Category Archives: culture

Made a move for chart position

Updated 8/11 (Barnett, Hastings)

Andrew O’Hagan’s been thinking – and talking to people – about the Savile scandal and the larger cultural conditions it grew from. His piece is a bit overlong and, I think, under-edited, but it’s genuinely insightful and troubling for all that. I shall be thinking about this for a while:

The public made Jimmy Savile. It loved him. It knighted him. The Prince of Wales accorded him special rights and the authorities at Broadmoor gave him his own set of keys. A whole entertainment structure was built to house him and make him feel secure. That’s no one’s fault: entertainment, like literature, thrives on weirdos, and Savile entered a culture made not only to tolerate his oddness but to find it refreshing.

And, in particular, this:

Let’s blame him for all the things he obviously was, and blame him for a host of other things we don’t understand, such as how we love freaks and how we select and protect people who are ‘eccentric’ in order to feed our need for disorder. We’ll blame him for that too and say we never knew there would be any victims, when, in fact, we depend on there being victims. Savile just wouldn’t have been worth so much to us without his capacity to hurt.

I don’t know quite what that last sentence means and I’m not sure O’Hagan does either, but I’ve got a horrible feeling it’s true.

A week after writing the above, I saw this from Anthony Barnett which I think joins some of the dots. Barnett starts by musing on the sheer repellence of Savile – the obvious, in-your-face excessiveness of his get-up and demeanour -

Why did ‘we the public’ admire a blatantly bad man? You only needed to look twice at his clothes, his glasses, his conjuror’s apparatus of decoys and diversions, his bling and his shell-suits and cultivated white-blond hair to sense he was repellent. Imagine getting onto a bus filled with Jims grinning with his arrogance and self-aggrandisement.

I’ll come on to “we the public” in a minute – that assumed ‘we’ is one of the weak points of O’Hagan’s piece as well – but I do think this is a real question. Why did people not only tolerate but celebrate such an insistent display of preening arrogance? Did nobody ever ring up and say “About that PA, Jim – maybe something low-key this time, not so much of the gold and leave the cigars at home”? It doesn’t seem very likely – the peacocking was part of what people wanted. Why? Barnett suggests an interesting answer and makes a couple of interesting parallels:

It was thanks to a form of celebrity that shares and rejoices in the whiff of wickedness that surrounds misogyny. The cult (and love) of chauvinist celebrity forgives misdemeanours ahead of time. It encourages men especially to project longings to be outside the law onto the figure of fame. The media may provide the cult’s priests, but the congregation is compliant and provides the energy. Today celebrities seem to build entire reputations on ‘getting away with it’ as ‘we the public’ continue to collude in a worship of strong and powerful men who break the rules.

Bingo – Jimmy Savile’s appeal wasn’t acting like an infantile megalomaniac, it was acting like an infantile megalomaniac and getting away with it. People around him knew that the treatment he was getting was against the rules; they also knew nobody would ever bend the rules for them in the same way, and deep down they wished somebody would. So if he could get away with it, well, good luck to him.

There’s something quite deep-rooted and weird going on here. Jerry Sadowitz’s 1987 crack about Savile – “That’s why he does all the fucking charity work: it’s to gain public sympathy for when his fucking case comes up.” - hints at it but (perhaps surprisingly) doesn’t go far enough. Consider what we knew about Savile before he died:

  • What he was like: flashy, excessive, arrogant, with a one-note act centring on drawing attention to himself
  • What he did: charged large amounts of money for appearing and doing the act
  • How he did it: his own way, for his own price (I don’t get out of bed for less than £10,000) and whatever side-benefits he felt like
  • What he did it for: charity, in particular children’s charities

He demanded attention, to himself as himself – look at me being me, doing the me thing that I do! He was loved and cared for and had to do nothing in return apart from being him, doing the being-him act. He did it however he wanted to, and everyone else had to fit in around him. And he did it for unarguable good causes – not only good causes, but perhaps the one type of good cause that everybody, however hard-headed or mean-spirited, can sign up to. (Famine in Africa? Charity begins at home, I say. Cancer research? Can’t fight Fate, we’ve all got to go some time. Terminally-ill children? Ahhh…) To be loved unconditionally while being an all-powerful egomaniac, and at the same time to be undeniably good – it’s genuinely infantile thinking; it’s how we all think of ourselves, or would like to think of ourselves, between about 18 months and 3 years. Never quite goes away, either – so when we see somebody dedicated to living that particular dream, there is a definite urge to bend the rules of the adult world so that they can get away with it. In its own terms it’s a virtuous circle – the star lives out the fantasy, so we bend the rules for them, so they get away with it, so we bend the rules some more… It’s only when the music stops that we find out what they’ve been getting away with – hence Elvis’s squirrel sandwiches NB check this or Imelda Marcos’s shoes. Or Savile’s victims. Needless to say, there can be an excessive, spectacular edge to the exposure phase as well, as if to keep the roundabout spinning just a bit longer – look what else he’s been getting away with! Which may tell us something about the Duncroft story.

We project our own thwarted megalomania onto stars, I’m suggesting, and part of the process is wanting them to break the rules and get away with it – and indulging them when they do. (You can tell a lot about how loyal a following somebody has from their reaction to brushes with the law. Compare and contrast: Pete Doherty and heroin, George Michael and cannabis, Richard Madeley and Tesco.) There are two worrying aspects to this. One is directly relevant to Savile, and relates to just what people get away with when they can get away with it. The good news is that most people, given the power to please themselves, don’t gravitate to cruelty and abuse – the dressing rooms of the stars aren’t one long Stanford Prison Experiment. But there’s always that possibility, particularly in a culture which positively validates male power over women. The 70s are a long time ago – they seem like a different planet – but that culture and that possibility haven’t entirely gone away.

The other issue, which is perhaps more immediate, concerns what happens when celebrity culture seeps into politics – which is where Barnett’s parallels come in. He points to an extraordinary piece in the Daily Mail, in which Max Hastings settles some old scores. Either that or he really hates his subject:

Most politicians are ambitious and ruthless, but Boris is a gold medal egomaniac. I would not trust him with my wife nor — from painful experience — with my wallet. It is unnecessary to take any moral view about his almost crazed infidelities, but it is hard to believe that any man so conspicuously incapable of controlling his own libido is fit to be trusted with controlling the country.

His chaotic public persona is not an act — he is, indeed, manically disorganised about everything except his own image management. He is also a far more ruthless, and frankly nastier, figure than the public appreciates.

Some Tory MPs are so panicked by their standing in the opinion polls that they have persuaded themselves that London’s mayor is the future. On the basis of what, some of us would ask. Boris Bikes on London’s streets? The peerless jokes and bonhomie and TV wizardry? Testimonials from ex-lovers who found him amusing in bed?

Ouch. But then, what’s behind his (clearly quite substantial) popular appeal, if all there is to the man is ruthless egomania and a few good jokes?

A friend said to me not long ago: ‘When will you understand that the reason the young are potty about Boris is precisely because he is not serious, because he treats the whole business of politics as a bit of a lark.’ This is true. I sat at a dinner table last week with three teenagers who expressed near-hero worship for the mayor, and said they could not care less when I suggested that he has less integrity than a City banker.

Boris Johnson was at the Tory conference yesterday for one purpose only — the exaltation of himself. This does not much matter when he is only Mayor of London, but would make him a wretched prime minister. He is not a man to believe in, to trust or respect save as a superlative exhibitionist. He is bereft of judgment, loyalty and discretion.

Answer: what’s behind it is… ruthless egomania and a few good jokes. Before Johnson was elected, Caitlin Moran semi-seriously advised voting against him because of the jokes – because, as she knows (and I know) making jokes to order is hard, time-consuming, attention-stealing work, and the time and energy he’d spent dreaming up “Ping-pong’s coming home” could have been much better spent on, well, politics. She missed what now seems obvious – that the jokes are actually a demonstration of how little of his attention Johnson devotes to politics, and that this is part of his appeal. He gets away with it – and a key emblem of getting away with it, in a society where men dream of power over women, is an element of unpunished sexual dominance and deceit. A Boris who didn’t cheat on his wife wouldn’t be Boris.

There’s another obvious political parallel, which Barnett mentions briefly in his conclusion:

the kind of racy ‘reality’ [Savile] personified was an early product of a twisted version of male celebrity culture whose misogyny continues to be celebrated and is seeping into politics.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that this isn’t Italy. There is also growing resistance to such behaviour in large parts of the public perhaps even more than within the elite. We are spitting out the presumptions and arrogance behind Savile and company.

Another political leader who acts like a celebrity; another leader with a ruthless devotion to his own advancement and little or no interest in the substance of politics; another political leader who spends his time making jokes, and let’s not even go into the sexual side of the story. It’s an unpleasant parallel, and I’m less sanguine about what it tells us than Barnett appears to be. If “this isn’t Italy” because of OpenDemocracy and the Guardian, Italy isn’t Italy either: there was ‘growing resistance’ to Berlusconi when he first came to power – in 1994 – and it’s been growing ever since. The trouble is, for every voter who’s genuinely appalled at the tax-dodging, the bunga bunga, the demonisation of the Left and the awful jokes, there’s another who thinks it’s all a bit of a laugh and Silvio’s a sly dog for getting away with it. And, in a democracy, you don’t need to get all the voters on your side; realistically, you don’t even need half. Barnett’s overestimation of the British public reminds me of Leonardo Sciascia’s comments on the Italian Communist Party’s attempts, in the 1970s, to evoke a ‘sense of the State’ in the ruling Christian Democratic party.

Neither [Aldo] Moro nor the party he presided over had ever had a ‘sense of the State’. The idea of the State … had probably only crossed Aldo Moro’s mind in his youth [i.e. under Fascism] … what has attracted and continues to attract at least a third of the Italian electorate to the party of Christian Democracy is precisely the absence in that party – an attractive and reassuring absence – of an idea of the State

Berlusconi offered an “attractive and reassuring absence” on a much larger scale – an absence of morality and seriousness, as well as ethics and political substance – but the approach is basically the same. Ego and cynicism, worn blatantly enough, can take you a very long way; it’s part of the deal we make with the godlike figures onto whom we project our powerlessness and compliance.

So there’s a ‘we’ watching the screens and harbouring dreams of power without responsibility – and there’s a ‘we’ who are “spitting out the presumptions and arrogance” and generally not taking it any more. I think they both exist, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t back the second against the first in a fight. O’Hagan evokes another ‘we’, silent and complicit:

And no one said, not out loud: ‘What’s wrong with that man? Why is he going on like that? What is he up to?’ He was an entertainer and that’s thought to be special. A more honest society brings its victims to the Colosseum and cheers. We agreed to find it OK when our most famous comedians were clearly not OK.

No one said… anything? Up to a point, Lord Copper.

2006
On Have I Got News For You, Ross Noble and Ian Hislop describe Savile as a disgusting sexual predator.

1999-2000
Widely-circulated fake Have I Got News For You transcript refers to Jimmy Savile having sex with twelve-year-olds.

1997
Val McDermid publishes The Wire In The Blood, featuring the character of “Jacko Vance”, a rapist and murderer.

Vance, a former athlete, hung about hospitals and toured towns in a show called Vance’s Visits – similar to the Savile’s Travels radio show.

Val, 57, said: “People often asked me where I had got the inspiration for the character. They never guessed it was Savile. For a start, Jacko is handsome and charming. I assume Savile didn’t recognise himself in that description.”

Val, from Fife, encountered Savile as a young reporter in 1977. She said: “He was a deeply unpleasant man. He was all smiles and laughter for the audience but as soon as we were alone, he was different. Savile was very much in the front of my mind when I was creating Jacko.”

1996
Irvine Welsh publishes Ecstasy, featuring the character of Freddy Royle, a necrophiliac.

Ecstasy is a collection of three short narratives; in the first, “Lorraine Goes to Livingston”, Freddy Royle was a chat-show host and “distinguished friend” at St Hubbin’s Hospital.

In one passage, Welsh writes: “The thing was, Freddy brought millions of pounds into the place with his fund-raising activities. This brought kudos to the trustees, and made St Hubbin’s Hospital a flagship for the arm’s-length trusts from the NHS. All they had to do was keep schtumm and indulge Sir Freddy with the odd body.”

1994
On Boxing Day, Chris Morris announces Jimmy Savile’s death [WAV] on Radio 1.

Jimmy Savile drops dead at the Stoke Mandeville Boxing Day bash – but the patients are far from mourning.

[Male voice]: “The majority, if not all of them, are extremely relieved that he’s now dead, although I suspect that some of them will be sorry that he didn’t suffer a great deal more.”

1990
Lynn Barber interviews Jimmy Savile: I was nervous when I told him: “What people say is that you like little girls.” Savile replies by denying that under-age girls are interested in him:

“A lot of disc jockeys make the mistake of thinking that they’re sex symbols and then they get a rude awakening. But I always realised that I was a service industry. Like, because I knew Cliff [Richard] before he’d even made a record, all the Cliff fans would bust a gut to meet me, so that I could tell them stories about their idol. But if I’d said, ‘Come round, so that I can tell you stories about me’ or ‘Come round, so that you can fall into my arms’ they’d have said: ‘What! On yer bike!’ But because reporters don’t understand the nuances of all that, they say, ‘A-ha’.”

1990
The “newly enknighted” Savile meets Prince Charles, as seen by Private Eye‘s “Heir of Sorrows”:

‘Fascinating. You really must meet Diana.’
Sir James looked momentarily puzzled. ‘Is that your daughter, Your Maj?’
Charles shook his head. ‘No, no, my wife.’
‘No thank you very much, Your Maj. Bit old for me. That’s not Jim’s scene at all.’

What could he mean? Sometimes these holy men spoke in riddles.

1987
Jerry Sadowitz calls Jimmy Savile a paedophile. (In fairness, giving Jerry Sadowitz credit for accurate muck-raking is a bit like crediting Nostradamus for accurate prophecies – you can find something if you look hard enough, but accuracy isn’t really what the act’s about.)

1986
“He knows the answers to life’s great mysteries,
He knows what makes Jim Savile tick.”

- Yeah Yeah Noh, “It’s easier to suck than sing”

Is that no one saying anything, or just no one saying anything “out loud”? And if it’s the latter, what would have constituted saying something out loud – publishing and being damned? Let’s face it, Savile wouldn’t just have seen you in court, he’d have seen you in the bankruptcy court.

I think what’s going on here is that a sense of collective complicity is being stretched to the point where it becomes perversely comforting. If we are all to blame, then we can do something about it; at the very least we can do better next time, and try to stop there being a next time. It’s a reassuring thought: never again! ¡no pasarán!

But what if part of the problem is that there is no “we”? What if some of us were spitting out the presumptions and the arrogance all along – or at least having very bad feelings about them – but our revulsion could only be articulated in undertones and behind closed doors? We might not immediately think of Savile as a powerful man – he didn’t make anything happen on a national scale, or on any but a very local scale – but when it came to his own affairs he was very powerful indeed, in several different ways. As well as being rich, famous and well-connected, he was charismatic, generally well-liked, personally forceful and – in his prime – physically strong; he wasn’t a good man to say No to. Once someone has acquired that kind of power, it doesn’t really matter what “we” think about him (and it usually is “him”); whether we view what he does with indulgent approval or with physical revulsion, he’s still going to get away with it. The “we” of O’Hagan’s diffuse culture of star-worshipping quasi-paedophilia is doing double duty, standing in for the “we” who are able to hold individually powerful people to account. And that “we” – that collective articulation of a popular sense of what’s right and what’s wrong – didn’t exist in the 1960s and doesn’t exist now; tabloid bouts of morality can perhaps be understood as a morbid symptom of its absence, fuelled by bad conscience (I never wanted him to get away with that!).

O’Hagan writes:

Child abuse is now a national obsession, but in 1963 it scarcely came up as a subject of public concern. That doesn’t mean it was fine back then and we were all better off, but it allows one to see how much the public understanding of what isn’t all right, or more or less all right, has changed. There have always been genuine causes for concern, but overall, nowadays there is an unmistakeable lack of proportion in the way we talk about the threat posed to children by adults. (It’s hard not to imagine that the situation has to do with a general estrangement from the notion of a reliable community.)

I think the first part of this is right, and for a much broader timespan than 1963 (which seems to have got into the argument here by way of the Larkin poem). The last, parenthetical comment is pointing to something important too. There are stars, there are individual purchasers or fans, and in between – what? What’s missing seems to be some kind of sense of society as a mechanism – or many different mechanisms – of feedback and accountability. O’Hagan comes close to arguing that Savile and people like him were acting in all our names. Perhaps it’s closer to the truth to say that some of us thought it was all a bit of a laugh – not so much “in my name” as “in my dreams”. As for the rest of us, we might have thought “not in my name”, but we had no way of saying it as a collectivity – and still, perhaps, don’t.

I don’t remember Guildford

It’s Edward Lear’s bicentennial this year. I’ve always had a fondness for Lear. I grew up reading his poems; the Complete Nonsense was one of the first books I read cover to cover, and almost certainly the first book of poetry. It paid off; when I took the Cambridge entrance exam – back when you could get into Cambridge by putting on a performance in the entrance exam – I answered a question about the Romantics by writing about Lear’s verse. I may have been inspired by a running joke in John Verney’s novel Seven Sunflower Seeds in which Berry, the narrator, is told to read the whole of [King] Lear for an essay, gets the wrong end of the stick and sets about reading the whole of [Edward] Lear – the limericks, the long poems, the stories, the travel journals… (Great writer, John Verney.) I saw Lear – as did Berry and presumably Verney – as an overlooked poet of yearning and melancholia, with a late-Romantic suspicion of society and belief in the solitary imagination.

