Friday, August 15, 2008

The Manu elixir

Manu Chao and the Radio Bemba Sound System
Hootananay, Brixton, 19 July 2008

‘La lucha sigue!’ It is 3am on a Saturday night and Manu Chao is in a Scottish pub in London, dedicating a Mexican song to the Indigenous Peoples of Latin America. The struggle continues, he says. But it is rare to hear those words spoken in an atmosphere of such collective joy.

You expect a degree of intensity when a band that could fill stadiums is packed into a pub, but it wasn’t so much the venue as the Radio Bemba spirit that gave this show a feeling of intimacy. From the opening strains of ‘El Hoyo’, the crowd – a mix of the Latino regulars of Movimientos (a politically-conscious London club night) and a fair few Brixton locals – pogoed uncontrollably to the band’s ska-punk rhythms.

Even the slower songs like ‘Clandestino’, Manu’s testament to the lives of migrant workers declared ‘illegal’, and ‘Mr Bobby’, his reggae-tinged tribute to Bob Marley, were super-charged. It was as though they had bottled the energy from the band’s headline set at the Lovebox festival earlier that evening and concentrated it. The resulting elixir was willingly consumed by 500 or so South London punters, with intoxicating effects.

Intensity alone doesn’t explain the experience, but repetition might help to do so. When Manu Chao and Radio Bemba play live, you don’t so much expect a setlist as a series of melodies, chants and rhythms that escalate and evolve. This then builds into a mania, as songs are spliced together, breaking into a crescendo of fast-paced percussion and frantic, rhythmic guitars, until you’re released, without warning, into a new melody and the process starts over.

For the audience, this means you rarely have time to catch onto one tune when you’re bouncing in the air to the next one, arms flailing. Then before you know it, that tune is gone again, only to reprise later and at double pace. The effect can be delirious, and even a little over-whelming. But that night in Brixton it was rarely less than electrifying, as for an hour and a half Manu bounded around the stage, guitarist Madjid Fahim struck outrageous rock poses, and the rest of the Radio Bemba Sound System played and sweated out every beat. By the time the show drew to a close, Manu was pounding the microphone on his chest and head, reproducing through our ears the heartbeat we could all feel coursing through our veins.

This may not be the classical sense of ‘playing from the heart’, but there’s more than a chance that the causes behind the Brixton gig – a fundraiser for the Native Spirit Foundation - gave it extra bite. The organisation is currently gearing up for an Indiginous Peoples’ film festival in London this October, which will focus on the environment and climate change. It also funds a number of autonomous educational projects for children in Indigenous Wayuu and Mapuche communities in Venezuela, Chile and Argentina.

Manu Chao’s affinity with Latin America is well known, but the central importance of education to his political activism may be less appreciated. ‘The priority is children’ he told me at Glastonbury a few weeks previously, in an interview conducted at the same campfire where the plan for the secret Brixton benefit gig was hatched. ‘I’m really scared of the education we give to the children in neighbourhoods all over the world … because they’re not educated anymore by the family, they’re not educated anymore by school, they’re totally educated by television. And television doesn’t respect anything, so there are a lot of kids growing respecting nothing.’

‘I think the emergency,’ Manu continued, with fervent passion, ‘is to start working with the little kids now, so that there another two or three generations totally brainwashed by television – all quick money, a lot of violence, everything must be easy, everything new, no work ethic, anyone who works is an arsehole. That’s very dangerous, and if it continues the end of it’s going to be a lot of violence.’

That may sound an apocalyptic political outlook, but it is one that is offset by his unerring sense of how change at a neighbourhood level can empower broader social change. ‘I don’t believe any more in one big revolution that’s going to change everything. I believe in thousands and thousands of little neighbourhood revolutions – that’s my hope.’

And for as long as Manu Chao can muster the unerring hope and hedonistic abandon that he brought to Brixton, these revolutions have also found their perfect soundtrack. La lucha sigue!


For more details of Movimientos and the Native Spirit Foundation, see www.movimientos.org.uk and www.nativespiritfestival.com

Monday, May 19, 2008

Is this what you want to see?

Jackie’s partner asks if he can hold her. Jackie says no. He asks why. She says she doesn’t know him. Then my partner stands up and takes off her top. ‘Is this what you want to see?’ she asks ...

Read the full review of Belgian performance theatre group Ontroerend Goed's 'Internal', part of the Battersea Arts Centre Burst season in Back to Battersea.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Harder They Come

Following sell out seasons at Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Barbican, The Harder They Come is now moving to the West End's Playhouse Theatre. Based on the iconic 1970s film that launched Jimmy Cliff onto the world stage, this exhilarating production tells the story of a country boy who makes for the bright lights of Kingston, Jamaica. Read Steve Platt's review of the Barbican production, Guns and Ganja, as featured in our April/May issue

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A night of magical thinking

I’ve never seen an audience in quite the state of the one that left the National’s Littleton theatre last night. Red-eyed, shaky, shell-shocked; in touch with a thousand different bereavements, all dissimilar and all the same. The details will be different but it will happen to you ...

Read the full review of The Year of Magical Thinking with Vanessa Redgrave

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The truth is radical

The Studs Terkel Reader
By Studs Terkel
Published by The New Press £10.99

Reviewed by Ben Granger

Louis 'Studs' Terkel has managed during his remarkable ninety-five years to combine two roles in life, seemingly disparate though in truth vitally complimentary.

One is as a charming, avuncular raconteur radio host in his native Chicago, a popular hometown local celebrity, a host whose style has that rare distinction of listening to his interviewees rather than talking at them. The other is as the great unsung street-level social historian of postwar America, and one of its great hidden springs of radical consciousness also.

For well over fifty years now, Studs, an early victim of the McCarthy blacklists, has been talking to everyday people about their lives, their hopes, their fears, their personal histories and prejudices, and transcribing the results. This straightforward approach has resulted in twelve volumes of superlative social history, books which capture the essence of an America that otherwise rarely sees the light of day, or rather the benefits of publication. It’s certainly an America more working-class than the version which otherwise makes it to the media, but more importantly it simply has a far greater unabashed honesty about life both high and low.

This collection takes some of the best interviewees from Terkel’s tomes down the years, from volumes such as American Dreams (people describing their working lives), Hard Times (memories of the Depression), The Good War (memories of World War II), Division Street (class differences) and Race (self explanatory). While the most interesting narrators may have been plucked from Terkel’s hundreds of interviews, the undoubted naturalism of the accounts make for a vivid encapsulation of individual lives as they are really lived and broader historical vista, cinematic in its scope, of US society at large over the past century.

Many tales truly warm the heart, such as that of C.P. Ellis, a dirt-poor Southerner and one time leading light in the Ku Klux Klan, who came to regard his black neighbours as genuine comrades and friends following their joining forces in a tenant housing dispute. Or Vernon Jarrett, another Southerner, this time black, who grew up in still greater poverty, but who now writes for a Chicago newspaper, reflecting on the trials of his life with extraordinary grace and equanimity. Other stories have a harder, more bitter edge. Oscar Haline weeps as he recalls how he and his fellow farm workers, protesting at their wretched living conditions during the Depression were treated with the most vicious repression. The combined forces of the food producing employers and law enforcement agencies of the South Dakota State saw them harassed, beaten and jailed. There is no comfort or ‘resolution’ here, just testimony to injustice which would otherwise have been lost and a sad story told.

Terkel has a radical agenda, but his politics are by no means obtrusive.
The likes of Doc Graham, a former ‘30s gangster and still in the ‘60s an unapologetic racist and misogynist, Dennis Hart a cabdriver and unreconstructed member of the far-right John Birch Society, and Jerome Zerbe, a sociopathically uncaring socialite and playboy. All are given their voices, their ‘airtime’ in just as non-judgmental manner as their more sympathetic counterparts. This just serves to underline that to give a straightforward voice to the general populace, genuinely unspliced and unspun, is subversive in itself. In short, the truth is radical.

In one of the impeccably written introductions to his chapters, Studs pays tribute to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and it is just possible we need to go back to Steinbeck before we can find someone who has done more to give a more authentic voice to American working life. In giving voice to normal people, in rescuing them from in E.P Thompson’s phrase the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’, Terkel has provided an invaluable service over the years and indeed continues to do so. This book is a wonderful testimony to his achievement.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Jefferson Beyond Jefferson?

Ben Trott reviews, Michael Hardt Presents Thomas Jefferson: The Declaration of Independence
Michael Hardt (Verso, £7.99)

It might seem strange to read Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the US Declaration of Independence, as ‘a figure of modern revolutionary thought.' This, however, is precisely what Michael Hardt (co-author of the best-selling Empire with Italian political philosopher Antonio Negri) proposes in his new book. The work contains both an introduction to Jefferson’s thought, as well as a selection of his original writings.


Thomas Jefferson has long been connected to Enlightenment ideas (particularly those of John Locke, who famously argued that human beings possess certain ‘inalienable rights’) as well as the idea of republicanism (broadly speaking: an opposition to oligarchy, dictatorship and aristocracy; and the valuing of notions of civic virtue, liberty and rule by the people). Hardt, however, takes things a step further arguing that the very core of Jefferson’s political thought is a project for a radical form of democracy.

Hardt and Negri claim that their book Empire provides a ‘toolbox’ for theorising and acting inside and against today’s networked form of global command and control. Sharing an approach to theory with French post-structuralist philosopher Gilles Deleuze, ideas are picked up and applied where they prove useful, and set aside again where they are not. It is this toolbox approach that Hardt takes to Jefferson, who he grants was an unsystematic, often contradictory thinker, and at times deeply reactionary and racist (his racism against Native Americans was exceeded only by that towards black slaves). ‘The point,’ Hardt explains, ‘is not to give a balanced picture of Jefferson’s thought as a whole [but] to discover and learn from what remains revolutionary.'


If human nature exists

For Hardt, it is Jefferson’s concept of transition that allows us to see most clearly what he has to offer contemporary revolutionary thinking. And it is here that certain resonances can be found with Lenin (granted: much more his thought than practice).

At the core of Hardt’s argument is that ‘human nature’ has often, mistakenly, been conceived as something essential and static – including within the revolutionary tradition. On the one hand, social democratic forces have approached humanity with scepticism. In their conception, the state must play and maintain a strong role in the transition from capitalism to a new society, reconciling conflicting classes. There is to be a permanent division between the rulers and the ruled. On the other hand, the anarchists have tended to take a na├»ve approach, regarding humanity as always already capable of self-rule. The only obstacle is class domination and state power, both of which can be overcome in a single stroke: their smashing in the revolutionary event. With transition, whereas in the social democratic conception there is a continuous process of reform without a revolutionary event, for the anarchists it is punctual and absolute, occurring overnight.

Both Lenin and Jefferson are said to take a middle position. Or rather, they reject the false opposition entirely. If ‘human nature’ exists at all, it is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad.' Rather, it changes and develops over time, determined by broad processes of social development. The Jeffersonian-Leninist approach to social change is sought through both rupture and duration: ‘a historical break that opens a new historical process’. The state, in other words, is ‘withered away’ whilst the multitude gradually trains itself in democratic self-rule. The moment of rupture does not signify an end, but part of a process. It is repeated repeatedly, driven forward by ever more democratic forms overthrowing and replacing one another. It is this logic that enabled Jefferson to support those who rebelled even against the very government he helped create.

Whilst there is certainly much to be said for the toolbox approach to social theory, it comes with its own dangers. For example, by teasing out particular elements of Jefferson’s thought – such as taking the ‘constituent power’ of resistance from below, rather than the ‘constituted’ form of power represented by the state (even a post-revolutionary state), as the primary space from which the desires of the multitude are legitimately articulated – he can indeed by presented as a radical democratic thinker. The methodological problem here is that not treating his thought systematically runs the risk of important limits becoming obscured. For example, Jefferson found it difficult to conceptualise equality despite difference in human relations. Despite, famously, finding slavery morally problematic, Jefferson (himself a slave owner) opposed abolition. Amongst his reasons was concern for the ability of the sovereign government – whose role was to enable self-rule – to maintain order in a climate where he believed serious racial antagonisms would unfold, not least as a result of the historic oppression of African Americans. Whilst he did not necessarily regard one race as superior or inferior to another, he had difficulty conceiving of a peaceful coexistence in conditions of equality (in Hardt’s language: ‘singularity within the common’).

