Chemistry class

I think the real problem was that I’d finished the gin a couple of nights before. Obviously gin wouldn’t be a good alternative to vodka, but if it had been there on the shelf it would have reminded me that there were alternatives to vodka, and then I might have thought of using brandy. Which probably wouldn’t have worked as well as vodka, but would certainly have been better than what I did use.

But let’s start at the beginning. I changed schools at the beginning of the third year (year 9 as it is now), with the consequence that I missed a year or eighteen months of Chemistry. By the time I joined, the teacher had got the basics sorted out and was onto the reactivity of the halogens. I remember that because of the way the lessons worked: for the first half of the lesson the teacher would dictate a couple of pages which we would all take down, after which he’d get us to do an experiment demonstrating some aspect of whatever it was. So my first introduction to Chemistry (and for that matter chemistry) consisted of the phrase ‘The Reactivity of the Halogens’. I made sure I spelled it right, if nothing else.

I gave up Chemistry at the end of the third year. By then I’d learnt about Hydrogen having one bond and… er… other elements having more; the building-block aspect of molecules quite appealed to me for a while. But I’d never really found my way around the periodic table – or, more importantly, got any sense of why I might want to. Frankly, I don’t think the reactivity of the halogens was a good place to start.

By the time I left school I was OK on solids and liquids (we’d done them in Physics); I knew about some things being radioactive and most things fortunately not; and I knew that the pH scale measured acidity (or possibly alkalinity) (or is it both?), although this was partly thanks to that Peter Hammill album. Other than that, what I knew about chemical substances was very, very limited. If you were to ask me to name a solvent and a lubricant, for example, and tell you the difference between those types of liquid, I would have been at a loss.

Not now, though; I’ve got it all worked out now. If you’ve got a bit of gunk clogging up a mechanism, a solvent and a lubricant will both get the mechanism working again, but in different ways. The solvent dissolves the bonds that make the dirt stick together and stick to the surface it’s stuck to, so you end up with bits of dirt distributed uncloggily through the solvent. The lubricant leaves the dirt in place, but introduces a low-friction medium between the dirt and the workings, which enables the workings to slide over the dirt without getting stuck. With a solvent, the dirt at worst gets broken down and spread out, at best gets wiped up along with any remaining solvent. With a lubricant, the dirt and the lubricant both stay there, but the mechanism doesn’t care any more.

(Incidentally, I read somewhere that water would be a good lubricant, as long as whatever it was lubricating was cool, water-tight and uncorroding. And water’s obviously a reasonable solvent, as in washing. Is there some sort of scale that goes off either way with water in the middle, like with acids and alkali? Come to think of it, why is it a ‘pH’ scale anyway? It’s not actually something to do with Peter Hammill, is it?)

Anyway, about the brandy. The first time I ever saw someone clean a really dirty LP – at what was then Lashmar’s in Croydon, possibly when I sold them my Saturnalia LP – it was with cotton wool and vodka. I was mightily impressed and started sneaking my parents’ vodka for the purpose. (Not enough for them to notice, unfortunately – it would have made a much better story.) Some time later I discovered that you could buy little red bottles of ethyl alcohol for just this purpose. But if you don’t often play LPs, you don’t often need to clean an LP. So yesterday, when I was mid-way through ripping one of my Talking Heads albums and discovered great patches of encrusted god-knows-what making big crunchy noises, I couldn’t lay hands on my little red bottle.

What to do? We keep vodka in the house, but at the moment it’s quite a nice vodka (it was a present). We’re out of gin (which would be a bit sticky anyway), and for some reason – possibly because of the absence of gin – brandy didn’t occur to me. So I used WD-40.

Much later – after wiping off the excess, wiping off the rest of the excess and wiping off as much of what was left as I could get at, waiting half an hour in the vain hope that it would evaporate, then starting again – I realised that WD-40 is a lubricant rather than a solvent. Consequently it’s been quite happy to sit in the grooves and not go anywhere. It hasn’t even had any effect on the big crunchy patches of encrusted god-knows-what; they are less noticeable, though, as the whole of side 2 now sounds like an archive recording of one of Edison’s earlier cylinders.

