Friday 17 June 2016

E.U. Referendum: Leave or Remain?

A guarantee of democracy is more important to me than promises of economic growth. The fifth-largest economy in the world may take a short-term hit as a result of leaving the European Union but I am confident in our ability to survive and prosper in the long term.

History has a great deal to tell us, including two very important general truths.  

The first is that the centralisation of power (for example, from Westminster, The Hague, Stockholm, Vilnius, Porto and 22 other European governments to Brussels) is anti-democratic by its very nature. 

My unease about the creeping federalisation of the European Union goes back to a time when there were a mere twelve member states, Jacques Delors was the commissioner and I was driving trucks from the United Kingdom to Europe. I remember discussing the issue with a Kepstowe driver while we were waiting in one of those hellish border queues one freezing February night in 1994 to enter Russia. 

No lesser figure than Mikhail Gorbachev has observed that 'the most puzzling development in politics during the last decade is the apparent determination of Western European leaders to recreate the Soviet Union in Western Europe'. It appears that the resemblance of 'European Union' to 'Soviet Union' is more than just a matter of semantics.

The second general truth is that the ruling classes invariably resist any radical changes to the status quo. Dictators use the state police and the army to suppress dissent. Democratically elected leaders exploit public fears of the unknown with dire predictions of chaos and upheaval. 

Karl Marx wrote 'The state is the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interests.' The European Union is essentially a good idea (from each state according to ability to each state according to need), but like so many other good ideas (such as Marxism), it has been hijacked by a wealthy and powerful elite to serve its own interests. The European Union has been constructed by politicians, lawyers, bankers and big business to suit politicians, lawyers, bankers and big business rather than the millions who toil on roads, railways and in factories, offices, hospitals, fields and warehouses. 

The free movement of people across borders has produced a vast pool of cheap, mobile labour. The direction of migration is always from poor to rich countries, where it inevitably reduces wages and increases profits. This is a capitalist scam: wages have stagnated or fallen over the past few years while prices, profits and boardroom pay have all spiralled. 

Like the vast majority of British citizens, I have no objection to reasonable levels of immigration but the United Kingdom's annual growth in population since the European Union's expansion in 2004 into Eastern Europe is both unprecedented and unsustainable. We already have a chronic shortage of housing and high levels of homelessness. Many millennials are unlikely ever be able to afford to own their own home because of soaring property prices and the law of supply and demand has also produced hikes in rental prices. Every other member state of the European Union would undoubtedly be concerned by the social effects of annual net migration figures in excess of 300,000 but they all shrug their shoulders: it isn't their problem. That isn't the attitude of any club I'd want to be a member of. It became very clear following Cameron's humiliating attempts to renegotiate our treaty that the free movement of people is non-negotiable, a British predicament that the British can do nothing about while they are members of the democratic European Union.

Image result for the troika

An unelected 'troika' consisting of the European Bank, the E.U. Commission and the International Monetary Fund has presided over an economic meltdown it was powerless to prevent, austerity, growing inequality and soaring levels of unemployment, especially in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, all rendered powerless to devalue their currencies by membership of the ill-conceived Euro Zone. Meanwhile the bankers bailed out by the taxpayer collect their bonuses as if nothing has happened while food banks have proliferated in the fifth largest economy in the world. The situation is scandalous and has been allowed to continue for far too long.  

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We need change and we must be bold enough to seize the moment. 

Headline in the Guardian (Wednesday 15 June): Osborne: vote for Brexit and face £30 billion of taxes and cuts.The intimidation of the electorate by Cameron, Osborne and various establishment 'experts' (most of whom erroneously predicted similarly dire consequences were we to refuse to join the euro) has appalled me. The delivery of a leaflet presenting only a single side of the argument to every home was a transparent attempt by the government to rig the referendum result and a misuse of taxpayers' money. The only possible response to such abuses of power is to give the 'remain' campaign two fingers and 'vote leave'. 

Nobody knows what the future has in store, whether the vote is to leave or remain. I am prepared to hazard a guess, however, and the prediction applies whatever the result of the referendum. If the European Union fails to undertake reforms that will extend greater democracy and control to the citizens of the 28 member states it will suffer the same fate as Gorbachev's Soviet Union: extinction, and within the next ten years.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

The Indignity of Work

Karl Marx and Careful Driving is a study of 'what it is to be human'. I was drawn to long-distance truck driving by visions of empty roads and huge skies and the idea that I'd be captain of my ship, and for a few years, while I was driving all over Europe for Fransen Transport, those dreams were wonderfully fulfilled.