The challenge Hardt sets us, then, is to try to read ‘Jefferson beyond Jefferson.' This means not only asking how his thought can be brought up-to-date and applied to our own globalised world, but also identifying the real obstacles in his thought, guiding the useful elements beyond these limits and trying to deploy them today. At a time when the ‘global movement of movements’ appears to have reached an impasse, perhaps it is precisely such a toolbox rereading of revolutionary thinkers such as Jefferson that a few tentative answers might after all be found.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Provided You Don’t Kiss Me: 20 Years With Brian Clough

By Duncan Hamilton
Fourth Estate, 2007

The judges of this year’s William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award were truly spoilt for choice. The definitive biographies of Bobby Charlton and Shane Warne; the previously untold tragic tale of the 1979 Fastnet sailing race; the extraordinary story of golf’s founding father and son; and an American account of football fandom this side of the pond.

And yet despite the strength of the opposition, “the judges were as close to unanimous as any panel is ever likely to be,” said Graham Sharpe, spokesman for William Hill. The winner: ‘Provided You Don’t Kiss Me,’ Duncan Hamilton’s opus magnum on the life of the inimitable Brian Clough.

If only all sports biographies had to be written to such a standard. Amid the mind-numbing string of ghost-written ‘My Side’ autobiographies typically siphoned from the Premiership cash cow, Hamilton’s work – much like his mentor – is a brutally honest and brilliant critique of arguably the finest football manager England has ever produced.

Brian Clough was a phenomenon. His playing record of 204 goals in 222 appearances before a knee injury forced him into early retirement is impressive enough. His managerial career is the stuff of legends, guiding first Derby County and the Nottingham Forest, both mediocre second-division teams, to become division one champions, and managing Nottingham Forest to two European Cups. And yet these achievements do not even begin to tell the story of the man.

Football fanzine When Saturday Comes noted during his tenure that ‘Forest’ was an acronym for Friends Of Really Eccentric Socialist Tyrant. Clough was the definition of maverick. “Clough’s eighteen years at the City Ground was a period of madness punctuated by wonderful bursts of sanity”, Hamilton states, and then goes on to prove it.

The ego, the drinking, the rages, the obsession with money, the unpredictability, the humour, the fall-outs, the stubbornness – all are depicted in what at times could well prove a difficult read for those in the East Midlands or the North East for whom Clough provided some of the seminal moments of their lives.

But above all though, there is the sense of a man in love with football. Both as a player and manager, Clough believed himself to be God’s gift, and with a CV as rich as his, it does beg the question why an England career never really materialised.

The likes of Stuart Pearce, Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill are a testament to Clough’s ability to recognise and nurture footballing talent; and in Hamilton, it appears the Old Big ‘Ead could pick hacks as well as players. The former Nottingham Evening Post writer arrived at the Forest training ground as a stammering, anxious teenager, undoubtedly unaware that the interview he was about to conduct would dictate the course of the subsequent two decades – and beyond – of his professional life.

From there, Hamilton became an integral part of the Clough regime, and in time one of his most trusted confidants. For many, this is a book that has been crying out to be written and Hamilton was uniquely positioned to write it, although in truth it may have taken the death of its protagonist to allow the author the literary freedom to do him justice.

If nothing else, someone should slip a copy onto the desks of those choosing the next England manager. Talk of taking risks and appointing a man who ruffles feathers but get results is once again in the air, and while Clough, might have been a PR disaster waiting to happen, in his pomp he was a footballing mastermind.

