Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The sociology of names

When two EDL-supporting brothers, born in the 1970s, broke away from the route of a march through the Medway towns and attacked staff in a kebab shop simply for "looking a bit different" - so much for the EDL being any kind of allies of convenience for the anti-Islamist Left - many would have responded to the fact that they were called Wayne and Darren by saying, effectively, "what do you expect"? Many would feel the same way about the fact that two of the people on my patch who have most rapidly sunk into a morass of drink and drug abuse - seemingly waiting for death decades early - are called Jason and Wayne.  The complete social discrediting of these names, to the point where nobody would dream of giving them now, tells a significant story about the descent of large parts of a particular generation of a particular social class from the unending social advances and opportunities that their parents envisaged for them when they were born to the morass of isolation and decay that they have fallen into since.

Popular given names always reflect whatever other place and time is being romanticised at the time they are given; the current immense popularity of Jack, Harry, Alfie and Charlie reflects a certain romanticisation of a largely imaginary past England, the street urchin and the Cockney wideboy as preferable to the "feral" "chav".  By the same token, the popularity of Wayne, Darren, Lee etc. for the working class at a particular moment in history (Jason's origins are of course quite different, but it came to be of the same ilk) reflects the romance and excitement of American affluence and prosperity for parents who had lived through great hardships as children, the idea that once you had your own home (a concept then - crucially, and crucially different from my own lifetime - still couched in socialist terms in Britain) and your own consumer durables nothing was beyond you.  I don't think they ever became quite so popular in Scotland, where William seems to have held up better during its wilderness years in England and Brian seems to have lasted longer, but impossible as this is even to imagine now, Wayne and Darren were aspirational names for the English working class in the 1960s, a sign not that you could never go anywhere but that you were going somewhere, away from the slums and, indeed, the Jacks, Harrys, Alfies etc.

This is the context in which they make sense - which, unfortunately, only exists in many people's minds today as a prelude to the context in which their pariah status makes sense.  When the names were most commonly given, the underclass into which so many of their bearers have sunk didn't yet exist, and would have seemed hard to imagine. Their parents could only foresee decades of advancing opportunities and freedoms for their children; there would have been no assumption that anyone would ever find the idea of university graduates with those names funny.  By 1974, of course, the working class's hopes for its future role in society would have outstripped even that; many honestly believed that, by now, they would be in command, would have taken over the very top table.  The idea that names that betrayed a child of the working class in the 1960s or 1970s would be, in themselves, almost a badge of shame to live down would have been impossible for their parents to grasp.

There is much more to be said about this stuff - about the very fact of Lee Hall's given name, in the context of the consumerist aspirations of much of the working class at the time of his birth in 1966, arguably undermining his view that it was purely Thatcherism and Thatcherism alone that destroyed the old working-class culture, about the fact of Alex Ferguson's sons being called Jason and Darren strengthening the point I made here some time ago about his delusionary concepts of the BBC as permanently Reithian and Sky as "anti-establishment" "rebels".  But I think it should be made clear that the discrediting of these names isn't simply a naming trend in isolation; it runs in parallel with the discrediting of the dreams that sustained the working class in this country for the two decades after Suez and Hungary, both the dream of America and the dream of social emancipation here (both underlying subtexts in much of Then Play Long, rendered explicit in a piece like this).  No dreams, as yet, have adequately replaced them.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Why Weymouth and Portland Borough Council hate and fear the people they purport to represent

The explicitly anti-internet rhetoric in said council's Christmas freesheet is all too typical of a basic distrust of the people whose interests it is supposed to defend.  This is not coincidental or dreamt up overnight; this is a basic condition of the very existence of that kind of shire elite.  As has been discussed at length here before, the self-image of these people is built on a fraudulent assumption that global capitalism isn't really happening to them, and any acknowledgement of the fact that it very much is would destroy the central delusion of their lives, their unearned sense of specialness and difference.  The admission of how similar their lives actually are to those of people in cities would be too much for them to bear, because their belief that they're Not Like That - that they have escaped what is in fact carried on the very air and in the very fabric of the economic system that sustains them - is the foundation stone of their existence.

But now it has become blatantly obvious that most people round here actually very much like global capitalism and are not ashamed of the fact - they are quite happy to play its games and have their lives defined by its major players, and somewhere like this, without a meaningful socialist tradition, who can blame them?  You have a straight choice here between global capitalism at its most deregulated in living memory and Rotarian parochialism, "the club tie and the firm handshake" - and faced with such a choice, Marx knew well that the former is infinitely more progressive.  And this is where the local elite's anger and paranoia comes in.  Knowing that what it thinks the area is has nothing to do with how most of its people choose to live, it resorts to coercion and emotional blackmail - saying "forget the internet" is really saying "forget global capitalism", but it's being said by people who read newspapers and vote for or represent parties which regard even the 1945-79 British model as akin to communism. So they go on, pretending that they exist somehow outside global capitalism when in fact they need it simply to eat and sleep and breathe, and all they can offer makes tax-dodging monoliths seem like the most open and free-thinking things in the world.  Look at that freesheet and you know in five seconds why so many socialists use Amazon, just as you could look at a meeting of the same council in 1967 and know in five seconds why so many socialists supported a singer and a set of entrepreneurs whose politics were, pace Rees-Mogg, "straight John Stuart Mill".

If an area such as this cannot find an identity for itself which doesn't involve attacking any kind of broader interrelationship or affinity with the socially "unsafe", can it blame itself if so many choose to isolate themselves from it?  If people like me are told that we don't really belong round here because our interests and aspirations are global, it is hardly surprising that our response will be mutual; in saying we don't belong we are, in fact, merely agreeing with our masters.  If a culture has to define itself by what it is not, and lacks the self-confidence and self-assurance to survive solely by what it is - if it has to stress the negative so as to strengthen any kind of positive - then it must be waiting for death.  It's a sign of profound weakness and insecurity that it cannot simply be proud of what it is, that it has to attack and denounce everyone else.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Getting things wrong so you can get them right

Twelve and a half years ago (I hope that it's not still online and I certainly wouldn't link if it is), I wrote some essentially meaningless and vaguely positive words - on a website that at the time was greatly inspiring and changing the way I saw music and the world - about a really bad and embarrassing 1978-ish Jethro Tull live album.  And I may never forget it.  The memory of everything about it makes me shudder to this day.  The moment it appeared I knew I'd made a grave mistake.  But now - at last - I know why I did it.