I have started to log dates, mileages and fuel consumption. The 20,711 km on the odometer have been accumulated in the past eight weeks through return trips from the United Kingdom to Belgium (2174 km), Holland (961 km), Moscow (7,431 km) and Kostroma (8,141 km). I was granted a single day at home in those eight weeks, between the long Moscow and Kostroma trips. After completing the return trip to Kostroma I was allowed Monday and Tuesday off before catching the train to Kidderminster last Wednesday afternoon. To survive in a profession that demands so many sacrifices there can be no half measures; you have to love it with your heart and soul. I have never yet worked on Christmas Day but no other holiday is sacrosanct.  I have spent umpteen New Years Days, weekends, bank holidays and birthdays either behind the wheel or waiting on service areas or truck stops all over Europe for the statutory weekend or bank-holiday bans applicable to trucks to end. (From the manuscript of Karl Marx and Careful Driving)

Twenty years after I made my last return trip for Fransen, both the job and I have changed. I survived more than six years of driving all over Europe despite never wearing a hi-viz vest or steel toe-capped boots because I used common sense but these days your are prohibited from relying upon common sense by the health and safety regulations. I no longer love the job with my heart and soul. I no longer choose to drive abroad or even spend nights away from home. I can't imagine why anyone would want to put up with the long hours, poor pay, heavy traffic and a blizzard of petty, demeaning regulations designed for idiots.

Karl Marx claimed that human beings are alienated from their human qualities by dull, repetitive work on the factory production lines spawned by the industrial revolution.

In its blind unrestrainable passion, its werewolf hunger for surplus-labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical bounds of the working day. It usurps the time for growth, maintenance and healthy development of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It haggles over a mealtime, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is given to the labourer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery. It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, reparation, refreshment  of the bodily powers to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, absolutely exhausted, renders essential. It is not the normal maintenance of the labour power which is to determine the limits of the working day; it is the greatest possible expenditure of labour power, no matter how diseased, painful and compulsory it may be, which is to determine the limits of the labourer's period of repose. Capital cares nothing for the length of life of labour power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour power that can be rendered fluent in a working day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the labourer's life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility. (Karl Marx: Capital)

As an agency driver I regularly work over 50 hours in a four-day week. A couple of weeks ago I worked 67 hours in 5 days. Average shift lengths are 12 or 13 hours, and they can be as long as 15 hours. I arrive home exhausted and with no opportunity to unwind in front of the TV with Linda or read, walk the dogs or work on my manuscript. There is barely enough time to shower and eat and snatch an inadequate 5 or 6 hours of sleep before getting up (usually in the small hours) to eat a banana, drink a coffee and pack my bag, secure it to the bike and pedal the 13 miles back to work. Using the car would save energy and a little time (probably no more than 15 minutes each way) but cycling the daily 26-mile round trip is one of the very few activities that makes me feel human during a thoroughly dehumanising 24 hours. It reminds me who I am.

The hierarchy of Plato's Ideal State was to be maintained by a Magnificent Myth or a 'noble lie' that God had inserted gold into the souls of the ruling elite, silver into the souls of the police and army, and iron and bronze into the souls of the third and largest class of workers and businessmen. The feudal hierarchy was sustained by the Magnificent Myth that God made some to rule and others to obey. Soviet socialism depended on the Magnificent Myth that the sacrifices borne by the workers and peasants would be followed by a classless Utopia.

An enduring Magnificent Myth is that parliamentary democracy equates to 'freedom'. Universal suffrage by the whole people of representatives and rulers of the state - this is the last word of the Marxists as well as of the democratic school. They are lies behind which lurks the despotism of a governing minority, lies all the more dangerous in that this minority appears as the expression of the so-called people's will, claimed the nineteenth-century Russian anarchist Sergei Bakunin in his book Statism and Anarchy.

The Magnificent Myth We're all in it together has been discarded by the current government, presumably because even the Tories are unable to maintain such a barefaced lie following the lowering of the top rate of income tax from 50 p to 45 p in the £ and their abject failure to bring their cronies in the City to account for their irresponsible and  fraudulent practices over the past two decades. Bankers continue to earn massive annual bonuses for gambling with other people's money and our futures. We're all in it for ourselves would be a more appropriate slogan.

The claim by the Coalition that it is making work pay is another Magnificent Myth. Dismantling the welfare state so that it is no longer possible to afford even the most basic necessities on benefits is not 'making work pay'. Incomes have stagnated and the cost of living has soared so that working 50-plus hours a week is barely enough to cover the bills. The scandalous proliferation of food banks in what is still one of the richest countries in the world is evidence that many hard-working people with mortgages or rent to pay and children to support can no longer afford to eat. The vilification of the unemployed and the disabled as shirkers is a Magnificent Myth designed to deflect public anger against ministerial mismanagement of the economy by successive governments and the greed of the bankers and company bosses. The poor and the unemployed are a symptom of failed economic policies, not the cause of them.

Last week the chancellor made a self-congratulatory speech in which he claimed that the policy of austerity was bearing fruit and that Britain was on the road to recovery. He went on to thank the British people for their sacrifices over the past few years. I wonder if Mr Osborne would be willing to divulge some of the sacrifices he has made.

I suspect that the imminent recovery will shortly be exposed as yet another Magnificent Myth. Employers are driving down wages to maximise profits. The tax payer is subsidising those who either can't or won't pay their employees a living wage with working tax credits. This is the economics of the madhouse. Far from being bad for business, fair wages allowing for a decent standard of living are good for it because the economy thrives on people spending their earnings.

