Rudolf Nilsen’s Arbeidsløs Jul / Jobless Christmas

Over the past while, I’ve been reading a lot of the poetry of Rudolf Nilsen (1901-1929) considered by many to be Norway’s greatest working-class poet.

Nilsen died in 1929, at the age of 28, not from a life of excess but from illness. He died in Paris from tuberculosis but was buried in Oslo. His grave can be found in the north of the city, in Nordre Gravlund. He is remembered today through a statue erected in his memory and the naming of a square as Rudolf Nilsens plass in the area where he used to live. His was a peripatetic existence, and although most associated in people’s minds with the Vålerenga district of Oslo, his family moved around a lot within the city. Born in Orknøygata, he later lived in several places within his first year, and later at Lakkegata 58 where his parents were divorced. He is most associated with Heimdalsgate 26, the place which formed the basis for one of his most well-known poems: “Nr. 13”.

Although he was working-class, in his short life he mainly made his living as a journalist, chiefly for Norges Kommunistblad, a Communist Party daily. Nilsen was a committed communist. Although he was initially a member of Norway’s Labour Party, when a split came in the party in the 1920s, he sided with the communists and joined the newly formed Norges Kommunistiske Partiet. He was also jailed briefly for his involvement in smuggling Soviet literature into the West and attempting to spread it with a friend, Kyrre Grep.

His first collection På stengrunn was published in 1925, by Andelsforlaget, followed rapidly the following year by På Gjensyn in 1926. A third collection, Hverdag, was in the beginning stages when Nilsen, in the company of friends, went travelling through Spain and France. On the trip he contracted tuberculosis, and died shortly after in Paris in 1929. He was cremated, and his ashes returned to the city he loved, where they were buried.

As I’ve been reading his work, I’ve started some tentative translations, so here’s one called “Arbeidsløs Jul” or “Jobless Christmas” as I’ve titled it. It’s from his first collection På Stengrunn.

Abreidsløs can also be unemployed but usually the term Arbeidsledig is used nowadays, implying a momentary gap between jobs rather than the more permanent sense of being long-term unemployed that Arbeidsløs can signal. My translation follows the poem in the original below.

Arbeidsløs Jul

Vi som er dømt til livet
i gråbeingårdenes by
feirer i dag en solfest
for ham, som er født på ny.

Vi har fått tyve kroner
å feire hans komme med!
For dem har vi kjøpt en julegran
og en hel sekk ved.

For dem har vi kjøpt en bayer
og et stykke hestekjøtt.
Det siste skal minne om stallen
hvor frelseren blev født.

De fattiges herre og mester!
Det var ikke godt for ham.
Han hengtes til slutt på korset
midt mellom synd og skam.

Godt det er bare en skrøne
at Kristus er kommet påny.
Så blir det en fattig mindre
å nagle på kors i vår by.

Vi i de mørke gater
feirer i dag en fest.
Til jul får vi tyve kroner,
til påske: Korsfest! Korsfest!

 

Jobless Christmas

Us doomed to life

in the bone-grey city

celebrate a feast today

for him, born anew.

 

We’ve got twenty quid

to celebrate his coming!

We’ve bought a tree

And a full sack with it.

 

We’ve bought a beer

and a piece of horse meat.

This last to remember the manger,

Where our saviour was born.

 

Our poor lord and master!

It did him no good.

He hanged on the cross

between sin and shame.

 

It’s just as well it’s a lie

that Christ is come again.

One less poor bugger

to crucify.

 

We in the dark streets

celebrate a feast day today.

For Christmas we get twenty quid,

for Easter: Crosses! Crosses!

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Wretched Strangers: Available to Pre-Order Now!

Today marks the 2nd anniversary of Britain’s historic vote to leave the European Union. I remember the day of the vote and the morning after when the shock result came through. I was living in Prague but was preparing to move home for the summer before moving once more to Norway. It was this very freedom of movement which a thin majority of the British people voted against, although most treated the vote to leave to the EU as a referendum not on membership of the EU and it’s institutions but rather as a referendum on immigration.

In the two years since then, Brexit and how it will function – what it means for those EU and EEA citizens living in the UK is still unclear. Likewise, the reality of sharing a border with Ireland – almost never discussed during the run up to the vote – now looms large in shaping what kind of Brexit can take effect. One of the few things that was clear in the immediate aftermath of Brexit was that many in Britain saw the vote as a chance to exercise openly a more aggressive and violent attitude towards immigrants and people of colour in the UK.