There was an Old Man in a boat
Who said, ‘I’m afloat, I’m afloat!’
When they said, ‘No! you ain’t!’
He was ready to faint
That unhappy Old Man in a boat.

They do tend to do that kind of thing. Here’s George Orwell on Lear:

“They” are the realists, the practical men, the sober citizens in bowler hats who are always anxious to stop you doing anything worth doing. For instance:

There was an Old Man of Whitehaven,
Who danced a quadrille with a raven;
But they said, “It’s absurd
To encourage this bird!”
So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven.

To smash somebody just for dancing a quadrille with a raven is exactly the kind of thing that “They” would do.

Getting the bit between his teeth, Orwell goes on to suggest that “the whole theory of authoritarian governments is summed up in the statement that Pobbles were happier without their toes”. Nonsense isn’t just nonsense; even the limerick about the Old Person of Basing has a subtext:

There was an Old Person of Basing,
Whose presence of mind was amazing;
He purchased a steed,
Which he rode at full speed,
And escaped from the people of Basing.

Orwell:

It is not quite arbitrary. The funniness is in the gentle implied criticism of the people of Basing, who once again are “They”, the respectable ones, the right-thinking, art-hating majority.

In similar vein, Michael Rosen (whose post inspired this one) writes:

nonsense is not without any sense. It nearly always creates something new which doesn’t tally with aspects of the world or aspects of texts which we regard as normal or conventional. So it frequently offers parallels, parodies, inversions and distortions. I guess we find a lot of this funny or attractive because it breaks up the world or texts we live with under compulsion and necessity.

He’s not wrong – Orwell wasn’t wrong either. But I feel that this argument, like Orwell’s, misses or underrates something very important about Lear’s “nonsense” work, and about “nonsense” works in general (although I think we now have other names for them). (Just as my own teenage idea about Lear as an Arnoldian post-Romantic is an interesting angle, but plainly isn’t the whole story.)

I’m thinking of the element of play, which may have no point at all or even be ostentatiously pointless. Consider Lear’s limericks, with their famously near-identical first and last lines. W.S. Gilbert couldn’t be doing with them and wrote this brilliant parody:

There was an Old Man of Dundee
Who was stung on the arm by a wasp.
When they said, “Does it hurt?”
He said, “Not very much,
It’s a good thing it wasn’t a hornet.”

(Best recited quickly.) But I think Gilbert’s sarcastic worldliness was also a way of being tone-deaf or missing the point. Put it this way, going nowhere is what Lear’s limericks do. Take that Old Person of Basing: reduced to its essentials, what his poem says is

There was an Old Person of Basing
Who made his escape from Basing

The poem undoes itself, in other words – by the last line there isn’t an Old Person of Basing. It reminds me of children’s rhymes that end by deconstructing themselves, or of this short piece by the Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms:

There lived a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily.

He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth. He didn’t have a nose either.

He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he had no back, no spine, and he didn’t have any insides at all. There was nothing to speak of! So, we don’t even know who we’re talking about.

We’d better not talk about him any more.

The movement of thought is ostentatiously, extravagantly pointless, as if to say: “I’m telling you something worth hearing… oh, no, I’m not! I’m making sense… oh, no, I’m not! I’m talking… oh, no, I’m not!” A lot of nonsense work (although I think we now have other names for it) performs this kind of defiant doodling and rug-pulling; Edward Lear certainly did.

We can see what’s going on a bit better if we insert Lear into his tradition: what I think of as the great tradition of Basingstoke. (Lear never actually referred to Basingstoke in his verse, but the Old Person of Basing is close enough; it’s about a mile and a half, to be precise. Moreover, Basing has priority over Basingstoke, historically if nothing else; Basingstoke is first recorded (in the tenth century) as Basinga stoc, which translates as “satellite settlement dependent on Basing” or more loosely “Basing New Town”.) Back in 1997, Michael Dobson noted the recurrence of Basingstoke in his LRB review of a collection of nonsense verse. Take this, from the “Water-Poet” John Taylor (so called because he made his living as a wherryman):

This was no sooner knowne at Amsterdam,
But with an Ethiopian Argosey,
Man’d with Flap-dragons, drinking upsifreeze,
They past the purple gulfe of Basingstoke

(“Upsifreeze”, apparently, is an adverb meaning “to alcoholic excess”.) A couple of decades later an anonymous poet invoked Basingstoke for no apparent reason at all:

When Basingstoke did swim upon the Thames,
And swore all thieves to be just and true,
The Sumnors and Bailiffs were honest men,
And Pease and Bacon that year it snew.

Basingstoke seems to have been a byword for solid English mundanity, whose appearance instantly accentuates the nonsensicality of nonsense verse, even at the time of the Civil War – which is remarkable in itself, given that the town saw a lot of action during the war: Basing House was Royalist, Basingstoke itself Parliamentarian. (You won’t find Basing House on the map now.)

But it didn’t end there. Back – or rather forward – to Gilbert, a writer who knew how to play with words but was never quite content just to play. He strikes me as a conflicted writer, somehow. (Yes, it’s Taking Victorian Comic Writers Altogether Too Seriously Week at the Gaping Silence!) I get the feeling that Gilbert could write so well, so quickly and so playfully that he distrusted his own fluency and wanted to puncture it somehow. In Ruddigore the character of Margaret, otherwise known as Mad Meg… well, I’ll let her tell it:

Margaret. …when I am lying awake at night, and the pale moonlight streams through the latticed casement, strange fancies crowd upon my poor mad brain, and I sometimes think that if we could hit upon some word for you to use whenever I am about to relapse – some word that teems with hidden meaning – like “Basingstoke” – it might recall me to my saner self. For, after all, I am only Mad Margaret! Daft Meg! Poor Meg! He! he! he!
Despard. Poor child, she wanders! But soft – someone comes – Margaret – pray recollect yourself – Basingstoke, I beg! Margaret, if you don’t Basingstoke at once, I shall be seriously angry.
Margaret. (recovering herself) Basingstoke it is!

Using Basingstoke as a cure for nonsense, while maintaining perversely that it teems with hidden meaning, seems typical of Gilbert. (As Dobson points out, the character of Mad Meg was based on Elvira, the intermittently sane heroine of Bellini’s I Puritani, whose madness derived ultimately from the English Civil War – the war between, among other places, Basingstoke and Basing. Coincidence? Probably.)

Can we extend the Basingstoke-nonsense connection into the twentieth century? We certainly can, and things get more interesting when we do. Here (in full) is Henry Reed’s 1941 poem “Chard Whitlow”, a parody of T.S. Eliot:

As we get older we do not get any younger.
Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.
And I cannot say I should like (to speak for myself)
To see my time over again— if you can call it time:
Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair,
Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded Tube.

There are certain precautions— though none of them very reliable—
Against the blast from bombs and the flying splinter,
But not against the blast from heaven, vento dei venti,
The wind within a wind unable to speak for wind;
And the frigid burnings of purgatory will not be touched
By any emollient.
I think you will find this put,
Better than I could ever hope to express it,
In the words of Kharma: “It is, we believe,
Idle to hope that the simple stirrup-pump
Will extinguish hell.”
Oh, listeners,
And you especially who have turned off the wireless,
And sit in Stoke or Basingstoke listening appreciatively to the silence,
(Which is also the silence of hell) pray not for your selves but your souls.
And pray for me also under the draughty stair.
As we get older we do not get any younger.

And pray for Kharma under the holy mountain..

What connects this quiet and precise parody to the older nonsense tradition is its dogged absurdity, the care which Reed takes to speak in Eliot’s late voice while saying almost exactly nothing. (As we get older we do not get any younger – and I love the image of the poet in front of a Third Programme microphone, solemnly apostrophising the listeners who have turned off.) Parody very often has this quality of nonsensical play; one way, and one of the more enjoyable ways, to undermine the text you’re parodying is to keep the form and remove the sense. You’re reading something dignified and meaningful and then… oh no you’re not; the rug is pulled, and you’re just reading some meaningless doodles. Some of the best – and funniest – comic writing is in the form of parody, in my experience – Dwight MacDonald’s Faber anthology of parodies is one of my very favourite books. It’s a form that gives the writer endless scope for going wrong, writing differently… writing nonsense.

Monty Python eventually got round to Basingstoke, too, but it took them a while. It was the third episode of the final series, and everyone was getting a bit tired by then, so there’s something rather laborious about the result.

Fawcett Sir, we all know the facts of this case; that Sapper Walters, being in possession of expensive military equipment, to wit one Lee Enfield .303 rifle and 72 rounds of ammunition, valued at a hundred and forty pounds three shillings and sixpence, chose instead to use wet towels to take an enemy command post in the area of Basingstoke …
Presiding General Basingstoke? Basingstoke in Hampshire?
Fawcett No, no, no, sir, no.
Presiding General I see, carry on.
Fawcett The result of his action was that the enemy …
Presiding General Basingstoke where?
Fawcett Basingstoke in Westphalia, sir.
Presiding General Oh I see. Carry on.
Fawcett The result of Sapper Walters’s action was that the enemy received wet patches upon their trousers and in some cases small red strawberry marks upon their thighs …
Presiding General I didn’t know there was a Basingstoke in Westphalia.
Fawcett (slightly irritated) It’s on the map, sir.
Presiding General What map?
Fawcett (more irritably) The map of Westphalia as used by the army, sir.
Presiding General Well, I’ve certainly never heard of Basingstoke in Westphalia.
Fawcett (patiently) It’s a municipal borough sir, twenty-seven miles north-north east of Southampton. Its chief manufactures …
Presiding General What … Southampton in Westphalia?
Fawcett Yes sir … bricks … clothing. Nearby are remains of Basing House, burned down by Cromwell’s cavalry in 1645 …
Presiding General Who compiled this map?
Fawcett Cole Porter, sir.
Presiding General (incredulously) Cole Porter … who wrote `Kiss Me Kate’?
Fawcett No, alas not, sir … this was Cole Porter who wrote `Anything Goes’.

And so wearily on. I think part of the problem is that, while the sketch has floated free of its parodic moorings – at least, it’s hard to see what this would be a parody of – it doesn’t have the free-ranging inventiveness of the best nonsense. (Even that sober Henry Reed poem has its stirrup-pump and that quietly ridiculous age joke.) But Basingstoke abides.

Parody – and the über-parody of absurdism, parodying form as well as content – was one place where nonsense found a home in the twentieth century. The other major stream of twentieth-century nonsense derives from Surrealism; in his piece on Lear, Orwell writes in passing:

Until Surrealism made a deliberate raid on the unconscious, poetry that aimed at being nonsense, apart from the meaningless refrains of songs, does not seem to have been common.

Much freer associations of ideas and images have been possible in poetry since Surrealism – and perhaps, in English poetry, since Dylan Thomas in particular; he could rattle off the bizarre combinations of imagery without a care, and on some accounts without much thought either. (A. J. P. Taylor recalled that he once saw Thomas revising a draft of a poem by methodically crossing out all the adjectives and replacing them with alternatives chosen at random – “Makes it more interesting for the readers, see?” On the other hand, Thomas was having an affair with Taylor’s wife at the time, so this perhaps isn’t the most reliable testimony.) Nonsense has come back in under the banner of the ‘surreal’, in poetry and especially in song lyrics. In the present day, when song lyrics are described as ‘surreal’, I think a lot of time what we’re hearing is what an earlier age would have called nonsense. That said, it’s arguable that nonsense always had a home in songs, if you looked in the right places – i.e. not too high up the cultural scale:

The grey goose and gander went over the green
The grey goose went barefoot for fear of being seen
For fear of being seen, my boys, by the light of the moon
Rise early tomorrow morning all in the same tune,
Rise early tomorrow morning all in the same tune!

The collector who noted down the earliest version of this song (in 1891) added: “Many years ago, this used to be a favourite song round about Leeds, though a very silly one. … Before railways and cheap trips acted like general diffusers of London music hall songs, suchlike ditties in country districts were common in the kitchens of quiet public houses .. I need scarcely say that this delightful production would be sung only after a certain degree of conviviality had been reached.” When better?

Whether it derives from capital-S Surrealism filtering down or subterranean folk nonsense seeping up, a lot of contemporary song lyrics are written in a ‘surreal’ register. When James Mercer sang

You’re testing your mettle
With doeskin and petals
While kissing the lipless
That bleed all the sweetness away

you could just about follow the train of thought if you tried (mettle/metal?/petals/soft/kiss/lipless/skull?/bleed/desiccate?…), but a large part of what makes the lyric work is the way the images bounce off each other without hanging around long enough to make sense: it’s a refusal to communicate, but a playful one that (paradoxically) invites the listener to join in. There’s a similar but more extreme effect in one of Paddy McAloon’s first Prefab Sprout songs, “Don’t sing”(!):

Like most I come when I want things done
Please God don’t let that change!
(The anguish of love at long range)
Should have been a doctor-O,
Then they could see what they’re getting.
Oh no, don’t blame Mexico!
They ask for more than you bargain for and then they ask for mo’, oh, oh
Oh no, don’t blame Mexico!
That’s a feast that the whisky priest may yet have to forgo, oh, oh
Rob me of colour and make me sound duller but never go away

“Don’t sing”, indeed – everything about that song is fighting against the condition of being a song (the ridiculously forced rhyme on “mo’”, the transparently fake folkie touch of “doctor-O”) – and fighting against the condition of having something to say or saying it intelligibly. (On the other hand, I haven’t read The power and the glory, which seems to be referenced here; it may all be in the book.) At the same time, with each successive line you’re right there with the singer, feeling what it’s like to have your mind full of stuff that doesn’t quite fit together.

Not that nonsense (which we now call by different names) is always about refusal and frustration. Sometimes it just lets the language play, takes it for a walk, lets it go… somewhere else. Take the Beta Band’s “To you alone” (lyrics, presumably, by Steve Mason):

She’s like the snow-capped trees in my jigsaw,
Loose at the seams with inferior dreams
She’s like a fool that you meet in the heart store
Hand in the pail and the blacker the veil,
The blacker the veil…

Hearing that, you know just what he means. Actually, no, you have no idea what he means, but you feel what he means. Or rather, you feel what he’s doing, even if you can’t begin to say what it means. It’s an Escher castle in words – an impossible construction, one that can’t really exist; and yet there it is, between your ears.

One final example:

I often dream of trains when I’m alone
I ride on them into another zone
I dream of them constantly
Heading for Paradise
Or Basingstoke
Or Reading

I often dream of trains when I’m awake
They ride along beside a frozen lake
And there in the buffet car
I wait for Eternity
Or Basingstoke
Or Reading

Robyn Hitchcock, who else. It’s striking that the insistent real-world detail of “Basingstoke or Reading” makes the image more dreamlike, more nonsensical: “Paradise or Basingstoke” on its own would just be bathos, and would have an artful, deliberate ring to it. The prosaic phrasing of the second verse – the first line especially – comes with a similar kind of depth charge of strangeness.

To envisage the world as it is, and yet entirely other -

Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.

The grey goose went barefoot for fear of being seen
For fear of being seen, my boys, by the light of the moon

Presiding General Who compiled this map?
Fawcett Cole Porter, sir.

When Basingstoke did swim upon the Thames,
And swore all thieves to be just and true

On the Coast of Coromandel
Where the early pumpkins blow,
In the middle of the woods
Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò.
Two old chairs, and half a candle,–
One old jug without a handle,–
These were all his worldly goods:
In the middle of the woods,
These were all the worldly goods,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò

- that’s nonsense (although we generally now have other names for it). It’s a form of mental exercise, I think. Above all it’s a form of play, and requires no more justification than that. For a moment, as the poem or the song occupies your mind, you’re thinking differently, experiencing the world differently, making sense of it differently. Or, for a moment, not making sense at all. Just for a moment.

Ho, OK Ed, on P-hoe knicks!

My sisters and I used to play word games on long car journeys. The one I remember best involved taking turns to make up a story: you’d pick up from where the last person left off, and (most importantly) you’d have to incorporate three words that they gave you. I remember our last ever round of the game: my sister, feeling that I was getting a bit too good at it, gave me the words “brouhaha”, “nugatory” and “persimmon”. I proved her right (after asking her to define ‘nugatory’) by telling a story that didn’t use any of those words once, until the closing line of dialogue (spoken by a bystander after the story was over):
“What a brouhaha over a nugatory persimmon!”

If you think this game sounds like fun, why not try it yourself? Here are some words to get you started:

best, bim, blan, chill, chom, gang, geck, grit, hild, hooks, quemp, shin, start, steck, thazz, tord, tox, ulf, vap, week

If you’re feeling a bit more ambitious, how about these?

blank, blurst, day, dentist, fape, finger, jound, newt, phone, rusty, scribe, slide, snemp, spron, starling, strap, stroft, terg, trains, voo

Go on, what are you waiting for? Just pile them all in if you’re not sure – I’ve got my best blim blan, I’m going to chill with the chom gang… Sorry, I mean bim blan – not blim blan, that would just be silly. It would also be wrong.

