Monday, 29 June 2009

A satisfying humiliation for Little Englanders

If Murray is going to win, he really will have had to fight for it. And it is precisely because, unlike Henman, he understands what fighting actually is - and doesn't think, not even in some unthinking mental background, that there is something faintly vulgar about it - that he could fight and win on this most exhausting of nights.

A little bit of Old England died tonight, and all I felt was the drama of sport at its very best, and final elation. Those whose petty little bigotry is infinitely more likely to break the Union than Murray ever will have been definitively defeated. You will never hear Cliff Richard on that ancient turf again. We did get 15 seconds or so of "Sporting Occasion", but we needed no more - and in context it worked, because here was a moment when the worst of the past was put behind us, not - as so often - the best.

I am not saying the Union has to stay together for this reason alone, but those in England outside the southern middle class have - I think - mostly realised that Murray's experiences and attitudes have far more in common with theirs than Henman's ever could have. By Sunday night, something might have happened which could have significance way beyond tennis. Or maybe it's too far gone. But this was a victory to stir even the harshest heart.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Michael Jackson

Another RIP post, fuck.

Any words I may write will be drowned out not merely by size but by strength. Almost everyone in the world will have something to say, and most of them will say it. The scale of this is so far beyond the things I habitually blog about that in any other circumstances it would be almost comic. But in this case it carries more the authentic air of tragedy; for all that his life was so much part of the age of celebrity, with which he shared his childhood and which he did so much to push to its current level, it has the sense of tragedy in the deeper, historic sense, not the sense of merely losing a fucking football match - for so long now, and precisely because of what he had been, it had seemed to be heading this way (he was probably still in his 30s when I first started thinking he wouldn't last long into his 50s).

So no doubt it will seem a morality tale, proof that - if you let it - celebrity will get you. And let us not pretend, as we have with so many others, that we particularly respected what he became towards the end. But why was there still so much excitement about the 02 Arena shows, even though he hadn't toured for over a decade and, when our heads finally defeated our hearts, we all doubted he could get through it? Someone who can still, so late on, create so much anticipation - against all logical sense - must have made people feel, however momentarily, however falsely when we woke up in the morning, that anything was possible. And that, we can be sure, he did. Ignore, for the moment, all the rap remixes and "have you seen my childhood?" and the endless compilations. They were all part of the long road that could only end in this.

Within 24 hours we will all obviously be sick of this comparison point, but as the NME said in August 1977 over its cover picture of the Elvis of half a lifetime earlier, remember him this way. And be, perhaps, more grateful for the mundanity of your own life. But be grateful too that what you have just heard existed.

Steven Wells

I didn't always agree with him - at times I thought his dogmatically pro-pop-culture stance could be (inadvertently and obviously quite against his intentions) appropriated by the very people he despised the most, and of course he was tainted for me by staying with the NME well into the Europhobia-for-the-soft-left phase it will clearly never now leave - but fuck, 48/9 is no age. He'd clearly have hated people saying he was comforting to have around, but - as with his old adversary Mark E. Smith - you always felt, whether or not you agreed with him or liked what he'd done that week/year, that his presence was A Good Thing. He undoubtedly played to the gallery (probably to stay in work) in his later years at the NME, but at his best he made people think and think again, which is more than most writers ever do.

For he was capable of a lot more than the tabloidised NME of his later years there would allow him to do - his pop-culture evangelism, for all that I'll always be in two minds about it, was always and only ever on the side of those who create the best pop and the idea of what it could/can be, set free. He never pretended (unlike some NME writers I could mention) that the media controllers - those in charge of the mass culture industry who claim ownership of everything it does - were on the side of the Left. When I started buying old NMEs I noticed that his writing about politics and the culture industry, and especially the politics of the culture industry, was a lot more subtle and multi-layered - particularly in his July '86 piece about the Christian Right and specifically the odious Peter Mullen - than I'd been used to from him (or from the NME more generally) in my own adolescence, and one of the main reasons why I wish the NME had stayed as it was at that time is that he'd have been encouraged to write more pieces in that vein, rather than just play to the crowd and phone in rants about Belle & Sebastian or whoever, which - funny as they were - were as unrepresentative of what he was really capable of as the "Mr Agreeable" columns were for David Stubbs. His Guardian and Philadelphia Weekly stuff late on showed what he was really capable of, and it is to be regretted that the books he was apparently planning never came to fruition. Also, of course, he contributed to On the Hour and The Day Today, neither of which has been equalled since and certainly won't be by the cawing and LOLing excuses who dare to pretend to fill their shoes today.