Fortunately I was able to get hold of MP3s of the album, so I’ve now got very nearly what I was trying to achieve in the first place (an LP on the shelf and an album on the Mac). And I know – or rather, I’m aware of – slightly more about chemistry than I was aware of knowing before. Or perhaps I should say, I’m slightly more aware of what I don’t know.

Who owns what you do?

Here’s James Mensch, who’s a Canadian professor of Philosophy, writing at openDemocracy:

Those who fear solidarity’s exclusionary tendencies generally focus on the solidarities based on our past, that is, on our inherited situations of race, language, culture, and religion. Those who proclaim its benefits see solidarity in terms of our working with others to achieve common solutions to common problems such as global warming. Here the focus is on what we want to achieve politically, that is, on the future that we seek to collectively realise. Identity in this instance is not a matter of what the past gives us, but is rather provided by our working with others for a common goal. This identity is political rather than natural. … Being a member of a state with its universal rights and political obligations, that is, being a citizen as opposed to a member of a racial or linguistic group is sufficient for this type of identity.

No one, of course, lives completely in the past or the future. Thus, our identities (and corresponding senses of solidarity) are never so neatly defined. Our collective actions are informed by the past. Without it, we have no experiential or moral basis for acting. But they are also determined by the future, that is, by the goals that we want to achieve.

Only by being concrete can we be attentive to multiple solidarities we are actually engaged in. Our different situations of race, language, religion, and cultural preference involve us in differing networks of solidarity. These, unless artificially suppressed, provide a natural system of checks and balances within the solidarity that is based on the past

And here’s Rochenko responding to Mensch:

Once you have acknowledged particularity or diversity, and postulated that their forms provide the ‘checks and balances’ to the possibility of exclusionary violence rooted in past divisions, there is nowhere to go. Mainly because trying to go anywhere else would be too risky: reasoning about the general interest that unites all the particular interests risks doing violence to some of the particulars.

The problem is that refusing to go this extra step towards the idea of a general interest automatically does violence to the particulars: by freezing them as abstract particularities, it denies them a transformative future … Only by attempting to articulate what actually unites particular forms of identity in a political project can they have a future.

Nationalism, as a form of solidarity, is therefore not always regressive. Richard Phillips writes in this month’s issue of Planet magazine … that the resurgence of Scottish and Welsh nationalism can represent not the desire to tear loose from the UK a residuum of ethnic and lingustic identity, but a path towards a new internationalism. … Solidarity is once again an attempt to challenge the social totality, to build a genuinely international community, based on the unhealed divisions within the nation-state, based on the legacy of colonialism, based on the continued triumph of those who have always written history. In the form of the abstract particular (linguistic identity, the legalistic promotion of Welsh etc.), this new nationalism risks becoming another tool by which political elites retain their hold on power, and closing off the future. But national self-determination also generates a new enthusiasm for returning to the basic political question: how do we want to live?

I was pleased to see that last paragraph, as by the time I reached “automatically does violence to the particulars” I was flashing back to a book review I wrote a few years ago that, uncouthly, backed ethnic nationalism over civic ditto. (It was partly a Michael Ignatieff thing; if he’s for it I’m usually against.) And by the time I got to that last sentence I was already thinking, this is why I’m still interested in Welsh nationalism, and why Irish blogs like Splintered and Cedar Lounge seem so important – revolutionary socialism is always partly utopian, but when you’re trying to build a new nation you have to think about how people are actually going to live together. But I guess you’ll have to take my word for that part.

Great minds, anyway. And here’s that review, which appeared in the May 2000 issue of Red Pepper. I was quite surprised with how the argument turned out – not unpleasantly, though.

Edward Mortimer and Robert Fine (eds.), People, nation and state: the meaning of ethnicity and nationalism (I.B. Tauris, £12.95)

In this collection thirteen writers on nationalism, ranging from Michael Ignatieff to Danilo Türk, grapple with the resurgence of the ‘national question’. On the whole they like what they see. Neil MacCormick argues that “individuals may have as one among their most significant contexts some national identity”; therefore “the members of a nation are as such and in principle entitled to effective organs of political self-government.” Nationalism, however, takes symbolic and ‘ethnic’ as well as rational ‘civic’ forms; moreover, not every nationality can have its own state. Hence multiculturalism is a must: “the national identity of a community should be so defined that it includes all its citizens and makes it possible for them to identify with it”, writes Bhikhu Parekh. Civic nationalism stands above and validates the multiple ethnic nationalisms of its citizens. Ultimately this is an ethical programme: Robert Fine quotes Ignatieff envisaging the nation as “a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values.”