If you’re wondering what on earth I’m going on about – and who could blame you if you were – let Michael explain. Or rather, Michael’s contact in the Department for Education…

“I have been receiving some complaints concerning the excellent Phonics test which, thanks to me, all Year 1 children will be taking June.

“The test works like this: first of all the children read some real words. They’re not in sentences because that would be cheating. They’re just words on a page. Phonics words. What I mean by that is words that are regular. By regular I don’t mean small – like coffee cups. I mean that they are spelled like they are said. Unlike, er…’said’ which looks as if it should be said ‘sayed’. Which actually is the way some people say ‘said’. Look, this is really quite easy and obvious.

One of my younger sister’s alphabet books – Charlotte Hough’s My Aunt’s Alphabet, of which I was rather fond – had a vocabulary list at the back, with some words printed in red to warn you that they weren’t pronounced the way they looked. There was a problem with these red words, which I only spotted some years later, after moving to the North of England. “Grass”, for instance, was a red word, because to look at it you’d think it rhymed with “lass”, say, or “gas”. Which of course it doesn’t – that would be wrong. “Bush” was also a red word, because of that sneaky ‘u’ – you’d think that “bush” rhymed with “hush” or “lush”, whereas in fact… There’s no explanation of what makes the ‘u’ in “bush” (and “bull”) the wrong sort of ‘u’ – except in “bush” and “bull” (and “push” and “pull”, and so on); it just is. You don’t pronounce the B in “comb”, you don’t stress the first syllable of “abyss” and you don’t rhyme “hush” with “bush”. That would be wrong.

Er…where was I? Yes, the test. So, there’ll be words. Not sentences. Sentences complicate things because children start guessing words by where they are in the sentences. And by what the sentence means. And ‘meaning’ as we call it, really has very little to do with reading. Or words. Meaning gets in the way of reading. We need the children to read. Not mean.

Someone once tried to start a conversation with me while I was reading a book over lunch – I know, the nerve of it! – the book in question being Raymond Williams’s Politics and Letters (a book-length interview with some people from the New Left Review, and actually rather interesting, in fact a lot more interesting than the job I was doing at the time, wasted I was there, wasted). “What are you reading?” I angled the cover towards her in an only partly deliberately annoying way. She faltered but pressed on. “Oh… I like politics…” I didn’t think quickly enough to reply “Really? I prefer letters”; it’s probably just as well. Actually I don’t much like letters; I do like words, but the idea of words divorced from meaning is an odd one, to say the least.

Now the test also has some other kinds of words. These aren’t words. They’re just words that look like words. Words like ‘blurg’. or ‘Skonk’. If you’re a reader, you’ll read those. If you’re not a reader you won’t. Now some people have said that some little children taking the test will think that if there’s a word they can read but doesn’t make sense, they’ll try to make it make sense. … So, a child who can read, might see ‘blurg’ and because it doesn’t make sense, they’ll try to turn it into a word that does….’blurt’ or ‘blurb’ or something. Then they’ll be wrong and score badly.

But the good news is that we’ve been listening to what teachers have been telling us about this. So do you know what we’re doing? We’ve hired an artist who imagines what a ‘blurg’ might look like and he draws a ‘blurg’. There it is on the page next to the word ‘blurg’. A bit like a Flannimal. Now isn’t that fun? Now the child looks at ‘blurg’ and says to him or herself…’Ho ho ho, that must be a blurg’. Problem solved.

This is the sort of thing we do at the Department for Education. We hire people to do pictures of blurgs.

Readers, he is not making this up. At the end of this school year, primary schools in England really are going to administer a reading test to Year 1 children consisting of 20 words and 20 made-up words, and the children will be marked on whether they say them correctly. And the made-up words – but not the real words – really are going to have little pictures next to them – pictures of smiley monsters. You can read all about it here. (SFW. Some smiley monsters.)

Apart from the bizarre detail of associating non-existent ‘words’ with smiley monsters, this scheme (and I use the word advisedly) has one rather major flaw. How do you pronounce ‘chom’? Is that ‘ch’ as in ‘Christian’ or as in ‘champagne’? What about ‘geck’ – GE without a U or an H in the way is a ‘soft’ G (as in “gem”), so presumably it’s ‘jeck’. Except that sometimes GE is ‘hard’ (as in “get”), so maybe it should be pronounced… er… ‘geck’… like it’s spelled… sort of. Then, what if some poor kid thinks the ‘geck’ smiley monster is in fact a gecko and misreads the ‘word’ accordingly?

And don’t get me started on ‘jound’.

Oh, go on then. How do you pronounce ‘jound’ – what’s the right pronunciation? Is it two separate vowel sounds run together (“Joe, under his rough exterior, was a kindly soul”) or separated by a glottal stop (“jo’und day stands tiptoe on the misty moun’ains, pet”)? OK, we don’t usually do those things in English – well, we don’t usually do those things in Standard English – well, I say we don’t usually… Well, anyway. Those pronunciations aren’t very likely to come up in English… er, standard English… er, the kind of English we… those pronunciations are wrong.

Some people might get different ideas about that tricky ‘ou’ digraph (a technical term for two letters together, from the Greek ‘di’ meaning two and ‘graph’ meaning letters together). So is ‘jound’ pronounced ‘jonned’ (using the ‘ou’ sound in ‘cough’), or ‘joaned’ (using the ‘ou’ in ‘though’) or ‘junned’ (like the ‘ou’ in ‘enough’), or for that matter ‘junned’ (using the ‘ou’ in ‘could’)? There’s a simple answer to this, which is No. No, it isn’t. Those pronunciations are wrong. You can easily see that they’re wrong, just by sounding out the letters, which is what you do when you learn to pronounce words. If you sound out ‘ou’ and then follow it with an ‘n’ you never get any of those sounds. Not in real words, anyway. Imaginary words could be different, but they aren’t. This one isn’t, anyway.

What you get when you sound out the ‘oun’ in ‘jound’ is… but look, I’ve given it away! You get the ‘ou’ sound in ‘sound’. So it’s ‘jound’ to rhyme with ‘sound’, and ‘pound’, and ’round’ and ‘around’ and ‘around’. (Those last two are the same word. Yes, I know you know. Just making sure you know I know. Poetic or something. Anyway.) It’s ‘jound’ to rhyme with ‘found’ and ‘bound’ and ‘wound’. That’s the ‘wound’ that rhymes with ‘bound’, of course, not the ‘wound’ that doesn’t. In short, it’s ‘jound’ to rhyme with ‘wound’, but not – this is important – to rhyme with ‘wound’. Glad we’ve cleared that up.

I like ‘quemp’, though; it’s a nice word. I’d like to try to get that into a story. Not if I was a kid, obviously, because I’d probably lose marks, because it’s not a proper word.

As Flying Rodent said earlier,

If I wanted to draw up a plan to sabotage what remains of public faith in one generation, mandated prayer and psalms in school assemblies would be right at the top of my list.

And if I wanted to stamp out spontaneous, playful joy in language, a good way to do it would be to make six-year-olds learn words like ‘snemp’ and ‘thazz’ – complete with smiley monsters to encourage them – and then tell them never to use those words, only ever to use real words… words like “week” and “phone” and “dentist”.

One cold May morning in June

Ken, in comments at B&T:

I find Douglas Adams’ comic writing deeply melancholic to the point of being depressing, and Terry Pratchett’s quite the opposite. I suspect the difference has to do with the sense of underlying logic in Pratchett, versus the sense of arbitrariness and absurdity in Adams. I get the same sense of arbitrariness in what I’ve looked at of Sharpe, and I didn’t like it at all. Same with (closer to home) Robert Rankin.

Jasper Fforde, that’s what I say. But I’ll get back to that.

I tend to agree with Ken about Adams & Pratchett. The thing about Hitchhiker is that it makes perfect sense as a Cambridge revue sketch, i.e. something whose writer is trying to flatter and stay one jump ahead of a clever but cynical audience: hence the wordiness, the displays of erudition and worldly-wisdom, the dash for the next gag. But I think the darkness which is overpowering by the time of Mostly Harmless was always there, and I suspect that it’s related. One of the few snatches of HH I caught on the radio, back in 1978, was the digression about the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints division (“the only part of the Corporation to show a consistent profit in recent years”) and how its giant illuminated motto – “Share and Enjoy” – unfortunately now appeared to read “Go stick your head in a pig”. The explanation was followed by a hideously atonal vocodered jingle, beginning “Share and enjoy” and ending (of course) “Go stick your head in a pig”. A basically rather grim idea is taken further and further, with an odd kind of doggedness, culminating in a deliberately unpleasant jingle – which itself goes on just a bit too long to be amusing. It’s strange and rather gruelling stuff; I remember thinking at the time that this wasn’t exactly light entertainment. (You can hear for yourself. Share and enjoy!) And that’s not to mention Slartibartfast’s melancholia -

Slartibartfast: Perhaps I’m old and tired, but I think that the chances of finding out what’s actually going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say, “Hang the sense of it,” and keep yourself busy. I’d much rather be happy than right any day.
Arthur Dent: And are you?
Slartibartfast: Ah, no… Well, that’s where it all falls down, of course.

or the appallingly dark comedy of the basic setup: the Earth has been destroyed and nobody cares. If you were going to take it really seriously, you could say that Marvin’s function is to make Arthur’s predicament even more desperate, by effectively blocking off the escape route of outright depression. Arthur is a thin character – one of those Boring Ordinary People who the Pythons kept returning to, upwardly-mobile Oxbridge snobs that they were – stuck in a mindbendingly ‘thick’ situation, and doomed to make jokes about it. Which nobody hears.

Adams: dark. I think the darkness and the “sense of arbitrariness and absurdity” Ken refers to may go back to the same root. I wonder if, for Adams when he was writing Hitchhiker, the cynicism and erudition and wordplay was basically all there was – not in the sense that it was all he could do (we should all be so limited), but in the sense that he didn’t believe there was anything else that mattered. Bear in mind that he was only in his mid-20s when Hitchhiker went out – still very much in the “after Cambridge” stage. Being erudite and good with words is quite a big deal if you’re a student, and can have real rewards. Get to Oxford or Cambridge, and it’s easy to form a world-view which basically says that clever people get privilege, very clever people get lots of privilege and really clever people run the world. Coming down from Cambridge (in more ways than one), to discover that boring ordinary people in boring ordinary jobs were doing quite nicely thankyou, while clever people like oneself were scraping around to make ends meet… well, I found it a bit of a shock myself, and I wasn’t even a star at Cambridge. The world of Megadodo Publications and the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation is a world where knowledge and intelligence confer power, but only on people who are willing to misuse them. To some extent that mentality seems to have stuck, for Adams – there’s a cold wind blowing through a lot of his later work, from Mostly Harmless to The long dark tea-time of the soul: a mood not just of “this is all there is” but of “yes, this is all there is, you don’t have to keep asking”. You can see how he would have taken to rationalism and Darwinism – which, to be fair, do seem to have given him a sense that there was a there there, and consequently cheered him up a bit. (This theory doesn’t really account for Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, one of his best works & also one of the most upbeat. Maybe he should have written more about music.)

It follows from all of the above that Adams was never a world-builder; I think he felt that the world we had was an absurd and rather shoddy mess which didn’t bear too much investigating, and any other worlds we visited would almost certainly be no better. He makes an odd sort of mirror image to C.S. Lewis in this respect. Narnia doesn’t hang together for five minutes – did Talking Foxes eat Talking Mice, and if not what did they live on? could Talking and non-Talking animals interbreed, and if so what would the offspring be? where are the female Marsh-wiggles, or the female Centaurs? and what the hell is Father Christmas doing there? But it doesn’t matter (and be fair, when you’re reading the story it doesn’t matter) because Lewis wasn’t greatly concerned about how this world hung together either. (He didn’t much care where the female Humans were for most of his life.) The only world that made sense, for Lewis, was Aslan’s Country; Earth or Narnia, they were all dim and muddled reflections, seen δι εσοπτρου εν αινιγματι. But the senseless and disordered worlds he imagined were still basically, ultimately, good and trustworthy places, because they were underwritten by that great unknowable original – just as Adams’s (a) weren’t and (b) weren’t.

Pratchett – who started out as a working journalist – took a very different approach when he started writing the Discworld series, and in retrospect it’s rather an extraordinary one. Pratchett designed a world which feels from the outset as if it ought to hang together (there’s work and crime and government and sex), but couldn’t possibly work: in the first few books there are huge white spaces in the mental map of Discworld, quite openly labelled “and then a miracle happens”. It’s a fantasy, after all; it’s a world where magic happens all the time. One of the remarkable features of the later books has been the way those white spaces have been progressively filled in: magic itself has been less and less of a deus ex machina and more of a source of power, like steam. Pratchett has a real sense of people living in society, and of society as an essentially orderly and comprehensible human creation – even if (as he suggests sometimes) the order rests ultimately on random violence, and comprehending society would involve learning things you’d rather forget. I’ve got a lot of time for the argument, advanced in Interzone at around the time of Guards! Guards!, that Pratchett is a writer of comedy in the fullest and most philosophical sense – comedy as a place where nobody gets hurt (except bad people) and the estranged lovers end up together again (usually), but where some real and serious ideas get played with along the way.

I’m interested in Ken’s other comments. I don’t like Tom Sharpe as a writer, any more than I like Howard Jacobson – Sharpe has a similar sort of thumping smugness, although he carries it off more lightly – but I’m intrigued by the comment about Robert Rankin. I’ve never read any of his stuff (although I do remember when it was actually happening) and I’d be interested to know where other people locate him on the Pratchett-Adams continuum (or should that be Lewis-Pratchett-Adams?).

Another couple of names for you. I like Malcolm Pryce. I’m not convinced his world hangs together, but it feels more solid than a simple burlesque; it’s authentically Welsh enough to seem believable (or maybe it’s just that I’m Welsh enough to find it believable). I’ve got an absolute tin ear for Jasper Fforde, though, and here again it’s something to do with arbitrariness: he really does seem to be making things up as he goes along, without even addressing the question of whether it hangs together. Time travel I like; the ‘banana’ scene in The Eyre Affair is tremendous. People entering books I like, and have done since Woody Allen came up with the idea in “The Kugelmass Episode”. But time travel and people entering books and an alt-historical authoritarian government and a literary popular culture… too much. Most of the way through The Eyre Affair I was convinced that we were going to find out how this world connected to, or diverged from, our own – that Fforde was going to reveal the Point of Departure – but it wasn’t to be. Maybe my expectations were the problem – maybe I should have relaxed and enjoyed the firework display – but it didn’t work for me.

What (and who) am I missing?

Bashkohuni!

Speaking of Albania, there was a sad little item the other day in the Cedar Lounge Revolution‘s continuing series of ‘Left Archive’ posts, viz. Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist), Red Patriot, August 1982 (including Communiqué of the Central Committee of the CPI (M-L) on the Occasion of the Party’s 12th Anniversary).

The Albanian connection is that the CPI(M-L) had been Ireland’s main (only?) Mao-line Communist Party, with an international orientation towards two countries – the People’s Republic of China and Enver Hoxha’s Albania. Nixon’s visit to China in 1971 led the relationship to get a bit strained, with the Albanians accusing their ally of revisionist tendencies. The death of the Great Helmsman in 1976, followed by an official visit to Beijing by the arch-revisionist Tito, led to an outright break (Nixon was bad enough, but this…!). In reaction, Albania declared itself the only Marxist-Leninist state in the world and China, understandably, turned off the aid tap. The Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) split in this period, with a pro-Albanian minority forming the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), who we met earlier. (Update 3/7/10 Many thanks to running dog in comments, who pointed out that this is wrong in every particular. The Bainsite RCPB(M-L) (Wikipedia) was founded separately from Reg Birch’s CPB(M-L), initially as the CPE(M-L); the RCPB’s current Web site (yes, they’re still going) translates the name of the party into Welsh, which may explain the name change. The CPB(M-L) in fact went with Albania as well. See also running dog‘s second comment, which came in while I was typing this update(!).) The Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist), on the other hand, also went with Albania, although not without having to expel a couple of dissident factions.

According to the poster on Cedar Lounge, the 1982 Red Patriot clarifies the self-perception of CPI(M-L) as it entered the 1980s. Or in other words, as it headed towards oblivion. Hoxha died in 1985, and then there was 1991; the Albanian Party of Labour rebadged itself as something innocuous involving the word ‘Socialist’ and lost power for good. A few years later the EU expanded eastwards and the word ‘Albanian’ started to appear in the press, generally accompanied by the word ‘immigrant’. It struck me that Albania under capitalism was causing more anxiety in Western Europe than it ever had under Communism, and I wrote this song: Continue reading

Up you comes and down you goes

Mixed message of the day:

As soon as this pub closes, there'll be no future for you!

You remember that song, surely?

Dreams
Can come true
dum dum-de-dum dum…
You know you’ve got to have hope,
You know you’ve got to be strong
dum-de-dum dum…
Thirty years of hurt
dum-de-dum…
There is no future
In England’s dreaming!

They don’t write ‘em like that any more.

(The beer, incidentally, is very nice indeed – one of those heavy pale bitters, quite a full-on flavour and a big bitter finish; if you like Summer Lightning, you’d like this. If you don’t like Summer Lightning, whyever not?)

Later on we’ll conspire

Answer me this: after receiving gifts on Christmas Day, what is it that children proverbially do with them within 24 hours? Do they (a) break them or (b) give them away?

