29 December 2015


Little Atoms, 28 December 2015

A new outro for Moscow Gold? by me and Kevin Davey online here.

22 December 2015


'All over the war-wrecked areas from Brussels to Stalingrad, other uncounted millions are living in the cellars of bombed houses, in hide-outs in the forests, or in squalid huts behind barbed wire. It is not so pleasant to read almost simultaneously that a large proportion of our Christmas turkeys will come from Hungary, and that the Hungarian writers and journalists – presumably not the worst-paid section of the community – are in such desperate straits that they would be glad to receive presents of saccharine and cast-off clothing from English sympathisers. In such circumstances we could hardly have a "proper" Christmas, even if the materials for it existed.

'But we will have one sooner or later, in 1947, or 1948, or maybe even in 1949. And when we do, may there be no gloomy voices of vegetarians or teetotallers to lecture us about the things that we are doing to the linings of our stomachs. One celebrates a feast for its own sake, and not for any supposed benefit to the lining of one’s stomach. Meanwhile Christmas is here, or nearly. Santa Claus is rounding up his reindeer, the postman staggers from door to door beneath his bulging sack of Christmas cards, the black markets are humming, and Britain has imported over 7,000 crates of mistletoe from France. So I wish everyone an old-fashioned Christmas in 1947, and meanwhile, half a turkey, three tangerines, and a bottle of whisky at not more than double the legal price.'

George Orwell, Tribune, 20 December 1946

2 December 2015


It's difficult to know where to begin on this, but here goes:

  • The proposal to expand UK airstrikes against Isis from Iraq to Syria is not massively important in military terms. The RAF is already running anti-Isis strikes on targets in Iraq and it's clear that targets in Syria have already actually been hit. The Cameron government's proposed deployments are minimal.
  • It's important symbolically, however, both internationally and domestically.
  • Internationally, it shows that Britain is lined up with France and the US in solidarity and is, um, trying to work out what to do about Russia, Iran and the Kurds -- and, er, Turkey and the Sunni states of the Arabian peninsula, which are the key local players (apart of course from Iraq and Syria). This is rather less than convincing. It might be that the UK getting on board with France and the US makes it easier for the west to cut a shabby deal with Assad and Putin; but it might not.
  • Domestically, it has given David Cameron a chance to batter Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Corbyn has been principled in a pacifist/anti-imperialist way but lacklustre on the issue, allowed it to be turned into a test of his leadership and then performed poorly in the House of Commons debate.After moaning about Cameron's reported remarks on terrorist sympathisers in Labour's ranks, the PLP in the Commons responded seriously on the intervention motion. It was the first time in several years that the house was must-watch TV -- I think since the 2003 Iraq war debate when Robin Cook announced his resignation. The quality of debate was good, and the proceedings were civilised. Hilary Benn made an effective if hardly profound speech disowning the Corbyn perspective, and nearly 70 Labour MPs voted for the government motion. That's nearly one-third of the PLP. We live in interesting times. 

26 November 2015


  • If there was any point to throwing Mao’s Little Red Book at George Osborne, it was to have a go at him for cosying up to the Chinese government, which McDonnell believes is dumping steel on the world market and putting British steelworkers out of work. 
  • It might have made sense if McDonnell had used an incendiary Mao quote about how the proletarian revolution will use all its cunning to trick the running dogs of imperialism into serving the cause of Marxism-Leninism, and then said that nothing much has changed in the last 40 years since the high days of Maoism in China (ie, that Osborne is the dupe of the Chinese communists). 
  • Instead, he used a banal platitudinous Mao quote to the effect that leaders should listen to the people, which he obviously endorsed – as would any democrat or indeed any mad dictator. This implies that there is no problem with cosying up to the Chinese government -- unless they are capitalist roaders who have traduced Mao’s legacy and sold out the revolution. 
  • Yet if they are capitalist roaders who have sold out the revolution, there’s the double difficulty that Mao was responsible for the deaths of millions, a dictator who didn’t listen to the people – and yet remains an icon for the Chinese Communist Party, even though he is now officially considered only 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong (and is frankly a bit of an embarrassment to the current party leadership). 
  • So in half-a-minute of banter, McDonnell appeared at once anti-Chinese and pro-Chinese, offended everyone with an opinion for or against engagement with the current Chinese government, and made himself look like a particularly stupid 1968 student revolutionary. That takes class we have not seen in British politics for a long time.

