Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Festivals of Britain, and the luxury of metropolitan life

Looking around the commemorations for the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain - and Current 93 were awesome, in the oldest sense of that term, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Sunday; an extremity and totality that they've rarely approached on record since their earliest years - and reading the accompanying book is a strange experience for someone with my very specific cultural grounding and early experiences. Certainly, the celebrations remind me anew how far removed my first experiences of the Royal Festival Hall - the site of my childhood realisation of class awareness and the essential unfairness and inequality of British life that has been ever more entrenched since while posing as the opposite - were from the ideals of democratic art on which the venue was founded, and how lost they had become by then in the privileged talking to themselves. The whole centre has undoubtedly, in recent years, reanimated and reactivated the ethos on which the Festival of Britain was built for an almost unimaginably different age, and managed to make connections which would have been beyond lesser bodies (though the representation of hip-hop is sufficiently embalmed in the received version of the street culture of 20 years ago and more - now accepted, absorbed, not a problem - as to show what will probably always be beyond them).

As is inevitable for any end-of-empire place and time, the 1950s in Britain saw three wildly oppositional visions of the cultural future presented to the mass. The decade began with the Festival of Britain, the product of the Attlee ethos of the best for the most and fair shares for all; this was rapidly supplanted by the Coronation, the last stand of the unreconstructed hierarchical culture of the British Empire (the Tories must have been secretly delighted that George VI died so soon after they got back; it gave them the platform to define an era which was both "new" and "a renaissance" yet wholly unencumbered with the troublesome socialism and inclusiveness of '51). By the decade's end, though, the middle-mass consumerism which has steadily gained more and more ground ever since had supplanted both visions; those who had tentatively, cautiously dipped their toes in post-war modernism in '51, and genuinely believed in '53 that a new age of autarky and supremacy was upon us, were lost in dreams of a "classless" America which were always as mythical and delusionary as quasi-feudal rural England - the true key years in post-war British history, the years Jake Thackray missed.

It is the great sadness of modern British life that it is '59 rather than '51 which proved the great long-term model on which British culture was rebuilt; those born long after even that fact who sing "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and "It's Raining Men" and "I've Had the Time of My Life" will know as little about '59 as about '51, but whereas the latter year has had no influence whatsoever on their life, their very existence, every breath they ever draw, is in the shadow of the former year and its irresistible (to those millions of expansionary citizens for whom '51 was simply the product of scarcity, of Labour thinking that telling them what to like would be a workable substitute for actually allowing the creation of wealth) combination of just the right amount of newness (of homes, cars, holidays) and a reassuring traditional sheen of certainty and stability - what the young Dennis Potter meant in the title of The Glittering Coffin.

The ideals and forms of art put forward in the Festival of Britain are, likewise, equally alien to both visions - the temporary, unsustainable reassertion of one empire, and the ambiguous, multi-layered comment on/celebration of another that came with Richard Hamilton - that followed. There are multiple - and, I am sure, conscious and thought-out - ironies in the fact that Saint Etienne's film of the RFH's rebirth is called This is Tomorrow; the 1956 exhibition of that name, as great a cultural earthquake as "Heartbreak Hotel", represented as instant and dramatic a challenge to the ideals of improvement - of public modernism rooted in history - contained within the Festival of five years earlier as it did to the blatant denial of the tide of history embodied in the art of the Coronation. Twenty years later, the phrase was used as the title of a song by Bryan Ferry, whose life shows precisely the flaws of Pop Art's wariness of left-wing commitment and clarity of political position; how easily its apolitical stance can mutate, especially since the traditional establishment's abandonment during the 1980s of any residual ties to non-commercial values, into a reconstruction, a refurbishment of conservatism. A further thirty years on, it set the context for a moment of reconciliation; an awareness that, if the South Bank Centre did not recognise the questions asked and the certainties exploded by Hamilton's legacy, it would eventually die a slow death, and that these could, after all, meet the legacy of '51 somewhere in the middle.

It is of course almost universally recognised outside the most ideological right-wing circles that it made no economic sense - in fact, the precise opposite - for Britain for virtually all traces of the main Festival site, other than the RFH itself, to be destroyed so soon after the fact, just as it also made no economic sense for Britain for its entire heavy-industrial base to be destroyed and for the Film Council to be broken up almost overnight. In all those cases, the ideological fanaticism of the Tories, even the ones who at least accepted a certain amount of nationalisation, actually overpowered and discounted their supposed economic acumen, as it has frequently done throughout the party's history. This is why the legacy of the Festival of Britain is specifically potent in this place and time; it reminds us that, untenable as that precise top-down model is today, the state does have a role to play in ensuring true diversity where the market cannot, and that socialists can take from the best of the past to fight for a fairer future without being Blue Labourites (who are, if anything, the heirs - to invoke one of David Lindsay's favourite words, appropriate for someone who thinks the British aristocracy are more socialist than Sly and the Family Stone were - of those in 1951 who'd have said that the Festival was too metropolitan, too arty, too much Not For People Like Us).

