is also cultural. In places like the UK people merely wipe poo off their bums with tissue, in the Middle east they wash it off properly. In the UK we tramp in the dirt from the street with our shoes, while in Asia they take their shoes off at the door. In the UK we pick the dry snot from our noses, but in Muslim countries they clean their noses before every prayer time. Who do you think is dirty? Do you know about other cultures? If you imagine everyone who isn’t like you stinks, maybe you have something smelling on your nose.

crop housekeeper with pink bottle of cleaner
Photo by Anna Shvets on

But if we include hygiene, cleaning and recycling in the national curriculum, that will help us build a better society and solve many serious personal, environmental and political problems. What is as important as a STEM subject? Cleaning is as important. The pandemic taught us that. A certification in cleaning would take us a long way towards creating a culture of civic and family harmony. Of course some courses like this are already available, but they are limited, short courses aimed at the lowest common denominator. I strongly recommend that we offer students three certifications as an ongoing part of the National Curriculum.

I know there are already courses like this being offered, especially the vocational courses given by organisations like City and Guilds. But cleaning should also be given the emphasis it deserves in schools and colleges. Schools should offer courses in cleaning. The expertise is there to teach them.

There is also the three stage Personal Social Health and Economic (PSHE) education programme which came into the National Curriculum in 2020. It has some overlaps, with the sort of syllabus I propose, but the PSHE programme is only for key stages 1 to 5 and it focuses more on managing relationships, health and safety, sexuality and responsible behaviour, rather than cleaning and recycling.

PRIMARY SCHOOL: Basic Certificate in Hygiene, Cleaning and Recycling (BHCR)

  • How to keep yourself clean
  • How to keep your bedroom tidy
  • How to clean up after yourself
  • How to avoid annoying other people by messing.
  • How to help in the kitchen
  • How to look after your shoes
  • How to look after your clothes
  • How to clean up after your pet
  • How to tidy up after yourself in the bathroom
  • How to recycle and conserve
  • Food hygiene
  • Global warming, me and you

School visit to the dump.

Work experience: Voluntary community cleaning. Cleaning playgrounds and outside your house, cleaning your school.

SECONDARY SCOOL: Intermediate Certificate in Hygiene, Cleaning and Recycling (IHCR)

  • How to make yourself presentable
  • How to keep the kitchen clean.
  • Food hygiene part II
  • How to keep the bathroom and toilet clean.
  • How to wash clothes properly and regularly.
  • How to clean floors, windows and surfaces properly.
  • How to use cleaning products ecologically.
  • How to shop properly.
  • How to deal with messy siblings and friends.
  • How to fix small things.
  • How to assemble furniture
  • Cleaning the cracks and corners.
  • Helping your community by cleaning.
  • Campaigning for the environment.
  • Handling toxic cleaning products
  • Cleaning and gender equality: sharing the load
  • Cleaning and class

School visit to the sea or a natural beauty spot to audit pollution

Voluntary work: cleaning in the community. Reporting litter, rehabilitating public spaces like parks.

SIXTH FORM/HIGH SCHOOL: Advanced Certificate in Hygiene, Cleaning and Recycling (AHCR)

  • Making your home eco-friendly
  • Personal grooming and appearance: fashion, style, scents …
  • Managing the cleaning of a shared accommodation
  • Husbanding resources and buying responsibly
  • Home decoration
  • Democracy and direct action for the environment
  • Cleaning, hygiene and recycling across cultures
  • Toxicity and the externalisation of costs
  • Dressing to clean.
  • Carrying out cleaning audits.

School visit to a company to examine its waste disposal systems and guidelines and the related law

Work experience: voluntary cleaning in the homes of people with disabilities.

An extra distinction does to people who volunteer to work for 2 days cleaning in care homes and hospitals and for people serious about a career in cleaning and recycling, work placements should be offered in recycle depots, with MPs and NGOs concerned with the environment, cleaning companies:

Additional advanced courses in HCR:

  • Sustainable purchasing
  • Environmental auditing
  • Managing large cleaning programmes
  • The Psychology of Cleanliness and Cleaning
  • Starting a Cleaning, Hygiene or Recycling Business
  • Cleaning in Catering
  • Cleaning in the Media
  • Cleanliness, Hygiene, Recycling and the Law

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

Irritating American spell checkers

Was Noah Webster right to try to rationalise the spelling of English?

By Phil Hall

How terribly irritating it is to be forced into a decades long struggle (35 years and counting) with US English spell checkers. Some programmes enable you to select a preference for British English, but others do not. I have wasted so much time adding English spellings to American spell checkers. The Microsoft paperclip was irritating, but how much more irritating and oppressive are those phones, programmes and social media sites that try to force us into using US spellings. They get my goat.

Misunderstanding the sytematicity of the English language, Noah Webster (1758-1843) tried to ‘rationalise’ the spelling of English. Not all of his suggestions were adopted, though some were: ‘Colour’ changed to ‘color‘, ‘defence‘ to ‘defense‘, ‘centre‘ to ‘center‘.The unpronounced ‘u’ s were discarded and ‘s’ was substituted by ‘z’ for the voiced /z/.

For Noah Webster, these discards were clearly linguistic leftovers; they were the useless bits that remained

Webster easily disregarded the broader question of dialect and accent. He was primarily concerned with standardisation. He was an educationalist.

If you stipulate that spelling should dictate pronunciation, or that there be an equivalence between the spelling and the pronunciation of a word, then you are tending to enshrine one variant of the language to the detriment of all others. So, what at first sight looks like a rational act quickly becomes an imposition. Noah Webster’s dialect of choice was the English they spoke in New England in the late 18th century.

Noah Webster’s dialect of choice was the English they spoke in New England in the late 18th century.

For example. I pronounce ‘daughter‘ as /dɔːtə/, so it makes no sense for me to spell it as ‘dawter‘. Webster would advocate the spelling ‘turnep‘ which only makes sense in places where the unstressed /i:/ goes to a shwa, as it does in Australia, South Africa New Zealand and the USA. In British, Received Pronunciation (RP) the sound changes to /i/.

So, by tinkering around with the spelling system to make it seem more rational, the spelling ends up by enshrining only one version of the way the language is pronounced. Of course this is not surprising, Webster was, ultimately, an intolerant, elitist 18th century American nationalist, with all the unpleasant connotations that being an American nationalist in the 18th century entails.

“Now is the time and this the country in which we may expect success in attempting changes to language, science, and government. Let us then seize the present moment and establish a national language as well as a national government.”

Noah Webster

Then you have inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the proposed spelling. For example, Webster proposed ‘Iland‘ instead of ‘island‘. But the ‘i’ in ‘island’ is a dipthong and so, if there were a correspondence then the spelling would be ‘ailand‘ not ‘Iland’. Using the letter ‘I’ shows a lack of understanding. It is the sound of the letter, not the sound of a phoneme.

In the UK ‘model’ becomes ‘modelling’, but in the USA ‘model’ becomes ‘modeling’. A ‘traveller’ for us is a ‘traveler’ in the US. What is ‘marvellous’ to us is simply ‘marvelous’ to them. But should the Americans say ‘super‘ instead of ‘supper‘? Are their ‘hatters‘ ‘haters‘?

Noah Webster, and Bernard Shaw after him, railed against the seeming illogicality of English spelling. However, this was partly because neither of them properly understood phonetics in general, or English phonology in particular. Shaw was a great writer, Webster merely a wonderful lexicographer.