I'll miss him. RIP.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The most easy-to-carmodise band in the world?

It took me a long time to overcome the circumstances in which I departed ILM. Certainly my brief return was possibly the worst of many idiotic decisions I have made on the internet (which are still not quite as unjustifiable as some I have made off it, or before it). But after a long absence I now read it regularly again, and from that position of isolation I can appreciate it for what it is, and understand that it will never be the natural place for someone with my own aesthetics and worldview.

I'm never tempted even to join in the many recent threads about Genesis, precisely because of the fact that they are surely the band who fit most perfectly into my own much-mocked vision of recent British history. Consider:

mid-1960s - Otis Redding amid shafts of light on dormitory walls from a world you are locked outside; national hopes of classless-utopian future; everything has its roots here

late 1960s - Jonathan King attempts to apply old boy network to pop; gets nowhere (at first)

1970 - tentative folkiness amid decade's ruins

1971 - imagined past and mutant science can still just about work together, it seems, and they mostly do

1972 - unresolved tensions coming to a head; New Towns turned from dream to nightmare; entire genre reaches its apotheosis and epitome from which there is no etc etc; final peak sets out "New Jerusalem", but is that the post-war state, whose achievements are being so profoundly neglected and underestimated by those who are their direct beneficiaries, or some mythical, never-come world which may exist beyond it, or even some pre-capitalist, quasi-feudal old-elite utopia? crucially, nothing is ever explained, and all we are left with is a memory of movements. No apocalypse yet, but the intensity is such that you know it is coming.

1973 - nation at war with itself; conflicts of capitalism and the emotional glue of history become unbearable; mood is caught brilliantly with succession of storms interspersed with barely-fooling brief moments of calm. Class war for ownership of future; past now is a desperate burden rather than Carnaby Street commodity; everything culminates in final confession to the supermarkets who are quietly growing and growing as everyone else organises their safe tribal war. You've got to turn out, somewhere ...

1974 - apocalypse, final reckoning, last internal conflict after which anyone must crack, etc. Hermetic universe finally blown open, power and internal insanity of Britain's owners finally confronted; opening songs are a vicious stream of consciousness in which Gabriel's every conflict is thrown in; elsewhere it merges with the old world - "a harvest feast (is) lit by candlelight" in NYC? - but this merely confirms that the whole thing is, at heart, a survey of a nation's riven loyalties. It cannot sustain its own ambition, of course, and by the end it is flailing, but it remains a lacerating experience. But this is precisely what Rutherford and Banks don't want; they only really feel comfortable with received notions of Quality ('The Little Prince', for heaven's sake), not the Hammill-level fuckedupness of, ahem, "In the Cage" or "Back in NYC", and the centre cannot hold. As Jagger is impotently mocked to the fade, you know you won't hear this again.

1975 - the future is almost rewritten

1976 - conscious assertion of normality, albeit in lavishly elegant form which a 15-year-old aristocrat poised for the entrapment of a gilded cage from which the only escape is death will instinctively connect to; Rutherford/Banks vision of High Art clearly in control, all internal turmoil and unease over their nation's post-war position pushed aside; "if we can help you, we will"; uneasy calm of post-referendum, pre-IMF stasis perfectly captured, precisely because it is such a blank canvas; on opening track, Collins insistently repeats (though he did not yet write) the line "better start doing it right", surely not only a statement of determination to push aside Gabriel's mutations of language and sound but also a call to think the unthinkable, to question every certainty of the post-war settlement as Charterhouse has so long wished

1977 - much the same vein: aristocrats gone to seed; "daddy, you promised, you promised"; their class's balance of desperate panic and blind internal fantasy intensifies

1978 - all pretence at ambition finally dissipates; panic over apparent prole assertion takes form of retreat into the already-encroaching cosiness; Labour lead in polls and despite where Rutherford and Banks came from it almost fits; "just one single tear through each passing year" marks their passing on into the world which it appears may still just follow, where detente may reach its logical conclusion; in doing so elite power would of course be seriously weakened, but for a moment it seems as though none of that matters and everything can work; David Morton comes of age to it, although his spirit is already almost dead