Who knows? Should the FA make a bold move, perhaps in twenty years’ time we will read another worthy biography. On both counts, we can but hope.


Michael Beattie is a student in Sports journalism at London College of Communications.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography

Reviewed by Ben Trott

Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography
Francis Wheen (read by Simon Vance)
CD (Audio Book)
Tantor Media


Somewhere along the line, any self-respecting review of an introduction to Marx’s Capital needs to say that there is no replacement for reading the original, in all three volumes. And it is true.

What Marx produced with Capital was a revolutionary critique of classical political economy, or what today is simply called ‘economics’. Marx’s targets were the bourgeois theorists of his day whose project was to mask the historically specific nature of ‘the capitalist mode of production’ (Marx almost never used the term ‘capitalism’). He argued that they naturalised a social set up which was anything but natural, presenting relationships of exploitation as relations amongst equals.

But why read Capital today? Despite its difficulty, its sheer size, the fact that it is 140 years old (there have been one or two developments since!), and the fact that it would appear some of that which Marx foretold – like capitalism’s impending collapse – never seemed to manifest itself, there is still no other single work which has been able to better expose the means by which exploitation takes place within capitalism. And understanding the nature of our own exploitation is a powerful tool in its overcoming.

For those without the time to slog their way through all three volumes, or wanting to find ‘a way in’ before trying to doing so, Francis Wheen’s biography of Das Kapital is a great place to start.

A few years back, Wheen wrote a very well received biography of Karl Marx. In his ‘Forward’ to a recently published collection of Marx’s correspondence for the New York Tribune, he claims that one of the criticisms his book received within academia was its journalistic style. ‘I had no defence against the charge’, he explained, ‘I am a journalist’ (as, incidentally, was Marx for large chunks of his life). It is his training as such which makes both his biography of Marx, as well as that of Das Kapital so readable. He adopts a language and pitches at a level which neither assumes specialist knowledge, nor a lack of hunger to get to grips with some difficult concepts.

In a concise and accessible manner, Wheen explains Capital’s central theoretical innovations, and Marx’s ‘labour theory of value’ in particular. The theory had already been under development by classical political economists like David Ricardo, who had located human labour as the source of all wealth. Marx’s advance, however, was to distinguish between ‘concrete labour’ (which produces ‘use-values’, i.e. products made for their direct usefulness), and ‘abstract labour’ (which is invested in the production of commodities for exchange). The concept of ‘abstract labour’ (which Marx calls ‘a real abstraction’) allowed him to show how the value of a commodity is determined by the labour-time involved in its production – with labour-time measured in homogenous units. So, the fact that a particular tailor may spend a long time making a waste coat, perhaps out of sheer laziness, does not effect its value. Value, rather, is based on the average time involved in production, measured right across society.

Having gone to pains to explain all this, it is somewhat surprising then that a couple of pages later Wheen should point to an alleged weakness in Marx’s argument. He claims that if labour-time is the only determinate of value, it should not follow then that a lock of Elvis’ hair or a Picasso napkin doodle fetch such high prices. Here, Wheen is confusing value and price. Knowing the value of a lock of hair, or a napkin doodle (i.e. the time it takes – on average – to produce it), is precisely what allows us to say whether it’s price is high or low.

Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of Wheen’s book, though, is his ability to show how Marx can be read to make sense of contemporary phenomena. In the late 1970s, for example, he explains, there were many discussions about an imminent ‘leisure society’, with innovation leading to the automation of many jobs traditionally performed by human labour running the risk of leaving us all idle. Many have expressed surprise that there has been no actual decrease in the number of hours we work (in fact, the opposite is true). Marx, Wheen explains, would not have been surprised. Innovation under capitalism does not aim towards reducing the total number of hours we work, but ‘socially necessary labour time’. In other words, the proportion of the day taken up producing the value necessary to cover the worker’s wage, with the rest of the time then left available for producing ‘surplus value’ appropriated by capital.

