Welcome to my site

Hi, this is the ‘Blog’ page of my WordPress site, with thoughts, politics, musings, rants etc.

If you want info about me (James Bar Bowen) as musician, songwriter and performer, you need to go to the ‘Who?/About’ page, and there are also pages of photos, videos, gig listings (‘Upcoming’ and ‘Archive’).

You can also find photos on my facebook site:                                  https://www.facebook.com/james.b.bowen.9/photos_all                                                             https://www.facebook.com/james.b.bowen.9/photos_of                  https://www.facebook.com/james.b.bowen.9/photos_albums

and you can find music and merch on Bandcamp: https://jamesbarbowen.bandcamp.com/

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G20 in Hamburg, July 6-10th 2017 – an eyewitness account

I arrived in Hamburg on Wednesday 5th July, having been warned that the previous couple of weeks had been slightly surreal and often inconvenient for the inhabitants of the city (pop-up traffic jams and street blockages by the police, delays, ID controls for people living in and around the Red Zone and even elsewhere in the city centre). I had also heard reports that there were something like 20,000 police in the city; and I had met volunteer paramedics who were preparing to travel hundreds of miles to be there for the demos, presumably to patch up the injured that we all knew would be there.
The question that everybody was asking was: why have the G20 in Hamburg? Merkel’s answer was that that here there was the infrastructure (transport links, enough hotel beds, media stuff, etc.) and that they wanted to show that Hamburg is an international city, open to the World, where such events could and should take place. For others, it could be seen as a direct provocation, a show of strength by the powers that be, and even an opportunity to strengthen laws against demonstrations and oppositional currents in the future (perhaps with an eye on the German elections coming up in September).
Anyway, whatever the truth, it was clearly a set-piece: heads would be cracked, bottles would fly, watercannon (of which there were 48 in the city for the weekend) would be used on protestors, a new prison had even been built for (something like 400) arrested demonstrators. It was not a surprise that events unfolded as they did.
Hamburg is a city with a Red-Green coalition government and a strong radical (squatting, leftist and anarchist) tradition especially in the districts of St. Pauli and the Schanzenviertel. The Messehallen (the International Conference Centre) is just a few hundred metres away. Whatever the rhetoric of the politicians – Hamburg’s mayor Scholz had promised “safety for all” and suggested that most people would not even notice that the G20 had happened – it was clear from the police preparations (and the 20,000 police from all over Germany, Austria, Denmark, etc.) that they thought something might kick off.
The city council and police had declared a city-wide ban on camping in the city’s parks, and had even cleared some protestors out (with violence and tear gas) over the previous couple of days), leaving thousands of protestors without anywhere safe to sleep. Therefore, I spent Wednesday evening at the SchausSpielHaus Theatre near the main train station in the city centre where a number of employees had (with the management’s blessing) invited protestors in to sleep in the building, even while ‘nomal life’ (and theatre) was taking place. The police had even been told to go away by management the previous evening when they had come to clear the place out. This situation was perhaps not as weird as it sounds, as they had, a couple of years ago, also had refugees sleeping there at the height of the ‘border crisis’ of 2015, and the SchauSpielHaus is a very large, relatively experimental theatre, with a strong radical tradition among workers there. The mood there was good, a party (of theatre employees) was in full swing, and, with a few clearly agreed rules in the sleeping area for demonstrators (no booze, noise to a minimum, drinking water available, emergency phone numbers, etc.) a safe space was ensured for a few dozen people to stay.
Thursday 6th July was a glorious Summer’s day and, walking down to the River Elbe to the Fischmarkt in the early afternoon, there was a buzz of expectation in the air. Hundreds then thousands began to gather around the Fischmarktplatz, with thousands of riot police fully tooled up along the start of the route of the Welcome to Hell demo. Die Goldene Zitronen (local punk legends) played a strangely ‘anti-pop’ set on the stage, followed by some speeches that were hard to follow (poor sound, boring delivery, too long, and irrelevant). This was not a good start, but perhaps typical of ‘lefty political demos’. If you will allow me to rant for a minute here: we should learn from the professional media and keep it short, sweet, positive, entertaining and inclusive. This is not Cuba in the 1970s where maybe a charismatic leader could get away with hours’ long diatribes for the party faithful. We know why we are here (we are at an anticapitalist/Black Bloc demo against the G20, remember!), and if we want to understand more about the workings of capitalism, the evils of imperialism, the arms trade or whatever, this is not the place. The speakers harangued us like religious evangelists on street corners. Those of us who have an understanding of what the G20 means will not have learned anything, and those who perhaps are new to this kind of politics will sure as hell not have been convinced or converted by this show. OK, so if the people on stage have anything new to tell us (either about the demo or other political updates), we will listen. But otherwise, a few buzzwords will suffice. And another thing: why do some people think that chucking rubbish and smashing glass around where people are sitting on the floor is somehow cool or antiauthoritarian?
There was more music, some hip hop (not sure who) plus more speeches, as my group moved around the area to see what else was afoot. The police were lined up and ready along the start of the demo route as well as having hundreds of vans and watercannon lined up on the Breite Strasse. We took half an hour out to eat something and fetch some water (Demo essentials: eat, drink and piss whenever you can!)
As we came back down past the St Pauli Kirche (amusingly with a “Welcome to Heaven“ banner hung in the rounds) from Hein-Koellisch-Platz and the Koelibri Info Point, we could see that the police plan was already being implemented.
The demo had begun along the St-Pauli-Fischmarkt street, with several hundred black-clad, masked and sunglasses-wearing Black Bloc at the front. According to German law, it is illegal to cover your face on a demo. So, inevitably, a couple of hundred metres down the road, the police blocked the road, with the Black Bloc hemmed into a 30-metre-wide road with 2 or 3 metre high walls on both sides, as well as hundreds of police in helmets and riot gear all along the route. The demo was stopped, the news filtering down to us, now back along the demo-route, that the police were refusing to let the demo continue unless the Black Bloc removed their masks and uncovered their faces. And therefore we would have to disperse among and around the thousands of police in the streets all around the demo area, including numerous watercannons, vans, cars and helicopters overhead.
As an aside, what would have happened if the Black Bloc had said: “OK, masks off then!” Would the police have withdrawn and allowed them to exercise their democratic right to demonstrate? And, to be honest, what would the Black Bloc and the rest of us have done? The point of this demo (I think) was to demonstrate our opposition to the workings of global capitalism, the arms dealers, etc., and to be noticed by the media and the powers that be, so peacefully walking round the city was never going to make much of an impact. The democratisation of the media via new technology means that we can get other voices and opinions out there, but the mainstream and mass media still belong to the rich and powerful, and they still have the largest reach.
We didn’t have long to wait until the riot police waded in, batons waving and initially separating the Black Bloc at the front from the rest of us. There are reports of teargas being fired by police, as well as a couple of smokebombs coming from the Black Bloc. Whatever your political perspective, I think the sight of armed cops indiscriminately beating people, even from a hundred metres away, is pretty horrific. Of course, when it happens in other parts of the world under ‘undemocratic’ governments, we shake our heads, condemn the dictators and thank our lucky stars that we live in the free West. Here in liberal democratic Bundesrepublik Deutschland, riot cops smashing heads and arresting people trapped in an inescapable blocked street is about protecting our freedom and democracy.
This was then followed by an implementation of ‘salami tactics’ where the police, using water cannons and riot batons, split the demo up and chased smaller groups of people up side streets and away from the ‘kettle’ down by the river. It worked. We didn’t know what to do, so, mostly in small groups with an eye on the police behind us, we headed away from the river and up to the Reeperbahn. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of police vans from all over Germany, plus maybe 25 from Austria, the police for the most part with their faces covered, many with helmets on (!). We saw small groups of black-clad demonstrators running around, playing hide and seek with the cops, but it was clear that in terms of tactics and weapons, the cops had completely controlled the situation. A smaller demo of ultimately a couple of thousand people convened at the junction Reeperbahn-Holstenstrasse-Koenigstarsse-Pepermolenbek, fenced in on all side by blue flashing lights and tooled-up riot cops. Every so often, there was a big movement of cops, either on foot or in convoys of vans with sirens blaring, but I suspect that this was mostly a show of strength and completely unnecessary. I suppose someone was going to have to justify the inflated security bills, as well as the bad media profile that even the most conservative outlets could not disguise, given the violent and unprovoked attacks on protestors. Tactically, the police knew exactly what they were doing and, in the light of the bad press that ensued, they also had a clear plan for the following day’s events. Everyone had predicted that Hamburg would burn this weekend. It was just not yet clear – to us at least – which bit.