(Bernard Shaw knew Henry Sweet and modelled his character in Pygmalion on Sweet. I wonder if Sweet agreed with Shaw. Sweet defined standard Received Pronunciation in his ‘A Handbook of Phonetics’ (1877). )

But there are reasons why English spelling is the way it is. In ‘Accents of English‘, J. C. Wells – the world’s greatest living English phonetician – gives an excellent descriptive and explanatory account of the English pronunciation system.

“Cousin Reginald Spells Peloponnesus.” (Norman Rockwell, 1918)

Here’s an example. There are rhotic accents across Great Britain and non-rhotic accents. This just means that in some accents of English you pronounce the /r/ sound when it isn’t in the first position in a stressed syllable and in other varieties you do. Which variety do you now choose to favour by formalising the spelling system in your ‘logical’ way?

Take the word ‘hard’. In RP varieties, and some other varieties, we don’t pronounce the /r/ sound after a vowel in an unstressed syllable. But in places in the West country, Ireland and Scotland they do. There is dialectal variation.

Which variety do you now choose to favour by formalising the spelling system in your ‘logical’ way?

Then there is also the question of ‘r’ insertion, it’s a feature of connected speech in English. So, if you said Africa and Asia then the actual sound you made would probably be Africa /r/ and Asia. Should you make provision for that feature of connected speech in your spelling system?

When you take the decision to include the /r/ in your spelling in a ‘rational’ way – as if language were a formal system that could be streamlined – then the /r/ would have to be pronounced every time you used included it in a spelling.

The spelling system becomes proscriptive and starts to dictate pronunciation, in particular for wave after wave of non-English speaking immigrants. Of course you don’t include the /r/ insertion rule in your spelling system – rationality has its limits.

Spelling bees are important in the United States and irrelevant in the UK. That is because spelling ‘correctly’ in the United States is really an exercise in acculturation and a cultural levelling policy.

The mistake Noah Webster made was to assume that where the spelling didn’t correspond to the sound this was exclusively the result of a vestigial letter, or a combination of letters, that indicated the way people pronounced the language in the past.

Having said that, some of Noah webster’s innovations were universally adopted. For example ‘housbonde‘ ‘mynde‘, ‘ygone‘ and ‘montheth‘ were transformed into ‘husband‘, ‘mind‘, ‘gone‘ and month.

But while there is a case to be made for some reform and simplification of the English spelling system, Webster acted partly out of ignorance; his simplifications were pragmatic, but they were also bowdlerisations. Or, as the Americans now have it, ‘bowdlerizations’.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

The virtues of good, enlightened, accountable elitism

Toxic, global, corporate capitalism must be called to heel.

By Phil Hall

My father, Tony Hall, a globe trotting journalist and editor of international news magazines, a socialist and political activist, believed in the virtues of elitism. He believed in rule by enlightened elites. But don’t we all? Of course he said this sotto vocce. There were elements of Leninism in my father’s elitism and, perhaps, an over-romantic vision of the role of peasants’ and workers’ Soviets. Don’t forget, this Platonic, Soviet vision of an enlightened and just society electrified the entire world in the first quarter of the 20th Century.

Tony Hall in Ethiopia in 1973. He alerted the world to the famine taking place there

For Tony hall, enlightened elite meant ‘Goodness’. It meant a democratic socialist elite operating in a socialism where capitalism had been dethroned, though not necessarily completely rooted out. At heart, Dad believed in a society where decisions about the public good were taken by good people working in government, people who did not not cow-tow to the machines of corporate profit-making.

Are we really lions lead by donkeys?

Some of the people I know and associate with are lions. Generally speaking, they are intelligent, educated, moral and competent. They are good. If you are reading this, you might be one of them. The concept of an enlightened elite is a broad one. There is plenty of room for many tens of thousands of people to participate as a member of a well-intentioned, governing elite.

Farmers’ protests in India, photo by Randeep Maddoke

No one wants to be lead by donkeys, or dangerous buffoons like Boris Johnson. But who imagines that the Naxalites (or the Sikh farmers) can govern in India? Who thinks the Zapatistas should rule in Chiapas, or Sendero Luminoso in Peru? Who agrees that certain key Brexit voting communities in the north should be the ones to decide the future of the UK.

… this Platonic, Soviet vision of an enlightened and just society electrified the entire world in the first quarter of the 20th Century

In academia, we are asked to judge Plato’s government of philosophers as a terrible thing. It is not. In part, the criticism of this idea is because of a growing misanthropy and distrust, and lack of faith in humanity. Faith in humanity has been eroded by memories of historical atrocities and injustices, memories that remain fresh. It has also been eroded by new atrocities and injustices that continually remind us of how far we have to go.

Also, Plato’s idea that philosophers should govern is opposed because it goes against the prevailing ideology. Rational philosophers in government would not leave so much of their decision making to the so-called ‘wisdom of markets’. They would oppose the selfish intentions of the reigning global, capitalist olygarchy.

But, at root, most of us, I think, do believe Plato is right; all of us perhaps except for a few immature, embittered, despairing, half-baked intellectuals who arguing for chaos; for childish versions of anarchism, or dog-eat-dog right wing libertarianism.

No one is saying we need Blairite technocrats again, flunkeys at the service of the rich, but we should argue strongly for a competent, educated, experienced, elite; one that properly represents the interests of the entire society, an elite that represents that society in a global community that has shared problems and aspirations. Let’s not pretend that the least educated, most victimised people know better. Remember, ‘the people’ voted Brexit.

The existential threats that face humanity – many of which have been exactingly defined by Nick Bostrom – are enough to defeat any argument for a more ‘natural’ arrangements of governance.

Long live the courage, work and intellect of the Soviet people. 1962

What was communism good for?

Communism is good at winning world wars. It is good at undertaking ,and completing, big projects like the building of great dams, or sending humans into space. It works where a concerted effort has to be made. Communism, of the sort we have experienced, is a system which can build pipelines in record time. It provides people with a fair degree of equality, with free health care, social protection, jobs, a vast quantity of shitty social housing and plenty of rubber stamped low and high culture.

Communism, in places like the former USSR and Cuba, freed people from an all-consuming addiction to products; that horrible fetishism. In so doing, it allowed people to assign their own value to things.

Communism removed some of the alienation people in capitalist societies still feel when almost every aspect of human existence has been commodified, every emotion employed to manipulate and meaning reduced to status. State socialism brought us closer to our fellow humans and to nature in a community of equals. You need to have experienced communism properly to understand that last statement in your gut. Disregard the miasma that surrounds communism’s memory, study it, study its history and understand it for what it actually was.

The tourists who used to visit communist countries – even when they were not socialists themselves – would feel that something was qualitatively different about that society; they would feel that there was something new, fascinating and wonderful about Cuba, for example, but they didn’t fully understand what it was that they were sensing.

The existential threats that face humanity … are enough to defeat any argument for any more ‘natural’ arrangements of governance.

Despite its advantages, clearly this form of  communism was moribund. It was destined to die because decision making almost always flowed downstream and never upstream. Few people had agency within communist societies apart from the leadership of the party. Individualism was discouraged, or even severely punished. There was little or no accountability for the ecological messes bureaucrats caused, or for the failures in supply, or for the small and the vast abuses of power, or for the stultifying boredom of it all. Perhaps the worst feature of that bureaucratic society was that it was a perfect place for corruption and decadence to flourish.

… in 1991 the shit hit the fan for the former USSR.