Marxism failed to take root in Western Europe because the owners of capital realised that if the workers had no spending money nobody would buy their goods. The gap between the exploiters and the exploited is getting wider. Marxist revolutions have been confined to countries in which the majority existed in poverty - such as Russia, China, Cuba, Korea and Vietnam. Osborne and Cameron be warned!


The Daily Mail's attack on Ralph Miliband under the banner headline 'The Man Who Hated Britain' has offended Ed and is creating a media storm. The Mail has since attempted to justify its position:  How can Ralph Miliband's vision be declared out of bounds for public discussion - particularly since he spent his entire life attempting to convert the impressionable young to his poisonous creed? it demands in a leading article entitled 'An Evil Legacy And Why We Won't Apologise'. There is a strong case to be made that Marxism is misguided but I would hesitate to describe it as either 'evil' or 'poisonous'. The Mail appears to be confusing Marxism with Soviet socialism, in which Marx's ideas were perverted by brutal and corrupt political elites to serve their own appetites for power and wealth to the detriment of the masses. Now that can be described in terms such as 'evil' and 'poisonous'. Marx was a champion of freedom who denounced inhumanity and exploitation in the strongest possible terms. He would surely have been horrified by the oppressive and brutal communist regimes created in his name. 


Sunday 28 April 2013

A little light reading

Email sent by Chris to the Severn Valley Authors ( on 14/04/13:

Dear all,

Please find attached latest extract from Karl Marx and Careful Driving. It consists of the first quarter of Chapter 7. Driver and truck are heading towards Moscow, where the armed guard is to be collected for the onward journey to Kazakhstan. As ever I need to know whether or not the blending of the journey with a stream of consciousness works. As ever, I suspect you will suffer from the disadvantage of not having read preceding chapters (only extracts which have since been reworked). I hope that nevertheless you will get the general gist. 

Email sent by Rob Ronsson ( to the Severn Valley Authors on Monday 22/04/13:

Hi SVAers

I'm afraid that Kidderminster Harriers did not end up on Saturday as champions of the Blue Square Premier League and that this means that they are now competing in the play-offs for promotion to Division 2 of the Npower League (I'm providing all this detail for the benefit of the non-soccer types among you). The first leg of the Harriers play-off semi-final (two legs) is away at Wrexham FC tomorrow (Tuesday) kick off at 7.45 pm. I'm going to the match and therefore won't be at the meeting. Sorry, but this is a once-in-a-season-game and as a keen supporter I feel that I have to be there for the team. I'm sure you all understand. Please accept my apologies for tomorrow. Chris, I'll read your piece and send you my thoughts in writing. Tony, thanks for the kind offer of a lift, but I'll be singing myself hoarse in Wales when you are pulling up outside Izzie's. Have a good meeting, everyone. Come on you Reds!

Email sent by Chris to Rob (CC other members of the SVA) on Tuesday 23/04/13:

Hi Rob

Are you sure that the football is the real reason for your absence this evening? Didn't you just take one look at the extract from Karl Marx and Careful Driving and bottle it?  Seriously though, I'm very interested in your opinion (as the only reader in the group of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) as to why Pirsig's book 'works' for you and so many others, and what I need to do to KM&CD to make it work in a similar way. Is it to do with the differences in structure? Perhaps the greater frequency with which I switch the narrative from the journey to the stream of consciousness and back is overambitious, but I wanted to achieve an ever-presence sense of physical movement to match the mental restlessness. Or is it that the stream of consciousness itself (the application of the philosophies of Plato and Marx to medieval and Soviet history, and to present-day Europe) fails to hold the reader's interest? Do some sections actually work? If so, which and why? Which sections don't work, and why don't they work? Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, wondering if KM&CD is going to be the biggest load of bollocks anyone has ever written and that I'm throwing away my life on a project that will never work. I suspect that Pirsig might have experienced very similar feelings. I trust that you weren't responsible for those disgraceful scenes at Aggborough on Saturday evening. Give the Harriers a cheer from me.

Shift 7: Wednesday 21 July
Safonovo (RUS) – Ryazan (RUS): 342 miles

‘It is …the fundamental principle of all political right that people have given themselves chiefs in order to defend their liberty and not to enslave them.’ (Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Discourse on the Origins of Inequality)

Karl Marx divided the labour process into three: firstly, the activity of the worker; secondly, the purpose of the work; and finally, the instruments of labour.[1] The instrument of labour is the conductor of the worker’s activity and can consist of mechanical, physical or chemical procedures by which he accomplishes his tasks.[2]
A truck qualifies as an instrument of labour. A similar method to Linnaeus’s classification of living matter might be employed to describe the machine I’m driving:
Category: Road Vehicle.
Use: Commercial.
Purpose: Carriage of Goods.
Engine: Compression Ignition.
Manufacturer: Volvo.
Model: F12 400 Globetrotter.
Country of Manufacture: Sweden.
Registration Number: K123 YOF.

The sunshine of the last few days has been replaced by a steady downpour of rain, covering the roads in a film of mud and rendering surfaces treacherous and slippery. The little I can make out beyond the metronomic arc of the windscreen wipers is limited to the secretive walls of birch forest to either side of the glistening grey ribbon of road and the occasional sodden village.  

