Monday, 5 April 2010

Allegiances of convenience, and other pre-election thoughts

Some might wonder what I've been doing with myself for the last month. I myself wonder the same. But one thing I can say without hesitation is that, half a decade ago, taking up horse riding saved my life, and even though I can get nervous and frightened in certain places and times (if I didn't, I wouldn't understand what horses, even wonderfully calm Welsh cobs, are capable of) it is still convincing me that there is, indeed, something to live for. But that does not mean I have much in common with many of the people at the stables, some of whom exemplify the original, long-abused meaning of the term "lumpenproletariat" - blaming those who have no institutional or structural power for damage done by a ruling class to which they themselves kowtow, in the half-hateful, half-envious sense brought on by a 1960s secondary modern education - and talk and think on a level wholly different from mine, as if we were talking and thinking in entirely different languages (which, in many ways, we are). This is not snobbery or looking down - and indeed these are people with whom, on a different level, I have got on very well indeed - but this is still the honest truth that I am only now discovering.

Let me make a difficult confession. Quite often, the people I find it hardest to relate to are people like me - social outsiders, people whose lives really were changed by riding, people who have an affinity to music (of whichever kind) based around passion and social identification, rather than simply a background sound. I treated such a person very badly, even though I knew underneath that I was merely doing to him what I hate others for doing to me - although I don't think my attitude was in any way the reason (he had a deeper crisis of confidence caused by a fall, and probably by other family problems) he doesn't ride with us these days (he always seems to turn up when we've already gone, as if to dodge the whole idea) and now I wish he wasn't so nervous, if only because his deep-rooted problems and social isolation are probably much worse and more deeply embedded than mine. His first love is classical music, and I can feel an identification with him, an allegiance of convenience, which would have been quite inconceivable for someone steeped in hip-hop in its earlier years, but now seems the most natural thing in the world - somehow, the fact that this is possible seems like the greatest sign of just how different the culture now is, post-Blair. European classical music is now, I think, less the "establishment" music in the UK than it has been at any time at least in the broadcasting era, and has become, in its own quiet and unobtrusive way, something every bit as opposed to the Blair/Cameron order - which is all about taking a certain form of white Anglophone pop as the music of its own imperial master race, and legitimising suppression and marginalisation of anything else - as any form of black pop.

More than ever I think back to the Royal Festival Hall on 9th May 1992, the most traumatic day of my then-young life, the day I learnt class awareness and developed a deep sense of anger at unaccountable, unearned privilege, and gulp at how different the socio-cultural landscape was then, one month after the last pre-pop, unmarketed, unplanned election. Although there had obviously been significant changes already - the pro-market tendency had won a decisive victory in the Tory party, and Labour had become more accepting of the market economy in the previous few crucial years, it is amazing how similar the situation was 25 years after the Marine Offences Act - elements in Labour jumping aboard pop-cultural bandwagons when it suited them but less comfortable with the economic process which spreads them, the Tories at ease with the economic process but much less comfortable with its actual aftereffects - actually was to the paradoxical dichotomy of the biggest mistake of the Butskellite era / moment that exposed the incompatibility of the post-war settlement and pop culture (I'm not even sure which to delete as applicable). It had been enhanced and blown up several times, obviously, but a quarter of a century later there was still no political movement which was at ease both with American pop culture itself and with the methods that spread it here - there were egalitarians who weren't at ease with the market and marketeers who weren't at ease with pop, but no halfway house - so traces of the linear divisions of the early pop years were still there, and it would have been quite inconceivable for someone with my tastes to feel an identification with someone who was mocked for high-cultural leanings. The old idea that pop culture was a genuine break from the British imperial culture of Anglo-supremacy, rather than a mere glossing up and continuation of that culture by other means, was still just about believable, and was articulated even by Dennis Potter - at the end of his life the most articulate and passionate critic of Murdoch and all who sailed with him that we are ever likely to see - in the last series he had produced in his lifetime (I suspect very strongly that, had he seen the last 15 years, he would agree with me on what white pop has become, but then he would also hopefully have been the critic Blair deserved to expose him for what he was, but disastrously never really had).