20 November 2015


Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader marks the most radical break in Labour politics since 1931. His overwhelming victory means that the hard left, marginal since the defeat of Bennism in the mid-1980s (except to a certain extent in the Ken Livingstone mayoral operation, in the campaign against the war in Iraq and in some unions), is now the central command of the Labour Party – at least in name.

He cemented his success by making John McDonnell shadow chancellor (once of Labour Herald and close to the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, a key figure in Ken Livingstone’s GLC, like Corbyn a linchpin of the Campaign Group in the Blair and Brown years, and chair of the Labour Representation Committee, which from 2004 organised the hard left in Labour’s constituencies and the unions). He appointed as communications supremo Seumas Milne, the keeper of the hard left flame at the Guardian with unparalleled contacts in various hard left networks. (Milne is a veteran of the Tankie Straight Left faction that operated for years partly inside Labour and partly inside the CPGB, and he’s great friends with, among others, George Galloway and Andrew Murray, another Straight Leftist, later of the CPB and Stop the War, now Len McCluskey’s head honcho at Unite). Simon Fletcher (formerly Ken Livingstone’s chief aide and a member of Socialist Action for years) and Jon Lansman (a key organiser of the Bennite surge in the early 1980s and a key figure in the LRC) were already on his team. Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s policy director of choice, was previously a leading light in the LRC. And Livingstone himself has now been given the job of co-chairing the review of defence policy with Maria Eagle…

It’s the most improbable comeback in British politics – for a political faction rather than for an individual – in living memory. The gang that lost and appeared to have been defeated forever (and it is a gang) has come back with a vengeance. It’s different from the 1980s, when the hard left captured the Labour policy-making process via Labour's National Executive Committee, but never the leadership: this time it’s the leadership but not the policy-making apparatus that it controls.

But if this is an extraordinary turn of events, it is not inexplicable. The hard left never went away despite being sidelined by successive Labour leaders: its networks in constituency Labour parties and the unions remained in place throughout the New Labour years, and – particularly from 2003-04 – grew in influence: look at the results of the constituency section elections to Labour’s NEC and the consolidation of the hard left in the TGWU/Unite. (By contrast, the networks of the traditional Labour right atrophied, those of the ‘moderniser’ right never became more than clubs for wannabe career politicians, and those of the soft left all but disappeared.) Long before 2015 there was a widespread feeling among Labour members, by no means confined to the hard left, that the party lost in 2010 – and had been losing support since 2001 – because under Tony Blair it abandoned real Labour values. (The most important reason was the Iraq war, though there were others: spin, PFI, union law etc etc.)

Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, on this view, were massive disappointments who failed to turn Labour back to the true path, although the true path was never particularly coherently described. Corbyn came across during the leadership election campaign as honest, principled, straight-talking and unspun – and untainted by the New Labour era. With money (particularly from Unite) and organisation (based on the LRC and the unions, with a little help from the Leninist sects via the People’s Assembly Against Austerity) on his side, he won the leadership on a wave of enthusiasm against three very weak rivals who made fools of themselves by abstaining on the government’s welfare bill and articulated no vision at all. Corbyn was a symbol of hope, his victory a sign that New Labour was dead.

So what’s not to like? The first and most obvious thing is that Corbyn’s core anti-austerity message takes no account of the fact that Labour didn’t fail in 2015 because its economic policy was perceived as insufficiently radical (except perhaps in Scotland, where the SNP owed at least some of its breakthrough to the appeal of its attack on Labour’s supposed ‘austerity lite’). All the post-election opinion polling shows that Labour was not trusted as economically competent by comparison with the Tories, particularly among affluent working-class, white-collar, self-employed and home-owning voters. It was also seen as soft on welfare cheats and immigrants. There’s a real danger that a poorly designed and poorly presented ‘tax, borrow and spend’ stance will make Labour’s electoral predicament worse. Although Corbyn’s campaign manifesto included some attractive policies (albeit rather vaguely sketched out and unimaginative), it didn’t answer the question the Tories and the right-wing press immediately started to ask: ‘How are you going to pay for it?’ At very least, there’s a lot of work to be done here. (There’s also the problem of getting the new direction through Labour’s policy-making structures, which were designed to prevent radical changes of political tack.)

