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.


  1. -"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"

    Sorry, I'm not sure I get the reference. To what do you refer?

    Glad to see you writing again and this is a fascinating post. I was wondering whether you could recommend any further reading on the different versions of the 50s that you discuss here - works of fiction, particularly. The regional statistics from the AV referendum really got me thinking about the anti-democratic strain in the English provinces and its widespread tolerance for neo-feudal elites, its kneejerk anti-intellectualism and antipathy to debate and, most of all, a heritagised separatism and retreat from modern living (which is pure UKIP in its rhetoric, if not in allegiance) which runs, as you say, in conjunction with a wholesale absorption of America's blandest cultural exports.

    "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".

    This quote struck a particular chord. I'd very interested to hear more from you on the subject.

  2. The song I had in mind is "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey, which originally peaked 54 places lower than "Drowning in Berlin" by the Mobiles (late '81 / early '82 Monthly Film Bulletins, the last issues with that almost Soviet design and uninterrupted banks of text, are a revelation on this front: the very last days before the full onset of a new kind of studio system arguably even less conducive to independent creativity than the one that had died about 15 years earlier, not least the currently revived 'Cutter's Way' ... such were the political debates and arguments at that time that I only just stopped short of using the word "evil" to describe the cultural dictatorship and discovered memory syndrome that now surround the Journey song).

    The current promotion of county flags may have something to do with the Cameronite idea of "localism"; like that idea itself, they are utterly bogus, a front for lending far more power to barely-reconstructed elites and *removing* self-control and cultural self-determination from all communities and locally-defined groups within society that do not play by the government's rules. We both know - as does Tom; as does Gregor; as does Alex Niven; as do, I suspect, most who understand my writing - that to talk in terms of "localism" while further enshrining the positions of Murdoch and the latterday ITV, and sending threatening stares to the BBC to the point where it is considering reducing its local radio output to a mere skeleton service, reveals how meaningless and empty *all* use of language from the current government is - that they are much worse than common liars; they actually do not even know, or care, what the words they utter mean.

    The instructive comparison here is with the Scottish and Welsh flags; long-lasting symbols held through times of adversity as they are, it would be inconceivable to use them either to promote purely reactive and apolitical mid-Atlantic mass culture, and they would *generally* not be used to say "no outsiders welcome here". These invented, fake symbols are only ever used for an unholy alliance of *both* these tendencies. The saltire, in most cases, says "we want the best of our own combined with the best from outside, and newcomers are not unwelcome" - a far more progressive use than it would generally have had 50 years ago. The Dorset flag's current use by people who've never heard of Barnes (how many who fly the saltire would never have heard of Burns?) - "Journey & Cowell are wonderful and indigenous and OUR OWN, all that nasty foreign 1Xtra muck can go back where it came from" is, if anything, *less* progressive than what little use it had then.

  3. The thing is that I used to think things weren't really that bad anymore - a vaguely sub-Blairite delusion that somehow they *couldn't* be - but now I know that they very much are, and that (vide Scotland and Wales again) they would probably, on the whole, be more tolerant if the fake flags did actually have any meaning bar Cameronite divide-and-rule. Although I want to go on riding as long as I can walk, even if I did live in a city, the sort of people I have to do it with really do conform to every pejorative you invoke (incidentally, the phrase "Middle England" *itself* is an example of Ploughman's Lunchism: it never appeared in newspapers before the early 1990s). They really do believe that living in physically attractive surroundings immunises them from the harshness and cruelty of modern capitalism, that if you live outside the major cities the rules of a neoliberal society somehow do not apply to you, or don't really exist in the first place. They really do believe that you are somehow letting the side down, betraying your supposed privilege (because they really do feel they've got more in common with their MP, whose family produced five members of the unreformed pre-1832 House of Commons, than they have with the rest of the British working class), if you are concerned about the conditions and social existence of those who do not have those superficial advantages. They really do believe that the word "idyllic" has a meaning beyond the distorted language of the Daily Mail, because that distorted language is the only language they know, and more real to them than any rhetoric not concocted for the selling of a lie. Even when I started this blog, I didn't believe things could be so bad. But now I do.

  4. Our experiences of provincial life seem roughly congruent, but I can imagine it's more galling for you given the culture historically attached to horse-riding. Indeed, the whole premise of The Big Society rests on the idea that every British community can be re-fashioned in the image of Peasemore, regardless of the socioeconomic make-up of its residents. Your comments about 1Xtra are pertinent too. Although most of what's played there I'll never really take to my heart (particularly grime's more aggressive end), the level of hostility it seems to inspire in conservatives, many of whom, I'm sure, wouldn't bat an eyelid about "I want to destroy passers-by", makes its position on the airwaves vital to defend for anyone who has ever valued the idea of niche broadcasting. I've managed to avoid that Journey song until now and, the fact that it's a hideous thing per se notwithstanding, it's doubly tainted if it's been used to promote pop-cultural imperialism. As it happens, I didn't know "Drowning in Berlin" either, but I'm glad that you mentioned it. The first months of 1982 really were an extraordinary time for chart pop.

  5. The thing is that none of the people I've ever ridden with are actually from the stereotypical hunting/shooting/fishing toffish background - people like that generally don't live round here - but they *genuflect towards those who are*. They cannot or will not see that the people they feel some kind of quasi-feudal affinity with actually hate them and don't see them as their equals or counterparts on any level, and that they'd be far more welcomed and accepted on the estates that produce the music Charlie Sloth plays than on the estates that Richard Drax, and a number of his precursors as South Dorset's MP, came from. I don't want to sound too hard on them, because they've been far more accepting towards me as a social "outsider" than a riding school run by the people they genuflect towards ever could have been, even at the height of One Nation politics (i.e. the Pullein-Thompsons' world); it is just that, as my sense of class awareness has developed, I've found mixing among people who have none at all ever more enervating.

    Absolutely right re. British "urban" pop generally; there's someone on a forum of just the ilk you describe (who uses the phrase "free thinker" as a pejorative) who seems to be enraged by *my very existence*. Good. The giveaway is that he will go on about "what the first B in BBC stands for" but somehow doesn't apply that rule to Delta blues on 6Music; he's another Eric Clapton, in that he can accept racial "otherness" as long as it is safely geographically distant.

    The most interesting parallel between the multiple shifting possible futures of the 1950s and the early 1980s is the way they both show how heavily British mass culture, and what is defined as such, has been shaped by war. "Eye of the Tiger" is as much a "post-Falklands" record as "Long Tall Sally", in the British cultural context, is a "post-Suez" record, without the justification of having represented, in its time, an oppressed class speaking out (indeed, the best possible way of comparing the initially progressive effects of the British Empire's humiliation with the entirely regressive effects of the Falklands adventure - which, of course, *increased* Britain's dependency on a foreign imperial power rather than reasserting its own identity as ludicrously imagined by Thatcher cultists at the time - is to compare records like that). More generally, Suez to Falklands, as a period when the old ruling culture had been decisively discredited and popular culture had not yet become a ruling culture in itself, is now as much an era in its own right as the more common sense of "between the wars" had become by the 1960s (I explored this in my contribution to 'The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson') and stands comparison with the period between the collapse of the old studio system and the totality of the modern-day blockbuster, with which its second half coincides (something else that is freakish about early 1980s MFBs: seeing that Billy Wilder and George Cukor were still working as late as that, the only titans of classical Hollywood cinema who more-or-less outlasted even the American New Wave). It is significant that, between December 1999 and January 2009, Pick of the Pops on Radio 2 *never once featured* any charts from December 1981 to March 1982, though the periods either side were routinely included; that alone shows how disturbing its existence is to the neoliberal revisionists who decide what is to be recognised as pop, and what isn't.

  6. Really superb stuff - both the piece itself and all of the comments so far. 'Suez to Falklands' is a well defined era. Both events spurred key 'floating voters' and 'opinion formers' to turn - i.e. from giving socialism and 'new Elizabethanism' a look and then moving towards consuermism; or from SDP/Liberal Alliance voting intentions towards support of Thatcher's new ways...

    What is the Festival of Britain book to which you refer?

  7. Maybe it's time we started trying to popularise the phrase "between the wars" to refer to autumn/winter 1956 to spring/summer 1982, "Lay Down Your Arms" (which gave its title to Dennis Potter's first, and much less known, TV exploration of the Suez moment) as the last number one *before* the inter-war period, "Fame" as the first *after* it? It would be far fairer, and more accurate, than some other recent revisions of British English usage.