The next morning (Friday 7th July 2017) was an equally beautiful Summer’s day, perfect for cycling across a very peaceful and relaxed city (very few cars, lots of people walking on the streets). We decided to go across to the University to Cafe Knallhart (one of the info points), where I knew a couple of people who were cooking for the demos in the activist kitchen there. Failing to get through the Police blockades on the NW side of the Karolinenviertel, we cycled back through the Schanzenviertel to the University, which was, apart from the regular helicopter fly-pasts, a model of peace and harmony, with delicious vegan food (for a small donation), coffee, sunshine, smiling faces and much talk of tactics and what we mean when we say we want to ‘reclaim the city’ or make genuine difference. Given the numbers of police in Hamburg, I suggest that being almost anywhere else in Germany or Europe might be a good (and revolutionary) idea. If we are here, even in big numbers, but in one place, the police still have control (and plenty of weaponry to back it up).
Fed and refreshed, we cycle back along car-free streets – this really is how the city could be – and call in on the Schanzenviertel, and specifically the info point at the Rote Flora (the famous autonomous social centre on the Schulterblatt). People are drinking coffee and beer, eating meals on terraces at Turkish resturants, and the atmosphere is charged but peaceful. A few people have moved big rubbish bins into the middle of the street, and occasional flurries of people run through. There is a police presence at the Northern end of the Schulterblatt, and at one point, a few bottles fly from protestors; there is a police chase round the back of the Rote Flora, and it all again fizzles out. The police retire to a safe distance, but we keep a wary eye out for snatch squds who are on the move.
It now being early evening, we retrieve our bikes and head back home for a bit of food and respite. Already the streets are crunchy with broken glass (not ideal for the revolutionary tourist on a bike!), and there are even a couple of small barricades (bins, rubbish, building materials) on the Schulterblatt and down into St Pauli.
We eat felafel on the Reeperbahn (some might say that business was booming for the small business community in this curious climate of protest), listen to some of the live music that is being played on stages and soundsystems along the Reeperbahn, and observe masked grous of police linedup in front of banks and the police station on the Reeperbahn. We decide then to return to Wohlwillstrasse where most of the excitement seems to be taking place. Towards the Neuer Pferdemarkt at the junction of Schulterblatt/Schanzenstrasse/Stresemannstrasse/Budapesterstrasse there are literally thousands of people and thousands of police, on foot and in vans.
There have been a number of demonstrations that afternoon and evening, and they have coincided (or been corralled) into the Neuer Pferdemarkt. There are vans with blue flashing lights along the Budapesterstrasse and helicopters overhead, but the atmosphere is friendly, celebratory even, at least on the south side of the junction. Having previously been in St Pauli for football matches, you could say that the streets were slightly busier, the pubs just as full, the corner shops doing a roaring trade, and the mood equally joyous and full of expectation (or more so, given FC St Pauli’s last season!) Among my acquaintences, there is more talk of ‘reclaiming the city’ and you could conclude that, at least for able-bodied adults who like a beer on a warm Summer’s evening, this is it! We need no cops, no security, no other rules than ‘enjoy yourself, do no harm to anyone else, and let’s party!’
However, just up the road, things were not going quite so smoothly. The police, with water cannon, helmets and batons had blocked the demo at the Neuer Pferdemarkt. On the St Pauli side the crowd continued to chant (“A-Anti-Anticapitalista”, “Ganz Hamburg hasst die Polizei”, etc.), although I did see a few people looking not quite convinced that all Hamburg hates the police.
And then these particular police gave us reasons to hate them: they waded in once more with batons thrashing, dispersing groups of frightened onlookers and demonstrators, and then chased some individuals with ‘snatch squads’; they opened fire with the water cannons, fortunately without hitting their target for most of us. The water cannons could not reach all of us behind the trees and the wagon containers on the corner, and realistically, they could not come much further down the street in vehicles either, given a building-site barricade and the numbers of people in the smaller streets, unless they were looking to provoke a complete riot. So, we had reached something of a stand-off, with the police making occasional attempts to attack demonstrators, and the occasional bottle being thrown from the crowd.
On the Schulterblatt (North of the junction), things were, by all accounts more complicated – and violent. If you have seen film of burning barricades, it was probably from there. There are accounts of people taking molotov cocktails up into the scaffolding and then trying to entice the police in, as well as talk of a laser beam being shone in the eyes of a helicopter pilot overhead, rioters threatening locals. I didn’t witness any of this, so I don’t know the truth of any of it.
We decided to head up Neuer Kamp and Sternstrasse and cut back on to Schanzenstrasse to see what was happening. The first thing I noticed was the stinging teargas in the air. Secondly, the crowd was more dispersed and far more wary of gangs of police coming round corners. People were friendly and excited and wanted to talk about what they had seen: looting of shops, constant teargassing from the police, the searchlight from the helicopter above focusing on the Schulterblatt. We saw people running away with looted laptops and the like, and one guy, very worried, came up to us looking for a taxi – presumbably to get away as fast as possible. We told him there were none. He disappeared into the night.
Further round the area, past the S-Bahn station, we passed more burning debris and mini barricades, and a ReWe supermarket being looted. A bloke came out carrying bottles of whisky in boxes and dropped one, but we decided to leave it for someone else, and moved swiftly on We passed groups of people on street corners drinking beer, a group of presumably ‘plain clothes’ police or police informers gathering and sharing notes and information, more small barricades, and finally we came out at the five or six road junction on Max-Brauer-Allee/Stresemannstrasse where the railway line crosses overhead. Here again the party was in full swing, with barricades burning, beer being drunk, pizza being shared. Water cannon lorries sped past (presumably to refill, though I heard talk of someone having ‘spiked’ the refill station) to be met with a light rain of bottles. A fire engine came the other way, and asked politely through their loudhailler to be allowed through, and people made way and moved some of the debris out of the way. It’s amazing where good manners can get you!
Overall, the mood across the city appeared to me to be genuinely excited and optimistic, even in the face of potentially devastating violence from the police. I think the numbers of people out and taking part in the demos helped, as we felt safe in numbers, but also it did genuinely feel like something was happening, somehow we were making a difference, reclaiming the city or something.
Heading home, people were open to chat, if a little wary. One guy, claiming to be from New Zealand, was decidedly confused when I greeted him in Maori (‘Kia ora’) but perhaps it is always best to be wary of strangers, especially if you are black-clad and looking for directions to the Rote Flora! Anyway, we went home, exhausted from all the adrenalin (and the cycling and walking), but with plenty to think about.