Then there’s Europe/foreign/defence policy. It usually doesn’t matter for most voters at election time – and didn’t in 2015 – but it does sometimes. Labour lost in 1983 and 1987 at least in part because of its foreign policy stances and internal rows over them (EC withdrawal in 1983, unilateral nuclear disarmament in both 1983 and 1987); it also lost support over Blair's backing for Bush in the early noughties. Corbyn is facing a multiple-vehicle crash already. We can argue about where he’s right and where he’s wrong – I’m particularly worried by his anti-Americanism, his anti-Europeanism, his positions on Ukraine and Russia and on the Middle East; others might baulk at his opposition to renewal of Trident. Whatever, Labour MPs have already started to voice dissent from the Corbyn line, and the potential for massive rows (much bigger than those in the 1980s) is immense. I think Corbyn’s pacifism and crude Leninist anti-imperialism are liabilities, but even if they’re not he has a lot to learn on presentation. His response to the 13 November atrocities in Paris was utterly risible.

Which brings us to the biggest problem: whether Labour can hold together under Corbyn. He won landslide support in the leadership election but has very little in the PLP, and though he had less difficulty putting together a broad-based shadow cabinet than many predicted, the differences among shadow cabinet members are giant. Then there’s the backbench right’s visceral antipathy to Corbyn and the extraordinarily resentful mood of non-Corbynysta Labour MPs throughout the PLP, who suspect that, for all his talk of a kinder, gentler ‘new politics’ – not so far in evidence – the hard left machine is out for revenge and hegemony. This could soon get a lot worse. Unless the Tories fail to get through their planned reduction of the number of MPs, there will be selections for candidates in a very large number of seats in areas with sitting Labour MPs. If the hard left launches a drive to get a PLP more in its own image, using Momentum, the continuity Corbyn leadership campaign, it doesn’t need mandatory reselection for the howls of sitting MPs to become audible very soon. Control of the party machine is already being contested between left and right – and arguments have already started about interpretations of the rules on triggering a leadership ballot, the proper procedure for selections and what constitutes a legitimate reason for excluding someone from party membership.

This is not good for Labour or for the broader left. But what next? There are many plausible scenarios – from disastrous civil war that makes the 1980s look like a tea party to everyone finding a modus vivendi and Labour being reinvigorated by the influx of young enthusiasts. Some people want to walk away, but I think a soft left network in the party to keep hard left and hard right under control and talking rather than feuding might just make a difference. How to create one and what it should do are not obvious. But a big conference early next year with a wide variety of speakers might be a start. Get in touch via comments if you are interested.

13 August 2015


1. A large part of the bien pensant liberal middle class did not believe what happened in front of their eyes at the general election. They thought Labour had done the right things to win and that Ed Miliband was a decent bloke who’d been much misunderstood. This response was particularly widespread among young Labour voters and others with a poor sense of how many British voters look at their house-price estimates on websites before putting the cross in the box on election day. Jeremy Corbyn is the champion of the disappointed who can’t believe the election result even now.

2. His appeal is not too difficult to understand. Corbyn is not a ranter or a speak-your-weight machine. He’s a decent constituency MP and personally austere. For people of broadly liberal-leftish views who don’t go out much, don’t mix with people unlike themselves and don’t read much about politics (let alone post-election psephology), he’s just a good bloke. He has caught a mood that Labour needs to say what it means rather than try to find out what people want it to say before it opens its mouth. And he’s been the beneficiary, bizarrely, of his low profile and marginal status in the parliamentary Labour Party. Tony Blair and others bemoan his lack of experience by comparison with Michael Foot and Tony Benn in the 1980s – strange in Blair’s case because he became leader in 1994 and won the 1997 general election having never been anywhere near government. But Corbyn is not part of “that lot” who OKed the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and tuition fees, presided over economic crisis and got fat on parliamentary expenses. Even though he’s a parliamentary veteran, he seems fresh, or at least untainted (in a way that Foot and Benn and even Neil Kinnock and John Smith did not after 1979).