Fairly straightforward, I think you’ll agree. Now let me put to you a second and superficially unrelated question. When a man loves a woman, as we know, he can’t think of nothing else; he will, indeed, trade the world for the good thing he’s found. But if he should happen to entrust his heart, metaphorically, to someone undeserving of his affections, what is the uncaring female proverbially said to do with it? Does she (a) break his heart or (b) give his heart away to someone else (this could perhaps take the form of fixing him up with a friend)?

I think it’s clear that option (a) is appropriate in both cases. So if one were to write a Christmas song likening these two situations, it would be sheer perversity to write anything other than

Last Christmas, I gave you my heart
And the very next day you broke it

See? See? It makes sense now! Honestly, if they’d got that right in the first place it could have been a big hit.

Update It has been brought to my notice that there are strong reasons to object, even in theory, to the notion of a daily round of Christmas-themed celebration. The obvious objection to a daily Christmas is that this would rapidly have adverse effects in terms of exhaustion, obesity, alcohol poisoning and so forth. However, these effects could easily be mitigated, or even eliminated, by simply varying one’s level of indulgence in Christmas cheer and jollity, over the weeks and months of perpetual Yule. A less tractable problem is presented by the irreducible necessity of preparation. When, under the daily-Christmas regime, would any of us have time to buy food, presents, cards, bottles of winter ale, bags of Bombay mix and other such essential accoutrements of the season? I feel that this objection has considerable force, and would therefore propose that any future songwriter working in this thematic area should write something along the lines of

I wish it could be Christmas every other day

Once again, I think you’ll agree that this would represent a considerable improvement.

Ho ho ho.

Thousands or more

In comments, Rob wrote:

I remember when I was at school there was much polemic in the pages of Folk Review from the likes of Dick Gaughan and Pete Bellamy about whether one could truly call singer-songwriters “folk” at all: specifically about the extent to which they were likely to be writing songs that would become the “traditional music” of the future. I suppose the exemplar there would be Ewan MacColl: when I listen to the old Radio Ballads I can’t always tell which songs are Trad. arr. MacColl and which are MacColl. Or this one which has been around for ages and has come pretty much detached from knowledge of its author (I’d certainly forgotten who wrote it). “Anon” being the larval form of “trad” I’d say it was on its way. And there are plenty of what you might call genre songs, like “Dorset Be Beautiful” and “Drink Up Thee Zyder” on the same journey.

I’m not sure. I’m a bit of a puritan – or possibly a pessimist – with regard to “traditional music of the future”: I don’t think there will be such a thing, unfortunately. Borrowing some stuff I wrote earlier (on Mudcat):

If recording technology were somehow abolished next week, a 22nd-century collector might well pick up local variants of Blowin’ in the Wind and Mr Tambourine Man. But we’ll never know: Dylan isn’t music of the people, Dylan’s a recording artist. Traditional and folk-transmitted music survives here and there – football chants, playground rhymes, some hymns and carols – but there’s really no music that’s “of the people” in the sense of living and developing among ordinary people in the course of their lives.

The ubiquity of broadcast and recorded music changed everything. Once a song’s recorded, there’s a single, readily-available answer to the question: “what should that sound like?” We know the right melody, the right chords and the right words, and if we want to know how it all fits together we can listen to the writer singing it. That’s a huge change from the conditions that existed as recently as a hundred years ago. Traditional music – folk music, as far as I’m concerned – is all about reaching back before that break and finding out what people used to do for music, before they could all listen to the same thing at the flick of a switch.

The problem is that the availability of broadcast music cuts away the ground from under the oral tradition. Do you sing while you work? Do your workmates? Do you sing at home to relax? When your friends or family want some music of an evening, do they suggest having a few songs? The oral tradition works in communities and societies where people can, by and large, answer Yes to all four. Those conditions may still obtain in some parts of the world, but they certainly don’t in Britain (or the US).

This isn’t something that’s happened overnight. The uniformity imposed by mechanical reproduction has been eroding the oral tradition for a long time, going back to pianolas and mass-produced parlour songbooks. Ironically, the oral tradition finally gave up the ghost (in this country at least) at around the same time the Revival was really getting going. Oral transmission among folkies does go on, but we aren’t so much a community as a network of hobbyists. Live music made by ordinary people without making a big deal of it – because it’s what you do, because it passes the time, because everyone’s got a song in them – has basically died out.

This isn’t an anti-folkie point – quite the opposite. (I think some of the anti-trad polemicists get this far and then take a wrong turning, writing off the music on the basis that (a) some people demonstrably claim too much for it (b) they don’t like those people and (c) they don’t actually like the music either. It’s easily done – ask me about opera some time, or rather don’t.) As far as I’m concerned, live music made by enthusiastic amateurs (and a few enthusiastic professionals) is great – it’s one of the brighter spots in my life at the moment. Live traditional music, in particular. The songs that have survived from the oral tradition – or survived long enough to be collected – are, by and large, really good songs: in performance, they work in a way that most new songs don’t. It’s true that there are new songs coming through in the style of the old songs – Shantyman, Bring us a barrel and so on – but they’re only ever likely to be heard by a tiny minority of the population. A bit of humility, and a bit of awareness of what’s gone, are in order. We’re not the folk, and any new music we make is never going to be folk music.

Which, apart from anything else, is what makes the folk music we do have so valuable. Counting variants, there are hundreds of songs out there from the traditions of England and Scotland alone. So much music, so little time! What’s more likely to sound good – a song that started life on a seventeenth-century broadside, passed through countless hands and voices before being collected in 1904, and has since been taken up and shaped and polished by three or four generations of revivalists, or “a song you won’t have heard, because I’ve only just finished writing it”?

To live in

Anothere meme (I’ll get back to proper blogging soon, honest) – via. Books this time, and a tie-in of sorts with the BBC’s Big Read (although I can’t find a BBC page with this list on). Viral boilerplate follows:

The Big Read reckons that the average adult has only read 6 of the top 100 books they’ve printed.
1) Look at the list and bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you intend to read.
3) Underline the books you love.
4) Strike out the books you have no intention of ever reading, or were forced to read at school and hated. (I see no reason to restrict ‘books I hated’ to school – there are only a couple of books on the list I really disliked, and neither of them was a school text.)
5) Reprint this list in your own blog so we can try and track down these people who’ve only read 6 and force books upon them.

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 The Harry Potter Series – JK Rowling

5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34 Emma – Jane Austen
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis

37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres

39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert

53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville

71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt

81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Yes, I did an English degree. Which reminds me, number 14. Having read a fair chunk of Shakespeare I’m a bit peeved that the bar for number 14 is set so high – “The Phoenix and the Turtle”? “King John”? “The Comedy of Errors”? One would think that having read all the tragedies (even “Timon of Athens”) and all the late plays and several of the comedies and histories and the Sonnets would count for something, but apparently not – it’s the Works or nothing. Which makes it a bit odd that a single play sneaks in much lower down the list, at number 98 (see also 33 and 36). Does number 14 actually mean “two or more of the Works”?

As for number 6, yes, I have, actually. Blame it on the English degree, and specifically on the reading list our Director of Studies sent out to prospective first-years – a kind of conspectus of English literature from the seventeenth century onwards, under the general heading of ‘books we ought already to have read‘. I started at the top (the King James Bible), blithely confident that I’d be able to work my way through the whole thing over the summer. (It included Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End trilogy, I remember, and John Galt’s the Entail. It was comprehensive.) I forget how much of the list I read in the end, but I’m pretty sure I got through the Bible. When I got to college we spent the whole of the first term reading Middle English. Happy days.

Some of the ‘loved it’ underlinings are a bit arbitrary. I might have said I loved the Woman in White if I hadn’t also read the Moonstone – that I really loved. The Remains of the Day I didn’t love until I re-read it, which was after reading When we were orphans and the wonderful The Unconsoled. And Cloud Atlas depressed me for weeks after I read it, so ‘love’ doesn’t seem quite the right word. But it really got under my skin & I’m glad I read it.

47/100 – and only one on the list I actually haven’t heard of (Ruiz Zafon – ¿quién él?). Some odd omissions, though – wot no Tristram Shandy? Billy Liar? Flann O’Brien? Beckett? Pynchon? Alasdair Gray? Jonathan Coe? Why, in other words, aren’t they asking whether people are reading the books that I’m reading? That would make much more sense.

Young bones groan

Just recently, I’ve got heavily into traditional music – specifically, traditional English, Scottish and Irish music. One of the effects has been to make me feel a bit ambivalent about the local folk club – which is ironic, as it’s going to the folk club that exposed me to traditional music in the first place.

I went to the aforesaid club the other night, and a terrific night it was too. There were 16 acts – a total of 18 musicians and two poets – and some of them were stupendously good. Good value, too – singers’ nights are a quid in, and you make that back on the beer, thanks to a cricket club licence (the bitter’s £1.60).

Here’s what I heard. (All numbers arranged for vocal and guitar unless otherwise stated.)

- “Skip to my Lou”, vocal and maraca
- “Changes” (from O Lucky Man!)
- “The ballad of Sir Patrick Spens” (a parody), unaccompanied vocal
- something C+W (possibly traditional)
- two poems by a Danish poet (in translation), recitation
- something bluesy (possibly traditional), vocal, harmonica and guitar
- something bluesy and jazzy (just possibly traditional)
- “When I’m cleaning windows”
- “The house of the rising sun”
- a song about the death of Kirsty MacColl set to the tune of “The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll”
- a love song (original), vocal, guitar and harmony vocal
- a song about housing development set to the tune of “Johnny B. Goode”, two guitars and vocals
- “La vie en rose”, unaccompanied vocal
- two original poems, recitation
- something C+W (possibly traditional), vocal, harmonica and guitar
- “I guess it doesn’t matter any more”, vocal, guitar, harmonica and percussion
- an original song about a Scottish hermit, vocal, guitar, harmonica and percussion
- an original song and two covers

So that’s four poems and eighteen songs, which divide into

original (6)
covers (7)
American traditional (1) (viz. “Skip to my Lou”)
songs in American traditional styles, which may have been any of the above (4)

Traditional songs were either a small minority or a tiny minority, and there was nothing at all from an English, Scottish or Irish traditional source. (The Sir Patrick Spens parody almost qualified, but it was original material – and it did mock traditional ballads & their singers, albeit quite fondly.) I can’t help thinking that’s a bit weird, for a folk club.

Poking about on the Mudcat site I found this comment by Jim Carroll from a couple of years ago:

I came to ‘folk song’ at the beginning of the sixties through the ‘folk clubs’. In those days, while there was much debate on HOW the songs should be performed, there was virtually no ambiguity about WHAT you would hear if you turned up at a folk club. You chose your club on the basis of performance, not on material.

This changed fairly rapidly and the revival divided into two camps, those who adhered pretty well to the ‘traditional’ definition of ‘folk’ (some of whom saw it as a form to create new songs relevant to today), and those who went along with the broader ‘singing horse’ interpretation. Gradually the latter won the day and began to dominate the field; many of those who had gone along with the former crossed over and became experimenters and you got the mini-choirs, the ‘Electric Muse’, the fifth-rate comedians and the singer-songwriters. Those of us who preferred our folk music the way we had originally come to it, abandoned the term ‘folk’ and adopted ‘traditional’ as a description of the type of songs we preferred. We jogged along in our own particular enclaves in spite of the finger-in-ear and purist sneers, until gradually we became swamped and there was a massive exodus away from the scene, mainly because people no longer knew what they were going to get when they turned up at a ‘folk club’. What was left dwindled, the electric crowd and the mini choirs moved on to fresh fields and pastures new, some of the comedians found their niche in television; what remained was largely the ‘singing horse’ crowd tinged heavily with the ‘near enough for folk song’ philosophy. That seems to me, with a few notable exceptions, is how matters stand at present.

The ‘singing horse’ crowd – ouch. As it happens, somebody used the “never heard no horse sing” line the other night – and I confess I’ve used it myself (introducing a song by Beck Hansen on one of my first outings). These days I tend to think, with Jim, that that’s a very poor definition of ‘folk’ – not so much because it’s open to anything, as because in practice it seems to be open to anything except actual folk music.

I don’t want to sound too grudging; it was a very good night of acoustic music, and the closing act in particular is well worth paying a pound to see, if not two. (His name’s Mark Simpson and I expect him to go a very long way. He reminded me of the young Cat Stevens – and back then the young Cat Stevens was essentially God, as far as I was concerned.) But I do wonder what’s happened to the folk scene, that it’s doing so well – and getting so many people performing – without there seeming to be much folk involved.

Another up-and-coming local act got a big write-up in the local paper the other day:

Manchester duo The Winter Journey conjure up gorgeous tapestries of rustic country folk music. Like a merry meeting of Nick Drake, Belle & Sebastian and BBC’s Springwatch programme, it’s the sort of music which effortlessly evokes images of woodland retreat and summery splendour.

Make no mistake, The Winter Journey are definitely worlds apart from your typical Manchester acoustic folk act. As you’d expect from a band named after a short story by the celebrated French author Georges Perec, The Winter Journey are a group dripping with quaint romanticism, bookish sophistication and lots and lots of cool refinement. Think Stephen Fry were he to form an acoustic folk group, and you might be getting close.

[the album] sits up there with the best debuts by a local act this year – a bewitching journey through Seventies pastoral folk, but with a daring sonic palette which squeezes in influences from Elliot Smith to Gainsbourg to Krautrock. … it’s also an album oozing a warm-blanket intimacy. – Each of the eleven songs strives for a pure, old-world innocence and romance, and firmly intent on keeping those values safe from the big, bad avaricious world we live in.

“There definitely is a dusty vinyl quality to the album,” explains Anthony. “It’s the sort of record which tries to ignore the modern world and popular culture. It’s almost from another age, and that reflects our retro influences.”

I love the idea of harking back to the pure old-world innocence of the 1970s, when folk was pastoral and vinyl was dusty. (Emitex, that’s what you need. Kids these days.)

Anyway, I’ve listened to some of their stuff on their Myspace page; it’s pleasant enough in a close-miked, mostly-acoustic, slightly creepy way, like Nico recording demos with James Yorkston. (Or Espers. Actually quite a lot like Espers.) What it’s not, of course – and never claims to be – is traditional music in any way, shape or form. It’s in the genre of Seventies pastoral folk, supposedly: it gets the ‘folk’ label because it sounds a bit like Vashti Bunyan, in other words. (I’m not touching the Nick Drake comparison. The first album was half orchestrated, the second was a genre all its own (acoustic TV-theme jazz-funk) and the third was the sound of a man singing like an angel while waiting to be swallowed by his own loneliness. Nobody sounds like Nick Drake.)

Anyway, calling the Winter Journey ‘folk’ on this basis makes very little sense – they sound a bit like a lot of people, not least the Velvet Underground. But somehow ‘folk’ is the label to claim, even if you then go on to claim a score of other influences. In fact the ‘folk’ label seems to have an odd combination of attraction and repulsion: folk is cool, but what’s really cool is to be folk-and or folk-but-also (folk-and-Serge-Gainsbourg-but-also-Krautrock in this case).

The problem with this is that it destroys any prospect of actually defining ‘folk’. You go from

1) artists called ‘folk’ because they do folk material
to
2) artists called ‘folk’ because they do their own material in a similar style to group 1)
to
3) artists called ‘folk’ because they do their own material in a style that’s similar to group 2) only different (‘worlds apart’, even)

And repeat. Give it a couple of years and, for all we know, The Winter Journey may be a touchstone of what contemporary folk sounds like – with new ‘folk’ acts coming through that sound a bit like them, only different.

Me, I’m a folk singer who also sings his own songs; they go down well in folk clubs, some of them, but they aren’t folk songs. (Not even the Patrick Spens parody.)

Under the mirror

Counting films on TV & video, the last five films I’ve seen (from most recent) are

The Spiderwick Chronicles
Pride and Prejudice
High School Musical 2
High School Musical
Vantage Point

You may sense a theme emerging. Spiderwick is certainly a film I wouldn’t have seen if I weren’t a parent, but as such it was much better than I’d expected (although by the end of it I had seen enough CGI goblins, trolls and boggarts to last me a good long time). The plotting was a bit odd and baggy in places, probably thanks to the film being based on five separate books, but the construction and pacing were terrific – it gripped and didn’t let go. It was also one of the scariest films I’ve seen in some time, with some well-executed horror-movie ‘house under attack’ sequences; what the eight-year-old of the family made of it I’m not sure. By comparison the High School Musicals are fluff, but they’re enjoyable fluff. HSM2 suffers from diminishing returns – and from the inexplicable decision to cut out the “Humuhumunukunukuapua’a” number, which leaves a big hole in the film – but they’re both worth a look if you like musicals. (I’m a sucker for a well-executed musical, and these are.) Nice liberal anti-conformity message, too. And Pride and Prejudice – the only proper grown-up film we’ve seen lately - is wonderful, but not in a costumey way. It’s true to the novel, which is very far from being a costume-drama novel; the performances have that quality David Lynch used to get on Twin Peaks, of actors going just far enough over the top. I never expect to see a better Darcy than Matthew McFadyean; he’s sulky, awkward, odd-looking and a howling snob, all of which makes him a great improvement on (say) the Colin Firth portrayal. Keira Knightley actually gives one of the poorer performances – she doesn’t quite get the length, and sometimes seems like she’s strolled in from another film – but she’s still very watchable, what with being Keira Knightley.