Use: Commercial. Purpose: Carriage of Goods. Jean-Paul Sartre declared that the purpose of manufactured items is never in doubt because their essence (or function) precedes their existence: a pen is created to enable people to write, and a chair is manufactured to take the weight off your feet.
Every component part of the Volvo fulfils the specific purpose for which it was designed. Battling to keep the rain off the windscreen, the wipers have three settings: intermittent, normal and fast. Heater elements behind the glass are clearing the mirrors of water droplets. I have directed the fan heater at the windscreen to prevent it from misting up.

Plato stated that both natural and artificial products are judged by their performance of the specific function for which nature (God) or man designed them.[3]
  In medieval Europe your position in the feudal hierarchy was assigned by God – and you had a duty to remain in it. Your inherited purpose was never in doubt because your God-given essence (or function) preceded your existence.
Born in a more secular, sceptical age, Jean-Paul Sartre claimed that in a Godless universe we have no predefined purpose. Unlike the components of an engine, people aren’t precision engineered to fulfil a specific function within the whole: existence therefore precedes essence.  
. I went to university because it was expected of me but I drifted through the four-year course without any clear idea of an essence or purpose. Translating texts and studying French literary philosophy didn’t provide any answers; neither did experimenting with alcohol and recreational drugs. Every summer I took to the road alone with a rucksack containing a minimum of gear to spend three to four months hitch-hiking the length and breadth of Europe. I slept rough in woods, fields and ditches and became fit and suntanned. If I needed an academic justification I could argue that I made extensive use of my conversational French and Spanish when chatting to drivers. During the occasional lift in a mighty Volvo, Scania or Pegaso I would question the pilots about the way of life and watch in fascination as they juggled with twelve-, fourteen- or sixteen-speed gearboxes. The international truck driver continued to present a powerfully romantic figure and I yearned to be piloting big rigs to France, Spain or Portugal, or even to Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

Yet again I am short of sleep. The fortissimo dialogue and drunken laughter of the two Poles in the DAF parked alongside the Volvo in the TIR park formed a counterpoint to the din issuing from the truck’s cassette player until the small hours. Sometime after I finally managed to nod off I was woken by a knock on the door. I ignored it but whoever it was persisted. Never less than infuriating, these interruptions to much-needed slumber are frequent occurrences throughout the Eastern Bloc. Sometimes, as on this occasion, the rap of knuckles heralds a prostitute touting for business; or it might be a police officer demanding a parking fee or some unspecified bribe. Most irritating of all are the shadowy figures who knock on the cab in the small hours and wait expectantly outside for no apparent reason whatsoever. After a short, angry and mutually incomprehensible exchange they usually disappear, leaving me trying to calm jangling nerves and wondering what possesses people to wander around parking areas and lay-bys at two in the morning knocking on cab doors.

Existence precedes essence: when applying Linnaeus’s classification to myself as an individual example of Homo sapiens I described my purpose as ‘unspecified’. In the absence of A Great Engineer In The Sky we are obliged to seek our own purpose. I have discovered mine in the solitary command of a big truck on an empty road. Despite – or perhaps because of – the risks, I derive satisfaction from doing a demanding job well; not everyone would cope with the frustrations, the isolation and the long hours.
Justice in Plato’s ‘society of all societies’ is defined by each individual’s decision to stick to the single task most appropriate to them and not to meddle with others’ business. The Ideal State is a rigid structure in which each person’s vocation – butcher, baker, candlestick maker; tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor – is apparently as clearly defined as the tasks performed by the parts in an engine: all working in perfect harmony and unison for the benefit of the community.

The perfect timing of an engine is strangely compelling. I’ve calculated that the Volvo’s six-cylinder, four-stroke turbocharged and intercooled engine generates a mind-boggling 4,500 detonations per minute when running at a cruising speed of 1500 revolutions of the crankshaft per minute. Essence precedes existence. Hundreds of components (crankshaft, connecting rods, cogs, timing belts, camshaft, tappets, rocker arms, compressor, fuel, oil and water pumps) are performing an indispensible service to a perfectly functioning and united whole.

Self-discipline in Plato’s Ideal State was to manifest itself in the form of a ‘harmony’ or ‘concord’ existing between the three classes about which of them was the most appropriate for the task of government; a mixture of nature (natural intelligence) and nurture (the best education and training) was to endow a ‘superior minority’ with the expertise necessary to govern the ‘less respectable majority’.[4] A discordant note is struck by Thrasymachus, a member of Socrates’ entourage, who (in terms echoed by Marx over two thousand years later[5]) defines ‘justice’ as whatever happens to be the interest of the most powerful. Every government enacts laws that are in its own interest rather than the interest of the governed. Those who fail to act according to the whims of the ruler are defined as criminals and punished.[6]
     The Republic’s narrator, Socrates (for whom theory is closer to truth than practice), gives Thrasymachus short shrift. If a doctor acts in the best interests of his patients and a ship’s captain in the best interests of the crew, he argues somewhat unconvincingly, a ruler will act in the best interests of the ruled. Tellingly perhaps, Socrates pays little further attention to the activities of doctors and ships’ captains, or to the quest of the class of businessmen and workers to discover their respective roles in the Ideal State; The Republic is henceforth devoted almost exclusively to the task of identifying and training ‘the superior minority’ for the task of government. This appears to be a tacit admission not only of the importance but also of the difficulty of discovering people with a natural aptitude to govern. Socrates goes on to concede that the Ideal State will never enter the material world until philosophers become rulers or rulers become philosophers.[7]