3. This is in part simply because time flies. No one under the age of 50 has an adult memory of the 1970s and no one under 35 voted Labour in 1997. Labour’s massive bust-ups in the 1980s mean as little to committed politicos in their twenties, thirties and forties as Bevanism v Gaitskellism did to anyone under 50 30 years ago. Corbyn’s minor role in Bennism and his much bigger one in the diminished and ineffectual PLP Campaign Group hard left after Bennism collapsed are now ancient history.

4. But as time flies, the past is not just forgotten but mythologised. We all do it. I am past-it enough to remember trolleybuses and steam trains, signing on during university vacations and living in squats that were legally sanctioned. Ah, the good old days… But forget my reveries. Corbyn appeals to a wistful false memory of a mythical world. A generous cradle-to-grave welfare state and industrial economy that could both have survived globalisation if only we’d done something different 30 years ago. Tony Benn as the principled leftwinger only interested in the “ishoos”, who never realised his actions would knife Michael Foot in the back and destroy Labour’s chances for a decade or more. The heroic stand of Lambeth council against the 1980s cuts, when it was run by crazed Trots who took cash from Saddam Hussein. The narrative needs to be countered – the 1980s hard left were for the most part complete bastards – but there's hardly anyone doing it.

5. OK, I’m uneasy with idiotic nostalgia, but it's not just because I'm worried about my memories being traduced. I rather like the new. I’m online man. I don’t need to go to the supermarket any more because it delivers. I get any book or computer device or railway model I want from Amazon. I’m posting this on my blog, where it will be read (not only in my dreams) by more people than saw anything I wrote 20 years ago for small-circulation weeklies and monthlies. I keep in touch day-to-day with people who’d long ago have faded into memory were it not for social media. I get Tribune and the New Statesman and the Guardian as print editions, but I’m not sure I’ll bother much longer. Yes, there are downsides: poor pay and conditions at online retail warehouses, cities that have only charity shops in their main streets, writers and musicians put into penury, students with giant lifetime debts, the ongoing housing crisis. And of course, there is a lot wrong with the current government's policies: its cuts to benefits, public services and infrastructure spending, its proposals to neuter trade unions and so on and so on. But Corbyn doesn't get any of the upsides of the new world even though he’s a beneficiary of social media enthusiasm. He still writes for the Morning Star, FFS.

6. Politicians’ records are open to scrutiny as never before – and yet they are able to get away with platitudinous nonsense and worse because the internet has created a populist noise that has made everyone a valued player and has thereby simultaneously devalued expertise and nuance. Corbyn’s record on foreign affairs is a case in point. The first thing to know about him is that he’s a boilerplate leftist with a Chomskyite thicko’s take on the world. American imperialism is the greatest evil in the world. Apartheid was the second-greatest evil – forget about Soviet totalitarianism – but now it’s Israel as US proxy in the Middle East. Nato expansion is the root of Russia’s current authoritarianism. It was a bit of a mistake to get rid of Gaddafi and at least Assad is secular and allows girls to go out in public. And, er, that’s it. It’s simplistic, but there’s enough truth in it to make it attractive to the great new internet democracy of Wikipedia opinion. The US interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq were bloody failures. Apartheid was evil. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is shocking and generally backed by Washington. And so on. The devil is of course in the detail and the “yes, buts”, but the detail and “yes, buts” get very few people engaged. If you say, for example, that the ongoing crisis in the Middle East is only partly down to Israel, that Russia and Iran and China are more important imperialist agressors in many parts of the world than the US or any EU country, that Cuba and Venezuela and China are hardly models to emulate, you lose your readers’ attention (and then get abusive online comments from morons, though that’s a minor everyday hazard). The idiot noise online favours Corbyn; I’d rather read the FT.