But this post is about Vantage Point, which was something of a personal milestone – the first film I’ve been to with my son that I wouldn’t have minded seeing on my own, or with another adult. (This post began as a comment on The Cedar Lounge Revolution, some time ago now – cheers, WbS.) It’s a high-concept film: there’s an assassination attempt on the President of the US (POTUS, as he’s called throughout the film); we see the 10-15 minutes either side of the shooting from the viewpoint of a TV news team, then see it again from the standpoint of an eye-witness, then another – and another – and another. As each sequence ends we’re shown a montage of the key events we’ve just seen, speeded up and in reverse: rewind the tape and let’s go again. After four of these sequences, each of which reveals a bit more about what’s happened, we rewind once more and then follow events from the standpoint of the terrorist group responsible for the shooting. Or that’s how it seems to begin with; after a while we realise the film’s reverted to standard omniscient-narrator mode, and the second half is shot very much like a conventional thriller. Very much in the style of the Bourne films, in particular, or at least in a style meant to evoke the Bourne films – the action isn’t nearly as brutal, or the hand-held camerawork as jerky. Where the style of the film does score, intermittently, is in evoking the experience of some fairly extreme events. Most of the gunplay is standard-issue bang-you’re-dead stuff, but there’s one catastrophic event that’s followed by some strikingly unhurried shots of the aftermath: you can see the different protagonists sitting up, looking round and obviously thinking What was that? And what the hell do I do now? If the Bourne films redefine heroism by making it look really difficult and really dangerous, this film was more about heroism and post-traumatic stress.

It’s pretty political, for a mainstream action film; to be more precise, it’s a “this is pretty political for a mainstream action film” film. Very self-conscious, very media-studies – and, ultimately, not very political (we learn next to nothing about the terrorist group at the heart of the action). If there’s an overriding mood to the film it’s less radical than paranoid. The way it puts on display anxieties about recorded images, surveillance and the mass media is typical. The first sequence is set in an outside broadcast newsroom, belonging to a US satellite channel modelled on CNN; at the end, the film returns to the satellite channel, closing with a grainy full-screen image of their newsreader. The first-person sequences that make up the first half of the film include some sequences from the character’s viewpoint, but mostly we’re either looking straight at the character or looking over his shoulder. It’s a curious effect: when the first-person character looks around to take in a whole scene, in particular, the giddy looping of a hand-held camera reproduces his head movements – even though the guy himself is in shot. The grammar of these shots effectively writes in the film-maker, saying we are showing you how it looked to him – a point that’s underlined thuddingly by those pause-and-rewind sequences. (He, he, him – all the four eye-witness characters are male.) There were lots of cameras within the film; at one point or another just about everyone was filming, being filmed or both, and much vital evidence was seen being caught on camera. On the other hand, it was clear that we were being shown the view from inside, and nothing was going to get out without heavy official filtering. Before the main action of the film, a reporter on the ground was seen pointing out that lots of people in Europe weren’t too keen on US foreign policy, and being roundly rebuked for going off the script about unity in the face of terror. The foiling of a real (and fiendishly complex) terrorist plot naturally didn’t change this policy; the last line of the film closed the official book on the story, suggesting that most people would never know what had happened.

The focus on camcorders and cameraphones links into a more general unease – or uneasy fascination – with technology. My son wondered if the film would damage the sales of iPhones, which (or something very like them) are used to great effect by the head bomber. At several points I was strongly reminded of the Italian Job, of all things: the terrorists pull off an impossibly complex plot, forestalling and circumventing anti-terrorist counter-measures through ingenuity, co-ordination and some very advanced technology. However, in this film we’re dealing with a terrorist coup carried out by ruthless fanatics rather than a payroll robbery pulled off by a gang of lovable South London incompetents, which makes for a very different mood: you don’t actually want the terrorists to succeed, to put it bluntly. The terrorists’ indomitable ability to stay one step ahead of the forces of law and order feeds right into the film’s pervasive sense of paranoia and helplessness. Whatever we (meaning, roughly, the US Secret Service) do or think of doing, they will know about it already; nothing we can do but keep on keeping on, shoot the bad guys when the opportunity presents itself, and trust to luck to get us out of this thing (it works in this film, anyway). A very American version of heroism, but with a beleaguered, disenchanted post-Cold War edge – as if to say, we don’t know what’s going on, we don’t really believe we’re fighting the good fight any more – but they’re still out to get us, so we’d better just keep fighting.

This links into the more explicit politics of the film: it is specifically the Americans (including, presumably, the main audience for this film) who don’t know what’s going on, and who are feeding the enemy without realising it. After technology, the terrorists’ main weapon is their ability to recruit: half the characters you see turn out either to be members of the terrorist group or to be temporarily complicit with them for various reasons. At the most basic level, the message is that Europe has a plentiful supply of recruits and sympathisers for an anti-American cause – a point most of the Americans were shown as completely failing to understand (that was the significance of the exchange with the more ‘enlightened’ reporter). But of course this point cuts both ways: if the Americans have good reason to be fearful, that also means they have good reason to keep fighting.

Unsurprisingly, the terrorists’ cause is almost completely unspecified – although I can reveal, without giving too much away, that the group is genuine. (At the risk of sounding like Nick Cohen, I was genuinely surprised that the terrorists didn’t turn out to be some kind of CIA/Mossad front; that’s a very available storyline on dramatic grounds alone.) They are shown as motivated by hatred both of the US and of the effects of US foreign policy; their anger feeds on the Americans’ naivety and their conviction that they stand for peace and democracy. Having made any kind of democrat/terrorist opposition problematic, the film gestures towards an alternative polarisation, between those who stand for peace and reconciliation (including the noble and far-sighted POTUS) and those who call for war without end (including both the terrorists and the President’s advisors). (The wise POTUS and his scheming advisors – a very old theme, and not a particularly radical one.) However, a gesture is all it is; whether POTUS stands for peace or war, when push comes to shove he still needs to be saved from the terrorists. More to the point, even if their motivation is understandable (and their grasp of technology is impressive) the terrorists are still evil fanatics who must be defeated; they are, after all, terrorists.

I’m not sure what the multiple-point-of-view gimmick adds up to in the end; all the narratives are ultimately consistent with one another, so the film isn’t making a point about subjectivity. I think it’s about the sense that nobody gets a complete picture of what’s going on, so that no first-person account can really be trusted (including your own). On the other hand, the news media – who are well placed to assemble a composite picture from multiple sources – are so dedicated to producing a coherent and sanitised version of events that their account can be trusted least of all. We’re back with the paranoid mood that makes this film at once more interesting than it looks and less radical than it seems to think it is. Scepticism carried to this level is ultimately rather disempowering: we can’t know what’s going on, they‘re probably one jump ahead anyway, let’s just keep on keeping on and hope we get lucky. What’s taken to be the American view of the world gets roundly criticised in this film; this world definitely isn’t a safe place for American good intentions. But, with the exception of the President’s bellicose advisors, those good intentions are never challenged – indeed, American good intentions ultimately save the day – so we’re left with not much more than a sense of omnipresent threat. The politics this feeds into is ultimately rather nasty – dogged, fearful, critical of what the USA does but willing to do anything to defend what America is, as incarnated in the wise and noble POTUS.

I’m afraid the film is right about one thing – that is about as political as a mainstream action film can get these days. It’s a lot more political than The Spiderwick Chronicles, anyway.

Update 1/4/08: we watched The Last King of Scotland this evening. Simon McBurney’s very good in it, Forest Whitaker’s brilliant and the locations are stunning, but that’s about it. The lead character’s an annoying twerp, the plot’s unbelievable and the action of the film bears almost no resemblance to the book it’s supposedly based on. On balance I’d rather have been watching Vantage Point.

Feels like Ivan

Cohenwatch left this alone, possibly because the numbers are solid and the argument seems pretty reasonable. Slightly shorter Nick:

The murder of Rhys Jones told you next to nothing about modern Britain, he [Ed Balls] told the Guardian. In the Sixties, people worried about mods and rockers ‘beating each other up with their bike chains’. In the Seventies, they panicked about the punks. ‘Every generation has always had kids that get into trouble. I got into trouble at school from time to time, like everybody did. There are always going to be some kids that get into more serious trouble with the law, but we shouldn’t demonise young people.’

[Balls' argument derives from] Geoffrey Pearson, a sociologist who in 1983 published Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears, the most influential study of crime of the last generation. Rereading it now is disconcerting. Pearson is clearly a man of the left. He attacks the frightened middle-classes of his day for thinking that the young were out of control and the country was going to the dogs. Didn’t the dunces realise the middle classes have always thought that?

Yet for all his apparently radical scoffing at panic-stricken stuffed shirts, Pearson and his many imitators were rather conservative in their way. There is no change for better or worse, they implied, and nothing new under the sun. Britain t’was [sic] ever thus and didn’t need to combat crime with radical programmes from left or right to redistribute wealth or clampdown [sic] on lawlessness.

At the same time as Balls was unconsciously repeating the theories of Eighties’ academics, the impeccably liberal Centre for Crime and Justice Studies issued a grim report on homicide. The number of murders and the rate of murder have both doubled in the past 35 years, it said. Overwhelmingly, the victims and perpetrators lived in the modern equivalent of the slums.

It’s a minor point, but Nick’s reference to the CCJS’s publications is a bit confused. The Centre published an analysis of homicide trends between 1979 and 1999 in 2005; it’s linked from this recently-published analysis of the figures between 1995 and 2005. Ironically, anyone reading only the recent publication could get the impression Nick had misread the figures. There was a sizeable rise between 1995 and 2002/3 – from 662 homicides per year to 952 – but most of that was cancelled out by a decline in the next few years; the 2005/6 figure is 711.

Compare the older figures, though, and you can see that Nick saith sooth: homicide figures in the early 1970s were in the 300-400 range, and the increase since then has been concentrated in certain social groups. The CCJS study goes into some detail about exactly what’s changed since then; it’s worth a read, and Nick can be commended for giving it a plug.

It’s just a shame that he had to get there by misrepresenting both Ed Balls and Geoffrey Pearson. Scroll up:

The murder of Rhys Jones told you next to nothing about modern Britain, he told the Guardian

You’ll look in vain for the name ‘Rhys Jones’ in Jackie Ashley’s interview with Ed Balls. Here’s the actual quote:

I was struck by how brusquely Balls dismissed the Tory charge of a broken society. “Most kids come out of school, walk home and do their homework, and most kids are probably a member of a club, or play in a sports team, or might do some volunteering. Every generation has always had kids that get into trouble. I got into trouble at school from time to time, like everybody did. There are always going to be some kids that get into more serious trouble with the law, but we shouldn’t demonise young people.

“Does the murder of Rhys Jones tell us anything about modern Britain?”

“Are we living in a ‘broken society’, as your political opponents claim?”

Slightly different questions, I think we can agree.

But I’m less bothered about Nick’s misrepresentation of Ed Balls – possibly the only contemporary politician always referred to by his full name – than by his travesty of Geoffrey Pearson’s argument. By way of background, here’s another take on the “nothing new under the sun” thesis which Nick attributes to Pearson:

Clearly we are in the midst of a ‘moral panic’ concerning hoodies, knife attacks, gangsta rap, gun culture, ASBOs, chavs and bling and the rest of it. But that is not to say that nothing is going on: in some neighbourhoods, local residents do live in fear of gangs of youths; the use of knives and guns is an extremely worrying problem; drugs are a relatively new aspect of risk culture for young people to engage with, whereas the demon drink is an old friend and foe. A common vulgarisation of the concept of ‘moral panic’ is that what is represented in the media is simply ʻmade up’, whereas the true concept emphasises the way in which media images magnify and amplify certain aspects of a phenomenon, while obscuring and down-playing others. So that, what is wrong with government and media responses to youth crime and anti-social behaviour is its emphasis on the unprecedented nature of the problem, while losing its grip on the actual social and historical background.

In other words, the point is not that nothing new is happening, but that our entrenched habits of thought make it harder for us to see what’s happening – and to work out why it’s happening, and what ‘radical programmes’ might be appropriate to deal with it. Social change is real, but we can’t grasp it by endorsing the lament that everything is worse now than it used to be – because everything has always been worse than it used to be.

The passage above is quoted from a 2006 issue of Criminal Justice Matters, the publication of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. The author? Geoffrey Pearson.

What Nick’s straw-Pearson does is to collapse the space between “they’ve got nothing to worry about” and “they’re worrying about the wrong things”. To criticise people’s fears, Nick suggests, is to deny that they have anything to fear; to oppose a particular solution is to deny the existence of a problem. To be realistic is to accept the reality of what you read in the papers. There’s a wearily Decent quality to this move. Things are as they seem! Why must the Left continue to deny it?

Who’s the fool now?

“There’s only one thing worse than a folk singer, and that’s a Stalinist folk singer.” – Ian Birchall

Hmm.

Several years ago I was enthusiastically involved in getting Red Pepper to publish a piece by Steve Higginson (of the estimable Soulpool), demolishing the myth of progressive, national-popular folk music.

When we look at the various collectors, mediators and transmitters of folk song, we are not talking about the sons and daughters of the downtrodden proletariat. We are dealing with a group of people who did what radical intellectuals have always done: tell us what is good for us … Folk music was invented, altered, or expunged and re-written based on the collector’s conception of what working people should have been singing. … Meanwhile, another kind of folk music – the music that the “folk” themselves listened to and identified with – was belittled and ignored.

It got a bigger reaction than anything else in the cultural pages that year. Mostly, it has to be said, not positive. Still, I liked it. Apart from anything else, it confirmed my gut feeling that awkward, scruffy music that’s directly inspiring and culturally assertive is more radical – as well as being more fun – than a tidy three chords with a political message. I’ll take the Clash (or the Mondays, or the Fugees) over Leon Rosselson, any day of the week. This isn’t to say that Leon Rosselson sings what working people should have been singing, any more than Roy Harper or James Blunt does: as Rob says in comments, his songs are all his own and don’t pretend to be anything else. But what I think radical singer-songwriters can often be accused of is singing what working people should have been thinking. This is where the post-Cecil Sharp tradition of well-meaning song-collecting connects up with the radical (or at least Communist) tradition of agit-song: the song has to say the right thing, which inevitably means limited scruffiness and high predictability. Sometimes, to say a song has a radical edge seems to mean that everything else about it has been polished smooth.

So I might be tempted to agree with Birchall, were it not that I’m now a folk singer myself (at least, I’m a regular at the local folk club). I don’t think traditional music is especially true and pure and proletarian; I do think it’s reached me by a different route from the music of Kylie or Arctic Monkeys, and a route that involves a lot less centralisation and a lot less commerce. I don’t think singing without amplification is a sanctified relic of an unspoilt past; I do think it’s more direct, more immediate and more involving than amplified music. (You can’t talk over it, apart from anything else.) And I don’t think folk is the Art-Form of the People; but I do think it’s an art-form made by people, and specifically people who I might see in the street or on the bus the following day. I think all of these are good things; even if Frank Sinatra was proved to be more of a working-class hero than Woody Guthrie, they’d still be good things.

Apart from that, when I talk about folk music I doubt that Birchall and I are talking about the same thing. Personally I’m thinking of my local folk club, which has an eclectic floor policy; the MC may at some time have turned away some aspiring performer as inappropriate, but if so I don’t know what they were planning to play. I’ve heard piano there and harmonium (performer’s own), as well as mandolin, banjo, pipes (both bag and bellow), double bass, didgeridoo and on one occasion a trumpet. People play from sheet music; sometimes people read poems.

We don’t get many message songs down there, but we do occasionally hit the broader problem of predictability – knowing where the song’s going, and how it’s going to get there, the moment it starts. To put it another way, it does sometimes get a bit Radio 2. I think of it like this:

Level Type Description
1 The Trier Turns up, has a bash, gets polite applause
2 The Regular Turns up week after week, can be relied on to put a bit of thought into it & do something listenable
3 The Real Thing Actually good enough to get paid for this stuff
4 The Pro Nice songs, nice performance. Very consistent, very professional.
5 The Star Jaw-droppingly brilliant. Everyone should be listening to this stuff. No, really.

The consistent, dependable Pros have their fans – they wouldn’t do it otherwise – but personally I think it’s a wrong turning; think KT Tunstall as opposed to King Creosote (although KT’s new album is supposed to be a bit of a return to form). In the absence of Stars I much prefer the edgier, more unpredictable Real Things and Regulars. Of whom there is, at least in this neck of the woods, a plentiful supply.

So, yes, some folkies – some singer-songwriters, to be more precise – get a bit samey, whether they’re carrying political baggage or not; but no, this isn’t true of all of them (or rather us). And yes, some inflated and problematic claims have been made for folk music, particularly regarding its class basis; but no, this doesn’t mean that folk music has no distinctive value. The point is not to set up Elvis against Pete Seeger or Guthrie against Sinatra, but to step away from the CD rack and look at the conditions in which folk music is played and heard. So get down that folk club. (Only not ours – at least, not all at once. I had a hell of a time finding somewhere to sit last week.)

Next: the radical case for Morris dancing.