At that moment, certainly for someone like me who'd grown up entirely in that time and had latterly been ensconced almost entirely in the NME-led world, anything to do with progressive rock or folk-rock, let alone both, still residually wasn't - certainly hadn't been at all until very recently - allowed, to the point where even the bad stuff had a misleading exoticism about it (actually, even that isn't the main reason I listened to the songs and wrote the piece; that was personal, and I have no intention of writing about any of it here).  We forget now just how powerful the NME consensus was in the twenty years after punk, how much power one set of ideas and one set of gatekeepers could have in one fairly closed-off country (on the Momus newsgroup in 1999, I was astonished that a Swedish contributor could like both Yes and bands who were part of that consensus, little realising that in the US and continental Europe it had long been commonplace), and how much music that is now accepted in the canon was seen as politically suspect, even vaguely fascist (case in point: I only discovered recently the folk-song origins of Saint Etienne's "Like a Motorway"; further case in point, the folk-influenced stuff that is right at the top of the pop charts now that is politically suspect and even vaguely fascist would have been beyond anyone's imagination in the long-shadows-on-county-grounds age). Accordingly, that lack of understanding produced an inability to tell the good from the bad.

The internet was a very, very long way from what it is now, and not having heard it from older relatives, I'd still barely heard any of the actual music, just knew about it as a vaguely untouchable piece of the past (I don't think I'd even used Napster yet; I was still on mp3 newsgroup trawling and I hadn't done much of that).  We were at such an early stage of assessing the prog and folk-rock legacies - and, arguably, what had happened in and to Britain from 1964-79 (which those genres feel fully part of in a way that the most blatantly proto-Blairite bands, the Frees and Zeps and Purples, somehow and probably misleadingly do not) behind the obvious headlines of devaluation and strikes and emergent monetarism - that it was inevitable that some bad stuff would have excuses made for it on the way.  It was an inevitable error on the path to true understanding, a piece of collateral damage that comes with something seeming so weirdly new, after being so forbidden for so long, that it is impossible to fully grasp, as yet, where it went right and where it went wrong.

At this point I cannot help but think - and this is not meant to be any kind of emotional or sensationalist comparison - of the well-documented way some on the British Left once defended the Paedophile Information Exchange.  It is clear to me, in the context of the time, why Harriet Harman et al took the stance they did; at a time considerably closer to the pre-1960s world than it is to 2012, we were at a much earlier stage of understanding which things previously considered abhorrent really were abhorrent and which weren't.  We were at a much earlier stage of telling unjustified prejudice and superstition from justified disgust and revulsion. Repulsed as they rightly were by the way so many people in that older society had made an instant moral equation between homosexuality and paedophilia, seen them as on the same level and all gay men as potential paedophiles (and, often, that only gay men were potential paedophiles, hence why so much abuse of girls might have fallen through the net more easily and taken longer to come out), they assumed that if those instant reactions to homosexuality could rightly be seen as unfounded prejudice, then so must similar reactions to paedophilia, that if the old world had been wrong on the one count then it must also have been wrong on the other.  Millions of people, especially outside the major cities, were still at least half in that world, so - however horrible and misjudged - it is perhaps inevitable that such a false equation would have been made on the Left; we simply weren't far enough out of the old world to be able to tell the difference yet.

It is probably inevitable that such false equations - misguidedly defending the indefensible out of blanket opposition to older prejudices - will be made while those older prejudices are still being shaken off and we can't really understand them yet.  It's probably inevitable in every field and every walk of life.  In some ways, it's a reassuring sign of my basic humanity that I have such an example in my own past.  It doesn't make it any more calming to remember, but writing this has cleared some of the ghosts.  And if I didn't think I could do that, I'd never write here at all.

Top of the Pops, BBC Four and the hierarchy of art forms

Going back through my offairs from BBC Four's early years - when it unashamedly celebrated many of those (Robert Wyatt, John Martyn, Vivian Stanshall, Ivor Cutler, Mark E. Smith, Penman/Morley-era NME) who most joyously and defiantly refuted the semi-feudal structure of popular art and society in England - and comparing them with its current hierarchical separation of documentary classicism and a certain kind of Friday night pop (Paul fucking Carrack) and Top of the Pops reruns is a painful experience which, in many ways, says much about the change from NuLab to ConDem.  Whatever other horrible things happened during those years - and there were many, of course; God save us from any kind of sentimentalism of that long period of missed opportunities and money that didn't exist - there was a definite sense that the hierarchy of art forms, the idea that pop must Know Its Place, had been comparatively broken down, or at least that those who would enforce it as an absolute, unswerving, unchangeable rule were marginalised, licking their wounds on the fringes (that joke about selling the Telegraph as if it were the Socialist Worker was real, once).

Now the divisions and rules about what each art form can do and what it cannot are being as viciously reinforced as they can be in our present society - which is more viciously than some of us would have imagined, then - and the BBC is powerless because those doing the reinforcing hold the key to its very existence.  The Top of the Pops reruns were, from the start, an attempt to render a suspicious product of the Labour years acceptable to those reignited gatekeepers casting their noses over it, to say "look, BBC Four's alright, really, it may once have thrown the barriers down, but now it's put them back up again and this forgettable fluff is all it thinks pop ever was, or ever can be".  Contrary to popular myth, most of pop's greatest enemies always rather liked Top of the Pops - because pop's greatest enemies aren't, and never have been, the Thomas Winnings or Peter Hitchenses or John Tyndalls of this world, they are the patters on the back, the extreme centrists, those who love it as long as it is content to play a minor, unobtrusive role.  They are The Sunday Times in 1996, praising Status Quo for their changelessness and as a front for demonising the young generally and the global unity of the proletariat in particular.  They are Chris Dunkley, nudge-winking at Channel 4 daring to make The Hip Hop Years in 1999 and doing far more to back up the BNP than crude send 'em-backery ever could.

Top of the Pops was perfect for them, because most of the time it reassured them that, in direct contradiction of all the other evidence screaming in their faces, the working class generally (then identified with pop in almost everyone's minds in a way we cannot now imagine) were perfectly happy to play along with a ruling-class agenda.  Top of the Pops' very existence was always conditional on most, if not all, of the music in it knowing its place in the Reithian hierarchy of art forms, never challenging the feudal role pop had been ordained.  Its constant appearance where Wyatt and Stanshall and Smith once got the serious celebration they had so long deserved is a sign, of a piece with DJ Q or Young Lion's "not on our money" dismissals, of the re-establishment of that hierarchy, that structure, that certainty.  Those who regard it as BBC Four's highest priority should be aware that they are, in fact, being used by those who hate pop music and all it has ever done and all it is still doing.  This is why the dark shadow that now hangs over it, with editions presented by two of its most familiar faces considered unshowable and a vaguely sleazy, nasty-tasting feel to much of the rest of it, is entirely appropriate.  The Cameronite biter bit, and it's all Top of the Pops really deserves in the end.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Why reviving The Establishment club is a bad idea

I mean, really, for fuck's sake.  Keith Allen blokishly beholding himself before blokish George Galloway, this government's ultimate useful idiot.  Could there be anything more narrow and insular and depressing?

But the fact that the project is cheerled by Victor Lewis-Smith explains almost everything.  The whole concept - rooted in an institutionalised and thus meaningless legacy of John & Paul and Pete & Dud as secular gods (and thus the one thing they'd have hated the most, and felt the greatest desire to break down) - has a fundamental problem with people not born to its exponents' comparative privilege if they can't fit into an instantly convenient narrative.  For the likes of Galloway, Muslims who oppose Islamism - which in his degraded mind he (along with Seumas Milne and other morally and intellectually lost Stalinists) has identified as some kind of "anti-imperialist" vanguard - are "Uncle Toms", a grotesque misuse of the phrase.  VLS has made it quite clear that he has the same view of black people who don't have his own none-more-middle-aged-middle-class (the very thing he pretends not to be defined by) hang-ups about white people of his own class and generation being influenced by hip-hop culture.  No, I don't defend Westwood's drift into self-parody and passive consumerism, but for VLS to say that people not born to his comparative privilege need more exposure outside their own ghettoes, but then to dismiss them for the crime of not being embarrassed by the things he finds embarrassing, just shows how hollow his stance actually is.

It's the way it always works, of course; self-hating middle-class people - i.e. half of self-identified British satirists (the other half, the Hislop half, are vaguely self-loving people of the same background) impose their own embarrassment and shame on the less privileged and can only cope with the latter if they define themselves by that embarrassment and shame, only to find that those older contexts are meaningless to the global proletariat, who can create something new where they literally don't exist at all.  Stonyhurst-educated early 90s indie boy Chris Morris is, in fact, a good case in point here; it's always depressing for me that one of the most-quoted and most-cited parts of The Day Today is a rather lazy LOL-before-the-fact at the idea of an African-American lifting a Phil Collins song.  But of course in reality loads of hip-hop and R&B people really do respect and admire Collins wholly unironically, because the history Morris wanted to escape doesn't exist for them; it isn't just that they didn't go to boarding schools where Selling England by the Pound was played endlessly by the senior boys, it's more that they literally don't know, and never will know, that that album was ever made, or that Peter Gabriel existed before "Sledgehammer".  So Collins was a tabula rasa for them, a palimpsest, a completely blank canvas, and a Morris, or a VLS, has no right to condemn the African-American working class for not living up to their own 80s NME-Spartist vision of the noble fighters against imperialism.  The African-American working class always gets there first, even (especially!) when they're defying posh Brits' cultural cringe at their ancestry.

And it was a unity of intention and vision between that working class and its white-British equivalent which was the undoing of the original satire movement, painful as it is to admit.  The Beatles had no hang-ups, no cringes, and for all the TW3 set's qualities, they had nothing that could live with that in the end, because in the end their culture had not moved away from the hierarchy of art forms and concepts of morality and behaviour which had defined their parents' culture. Their opposition to the ruling class was based on wanting that class to behave better - wanting them to be more like the traditional idea of the gentleman - and while I'm not denying the importance of what they did, in the end the working class wanted and needed something more.  To this day, the mere concept of Pseuds' Corner attempts to deny the Beatles' very existence.

A great shame.  But an inevitable one, really.  It has been suggested - mostly by me, admittedly - that if de Gaulle had said 'oui' (the central issue of the moment the satire boom emerged), Britain might actually have had the future envisaged in the official films of the BR Modernisation Plan; fantastically advanced technology, in some ways (specifically in terms of the public sector) more so than we have today, but social relationships and sexual taboos unchanged from where they were in 1960.  And because such a Britain would have arrested the development of pop culture almost before it had begun, it might have been a Britain in which the morality of classical satire would have made sense.  How can this one mythological concept - the Establishment club as, ironically, a counterpart to the Cavern for a different set of radicals-turned-fogeys - represent any kind of future, when it failed the test of Beatlemania one year short of half a century ago?

Monday, 27 August 2012

Fragments of Elisabeth Murdoch

Yes, yes, of course the full speech for the most part is nothing like the bits everyone has quoted, being mediaspeak incomprehensible to anyone else.  And it's easy to be cynical about the positive citations of "the best of the old Britain" and Lord Reith, Dennis Potter and Alan Bennett, easy to say that she's only saying that now the Olympics have put "Old Britain vs New Britain" if not to bed then at least taken it up the stairs, now it's safe, now some of the old battles and hatreds by which her father thrived don't feel quite so raw.  And yes it is blindingly obvious and realised by some of us long before it would have occurred to her that, once they had won all their battles and usurped the old paternalistic order in every part of British society, The Sun lacked the absolute purpose it had, rightly or wrongly, had from (say) 75-87 and Sky likewise lacked the purpose it had from (say) 89-95; because they weren't really for anything to anything like the extent they were against the older elites, they had nowhere left to go after their triumphs, and were simply the embodiment of a much greater problem that the new capitalism, defined by its piratical rebellion, reached once the Keynesians and the Reithians were the ones locked outside the party - a problem of self-definition which could only have ended in the crash (and is also shared by almost all the babyboomers Murdoch got rich by targeting in their young adulthood when nobody else dared).  But even though it isn't a (counter-)(counter-)revolution, it is the closest we've got so far to the "Suez moment" that suddenly became possible in July 2011.

Consider that Murdochism was, at heart, the radical Right claiming for its own purposes a set of anti-establishment ideas on democratisation and opening up of the media which had originated on the radical Left of the 1960s and 1970s (search any New Society from that era and you'll find similar language on media reform to the sections of the 1989 speech she now selectively quotes, without the naked-capitalist bits she leaves out).  Consider that much criticism of it from the Left, however well-meant, has appeared barely distinguishable from Tory paternalism in its attitude to working-class tastes, and has thus merely worked towards Murdoch's grand plan; to split and divide the Left by rendering it the true voice of fogeyism, inherently resistant to every aspect of the modern world, simply a stooge for the stuffy old buffers it once raged against.  Through accepting the legacy of the people her family has for so long caricatured, as though the only Britain that existed before '69 or '89 was the stuffiest, most class-ridden 10% (the idea that Potter and Bennett were indistinguishable from some fire-breathing shire colonel was the single greatest myth The Sun and Sky alike had to create to get where they got), Elisabeth Murdoch, probably without even knowing it, has opened the door for the Left - however reformist, however cautious - to reclaim ideas on organisation of the media and society which it originated and developed in the first place.  That has to be some kind of important moment, however compromised and shrouded.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Why the Daily Mail and the Tory Right hate and fear the Olympics opening ceremony

Is there still, nigh-on half a century after Enoch Powell and Peter Griffiths, something in the water in the West Midlands (which begat Aidan Burley)?  Am I wrong in fearing that anyone I hear with the accent (which in itself, unlike seemingly everyone else from the rest of the country, I rather like) has moved here for all the wrong reasons?

But my very existence shows how dangerous the Mail's hysterical (the hysteria of those facing and fearing defeat and comeuppance, as I will come round to later) attacks on the opening ceremony actually are.  I'm white.  I've lived more than half my life in Dorset.  I like grime.  I like it because I find it far more relevant to my life than Official British Music (whether that is classical or rock).  I am sure that Paul Dacre would have me and many others hanged as race traitors, but that is the truth.  This isn't 1963-style fogeyism.  Nor is it simply considering rap to be a new and unfamiliar form, as it might once have been (Burley is only 18 months older than me; British acts like the Cookie Crew and MC Tunes were having crossover hits when he was a kid; when "Rapper's Delight" charted, he'd have been in the cradle).

This isn't about music or the way music sounds; this is politics, pure and simple, and it has its roots in the defining territory of left-right politics ever since "we all agreed" on economic matters (Hitchens Minor's objection to the very inclusion of suffragettes - suffragettes! - is, even in Mail land, too far gone to be worth discussing; Burley's assumptions unfortunately aren't).  Burley's belief that Dizzee Rascal "didn't belong" is simply a result of the fact that it contravened the right-wing idea that Britishness is a multi-tiered thing - that some people who know no country but this are less British than others, that national belonging is not something equal to all those born and brought up here but something tightly graded and classified and separated.

The same philosophy dictates - actually for arbitrary reasons which are dressed up as though they were objective and final - that a form of music which has been hybridised and mixed in with other forms here for thirty years in a way that would never have been possible anywhere else (certainly not in the US) must still be considered less British than other forms which are equally imported and, quite often, more second-hand in the process.  There are plenty of other people and forms which do not get anything like this opprobrium whose claim to absolute, unalterable belonging here is just as subjective as that of Dizzee or the form of rap generally.

This has been the main factor separating Left and Right since the drawn-out collapse of traditional socialism (really a twenty-year process between roughly the mid-70s and mid-90s); the Left, broadly, believe that everything said or done in Britain is equally British, and that all people born and brought up here are equally British, whereas the Right believe, broadly, that there are levels and degrees of Britishness and that certain people and things need to stay in some kind of notional quarantine for longer before they can be seen as the equals of other people and things.  Sometimes the Left can go too far; some parts of the Left, out of a well-meaning desire to avoid seeming paternalistic or dominant, have failed to stand up for the victims of sexism and homophobia among British Muslims, and I don't defend that for one moment.  But even when Leftists allow cultural sensitivity to stop them standing up for people in minority groups who are treated badly, at least their intent was not to discriminate, even if it was misjudged.  Even when they go against their own principles over sexism or homophobia - and sometimes they do, and to their credit many who once did now admit that - it has been because they regard Britishness as a cake of which everyone living here has an equal share.  That is a far more noble mistake or misjudgement than anything made by Aidan Burley.

The main reason why the Mail and its fellow travellers have disliked the ceremony so much is that it fatally weakens their own politics. For decades, they have made fertile political capital out of the politics of "either-or" and "us-and-them" and ridiculous "if-you-want-this-you-must-want-that" assumptions and equations; if you like Elgar you can't like Dizzee and vice versa, if you think diversity is broadly a good thing you must think everyone who lives outside a major city is a fascist, if you support the NHS you must want ice cream vans nationalised.  Having seen the success of their American counterparts fuelled by the "culture-wars" narrative, they had worked out that they could achieve comparable success if they thought in similar terms, as the principal dividing line between them and the Left now that the latter had abandoned traditional economic goals.  And despite the universality of the BBC offering a residually common narrative which simply doesn't exist in the US (which of course is precisely why they want it carved up; had the Tories of 1986-1994 succeeded in reducing the BBC to a Telegraph letters page version of PBS and NPR, Dizzee would never have escaped his ghetto), they have had a good deal of success with it.

But then all of a sudden the Olympic opening ceremony comes along, and millions of people sense - instinctively - that it isn't either-or or us-and-them.  You can like and respect and respond to both Elgar and Dizzee, both the romantic national myth of the countryside and the achievements of the Industrial Revolution, both the older traditions cherished by the Right and the post-war developments cherished by the Left.  On Friday night, miraculously, it suddenly all seemed to be part of one narrative, part of a shared national story.  Millions of people - many of them the very people the Right think of as natural allies in a culture-wars narrative - had seen Dizzee and weren't frightened.  They recognised that this music isn't a break from the narrative of our history but a continuation of it.

And suddenly a disproportionately powerful minority - along with, much worse, their lumpenprole footsoldiers - get frightened.  They know that their power and success - at dividing and conquering - depends on one sort of working class seeing another sort of working class as alien, Not Like Them.  They know that if the Middle England millions think of Dizzee as part of the same culture as them, part of the same narrative rather than something outside it, that fatally weakens their dominance, their ability to set the national narrative in terms of who or what "fits" or "belongs".  They know that the Olympics' very ethos is wholly opposed to theirs - and they know that its application to Britain exposes their reading of our history as a partial and politicised one.

So really the success and popularity of, and national coming-together over, the Olympics opening ceremony suggests that millions of people who the Mail and the Tory Right thought were loyal footsoldiers in the culture wars might actually hold a far more open and broader view, a far less narrow and exclusive one, of what it is to be part of this country.  And a certain set of people cannot face that, as they know it might mark the end of their ability to set the agenda. It's exactly the same as the retrenchment to fear and nativism that has gripped the US Republicans since the moment Obama got in, and which lies behind their terrifying attempts effectively to fix the election through disenfranchising his most likely supporters.  It would have been far more surprising if people like Burley hadn't been so upset.  Twenty years ago nobody like Dizzee would have been there at all, because multi-tier Britishness was still far more dominant across the board.  The frustration of people like Burley is really the frustration of the impotent, those who know - secretly - that their short-term victories in culture-wars gesture-politics hide a deeper, long-term defeat.  And we know how that kind of frustration tends to come out ...

Monday, 9 July 2012

In the new spirit of reconciliation and freedom from history ...

... between the English and the Irish ...

... may I make the polite request that those who would have historically considered themselves most ineffably opposed to the English anti-Catholicism with which it unfortunately became mixed up (Sinn Fein voters, Celtic fans - come on, it's not as if anyone else will be able to win the SPL for the foreseeable future) - make a conscious effort to reclaim the tradition of autumn bonfires?  They are, after all, part of their own tradition, part of the Celtic pagan inheritance.  They got mixed up with the Protestant revolution and all the unnecessary hatred and bloodshed, lasting well into my own lifetime, that resulted, and they were (unforgivably, and almost certainly hastening their decline in England) misused by certain Mail or Express-reading types to suggest that all Irish people were potential terrorists.  But that does not change their origins, nor does it change their immense potency and power, their evocation of things beyond normal human understanding, their sense of - ultimately - life and death.

More to the point, it has become necessary to champion them simply as a means of detracting from the imposition of American-led commercialism on the process of the seasons for all of us in both the islands, and of undermining the ludicrous pretence of some in Ireland (who really, really should know better) that a victory for US big business is in some sense a victory for them (when in fact those commercial forces menace the autumn traditions of Ireland just as much as they do those of England, and for very much the same reasons and with - thus far - seemingly as little serious resistance). Autumn bonfires were a means of marking the change of seasons centuries before the Gunpowder Plot.  They can and should be so again.  The divisions and hatreds that have turned families and brothers against each other for centuries - and thus the inability, until now, to create a unified front for all the peoples of the two islands against the forces of exploitation and degradation - have been a significant factor in the forces of global commerce laying waste to the traditions of all parts of the two islands, and exploiting the arguments of the left (which it would not otherwise care about one iota) to present them as "racist" or "backward" (when what it really means is that it cannot make enough money out of them).  Now that those old hatreds are seemingly - finally - dissipating and being recognised as impositions and restrictions which hold us all back in a way that can no longer be afforded, could this also be a moment for the English and the Irish to come together in favour of autumn bonfires, for whichever reason you want them and whoever or whatever you want to commemorate or not, as against the Americanised version of the festival which the Irish and Scots once thought was theirs?  That festival and autumn bonfires share the same origins.  It is time to use the reconciliations of 2011 and 2012 in both parts of Ireland to bring them together again.

Why the Beatles sound better under Cameron than under NuLab

Yes, yes, I know I posted here many times in the run-up to the last election that I'd never be able to listen to the Beatles again once the social tribe I had wrongly believed they had laughed out of power for good in 1964 was back in government.  Yes, yes, I did listen to "I Should Have Known Better" on election night, staring desperately at the sea I've so often wished could be drained to nothing, genuinely believing it would be the last time.  But strangely enough, things didn't turn out that way.  The Beatles actually sound better to me now - stranger, more rebellious, more of a challenge to the dominant ideology of the ruling elite - than at any time since before the Blairites and their pop-cultural allies got hold of them and turned them into a front for all the timewarping and imposing of fixed agendas on the working class that they ever opposed in their time.  The Beatles - or at least their mutant, uncontrollable side (why did I ever dismiss "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" as blues-bore purism?  It's easily the best and strangest thing on Abbey Road - an album which otherwise offers ample proof as to precisely why their split was necessary, and the fact that a teenage Alan Parsons was an engineer on it is frighteningly, chillingly apt) - have been rehabilitated, freed from elite manipulation, by the very event I thought would finally rob them of all meaning for good.

What has made the difference is that our current rulers come from the first generation for whom the Beatles are Before Their Time, a mere detail that contains no personal or emotional resonance and may have been dismissed as an unwelcome parental imposition (indeed, their adolescence was during the very period often dismissed during the Blair/Britpop ascendancy for not sufficiently venerating the band).  George Osborne was born a year after Let It Be was released. But Ed Miliband was also, crucially, born when they had more or less ceased to exist.  It works both ways; the Beatles being History (if not quite, yet, Proper History) to a politician may be a factor in a complete inability to see that alternatives to neoliberalism even exist, a significant reinforcement in an institutional belief that pop culture is merely a front for increasing elite power, but it might also be a reason (Miliband was born at Murdoch's first Christmas; McDonald's first came to London when he was four) for that politician being open to at least quasi-socialist ideas on the organisation of British society, without being blinded - as the Blairites were - by the misleading childhood glamour of Radio Caroline and tabloids and fast food seeming exotic and unobtainable.  Not having lived in the pre-Murdoch world utterly closes some politicians to other options, but makes some politicians far more open to other ways than those who actually grew up in it were.

Virtually throughout the first thirty years of my life (with a slight reversion to older ways under John Major) Britain was governed by former members of one or other of the two great revolutionary movements of 1974.  In my childhood, during which most of my considerable pleasures came from the dying embers of the pre-1979 world, those who - after early political careers which they would later dismiss, with Britain itself at that time, as drifting and directionless - sensed that their time might be coming when they Found Themselves as part of the right-wing anti-state movement of the mid-1970s held sway.  In my late teens and twenties, from which I can take few positive recollections of any kind, erstwhile members of the mid-70s radical student-left who had also supported the withering away of the state, albeit for entirely different reasons, came to the fore, having created a brilliantly cynical hybrid between their old pop-cultural loyalties and 80s neoliberalism which they (absolutely and entirely correctly) now recognised was a far more potent and workable method of enforcing their anti-old-establishment cultural visions and post-Marxist enthusiasm for global capitalism - the capitalist stage of the Marxist process with the ending changed (a phrase which effectively describes New Labour, the American neoconservatism it embraced so enthusiastically, and to a great extent Thatcherism; never forget Alfred Sherman's political origins).

But now, for the first time, those whose political thinking was developed during the tumult unleashed by Harold Wilson's cathartic defeat-in-victory have retired from the front rank, never to return. In the process, the Beatles really have become Proper History - and thus, as they never were before 2010, immune to the distortions and misinterpretations of the political process.  Nothing can touch them now; the elite no longer care anyway.  We have a rising political elite for whom the mid-1970s were about nothing so much as Brian Cant and Geoffrey Hayes (if even that), not a grand-scale left-right power struggle.  And that can mean anything the politicians want it to.  It can mean what George Osborne wants it to mean, or what Ed Miliband wants it to mean.  What do you want it to mean?  That is as decisive a question in 2012 as "what do you want the collapse of the post-war consensus to mean?" was in 1975.  Nobody can afford not to answer it.  There is the Cliff Richard / Duran Duran / Dappy answer, or the Beatles / Human League / Trilla answer.  How will you answer for yourself, if the judgement of history condemns you for not giving the latter answer sufficiently loudly and forcefully here, now?

Saturday, 16 June 2012

2012 as reverse 1975: further evidence

Shiraz Socialist think Jon Cruddas is hopeless and any new ideas Labour might have are futile.  Well, with the best of respect (and they deserve quite a bit, not least for being one of the few left blogs not to put opposition to "the West" in totality before the right of the Jewish people to a place of safety), they would.  They're theorists, so obsessed with ideological purity that they're above concern about people's actual lives.  The left equivalent, in some ways, of those on the right (and there were quite a lot of them, though very few would admit to it later) who thought neoliberals were already permanently defeated by 1975 so shouldn't even bother trying to seize power.  And this is where the key comparison steps in; as I've written previously, almost every aspect of current British politics is redolent of the mid-1970s, only with the right in the position the left were then, and vice versa.  Dominic Sandbrook's recent work has been well-timed in a manner he probably did not intend, and may well disapprove of.

Raised as my generation have been in an environment where capitalism has seemed unalterable, irreversible and unreformable, we cannot easily consider a time when, having recently made a stalled and overpowered attempt to assert itself over the dominant ideology of corporatism, it momentarily stood on the sidelines, humiliated, forced out of government almost overnight, genuinely seeming doomed in the eyes of quite rounded and educated people (it is incredible how little the Barber Boom / Slater-Walker Government period, so rapidly overthrown and so widely seen as ineffective and compromised, but in fact so crucial as a blueprint for what now had to be enforced much more aggressively and forcefully, is even talked about now, and I'll give Sandbrook his due for recognising its importance - I'd be surprised if 1% of the people who've heard The Dark Side of the Moon, which however codified and vague and globally-applicable its lyrics may be wouldn't exist without that context, know who those people and organisations were).

Hauntingly, a Welsh miner in the 1975 polemic The Miners' Film - repeated, with rueful introduction and epilogue, on Channel 4 during the strike a decade later - says, without irony or ambiguity, "we're gradually understanding now that the greatest power, the most important people, are the people that produce.  And I believe that 1974 was the turning point, when this power was realised for the first time".  At that point, few could see that it would be the turning point, but the turning point for a counter-revolution; not the moment where the working class began to take over, but the moment which unleashed and set free the neutering of that class's political power. There is, I'll confess, not a day - sometimes not a moment - when I don't imagine how different my life, and the norms I came to take for granted, might have been had the Tories won the February 1974 election (and they very nearly did) and the radicalisation of capitalism had not been given the platform to grow.  Might we have become a completely different country; no destruction of industry, no Murdoch empire, no commodification of politics?

But when the radicalisation of capitalism gained irresistible traction - despite having come about merely through an accident and a fluke of history, and despite being institutionalised after its early struggles in government through, as we've all been reminded this year, an even greater accident and fluke - it did so out of a sense of emergency, of absolute determination and now-or-never politics-of-apocalypse, out of a genuine and justified fear that if they didn't get back in next time, their whole world would have crumbled and could never be restored (when do you think you the phrase "late capitalism", which seemed a sick joke by the time I became familiar with it, was first used?  Why do you think, even though Roger Waters is so clearly a nihilistic cynic with little if any faith in the radical potential of humanity, Animals ends with the hint of genuine revolution?).  In Cruddas' Observer interview, the same feelings in reverse - a determination that this radicalisation of a three-decade consensus, by its creators now turned far more fundamentalist and fanatical than they could ever have been when the seeds were first planted, has to be reversed for everyone's sake and not just the sake of the class the party may be seen to represent (part of Thatcherism's genius - and it was a genius; hardly anyone else could have sold such ideas to the working class and won - was its ability to convey essentially pro-ruling-class politics as more democratic than those which had preceded them, to redefine the position of the working class as making Andy Gray rich rather than allowing Trevor Griffiths to exist) - can, fascinatingly, be sensed.

However tentatively, and however problematic some of the communitarian ideas may be in practice, Cruddas is hinting at the idea that what may be presented by the ruling class as "unalterable reality" may, in fact, be reformable by those with the will - in other words that it is time for the left to "think the unthinkable" as the right did then (and this is where many left blogs are, ultimately, as relevant to the lives of the people they claim to represent as those who felt neoliberals should remain in their academic fringe groups rather than push to "change the way a generation thinks about politics" were relevant to the capitalist class and its self-interest in 1975).  His talk of "the edge of a crisis" has not been heard in quite this way from thinkers in a recently defeated party, seen as lacking in vision and confidence and with a need to reinvent itself, since that time, when those with an interest in maintaining their own privileges blamed an economic implosion caused by global forces wholly outside Britain's control, even then, on the strength and power of the British working class, and interpreted any kind of working-class role in the institutions of the state as a harbinger of the collapse of the state itself.  The sense of time running out before neoliberalism becomes utterly irreversible - that the even flow of politics, with one ruling party seamlessly giving way to another and little really changing, has to be replaced with something more dramatic and fervent - is also redolent of the Tory radicals who emerged in the wake of Heath's humiliation; a desire to remake/remodel politics as an urgent battle, a fight to the finish that must be won by the side remaking itself in opposition, lest everything that side has ever fought for be destroyed irreversibly.