This is where I must, sadly, point out that the celebratory language in the Festival of Britain book about how modern Britain takes from multiple sources, hybridises them and creates something wholly new and uniquely of itself, while undoubtedly generally true in the world the London arts elite move within and even more true (all the more so for being outside official bounds) within the endlessly evolving working-class culture of that city, does not apply to the mass of the population outside the major cities, and assumes a far wider and broader range of experiences and influences, and a far more creative and proactive (and less purely reactive) use of these influences than millions of people, alas, ever make. Within the world I mix in from day to day - the world of the stables and the unconscious alliance of two classes' worst and most inhuman tendencies so horribly manifested at Ascot last week - the exchange of cultures and the use of those multiple influences to create something new simply does not exist. Only one culture beyond the lumpenprole or petit-bourgeois ones (delete as applicable) of this country is commonly known about at all in places such as I live in, and engagement with it is purely on the grounds of barely-altered, uncritical copying rather than the use of it to create something genuinely questioning and challenging.

In short, Portland - and everywhere else like it - has everything in common, in its engagement with American-led mass culture, with the line that runs from Marty Wilde to N-Dubz, and nothing in common with the truly progressive line from Lonnie Donegan to Trilla. Other cultures do not exist at all for the vast majority of people here. This is the unfortunate reality that lurks beyond the knowledge of those who have the privilege to live beyond it. The reference in the Festival of Britain book to "the immigrant becoming the indigenous" is undoubtedly a truly wonderful thing when it is manifested in the lineage that produced grime and dubstep, but when it takes the form of the children of people who lived through the miners' strike in South Wales who know nothing beyond Cowellism - and if you are going to deal with the whole of this country, which after all was an extremely important aim of '51, you are going to have to - is it really any kind of improvement on what went before? Similarly, does the poppiest offspring of the London lineage - the Tinchys and Tinies - really represent any kind of broadening of the scope of the lives of lifelong Sun readers' children?

A reference is made to the range of cultures brought through migration since 1951 having provided a counterbalance to "the insularity of Middle England". But the problem of a place like Portland is not so much insularity in the traditional sense - it has little connection to or awareness of its pre-pop history and ways - as an overt concentration on one particular foreign culture, gazed up at and absorbed on a completely one-way, apolitical, unthinking level. It is a narrowness, but a different kind of narrowness, and while the word may still apply in terms of the fear of "outsiders" that remains an active social force, to use the word "insularity" without further embellishment of what is meant suggests that the problems are essentially the same as those the regional tours of post-war modernist art attempted to rectify in 1951, rather than different problems created and defined by different people. If the specific language used in the book had been wholly correct, then the radio station that promotes itself with the irrelevant old piece of cloth that is the Dorset flag (whose use seems to increase in inverse proportions to its cultural meaning - it's another example of Ploughman's Lunchism; hardly anyone round here less than a decade ago had the slightest idea what it looked like, and its sudden promotion is merely gaping over the cracks, rather than meaningfully filling any kind of hole in anyone's life) would be playing the songs you'd have heard 60 years ago on Singing Together, rather than Maroon 5 and Bruno Mars and that 1981 song whose recent promotion in the UK is as dangerous, and as politicised, an act of pseudo-history as anything propagated under Stalin. No doubt this sounds overtly pedantic on my part, but if you're concerned with the specific problems of a particular place, the language does have to be just right for the purpose and meaning involved. However narrow people's existence may be, "insularity" is not quite the right term when something from outside is more real to them than something native; just not the right things from outside, and not viewed or related to in the right way.

Heritage kitsch is merely a meaningless sideshow whose very prevalence shows up how hollow and empty it is (if it did have a genuine meaning and wasn't just as much a marketing game as anything in the pop industry itself, the places would probably be far more culturally open and tolerant than they are; just compare the general Guardian values of followers of folk music with the petty-minded racism of most old rockers; also, to a considerable extent, compare Scotland). The real problems the non-metropolitan areas face are different, and require different responses. Most of the real creativity in Britain does come from the metropolitan areas; the widespread, long-term British left view that the working class of the English shires is at least as counter-revolutionary by its very nature, and riddled with class treason as an essential element of belonging, as the Protestant working class in Northern Ireland was seen as in the Marxist analysis of the Troubles, does have a great deal of truth to it. I've lived round here long enough, and know the place well enough, to admit that now.