Never here, never seen

Time for a bit more Potter. (Past time, in fact – my Rowling-rereading-and-reviewing schedule is way out. I blame life.)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, like its precursor, was big but not that big, a success but not yet a phenomenon. While we’re aware now of the continuing and repeated elements in successive books – the relationships, the Sorting Hat, the compulsory Quidditch – it’s actually quite surprising, coming back to Chamber of Secrets, to see how little it had in common with the first book. Harry’s parents don’t figure at all, for example, and Voldemort only appears in the form of a Horcmagical object (more of that later). What it does have in common with Philosopher’s Stone is a plot consisting mostly of increasing suspense (cranked up really high this time round), resolved in a fast-paced action scene that doesn’t make any sense at all – not even after Dumbledore has explained it.

I began my review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by challenging J.K. Rowling’s indignant denial that the book was “light and fluffy”. Chamber of Secrets certainly isn’t light and fluffy in any obvious way; the mood’s gloomy and oppressive, with the first stirrings of that “everyone hates Harry” paranoid atmosphere which dominates the later books. The monster-movie horrors of the climactic big fight are undercut by the sheer daftness of the plotting – it’s hard to care about a life-and-death struggle which the author seems to be making up as she goes along. But some of the plot twists along the way are genuinely grim (Dumbledore suspended, Hagrid sent to Azkaban, Hermione in a coma…).

So is this a major advance on the first book? Is this where Rowling steps free of the wish-fulfilment fantasy framework that Philosopher’s Stone inhabited -

Let’s say that there are these people who are not like us… and let’s say they can get whatever they want… and let’s say that there are good people and bad people, and the bad people are really easy to identify

- and begins to write, like le Guin or Pullman or even Tolkien, about real people who really get hurt? Yes and No – but mainly No. I don’t know how I’m going to assess the fifth and six books when I wade thrread them again, but my sense is that the books never quite get free of fantasy (in that weightless, narcissistic sense of the word). This is a strength as well as a weakness – it leads to a kind of restless, unsatisfied chewing-over of the conditions of fantasy, as if Rowling felt compelled to prove that it can’t work but couldn’t quite bear to abandon it. But it does mean that, thematically, the books are more or less variations on a master-theme. It also means that Harry isn’t likely ever to make it out into the real world, where lots of desires are impossible and lots of broken things can’t be mended – not even to the extent that Ged or Frodo manage it.

I suggested before that Philosopher’s Stone posed three questions about fantasy. First, is the hero superhuman, or is he at some level one of us – is he Sam Gamgee or Elrond, or somewhere in between? (Not that there’s necessarily a straight line from one to the other; Philip Pullman plotted some unsettling variants on this scale in the Amber Spyglass.) Second, does the hero’s special nature enable him to get whatever he wants, or will the world quietly, pointlessly get in the way? Third, does the hero have an infallible moral compass – are his friends good and his enemies evil? In that book, the answer to the third question was a definite “maybe”, while the second got a quiet but unambiguous No: Harry’s parents are dead and will stay that way. The answer to the first question was least satisfactory; the unenchanted human race is represented by the ghastly Dursleys, in comparison with whom Harry is simply loaded with midichlorians (and better looking with it).

All three questions are explored to considerably better effect in Chamber of Secrets than in the first book. The Dursleys are still ghastly, right enough, and there is still that slightly queasy adoption-fantasy sense that the Weasleys represent Harry’s real family, but this time round the wizard/Muggle divide doesn’t pass without authorial reflection. The issue is foregrounded through the revelation of the darker side of the Slytherin worldview, with Malfoy’s use of ‘Mudblood’ as a term of abuse for Hermione (Harry’s own parentage is thoroughly wizardly, of course). Slytherin was introduced in the first book as the house for cunning folk [who] use any means to achieve their ends (in the deathless words of the Sorting Hat) – and a house which might well suit Harry himself (who certainly isn’t noted for adherence to the rules). But all we really found out about Slytherin kids was that they tended to be ghastly over-privileged snobs, and that (according to the normally trustworthy Hagrid) there’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin. Incidentally, this untroubled mapping of the school onto the world at large is significant; at least, it’s another sign that, when we enter Hogwarts, we’re in the domain of fantasy. Rowling has said that, while she was planning the first book, I sat down and I created 40 kids who enter Harry’s year … I got 40 pretty fleshed-out characters (more details here); she doesn’t seem to have felt the need to draw any maps of the wizards’ world. Setting aside the question of whether the parallel British wizard society could possibly be sustainable on a birth-rate of 40 per year, you’ve got to wonder if Voldemort had any following outside Britain – and if not, why not.

In any case, it’s in Chamber of Secrets that we learn about Slytherin’s volkisch streak, and this in turn affects the way we think about Harry’s superior wizardliness. If Harry has something special about him – if the hero is endowed with superhuman qualities which lift him above our mundane level – then his gift can’t be something he was born with, or at least not something he could have been predicted to be born with. It’s no accident that the same book that introduces ‘Mudbloods’ also introduces ‘Squibs’, the unfavoured non-magical offspring of magical parents. (And there must be a hell of a lot of Squibs, unless the Weasleys are really way out on the right tail of the philoprogenitive curve – 40 per year, after all… They’d hardly need a Ministry of Magic, surely – a Greater Hogsmeade District Council would be ample. But never mind.) Hermione and Filch are both sports – magical ability comes and goes, and ultimately can’t be predicted from a person’s parentage or their external appearance. Magic itself is still pretty special – and the relationship between the magical world and ours isn’t any clearer in this book. Still, the disavowal of any idea of wizards as a separate caste does something to undo – or at least pull against – the sense that there’s a gulf of effortless superiority dividing Harry from the Dursleys, and other Muggles.

As for the question of the moral compass, this is the second of at least five books in which Harry’s loathing for members of Slytherin turns out to be misplaced. It’s a theme that gets predictable quite quickly – particularly when underscored by Ron’s stubborn failure to get it – but it’s interesting nonetheless. Rowling is emphatically not saying that Draco Malfoy is all right really, or (after the first book) that Snape is acting in Harry’s best interests. In this book it’s clear that Malfoy hates Harry because of school and social rivalry, and that he’s personally a nasty piece of work; his snobbish contempt for Ron is as telling here as his quasi-racist hatred of Hermione. (It’s somehow not surprising that real-world racism never rears its head at Hogwarts, despite the presence of Irish, Black and Asian kids.) However, it also becomes clear that he’s not working for the forces of darkness, as much as he might like to (or thinks he would). Similarly, Snape may have saved Harry’s life in the first book, but it’s clear that he means him no good. In particular, he would happily see him expelled – an unthinkable fate for Harry, as it would mean exchanging the charmed world of Hogwarts for the mundane (or hyper-mundane) setting of Privet Drive. But there’s disliking Harry and then there’s being evil; in this book Rowling insists that these are both real, but that they’re not identical. It’s a delicate balancing act – all the more so given that the nature of evil is never really spelt out, beyond the fact that Voldemort killed Harry’s parents and would like to kill Harry. It’s particularly noticeable that Dumbledore, in the obligatory but there’s still one thing I don’t understand scene at the end of the book, declines to draw the line distinguishing ‘evil’ from ‘Slytherin’:

‘Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think.’
‘It only put me in Gryffindor,’ said Harry in a defeated voice, ‘because I asked not to go in Slytherin…’
Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more. ‘Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’

Even if it’s tidied away at the end of the book, earlier on the Slytherin problem has productively blurred the line between the issues of heroism and morality, querying Harry’s claim both to superhuman heroism and moral certitude. The way in which this book tackles the question of omnipotence – does the hero’s special nature enable him to get whatever he wants, or will the world quietly, pointlessly get in the way? - also shows some overlap with the ‘moral compass’ question. Specifically, Harry’s key discovery in this book is that people get in the way – and that they do so in ways that aren’t, actually, evil. The key figure here is the ridiculous and worthless Gilderoy Lockhart. Rowling’s authorial tone with regard to Lockhart never wavers; he is clearly an idiot who has made a career out of his own vanity, and who gains Harry’s respect only by virtue of his position as a teacher. And yet:

‘Oh, there you are, good,’ said Mrs Weasley. She sounded breathless and kept patting her hair. ‘We’ll be able to see him in a minute…’

Why,’ demanded Ron, seizing her timetable, ‘have you outlined all Lockhart’s lessons in little hearts?’ Hermione snatched the timetable back, blushing furiously.

Lockhart’s not merely incompetent, he’s dangerously incompetent – as well as being untrustworthy and a fraud. But he does have lovely hair and a nice smile, and it would be nice to believe he was genuine – and for a lot of people that’s enough to be going on with. Female people, primarily. (Is anyone gay at Hogwarts?)

Like Malvolio, Lockhart is at once a figure of fun and an annoyance, and his comeuppance is just as thorough as Malvolio’s. The final twist of the plot sees him deprived of his memory, the very faculty that enabled him to stitch together the character he made of himself. As a result he’s deprived of all significance, sidelined and reduced to an amiable childlike state. It’s interesting that the book where Lockhart does his turn also sees the first appearance of a much more significant figure, Cornelius Fudge. In this respect Chamber of Secrets foreshadows the third book, in which the theme that Lockhart embodies in comic form is taken up in earnest by Fudge: this man may be complacent, self-seeking and incompetent, but people believe him – people who wouldn’t, necessarily, believe you. There is stuff out there that’s unavoidably in the way, stuff that you just have to work round; there are people out there who will get in the way, without necessarily being evil. Thematically, Lockhart is part ‘omnipotence’ and part ‘moral compass’; in both respects this book moves on from the first one in some interesting ways.

But omnipotence, morality and heroism aren’t what the book is about – at least, they’re not the point of this book in particular. The best way to understand what it’s about is to take seriously two comments Rowling has made about the original draft of the book. One was that the plot was originally planned to reveal information which she decided to hold back to a later book; the other was that the book’s original title was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but that she’d been forced to drop it when she realised it didn’t fit the plot. This clears up a couple of mysteries straight away: the similarity between the major plot devices of the two books is explained, as is the bizarrely creaky ‘Prince’ plot device used in the sixth book. (Admittedly this doesn’t explain why Rowling reused the title in the first place; I suppose she must really have liked it.)

As for the crucial information, I think the key exchange comes in that final exposition scene:

‘Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something he intended to do, I’m sure…’
‘Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?’ Harry said, thunderstruck.
‘It certainly seems so.’

By the time we reach the end of book six we know all about how, and why, “Voldemort put a bit of himself in me“. (Settle down at the back there. This is family reading.) For now we’re left with a revelation that complements the revelation at the end of the first book. There’s something about Harry which protects him from evil, and which derives from his mother’s self-sacrifice to save him from Voldemort. But there’s also something about him which derives from Voldemort’s attack itself; the implication is that this will tend to draw him back towards Voldemort and destruction, like a delayed-action homing device.

The extent to which these motifs represent moral complexity, or fictional maturity, is debatable. As I wrote in the context of the first book, it’s arguable that Rowling is only going to leave the safety of comfort-zone fantasy for the equal and opposite safety of the discomfort zone – a fictional world whose heroes can be relied on to be powerless, unheroic, misguided and doomed. Lily’s shielding love and Voldemort’s contaminating Horcrinfluence are both all too compatible with a vision of Harry as an impotent plaything of fate, suffering horribly for his failure to attain the proper level of fantasy heroism. Whether they’re also compatible with Harry living in a real world – albeit a real world with magic – is much more debatable.

Not that funny

Ellis:

[Podhoretz]also barks:

As with Finlandization, Islamization extends to the domestic realm, too. In one recent illustration of this process, as reported in the British press, “schools in England are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils . . . whose beliefs include Holocaust denial.” (ellipses in original)

Now when you use apostrophes like that you indicate that you are quoting something. And there’s a trifling scholarly convention that you indicate in a footnote what it is you are citing and where an interested reader can find it. But Podhoretz is above the petty restrictions of conventional scholarship. He cites in a vacuum. There are no footnotes. His dubious quotations float in a void. And this particular citation is patently bogus. It sounds like some feverish nonsense copied from a Melanie Philips column.

It does, rather – not least because of Podhoretz’s own editoralisation. “Schools in England are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons”, eh? OK, let’s say that a school in this town and another school down the road independently decide to scrub round the Holocaust in their History lessons, because the teachers get sick of mouthy kids chipping in – but Sir it didn’t actually happen like that did it Sir? Now, there are only so many lessons in the week and only so many topics you can teach; it’s not inconceivable that you could design a History curriculum that skipped the Holocaust, for convenience’s sake. I did History O Level, time back way back, and I don’t remember the Holocaust even being mentioned when we covered World War II. (There was a Holocaust denier in my class, as it happens, although he was a born-again Christian and there was just the one of him.)

Still, this would be a pretty depressing scenario. What it wouldn’t be, necessarily, is an illustration of a broader process, a symptom of the creeping tide of Islamization from which only the righteous vigilance of a Podhoretz can save us. For that to be the case, rather than simply opting for a quiet life, the schools would have to be following the agenda – or at least cutting with the cultural grain – of the local education authority, or central government, or the teaching unions, or the Labour Party, or the Guardian… or, well, somebody. If this is the tip of an iceberg, there has to be an iceberg.

So, where is Podhoretz getting his information from, and does it justify the spin he put on it? For a start, where did that phrase come from? I googled. The first thing I discovered was that it’s a phrase with legs: 24 hits for “schools in England are dropping the Holocaust” from a variety of sources, including an open letter to the government from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (not pleased). Rephrase and google for “schools are dropping the Holocaust”, and bingo:

Schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils, a Government-backed study has revealed. It found some teachers are reluctant to cover the atrocity for fear of upsetting students whose beliefs include Holocaust denial.

There is also resistance to tackling the 11th century Crusades – where Christians fought Muslim armies for control of Jerusalem – because lessons often contradict what is taught in local mosques. The findings have prompted claims that some schools are using history ‘as a vehicle for promoting political correctness’.

Yes, it’s our old friend the Daily Hate-Mail, putting its own spin on a “Government-backed study”. More on that in a moment. In passing, it’s worth noting that the Hate‘s story even misrepresents itself; there are no claims that some schools are using history ‘as a vehicle for promoting political correctness’. Here’s the quoted phrase in context, from further down the same page:

Chris McGovern, history education adviser to the former Tory government, said: “History is not a vehicle for promoting political correctness. Children must have access to knowledge of these controversial subjects, whether palatable or unpalatable.”

McGovern must have seemed like a soft touch for a why-oh-why anti-multiculti quote – he’s the director of “the traditionalist History Curriculum Association” and complained recently that kids these days aren’t taught about the positive consequences of imperial rule. But what he actually said doesn’t include any claims about what ‘some schools’ are doing. In fact it’s rather embarrassingly adrift from the story, which is about Holocaust denial rather than political correctness. The Hate‘s distortion of McGovern’s words turns them into a thin, tendentious link between the two, insinuating that accommodating pupils with denialist views is political correctness – and, in the process, suggesting that these Holocaust-avoiding schools are acting with the approval of the local education authority (or central government, or the teaching unions, or the Labour Party, or the Guardian, or, well, somebody).

So, what does it actually say in this “Government-backed study”? See for yourself: Teaching Emotive and Controversial History 3-19 can be downloaded from this page. And Ellis’s instincts were right: the report doesn’t associate Holocaust denial with ‘political correctness’ and it certainly doesn’t approve of it. The line of the report is very much that schoolkids should have access to “knowledge of these controversial subjects, whether palatable or unpalatable”. Nor, in actual fact, does it say “schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons”; for that matter, it doesn’t say that there is generalised resistance to teaching the Crusades in ways that often contradict what is taught in local mosques. Here’s what it says, in a section headed Constraints to the teaching of emotive and controversial history, sub-heading “Teacher avoidance of emotive and controversial history”:

Teachers and schools avoid emotive and controversial history for a variety of reasons, some of which are well-intentioned. Some feel that certain issues are inappropriate for particular age groups or decide in advance that pupils lack the maturity to grasp them. Where teachers lack confidence in their subject knowledge or subject-specific pedagogy, this can also be a reason for avoiding certain content. Staff may wish to avoid causing offence or appearing insensitive to individuals or groups in their classes. In particular settings, teachers of history are unwilling to challenge highly contentious or charged versions of history in which pupils are steeped at home, in their community or in a place of worship. Some teachers also feel that the issues are best avoided in history, believing them to be taught elsewhere in the curriculum such as in citizenship or religious education.

For example, a history department in a northern city recently avoided selecting the Holocaust as a topic for GCSE coursework for fear of confronting anti-Semitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils. In another department, teachers were strongly challenged by some Christian parents for their treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the history of the state of Israel that did not accord with the teachings of their denomination. In another history department, the Holocaust was taught despite anti-Semitic sentiment among some pupils, but the same department deliberately avoided teaching the Crusades at Key Stage 3 because their balanced treatment of the topic would have directly challenged what was taught in some local mosques.

Where teachers model the processes of critical enquiry that characterise the adult discipline of the subject, history teaching may well clash with a narrow and highly partisan version of family or communal history in which some pupils have been reared.

One History department avoided selecting the Holocaust. Another department (singular) did teach the Holocaust but avoided teaching the Crusades. And a Government-backed study held up the pair of them as an example to avoid, encouraged other schools to do better, and offered twenty pages of recommendations and examples of best practice to help them. In short, there’s no sign here of creeping Islamization, and no evidence of a ‘politically-correct’ campaign to avoid offending Muslims even at the expense of historical truth. There is, apparently, a small minority of kids out there who are being brought up Holocaust deniers, which is disturbing. But it sounds as if most schools are dealing with that minority appropriately – and a Government-backed study has encouraged those which aren’t doing so to get their act together.