Top-down communism ran out of steam. All the life has drained out of it. If you had opened the gates in the USSR most of the talented people would have run away. Fortress communism is not a viable economic and social system for human beings because such a system, to be successful, needs an enormous amount of civic participation, democracy and free and critical thought. There was little of that in the old USSR.

Within fortress communism, it is true that people were provided for, but they only had freedom where there were gaps in control. The USSR gradually became a zombie society. No moral, intelligent human being can argue the case for such a society convincingly.

Phil and Tere in Kiev in 1991

In this respect, my father and I parted company. While he was merely a fellow traveller, I actually travelled. I did a degree in Russian and studied and then worked in the former Soviet Union. ‘OK‘, I can hear some of you comment, ‘Perhaps your class allegiance is suspect. How typically middle class you are!‘ Certainly, I am no expert. But in 1991 it didn’t matter anyway, because the shit hit the fan for the former USSR.

Individual agency is a virtue of capitalism

Capitalism has the great virtue in a social democracy of giving the gift of agency to almost anyone who lives its centres. By centres I mean places in Europe, Japan, Korea, the USA and Canada and Australia and New Zealand. This gift of agency also holds for many developing, capitalist countries, too on the periphery.

Labour under Jeremy Corbyn and then Keir Starmer ignores this capitalist, entrepreneurial dimension of the former working class.

You cannot deny that people want to have control over their own lives and they want to be free to express themselves and to be creative. Capitalism is much better at this than socialism. Remember, many of the so-called working-class in the north of England don’t want to work in mines or factories any more. Instead, they aspire to being their own bosses and starting their own micro or small business. Yes, they were a part of the working class, but they don’t want to be any more and they won’t vote Labour. For many of them it is not really because they feel Labour has failed them, rather they now have the instincts of the petite bourgeoisie on the make. They have different aspirations to the working class – paying taxes is a bind. There are far more real working-class people – as defined in terms of relations to production – in the immigrant communities.

Going to Work (1943), commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee

Labour under Jeremy Corbyn and then Keir Starmer ignores this capitalist, entrepreneurial dimension of the former working class. They see Northerners and ‘the poor’ as all being petitioners to the state with their begging bowls stretched out.

In the past, before the war, the UK had a vast servant class, but no one wants to be a servant any more unless they have to be to survive, just as few people want to work in factories and mines now.

… before the war, the UK had a vast servant class, but no one wants to be a servant any more unless they have to be to survive, just as few people want to work in factories and mines now.

Capitalism, especially in its more enlightened centres, allows for a degree of individualism. There is always a wonderful shamanic element to the person who has a great idea for a new product, or a service. These are artists, of a sort.

Then there are the welcome opportunists: the Indian shopkeeper who opened on Sundays in a small town in the 1970s, whose child is now a doctor working for the NHS. There is the woman who sells cold drinks on a hot day, or hot drinks on a cold day. There is the person who does your nails so well, or your hair. There are the less beloved, the plumbers, carpenters and electricians. The owner of an enormous road haul truck. The traveller who discovers the delights of Pitaya fruit, stealing it away to his own country, calling it by another name: ‘Dragon Fruit’. There is the Bengali restaurant in Brick Lane. Even the Stone cold profiteers have a part to play, they are the ones who bring Coca Cola to some wooden duka in the driest refugee camp in Somalia. Bless ’em.

The first Costa Coffee shop in Vauxhall, now owned by Coca Cola

Are Nando’s and Costa Coffee really evil?

What should be the limits to growth of an enterprise that puts so much effort into trying to divine the needs and wants of other people, and into supplying them.

There were articles in The Guardian years ago by people who wrote about the evils of Nandos and Costas. This may confuse you. Why are Nando’s and Costas evil? They are chains, you see. They clone the high streets, you see. But who has the right to put limits on that success? Who decides when Nando’s and Costas stop being wonderful little shops and start becoming part of threatening corporate empires?

We can agree that Starbucks is not the best of companies, Unilever and Proctor and Gamble are worse. We get murkier and murkier. Think of the Kochs, Nestle, Goldman Sachs, Exxon-Mobile and BAE Systems; all of whom seem to have very little to recommend them.

… corporations can kill, maim or harm millions in their search for profit.

Ruthlessness in the search for profit affects everyone badly. There are cigarette manufacturers who kill, armaments manufacturers who kill, car manufacturers who kill, chemical companies that produce opioids, oil companies that alter the climate, tech companies that produce mass surveillance software. Corporations kill, maim, or harm millions in their search for profit, their purpose is not just to sell spicy chicken and strong coffee to passers-by.

In the darkest part of the corporate webs are the pirates and economic rapists, the evil shape shifters: Blackwater, Rentokil and Rio-Tinto Zinc. What do they call themselves these days? Then there is organised crime. Organised crime which launders its money through all of these legitimate networks.

When it comes to meteorites, global warming, pandemics and the negative consequences of global corporate capitalism, we need powerful, enlightened, democratically accountable elites to take control and make rational decisions and carry out actions that are in the interests of society.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.


One must be brave in the search for truth and not bow to authority; bow only to reasoned argument and evidence.

By Phil Hall

I just want to share something precious with you; at least it is precious to me. I am not a doctor in linguistics, but I did do a one-year master’s degree at University College London with Sidney Greenbaum. Despite my poor first degree mark, he accepted me onto an MA course in Modern English Language. He did this because I led an interesting, peripatetic life. He was curious to meet me. He thought, perhaps, that I would add a little ferment to his select group of students.

It was a beautiful experience. At the end of the course, Professor Greenbaum suggested I do a doctorate with him and apply for a grant. I didn’t. The money was too little. I was starting a family. To do a doctorate would have been a luxury. If you really want to have a brilliant academic career you have to start young. All the same, I felt pleased and vindicated that he suggested it to me. He was a kind man.

Who is Sidney Greenbaum? Well, he won the Order of Merit from the queen, the highest honour possible for any academic in the United Kingdom.

Who is Sidney Greenbaum? Well, he won the Order of Merit from the queen, the highest honour possible for any academic in the United Kingdom. Put it this way, if you were a member of the Royal Society and had won a medal in your chosen discipline, you would probably still not win the Order of Merit. Perhaps if you won the Nobel prize, you would have a shot.

Now, Professor Greenbaum was an eminent authority on adverbials and corpus linguistics. The Corpus at UCL, the Survey of English Usage, was the first in Europe and the second in the world. On the course, many people with wonderful pedigrees taught us.

On the phonology side, we were taught by two of the illustrious students of A. C. Gimson: the irascible phonologist, J. C. Wells, who wrote Accents of English and compiled The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, and Susan Ramsaran, the editor of An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English and The English Pronouncing Dictionary. We were also taught intonation, but I can’t remember who our teacher was. I’ll look up his name later. Intonation is really hard – like singing.

The Famous Five who went to UCL to study an MA in Modern English Language

To get an idea of how culturally significant this group of lecturers was, you should know the name Henry Sweet. Well, Henry Sweet was a brilliant linguist and Bernard Shaw based his character Henry Higgins on Henry Sweet. Daniel Jones was Higgins’s student. A. C. Gimson was Jones’s student. In turn, my teachers had been students of Gimson.