Saturday 8th July and once again, the sun was shining and the news programmes on TV were on a loop of images from the night before: lots of sexy shots of fires burning in the streets and people throwing bottles stuff, the occasional image of the police ‘doing their duty’ as they waded into fleeing crowds, blue flashing lights, water cannons firing at crowds and at individuals who dared to dance in the streets in front of them, and so on.
Today’s big demo was ‘Grenzenlose Solidaritaet statt G20’ (‘Solidarity without borders instead of G20’), starting near the main station. We, somewhat ‘hungover from the adrenalin (and a couple of beers) of the night before, joined the demo at Millerntorplatz (overlooked by the huge statue of Bismarck) and chatted and danced our way down the Reeperbahn and then doubled back through the smaller streets towards Millerntor. This demo was huge, with banners and sections from all over the world, and music trucks and a variety of groups and interests represented. However, it became bogged down and boring in the small streets of St Pauli, with occasional shows of police strength around the Millerntorplatz, but perhaps more of an attempt by police to show their ‘human face’ (fewer face masks and helmets). We call it a day, and head out of the city, only to be annoyed by the constant flight of helicopters overhead who are evidently refuelling a the Airbus airport Southwest of the city.
The German media for the following weeks has been dominated by questions about what happened and why. I have a some questions of my own:
Why hold the G20 in Hamburg? We all knew (police, demonstrators, medics, Black Bloc, Joe Public, etc.) that it would be expensive, destructive, violent and that people would be hospitalised and arrested. What was the point? Was it just a show of strength by the police and the State? Was it a training ground for new repressive tactics by the police? Is it a chance for the German state to implement more repressive laws?
What should the response of the demonstrators be? Evidently, the police are now wise to Black Bloc tactics, and know how to control a demo (and the city) with their superior weaponry, and of course they have the law on their side. We can talk of how ‘we’ controlled or ‘reclaimed’ St Pauli, etc., but the reality is that the police dictated where we could go, and even kind of dictated the terms of the riots In the Schanzenviertel. You could suggest that a few shops and businesses were sacrificed, a few bins burned and a few people (including some kids and ‘normal’ residents) had a pretty scary and possibly dangerous evening, but that the police might see this as ‘collateral damage’ and a price worth paying. Even a few cars burning on the Elbchaussee out towards the rich area of Blankenese is not really big news.
And of course, fireworks and burning barricades make sexier headlines than difficult questions about why we object to the G20 in the first place. It is not so much the meeting of some pretty evil characters that is the problem (perhaps Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Xi, Merkel, May and Macron should talk more about ‘women, migration and health’), but the fact that their solutions to issues of inequality, migration and war is to sell more arms to each other, to allow the rich to cream off the wealth. The fact that they are talking is possibly a good sign; but the economic outcomes arising from such meetings demonstrably make inequality greater and put more wealth and power in the hands of the few, which demonstrably creates less harmonious socieities. Evidently, the creation of just and harmonious societies is not the preferred outcome!
On a cultural level, the anarcho-left could argue that we lead the way. Where the ungovernable artists, idealists and dreamers go first, the rest of society will eventually folllow, often with poor imitations of the originals; but on the economic level, we are losing the fight: power and wealth is being more and more focused and controlled in the hands of the few, and we really have little power and still fewer tactics to change this. We talk of reclaiming the city. We talk of creating alternative socail an economic structures. We can even live well off the crumbs from the rich man’s table. But how can we genuinely break down borders, violent and oppressive structures, oppressive relatonships and our dependency on an economic and political system that harms the many for the benefit of the few?
Much anticapitalist activity ends up being in response to and actively mitigating against the shortcomings of a failing system (soup kitchens, food banks, refugee support camps, homeless shelters, etc.) One thing that impressed me in Hamburg was how some people had actively gone ahead and prefigured the necessary telecommunications and food requirements of activists (from the free media centre in the football stadium, with rolling twitter updates, also displayed on big screens at info ponts to the activist kitchens providing excellent cheap vegan food across the city). Such things are possible (and sometimes done very well at such events), but, generally also rely on capitalist owned and made structures and technologies to make them work. They are therefore open to control and manipulation from outside, but, I believe, are absolutely essential to show that we are serious about making the world a better place, independent of the capitalists we oppose.