Wretched Strangers, a new book of poetry edited by JT Welsch and Agi Lehoczky, is a response to that, two years after Brexit. I am very proud to be one among many of the contributors to the book, which is available to pre-order now for just £12. ALL proceeds from the book go towards charities that help promote the rights of refugees. If you believe in a better world than the one Brexit signifies, read this book!

Headstuff Article on class and reading

Headstuff published a short feature article of mine today on their site about what it means to be a reader from a working-class background. It’s a topic I’ve wanted to write about for many years, but haven’t had the courage until now to tackle it. This is a topic I’ve been thinking about since I first started thinking about class way back in my teenage years. Books like Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy have helped me think through the meanings of being a working-class reader and the uses to which I put my own literacy. Here’s a short extract from the full article, which can be read here:

This is what happens to the self-conscious, the working-class reader: their education – set by those who they seek most to impress – teaches them to reject out of hand, because of its register, the place where they might actually first engage with reading – the only place perhaps.

A Spectator

Every once in a while you read a book that prompts you to rethink your own ideas that you have about a subject. I’ve just read Joe Kennedy’s Games Without Frontiers from Repeater Books. It’s made me revisit an old essay of  mine which I have been sitting on for a while. I wrote it while living in Prague and spending my time following my local club there, Bohemians 1905. Following Bohemians for little over a season helped mme understand better my ideas about football and its social function. It also helped me better understand my own fandom,  and what it means to be a supporter of a club when you live away. That means finding a new club but also they way it reinforces and changes your relationship with your home club. As Kennedy concludes “football is only ever a microcosm of whatever exists in our broader social settings”. I am still developing and changing my ideas of what fandom looks like here in Norway, but this essay captures a moment when I was trying to find my place in Prague and also at the same time, understand what role, if any, football has to play in social formation. So here it is, the essay, unedited and unupdated as I wrote it almost a year ago. I am sharing it now because I thought and still think it was well written even if the ideas expressed are no longer directly relevant to my lived experience at present. 

As an outsider in a foreign country, all you ever are is a spectator. It is how you are oriented to everything, everyone else, in the city. You have no compass but the one given to you by others. Prague runs east to west, not as I am accustomed, north to south in its orientation. This is a deep form of orientation. Ingrained. Though in their minds this is Central, not Eastern Europe, I am Western. This is resolute. In the map of the city which I am granted by those who live here, those who I talk to, I am always approaching from the west.  This is an orientation I am unable to escape.

I live on the east side of town. Crimea. Sevastapol. Kharkiv. The River Don that runs southeast to Voronezh. My home lies on The River Don, on Donská. From my apartment window I look up the hill Kozácká, named for the Cossacks. Around the corner, runs The Black Sea. The Crimea bleeds seamlessly into Moscow, before it, in turn, encompasses the Caucases. These are my immediate borders. My streets. At my tram stop, the Crimea, there is graffiti which read Včera my, Dneska ty. Our yesterday, your today. It is painted blue and yellow. The colours of the Ukraine. There can be no mistaking the meaning. It is punctuated by a yellow heart. Here, in Vršovice, all of my surrounding streets are named for countries. Estonia runs parallel to Norway runs parallel to Finland. At the foot of each of these is Copehagen. Armenia. Moldova. Murmansk. Deeper into this part of town there is Ulyanov street. A street for the Altai mountains. A street for the Bashkir peoples of Turkey. For the 28th Regiment of the Red Army. Magnitogorsk. Yalta. Lvov. Carpathia. Yerevan. Cuba Square. Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan. Kazakhstan. Kirgizstan. Here, in Vršovice, these streets all flow from one great avenue, Russia. These streets a map, of Communism, of the East. Their yesterday. Something of which they were once a part. Their addresses a daily reminder of the greater project. It’s ghost lingering in red street signs with white lettering and blue borders.