For Lexicology we had Jean Aitchison, for Morphology we had Valerie Adams, for Lexicography we had John Ayto, and for Transformational/Generative Grammar (or whatever its current incarnation is called) we had Dr. Bas Aarts, son of the famous Dutch Professor, F. Aarts. For Discourse Analysis we had someone come over from the Institute of Education – a timid, irritating little man, deputising for the half-baked applied linguist, Guy Cook. The chap refused to say anything definite on the grounds that all meaning had to be ‘negotiated’.

But we could also choose to attend other lectures. So, I attended the lectures of Dick Hudson and Diane Blakemore. Those were the days when Relevance Theory was important and Diedre Wilson also taught at UCL in the linguistics department. There were opportunities to attend lectures by other linguists who were visiting, too. The lecture by Jerry Fodor, inevitably circling round to the question of the modularity of mind again, was memorable.

We wanted to use The Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language itself as a textbook.

Now, if you have read this meandering article this far, well done. What valuable point am I trying to make? How does it affect you? Am I wasting your time? Almost there.

Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, from the Jewish Museum in Vienna

At the beginning of the course, the unprepossessing Professor Greenbaum told us we would use Rodney Huddlestone’s book on grammar as our textbook. My fellow students – there were five of us – decided that we did not want to use Huddlestone’s book at all. We wanted to use The Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language itself as a textbook. This was the work for which four authors were awarded the OM; it is the definitive grammar of the English language. (Actually, my signed copy of the CGEL was permanently ‘borrowed’ from me by someone in the British Council offices in Moscow in 1991. I am still annoyed about it 30 years later.)

Who were the students who were supposed to challenge Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik?

So, we come to the point I want to share. The professor agreed to our suggestion that we use his grammar as a textbook and said:

‘OK. Go away and read one chapter and then formulate questions for me for the next tutorial/seminar.’

Now, think about it. The most authoritative work in the world on the English language and we had to get clarifications and challenge what it said with its author in front of us. Who were these five daring students who were supposed to challenge Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik?

You must never, ever believe something because someone important or famous says it.

There was a Chinese intellectual, a bit of a genius. He survived the Gang of Four in China by becoming a cook and preparing food for the party bosses in China. He destroyed his stomach with spices because he did so. He used to have to fart occasionally in class because of it. There was a young lecturer from a Dutch university who had published her thesis on the difference between ‘do so’ and ‘so do’. There was a senior Japanese lecturer, Hiromichi, who was extremely knowledgeable, but not at all confident with his spoken English. Then there was me. Finally, there was a retired Englishman with a diamond-sharp mind, who had been a civil engineer.

Sidney Greenbaum gave us this talk at the beginning of the course. I want to share it with you because it is illuminating:

‘Don’t ever believe something just because you see it in print, even if you see it in the most authoritative textbook written by the most admired people. You must never, ever believe something because someone important or famous says it. Your concern should only be to find out what is true and what is not true.

Here, at UCL, we work on the principle of falsification. What does this mean? It means that nothing is true permanently.

‘Let me explain. You have an idea or a theory and you must test it to see if it fits. If it fits and explains the facts, that is good. But if there is another theory that explains the facts better than your theory, then we accept the other theory and not yours.

‘And we use Occam’s Razor. What is Occam’s Razor? Occam’s Razor says that the simplest theory that fits the facts best is probably the right one. So it is your job to test ideas and theories. It is your job to see if the theories we currently accept work; to falsify them.

‘The way you test theories is by trying to find examples that don’t fit the theory. So, for example, if a morphologist says that there are no compound nouns with the word ‘eagle’ that include a word referring to what the eagle eats and then you suddenly remember an example and shout out:

“But what about the fish eagles? ”

Then you have successfully falsified the theory. However, if there is no better explanation available then we continue to use the current one until someone comes up with a better theory, despite your brilliant counter example.

‘These ideas come from Karl Popper. This is the philosophy of science that we have chosen to use here to underpin our ideas in our department. So it is your responsibility, in fact it is your duty, to try to find counterexamples for everything. To try to falsify anything and everything anyone proposes, even if that person is the greatest authority in the world.

‘We have no untouchable authorities here. Do not be offended if someone tries to destroy your ideas with counter examples and reason. Do not take it personally, because you do not own the truth. Thank them for helping you get closer to a better explanation.’


Sidney Greenbaum asked us to go away and read each chapter and come back and ask questions and to try and find counter examples.

Well, I cannot say I read every chapter in great detail. I didn’t. I was not the best student of the five. But I kept up. The Chinese man, however, had a highly developed linguistic mind. Towards the end of the course he said to Sidney Greenbaum:

‘I think I have found a problem with this chapter.’ We looked at Greenbaum to see what he would say.

‘What is it?’ Greenbaum asked.

The Chinese student (was his name Bo?) told the professor what the problem was. Greenbaum looked down. He studied the page. Then he looked up and said to to the Chinese student.

‘Thank you very much. You are right. I will send a note to the publisher to make the change in the next edition.’

And there we have it. One of the greatest authorities working in English Grammer, with the book that won him the OM, conceding to a non-native speaker that he had made a mistake and thanking him for pointing it out.

We all learned a great lesson there and carried it away with us. One must be brave in one’s search for truth and not bow to authority, but bow to reason and argument and the evidence.

It is possible that in the pursuit of truth you make may make many enemies.

Of course, the person you discuss things with must also have the same approach. Imagine you are an undergraduate student discussing a new theory that your lecturer has proposed and you notice there are problems with it simply because you are observant and you do some research. Well, as we know, not everyone is in academia to pursue the truth. Some are there just to collect salaries and enjoy the prestige. It is possible that, in making a valid criticism, you may offend people and make enemies. At least that, on occasion, has been my experience.

So, I suggest you be as polite as you can be in your pursuit of truth, or you will suffer the consequences.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

Give me that Old Time Religion, it’s good enough for me – and you.

Socialists need to reconnect with religion

By Philip Hall

I’ve recently decided to become a Quaker. I went to a Quaker boarding school in North Yorkshire when I was a boy and hated the skinheads there, but loved the silences. The Quakers are extremely progressive. Christianity can be quite as profound as the most profound Eastern philosophy.

From St John of the Cross

To reach satisfaction in all desire its possession in nothing.

To come to possession in all desire the possession of nothing.

To arrive at being all desire to be nothing.

To come to the knowledge of all desire the knowledge of nothing.

To come to the pleasure you have not you must go by the way in which you enjoy not.

To come to the knowledge you have not you must go by the way in which you know not.

To come to the possession you have not you must go by the way in which you possess not.

To come by the what you are not you must go by a way in which you are not.

When you turn toward something you cease to cast yourself upon the all.

For to go from all to the all you must deny yourself of all in all.

Translation by Kieran Kavanaugh

What are the benefits of religion?

Religion can transform us into moral actors. It anchors us in history. It is co-operative and collective philanthropy. Our religion, whichever that may be, gives us access to a well spring of values. Religion is the secret skeleton key that opens up art and culture.

Theology and philosophy are intertwined like snakes on the staff of Caduceus. Our religion offers us the low hanging fruit of profound introspections carried out into the nature of life and reality by many thinkers like St Augustine, St Francis, Thomas Aquinas, Spinoza, and even Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

By embracing religion every chapel, church and cathedral in the world becomes yours and every mosque and temple becomes a place where your cousins go to worship.

By embracing religion every chapel, church and cathedral in the world becomes yours and every mosque and temple becomes a place where your cousins go to worship.

The meaning of everything changes when you choose to become a spiritual practitioner rather than a mere spectator. When you practice your religion collectively and responsibly and hold faith with its principles of equality and service and social justice religion becomes deeply political. Tony Benn understood. The Jesuits in Latin America have fought for indigenous rights from the moment they reached the Americas.

The vaulting ceiling of Notre Dame, Wikimedia commons

An atheist misses the point. An atheist might walk to Notre Dame and remark on the amazing flying buttresses and the abundance of sculptural decoration. The flying buttresses, of course, carry the weight of the structure, allowing the walls to be higher and thinner giving the interior a sense of open space. The use of six part rib vaults means the ceilings are higher in Notre Dame than in other cathedrals and there is more light at the altar thanks to the larger transepts.

An atheist might be moved by the beauty of the Rose window and note that Notre Dame was one of the three most important buildings in Paris. He sees that Napoleon was crowned here and an English king and that Notre Dame contains many pieces of great art: tapestries, carvings, beautiful inlay and work in gold, paintings.

But all this is not the essence of Notre Dame.

My mother was born in the Marais, from where, she told me, you can see the cathedral. We planned a holiday to France, my family and I. However, just before the holiday I was called away to my mother’s death bed in South Africa.

My family went ahead, and left to Paris. They were terribly sad, but they went. My wife decided that they would pray for my mother so they went to the nearest church, which happened to be Notre Dame. They went into Notre Dame and lit a candle and prayed there for an hour or so for my mother. We found out later that it was in that hour she died.

Notre Dame’s essence is that it has a purpose, a use.

Nine hundred years ago someone else was in Notre Dame praying for the soul of someone they loved, and any Catholic, from anywhere in the world feels at home in all Catholic churches, chapels and cathedrals everywhere. There is a unity of worship in the church that has arisen across time and space. Catholics put their religion to good use.

A cathedral like Notre Dame is to be inhabited by collective prayer, not to be examined at arms length with a quizzical expression.

Choose the religion of your community

I once witnessed an interesting argument. Culturally, from nose to toes, Nadeem is a Muslim. Isaac, on the other hand converted to Islam. Now, there is a very good reason for everyone who is religious and a monotheist to convert to Islam and that is Tawhid. Christianity is a little messed up by the nonsense of the trinity and there is always someone or other in front of you ‘interpreting’ God to you.

Islam puts it more simply. For example, even the house of the Prophet is demolished in Mecca because to worship a human being is shirk. Islam says that there is God on the one hand and then there is what God created. Nothing can or should be worshipped except God. You may venerate and respect Mohammed and the Virgin Mary and Abraham and Jesus, but you must never worship them. Never worship the presence of God in yourself or God in another human being either because he just isn’t there.

Tawhid gives you an enormous freedom. All Muslims are created equal and they are all buried in the same way; in a clean winding sheet in the sand or the earth. It doesn’t matter how powerful or influential you are, your body goes into the ground unclothed.

The freedom that Islam gives you is an immediate and direct relationship with God the creator which is only filtered through the word of the creator, which is the Koran. This gives people enormous scope because what it does is say that there is nothing between you and your God and whatever happens between you and God is immediate, all encompassing and utterly intimate. There is no Jesus to melt your heart, just the infinite omnipotent, omniscience.

Isaac read all about this in Cheam and chose Islam, despite the fact that he came from Cheam, because he was a lucid and rational man and rather alienated. He certainly paid his dues. He went to Medina and lived there for years studying the Koran from the age of 18. He shared a room with six other students and survived in Medina on a pittance. His Arabic is almost perfect, though it is only Fus’ha, not the common speech of Arabia.

Isaac and Nadeem liked the same Islamic scholar. The name of the scholar escapes me, but Nadeem is a Muslim by culture and Isaac a Muslim by conversion and Nadeem is older and complicated and contradictory and he regards Isaac with suspicion.

Isaac regarded Nadeem with annoyance. What is the difference between Isaac’s Islam and Nadeem’s? I would say that Nadeem’s Islam is far more profound and that Isaac’s Islam is oversimplified because, t some extent, it ignores the cultural and social dimension of Islam.

No matter how educated and intense and hard fought for his knowledge of Islam is, it is still shallower in comparison with Nadeem’s because Nadeem is a Muslim by culture. Isaac would claim that his idea of Islam is ‘purer’ and closer to the fundamentals of his religion, but simplification is not purity.

For me, the point is that we need to pick low hanging fruit. If we have religious instincts we should be more like Nadeem and less like Isaac. We should reach for what is closest to us, what is only a breath away; for our lapsed Christianity, not for some creed, written in a language that takes most people a lifetime to master.

Remember the awful spiritual poverty of the USSR

When the Soviets stripped Russia, and many other countries, of religion in the name of progress they didn’t understand that they were stripping off a living, breathing part of people’s lives.

They were, however, aware that they were destroying a competing value system. There was no freedom of belief for the Soviet people in the western part of the USSR. The Soviets behaved like Tsar Peter, whom they admired. But while Tsar Peter ordered that in the name of progress all men had to shave off their beards the Soviets ordered everyone to abandon God, a great beating heart of Russian culture and life.

Religion, to the Soviets, was there for the rich to keep the poor in their place, an instrument of the oppressor, so they banned it and set up museums of atheism and religion where they mocked people’s beliefs.

In so doing the Soviets left a religion sized hole that could not be filled by science or hero worship. It could not be filled by evolutionary theory. It was a hole that could not even be filled by the glorification of work. Not even the greatest achievements of humanity sufficed; nor art, romantic love or philanthropy.

There was no replacement for religion and when it was removed. What flowed into its place instead was vodka and a form of WWII patriotism; a cult of the worship of dead heroes.

Socialists need to fight back against right-wing evangelism

Through religion, as a form of concerted political action, we could also organise a fight back against the mad and bad right wing bowdlerisers of spirituality who try to shape it into an ideological defense of the American dream and capitalism.

Bad people don’t abandon religion, they use it as a weapon. Good people shouldn’t abandon it either. We can’t leave the running to nutcases like Trump’s Paula White and her ‘angels dispatched from Africa’.

We need to stop being religious tourists, spiritual spectators and non-combatants. Socialists need to reconsider the question of how they deal with spiritual matters, and start by standing up for the progressive elements of religion – by putting some skin in the game.

I said to my Catholic wife that I would like to be a Catholic. She blanched, grimaced and answered:

‘I am a Catholic because I was born a Catholic. If I were born something else I would be something else. You should look for your own thing.’

So, I have decided to join the Quakers instead. I went to a Quaker boarding school in the north for years. I love Quaker silences. That’s the community of belief for me – and they are very progressive on Palestine.

Post script: After I published the article on different socialist group sites the reaction was an eye opener. The level of intolerance towards religious people seems very high. While the Labour Party and other organisations seem concerned with reducing anti-Muslim prejudice and anti-Semitism many of the people who consider themselves to be socialists and supporters of socialism express strongly anti-religious views. These views serves to disguise their anti-Semitism, their anti-Muslim feeling and their anti-Catholicism. A vituperative attack on ‘all religion’ is their cipher for an attack on Muslims and Catholics; this despite the fact that many Muslims and Catholics identify themselves as socialists. Anti-Catholicism, while seeming justified after many abuse scandals, has a long and shameful past in the UK since the Reformation. On several websites the moderators seem to have shared the intolerant view on religion of the people posting below the line. I was contacted privately and thanked by several Christians who felt that as socialists they had been ignored, sidelined or insulted.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

Turtle in Stöhrstraße

By Philip Hall


It was the Albanian maid, Meera who discovered it.