In 1943, commenting on the Tory press’s new-found fondness for anti-Nazi atrocity stories, George Orwell reminded us that some things are true even if the Daily Telegraph says they are. I don’t think he was ever that generous to the Mail.

I can turn you into gold

As a genre, fantasy has something in common with utopian fiction. Utopias begin with a challenge – Let’s say that everyone’s happy – and then set about answering the questions that challenge provokes. The interest of a utopia is precisely which questions the author believes need to be answered: is it “Who will do the dirty jobs?” or “What about men?”, “What about the idlers?” or “What about aggression?”? The way these questions are answered – and the way they’re framed in the first place – tells us what the utopia is about, what drives it and sustains it – and by implication tells a story about what matters to us, in our world.

Fantasy fiction works a similar trick, at a less exalted – or perhaps simply a less programmatic – level. Let’s say that there are these people who are not like us… and let’s say they can get whatever they want… and let’s say that there are good people and bad people, and the bad people are really easy to identify… I think that something like this set of assumptions lurks behind a lot of fantasy fiction, a kind of unacknowledged comfort zone that the narrative quietly hankers for. The skill of fantasy is then to pull against the tug of wish-fulfilment and play with these assumptions, thinking about their implications and their limits, working out whether people could actually live with them – and if so, how. And, again, the specific questions that get asked (“what about death?”, “what about science?”, “what about pride?”) tell us what the fantasy is about – and, for the author, what matters in the world out here.

So, about Harry Potter…

I’m surprised when sometimes people say to me, “Oh, you know, the books are getting so dark.” I’m thinking, “Well, which part of ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ did you think was light and fluffy?”
- J.K. Rowling, interviewed 16/7/05

Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy – until he is rescued by a beetle-eyed giant of a man, enrols at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, learns to play Quidditch and does battle in a deadly duel. The Reason: HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!
- back cover copy, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, paperback edition (43rd printing, Dumbledore picture)

Fluffy, perhaps not – but that blurb is a perfect example of how the Harry Potter books might be read as ‘light’. Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy – until he is rescued - and boom, we’re off. Everything from there to the climactic caps and exclamation mark offers to lift the reader into unbounded fantasy, far from the ‘ordinary’ world of work and pain, love and boredom. (The threat implied by that duel might have done a bit of anchoring, if only it hadn’t been a deadly duel – the two words cancel each other out.)

That’s just a blurb, but I think the books are heavily involved with this weightless, comfort-zone version of fantasy – and that it accounts for a lot of what’s most disappointing about them. By which I mean, most of what isn’t plot or character, and some of what is. From the first chapter of Philosopher’s Stone, we’re encouraged to invest in Harry as a boy who has survived real traumas and will face more – “The boy who lived”, with all that that phrase implies. Yet Harry’s surroundings are pure wish-fulfilment. In an interview a while ago, J.K. Rowling said that she’d acquired an instant fan base among enthusiasts for boarding school education and believers in magic[k], and that she had no interest in either topic except as a fictional device. I thought at the time that this was an extraordinary admission – it’s hard to imagine Anthony Buckeridge or Geoffrey Willans disclaiming any interest in schools. But then, Hogwarts isn’t like any other school – even Linbury Court or St custard’s. Those schools are described with an odd combination of quaint specificity and fantastical exuberance, which echoes the collision between childhood creativity and institutional routine. There are things you must and mustn’t do, places you must and mustn’t go, people you must respect and obey and avoid; how it all fits together is for you to find out – or imagine, in curlicues of private mythology. There’s little of this about Hogwarts: the exuberance is all in the real magical trappings of the school, while the quaint specifics are all perfectly logical. As a school, Hogwarts is identifiable as a fantasy above all because it makes sense – there are things the teachers would rather not share with Harry and friends, but there’s nothing that in principle they couldn’t understand. Even the Jennings books are truer to the limits and the mysteries of childhood experience.

As for magic, to say that magic is real at Hogwarts isn’t to say much more than that wishes come true there. Rowling’s bluff scepticism about magic outside fiction contrasts oddly with peers like Ursula le Guin or Philip Pullman. Le Guin has always taken at least as much interest in fictional ethnography as in plotting, while Pullman concludes “His Dark Materials” by saying that magic is real, here, now – it’s just that in our world it’s called shamanism or the I Ching. Set against Ged’s trances or Lyra’s reading of the alethiometer – or even the solemn, meticulous cod-Tolkien of something like Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series – spells like “Expelliarmus” or “Wingardium Leviosa” seem like awfully thin stuff. (Perhaps in the seventh book there’ll be some explanation of why spells are written in something that looks like Latin but isn’t. Or perhaps not.) There are odd moments when both the magic and the school setting come to life – think of Neville’s trouble with passwords or Hermione’s “Wingardium Levio-sah!” – but they’re all too rare.

Despite all this – and despite a writing style in serious need of fluff removal – the books remain interesting, in large part because they do think about the implications and limits of fantasy. What’s particularly interesting is the way that the three themes outlined above recur from book to book, sometimes being waved away in one book and chewed over more seriously in its successor.

In this respect, it has to be said, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone doesn’t begin well. One of the key questions on the frontier between fantasy-as-speculation and fantasy-as-wish-fulfilment concerns the status of other people. To put it bluntly, are they real – specifically, are they as real as me? The fantasy setting offers plenty of opportunities to answer this in the negative, by allowing the reader to identify with the exceptional characters rather than the mere ordinary real people. Consequently, from an egalitarian perspective, many fantasy narratives are marred by either Tory paternalism (use your gifts to serve the less fortunate) or fascism (you have been raised up as a leader). Both Pullman and le Guin find ways around this trap. (It’s worth noting that Tolkien avoided it completely, by vesting paranormal powers in divine beings and consecrated objects – and dissociating heroism from both.) Rowling walks straight into it, in the opening words of the first book.

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Perfectly normal, thank you very much – reading that last phrase I can just see Michael Palin in a flat cap and Terry Jones in a skirt and a hat with cherries on top. It’s a caricature of a certain kind of English middle-class normality, so broadly drawn that it hardly qualifies as satire and – by 1997 – very tired. The Dursleys, in short, are unreal from the word go – even before the relentless accumulation of negative character traits that follow in the next four chapters. They are the worst surrogate parents Harry could possibly have had, the least deserving of any kind of respect, consideration or reciprocity. The wizard/Muggle distinction gets more interesting in later books, but as far as Philosopher’s Stone is concerned the Muggles par excellence are the Dursleys in all their grotesquerie. Which means that the people who matter are the people who are not like us – or at least, not like them, those boring ordinary people who go to work and watch TV. Score one for wish-fulfilment.

The book’s answers to the other two questions I’ve suggested are a bit more interesting. Yes, HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!, but it doesn’t follow that Harry can get whatever he wants – because what Harry wants more than anything else is to be reunited with his parents, who are dead. (And dead, at least in this book, is dead.) One of the weirdest and most moving moments in the book is Harry’s encounter with the Mirror of Erised, a kind of psychological version of Larry Niven’s ‘droud’:

‘It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. … However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.’

To be presented with an image of our desires – and to sit before it, entranced – is quite a good image of the spectacle, as the situationists conceived it. It’s also a horribly telling critique of comfort-zone fantasy, that place where considerations of what is real or even possible don’t apply. It’s just a shame that the Mirror of Erised chapter is also the set-up for a really awful with-one-bound plot device (not to mention being one more example of Rowling’s tin ear for language).

The other big question is that of distinguishing between good people and bad people – or rather, between ‘good and bad’ and ‘friendly and unfriendly’ – or rather, between he’s a bad man and I don’t like him – or rather, between he’s a bad man and he doesn’t like me. (This last one is quite a lot to ask of a twelve-year-old; unsurprisingly, it’s a bit beyond Ron right to the end of this book. But then, that’s what Ron’s for.) As that awkward statement and restatement might suggest, this is a question that Philosopher’s Stone chews over thoroughly; it’s not what the book’s about, but it’s the main running theme. As you’ll know if you’ve read this far, we’re talking about Snape here (with whose help this theme will run and run). By the end of the book Harry has learned that Snape genuinely hates him; that he had some reason for hating Harry’s father, if not Harry himself; that, despite all this, Snape didn’t actually want Harry dead, and had in fact saved his life; and that somebody else was trying to kill him. It’s a shocking and persuasive demonstration of the difference between ‘evil’ (will kill hero if possible) and ‘unfriendly’ (will mark hero’s homework unfairly, but will save hero’s life if necessary). It’s only a partial break with comfort-zone fantasy; it’s still assumed that ‘evil’ and ‘death of hero’ imply each other, which clearly isn’t necessarily so (couldn’t Snape hate Harry enough to kill him, without necessarily being in league with the forces of evil? come to that, couldn’t the forces of evil do their evil work without Harry’s death being involved?) But it is a partial break – a tear in the fabric of the comfort zone – and more, and worse, will follow.

And what the book’s about? Love; specifically, Lily’s love for Harry, which saved his life and continues to protect him from Voldemort.

‘Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.’

Something so good as the self-sacrifice of a mother you never knew… There’s something slightly queasy there. Here’s another quote from that July 2005 interview:

Don’t you want to ask me why James’s death didn’t protect Lily and Harry? There’s your answer … because she could have lived – and chose to die. James was going to be killed anyway. Do you see what I mean? I’m not saying James wasn’t ready to; he died trying to protect his family, but he was going to be murdered anyway. … she was given time to choose. James wasn’t. It’s like an intruder entering your house, isn’t it? You would instinctively rush them. But if in cold blood you were told, “Get out of the way,” you know, what would you do? I mean, I don’t think any mother would stand aside from their child. But does that answer it? She did very consciously lay down her life. She had a clear choice. -

And James didn’t

Did he clearly die to try and protect Harry specifically given a clear choice? No. It’s a subtle distinction and there’s slightly more to it than that but that’s most of the answer.

Love as self-sacrifice – or rather, self-sacrifice as love, as a gesture of love so powerful that it enfolds the loved one forever after. This is a fantasy, but it’s a mother’s fantasy, not a child’s. It’s also rather morbid, and makes me wonder what’s in store for Harry’s emotional development. The other implication of that phrase “the boy who lived” is that the remainder of Harry’s life is a postscript to his first encounter with Voldemort, or at best a working-out of unfinished business. I wonder if Rowling is going to allow Harry at least to think about adulthood, and leave his mother’s sacrificial embrace behind – or will he always be the boy who had been loved? We know now that he’s never going to get together with that nice Hermione Grainger, but is anybody going to stay the course – or get the chance?

This doesn’t sound like an important question – it sounds like I’m reducing fantasy to a soap opera plot, and taking that more seriously than it deserves. But it is important, because it brings us back to the nature of fantasy. The other side of comfort-zone fantasy is the fantasy of a world where the hero is special because he’s marked out for destruction, he can’t get anything he wants and the difference between good and evil equals the difference between him and everyone else. Call it the fantasy of the discomfort zone. It’s an unrewarding, masochistic style of fantasy, but no less popular for that. Let Harry’s life be a vapour trail that streaks from one self-immolating explosion to another, and the only progress we will have made is from weightless comfort to ungrounded discomfort. Tolkien, le Guin, Pullman – all of them have faced up to the idea of a fantasy-figure embarking on a life after fantasy, and in the process drawn attention to what their fantasies were really about (humility and pride, death and fear, desire and science). I hope Rowling can do likewise.

[Sharp-eyed readers will have noted the lack of specific references in this post to the second and subsequent books. The plan is to write a separate post on each one, although hopefully not at quite this length. Stay tuned, and so forth.]

The world looks so tiny

Jamie:

Back in the eighties when China was inviting “foreign friends” over, mainly to teach, as a means of preparing the locals for the forthcoming golden horde of businesspeople they weren’t too scrupulous about checking credentials. There was an absolute infestation of evangelicals, often in posts at fairly prestigious universities for which they had no qualifications whatsoever. “Plate tectonics later – but first, Jesus!”

This kind of thing is partly a by-product of evangelism being banned in China. Partly also it’s because the thought of 1.3 billion hellbound souls just gets evangelical sap rising. It’s a particular obsession in the US. None other than Henry Luce said that the great mission of the United States was to Christianize China.

Back in the early 70s, when I last went to church at all regularly, there was a hymn called “Thy Kingdom Come, O God” which used to come round from time to time. The last verse goes after the following fashion:

O’er heathen lands afar
Thick darkness broodeth yet:
Arise, O Morning Star,
Arise, and never set!

Apparently more recent editions bowdlerise the first line to “O’er lands both near and far”, which dodges the point rather neatly.

I don’t know if hearing that hymn at a formative age had anything to do with it, but a friend’s younger brother later got religion in a big way and trained as a missionary. I was slightly startled by this, but much more so by his first posting, which was to a village in India. (No, look… they’ve got a religion, they’ve had it for ages and they seem quite happy with it… and I mean, different religions, they’re all different, kind of, different pathways to the same… obviously you think Christianity’s the best pathway and I respect that, but…) Still, it’s not often these days that you get the chance to meet someone with a different mental universe, so I suppose we should be glad that the evangelical Christians are around.

The idea of the historic American mission to Christianise China also reminds me of the Early Modern trope of the conversion of the Jews, as mentioned in Marvell’s “To his coy mistress”:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.

The thinking here is, obviously, that the Jews won’t convert until the second coming of Christ and the end of the world.

But then came Zionism – Christian Zionism, in particular. (Regina Sharif’s Non-Jewish Zionism is terrific on this, if you can get hold of it.) For evangelical Christians, the rise of Christian Zionism meant that the Jews weren’t available for conversion any more, even in imagination. (Another church-going memory is of a visiting preacher praying for “thy people Israel”, who were having a bit of trouble in Lebanon at the time. I was taken aback – didn’t our status as Christians rather depend on the Jews losing the franchise? – but apparently this kind of eschatological double-vision is quite common in some quarters.) The enthusiasm of parts of the American Right for Nationalist China – their willingness to give the Kuomintang practical as well as financial support, and to withhold recognition from the People’s Republic until long after the game was up – has always intrigued me; it’d be interesting to see if the KMT fan base had much overlap with the Christian Zionist lobby. Perhaps, in the American evangelical imagination, Luce’s vision of the conversion of the Chinese took the place of the conversion of the Jews – although, the American evangelical imagination being what it is, it was seen not as an ineffably distant prospect but as a project to be brought about as soon as possible. Lucky Chinese.

Not mine

David, of all people, points to a fascinating lecture by Rowan Williams. Who writes, among much else:

Take Scripture out of this context of the invitation to sit at table with Jesus and to be incorporated into his labour and suffering for the Kingdom, and you will be treating Scripture as either simply an inspired supernatural guide for individual conduct or a piece of detached historical record — the typical exaggerations of Biblicist and liberal approaches respectively. For the former, the work of the Spirit is more or less restricted to the transformation of the particular believer; for the latter, the life of the community is where the Spirit is primarily to be heard and discerned, with Scripture an illuminating adjunct at certain points. But grasp Scripture as part of the form taken by the divine act of invitation that summons and establishes the community around the Lord’s Table, and the Bible becomes coherent at a new level, as a text whose meaning is most centrally to do with the passage from rivalry and self-assertion and the enmity with God that is bound up with these to the community in which each, by the influx of the Spirit, takes responsibility for all, and all for each.

When it comes to Christianity I’m an ex-believer, if that – church membership was always about the ethics in our house. When the Archbishop says that Eucharist and Scripture alike have to be considered in relation to belief in the resurrection it doesn’t mean much more to me than if he’d said that Mercury and Venus alike have to be considered as the rulers of air signs – and what he writes about the theology of the cross … a revelation of glory through self-forgetting and self-offering finds me deeply suspicious and rather hostile. (Blame it on Crass. “Reality Asylum” – once heard, never forgotten.)

But still, the argument I’ve just quoted strikes me as powerful and fascinating – and resonant far outside the Anglican tradition to which it speaks. If these are two ways of working with Scripture, they’re also two ways of using theory or doing politics. At one extreme are the converted believers, who will talk endlessly about how the text changes their view of the world and the new conceptual possibilities it opens up, without ever putting it to the test of working with other people. At the other are the pragmatic activists, devoting themselves to what’s actually going on out there, returning to the text (if at all) to mine it for parallels and sources of inspiration. These are caricatures, but I think they’re based on real positions – the discussion provoked by Dave‘s recent decision to rejoin the Labour Party drew some very clear lines between hard-headed realists and self-indulgent purists, or between principled socialists and opportunistic renegades.

While it was, in all probability, no part of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s intention to bang socialist heads together, his argument does suggest very forcefully that both sides in this debate were missing something. This isn’t just the familiar line about theory needing to be informed by practice and vice versa. The point is, rather, that theory (or Scripture) is something heard – a message – and as such needs to be embedded within a continuing conversation, within a community. (This may be closer to Jewish traditions than David suggests.) Neither the conversation without the message, nor the message heard by a single person, is adequate. I think there’s something profoundly useful and challenging here; it’s also profoundly depressing, given the current state of the Left. Still, to use theory to inform the intellectual life of a group – in Williams’ terms, to unite scripture with eucharist – strikes me as something worth aspiring to. Not that Williams’ thinking is flawless here; as that slightly grudging reference to the life of the community suggests, he doesn’t show much interest in what the community of believers is going to do in between Sundays. But a loss of focus on what an organised group is organised for is hardly unique to Christians.