The final section of Wheen’s book goes on to explain both the influence that Marx’s thought has had on history, and the workers’ movement in particular; as well as the extent to which Marxism has distorted much of our perception of that which Marx himself had argued. Famously, commenting on French socialists in the 1870s, Marx said: if they are Marxists, ‘all I know is that I am not’. Everything indicates that, had he been around, he would have certainly said the same about the Soviet Union, China and North Korea. In fact, Wheen argues, ‘the most truly Marxist achievement of the Soviet Union was its collapse’.

With enough distance from this collapse now to realise that with it history has anything but ‘ended’, many of those frustrated with the current state of things are gradually starting to gravitate back towards a serious engagement with Marx’s own texts. ‘Far from being buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall, Marx may only now be emerging in his true significance. He could yet become the most influential thinker of the twenty-first century.’

The voice of Palestine



Reem Kelani filled Sheffield's Memorial Hall on 17 October, with her presence, her music and her voice that ranged further than the hills of Palestine and the Mediterranean sea bordering the Gaza Strip. Her band of top class jazz musicians, renowned in their own right, provided vibrant improvisation to support her voice and the adaptation of traditional Arabic rhythms and melodies to modern interpretations of classical Arabic poetry and songs.


Reem has collected traditional folk songs from Palestinian women around the world. The women she has met have inspired her to sing, to portray their struggle through the celebration of Palestinian musical heritage. She told the story of how she learnt a wedding song in the bedroom of a Palestinian woman in a Syrian refugee camp - how that woman had held onto her songs and memories despite having left her land over 60 years ago.

Her passion for the voice of women through song echoes the tribulations of Palestinian life through the centuries through to the modern day. It belies the propaganda which denies the Palestinians their past and their culture. It belies the notion that Palestinian women (or any Arab women) are not a central element of creating and maintaining the strong sense of Palestinian life, culture and society which has enabled them to carry on their national struggle.

As Reem explains: 'I care about the land, but without Palestinian culture it's meaningless. Turning my nation into refugees has meant that we have lost, and continue to lose, our cultural heritage, but what is worse is Israeli cultural appropriation. We can't access many of the manuscripts of our poets and musicians because they are held by the Israeli government, and you need a permit to visit the archives.'

Born in Manchester, raised in Kuwait and now living in London, Reem has worked to bring Arab and Non-Arab musical traditions together. Her use of a jazz section as a backing band, allows her the flexibility of improvisations whilst she maintains the conventions of classical Arabic singing. The power of her voice to ring clear on the lowest softest notes through to ululating during a wedding song, and threatening to break the windows in the hall, captivated the audience.

With the sublime accompaniment of Zoe Rahman on piano, Samy Bashai on violin, Ian East on saxophones & flute, Patrick Illingworth on drums and Oli Hayhurst on double bass, Reem sang wedding songs, songs of return, of labourers and of the harvest. She had adapted traditional and modern poetry into song. Her poignant rendition of Mahmoud Salim al-Hout’s poem, Yafa, left the audience holding its breath as the last note rang out across the concert hall. It tells of the poet having to flee his home when Israel was established, how he walked away never to return.

Reem explains to the non-Arabic speakers, the meanings and sometimes the literal translation of the lyrics, and why and where they were sung. One song that dates back to the Ottoman period (14th – 19th century) tells of a woman wishing her husband soldier to return safely.

Reem was able to convey the Palestinian woman's soul and the Palestinians’ claim to identity and rights far more effectively than weeks of leafleting streets or holding vigils and marches. There were no need for slogans, no need to push the message home, the beauty of her voice, her presence and of the women who have sung the songs over centuries was captured for us in that concert in Sheffield.

The concert was jointly organised by Yorkshire Palestine Cultural Exchange, Sheffield Palestine Solidarity Campaign and concert4palestine, as a fund-raiser for children’s projects in Gaza Strip. For more information, see http://www.sheffieldpsc.org/

Reem Kelani’s 2006 album, Sprinting Gazelle is available via her website: http://www.blogger.com/www.reemkelani.com , priced £14.99

God is not great

How lucky are our American counterparts. The audiobook version of God Is Not Great will be out in time for Christmas on the other side of the Atlantic, whereas Brit audiences must wait until February

Slipped on to the iPod, Christopher Hitchens’ plummy Oxbridge tones iconoclastically sermonising on the myriad evils of religion would have made the perfect substitute for, and antidote to, the annual borefest of midnight mass or the Queen’s Speech.