‘There is an animal in the water butt.’ she said, agitatedly. ‘It’s black and big like this.’ She held out her pudgy hands. Her smile, which at first she offered, now drooped like a cut flower.

‘Show me.’ said Rose.

Meera opened the lid and Rose peered in. At the bottom a turtle waded in five centimetres of water, its shell was a mossy green.

It felt Rose’s stare and pulled itself up to the side. It craned to see who was there

‘How did a turtle climb into the water butt?’ said Rose, distressed. ‘It really shouldn’t be here. Take it out please, Meera?’

Meera fetched a chair from the living room, put it next to the barrel, stood on it and leaned over inside on tip-toes, reaching down.

‘Be very careful Meera, please.’ said Rose.

Meera murmured something. Her voice boomed softly, against the plastic so that Rose couldn’t make out what she was saying.

Meera straightened up. In her hands was a turtle, dripping with the rainwater from the water butt. Its feet waved slowly, tensely, its neck stretching out of the shell.

‘But what do we do with it?’ Asked Rose. ‘What do you do with a turtle?’

Meera was still and waited for Rose to tell her what to do:

‘Not that cupboard the other one, Meera. Did you buy the asparagus? Real coffee for our guest, not instant coffee. Meera.’

Rose said nothing for a while. Then murmured to herself: ‘What are turtles for?’


I could have told her to phone Auntie Li. Li’s turtle was her close companion. It loved Li and followed her everywhere, even into the bathroom. Every time Li took a shower the turtle would pull himself over the edge of the low ceramic basin and positioned himself so that the soap from Li’s body would miss him, but not the stream of warm water.

I could have told her about the turtles we lost in Guadalajara; playthings that were bought at a fair, that instead of dying escaped into the garden one day and hid in the bamboo thicket at the back of the with the rats and black widow spiders and stayed there.

One day, when the dry lightning had coughed enough and finally sputtered into a storm, the turtle crept out into the rain. We saw it from the big window. It was as large as a tortoise.


Rose took the turtle onto the patio. It did eat the bananas; mush leaking from its beak. It ate the costly pepper ham Meera had bought (which was bound to go to waste, anyway. Meera had bought too much). But the turtle didn’t eat any cabbage and only half the leaf of lettuce – perhaps it didn’t like the dill dressing.

When Rose went to the shop to buy the paper and find out what was happening to the Greek deficit and the Euro, she walked past a poster. There was a big picture of a turtle and the poster said:

‘Please, please.’

If you have any news of our beloved turtle, Putzi, let us know.

Telephone 5834939

Number 3 Stohr Strasse

The Hahn family

Of course Rose went round immediately with Meera, the Turtle like a present, in a pretty little basket lined with plastic. Inside, it was munching on the pepper ham.

Mrs. Hahn was overjoyed.

‘Our Putzi.’

She took Putzi out, stroked the turtle under the chin. The turtle jerked, biting her affectionately on her thumb, but without drawing blood. Rose watched, surprised. Those were tears on Mrs. Hahn’s cheeks.

‘Turtles are very sociable. They get very” lonely Mrs. Hahn said. We were so worried. Thank you so much Mrs. Freidrich. Putzi has her partner out at the back in the garden, Mutzi.

‘Please wait for me. I’ll be back in a moment, as soon as I have reunited them.’

It turned out that the whole street had been informed except for Rose. Everyone had been looking for that turtle. In Germany turtles are very expensive.

It was a small street. Taxi drivers could never find it. On each side the gardens adjoined and the turtle had obviously managed to crawl through into Rose’s garden.

How had it climbed up into the water butt? Over coffee and a very good Kuglehupf – light, dry and not too sweet – Mrs. Hahn and Rose sat in silence and thought for a while.

It didn’t take long. ‘Those boys’, said Rose. ‘Last week they built a little bridge from their garden into mine. It must be them.’ The 11 year old and the 8 year old were the children of the neighbours on the other side of the Hahns.

Mrs. Hahn’s eyes sparked with fury: ‘You’re right’, she said. ‘Who else could it be?’ The boys had been seen trespassing in several Stohr street gardens.

After Rose had left, and after she had thanked her again, Mrs. Hahn, marched over to the boys’ house and pressed the bell five times. A forty year old woman, wiping crumbs from her mouth, appeared at the door.


Mrs. Hahn demanded that the mother bring the boys out and that they explain why they had put the turtle into the water butt.

‘What turtle? What water butt? What are you talking about? We’re in the middle of afternoon coffee. said the mother.

Your boys will know perfectly well that I am referring to the turtle they dropped into the water tank and left to die! said Mrs. Hahn.

‘Kindly leave.’ Said the woman. ‘I am sure our boys would never do such a thing to a turtle … if they ever found one. They like animals.’

She closed the door with a bang in Mrs. Hahn’s face.

Mrs. Hahn went round from door to door to thank the whole street for helping her and to explain what had happened.

‘Those boys!’ said one of the neighbours. ‘How could they be so cruel? They are liars, too.’

“I saw one of them come into my garden, too said another neighbour sympathetically.’ ‘You are right.’

He had just had his house rebuilt from a catalogue. It looked beautiful. From the outside it was like a country cabin, but inside it was spacious and tasteful. It was a prefab, so he had had it built in only a few months. But, unfortunately, before it was ready his wife was dead. She had died of a cancer that first started clawing at her breast and then at her liver.

After her death people had started to look up to him. He pronounced.

‘That’s just wrong what the boys have done. That’s not what you do with turtles.’

Later on, when we were drinking our coffee, Rose explained: ‘The whole street is in uproar now. They are demanding those two boys admit they are liars.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

Extracts from Visions in the Rock*

A visit to Al ‘Ula and the tombs of the Nabateans

Photo-essay: a lightning trip to Meda’in Saleh

By Phil Hall

Next day, at work, Dunstan had a proposal. He wanted to go on a road trip to Meda’in Saleh. Quickly, Peter invited me to go along too.

‘Meda’in Saleh means the City of Saleh.’

‘Giants built it’ said Karim.



‘The doors are much too big for normal people.’

I decided to  ignore him.

‘Why is it called Meda’in Saleh?’ I asked Mahmoud.

‘Saleh, a prophet who was here in Arabia long before the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, commanded the people in that place to abandon their false idols and follow Allah. These people were called: ‘The ones who worshipped the Gods they made themselves.’ When they refused, he made a living camel appear from the rock, but they still would not believe in Allah, so he cursed them. The town where they lived is named after Saleh.’

We needed special passes to get to Saleh’s town. We hired a big GMC the following weekend and set off.

The inspiration behind the lightning visit, photo Phil Hall (2015)

In the front Dunstan and Peter talked about the hypocrisy of religion, the stupidity of religious people, and the wonders of science. This lasted for about 40 minutes until I decided to break in.

‘Religion doesn’t not oppose science. It’s a way of understanding our lived experience. If I were a poet you wouldn’t take me to task because I wasn’t peer reviewed. Instead, you would examine your feelings concerning the poem. Whether it moved you or not. Whether it felt authentic. It’s originality and expressiveness’

‘And yet religion makes such strong claims regarding the real world.’ Dunstan said. 

Peter nodded.

‘The only real world you will ever see or feel or know is the one you experience. I replied, and so much of that is subjective and emotional. We use religion, among other things, to understand our lives and give them meaning. It’s essential.’ Neither Peter, nor Dunstan agreed. Dunstan looked irritated.