There’s a lot more than this in Williams’ lecture. I particularly like the way he deals with St Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality, and the way it’s been used by conservative Christians; it’s the best exposition of what it means to take something out of context that I’ve seen. It’s hard going in parts – he knows his theology and isn’t afraid to use it – but I think it’s worth persevering with. If nothing else, it’s a corrective to the idea that religious thought is a contradiction in terms. If Williams were to lose his faith he could still write works of philosophy. (Not to mention sleeve notes for String Band re-releases.)

I call that education

It became apparent that most of them hadn’t heard of Twitter.

Tim Bray misjudges his audience. What’s interesting is that the audience in question was at something called Web Design World. This leads Tim to wonder just how small the ‘Internet in-crowd’ really is – and, conversely, if it is that small, how come it makes so much noise.

I wrote about this last year, and I think some of what I wrote then is worth repeating:

When I first started using the Internet, about ten years ago, there was a geek Web, a hobbyist Web, an academic Web (small), a corporate Web (very small) and a commercial Web (minute) – and the geek Web was by far the most active. Since then the first four sectors have grown incrementally, but the commercial Web has exploded, along with a new sixth sector – the Web-for-everyone of AOL and MSN and MySpace and LiveJournal (and blogs), whose users vastly outnumber those of the other five. But the geek Web is still where a lot of the new interesting stuff is being created, posted, discussed and judged to be interesting and new.

Add social software to the mix – starting, naturally, within the geek Web, as that’s where it came from – and what do you get? You get a myth which diverges radically from the reality. The myth is that this is where the Web-for-everyone comes into its own, where millions of users of what was built as a broadcast Web with walled-garden interactive features start talking back to the broadcasters and breaking out of their walled gardens. The reality is that the voices of the geeks are heard even more loudly – and even more disproportionately – than before. Have a look at the ‘popular’ tags on del.icio.us: as I write, six of the top ten (including all of the top five) relate directly to programmers, and only to programmers. (Number eight reads: “LinuxBIOS – aims to replace the normal BIOS found on PCs, Alphas, and other machines with a Linux kernel”. The unglossed reference to Alphas says it all.) Of the other four, one’s a political video, two are photosets and one is a full-screen animation of a cartoon cat dancing, rendered entirely in ASCII art. (Make that seven of the top ten.)

[2007 del.icio.us/popular update: still six out of ten, albeit only two out of the top five]

Yes, ‘insiders’ do make a disproportionate amount of noise. And yes, the in-crowd does look bigger on the inside than it does from the outside – so does any crowd once you’re in it. The mistake is to assume that your crowd is the only crowd there is – but it’s a mistake that every crowd makes. An old post about Technorati (this time from 2005) makes this point better than I could paraphrase it:

The equation of authority with ‘popularity’ is, in one sense, neither inappropriate nor avoidable … the distinction between the knowledge produced in academic discourse and the knowledge produced in conversation is ultimately artificial: in both cases, there’s a cloud of competing and overlapping arguments and definitions; in both cases, each speaker – or each intervention – draws a line around a preferred constellation of concepts. At some level, all knowledge is ‘cloudy’. Moreover, in both cases, the outcome of interactions depends in large part on the connections which speakers can make between their own arguments and those of other speakers, particularly those who speak with greater authority. (Hence controversy: your demonstration that an established writer is wrong about A, B and C will interest a lot more people – and do more for your reputation – than your utterly original exposition of X, Y and Z.) You may not like the internationally-renowned scholar who’s agreed to look in on your workshop – you may resent his refusal to attend the whole thing and disapprove of his attitude to questioners; you may not even think his work’s that great – but you still invite him: he’s popular, which means he’s authoritative, which means he reflects well on you. Domain by domain, authority does indeed track popularity.

But there’s the rub – and here begins the argument against Technorati. Domain by domain, authority tracks popularity, but not globally: it makes a certain kind of sense to say that the Sun is more authoritative than the Star, but to say that it’s more authoritative than the Guardian would be absurd. (Perverse rankings like this are precisely an indicator of when two distinct domains are being merged.) Similarly, it’s easy to imagine somebody describing either the Daily Kos or Instapundit as the most ‘authoritative’ site on the Web; what’s impossible to imagine is the mindset which would say that Kos was almost the most authoritative source, second only to Glenn Reynolds. But this is what drops out if we use Technorati’s (global) equation of popularity with authority. … This effect has been masked up to now by the prevalence of a single domain among Technorati tags (and, indeed, Technorati users): it’s a design flaw which has been compensated by an implementation flaw.

Some final brief thoughts. Blogging tends towards conversation. Conversation routes around gatekeepers (Technorati is, precisely, a gatekeeper – but an avoidable gatekeeper). Conversations happen within domains. People cross domains, but domains don’t overlap. Every domain thinks it’s the only one.

Except, of course, the domain shared by readers of this blog, which is plural and open to a high degree. A uniquely high degree, in fact…

The wills and the won’ts

Ellis links to an excellent appreciation of Raymond Williams. I’ve got nothing to add to it, except that I’d forgotten just how well he wrote – it’s an odd tone of voice, with a kind of patiently strenuous quality, but it’s very powerful and rather beautiful, once you tune in to it. I can’t think of another writer who so consistently combines reasoning and anger without slipping into preaching or polemic.

And here’s one I prepared earlier:

Culture is ordinary: Raymond Williams and cultural materialism

Raymond Williams developed the approach which he named ‘cultural materialism’ in a series of influential books – Culture and Society (1958), the Long Revolution (1961), Marxism and Literature (1977). I came to cultural materialism by another route. I’d just read Williams’ Drama in performance – a survey of the conditions under which plays have been put on over the years, and how changes in staging practice parallelled developments in society. One night, I had a dream. I dreamed I saw a series of scenes, each showing a group of people in their usual surroundings; I remember a group of cardinals, standing outside St Peter’s in Rome. The relationships between the elements in each scene – the architecture, the clothing, the rituals, the social roles – were luminously clear. I woke up with a clear, unshakeable sense of the validity and power of the cultural materialist approach.

By the time I read Williams’ theoretical work, in other words, I’d already been converted. This experience has had some odd effects. I find Williams’ writing clear and easy to read, for instance, which I gather is unusual; asked for a comment on Marxism and Literature, the historian Gwyn A.Williams said, “I defy anyone to read that book without going stark raving mad.” With this in mind, I’ve attempted to suggest why Williams’ work continues to merit the attention of socialists.

Cultural materialism was always, for Williams, a Marxist theory – an elaboration of historical materialism. “Latent within historical materialism is … a way of understanding the diverse social and material production … of works to which the connected but also changing categories of art have been historically applied. I call this position cultural materialism.” Cultural production is itself material, as much as any other sector of human activity; culture must be understood both in its own terms and as part of its society. The implications for cultural work are vast: imagine relating Howard Barker’s plots to the contemporary demographics of theatre-going, or setting the rise of Zoe Ball in the context of the economics of the BBC. Cultural studies – a discipline whose existence owes much to Williams – has scratched the surface of this approach to the arts, but following it through is a daunting prospect.

Williams’ conception of cultural materialism went further, however. The key question was how the relationship between society and culture was understood. In his 1958 essay “Culture is ordinary” Williams cited the Marxist tenet that “a culture must finally be interpreted in relation to its underlying system of production” and glossed it as follows: “a culture is a whole way of life, and the arts are part of a social organisation which economic change clearly radically affects.” The second part of this statement indicates Williams’ resistance to the classical Marxist idea of culture as a ‘superstructure’ which echoes an economic ‘base’. The first part suggests how he would bridge the gap: culture was “a whole way of life”. This Williams counterposed to ‘high culture’ – “this extraordinary decision to call certain things culture and then separate them, as with a park wall, from ordinary people and ordinary work”.

Hence, culture is always political. This is not to say that the crimes of the ruling class can be read off from a film or an advertisement, any more than they can from a party political broadcast. Still less does it imply that work which aims for that level of explicitness is the best or most important. Rather, culture is political because the social process addressed by political analysis is always embedded in culture. Williams reversed the terms of the usual analysis. Rather than being a specialised area in which we see reflections of the political processes governing society, culture is the “whole way of life” which makes up human society; political analysis is a specialised framework which can be used to understand it.

Much writing on culture treats political change as an external force: something which impinges on ordinary people’s lives from outside, and which writers may choose to focus on or not. This assumption underpins the tendency of right-wing critics to claim authors for their own – ‘apolitical’ – perspective. “By the fifties the trick was being turned that if you thought George Eliot was a good novelist, you had to be against socialism. There was a directly political confiscation of the past that was intolerable.”

Radical criticism is often little better. Even the approach of reclaiming ‘apolitical’ works, re-attaching them to their history – reading the Industrial Revolution into Wuthering Heights, for instance, with Heathcliff seen as a dispossessed proletarian – made the same mistake, Williams argued. “Social experience, just because it is social, does not have to appear in any way exclusively in these overt public forms. In its very quality as social reality it penetrates, is already at the roots of, relationships of every kind … When there is real dislocation it does not have to appear in a strike or in machine-breaking. It can appear as radically and as authentically in what is apparently, what is actually family or personal experience.” Wuthering Heights was “central to its time” because of the power of its articulation of emotional experience – an experience which was characteristic of a society which was being torn apart, psychologically as much as socially, under the stress of industrialisation.

Politics for its part is always cultural. The history of the Left and the labour movement is the history of attempts to develop an alternative culture – a long, complex and contradictory process. Williams resisted prescriptive approaches to culture: if it was intolerable for the Right to appropriate George Eliot, it was absurd for the Left to claim that certain art forms were or were not ‘socialist’. “A culture is common meanings, the product of a whole people, and offered individual meanings … It is stupid and arrogant to suppose that any of these meanings can in any way be prescribed; they are made by living, made and remade, in ways that we cannot know in advance.”

The culture of the Left exists on a number of levels. There are continuing and developing art forms, such as the art of banners, flags and quilts. There are the achievements of the continual drive for working class ‘self-improvement’ – in fact a movement of resistance to exclusion from education – from the Institutes of mining villages through to today’s WEAs and the Open University. More broadly again, there is the body of collective experience built up through struggle. (“The single most shocking thesis to established liberal opinion in Culture and Society … was that I did not define working-class culture as a few proletarian novels … but as the institutions of the labour movement.”) Marches and demonstrations, strikes and occupations, all create new forms of consciousness and promote awareness of different ways of living; on a more mundane level, they also bring out ordinary people’s ability to organise and co-ordinate activity. Williams insisted that those achievements – and resources – should not be forgotten or minimised.

Moreover, political struggle itself takes cultural forms. The ‘DiY Culture’ [sic] of squats, anti-roads protests and Reclaim the Streets actions is, among other things, a direct assertion of new cultural possibilities – and of a way of living in which culture, art, pleasure would play a central part. Actions such as these often involve the playful reappropriation of buildings and monuments, symbols of the dominant culture: in Williams’ terms, an emergent culture is imposing itself, making itself heard. Predictably, the full armoury of the dominant culture and social order is brought into play to combat it: from “the scum on the front pages of the richer newspapers” (to quote Williams from 1968) through to direct – political – repression. For capitalism has not ceased to be victorious: the space available for cultural or political opposition is continually under attack, from the reappropriation of radical symbols to the literal occupation of social territory through CCTV. And culture cannot substitute for politics – cannot be a short-cut to a larger social transformation, any more than the instrumental model of left politics could function without culture. The complex set of transformations which Williams labelled ‘the long revolution’ could only triumph by dispossessing “the central political organs of capitalist society”: “the condition for the success of the long revolution in any real sense is decisively a short revolution”.

Williams’ assessments of the prospects for change were sometimes bleak. He believed that neither the Labour Party nor the union movement had advanced a genuinely reformist project for many years, preferring to manage capitalism and take sectoral gains: “The underlying perspectives of a reforming Labour Party and of a steadily bargaining and self-improving trade-union movement – a perspective within which so many major gains have been achieved – suddenly look like and are dead ends,” he wrote in 1982. The following year he developed this analysis in Towards 2000, in which he analysed the new managerial politics – a politics which he named ‘Plan X’, in which the only goal is the continued functioning of capitalism and the pursuit of strategic advantage. Williams didn’t live to see New Labour, but I’m certain he would have recognised Plan X through the rhetorical fog.

That said, the space for alternatives is never entirely blocked: “no mode of production and therefore no dominant social order and therefore no dominant culture ever in reality includes or exhausts all human practice, human energy and human intention”. There is always – must always be – space for opposition: for thinking and action directed towards the elaboration of another social order. This refusal of despair was also a refusal of indiscriminate anger and weightless theory, of critiques written in the margins of the dominant order. Its roots were in Williams’ sense of loyalty: to class, to community and to history. The sense of community he had known in Wales was crucial to him: his recognition of green issues and the politics of place extended rather than diluting his earlier emphasis on class.

His loyalties gave Williams a quiet steadiness which sometimes made him seem like a placid gradualist – a deeply misleading impression. On other occasions the impression was more brutal. In 1985 he wrote: “As the [miners'] strike ends, there will be many other things to discuss and argue about; tactics, timing and doubtless personalities. But it is of the greatest possible importance to move very quickly and sharply beyond these, to the decisive general issues which have now been so clearly disclosed.” After Williams’ death R.W. Johnson recalled this passage, attacking Williams for attempting to forestall a critique of the NUM’s ‘tactics, timing [and] personalities’. The charge is accurate but irrelevant. Williams deliberately refused to play that game, for reasons which recall his enduringly controversial critique of George Orwell (“while travelling seriously, he was always travelling light”). Of Orwell’s “plain style” Williams commented, “the convention of the plain observer with no axes to grind … cancels the social situation of the writer and cancels his stance towards the social situation he is observing.” The miners’ strike, Williams believed, created new possibilities for oppositional thought and action, even in defeat; a socialist writer who ignored these possibilities in favour of post-mortem recriminations would truly be ‘travelling light’, cancelling out their own social position and political goals.

Three years earlier, Williams had helped set up a group aiming to work on those “decisive general issues”: the Socialist Society. The work of the Socialist Society led to the Chesterfield Conferences, the Socialist Movement and the newspaper socialist – eventually reborn as Red Pepper. Several of the people now involved in Red Pepper were active in the Socialist Society in the late eighties and early nineties – myself included. With this history in mind, it is worth asking, finally, what directions Williams’ work suggests for the Left in 1999.

Firstly, work is still needed on understanding ‘New Labour’. While the genuine reforms enacted by this government cannot be ignored, the heart of New Labour is an attempt to graft reactionary and managerial values onto the image, language and organisational resources of the Labour Party. The true dimensions of ‘the project’, and the weaknesses in Labour which allowed it to triumph, remain to be analysed. A second area in need of reassessment is the Left itself. The bizarre and disastrous positions adopted by much of the Left during the Kosova crisis attest to the work which now needs to be done, to reconnect the Left with its founding humanist – and Marxist – values.

In a small country undergoing rapid change, national identity is another important theme. While trans-European linkages may be beneficial, their uneven development, dominated by the requirements of capitalism, puts the identity associated with the British state under strain – particularly accompanied by Scottish and Welsh political self-assertion. One symptom is the English cultural valorisation, ever since Trainspotting, of a curiously regressive image of young Scottish masculinity. The advent of these Celtic rebels without a cause is related to a fourth theme, gender politics: in particular, the recurrent anxiety as to whether feminism has ‘gone too far’ or ‘lost its way’.

Finally, the late nineties have given us two further concerns which Williams could not have foreseen. The Internet has been hailed as transforming the nature of work and even of capital. Serious work is now being done to test these claims; this needs to be complemented by an awareness of the real potential of the Internet as a medium for radical communication and action. Lastly, the nineties have been marked by an extraordinary growth in three inter-related ideologies: ‘New Age’ beliefs, often associated with alternative therapies; belief in the paranormal and extra-terrestrial life; and ‘conspiracy theory’. While the last of these, at least, has something to offer serious politics, taken together these beliefs indicate a loss of belief in established authority – and a loss of faith in our own ability to reason and act.

Williams never lost that faith. He believed that the Left could understand the dominant order: we faced, not “some unavoidable real world”, but “a set of identifiable processes of realpolitik and force majeure, of nameable agencies of power and capital, distraction and disinformation”. But naming the blockages was not enough. “The dynamic movement is elsewhere, in the difficult business of gaining confidence in our own energies and capacities.” The task was to establish the lines of development for an alternative. “It is only in a shared belief and insistence that there are practical alternatives that the balance of forces and chances begins to alter. Once the inevitabilities are challenged, we begin gathering our resources for a journey of hope. If there are no easy answers there are still available and discoverable hard answers, and it is these that we can now learn to make and share.”

A version of this essay appeared in the August 1999 issue of Red Pepper.

Sources

Books
The English novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970)
Orwell (1971)
Politics and Letters: interviews with New Left Review (1979)
Towards 2000 (1983)
Marxism and Literature (1977)

Essays

“Culture is ordinary” (1958), “Why do I demonstrate?” (1968), “The forward march of Labour halted?” (1982), “Lukács: a man without frustration” (1983), “Mining the meaning: key words in the miners’ strike” (1985).

All essays are in Resources of Hope (1989) except “Lukács”, which is in What I came to say (1989).

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