Prague must be one of the most mapped cities in Europe. There are countless mapped versions of Prague. Cartoonish ones for tourists with giant drawings of the major landmarks, bordered by ads for pub crawls, ghost tours, casinos. In these, the limits of the city are stark. There are maps for the discerning tourist with cool, clean lines. It assumes a certain amount of knowledge is already held by the reader of the map. It is about getting off the beaten track. The unbeaten track is still mapped. There is the map of Prague on my phone, dazzling with the stars of saved places. I am always its centre. Its heart. I am my own tiny blue dot. Each yellow star forming a criss-crossed constellation of my eating and drinking habits. Of haircuts and work. You could with this map trace and traverse my life in this city. You could live as I have lived. It would double over on itself a dozen times, like the accordion folds of any map. You would know my borders, my limits.

My favourite asterism is the starry plough. When I first started seeing Miriam, I would visit her in Tábor, an hour and half south of Prague. As we walked one night around the illuminated, still-standing walls of this medieval city, I noticed the stars in the sky. It was a clear night. October. I mentioned my love of the starry plough. The big dipper she called it. No, the starry plough. Our aims most modest are, we only want the world, from the plough to the stars. When I think of the starry plough, I think of home. In those eight stars, whether on a field of deep blue, or green, I can map a history of Ireland.

The certainties I had about Prague, about the Czech Republic, have dwindled the longer I’ve lived here. Still I am trying to get a grip on it. I watch football from the terraces on Saturdays. There I am a spectator. But every other day of the week I am still one. I watch as this city, this country, my new home, also changes. From afar, I am a spectator of the changes at home. It is election week in Ireland. I wish I could vote from where I sit. I can’t. Instead I watch. I spectate.

One of the many things I love about Prague is its nearly inexhaustible number of antikvariats, or second-hand bookshops. In each one I visit I feel I am a deep-sea diver. There are corals of ex libris cards, discarded photos, postcards, medals, maps, and diaries. I swim through them, the water feels familiar though the language, the colour, is not.  Their stock in trade is second hand Czech books, which I cannot read, but occasionally I buy these if they are sufficiently interesting to me. Among the books I have bought are a range of different translations of 14th Century French poet and troubadour, Francois Villon, evidently considered sufficiently ideologically sound to be translated at the height of pre-Soviet invasion Czech communism.

Just before Christmas, the American poet Steven Rodefer died. I was lucky enough to have heard him read and to have even spoken to him at various times when I lived in Cork and he visited for the annual Soundeye poetry festival. I know the work of Francois Villon entirely because of him. His translations of Villon in the 1960s, under the moniker of Jean Calais is one of my favourite books of poetry. The week he died, in Prague’s Old Town, killing some time, and keeping out of the rain, I spotted on the poetry shelves of one particular antikvariat with which I am especially familiar, a whole slew of different translations of Villon from the late 1940s and the early 1950s. When I heard of Rodefer’s death I was cursing the fact that among the poetry books I brought from Ireland I didn’t bring his Villon. I wished I had.  I saw these three books and thought I had to buy them. They cost maybe a combined total of 150-,Kč. Though I couldn’t read the Czech, I could recognise something of Steven Rodefer’s own versions of Villon in the typography, the artwork of the books. It was a close proximation, across language, time and geography.

My only other substantial purchases in an antikvariat have been two photography books. One, which I got for 50Kč-, was a photographic history of Czech sport from the 1860s to the beginning of the First World War.  The other was a photo essay of the city of Prague. I bought this photo essay book early in my time in the city, when I was still in an exploratory phase and wanted to imbibe the city in as many ways as I could.

In his 1962 collection of photographs capturing Prague and its people, Praha a Pražané, published by the main publishing house of the Czech state since the period of the First Republic, Orbis, Václav Jírů included a number of photographs of sporting scenes. Along with the touching image of a group of young boys walking toward the open-air ice rink with their skates slung over their shoulder for some hockey in winter, there was also the power of the spartakiad, of speedway racing and more besides, but the most resonant images for me are those of football. As was surely de rigueur for a book of more or less vernacular, or at least social-realist photography taken in early 1960s Czechoslavakia, the images of football included almost obligatory jumpers-for-goalpost snaps.