The Second annual Anarcho-Folk Fest, London 13/9/2014 (review)

1) AFF2 flier

By James Bar Bowen and Cosmo
On Saturday 13th September I ventured forth from a mist-clad North of England to Whitechapel in London for the second annual Anarcho Folk Fest (AFF2). Last July there was hugely successful event in July in Amsterdam followed by a similarly sparkling one in London in August, so I was hopeful that this would be similarly eventful and fabulous.
Once again, Freedom Books (http://freedompress.org.uk/ (Angel Alley, 84b Whitechapel High St.) were hosting us, and, with benign late-Summer’s weather, and a few cans of lager and some cheap cider already well in evidence from lunchtime onwards, we appeared well set for a great event. Of course, the Freedom bookshop was open, with its usual range of anarchist and radical literature, community and political info, secondhand books, as well as posters and all sorts. There was time when every big town had a radical bookshop, but now this is something of a rare treat
.

.2) AFF2 Perkie & Laura Ankles (Perkie and Laura Ankles)

Unlike last year’s Folkfest (which was all ‘unplugged’), this time there was a small PA and microphone for them that wanted it, but the space in Angel Alley, a 5 metre by 30 metre slice of tarmac, has the space and acoustics to cater for either plugged or otherwise. The high walls of Angel Alley (Freedom Books and Whitechapel Art Gallery) serve to maintain a certain privacy, despite it being a public thoroughfare.
As with all such events, the quality of the performance and the attentiveness of the audience ebbed and flowed throughout the afternoon with a variety of musical styles drawing on global traditions, particularly British Isles (trad, pop, folk), Americana (folk, country, blues), Caribbean (ska, reggae, calypso) as well as Southern and Eastern European traditions. Performers in evidence included: Cosmo (our host) (http://cosmoguitar.net/), Hattie Hatstar (http://www.hattie.biz/), Ash Victim and the Buskin’ Punx Orchestra (http://www.ashvictim.co.uk/), Perkie (https://www.facebook.com/PerkieMusic), Zsa Zsa Sapien (https://www.facebook.com/WOT2WOT2), Faith Taylor (http://www.faithtaylor.net/), Asher Baker (https://chaptereleven.bandcamp.com/), James Bar Bowen and Sam Bell (https://jamesbarbowen2014.wordpress.com/), Johnny Campbell (https://www.facebook.com/johnnycampbellmusic), Will Tun and the Wasters (https://willtunandthewasters1.bandcamp.com/). Each in their own way was great, and the multi-style and multicultural mix of performance was appreciated, and all giving the lie to the myth that nobody is doing political music and performance any more: I would suggest that those who believe this should get out more. It’s happening, just not in the mainstream!
However, my job here is not to review how great or otherwise each act was (although I very much enjoyed the atmosphere and camaraderie throughout). What is more important is to emphasise why we must put on and support such events if we are serious about questioning and changing how the world works (and stop subscribing to and supporting the mainstream).