1980 - world hinted at in those final echoes-to-the-woods has been cancelled; they become arch-exponents of "creative destruction", the sort of capitalism which relies on the abolition of everything before it for its very existence; "all I need is a TV show - that, and a radio"; they are now wholly owned by, and a lucrative plaything of, the forces working to destroy both socialism and Tory paternalism

1981-83 - consolidation of same

1986 - total immersion in the drained Atlantic; survey of entire international situation which postulates that everything is horrible now because the leaders are Too Old and everything will be OK when the Blair Generation takes control, and is charting as Macmillan leaves the earth; early songs still performed, but in medleys where they are no longer any kind of art-Englishness but commodified heritage, exactly like the newish English Heritage itself; album becomes a surrogate Elgar to the Bullingdon Club, the next generation of the same official vision, merely repackaged and (more importantly) far nastier and less tolerant

1991 - much the same as above, only now with ostentatious sheen of "care" and hideous epic about the construction (at the height of Britain's industrial bucaneering) of the very same railway system for whose final carve-up and removal from the public sphere - back to what it originally was, naked capitalism as it was before Wiener said It All Went Wrong - the ideology for which they have been messengers is now setting the stage

1995/6 - deafening silence. "everyone" thinks they've been defeated forever just as "everyone" thinks NuLab is a force for the equality of opportunity. "everyone" is proved bitterly wrong.

1997 - two Tim Henmans recruit an Andy Murray to desperately revive the formula at height of ostentatiously pseudo-classless Blairmania; needless to say, it fails and falls apart amid rumours of class-based hostility

2007 - Blair's final curtain; 1980s trio reunites and milks the triumph of Rutherford and Banks' caste in all circles as return to power in politics to match new-found pop dominance (for which their later work - though only their later work - can now be seen as having laid the groundwork)

None of this, of course, necessarily makes them great (at their best, they are, but only on comparatively limited and insular terms, and I cannot stop myself thinking this is by accident rather than design, and then I put Tago Mago on so ... well, you know ...) but it does make them fascinating, though in the later years obviously only in the sense that you are gruesomely compelled by the cultural detritus. Can anyone - on this front alone - beat them?

The Daily Mirror really shouldn't try to do political history

Monday's edition claimed, in a desperate Andy Murray / Gordon Brown / let's-desperately-try-and-keep-the-Union-together-and-make-it-possible-for-Labour-to-eventually-get-back-in puffpiece, that "the blow to national pride" of England's defeat in the quarter-final of the 1970 World Cup against West Germany "was blamed on" Harold Wilson's election defeat.

Perhaps poor syntax on the part of the writer, but quite apart from the unlikely scenario of footballers' performances seriously being affected by an election result (and anyway, quite a few of them, even pre-Thatcher, would surely have been the sort of working-class-boys-made-good who voted Tory because they thought Labour would put them back where their fathers had been?) the slightest research could have told them that the match was played four days before the election, and that Wilson's defeat was blamed by many at the time and since on England's.

They really ought to stick to dredging up the Madeleine McCann episode and putting it on their front page when at least all their rivals are leading on this year's shitstorm ...

Saturday, 20 June 2009

An ally of convenience? I think so

Radio 4's Any Answers? phone-in on Saturday afternoon offered the plummiest, most genuinely posh voice I've heard on British radio for aeons. Out of that voice, remarkably enough, came words I overwhelmingly agreed with. The caller was one of the few people at any stage in the MPs' expenses debates to tell the unpalatable truth - that the headline-grabbing "scandal" is merely a smokescreen for the real problem, that to alter a few rules on expenses would merely be papering over the cracks, that much of the rot set in under Thatcher, that the French system in many ways functions better than ours, that a key part of the reason for public disconnection from politics is our ridiculous electoral system ...

I may not have agreed with every single word he had to say, and no doubt his ideal remedy would differ in many details from mine, but at heart I found the caller - presumably a lapsed old wet - hard to disagree with. Let it never be said that a traditionally posh accent is in any way the sound of the worst elements in British society today, any more than it is the sound of the very worst British pop music ever made (even "The Living Years" - horribly metricious and exploitative though it always was - is, in some ways, more defensible now than "Viva La Vida"). Cameron's clique all speak in the same strained, flat, nu-posh whine as those who have brought British pop to its cultural knees - that is enemy-speak, if ever we have known it.

Setanta and the myth of the market

When Setanta's UK operations started they fairly quickly found a niche (much as Eurosport, which everyone now forgets was the first sports channel Sky ever had anything to do with, has done in recent years) - the Scottish Premier League augmented by a range of European football beyond anything any UK broadcaster had ever got together before (the top divisions of Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal were all shown at one point) and by relays of RTE's GAA coverage (which was the reason why my father subscribed). They had a raison d'etre. They had a position, and (better still) one which reflected the much greater European feeling and awareness of the Celts compared to the English. That's supposed to be what the modern-day market economy encourages.

Unfortunately, in practice, it doesn't. The system that theoretically encourages diversity in reality merely encourages smaller companies to make desperate attempts to copy larger ones, and when they inevitably fail merely reinforces the logical end of the alleged free market, namely oligopoly. ITV found that out some years ago when, instead of having the sense to create something akin to what Freeview has become now, decided instead (mainly out of a desperate and self-destructive hatred for Sky which had festered throughout the system since ... well, since at least 1989, really) to attempt to build another Sky Sports on the second tier of English football, and feigned shock when it failed.

In the case of Setanta, what they thought would be their route to status as a genuine competitor to the oligopoly in their particular field began - ironically - as an indirect result of the very same factors which for some of us give Michel Platini all the justification he needs; namely the fact that, in the context of the involvement in Europe of the political state dominated by England, Sky money is blood money. Anyone who understands how international politics work knows that the EU's insistence that no one company could own all six packages of live Premier League games had more to do with a completely justified wariness of precisely what Sky represents, and where its money is coming from, than anything else. The problem is that the very system that has elevated Sky to its current status - a system which the EU if anything currently intends to further institutionalise - cannot really stand competition (a natural aftereffect of the UK's inability to reach a halfway house during the 1970s, and the way it was all thrown away when it had almost been arrived at).

Armed with its 46 Premier League games, Setanta then started to acquire as much sport as it could from under the noses of Sky, often sport which could not be more now, more part of the rules of big business and post-colonial rules-reversal (most obviously the Indian Premier League). It is true that the economy had yet to fall off a cliff at that stage, but the warnings were there, and right from the start Setanta ran the very serious risk of being beaten by the very game it was now playing. That which is supposed to empower minorities all too often ends up merely reinforcing the tyranny of the majority.

The company's likely fate is yet further proof of the truth that unfettered market capitalism doesn't even work by its own criteria. Quite apart from anything else, it could have severe political implications. For a company of Irish origins to indirectly bring about the financial ruin of Scottish football clubs through its obsessive chasing of the English market, at a time such as this, could go quite some way to further unbalancing the Union.

Incidentally, considering how little ITV seem to be interested in him, the BBC should really get Jon Champion back. Like Barry Davies before him, he pisses off pseudo-rebellious inverted snobs so much that he really has to be defended - no commentator who angers those who regard a command and knowledge of their own language as actually A Bad Thing can be without merit, and Champion has a scope of knowledge and awareness of both the game and the wider world far beyond most of his contemporaries.

Why I went missing is a fictional truth

Five weeks. A voluntary silence. I simply didn't feel like communicating anything with anyone. I simply didn't feel I wanted to exist at all, socially. I shut myself off even from the few friends I have. And then one horrific night I lost all control, almost (literally) cut off the arteries forever, simply could not face the legitimisation of fascism which is the logical aftermath of the mass's powerlessness against both centuries of division and the legacy of neoliberalism in our own time. I still wonder how I survived.

But I did, and it was only today that I wanted to engage myself again, felt some desire to make something of the present, tempting as it is to forever live in irrecoverables, whether you yourself experienced them (the Royal Festival Hall twenty years ago, singing my life out before it had even begun) or whether they were never within my reach in the first place (British industry when we could still con ourselves that it existed). I wanted to say something, at least. The thought cannot leave my mind that, if not quite a post-partition South Ossetia or Serb-dominated area of 1990s Bosnia, north-east England in ten years' time may at least be the equivalent of, say, the Russian-majority areas in Ukraine. The man I was most cowardly to isolate myself from (there can be an excuse, but there can be no true defence) is welcome to comment on that. I did, actually, feel a certain amount of relaxation and happiness today - perhaps it was having the best ride for ages on Friday afternoon, cantering to the point of quiet elation. And it's when that happens that I feel there's still a reason, and I want to engage again. I can only hope it lasts.