The few vehicles on the Moscow highway are barely discernible behind a barrier of spray, due in part to the apparent reluctance of Russian drivers to use lights. Perhaps the lights don’t work.

Thrasymachus was not describing justice but the law which, as a reflection of the ruling will, often turns out neither to be fair, appropriate or just because Plato’s conceptual ruling philosophers have been conspicuous by their absence from the corridors of power here in the material world: people with a ‘natural aptitude’ for government, those who embody the Ideal State’s cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, self-discipline and justice, seldom gravitate to the appropriate positions.
During the fifth and sixth centuries Christianity replaced the Roman State as the unifying force that bound the peoples of Europe together. The closure of Plato’s Academy in Athens in A.D. 529 by the Emperor Justinian (on the grounds that it was a Pagan establishment) reinforced Roman Catholicism’s monopoly of education, reflection and worship throughout the former Roman Empire. It was left to the Islamic civilisations in North Africa and the Middle East to build on Ancient Greek progress in mathematics, chemistry, astronomy and medicine.
The Soviet state’s laws served to enforce ideological conformity. All independent newspapers were shut down in the summer of 1918 and a central bureau of censorship, Glavlit, was set up in 1922. ‘Enemy of the people’ was a label attached to anyone who opposed government policy. Differences in interpretation of the Marxist gospel according to Saint Vladimir led to the persecution of heretical sects such as the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries. Instead of acting as independent bodies representing the interests of their members, Trade Unions were nationalised. Foreign travel was prohibited for all but high-ranking party functionaries for fear of ideological contamination. The church was suspected of harbouring counterrevolutionary elements, and journalists, writers and artists were unable to practise their art without fear of imprisonment.

The hum of the engine, interspersed with the regular clonk of the wipers as they complete each semi-circular sweep, is scarcely audible above the hiss of fourteen tyres on wet tarmac. The power derived from the expansion of burning gases in the combustion chambers of the Volvo’s engine is being transmitted to the crankshaft via six dutiful pistons and their connecting rods, each downward thrust of a piston applying rotary force (or torque) to the crankshaft.

The obedient connecting rod has neither passion nor personality. It responds in an entirely rational way to the combination of fuel and air but society isn’t an engine and its egotistical components don’t behave like connecting rods. Every new ruling class, claimed Marx, has to present its ideology as the will of the people in order for its interests to be accepted as being of benefit to the entire community.[8] Ruling minorities depend upon the endorsement of a religion or ideology, a Magnificent Myth to persuade the masses of the legitimacy of their rule. Power without the authority of a supporting myth is usually short-lived.
As soon as they realised that the myth of Divine Justice, in which the wicked were punished and the virtuous were rewarded, was absent from the imperfect and changing material world, Christian leaders transferred divine reward and retribution to a Perfect and Eternal Conceptual World to which each immortal soul would migrate following death. The postponement of divine judgement until the hereafter failed nevertheless to stem the tide of earthly punishments meted out to transgressors, including confinement in dungeons, torture and execution. In A.D. 546 hundreds of Pagans were murdered in Constantinople for refusing to convert to Christianity.
            Successive leaders of the Soviet Union pledged that universal peace, prosperity, justice and brotherhood would be the reward for those willing to sacrifice the imperfect present for a Perfect Future. Hadn’t the Great Prophet himself identified the necessity of a transitional phase of revolutionary dictatorship to supervise the transition from capitalism to communism?[9] Communism was indefinitely postponed by the Ruling Guardians of the Communist Party and the transitional phase – in which the state rather than the filthy bourgeois exploited the workers and peasants – was to endure for seven decades. Those who expressed doubt in the Magnificent Myths of Soviet socialism were consigned not to the eternal flames of hellfire but to an infernal cold. The damned of the gulags laboured in the icy wastes of Siberia until their lives were ended prematurely by exhaustion, malnutrition or exposure.