Cruddas' refreshing indifference to the power of the Daily Mail and its ilk is redolent of the mid-70s Tory radicals' lack of concern for the Daily Mirror, then still the most read and most important newspaper for the mass of the population and a key cipher in its relationship with the elite, a paper that - even with the fast-rising Sun nipping at its heels - it was still felt you did not mess with if you wanted the working class on your side.  And the fact that the elite ideology of the last 30 years was created in what seemed the least welcoming and receptive environment imaginable to capitalism reigniting itself and owning the near future - and indeed that of its two defining newspapers, The Sun in 1968 did not even exist in its current form and the Mail was on the racks, facing a seemingly insoluble identity crisis and inability to find a niche for itself - should remind us of an important fact; that what seem like unalterable, unchangeable ideologies only become so because a few people think the unthinkable against all the odds and against both subservience to the elite ideology on the side that created it and "you can't change anything now" cynicism on the side that didn't.  This is so both for the current ruling ideology and for the ruling ideology that came before, the one that radicals of both sides were tearing at by 1974.

This is the sick joke behind those who say that rejecting neoliberal capitalism now would be like rejecting breathing or eating, that it is an unchangeable reality on a par with air or water.  It only became so because a few people believed that the world didn't have to work like that.  If it can happen once, it can happen again.  This is the main lesson we can learn from the 1970s; that predictions that a change is "unworkable" and "impractical" may well be viewed by history as, quite simply, wrong.  And just as the knowledge that in the 1930s most of the ideas written into the British state after the war would have been seen as hopelessly romantic and deluded probably convinced many Institute of Economic Affairs ideologues that there was mileage in practical politics for them after 1974, it is this which keeps me away from the anti-political cynicism of the far-left, however accurate some of their other analyses may be.

Of course, I'm acutely aware that I could have got all this wrong. Perhaps, out of sheer desperation and desire to escape from the world that made me and which I rejected as assuredly as the makers of modern Britain rejected the corporatist world they had been brought up to see as unchangeable, I am seeing things where they don't exist. But it does seem as though, just as the radicalism of a minority Labour government convinced a previously marginalised and embattled right that the platform was there for the unthinkable to be thought and the future redefined, so has the radicalism of a government without a mandate, which was formed out of almost nothing and which speaks for nobody except the privileged, opened the door for ideas which it seemed might never have a place in the Labour Party again.

Had the right confined itself to theoretical writings and Peterhouse debating societies, Britain might well have become permanently socialist; that alone should convince far-leftists who see practical politics as beneath them that for those of us who care about any kind of social justice and equality, this is an emergency, a time when normal rules of politesse cease to apply, every bit as much as it was for those of the other side in the mid-1970s.  Just as was the case then, there is a straight choice of outcome for the next general election (the Lib Dems' involvement in the coalition has effectively ended the century-old centre-left divide and, surely, pushed much of their support towards Labour): either the paradigm shift that history teaches us should happen every 35 years or so, or the inverse of the ending that to many seemed most likely in the mid-70s, neoliberalism's long march through the institutions being completed beyond repair.

Last time, they won, and successfully changed the ending from the one widely seen as inevitable to the one that created the only world I've ever lived in.  This time - however much it would compromise some people's self-regard - we need to make sure that we win, and change the ending to our advantage.  They only won because every last one of them joined in.  If we realise that, then 2015 could well be remembered as the next in the lineage of 1945 and 1979.  Anti-political cynics should not complain if Cameron leaves office, never seriously challenged, in about 2021.  They will have got precisely what they deserve.  Amid that 70s tumult, Roy Harper correctly wrote that the victor writes the books but the loser speaks the lines. But in moments of crisis and uncertainty - such as we have now entered again - losers have the chance, which comes along perhaps only three times in a normal human lifetime, to become victors off their own back, a chance that simply is not open to them in normal times of complacency and certainty.  This is such a moment.  Even if "reformism" seems narrow and restrictive, we must remember that the initial ideas of the Centre for Policy Studies, which were to revolutionise much of the world, initially seemed merely the Tory equivalent of reformism.  The door is open.  To help our enemies to close it in the name of our own sectarianism and purity would be the most dangerous decision of anyone's lifetime, one for which our grandchildren will hate us.  The time simply isn't there.  Critique and question Cruddas' ideas by all accounts; there are certainly plenty of holes there.  But don't, whatever you do, ignore them.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Whitney Houston

It's as if Whitney, in her heyday (and bete-noire-for-the-pop-cultural-left day), more than MJ, hinted at some kind of post-racial America. Only Diana Ross had got so deep into Middle America's heart before her, and the fact that Whitney's break was amid a reversion to reactionary politics rather than the context of the Civil Rights Act meant that there seemed far less radicalism hidden beneath the gloss. But the Star Spangled Banner at Super Bowl '91, right in the middle of the Gulf War, was a genuine moment of emotional unity in America, and in its own way it might be a step on the road to Obama's eventual victory. It was also, in many ways, the beginning of the end for Houston herself. She'd gone so far, gone to so many places where once she could never have gone, touched so many lives that would once have had no room for her, that she was bound to be judged by impossible standards. And when that happens to someone who had come so far, it's the surest possible road to the other extreme. "My Love is Your Love" is as special as it is because it makes no attempt to hide what she'd been through, that the voice of the huge hits was fucked, and still holds out hope for redemption, rejuvenation. Failing to live up to Middle America's impossible dreams could still, at that moment, have been the start of a new beginning. Sadly, it wasn't. Sadly - and think of this with The Sun on the racks - the world that had made her what she was could only destroy her in the end.

Friday, 13 January 2012

High Speed 2 and England's eternal conflict

When I was a child a stone's throw from the current site of Ebbsfleet International station, there were vain hopes that the Channel Tunnel rail link would be ready by the time the Tunnel itself was completed, and thus avoid the 13-year tragedy/farce of one of Europe's greatest trains being forced to crawl along congested Victorian lines (hopefully it would also have avoided the unnecessary demolition of Waterloo's Windsor station, but I don't expect anyone else reading this to care about that particularly). There were many reasons why this did not happen - most of them connected to the chronic underfunding and deliberate government destabilising of the then still-nationalised British Rail, which effectively rendered any major, long-term project impossible - but part of it had to do with the staunch, virulent hostility of many residents of Kent to its construction. There is something quite frightening about old news footage of the protests against the link - the attitudes that had been stirred up clearly went considerably beyond reasonable environmental concerns, and into a whole other, more unsettling territory.