Within a few years, of course, things were very different - the Blair movement was the first in British politics to be equally at ease with the practice and the theory, with American pop culture itself and with the barely-regulated market it needs to become absolute and total (rather than the enticing romantic myth it was for Potter's generation), and the Cameron movement is the same in reverse, the first Tory movement to be as at ease with the practical cultural outcome of the market as with the bare theory of neoliberalism (would a 20-year-old now, even if they got the reference, even understand the point of the early 90s Private Eye joke about John Major going to see Chelsea play Turandot "who are, I believe, an Italian team"? Yes, I know the words "even if they got the reference", "the point of the early 90s" and all words from "joke" onwards in that sentence are rather superfluous, but what was being ridiculed was Major's jumping aboard the football bandwagon when it became acceptable to the bourgeoisie again after the 1990 World Cup and his simultaneous apparent loyalty to a certain set of high-cultural tenets because that was what Tory leaders did, despite knowing little about either, and today it seems simultaneously impossible that football ever wasn't taken for granted, completely absorbed into the official culture industry and the instant fix of the political game, and that Tory leaders ever felt such obligations - indeed, it's a joke that belongs to a very specific moment when mass-cultural aspirations and high-cultural obligations briefly overlapped, and manages to work as a pisstake of early 90s football nouveaus even though it was probably written by people who themselves wouldn't have known the names of the top Italian teams). It is this context - the one where Altern 8 and Prokofiev seem to fit perfectly together, push the same emotional buttons (two cultures, and their wildly opposed but somehow related senses of ownership and anticipation which lay distinctly outside the Blairite/Cameronite norms, which have both been destroyed by the culture that made Florence Welch what she is today) in ten-second YouTube ad bursts from my final months of proper childhood - which enables me to feel deeply sympathetic towards the man I once felt infuriated by having to ride with (because we were too similar for each other's own good, his infatuations - in lieu of any proper social relationships - for the form disavowed by Cameronites because it reminds them of their own class's non-consumerist past, mine - filling the same void - for the form disavowed by Cameronites because it reminds them of the part of society they are as determined as their class ever was to sweep under the carpet, marginalise, humiliate, and freeze out of the only country they've ever known) when he is mocked by implication, when composers' entire work is derided as "crap" (it does still seem like an outmoded strawman in most of the contexts where I work and think, but really, to think as recently as 1996 I thought saying that would cause Whitehall to crumble to its foundations!).

I couldn't have joined in the discussion, because it only works on the level of crude schoolyard language (had I said anything I would inevitably have been mocked and ridiculed as an old-fashioned snob, and because that is the only thing I am even less than I am an inverted snob, I simply had to concede that I come from an entirely different world from these people) but I know that this gets right to his skin, just as it would with me if it were hip-hop being abused - those for whom pop is just a Steve Wright soundtrack, a backdrop to a life of desperately low horizons and blaming those who have no power for the baleful influence of those who do, cannot understand this sort of emotional connection. And I also know that, in many, probably most cases, it's the same people who mock classical music, anything folk-related at all, art-rock, and all black pop except Motown (with its attendant ironies of the subjectivity of rhetoric about "foreigners" and Britain "standing alone", and the double standards on which this sort of language is always, always based) - there's always some sort of reason, whether it is associations with "toffs", "gypsies", "grammar school boys" or "chavs". For far too much of the population of England, especially its poorer residents outside the major cities - dressing themselves in St George's flags while taking their entire culture from a foreign power, endlessly bashing those, including the peoples of the other parts of the UK, who do have something of their own because they cannot admit how desperately unsure of themselves they are - anything outside their own experience is an ill-defined enemy. It is not a thought-out BNP strategy, just a casual, culturally embedded fear - strengthened, not weakened, by the market economy, the allegiance with some vaguely-defined idea of "global trade" rather than the rest of Europe, and the general cultural void in England, all of which so much of the post-Blairite faux-left still see as allies of convenience - which provides the NuTories, UKIP and the BNP with all the excuse they need.