[1]‘The elementary factors of the labour-process are: 1) the personal activity of man, i.e., the work itself, (2) the object of the work, and (3) its instruments.’ (Karl Marx: Capital)  
[2]‘An instrument of labour is a thing, or a complex of things which the labourer interposes between himself and the object of his labour, and which serves as the conductor of his activity. He makes use of the mechanical, physical, and chemical properties of some substances in order to make other substances subservient to his aims. Leaving out of consideration such ready-made means of subsistence as fruits, in gathering which a man’s own limbs serve as the instruments of his labour, the first thing of which the labourer possesses himself is not the object of labour but its instrument.’ (Karl Marx: Capital)
[3] ‘And isn’t the quality, beauty and fitness of any implement or creature or action judged by reference to the use for which man or nature produced it?’ (Socrates to Glaucon in Plato’s Republic)
[4]‘...the simple and moderate desires, guided by reason and right judgement and reflection, are to be found in a minority who have the best natural gifts and best education. ...the desires of the less respectable majority are controlled by the desires and the wisdom of the superior minority.’(Socrates to Glaucon in Plato’s Republic)
[5] ‘...the State is the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interests...’
[6] ‘Justice or right is simply what is in the interest of the stronger party. Each type of government enacts laws that are in its own interest, a democracy democratic laws, a tyranny tyrannical ones and so on; and in enacting these laws they make it quite plain that what is “right” for their subjects is what is in the interest of themselves, the rulers, and if anyone deviates from this he is punished as a lawbreaker and “wrongdoer”. That is what I mean when I say that “right” is the same thing in all states, namely the interest of the established government; and government is the strongest element in each state, and so if we argue correctly we see that “right” is always the same, the interest of the stronger party.’ (Thrasymachus to Socrates in Plato’s Republic)
[7] ‘The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands, while the many natures now content to follow either to the exclusion of the other are forcibly debarred from doing so.’ (Socrates to Glaucon in Plato’s Republic)
[8] ‘For each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, simply in order to achieve its aims, to represent its interest as the common interest of all members of society, i.e. employing an ideal formula, to give its ideas the form of universality and to represent them as the only rational and universally valid ones.’ (Karl Marx: The German Ideology)
[9] ‘Between the capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other,’ Marx declared in the Critique of the Gotha Programme. ‘There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the State can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.’

The feedback from my fellow scribes was surprisingly encouraging. They haven't always been kind about my struggles to blend philosophy, history and truck-driving memoir - but honesty and constructive criticism is prized more highly in our writing group than kindness

Best of all, they all understood it, despite a lack of familiarity with previous chapters. I sensed that they even shared some of my excitement about the project. There were nevertheless the usual reservations that the journey risks being swamped by the stream of consciousness. The task of the next and (hopefully) final re-write will be to pare down the history and philosophy - possibly by as much as a quarter or even a third. 

Tony suggested that I approach a few agents with covering letter and sample chapters. The excellent Writers' & Artists' Yearbook Guide to Getting Published by Harry Bingham states that although subject-led non-fiction can indeed be submitted before the manuscript is complete (or even without a single word having been written) this is not the case with narrative-led non-fiction such as memoir and travel writing. KM&CD is both subject-led (philosophy and history) and narrative-led (journey), but since agents and publishers rarely permit authors a second chance once they've rejected a proposal, it has always made sense to me to make sure that the manuscript is pretty nearly as perfect as I can make it before submitting a proposal to agents or publishers. So for the time being I must continue to keep working at it and be patient.

To followers of this blog, I apologise for the extremely long intervals that exist between posts. Writing a book like Karl Marx and Careful Driving leaves precious little time for blogging. If there are any of you left out there I would welcome comments on the above extract. Remember that honesty is more important than kindness - although both would be great!

Monday 4 June 2012

The Careful Driving Trilogy: Journeys through Space, Time and Mind

Three return journeys from Kidderminster to the former Soviet Union allow a truck driver to ruminate upon what philosophy and history inform us about the human condition. Each return journey is linked to a period in European history. Particular emphasis is placed upon the rise and fall of Marxism-Leninism and the Soviet Union's transformation from inter-war isolation to a post-war colossus that occupied half of Europe - until a series of bloodless revolutions liberated the Warsaw Pact countries and led to the fall of the Soviet Union itself.

A few months ago I added a paragraph to the first chapter of the first book of the trilogy, Karl Marx and Careful Driving. The narrator has been lamenting the intrusion of the Drivers' Hours Regulations:

Regulations that are applied to human beings make no concessions to one's humanity. So what is it to be human? A team of alien anthropologists visiting the earth after the extinction of the human civilisation would have discovered evidence of an industrious and inventive species capable of stupendous feats of civil and mechanical engineering. It sent rockets into outer space and invented the microchip. We are laid bare by our creative genius - the great works of architecture, engineering, art, literature and music; and yet we have devised equally ingenious methods to destroy each other. Why, the visiting aliens would ask themselves (having discovered remains of warships, nuclear submarines, missile factories, tanks and jet fighters and bombers), had these intelligent creatures evidently been incapable of solving the relatively simple problem of how to live together in harmony? Only an investigation into the arcane machinations of the human soul would provide answers. There'd be no better place than to begin this ambitious project than with a reading (let us assume that the aliens were eventually able to discover a way of decoding human languages) of the works of philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx and Sartre; and following it with an investigation into how their good intentions shaped (for better or worse) the turbulent course of human history.