It could probably have been written by nobody else alive today, despite the fact that, of the entire ‘New Atheist’ crowd, Hitchens may appear to be the least qualified. AC Grayling (Against All Gods) and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell) are both philosophers; Sam Harris (The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation) has studied neuroscience, and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) is a feted biologist. Christopher Hitchens is an author and journalist, and rather an opinionated one at that.

But Hitchens acknowledges within his text that he’s been writing God Is Not Great his whole life – and it’s because his experiences as a journalist have allowed him to see first hand the things he’s writing about.

When he describes North Korea as being the nearest thing on earth to a pure form of theocracy, it’s because he’s been there and seen the servility of the people, and their blind worship towards the personality cult of Kim Il-Sung – still legally the President despite having been dead since 1994.

And when asked by religious broadcaster Dennis Prager whether, if approached by a large group of men in a strange city, he would feel safer or less safe, Hitchens can tell him how he actually did feel in precisely those circumstances. ‘Just to stay within the letter “B”, I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad,’ he responds. ‘In each case I can say absolutely, and can give my reasons, why I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance.’

There’s a personal account such as this every few pages – though it’s not to everyone’s taste. Ross Douthat of The Atlantic magazine wrote on catholiceducation.org that, ‘Hitchens’s argument proceeds principally by anecdote, and at his best he is as convincing as that particular style allows, which is to say not terribly.’ In this he is, therefore, equally convincing as many of his opponents, who also tend to argue from personal experience.

To take just one example, a friend and I once found ourselves in a late-night discussion with one of the aforementioned street-preacher types. He ‘knew’ there was a God because the Almighty had spoken to him many years ago. (The fact that he was self-confessedly off his face on class-A at the time, and had just witnessed a woman being hit by a train, apparently didn’t colour his recollection of the moment.)

Anecdotes, textual criticism, and especially satire – as per Douglas Adams’ 1998 speech Is there an artificial God? – can be the best arguments to use, if for no other reason than that they’re more difficult to wilfully misunderstand, whereas the scientific arguments can be and frequently are misconstrued.

Richard Dawkins’ popular biology books contain the clearest, most beautiful explanations of Darwinian natural selection we’re ever likely to see, and the latest in his canon, The God Delusion, features some substantial, science-based refutations of ‘the God hypothesis’. But even those few willing to read, or listen to, Professor Dawkins’ work will often contrive to misunderstand it.

Much the same is true of physical explanations of the origin of the Universe, on which this writer, as an astrophysics graduate, is more qualified to comment. The best/worst instance of these is probably Moses Didn’t Write About Creation!, a self-published tome in which Herman Cummings, who claims he is the only man on Earth who ‘really’ understands Genesis (the Biblical opening book, not Phil Collins’ band; though that might make more sense), unintentionally shows the extent of some creationists’ failure to grasp even high-school physics.

The average debate on religion hasn’t time to fit in three years’ tuition in biology and another four in physics. It’s far simpler and more useful to have a debate based on anecdote and about ‘morality’. Hitchens dismisses all the good done by religiously minded people as also being possible by atheists.

‘We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion,’ he writes. ‘And we know for certain that the corollary holds true – that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.’ The fact that Judaism features specific commandments against bowing down on smooth stone but none against rape strongly suggests either that the religion is man-made (man as opposed to human) or God has his priorities entirely wrong.

Stealing Hitchens’ arguments outright would be largely pointless, of course: it would be contrary to the principle of free-thinking that he’s trying to promote; effectively replacing one Bible with another. The important thing is to have the debates at all, and as Hitchens says of those such as Hawking and Darwin, ‘men are more enlightening when they are wrong.’ God Is Not Great doesn’t have all the answers – or even many – but as a pillar to build on, there’s none better.