Sunday Bookchat

March 15, 2008

Reggae poet and author Linton Kwesi Johnson looks back on three decades of activism and concludes that England is still a bitch. Let this Guardian article take you back to the heady days of the late 1970s when The Clash sang songs like “Guns of Brixton” and white kids made common cause with street poets like Johnson:

Thirty years ago, it was not uncommon to encounter white, middle-class suburban and provincial teenagers wearing badges that proclaimed “SMASH THE SPG”. The primary spark for their opposition to the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group and its role in policing London’s immigrant communities came from the work of Linton Kwesi Johnson. When the SPG was eventually disbanded in 1986, it was under a deluge of public condemnation. It is not too outlandish to suggest that Johnson’s poetry and music shaped that opinion: so much for Auden’s claim that “poetry makes nothing happen”.

Johnson’s debut album, Dread Beat an’ Blood, was released in 1978. It comprised poetry written in an uncompromising Jamaican-London vernacular and militant politics set to a reggae accompaniment. The combination ensured that his vivid and angry stories of Brixton street life and police brutality broke out of their south London setting to acquire a resonance far beyond location or race. Follow-up albums Forces of Victory (1979), Bass Culture (1980) and Making History (1983) provided the soundtrack to a remarkable period of postwar history during which the children of the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants established their permanent place in British society.

According to the Guardian profile, Johnson and Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz are the only two living poets on the Penguin Classics list. Johnson isn’t sure what he thinks about that.

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Eric Alterman’s latest book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, is about to come out and we’re ready to read it. Here’s the itinerary for his speaking tour, and a link to a Web interview about the book.

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The best book jacket blurbs, like Zen koans, serve multiple functions with a minimum of wordage. Thus, Ezra Klein’s blurb for Matthew Yglesias’ imminent Heads in the Sand: How Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats draws an appreciative glance from Kieran Healy for the way it combines praise for a well respected liberal blogger with a bitch slap for a winger pundit whose speaking fees may have just gone up, but whose ideas will never be anything but bargain-basement stock.

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Alas, poor Milbank! In Dana’s new book Homo Politicus, the Washington Post yockmeister tries to achieve wit but falters halfway toward his goal. Greg Waldmann tries to praise but ends up burying:

A few years ago, Dana Milbank was labeled a “policy bimbo” by John Podhoretz, son of Norman and writer for The National Review. Anyone who earns the ire of John Podhoretz (or any Podhoretz for that matter) must have something going for him, but one can’t help but conclude that there was more than a kernel of truth in that stinging sobriquet. If authors wish to deal with the evil alongside the inane, they commit themselves to a precarious balancing act, and the stakes are high. Milbank falls flat on his face; every chuckle is a pyrrhic victory.

But ya gotta admit, that Dana Milbank sure looks funny in an orange hat. Scroll down the link and you’ll see what I mean. Wotta card! A laff riot!

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Good luck to hard-hitting author David Cay Johnston, who accepted a buyout offer from the New York Times and will concentrate on long-form reporting for magazines as well as documentaries. His recent book Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (And Stick You With the Bill) is a real ball-yanker.

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A shopping mall for a 14th century Islamic scholar. A thought experiment for Chinua Achebe. A Travis McGee novel for Eliot Spitzer. A heavily updated paperback edition for The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. And more next week.

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