3) AFF2 Faith Taylor (Faith Taylor)

Direct action and DIY culture mean just that: we do it ourselves. There are no sugar daddies or safety nets. There is no Arts Council funding. There are no paid workers organising and coordinating the artists, the venue, the refreshment suppliers, the toilets, the cleaners, etc. Therefore we (punters, artists, organisers, etc.) have to have a different relationship with each other and the event and to fulfil different roles. We are not there as ‘customers’, ‘paid acts’ or whatever. We are all there as participants, contributors, volunteers, even as welcoming committee to each other and to interested outsiders. Our roles are fluid, but we are all creators of the event and the atmosphere in different ways. This is the essence of direct action in political and cultural spheres. If we don’t like the way it is going, it is up to us to influence and change it by our actions as well as our words.

4) AFF2 Asher (Asher AKA Chapter 11)

Direct action is prefigurative and transformative: we must be creative, original,
entertaining, constructively critical, respectful of each other. There is no room for hierarchies and primadonnas. We all have a responsibility for what happens and how it happens. AFF2 was organised and run without a ‘coordinating committee’, although big thanks must go to Cosmo for steadying the ship throughout; but nobody got paid (apart from some travel expenses), and hopefully everyone was enriched and inspired by the event.

5) AFF2 Hattie Hatstar (Hattie Hatstar)

However, it should of course be reiterated that such events do not happen in a vacuum. All those who played and/or ‘worked’ AFF2 did so for free or for minimal expenses. Freedom Books threw a few quid into the bucket, and the rest of the costs were covered by donations from the punters. And this is one area in which we (the anarcho-left) have to smarten up our act. If we are genuinely interested in creating alternative transformative DIY cultures, we also need to pay for them. Mainstream arts, music, entertainment or whatever costs tens, even hundreds, of pounds to attend (Glastonbury, West End theatre, ‘pop’ concerts, anyone?) Anarcho-folk events tend to be ‘by donation’ so that no one is excluded for lack of funds. But, when confronted by a donations bucket for a full day’s entertainment, it is surprising how many people can find a couple of quid in change (or a few coppers), but don’t tend to throw in notes. How much is a full afternoon and evening’s entertainment worth?
As a (significant) footnote, we have to remember that we were not at AFF2 just to have fun: the point of politically engaged arts and music is to promote ideas and debate, which AFF2 certainly did, particularly on the subjects of cultural expropriation, solidarity, originality, even veering towards the unlikely realms of racial and cultural purity and debates about who ‘owns’ culture, fashion, style, music, even hairstyles. At one point, towards the end of the event, a woman in the audience expressed her disappointment (on the mic.) with the event due to the ethnic- and age-profile of the majority of those participating. I think the flashpoint was her objection to white men having dreadlocks. I did not fully understand the argument, as surely the logical cultural essentialism implicit in such an objection is ideologically at the other end of the spectrum from an anarchist event (surely people don’t have to dress or act in certain ways because of their ethnic origins!)
In many ways, the AFF2 is far from perfect. We could do more to appeal to a wider audience (more comfortable seating; food and drink on site); the performers could do better performances (more engagement with the audience, less introspective; more overt politics; more variety of music, spoken word, etc); better signposting, hosting and information about what’s on. DIY culture would suggest that if you want something different, go and make it happen! Over the two years it has been on, the Anarcho-Folk festival has had an interesting demographic mix in terms of audience and performers: young, old, rich, poor, black, white, queer, cis and trans. There is always room for improvement on this however, possibly involving reaching out to other lefties and fellow travellers to build on this, as this diversity was a bit less evident this year.

I’m sure others will have their own ideas about what to improve. And that is the point. I had a great time, playing, chatting, listening, hanging out, debating, eating, drinking, and hope to be doing much the same at similar events in the future (and a big thankyou to the organisers of the anarchafeminist event at the LARC who hosted several of us ‘out-of-towners’ at an after party). Events such as AFF2 only thrive if more people do it themselves, get involved, share ideas, volunteer and put in some legwork (publicity, etc.). And that means YOU! (Further info and ideas about putting on your own events can be found at: http://cosmoguitar.net/gigs/how-to-organise-a-house-concert/.)

6) AFF2 Will Tun & the Wasters( Will Tun and the Wasters)

Building a DIY culture: “…seeking something that’ll spice up your game.”

One of the great things about touring as a musician is that I get to meet loads of people who are, broadly speaking, activists. I suppose you could argue that anyone who does anything beyond shopping and watching telly is probably an activist; but I mean people who are ‘politically’ active in their own communities, bringing people together, making stuff happen, creating new ideas, relationships and ways of sharing. This is often ‘small-p politics’ but it is transformative, prefigurative and vital to the creation of alternative, DIY and liberatory cultures. This includes alternative booksellers, anti-war movements, copwatchers, union activists, food coops, cafes and kitchens, squatted houses and social centres, house concerts, dumpster diving (skip diving), subcultural music making and distribution, guerrilla planting and so on.
Many of us exist somewhere in between making a living from the ‘real job’ and trying to develop a genuine alternative DIY culture that not only feeds our souls, but our bodies as well (and maybe even keeps a roof over our heads). However, as many will be aware, despite being a cultural success (some of the best gigs I’ve ever been at) many DIY tours and gigs are a financial disaster, my June 2014 US tour with Ryan Harvey being a case in point. (And that was before we had the car accident in the Mojave Desert, from which we both, thankfully walked away completely physically unhurt.) This raises lots of questions for me about how the alternative, subcultural and DIY scene really works and what we have to do to make it better.
If we are serious about creating genuine alternatives within an economic system that favours the rich and powerful, we have to start to genuinely create economic alternatives to support the cultural alternatives. I am under no illusions that putting on a DIY folk punk gig or creating an alternative cultural/food/activist space is going to suddenly threaten globalised big business; but we do have to put our money where our principles are. That means supporting the alternatives financially as well as in spirit – like spending money at the bar of the alternative venue (not smuggling in cheap booze from the supermarket); eating there rather than in some shit multinational chain (which is usually no cheaper and will often be less nutritious); buying the (extremely reasonably-priced) CDs and merch, and putting a reasonable donation in for the artists. I am horrified every time I hear (often pissed up) punks quibbling over the cost of getting into a gig: “Three quid for five bands. Fuck off! I’m not paying that. Isn’t there a concession?”
The going rate to see ‘name’ artists and ‘mainstream’ cultural events is much higher than in the DIY scene. And these are events for which, of course, there are sugar daddies and safety nets for the performers (record companies, sponsors, promoters, Arts Councils, etc.). If we are serious about developing the DIY scene, the performers have a responsibility to give ‘value for money’. They need to be competent, engaging and entertaining like the ‘mainstream professionals’ – but these are all things you can learn mostly by watching other performers and understanding the context of the gig (and not leaving as soon as you have played or deluding yourself that you are some stadium rockstar even though you are in the backroom of a pub, for example).
The DIY scene offers something a bit different, but it’s still got to be, somehow, good (i.e. not whingeing, incoherent, incompetent, self-indulgent shite, of which there is far too much, and it gives our scene a bad name!) We all, as consumers and participants, have an obligation to make sure that our scene really does thrive and grow, and we can improve things by taking a number of word-of-mouth steps: support your local scene; tell your friends and acquaintances, and get them to do the same; be constructively critical (to the performers, organisers, etc.); make sure that the ‘scene’ offers a safe space for all who want to access it, especially those of us who are different. There is no excuse for racism, sexism, homophobia or other intolerant prejudice. Our only prejudice is against intolerance itself.
However, this is to concentrate too heavily on the mechanics and the economics of the gig. What I am arguing for is a completely different concept of participation on behalf of performers, participants, workers, volunteers and consumers. The reason why I love live music, theatre, live art etc. is because it is a conversation, a relationship between audience and performer. The performer may be steering or ‘facilitating’ the gig, but without an audience, it’s just a rehearsal.
Now I don’t know many (any?) people who have a ‘sugar daddy’ or a ‘private income’, but I do know of a lot of musicians, artists and activists who struggle to continue as such, and they do so because they love what they do and they value it. Sometimes, I do wonder how the rest of the scene values this effort. DIY culture is great because we retain the power and control over what happens to make sure that the values we hold dear are upheld in the scene. We want our subcultural projects to succeed and so we have to look after each other, support each other, be aware of the work that goes on behind the scenes and, yes, share what little resources we have. If you think the music, the art, even the food is rubbish (and sometimes it is), fair enough. But do you value the fact that it exists at all? It is up to us all to make it better.
Margaret Thatcher famously argued that there is no such thing as society/community, with the implication that we should all have an economic relationship with each other, and that all other relationships are invalid (except, curiously, heterosexual nuclear families). Of course, this is deluded nonsense. But the DIY scene is often confused as to what our relationships are built on. Yes, there is an economic element: we have to give even more of our money if we are to create an alternative to the mainstream; but we aren’t just ‘customers’ and ‘consumers’. We also have to contribute our time and goodwill. Even if we are paying an entrance fee to consume some food, music, art, ambience or whatever, we are primarily participants in the community. We participate as performers, doorstaff, barstaff, toilet cleaners, sound engineers, and importantly as audience. The key is that we are participants.
Many places in Netherlands, Germany and beyond get this right in terms of Volksküchen where volunteers cook and run the venue and bar, providing cheap, nutritious food for activists and anyone else on a regular basis. Collectives organise the events; volunteers take turns to do the different jobs. It works like a canteen, but with a strong participatory ethos, especially for serving and cleaning up afterwards. It is not a restaurant, in that everyone is expected to participate and contribute. I’m sure some people just take (consume), but the ethos is that sometimes it’s your turn to do some of the work! As such, it is a great cultural model whereby everybody takes responsibility for the greater good of the community: we all get fed; we take it in turns to do the jobs. The relationship is not one of customer and service provider. It is one of participation and contribution. It is about giving as well as taking.
These principles are important to apply right across the DIY spectrum. Like I say, there are no ‘sugar daddies’, record labels or private incomes. If someone travels 200 miles to do a gig, it sure as hell isn’t going to be free (unless they hitch, I suppose). Merch and CDs don’t tend to be made for free either; and that’s without calculating the ‘creative’ value in them, before you get to your mate’s DIY studio (not free) and spend countless hours creating songs and recordings. If the scene doesn’t support the producers, the producers can’t exist. And the capitalist monopolies will have won.
That said, you couldn’t put a price on the value for me as a musician (and a human being) of going on tour, meeting all those amazing people, seeing some amazing places (as well as quite a lot of motorway). In the spirit of this blog, please continue the conversation (with me, with other activists, with your scene…)
Here’s a picture of Ryan Harvey’s car crashed in the Mojave Desert (junction 78).