The book of photographs covers a year in the life of the city, beginning in spring and ending in winter. As well as the jumpers-for-goalposts images of the summer months captured by Jírů, there are two other images of football that capture the game in that era in Czechoslovakia. On one page we see a fence, about ten feet in height, riddled with gaps and along the fence there are men, boys and women with prams, all looking on at the footballing action through the gaps – unable to get in either because of cost or because too many had already been let in. Here we have people straining to watch football. On the facing page, we see what appears to be a gate, but with no turnstile, wide open, and a single man standing, briefcase in hand, watching on as the action unfolds on the pitch. We can see, just barely, the packed stands of the stadium. Part of the book’s “autumn intermezzo” the image on the left is titled “One eye on the game” while that on the right is simply titled “A spectator”. In this last title there is the ambiguity of who is spectator and subject, from the camera lens, to the view that Jírů’s spectator sees of the players on the pitch, and the potential view of a spectator at the far end of the ground looking at Jírů’s subject, and finally, at Jírů as he takes the photograph himself. Borders on all sides. Framed, and framing. The page. The picture. The city.

Aside from being a beautifully poised image, constructed and captured so well, this image has helped me understand Czech football and the country at large as I have lived here. If the photography of Jírů showed the sport of the people with the people clambering to get a view – then it would be nearly impossible to compose a similar picture of the game, and of the Czech people, in today’s climate.

So what is the reality in Prague? In a city where the major ideological battles of the twentieth century have been played out – democracy, fascism and communism all creating a palimpsest here through which you can walk, the history mapped and mappable, the city is one that now embraces the neo-liberal consensus. Yet there are in places a resistance to this.

Sparta Prague, the Czech Republic’s biggest and most successful club, play their home games at Letná Stadion, or the Generali Arena as it is officially known. For a club supposedly the darling of the old Communist regime and the worker, the nasty truth is that in a post-Communist state this is manifested in a decided rightward shift of its hardcore fans – the right-wing tendencies of the Sparta ultras manifests itself all around the local area. As you walk around the leafy Dejvice and Letná area generally you are likely to be met with stickers with taglines like “Good Night Left Side”, a play on the usual antifascist slogan of “Good Night White Pride” in part no doubt a result of the large student population in the area, typically the holders of the city’s liberal flame. Thus Letná is a contested zone between on the one hand the hard-right ultras of Sparta and those opposed to an increasingly nationalistic, right-wing, anti-immigrant culture typical of many post-Communist states in central and eastern Europe.

Ironically, Letná, Dejvice and Holešovice, which make up the catchment area of the club are each popular with expats, usually older more settled ones who have been in the city for between fifteen and twenty years in some cases. Happy to take their money at the gate, nonetheless one wonders how welcome these interlopers would be among the Sparta faithful.

When I first moved here, I saw Bohemians as the natural antidote to this as a football club. The bigger question remains for me however: are Bohemians, their fans, and their stadium a space for the exploration of alternatives to the orthodoxy of neo-liberalism that prevails in the Czech Republic or is it like many such alternative clubs – still fundamentally about the football first and the culture second?

The hope has to be that the culture is of real significance, if not the primary raison d’être. It is my suspicion, having attended Bohemians games for most of this season that most fans are just there to follow their team and have a good time while doing so. For many, politics probably doesn’t come into. You sense there is a degree of apprehension among some Bohemians fans in seeing themselves as the vanguard of an increasingly under-threat alternative culture in the Czech Republic’s capital. But for other fans following the club itself is a political act.

In recent times, the last official squat in Prague was forcibly shut down by a heavy-handed police operation. Following the major floods in the city in 2002, the regeneration that was required was used to gentrify a previously vibrant working-class community making it a centre for new office buildings. Karlín, which had been cheap and thus a good place for many in the city’s artistic community, including artist collectives, was increasingly overrun by new office buildings and subsequently by developers looking to build apartment blocks to house the area’s new office working population. This change has seen the spaces available for artists to work in diminish. The best example of this is the destruction of the former factory that housed the Trafačka collective – occupants of the former industrial site for a number of years until the owner of the building decided that the offers being made to him to demolish the site and build new apartments in its stead became too tempting. This has meant the dispersing of a collective that has operated for eight years.

The end of Trafačka means not alone a reduction of these artists’ collaborative potential but the end of one of Prague’s most celebrated artist groups of the past decade – a real loss to the cultural life of the city. This shows that the values driving Prague forward as a city are hostile to such collectives – be they squats or shared artistic spaces. Even the inoffensive Karlín Studios, which has been around for about ten years, is due to close in 2016. This exhibition space is in a former factory warehouse that has been gutted but developers have decided that it ought to be turned into either offices or apartments or some kind of mixed development. It will be erased. Removed from the physical map of the city.