    I've been thinking a lot recently of the Two Lineages that I allude to in this piece; the lineage of active engagement with the music of the oppressed peoples of America, black and white, so as to create something new, unique and our own, and the lineage of passive absorption of the music of the privileged peoples of America (most British chart music fits into one or the other; what is special and intriguing about mid-1981 to mid-1982 is that so much chart music of that time fits into *neither* lineage, is something else entirely). Contrary to popular myth, I think the old British culture would have been eroded just as fundamentally throughout the 1960s had there been no such thing as the Beatles (by 1962, consumerism was already getting rid of it at what then seemed like a rate of knots); the difference would most likely have been that what it was eroded in favour of, especially if de Gaulle had said non anyway, would have been much more the passive, consumerist lineage which had dominated from 1959-62 (there is a direct connection between the workers-of-the-world ideology of "Red Clydeside" and what Lonnie Donegan achieved, and an equally direct link between the Working Class Tory suburb or shire upbringings of the likes of Marty Wilde and Craig Douglas and the offensive, pallid emasculations they produced, making R&B, or the music of other outsiders in Eisenhower's WASP paradise such as Italian-Americans or Chicano-Americans, *sound like* it came from comfortable privilege). In other words, it would have been much more proto-Cameronite than what we actually had in the 1960s, and might have enabled a government such as the current one to come to power much sooner. The current government is making a full assessment of the previous Etonian era much easier; I was stating "this proves that modern British pop is closer to Craig Douglas than the Beatles" (who, increasingly, seem remarkably *uninfluential* considering what we've assumed for so long) on the bus to swimming on the morning after the deal, though thankfully not to anyone I didn't know.

  8. The "Don't Stop Believin'" question is made even more problematic by the fact that, had it been a mere four years later, it probably *would* have been a hit, c.f. number 4 for Mr Mister's "Broken Wings", to which I was subjected in a taxi last night (although at the same time as "West End Girls" and "The Sun Always Shines On TV", the ghost of New Pop's last great run at number one). Such was the faultline of those years which is now being written out of history. The post-'Disco Sucks', pre-'Thriller'/'1999'/New British Invasion period was a real nadir in American mass entertainment (not just pop: a friend recalls the horror of realising, when he first went there, that 'The Dukes of Hazzard' and 'CHiPS', harmless teatime entertainment in the UK, were actually on at 9pm in their homeland, while 1981 MFBs record the subtle political implications of the media pushing 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' so obsessively - especially in the context of Spielberg's own career; Reaganite nostalgia and simplistic morals as a reaction against '1941', his last nod to the dying American New Wave - and kicking 'Heaven's Gate' when it was already buried so far beneath the surface as to be wholly out of reach). Out of all the overwhelmingly white, middle-American songs that dominated the Hot 100 from 1980-82, the only one I like is "Jack and Diane" by John Mellencamp (then "Cougar", much against his will). It's like the underbelly of "Don't Stop Believin'", an in-context subversive reminder to everyone who had been convinced anew by that song that they *could* make it (against all economic reality) that, in fact, they *couldn't*. It acknowledges, unlike any of its contemporaries, that the American Dream is a myth and that most who fall for it will end up living empty, hollow lives which have ended in practice long before they've ended in fact, and should be played after every airing of "Don't Stop Believin'" as a warning by someone who, unlike the British people who fall for the Journey song now, had actually been there.

    I was mainly alluding here to the souvenir guide which I think is only available from the Southbank Centre itself (and which was published when it seemed as though Genius would come over to do 'Liquid Swords' in full with Akala & Lowkey: if he had, I might actually have gone up during what is largely, alas, the Embalmed Street Cultures Of 25 Years Ago long weekend). I do also have 'A Symbol for the Festival' about Abram Games' involvement, though; Amazon have a couple of copies of that, and they also list a recent book called 'Beacon for Change: How the 1951 Festival of Britain Shaped the Modern Age' which may be interesting (though, as stated here, I don't think the title is as overwhelmingly true as I'd like it to be).

  9. Actually, having said what I said earlier, that Akala freestyle which Tom linked to, is absolutely astonishing! I understand a little more your anger at what gets played on mainstream radio instead.