DSC_0910

And here’s a link to the accompanying pop video: http://youtu.be/5ibGM4q9gjI

On tour with Ryan Harvey (Part 2) “I’ll put my feet in your shoes; you put your hand in mine!”

As a bit of an old hand at touring on the anarcho-left squat and alternative scenes in Northern Europe, I’ve kind of got a bit of an idea of how it works here and who is out and active; but touring America was always going to be a bit of an eye-opener and a shot in the dark. Obviously, Ryan Harvey has been deeply involved in the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements in America over the past decade and a half, so it was no surprise to see that many of our gigs were hosted by and playing to such audiences; and it was a great experience for me to see how the transgender, queer, anti-war, radical punk and transgressive scenes work across the pond.
As with Europe, the ‘scene’ tends to be quite young (teens and twenties rather than us, *ahem*, older activists). Of course there are a variety of unusual and non-mainstream characters, including lots of Iraq War veterans, and mostly our gigs were played in ‘safe spaces’ (i.e. free-from prejudiced language and behaviour). What unites us in such places is a rejection of the mainstream (and its rejection of us), and, in some ways it is relatively straightforward to identify what we are against (exploitation, dehumanisation, intolerance (of race, gender, sexuality, etc.), an unfair economic system, unaccountable power structures and so on). What is less easy to identify is what we are actually in favour of, apart from the ubiquitous default: freedom.
Of course, a lot of things about America are familiar (from films, TV etc.) but I am always a bit wary of going into unknown territory, mainly because I don’t want to offend anybody or get it wrong. (I am their guest, after all.) Now America is easy for us Anglophones, because they all speak English, right?
Well, sort of, but it’s different. Firstly, lots of people (especially in the south-west) speak Mexican Spanish, as well as a multitude of other first languages. Maybe I’m a bit slow, but I hadn’t realised the Spanish connection as we rolled into San Antonio, El Paso, Las Cruces, San Diego, Los Angeles etc. And the rules of the expression of power and solidarity (i.e. how we reflect social hierarchies or equality by the use of, say, formal language or swearing) follow different rules and have different meanings. Of particular note was the language around transgender and queer folk, especially the pronouns (she/he/they or something else). This subject seems to be much more developed in America and at times I felt unsure as to what to say for fear of offending; and then at other times, I was surprised by the casual homophobia of some (small-town) scenes where ‘faggot’ seemed to be an acceptable form of address! I suppose it’s like the use of the word ‘cunt’ in British Isles English: in some places it’s commonplace; in others, the height of insult, sexist offence and taboo.
As some readers will know, I wrote a song a few years ago called “Fuck-me shoes” which was specifically created as a statement of solidarity and tolerance with people who identify as genderqueer. It was written in response to a photo exhibition about gay men and crossdressers in New Zealand. I usually introduce the song with this in mind, and try to draw together the links between those who love, act or dress in ways which deviate from the (white, middle-class, heterosexual, monogamous) mainstream with punk audiences who claim to be against ‘the system’, but are often homophobic and intolerant. It’s a song that gets a variety of responses (you can judge and respond to it for yourself: the youtube link is at the end of this piece).
In America, I was sometimes warned off playing “Fuck-me shoes” in front of militant genderqueer audiences as they might not ‘get it’. Sometimes I heeded that advice; more often, I worked particularly hard at scripting my song-intro to explain the song and my thoughts on the importance of freedom and tolerance within genderqueer scenes as well as punk scenes, small-town radical scenes and so on. As I say, if I’m the guest, I don’t wish to offend my hosts (unless they are Nazis, bigots and bullies); but I do strongly believe in the transformative nature of political songwriting. And I do believe that a political singer-songwriter’s job is to throw out some risky and controversial questions and ideas, all while respecting the rules of an anti-prejudiced ‘safe space’. Hmm, tricky…
Furthermore, narratives around solidarity are complex (witness some of the stuff around Summer 2014 events in Ferguson, Missouri, regarding who is really in a position to speak or stand for whom). I get the impression that in America even more than in Europe there is a mistrust of people claiming to show solidarity with or to speak for people from different communities to their own. This of course raises problems about how best to show solidarity with others in a respectful and appropriate manner. A white person in Europe or America cannot fully understand what it is like to grow up there as a person of colour. The same applies regarding class, gender, sexuality and so on; but you don’t need to belong to an oppressed group to observe oppression or empathise with others. The question is how best to show solidarity using the best tools and tactics that we have.
As the world (via technology and migration) becomes smaller and more diverse, it is more and more important that we are open to each other and to empathise and show solidarity with people we have little in common with other than our humanity. And our humanity is the most important thing we share!
Anyway, here’s that video (feel free to share that too): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VAeMgfplsk

 

 

Touring America with Ryan Harvey, June-July 2014 (first instalment)

Now that the dust has settled, and these shorts have been washed for the first time since Austin, Texas, I feel I can start to reflect on the amazing experience of having spent five weeks, some 6,000 miles, about 20 gigs, a near-death experience and a number of flea-bitten sofas across America with political folk-punk legend Ryan Harvey.