In the suppression of the city’s small number of squats, the demolition of spaces like those occupied by Trafačka in order to make them into profitable developments for business, one notes the same processes at work as the education provided by the neo-liberal tutors identified by Benjamin Tallis. In two recent essays appearing in Abolishing Prague, Tallis reassessed the paneláks which house the majority of the city’s citizens and also the communist-era architecture spread throughout the city.

The view of panelák housing (think late 60s early 70s social housing flats) held by westerners is unremittingly negative in contrast to the actual lived experience of those in them here in the Czech Republic. Likewise, the brutalist architecture of Prague that Tallis argues is occasionally the equal of Berlin goes against increasingly restricted ideas of what Prague as a city ‘is for’; the city as the tourist sees it is only to operate as a kind of real-life Eurodisney devoid of the things that make such places worth living in in the first place. In how read Prague, its architecture, it history, we are told to keep within the well-defined borders of the cartoonish maps your hostel or hotel furnish you with. The beauty of the Baroque is undeniable, objective. Anything else is heretical, subjective, awkward, a posture. No one, we are told, can really love Kotva.

Despite the demolition of places like Trafačka, other spaces are emerging that at least have the potential to act as engines of a subversive culture, in particular Paralelní Polis – a Bitcoin only café, and educational open office space that plays host to Prague’s crypto-anarchist community of hackers and others who are determined to build an alternative culture in the city. It will remain a clique-ish oddity, but its continued existence is a reminder of broader possibilities. It gives us a different way to read the contours of the city.

What does this have to do with me, with my little constellation of stars, my limits, my borders? The fans of Bohemians and the club are widely seen to share an antipathy for modern football’s pursuit of profit over other concerns. Through its development policy and absolute adherence to the logic of the market Prague may be seen to be preventing the emergence of alternative art spaces and squats that have the potential to help establish the city as a receptive one to creative people operating beyond mainstream culture.

It might be fair to say that in fact Bohemians’ home ground, Ďoliček, the dimple, is an alternative space. Not through a conscious cultivation of a politicised alternative but because in a culture largely uncritical of neo-liberal orthodoxies, any space that offers alternative approaches and culture is welcomed, encouraged and celebrated. When I stand watching Bohemians, I like to think of the club, of its fans, as Jírů’s lonely spectator – watching the game, wondering if it might be better. It too offers itself as a map. Perhaps I will save it and make it part of my constellation.

Books of 2016

As I did last year, I am going to list off the ten books I’ve read in 2016 that I think are worth hearing about. Many, if not most, are – like with my 2015 list – not actually necessarily published in 2016. I just happen to have read them in the last year. As it was with 2015, what I’ve enjoyed reading in 2016 has been motivated in part by the fact that I have once again moved countries; this time from the Czech Republic to Norway, and so some books I’ve read since coming here and have been using to help me learn more about my new home are present.

As usual the struggle with reading is tied up in the struggle with writing and the constant struggle to widen the horizons of the kinds of books I read. Such a list is also affected by the fact that it’s easier for me to recall what I’ve read probably in the last 3-6 months of the year than in the first half, but here goes.

Claire Louise Bennett – Pond

I’ve already written a long piece on the blog earlier this year after reading this book. A string of connected short stories, Pond is a powerful examination of secluded living. Absolutely essential piece of fiction.

Karl Ove Knausgård– A Death in the Family

The biggest name in Norwegian literature there is at the moment, Knausgård’s six-volume autobiographical novel, Min Kamp (My Struggle), a title which self-consciously invokes comparison with the title of Adolf Hitler’s screed Mein Kampf, is anything but. A Death in the Family is the English-language title of the first book in the series and, broadly speaking, revolves around Knausgård coming to terms with the death of his father although that hardly begins to do the novel justice. The fifth volume has just come out in English, and the sixth is on its way. The series has cemented Knausgård’s reputation and many more books are available in Norwegian and English of his. I am also currently reading his Home and Away, a series of letters he wrote with a Swedish author friend around the 2014 World Cup.