7. On domestic policy, Corbyn has surprisingly little to say. The anti-austerity line (his USP) is straight Keynes and the policy prescriptions – an end to social security cuts, lots of borrowing to finance public investment in housing and infrastructure, renationalisation of the railways and so on – though rather vaguely sketched-out, are far from crazy. Corbyn is not going for a 1983 manifesto shopping list (at least so far) and has refrained (again so far) from embracing old panaceas (withdrawal from Europe and devaluation) that stymied Tony Benn in the 1980s and a large part of the soft left well into the 1990s. There are bits of his programme that are very poorly developed. But the main difficulty he has is selling even moderately expansionist and redistributive social democratic proposals on borrowing and taxation to voters, which has been a Labour bugbear for years. The major problem in 1992 was not the radicalism of Labour’s shadow budget but the failure to put its programme over publicly as reasonable and unthreatening: the same was true after 2010. Ed Balls was told to turn off the Keynesian rhetoric in early 2011 – Ed Miliband appointed him shadow chancellor only reluctantly after a few months of Alan Johnson (and getting Balls to shut up on his Keynesian ideas was the defining failure of Miliband’s useless leadership). Backing borrowing for investment is going to be as difficult a trick to play in the future. The voters think domestic budgeting is a model for the state. And is austerity going to be a big issue five years hence? Hunch says yes because British capitalism is so fragile, but it has recovered before and seems to be doing so again.

8. Which brings us to the question of electability. Corbyn is obviously electable as Labour Party leader unless the opinion polls have got it very badly wrong – and he has been elected as Labour MP for Islington North for more than 30 years. But is he a credible prime minister? No. Outside London, he can't sell his economic and social policies, and he can't sell his foreign policy anywhere. Labour won in London in 2015, but it needs to win in Scotland, the West Midlands and the south and east of England. Corbyn is not the one to do it.

9. I’m voting Yvette Cooper for leader and Stella Creasy for deputy.

22 May 2015


Here's the result (I lost):

ANDERSONPaul JamesLabour1003
GORDONPippaUK Independence Party 542
HOREMartinLiberal Democrats183
POPERichard William John  Conservative2284

4 April 2015


I’m just back in Britain from a whistle-stop tour of China, where I was speaking at the Bookworm Literary Festival, a fortnight-long talkfest organised by the leading independent English-language bookshop in China. I went with Anna Chen, who was one of the headline stars of the show – and it was one of the most stimulating foreign trips I’ve ever made.

The itinerary was hectic. Bookworm has three bookshops-cafes, in Beijing, Chengdu and Suzhou, and one of its sponsors is the Chinese branch of Nottingham University in Ningbo: fitting all of them into 10 days of a two-week trip as we did meant travelling vast distances (Chengdu-Suzhou-Ningbo-Beijing) by plane and high-speed train and forgetting about sleep. But, boy, was it worth it. The festival itself was an almost madly diverse series of talks and readings by an extraordinary selection of authors from China, the Anglophone world, Europe, the Middle East – poets, novelists, journalists, travel-writers, writers for kids, biographers, historians – and everything about China was breathtaking.

It was my first time in the country, I don’t speak the language, and two weeks in China spent staying in hotels and largely inside the protective bubble of a speaking tour (with a few days at the end to see Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall) doesn’t make me an authority on anything. My role model is not the American muckraker Lincoln Steffens who famously declared “I have seen the future and it works” after a brief visit to Bolshevik Russia. But one of the great things about the festival was that we met a large number of people with vast experience of China – Chinese who have never left the country, Chinese living abroad, western and other expat academics, teachers, students, journalists working in China, many of them from the Chinese diaspora – who were happy to share their stories and views freely (at least in private). And although it’s all second-hand, it’s worth relaying some of what they said (although I’m not for the most part naming names).

OK, it's cliche, but the Great Wall with no one on it at 7.45am is cool
To start as everyone, without exception, started. China has gone through a gigantic and extraordinarily rapid economic and social transformation in the past 30 years, and although the pace might be slowing a little it’s still extremely fast – GDP growth will be “only” 7 per cent this year after 30 years of 10 per cent or more on average.

This is of course a statement of the obvious that can be found in any western newspaper, but its truth is in your face from the moment you touch down in China. The first thing I noticed on arriving, in the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, was – yes – just how new and big everything appeared: the massive new airport terminal buildings, the new eight-lane motorway to the city thronged with traffic and criss-crossed by spectacular flyovers, the giant new apartment blocks stretching as far as the eye can see on the city periphery, the gargantuan new city-centre skyscrapers, the enormous building sites and cranes everywhere. The second thing that struck me (apart from the sheer number of people in the streets – in cars, on motorbikes, on bicycles, on foot – I learned later that Chengdu has 14 million inhabitants in its urban area, 6 million more than London) was the rampant consumerism on display everywhere: the shiny new cars that jam every highway, the designer-brand and consumer-electronics shops in street after street, the mini-skirted girls chatting on their smartphones. OK, I’d not been expecting party bureaucrats in Mao suits and workers in blue denim overalls cycling to the cement factory down dirt roads, but this was stunningly full-on.