In its own way, this post is an elegy for the (last? I still think it will be) UK general election before it even happens, because it will be people like that who - as ever - decide the fate of the rest of us. And, if my recent experiences are anything to go by, it will not be a pretty fate. The lumpenproletariat love to present themselves as free from aristocratic rule, but at some deep level they really do still feel that the repackaged quasi-aristocracy are their "rightful rulers". And all that Chris Martin has ever been is a squire in pop star's clothing, a continuation of the feudal structure disguised as a touchy-feely empowerer. Pop made Cameron; if Cameron ever does anything good at all it might, just, be to unmake pop and its sustaining myth for good. And this is the sense where the allegiance of convenience I have with the man who is too similar to me for comfort differs from the Western allies' partnership with the Soviet Union during the Second World War, the historical model of all allegiances of convenience. That was a connection of spiritual enemies which everyone knew would be abandoned overnight as soon as Hitler was defeated and the old Western European powers humiliated (even the one which had theoretically won, a fact that itself is at the root of much of the cultural insecurity which leads to the hatred of "outsiders" - these are people who in many cases grew up in a place and time which consoled itself by dreaming of an illusory pseudo-victory, and accordingly passed off the culture of the true victors as its own and hoped that would keep the proles happy and in their place). This, on the other hand, is a connection which will probably become even stronger - it will most likely have to. If those who are not part of the reheated imperialism of the Cameron axis do not unite, however different our actual allegiances may be, we will all lose, perhaps everything. How depressing that I am writing these words shortly before an epochal election of, quite possibly, Union-breaking importance in a quite different and even more total sense from that of 1979, with no real sense that they will, or can, make any difference to anyone.


  1. The 1990 World Cup did change everything, in a manner of speaking [certainly culturally and historically]. (And the 1992 general election).

    Now that it's 20 years later, I begin to see some of the deep-seated patterns which are from that time.

    There are social outsiders and there are social outsiders. And some of it is just ... tragedy.

    And, yes, fear undoes more than strategy could ever do.

    I probably do know two top Italian teams. Post-Beckham, though. We were listening to Nessum Dorma on the radio, and to the commentator saying how it brought classical music into the mainstream.

    Your points on allegiances of convenience and cultural insecurity are eminently discussable.

  2. I'm having a bad day, and the pithiness of this has just made me feel a lot worse.

    Is horse riding the answer?

  3. Indeed the 1990 World Cup was probably the most important thing to happen to Britain, culturally, in my lifetime of the last three decades. Just the fact that it began the erosion of everything distinctive - and non-commercial, non-market-based - about both "posh" and "prole" culture is enough. I don't think Blair, Coldplay or Cameron could have happened without it.

    It's interesting, and this came up on another forum recently, how distinct the post-Italia '90, pre-Blair period to which that Private Eye joke belongs is, even though it's so brief. Even the era of John Smith's Labour leadership, which lasted less than two years, is clear and definable both in football (Sky desperately trying to sell what was still shabby old English football as though it was a glamorous mid-Atlantic product) and pop (crusty, Credit to the Nation, NWONW, the last great thrust of politicised subculture and the NME consensus*).

    *precise moment the NME consensus began to die = Music Week in the summer of 1997 reporting an attempt to market 'Calling All Stations' by Genesis, their partial post-Collins return to their earlier style, to people into Radiohead and Mansun. This clearly couldn't have worked - nobody into those bands would have touched a *new* album involving the man behind "The Living Years" - but the fact that it could even have been *attempted* showed that a set of certainties was crumbling; this of course was the same time as 'Be Here Now' with which the NME definitively abdicated its status as any kind of journal of record. Almost like its equivalent of the 10p Times.

  4. Oh, and Britpop *also* couldn't have happened had England failed to qualify for the 1990 World Cup - which they very nearly did - because there wouldn't have been the cultural basis for the middle-class appropriation of "ironic" laddishness.

    Blair, Britpop, Coldplay and Cameron - the defining phenomena of 20 years, and all could have been prevented had a Polish shot on goal been that bit lower the month before the Berlin Wall fell.

  5. Alex - I can't speak for you, or anyone else, but riding certainly keeps *me* sane. Mind you, I once thought only posh people did it (which was absolutely never the case where I live, and probably in quite a few other places) so there you do indeed go.

    I sort of knew this piece would depress people. That's why I wrote it (and it could have been quite a bit more direct). These things have to be said.

  6. They do, it's much appreciated.

    I've reached the point where I genuinely, genuinely feel physically sick when a FatM tune starts up on the radio. I've heard people say "that voice makes me want to vomit" before, but hitherto I thought they were talking euphemistically. I stand corrected.

    Her "Kiss With a Fist" is like a modern correlative of Orwell's "boot stamping on a human face - forever".

  7. Her grandfather thought that Enid Blyton's creation of Noddy was an indictment of the post-war consensus and welfare state.

    Truly, this is how white pop ends, not with a etc etc etc.