‘By midnight we were in Riyadh and I was driving in a funk: moving through the traffic like a turtle through a school of tuna. Cars overtook us on both sides at high speeds, weaving and changing lanes. I cruised along steadily, looking straight ahead.

Taking a break after six hours of driving, photo Phil Hall (2015)

After Riyadh I was exhausted. Peter and Dunstan finished the night drive without my help. Dawn was breaking when I woke up. The desert all around us. By early morning the dunes had given gave way to a level plain strewn with grey rock. And then, after another hour, a few orange and yellow sandstone outcrops appeared. These grew larger and larger until they were as high as cliffs, and by the time we felt as if we were driving through a canyon, we were at the hotel.

Camels are always a danger to cars and the other way around, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Al Aula has a sandstone escarpment on either side. From the top of the southern escarpment, the valley of Al Aula looks like a broad strip of green. It follows the path of an underground river. The dramatic rock formations continue on to the northern horizon until they reach Petra, in Jordon. Al Aula has enough water to grow all its own vegetables and cereal crops.

The hotel was quite empty. The plan was to spend the whole day looking at the ruins, to sleep there the  night, and then go back to the Eastern Province the following morning.

Our guide, Ahmed Jaber, came for breakfast: he was a handsome man in his early 30s. He told us he was about to get married after two unsuccessful arrangements by his family. The first time she liked me and I didn’t like her. The second time I liked her and she didn’t like me. I am 33 now. I thought I would never get married, but then I decided to pay for a dowry for beautiful Pakistani Muslim wife. Her family agreed. She agreed. Now, I am looking forward to being a husband and a father.

Ahmed had been working with the archaeologists. They had discovered a small city near the tombs and were excavating it. He talked about it. They are digging up a house at the moment. He said. They have found a body. ‘It’s a woman, they think’.

‘What about Saleh and the Camel?’

Pah! This is not science. Science shows us what was really here. People tell stories, but they aren’t always true.’

Our official guide, Ahmed, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Heading towards the Nabatean tombs, photo Phil Hall (2015)

The beautiful desert Qaff tree, photo Phil Hall (2015)

The tombs had a resinous, musky smell which came from gummy traces on the walls – the cocoons of rock beetles. These had been brushed off when the tombs were opened.

The rock everywhere was eroded by the wind into protruding, curving shapes. They were so complex that with the changing light and shifting shadows, you could imagine you saw many things in them. You could project your imagination onto the rock and see different creatures. Even camels. The Nabateans had seen a great bird with a human head in the rock and they carved what they saw above many of the tomb entrances.

Nabatean tombs, photo Phil Hall (2015)
The interplay between geometrical carvings and natural rock is mesmerising, photo Phil Hall (2015)
There are 175 tombs and city to unearth, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Some plants can withstand desert conditions, photo Phil Hall (2015)
Some of the tombs were in better condition, photo Phil Hall (2015)

The lines of the entrances were cleanly geometric. But around them, the rock was unworked, as if its natural form were precious. Inside, the tombs were hollowed out into caves. There were chisel marks everywhere. There were also body sized holes in each wall. Often one cavity was positioned right above another – like the bunks on a train travelling to another world. The rectangular holes in the floor were for servants. Peter measured himself out next to one of the cavities in the wall, but he was too long for it.

The Nabateans carved symbols of their gods above the tombs

A winged god of the air, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Nabatean script was subject to many influences, photo Phil Hall (2015)

The superfine desert sand, photo Phil Hall (2015)

He wouldn’t have fit, photo Phil Hall (2015)

‘They worshiped like this, said Ahmed Jaber. First, they went to the water to wash and then they prayed to their Gods here. He spread his arms and legs against the wall, as if getting ready for a police search. And then they came here. He showed us the large square room, cut out of the rock on our right.

It is an odd feeling being inside a tomb, photo Phil Hall (2015)
Looking out of the tombs, photo Phil Hall (2015)
It was an uncomfortable feeling and there was a smell of resin, photo Phil Hall (2015)

They spoke and wrote a mixture of languages, said Ahmed Jaber. The writing you see above looks like Arabic, but it’s not Arabic. It’s a combination of Greek, Aramaic and the local dialect.

After visiting many tombs, we went to the main temple. This was inside a big crevice between two huge stone hillocks. They had carved a channel for the water between the stone hills. It ran through here, Ahmed Jaber said, and when it rained a lot, the flow was fierce.’

Ahmed at the entrance, photo Phil Hall (2015)
All 175 tombs were hand carved, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Like the Nabateans themselves, I suddenly saw a vision of the rock.

‘In a desert, the most important thing is fertility and fertility comes from liquid and water. The runnel between the rock lead to a crevice. The hillocks were round and feminine. These are female shapes. The room must be analogous to the womb, a place of conception and nurturing. They must have adored a fertility goddess here.’ It made sense. 

When I said this, Ahmed Jaber laughed nervously. 

Camels in the rock, photo Phil Hall (2015)
The scale of the tombs was impressive, photo Phil Hall (2015)
The shapes eroded by the wind, photo Phil Hall (2015)
The earliest tombs took advantage of natural holes in the rock formed by erosion , photo Phil Hall (2015)
There were so many forms hidden in the rock, photo Phil Hall (2015)
Something in the landscape imprints itself on visitors. Can you see the faces? Photo Phil Hall (2015)
The prophet Saleh is supposed to have made a living camel emerge from the rock, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Ahmed continued. ‘The Romans destroyed Nabatean civilisation’ he said. ‘They came as far as Al Aula in search of Frankincense. They killed and dispersed the people in the first century AD.’

‘Can you see the water channel?’ he asked. We couldn’t. You see that thin curving line coming down the rock. That’s a water channel. It’s disguised as a natural feature.’ Now that he had carefully pointed it out, we could see it.

‘They collected the water whenever it rained and streamed it into secret aquifers cut out of the rock. They hid their water from everyone.

We climbed to the top of the sandstone hills on steps which had been cut ergonomically into the sides of them – to take in the view.

The magnificence of the landscape, photo Phil Hall (2015)
Strange flowing forms in gold, photo Phil Hall (2015)
The adventurer contemplates the tombs, photo Phil Hall (2015)

I looked up the old Gods of the Nabateans. There were three important female ones: A Young woman, a middle-aged woman and an older woman. The most important was the youngest: Alia. The Kabbah, before it was rededicated, had been the place where they worshipped Alia, the Goddess of fertility. Perhaps the temple in Al Aula had been hers.

I opened the book my colleague had given me and turned to the pages where it described how Mohammed has all the idols in Mecca destroyed.

‘As he was leaving, the prophet, peace be upon him, stopped and called to one of his companions.’

“Go back! There is one more idol that needs to be destroyed!”

‘The companion set out for Mecca again.

‘But after a day or so he came back.

“What happened?’” Asked Mohammed. “Why did you come back early?”

‘On the way back I saw a beautiful Ethiopian woman who came towards me.’

‘What did you do?’

‘I cut her in two with my sword.’

“Good’ said Mohammed, you have destroyed the last idol.”