Neil Gaiman – American Gods

A book I’ve been vaguely aware of for years, I read this in the first few weeks of moving to Norway and I enjoyed it immensely, I read it just after finishing the next book on the list, and the centrality of a character named Wednesday, in homage to Odin, suited my new surroundings well. It is, I think the first piece of fantasy I have read in many years, and it was a thorough page-turner. A party I’m very late to, but glad to have arrived at nonetheless in the end.

Robert Ferguson – The Hammer and the Cross

Ferguson has just released a new book, Scandinavians, which reflects on his many years experience of life in Norway and the other Scandinavian countries. I picked up this book, The Hammer and the Cross, to get some better historical bearings on the viking period and the shifting sands of Norwegian and broader Scandinavian history. An excellent read, it provides a great overview of the impact that Viking invasion had not just on the countries they invaded but also the impact those places had on Viking belief systems in turn. A good companion book is Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World, a history of the world from the point of view of the North Sea.

Mike Savage – Social Class in the 21st Century

This Pelican introduction book, which was based in large part on the recent Great British Class Survey was assembled by a team of sociologists. It is an extraordinary attempt to map class as it appears in modern Britain (with parallels for Ireland and elsewhere). Attempting to define class in an age when someone may be economically less well off while having significant cultural and social capital is difficult but this book makes a fairly successful stab at asking questions around what things like the precariat really are and how it is that new forms of cultural capital actually operate.

Stephen King – On Writing

In an effort to spur myself into writing more again, I picked up this hugely entertaining memoir that while offering advice on writing in parts, is really the story of how to build writing into your daily life regardless of the motivation for that writing. It’s not a style guide or a strategy to write your first novel, but as a well-written book about the craft of writing, it provides its own fine example.

Susanna Clarke – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Spurred on by the positive experience I had with Gaiman’s American Gods, I finally went on to read this book which has recently been adapted as a TV series by the BBC. Among the most fun aspects of the book are the copious footnotes and the entire world of magical scholarship which Clarke builds into the narrative.

Alberto Manguel – Curiosity

The first Alberto Manguel book I bought a few years ago was The Library at Night, a book which many of my friends will know, is among my favourite works of non-fiction. Here in Curiosity, Manguel uses Dante’s inferno and his guide in Virgil as the basis for an exploration of different forms of human curiosity. As you’d expect from Manguel if you’re familiar with his writing, it is erudite, philosophical, playful and ultimately affirming.

Robert MacFarlane – Landmarks

I had several years ago considered buying MacFarlane’s The Old Ways, his walking tour of Britain’s lost, old or obscured roads and routes but put it off. Living in the Czech Republic and now Norway, my interest in walking, and the kinds of knowledge it gives has only increased. So, when I saw this book by him which considers the words-we-don’t-use-much-anymore to talk about landscape and features of nature while out walking, I couldn’t resist. Although it focuses on words and names related to the British Isles, it is such a treasure trove of writing, and a brilliantly curious book, that it will make walking anywhere – through any place name – a much more interesting experience.

Frederic Gros – A Philosophy of Walking

As I continue to do more walking, and to think more about the pleasures of walking and hiking, this book provides an excellent overview of some of the philosophical aspects of what different kinds of walking mean. Whether you are keeper of assiduous habits always walking the same route at the same pace at the same time daily, are an ambler, stroller, parader or conqueror, this book will give you pause for thought about what it is we are doing, what we are actually after when we go out walking.

Are any of these in your top books of 2016, or any time? Anyway, here’s to a year of good reading and to a year of good reading to come in 2017!

Smash Nazism: Public Sculpture and Politics

Every day as I head to work, my train pulls into Oslo Sentralstasjon invariably at platforms 15 or 16. This means I either swing round the station entirely on the walk to work, or if I go through it, I go through the Østbanehallen. Exiting the Østbanehallen, I am confronted each time with a large silver hammer smashing a swastika.

This sculpture, erected last year, and titled Knus nazismen, “Smash Nazism”, is unsubtle in conveying its message perhaps, but such unsubtle responses to present fascist tendencies are exactly what are required. It is a big silver hammer shattering a swastika on a black plinth. Many regard it as ugly, but it’s the bluntness of the message – and the fact that it helps to recognise the efforts of some of Norway’s less celebrated but often most daring resistance members that mark it out as an important public art work.