What is it to be human? (And what is it to be inhuman?) Presented as a stream of consciousness from behind the wheel, The Careful Driving Trilogy  describes a search for answers that takes a truck driver on parallel journeys through European history and philosophy during two return trips to Kazakhstan and one to Moscow and Lithuania. The road is seen as a microcosm of damaged society as a whole, what Karl Marx called 'a mutual conflict of all individuals who are no longer distinguished by anything but their individuality'.

When the ideas are coming thick and fast I feel absurdly excited by the project and convinced of its ultimate success. At other times, overwhelmed by structural complexities in the manuscript, I feel that I have bitten off far more than I can chew and that failure is inevitable. This emotional roller-coaster will probably be all too familiar to fellow authors. I have invested six years and thousands of pounds in a hugely ambitious project and it is a long way from being finished. Failure will be hard to take.

I have just finished re-reading Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The 25th anniversary edition of the book includes an interview with the author and some fascinating samples of the correspondence that took place between Pirsig and his editor during the writing of the book. These insights have provided some comfort because it is clear that in writing ZAMM Pirsig had to overcome many of the problems confronting me in my efforts to complete Karl Marx and Careful Driving.

On 5 January1969, in a letter to his editor, Pirsig wrote: In a sense, at this point, it's all over but the writing. The outlining, which was done on about 3,000 4 x 6" slips, was completed in December with a thoroughness that extends all the way to the paragraph level. Actually five separate outlines were made, entitled 'Events', 'People', 'Maintenance Broad Fabric', 'Zen Broad Fabric', and 'Heights'. These five were rather carefully interwoven for mutual reinforcement and unity throughout the book.

Perhaps it isn't so very surprising that I have resorted to similar tactics owing to the structural complexity of KM&CD. The manuscript consists of no less than eight 'strands', colour coded in the manuscript for ease of identification, as follows:

1. Strand Black: A return journey from the UK to Kazakhstan by truck (July 1993)
2. Strand Dark Green: The author's journey from academic to international truck driver
3. Strand Light Green: Plato and Ancient-Greek philosophy
4. Strand Light Blue: European history and philosophy from AD 0 to AD 1789 (French Revolution)
5. Strand Dark Blue: European history from AD 1789 to AD 1993
6. Strand Red: European philosophy from AD 1789 to AD 1993
7. Strand Orange: Fransen Transport as an example of twentieth-century capitalism
8 Strand Purple: Careful driving and careful government

The concept that  Perfect Understanding exists, and that access to it is restricted to a minority, has been the pretext for the centralisation of power since time immemorial. Plato's Republic may not be the first written endorsement of this type of government, but it is arguably the most famous. The exploration of history from AD 0 to AD 1789 demonstrates that government has invariably followed the Platonic model of the concentration of power in the hands of a minority that uses a Magnificent Myth to justify its right to rule the majority. Karl Marx stood for the decentralisation of power and the 'withering away' of the state, but the preservation of power at all costs by ruling elites has meant that genuine decentralisation of power has never seriously been attempted, least of all in the Soviet Union and its satellites. The fallacy that parliamentary democracy is 'rule by the people' is just the latest Magnificent Myth to have fooled the majority into acquiescing to the unequal distribution of power.

On 3 March 1970, Pirsig wrote: The first draft is finished. It's hard to believe, but it is. It's still plenty ugly, mawkish, digressive, disconnected, ill-proportioned... nothing anyone could read without disgust... but it's done, all 120,000 words of it, and it contains a story that with patience and luck can be worked into something of real power.

I have reached a similar stage with KM&CD. The research into European philosophy and history is more or less complete. All(!) that remains for me to do is weave the threads of the strands together, providing what I hope will be a coherent and absorbing tapestry - and perhaps even 'something of real power'. To this end I am currently separating out each colour-coded strand of the manuscript so that I can begin the process of reassembly with a 'blank slate'. Unfortunately the process has become a race against time because I was made redundant from my part-time job in January and I want to have the manuscript ready to submit to literary agents before my savings run out early next year and I will have to return to some form of employment.

No less than 121 publishers rejected Pirsig's proposal for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He was asked what made him so determined to get ZAMM published when many writers would have given hope. His answer was as follows: It wasn't so difficult. The 122 submissions were all made simultaneously using an electric typewriter that operated from punched paper tape. Twenty-two publishers were interested at first, but during the four years it took to get the book written that number dropped down to six. After those six read the manuscript, only one wanted it. But, of course, one is all you need.

One is all I need.

Monday 5 September 2011

September in Dorset

16,500 miles from the UK to Beijing – on a Bicycle
You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were;
and I say, ‘Why not?’(George Bernard Shaw)

This month I'll be in Dorset to speak about the 16,500-mile bicycle ride from Worcestershire to Beijing, accompanying the talk with a selection of spectacular slides and following it with a book signing.

