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This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of the greatest revolutionary and most argumentatively religious poet of the English language – a good reason to re-enter the fierce debates and visionary scenes of his epic poem Paradise Lost. The account in Book Two of the assembly and speeches of the rebels against God foreshadows all such arguments through history. Milton went blind and had to compose by dictating; yet his imagined hosts of angels and devils and his dizzying perspectives of celestial and infernal space etch themselves into your mind. In his prose writings on divorce and freedom of speech, he was way ahead of his time.
Quite simply, the best living inheritor of Milton’s anger, skill and grandeur. From his early sonnets about being the son of northern working-class parents to his haunting ballad about a charred Iraqi soldier [first printed in the Guardian], he tells the truth about war and class. He has invented a new form of television documentary, the ‘film/poem’, in which he speaks about Hiroshima and the Holocaust, Alzheimer’s and the collapse of Soviet communism. The music of his verse makes you want to dance; his Yorkshire humour lights up the darkest landscape.
Philip Roth (Jonathan Cape, 2006)
Sex and, increasingly, death are the subjects of America’s finest living novelist. Everyman (2006) is a good introduction to his world of inexhaustible talkers, seductive women and restless men. Or, like many other readers, you could start with his controversial novel Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), which put masturbation into the heartland of middle-class Jewish America. Roth is an inveterate questioner and troublemaker. In his sixth decade he began a series of big novels, which take on American politics and history, notably American Pastoral, a novelist’s take on the Vietnam war, ‘the indigenous American berserk’. Like all the best novelists he’s both serious and hilarious.
Walter Benjamin (Schocken Books, 1969)
A collection of essays by the outstanding German critic and philosopher, who committed suicide in 1940 on the Franco-Spanish border, running away from the Nazis. A friend of Brecht, and also of Gershom Scholem, the great modern scholar of Jewish mysticism, Benjamin is the subtlest Marxist thinker I know. This collection contains essays that remain necessary for thinking about the world now: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Theses on the Philosophy of History, which begins with Paul Klee’s painting of ‘the angel of history’, transfixed by the debris of the past. ‘Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.’ I re-read Benjamin because he was a communist with an indelible sense of tragedy.
The Golden Notebook
On a hot summer’s day by a swimming-pool in Bristol in 1962, I was chatting up a young woman with liquid eyes, sweet-talking her by reading out chunks of Lessing’s novel. She asked me if she could borrow it. I never saw her or the book again, and had to buy another copy.
I love this book because it breaks open all the forms. Lessing describes it as ‘an attempt to break a form; to break certain forms of consciousness and go beyond them. While writing it, I found I did not believe some of the things I thought I believed: or rather, that I hold in my mind at the same time beliefs and ideas that are apparently contradictory. Why not? We are, after all, living in the middle of a whirlwind.’
I shall take with me the complete works of Shakespeare, but this is the play I will return to most often. Speeches of it are already engraved in my memory. I imagine myself quoting out loud to bewildered penguins taking refuge from global warming:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?
There’s nothing in world drama to match Lear’s account of civilisation’s breakdown, torture, the journey to sanity through madness, love reconquered too late. There’s even a succinct description of socialism out of the mouth of a character caught in Shakespeare’s world-shaking storm: ‘Distribution should undo excess /And each man have enough.’
Bertolt Brecht (Methuen, 1980)
A life that ran from anarchy and appetite to a watchful communist hope, a lifetime that drove Brecht into exile, ‘changing countries more often than shoes’, is refracted in these indestructible poems. Our greatest Marxist playwright, Brecht has survived the nitpicking of cold war critics and the subservience of Soviet cultural commissars. He wrote his best plays – Mother Courage, The Good Person of Setzuan, The Life of Galileo – as a refugee without a theatre to see them put on. Then he returned to East Germany, where he was given a theatre and created one powerful production after another, though tussling with party bureaucrats. His poems became the repository of his true thoughts. In 1953, when there was a workers’ rising against the government, he couldn’t resist writing this classic statement against tyranny:
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
(Translated by Derek Bowman)
Michael Kustow has just completed A Passage from India, based on his life in 2006/7, and also written The Half, featuring Simon Annand’s photographs of actors in their dressing-rooms, which Faber and Faber will publish this autumn
'Docs Not Cops' write that we must resist attempts to make our NHS any less universal
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
'We wanted to use a shared love of the beautiful game to stand in solidarity with those living under occupation', writes Kate Hadley.
Priti Patel's shady deals are business as usual. Enough is enough, writes Eleanor Penny
Boris Johnson is a local disaster and a national embarrassment. He must go, writes James Clouting
The global elite have been stealing from society on an unprecedented scale, writes Tom Walker
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum