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.