Saturday 24 September 7.30 pm
The White Room, Salisbury Arts Centre
Tickets £7 (£5 concessions) from
The Box Office, Bedwin Street, Salisbury SP1 3UT
Wednesday 28 September 7.30 pm
The Verwood Hub, Brock Way, Verwood BH31 7QE
Tickets £7.50 from The Box Office
Thursday 29 September 7 pm
The Victorian Hall, Dorset County Museum
High West Street, Dorchester DT1 1XA
Entry Free (Recommended Donation £3)
Part of the Museum's Travellers Tales Programme

Friday 30 September 7.30 pm
The Marine Theatre, Church St,
Lyme Regis DT7 3QA
Tickets £10 from The Box Office
01297 442138

Saturday 1 October 7.30 pm
Durweston Village Hall, Church Road, Durweston,
Blandford DT11 0QA 01258 488883
Tickets £6 (£4.50 concessions) from
The Dorset Bookshop, 69 East St,
Blandford Forum DT11 7DX 01258 452266

‘Why don’t you fly?’ a bemused friend asked me when I stated my intention to cycle across the planet. For thirteen months my lungs and legs were to power me into headwinds, across deserts and up to mountain passes (and a wonderfully indomitable, reliable and adaptable source of power they proved to be).

How does it feel to trade domestic comfort and security for life as a nomad and to pare one’s life down to the bare necessities? What is it like to push at the frontiers of one’s physical and mental endurance? What is the effect upon the human spirit of struggling against hurricanes in the Gobi Desert by day and shivering alone in culverts at night? How does the agnostic westerner react to the religious fatalism of Islam and Hinduism in encounters with locals?

As well as attempting to answer these questions, I speak about the importance of having a dream, about connecting with one’s passions, about recognising and seizing opportunities – and about how I wore out three sets of tyres, three chains, two pairs of boots, and fell off the bike six times.

The gruelling journey served to demonstrate that the human body is a powerful, flexible and immensely sophisticated engine that thrives on hard work. Since my return from Asia in September 2001, I have more than trebled the 16,500 miles I covered during the epic ride by cycling between 125 and 150 miles a week to and from work in all weather conditions. ‘Why don’t you drive?’ ask my incredulous colleagues. The power of the ‘human engine’ continues to be underestimated by those who prefer to rely on the internal combustion engine to the detriment of their health and the environment.

For more details about journey, author and book, please visit The website includes a sample chapter of my acclaimed book ‘Why Don’t You Fly?’ and over 90 photographs. As none of the slides I show during presentations are displayed on the website there is no need to worry that prior visits to it will reduce the impact of the presentation.


Thank you for coming into school last week for ‘World Book Day’. The assembly, and talks you gave, were an inspiration to all who heard them, and I look forward to reading your book over the Easter Holiday .

Allan Gilhooley, Headteacher, Lacon Childe School , Cleobury Mortimer

You came to school to talk to our Lower Sixth girls last summer, and I wonder if you would like to do the same again this year? The feedback on your talk was extremely good.

Pam Rutter, King Edward VI High School for Girls, Edgbaston

Thank you for the very enjoyable, witty and informative lecture you treated us to last week.

Barbro Millward (Sutton Coldfield National Trust)

I need hardly say we were all completely in awe of your epic adventure and comments ranged from 'truly inspirational', 'very courageous', 'unbelievable' and 'brave' to 'foolhardy' and 'crazy'! I am currently reading your book and I am halfway through India so still have much excitement and many surprises to come. I wish you the best of luck for the future and at least you will always have the satisfaction of saying that you achieved your dream while the rest of us just thought about it! Thank you once again.
Brian Cash (Droitwich 97 Probus Club)

A quick note to say thank you for your presentation to MCCC at Ashwood Marina on Tuesday evening. I hope you enjoyed talking to us as much as we all enjoyed hearing about your epic bike ride. As Bob Morgan said in his introduction, you are no mere mortal and your story about your trip was truly inspirational.  
(Beryl Heath (Chairman - Midlands Coastal Cruising Club)

I really enjoyed the additional touches of very detailed maps and an inspirational maxim accompanying each stunning photograph of your journey to Beijing .

Liz Allen-Back (The King's School, Worcester)

We met when you gave us Droitwich Probus '97) your ‘ UK to Beijing ’ talk. I am just coming to the end of your marvellous book, which is so much more than a travel book. I have enjoyed it so much – you have so much to say about the countries that you cycled through and the people that you met. My very best regards, and thank you again for giving ME an ‘Incredible Journey’.

Terry Peasley (Hon Sec Droitwich Probus ’97)

What a great feat of endurance your ride was. You have been an inspiration to myself and many others. Not that you will remember but I was the chap at Crewe library who asked how it was you were able to photogragh yourself on the front cover of the book. You have been an example to us all of what can be achieved. Brilliant.

Mark Pountain

Chris Smith seems to be a man of considerable talent. I lived every mile of his journey to Beijing , which included a four-month side trip around India . By the end I felt that I’d done the trip with him and enjoyed every inch. Buy this book! It’s a great read.

Cycle Magazine

Smith’s smart, honest prose is crafted superbly and peppered with wonderful moments of drama, dialogue and real humanity

Asia and Away Magazine

Every child interested in geography should have the availability to read this book, as much for its excellent descriptive English as the content.

Julia Leedham-Green

Just to say how much I liked your talk at Eastbourne Under Ground Theatre and loved your book. All the best with whatever you decide to do next.
Jen Popkin