This is mundane stuff for anyone who lives in China or knows it well, and our interlocutors at the Bookworm festival took my amazement in their stride: many had felt it themselves once and some were still prone to moments of astonishment, but nearly all also sounded notes of caution. Yes, the economic and social transformation of China is profound; yes, the state is an enormously powerful actor, capable of feats of infrastructure development inconceivable in western liberal democracies – to take just one example, 10,000 miles of high-speed railway built in less than 10 years, the equivalent of constructing Britain’s planned HS2 line from London to the west Midlands once every couple of months. But the purpose of all the high-speed railways, motorways and apartment blocks is a helter-skelter urbanisation and industrialisation of China to get it to a European standard of living in a decade, involving a mass migration from countryside to city of extraordinary proportions, and it is fraught with problems. The urban population has been boosted by state diktat and market forces from around a quarter of the national 1.1 billion 25 years ago to around a half of the 1.4 billion or so  today, and the dislocation is immense. As a teacher in Chengdu put it: it’s the entire population of the European Union and Russia arriving in town.

David Goodman, a British academic in Suzhou, author of 2014’s must-read Class in Contemporary China, says that the migrants from the countryside have become a new urban underclass, reliant on low-paid menial and casual work: the extraordinary economic growth of the past 20 years is based on super-exploitation of poor recently-peasant proletarians in factories and service industries. Anyone who skates over this fundamental truth is at best a fool, he says – singling out Martin Jacques, the former editor of Marxism Today magazine in London, whose book When China Rules the World has been an improbable global best-seller since 2009.

Me at Bookworm Beijing with Stephen George, editor of That's Beijing
Most migrant workers – and most workers are migrant workers of one kind or another – live in horribly overcrowded conditions, says Goodman. In Beijing, says a British journalist working in the city, some subsist in underground dormitories that were once air-raid shelters. (He offers to take us round but we don’t have time.) Everywhere we go, people tell us that many of the giant new apartment blocks were built or started during a vast speculative real-estate bubble that has burst, the apartments often empty (if they are finished) because they are too expensive for most workers to buy or rent. Even the relatively well-off pay vast proportions of their incomes for housing. It’s quite normal in a big city to spend two or three hours commuting each day and not to know anyone who lives near you. The consumerism is greedy and unthinking, they all say, the main means by which the party hopes to keep the lid on opposition, and the party itself is corrupt, its leaders enriching themselves through the proceeds of self-offs and real-estate deals despite its campaign against corruption…

Anna Chen and me in the Forbidden City
Ah, the party – the Communist Party of China. It might have nearly 90 million members, it might run one of the biggest and most powerful states in the world with unmatched ruthlessness, but to a foreign visitor unable to read or speak Chinese it is an eerie presence. There’s the famous giant portrait of Mao overlooking Tiananmen Square – in front of which every Chinese tourist from the provinces as well as every foreign visitor takes a selfie – and at the tourist tat stalls by the Great Wall and in central Beijing you can buy People’s Liberation Army hats, Mao badges, the Little Red Book and fridge magnets depicting the Great Helmsman. Mao is on the banknotes. Otherwise, there’s the party line on the state TV English language service in your hotel and in China Daily, the official English language newspaper, full of stories about foreign policy and great successes in the struggle against corruption. But neither is intrusive, and that’s about it.

This impression of absence is of course illusory, but it is reinforced in microcosm by the apparent freedom enjoyed by the Bookworm festival. Here we were, more than 120 authors from all over the world coming along to three of China’s major cities – some of the writers long-standing critics of the regime, including a few who have been expelled for their work – and talking freely about anything we wanted. No one intervened to stop it. What’s not to like?

Well, nothing. But it’s a bit more complicated than it first appears. The Bookworm bookshop-cafes are great places to hang out, eat, drink and buy books – we could do with a few more like them in the UK – and they are qualified free-speech places (in English and Chinese) where there are no obvious limits on what is on sale (in English at least), which are accepted as legitimate businesses by the state. That is a remarkable space to have established.