The instructive thing about this hysteria is that many of the same people had seen no problem whatsoever with the building of the M20, and any number of other projects which had diluted Kent as they had always dreamt it, but - crucially - had no direct connections to the political red rag of Europe. Even beyond the fact that most would have been Tory voters who had absorbed Thatcher's rhetoric about public transport being for "losers", there was a deeper political subtext to the pettiness and insularity of the opposition. What, eventually, became High Speed 1 was opposed in Tory heartlands not because of where it was going through, but because of where it was going to - a place from which these people had cherished an (almost entirely mythological) vision of separateness and isolation. Anything which brought this scary, hostile land across the Channel closer to them was a threat. Supposed concerns about its effects on the landscapes it would go through were just that; a flag of convenience, a quick and easy cover.

Exactly the same rhetorical smokescreen is currently being revived over High Speed 2. I don't think the shrill shire-Tory voices really care, in most cases, about the areas they object to the line going through (because if they did, why didn't they object when those areas were ruined for other reasons and other purposes years ago?). What they do feel, much more profoundly, is a deep-rooted antipathy towards the areas it is going to. Lord Astor gave the game away with his conspiratorial suggestions in The Spectator, redolent of the language we heard from Tories at the turn of the century when they had pretty much given up capitalism for the Blairite duration and reverted to pre-industrial nativism, that "northern Labour MPs" actively enjoyed seeing the Chilterns built over, out of an antipathy for the region's lingering quasi-feudal ways, that they took pleasure out of seeing a Tory heartland defiled (his suggestion that the internet should be used as a method of contact instead is an unintentional sick joke when we remember how, in the days of foot-and-mouth pyres and Countryside Marches, people like him were suggesting that its very existence was a dangerous socialist plot). In some cases, he may be right. But if anyone in the Labour Party thinks in such tribal terms, it is only a response to equally tribal thinking on the other side.

Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds (Glasgow is suddenly an entirely separate issue, one I will get to in my next post here), the cities that High Speed 2 would bring closer to London, are the cities the Industrial Revolution - and, indeed, the original railways - built. They are the fervent, ever-faster-beating hearts of mercantile capitalism - and thus, by their very nature, a threat to the assumed social prevalence and superiority of the aristocracy. Right from the moment they became great centres of commerce and industry, they challenged aristocratic values with a vibrancy and vitality which, in many ways, proved irresistible. Except when it came to the final challenge, it didn't; the extreme national constitutional stability (in so many ways more of a hindrance than a help) which is the result of an accident of geographical location ensured that the traditional ruling class retained a residual stake in national affairs, the result of an uneasy trade-off with the capitalist class who had made those cities great (and also built the railways, very much against the will of the landed gentry; the railways turned thriving, comparatively advanced regional centres that rejected them into quaint feudal relics just as assuredly as they turned Swindon and Crewe from villages into the heartbeat of an empire of industry). England's eternal conflict was never really resolved, merely put on the backburner in the vain hope that everyone pretending to get along could make people forget about it (just as had happened after Cromwell and the restoration of the monarchy), and that is the real division in everyone's lives, a division that has - in its own uncanny, second-hand ways - permeated tensions in our own time such as that between prog and punk, or between the BBC and ITV in the '70s. It's always there, somewhere, all the stronger for the attempts of several lifetimes to pretend it is just an insignificant, trivial difference (you don't try so hard to hide something unless you're profoundly affected by it in the first place).

The harsh fact is that to acknowledge the vital importance of Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds at all, to recognise that their much greater populations (certainly when combined with their de facto suburbs/extensions) gives them a greater deserved stake in the national debate, a bigger deserved slice of the pie, than the quasi-feudal shire hangovers that mercantile capitalism's great compromise gifted a status beyond their true significance, is to undermine and threaten the place in national life that the aristocracy had the extraordinary luck to retain even in the birthplace of mercantile capitalism (but did not cling on to in many countries where it was a relatively late adoption). Despite the resurgence of the monarchy and the various well-documented cultural phenomena which have set the tone for the Cameron era, the aristocracy and their hangers-on still feel a deep sense of cultural uncertainty which may superficially appear to be left over from the Blair era, but is in fact the legacy of industrialisation itself (a clear line of descent; remember how Blair spoke openly about seeing the whole era of left-right politics, now a bigger part of the national debate than they have been for two decades, as an accidental island of history, and about his own aim being to restore the connection between social and economic liberalism that was lost in the early 20th Century, and to recast the Tories not as capitalists but as feudal reactionaries against his own position as a modern-day Whig; Blair, more even than Thatcher, was a far truer descendant of those who built the Industrial Revolution, as opposed to the upper class who resisted it or the working class it created, than any prominent figure in the politics of the mid-20th Century).

Those who object to High Speed 2 on their doorsteps are really, underneath, objecting to their own children having a greater identification with the modern-day version of mercantile capitalism as expressed by the popular culture of the cities it will serve (not least because they are increasingly able to price the people who actually live in the Midlands and North out of those cities' universities) than they have with Julian Fellowes. They may also resent Cameron's support - presumably out of a residual One Nation Conservatism - for High Speed 2 as a means of breaching the North-South divide; even a slight desire on Cameron's part to apologise for the increased divisions even within England that he must know his own government is creating is politically suspect for them, and almost makes him some kind of class traitor. For them, the Midlands and North, and specifically their great cities, are best kept at as great a distance as possible because they embody a way of existence that they have to resist for their own lives to make sense. To paraphrase Auberon Waugh during the GB75 years, they don't want to get into other people's lives so much as keep those other people out of their own lives - and High Speed 2, with its symbolic ties to the other England with which their own England never had a final, decisive conflict, so much as an endless, unanswered question and savage war of peace for command of the country, never quite fought to the finish and thus never truly won by either side, is the epitome of what they want to keep out the most. Never forget that the areas most closely affected by both high-speed lines have been among the few to retain grammar schools this side of the '70s.

I support High Speed 2 above all else because of its symbolism, because of its sense of rebirth, because of its linking us with the rest of Europe, because of its modernity, because of its giving a whole new lease of life to the cities that built the modern world. This, rather than anything more technical and practical, is also entirely why those who oppose it are against it. There really aren't any other positions. Not here. Not in England.