Nonetheless, if you can make it, spend some time around the South Bank for the remainder of the summer, and consider what happened, and what didn't happen, and what still could. You may know yourself, and wherever you live, far better for the experience.

English football: a final word

Tell many - I fear, most - English football fans that you like even one film by Godard or Antonioni and you're "not one of them"; you've let the side down; you cannot be a "real" football fan and any claim you may make to love the game is fake, bogus, mythical. Refer to "Camp Nou" and you hate the game that is played better there than anywhere else in the world (I'd love to believe that nobody has ever told me this, but they have). The best part of two decades since the "New Football Writing" and its related myths were presented as having put an end to that bull-headed ignorance, it is as embedded as ever in the existence of the game's middle mass; strengthened, not undermined in any way, by the specific economic forces which appear on a superficial level to have changed the demographic basis and the origins and backgrounds of participants in the English game.

But what English football culture believes does fit in with a love of the game is just as telling as what it believes doesn't. Godard and Antonioni came from countries which have both won the World Cup in the last 15 years, and which contested the 2006 final. But while a love of their films - or anything else (don't come the "Club Can't Handle Me" with me, now; you know that doesn't count and you're just being pedantic to avoid the point) that originated from any other country outside England where football is the unrivalled top sport and a fundamental, overriding passion for millions - is seen as alien and unfitting to a love of football, an absolute and uncritical absorption by one country, and to a much lesser extent three other minor-functionary footman nations, where football has (at least until very recently) barely registered at all, is seen as entirely natural and entirely appropriate to a love of the game - in fact, more appropriate than a love of anything that existed even in this country pre-Murdoch. English football, like no other major sporting enthusiasm anywhere in the world, is bound up with an adoring worship of those parts of the world where the sport plays at best a minor role, and a sneering dismissal of anything whatsoever that originates in those parts of the world where the sport enjoys equal or greater popularity to that it enjoys here.

There is a direct connection between this unfortunate fact and the dismal performances of the England senior side against Switzerland (incidentally, isn't Bombardier beer - advertised as always before the game - an extreme example of Ploughman's Lunch syndrome? I had never heard of it before about 2005) and of the England Under-21 side in Denmark. The non-football world is more real to the players and especially to Stuart Pearce (repeat unto infinity if you're still stuck in 1987: the Lurkers were worse than George Benson) even than their own country; the football world is fake, Not Like Us, an unknowable phantom. They've never listened to Spanish, Ukrainian or Czech music or watched a Spanish, Ukrainian or Czech film; ergo those countries have nothing to teach them about football. They might as well not exist. That is why English football, worsened in this respect by Sky, is still every bit as removed in the way it is played and the values it incarnates from the rest of the football world as it was before 1992. That is also the root cause of the FIFA standoff (yes, I know capitalist greed is capitalist greed wherever it happens and isn't any better just because it isn't the work of Anglo-Saxons, yes I know the FIFA elite represents the capitalist greed of several "races" just as much as the NewsCorp elite represents the capitalist greed of another "race", but there is something peculiarly odious about one "race" of greedy capitalists attacking other greedy capitalists for being the wrong "race" of greedy capitalists while pretending to attack them simply for being greedy capitalists full stop).

If you have a sport whose entire culture is rooted in hatred for all the other countries that can teach it anything about that sport, and genuflection towards one country and its three footmen (who used to be our own footmen and are still ludicrously imagined to be so when it suits us) that can teach us nothing at all about it, you'll get English football. You'll get Stuart Pearce, the BNP lookalike with his good honest bone-crunching roast beef tackles sending people who listened mostly to the same music as the England players of the day, and ate the same food, and drank the same drinks, but did often have far more left-wing political views, back to their opera houses and onions and cognac and invading Poland. I hope you're all very proud of yourselves. Personally, I rather wish you'd all stuck with the NFL you were all watching instead when "Livin' on a Prayer" came out and had led our own football shrivel to crowds of 240 at Blyth Spartans and Rooney was the first European captain at the Superbowl in 2015. At least that would have shown where you belong. At least that would have been honest.

English football has dressed itself up as having escaped a world of insularity and xenophobia. The Under-21 side reveals this as the biggest lie of the last 20 years. We've swapped honest xenophobia - however odious it was, '70s blokishness never pretended to be anything else - for something which pretends to be "global" while actually being so only in the sense that the "Sweat" remix is. Let those words lie on Pearce's grave, after Montenegro have won Euro 2016.