But there are constraints on what Bookworm can do. The festival is monitored by the authorities – less for what speakers say than for contributions from Chinese members of the audience. I was talking about communism in Britain and British admirers of communist China: the Bookworm organisers said that they’d been unable to find anyone to interpret my remarks into Chinese because their translators were worried about getting the blame for something I might say, and  after two of my sessions I was told I’d had officials in the audience. So what: it was rather less intrusive than the norm in eastern Europe 30 years ago, and it all went ahead.

Here we are in Tiananmen Square
More importantly, Chinese customs routinely impound books – and although Peter Goff, the affable Irish former-Guardian journalist who set up Bookworm with others 10 years ago and is general manager of the bookshop and the festival’s kingpin, says there is no obvious policy on what is stopped and what is not, there are certain key subjects and authors that are beyond the pale for the authorities, however blurred their lines. I couldn’t find Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story or anything by the historian Frank Dikötter on Bookworm’s shelves, but historical work as critical as theirs was on display. The boundaries of what can be said in a public forum are just as difficult to discern. Talk about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 is OK in a reference from a novelist or a western academic but not from a former activist who might incite the audience to do it again; and it’s difficult but not impossible to get anyone associated with the ongoing protests in Hong Kong into the mainland to speak, for the same reason. Tibet is pretty-much taboo. Goff’s stories of running Bookworm are sometimes frightening – they include being arrested – and he knows he walks a tightrope, but his successes are extraordinary: he’s always got books and people in for the festival, including “banned” authors, but it takes time and guile.

This year, as on eight previous occasions, he and his team managed to get some of the best people writing about China to talk at the festival, as well as dozens of writers with no Chinese connection to their work. There were more than 120 in total, and we were at only a tiny fraction of their events – but nearly everything we saw was impressive. I was particularly wowed by the novelist and film-maker Xiaolu Guo (A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, I Am China), the novelist Wena Poon (who launched her latest book, Café Jause: A Story of Viennese Shanghai, at the festival) and the British non-fiction writer Horatio Clare (A Single Swallow, Down to the Sea in Ships). But there were also fascinating sessions from the veteran American Beat poet and translator Willis Barnstone, the British historical novelist Victoria Hislop (with hubby in tow as bag-carrier), the author-illustrators for children Frané Lessac and Bridget Stevens-Marzo, the journalist-academic-analysts Michael Meyer (In Manchuria) and Francesco Sisci (A Brave New China)…

The most important thing about Bookworm, however, is that it’s marginal. It’s a tolerated showcase that could be taken down at any time – and it’s tolerated because it casts the party-state in a favourable light in the outside world and does not threaten its existence. The availability of critical books in English and the accessibility of critical debate in English in small venues in three cities are – even more than the availability of the Financial Times and the International New York Times, BBC World and CNN in posh hotels – pin-prick challenges to the regime by comparison with those posed by the internet, and the party-state has missed few tricks in ensuring that it controls what its citizens can see on their screens.

The “great firewall of China”, blocking access to much critical material online from outside China, is not impermeable, but you have to make an effort to get through it and you are not completely safe if you do. Although the world wide web as taken for granted in most of the west is accessible if you have a virtual private network, a dedicated encrypted link between your computer in China and another elsewhere, VPN users are tracked by the authorities. More important than the “great firewall”, online postings from inside China are monitored relentlessly by the state – thousands of bureaucrats beavering away to snoop – and systematically censored. You can criticise the local party boss, but never suggest a demonstration.

I don’t have the expertise to read the evidence – some say China will inevitably loosen up and that Bookworm presages big changes, others that the party-state is interested only in keeping control, scared by the Chinese history of unpredicted social explosions and by the implosion of the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago. But I’m bitten by China, and I’ve got to go back to see more and talk more. My thanks to Bookworm for giving me a first taste.

The Bookworm festival crew were marvellous. Many thanks for everything to Peter Goff, Catherine Platt, Daniel Clutton, Alan McCluskey, Modjeh Sheikh, Julia Lobyntseva, Tom Price, Anthony Tao and anyone I’ve inadvertently missed out.

6 March 2015


I'm standing again for Bixley ward in Ipswich for the borough council. Vote for me!