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

  • Text extracted from a story published originally in The London Magazine in 2015

Suspending Jeremy Corbyn is a Declaration of Civil War

Keir Starmer has now alienated the best and the most idealistic people in the Labour Party

By Phil Hall

My daughter has a heart of gold and though she is young she has already worked as the manager of a women’s refuge and in a legal advice centre. She’s about to train as a housing lawyer. I am very proud of her and her brother and sister and I want the best for them. She was inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s vision of a social democratic Britain, a more socialist Britain, but when Corbyn lost in 2019, despite manning the phones for the Labour Party and going on the stump, she was willing to accept Keir Starmer as a compromise. She convinced me, too:

‘Have you seen McLibel, Starmer gave his time as a young lawyer for free. He saw the case through to the end. He had grey hairs by the time the two litigants lost their case against McDonalds. You know, he had a paralegal working with him who was poor and bought him a suit and books. Starmer is OK. He’s a brilliant lawyer.’

‘I am deeply shocked. I can no longer defend Keir Starmer.’

Yesterday, after Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from the Labour Party she contacted me and said: ‘I am deeply shocked. I can no longer defend Keir Starmer.’ Keir Starmer has alienated the best and the most idealistic people in the Labour Party, the ones who, had he really being trying to unify the Labour Party and reach a unity compromise, would have supported him.

In January 2020, Labour had 580,000 registered members, the largest membership of any party in Europe. After the near win in 2017 the membership dipped a bit, down to 475,000, but then it rose again. The Labour membership seemed to have accepted Starmer, perhaps for a trial period only. That trial period is over and he should not be hired.

After Jeremy Corbyn’s election the excitement in the Labour Party grew. Hope grew. This enthusiasm was powered by the energy and idealism of a disenfranchised generation of millennials

Let’s look closer at that. Under Blair the membership of the Labour Party was around 200,000. It was a membership that the technocratic, autocratic, right of centre leadership of New Labour did its best to circumvent using the rules of the Party machinery. These rules favoured the votes of MPs and cabinet policy was rubber stamped by an NEC that was neutered, balanced in the favour of the Blairites.

After Jeremy Corbyn’s election the excitement in the Labour Party grew. Hope grew. The membership rose to over 500,000. This enthusiasm was powered by the energy and idealism of a disenfranchised generation of millennials – and enriched and tempered by embittered old lefties like me working mainly in education and public service, who saw a glimmer of light in the darkness.  

The Labour membership seemed to have accepted Starmer, perhaps for a trial period only. That trial period is over and he should not be hired.

Jeremy Corbyn, an upstanding human being, an important representative of the British Labour left and a lifelong socialist, got enough votes from MPs to stand for the leadership – despite the party mechanisms designed to disempower the membership. The MPs who voted for him wanted a balanced choice for leader, including someone to represent the ‘dinosaurs’ on the left. To their surprise and regret, Corbyn won. He won and he won and he won, despite three attempts to oust him.

We hold the centre-right of the Labour party responsible for joining in with the USA’s oil wars and for safeguarding Thatcher’s legacy.

At every turn Jeremy Corbyn won about two thirds of the membership vote. In a time of deepening climate change, a housing crisis, zero hour contracts, disillusion over New Labour’s support for oil wars, tuition fees at all time high it was obvious that a Corbyn premiership would go some way to redressing the imbalance in British society and  that it would allow us to get along peacefully with each other for a little while longer.

And Corbyn won. He won and he won and he won, despite three attempts to oust him.

Historians once praised the British establishment for knowing when to retreat, when to concede. After killing the demonstrators at Peterloo in Manchester it quietly retreated improving conditions and suffrage. After locking up the suffragettes and force feeding them and torturing them it waited a little and then gave women the vote. After huge mobilisations in India it finally understood that it was time to leave. The last British soldier didn’t leave India like the US left Vietnam: with an embassy operative dangling from a helicopter punching a Vietnamese collaborator who tried to get on board. No, the British left India with ceremony.

Historians once praised the British establishment for knowing when to retreat.

But this admiration doesn’t wash for the current buffoons running the British establishment. The current British establishment has shown itself to be less than silver service, less than aware of the pressing need for a rebalancing and for social justice. The establishment’s butler, its Jeeves, is now Keir Starmer.

Starmer is doing his best to please Boris Wooster and his pals, to diffuse the situation and return us to the ‘normality’ of neoliberalism. The British establishment has used the pretext of antisemitism (a deeply hurtful irony) to actually expel the man who caused membership to rise by hundreds of thousands of people making Britain’s Labour Party the largest party in Europe. The centrists and right wingers in the Labour Party like Jess Phillips have ‘stabbed Jeremy from the front’ just as they said they would and in doing so, they have stabbed us all right in the heart.

Starmer is doing his best to please Boris Wooster and his pals, to diffuse the situation and return us to the ‘normality’ of neo-liberalism.

Does the centre right in the Labour Party – who we hold historically responsible for joining in with the USA’s oil wars and for safeguarding Thatcher’s legacy – imagine that all the people who joined Labour to vote for a proper social democracy under Jeremy Corbyn will accept the decision to suspend him?

Does the centre-right imagine that we will say or do nothing and be happy going back to Blairism?

Does the centre-right think the unions that supported Corbyn will accept this action?

Does the centre-right think they can pour oil on the waters and everyone will carry on as normal?

Strangely, Keir Starmer’s Labour decided to suspend Corbyn precisely on the eve of the elections to the NEC. The voting closes on the 12th of November. This is how I voted.

A Shared Vision of the North Downs Way

At Kit’s Coty the Ancestors Spoke. They said: ‘We all belong’.

By Phil Hall

Well, 2007 was a bad year for me. I felt an enormous pressure. I started to look at maps to see where I could go. We live in South West London in a beautiful part of the city, but we had no car because we were buying a small house and saving money. We are environmentally responsible. There are many parks here, but they were no good.

When I scanned the map I noticed that to the south there were forests. And they were near us. A small dotted trail said: North Downs Way. I know about the South Downs Way. We lived in Brighton. It’s lovely. But I love trees and the South Downs way is almost treeless. It has rolling meadows.

The North Downs way looked promising. But if I went, then where would I go? I noticed that near us there was a stretch of the walk that went between Guildford and Dorking.

The North Downs Way turns into The Pilgrim’s Way

Guildford to Dorking, Dorking to Guildford

I took the leap and went into Kingston and got on the bus to Guildford. I walked down a long tarmac road to a park and saw the sign to the North Downs Way. I walked through the suburb and came to the entrance of Chantry Wood. The relief was almost immediate.

The suburbs of Guidford

The entrance to Chantry Wood

I took a picture of the exact place where that feeling of relief began in me. Where I began to feel hope. On one of my many walks along the North Downs Way I took a picture and the light forms a sort of brown cross. A chantry is a place where a monk or nun is paid to pay for peoples’ souls.

Chantry Wood, up to Saint Martha’s

My walk carried me through the forest up a sandy hill to a church with a view over the Weald. The Weald was the ancient primeval forest of the island. It was cleared and settled by the time the Romans left. The graves made bumps in the sandy ground and there were barrows at the top of the hill. I understood then that this path, along the North Downs Ridge, was an ancient path indeed. The walk features in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I think St Martha’s Hill is called The Hill of Difficulty. According to Bunyan, on top of St Martha’s is:

the House of the Palace Beautiful, which is a place built by God for the refresh of pilgrims and godly travelers.

The hero, Christian, stays there for three days and emerges clothed in the armour of God.

What is, in fact there, is the small church of St. Martha’s. It was probably not named after Mary’s sister Martha. The name of the church comes from the word Martyr. I have been past that church many times and it is always shut. No armour of God for me. Not yet.

Eve found a fossil, it was carved with two eye-slits. I imagined it was very old. I took it to the British Museum with her. They wanted to keep it. Eve said no.