The artist behind the sculpture, Bjørn Melbye Gulliksen, from Sandefjørd, was born just one year after the Second World War came to an end. He himself was  leader of the visual artists’ trade union in Norway in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In a piece of apt symbolism, the new sculpture was revealed outside of the train station on 1st May – traditionally the day to celebrate international labour.

The sculpture is controversial not only artistically but because of those whom it commemorates: the Osvald Group. A resistance group led by Asbjørn Sunde, a committed communist, he was convicted in 1954 of spying for the Soviet Union. Sunde was a sailor and later fought in the Spanish Civil War as a member of the international brigades and a leader of the NKP – Norway’s Communist Party. The communist-leanings of Sunde’s Osvald Group (so-called because Sunde went under the alias of Osvald Pettersen in this period), meant that their role as resistors to Nazism and Quisling’s puppet regime went unrecognised for many years in Norway.

Five members of the Group are still alive and when the statue was unveiled last year, one of the five was quoted as saying:

“I think the unveiling was dignified and fine,” Anne Marie Malmo, who was part of the Osvald Group in Bergen, told Aftenposten. “What’s most important is that those who gave their lives (to the resistance effort) will be remembered.”

The base of the sculpture has two plaques: one to NSB workers who died during the Second World War, including two members of the Osvald Group.

The second plaque, specifically for Osvald Group members, see those two names appear again. The base of the sculpture also contains a quote from Sunde which translates as:

“It was worth fighting for the freedom—for all nations, for all races, for all classes, for all people”.

In times when we are faced with the prospect of emerging forms of ethno-nationalism throughout Europe, and fascism under the Orwellian name of the “alt-right” in the United States, such public sculpture and the story of resistance fighters like NSB workers and the Osvald Group become more important than ever to remember.The bluntness of a hammer smashing a swastika is a clear message: there should be no place in our world for such hate.

The Return of History (but not as we know it)

As the world reacts to the news that Donald Trump is president-elect of the United States following an unprecedented upset in polling to see of Democratic Party nominee Hilary Clinton, I have been struck by the nature of how people keep referring to this as “setting the clock back fifty years” or seeing his victory as a “return to the 1930s”.

Some have noted that today is the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This event and the collapse of Communism in the USSR which followed on, was hailed at the time by champions of liberal democracy and capitalism as “the end of history”. The phrase is a much used (and occasionally abused one) but has become popular again in the years since the recession of 2008. Many saw the revived interest in left-wing thinking and writing as a sign of change.

That late capitalism’s crisis was proof that the late 1980s and early 1990s triumphalism of hawkish American commentators that history had ended in a decisive victory for the liberal and neo-liberal project had been proven as nothing more than hubris. The rise of left-wing populism in Greece with Syriza, Podemos in Spain, and the choice of Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of British Labour was seen as a sign of things changing. So too did the prospect of a Bernie Sanders Democratic run.

This was the strand of hope that Greece’s Golden Dawn, Farage’s UKIP, Le Pen’s Front National and more besides throughout the world who used capitalism’s crisis to push a right-wing populist agenda would ultimately be beaten. But earlier this year, we saw British Labour all but tear itself apart over Corbyn and the leadership contest when the Tories took Government for themselves. We have seen what happened to Syriza. UKIP helped drive and succeed in achieving Brexit which the Tories now seem intent on pushing through (the recent High Court decision notwithstanding).

The election of Trump seems to have put the nail in the coffin of any such hopes for now. The possibility that a man so uniquely unqualified, so evidently unfit to be President should convince so many people otherwise says something about the failure of traditional politics to be convincing to huge numbers. It also says something about the failure of the various strands of left-wing politics from capitalising on global capital’s single greatest crisis. Whatever message of hope the left offered, it isn’t what the majority seems to want right now.

This is a historic day. It is a watershed moment in the history of the United States and the western world. What it isn’t is a return to the past. It is, as well as the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the anniversary of the Eighteenth Brumaire, when Louis Napoleon ended the First French Republic with a coup.

While it might be tempting to ring out the phrase “first as tragedy and then as farce” from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, this is more than a farce. This is a crisis – of democracy and the belief that we have been making our societies better now for the past century and more. As Marx wrote in 1852:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

Trump’s victory will weigh heavily too. History is made by understanding it. Teaching history, warts and all, needs to be done. Hearing it’s warnings is important if we are to avoid this date entering infamy in the same way that another anniversary of November 9th has done.