To begin in the conventional place, the idea of the tour was hatched after a chance meeting in a darkened field on the Welsh border. Me, Ryan and some other shadowy figures gathered round an acoustic guitar (and a small crate of homebrewed beer) at the Something Else in the Dean Festival at the end of September 2013. We played some tunes, drank some beer, talked some shite and made friends. It transpired that Ryan was off to Scotland to do a couple of gigs, and was then traveling back south, with a day free and then a gig at the Sumac Centre in Nottingham. Somehow, we concocted a plan that would involve a night’s stopover at my house near Huddersfield, a Saturday afternoon anti-fascist benefit gig at the 1 in 12 Club in Bradford, a drive to Nottingham in the evening, a gig there, followed by another crazy night on the piss, and then I would deposit Ryan on the M1 to London. Amazingly, it all fell into place (including Friday night football and a folk-club-style session deep in the Pennines near Marsden – all part of Ryan’s cultural education). We played two gigs, met some great people, drank a moderate amount of beer and developed a vague notion to ‘do America next June’.

The evenings darkened, the first snows of Winter fell, the Friday night footballers sweated and blundered, the homebrewers wove their magic, and Ryan Harvey did exactly what he had promised, and drew up a plan for a road trip of some 6,000 miles. Starting in Baltimore we would drive to St Louis to Southern Texas to the Pacific coast of California and then back East to Chicago. All I had to do was get myself to Baltimore on June 3rd, preferably with a guitar and some songs.

Not being completely innocent as an international traveller, I thought, ‘How hard can this be?’ And, apart from the financial hit (£600/$1000), and the walk from Penn Station in New York to the Bolt Bus stop with about 20 kilos of rucksack plus 10kg of guitar (that’s more than 60lb for you imperialists!) in the oppressive heat just before a NYC thunderstorm, it was remarkably easy. Jetlag’s easy: you just have to fool yourself into thinking that it’s not really 5am in your head, so wake up and have another beer! (and maybe some rubbish falafel from a food truck). Of course, the Boltbus took me back past about half a mile from where I had landed at Newark four hours previously; but having had the privilege of seeing the New York to New Jersey rush-hour first-hand, I enjoyed the rest of the journey through new Jersey (groundhogs by the roadside), Delaware (not very big), into Maryland, Baltimore and finally Liam Flynn’s Ale House, conveniently just round the corner from the bus stop.

And thus was the first leg of the trip complete. [I am not going to follow this with a blow-by-blow account, but more musings to follow soon…]

Ryan Harvey and James Bar Bowen Summer tour of the USA June/July 2014

I am now in the midst of a massive tour/road trip across the USA with Ryan Harvey from Baltimore. We have so far explored the underground-anarcho-queer-antiwar-punkrock scene from Maryland to California via Texas and plenty of places in between.

So far the tour has been to:

Weds 4th June: Baltimore, MD at Liam Flynn’s Ale House, (with Caleb Stine)

Thurs 5th June: Frederick MD at The Void (with Koala Teatime)

Fri 6th June: Huntington, WV at Ritter Park, (with The Disappearing Man)

Sat 7th: Bloomington, IN at The Game Room house (909 W. 9th) (with Eric Ayotte)
https://www.facebook.com/events/1478381035731033

Sun 8th June: St. Louis MO at Zambo’s house
https://www.facebook.com/events/775154802514938/

Mon 9th June: Springfield, MO at Mama Jeans Natural Market (with Shannon Murray)
https://www.facebook.com/events/706439882741657/

Tue 10th June:Fayetteville, AR at Night Bird Books (with Shannon Murray and Adam Cox)

Wed 11th June Dallas, TX, House Show

Fri 13th June: Houston, TX at The Ponderosa (1503 Nance St.) (with The Ancient Gods, Alimanas, Space Villains ++)
https://www.facebook.com/events/638432042901232/

Sat 14th June: Austin, TX at Monkey Wrench Books
https://www.facebook.com/events/695738710493474/

Sun 15th June: Edinburg, TX at The House That Must Not Be Named (715 W. Schunior) (with Avocado Hand Grenade ++)
https://www.facebook.com/events/243821905824022/

Mon 16th June: San Antonio, TX at SWU Movement Gallery/Underground Library (with Troothless, Sonia and Peter)
https://www.facebook.com/events/576942452419913/

Wednesday, June 18: Las Cruces, NM at the Haphazard House (with Jesse Desert Rats +++)

Fri June 20: San Diego, CA at The Coven (4827 Wightman St.)
https://www.facebook.com/events/666505470088936/

Sat June 21: Los Angeles, CA –  at Tochtli Fest (2341 East Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles) (with dozens of acoustic folkpunk acts)
https://www.facebook.com/events/251942584986914/

 

So that’s what we’ve done up to press. The tour continues for the next two weeks looking something like this:


Monday, June 23: Santa Barbara/Goleta, CA at Thehardtofind Showspace (7190 Hollister Ave.)
https://www.facebook.com/events/515581588543614/

Wednesday, June 25: Riverside, CA –  at Blood Orange Infoshop
https://www.facebook.com/events/274181892762507/

Thursday, June 26: Flagstaff, AZ at Taala Hooghan Infoshop (1704 N. Second St.)

Friday, June 27: Albuquerque, NM at The Wagon Wheel (310 Stanford Dr. SE)

Saturday, June 28:Taos, NM  at The Upper Crust Mansion (309 Valverde)

Monday, June 30: Denver, CO  at 7th Circle (2935 W 7th Ave)
https://www.facebook.com/events/506245676143244

Tuesday, July 1: Omaha/Lincoln NE at The Black Cat House (1601 B st)
https://www.facebook.com/events/1432499520348808/

Wednesday, July 2: Iowa City, IA  at Uptown Bill’s (730 South Dubuque Street)

Friday, July 3: Madison, WI –  TBA

Thursday, July 4: Milwaukee, WI at Center Street Free Space (703 east Center St.)
https://www.facebook.com/events/821996827820195/

Chicago, IL – Saturday, July 5
TBA