This consensus hides an unresolved contradiction between ‘ethnic’ and ‘civic’ nationalism. Ignatieff endorses the desire of “the subjugated minority” for a nation state, only to argue that “civic contractualism is the only possible basis for … national solidarity and social cohesion”. Presumably once this is achieved minorities have no need for full-blown ethnic nationalism: if your nation’s governed by the right kind of state, the most you can aim for is civic-minded reformism and the celebration of cultural diversity. There is a whiff of the End of History about this.

Other contributors are more sceptical. Olivier Roy stresses the plural nature of ‘ethnic’ identity, which operates at national, sub-national and supra-national levels: the same person may identify as a French Algerian, a Kabyle, an Arab or a Muslim. Africanist Terence Ranger presents evidence suggesting that ‘ethnicity’ itself is a relatively recent invention. On the other side of the equation, Fine queries the merits of state nationalism: “Civic nationalism offers … an emotive source of political cohesion … But it also engenders faith in the state rather than critical reflection, and a sidelining of social questions”. This recalls MacCormick’s formulation, prompting the question of how national identity relates to such other “significant contexts” as gender, sexual orientation or (whisper it) class.

Notably, Fine is also the only contributor to ask what liberal nationalism has to offer “the homeless pariah who refuses, or is refused, participation in national communities”. Many of the arguments here seem tailored to the more clear-cut ‘national questions’ – Türk’s Slovenia, say, or MacCormick’s Scotland. Harder cases – Kosovar Albanians, the Romani minority of Kosova, Kosovar Romani asylum-seekers in Britain – would require a deeper analysis of culture, rights and power. This might start by treating ‘ethnic’ self-assertion as a positive value rather than a malign throwback, complementing it not with the liberal self-congratulation of ‘civic nationalism’ but with the fundamental humanist demands of democracy and social justice – demands which know no country and have no end.

And I will drink two

Picture a man of 35. He gets up every morning and gets in his car, goes to the office, moves papers around, goes out for lunch, plays poker, moves some more papers around, leaves work, has a couple of drinks, goes home, meets his wife, kisses his children, eats a steak in front of the TV, goes to bed, makes love, goes to sleep. Who reduces a man’s life to such a pitiful series of clichés?
– Raoul Vaneigem, Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage de ceux qui aiment les livres aux titres très longues et tout à fait meaningless, ce qui n’est pas français mais who cares no one’s going to read this far

(He dunnit, by the way.)

I was working in an office when I read that book, and I have to admit that when I got to that passage I thought that sounded like a bloody good day – lunch out! booze! sex! steak! I mean, obviously creating at long last a situation which goes beyond the point of no return – or even a situation that knocks on the point of no return and runs away – would be even more fun, but how often do you get to do that?

So I’ll admit I’m a creature of habit. Saturday evenings, in particular, almost always involve a takeaway and a couple of pints. But pints of what, eh? I’ve been thinking for a while I ought to keep track of the beers I drink, if only to give me a fighting chance of avoiding the Manchester Pale style in future. So, if you’re not interested in reading a beer-spotter’s tasting notes, don’t read on. I’ll be updating this post regularly in future, quite probably on Saturday nights.

(The remainder of this post is now a separate blog.)

The fourth, the fifth

Here’s a new song. I was feeling particularly low the other day, and felt like getting a song out of it. A proper, serious, song is on the way (it’ll be called Come to grief, probably) but this will do to be going on with; I find its sheer callousness quite cheering. Really sad songs are hard – they’re great when they work, but a near miss tends to come out sentimental and well-meaning. If you play it for laughs the target’s a bit broader.

Miserable tonight

I’m going to sit right down and listen to the blues
And if a tree don’t fall on me I’ll live till the will to live I lose
When I woke up this morning I felt quite bright
But I’m going to be miserable tonight

I’m going to sit right down and listen to Nick Drake
Will it be Pink Moon or Bryter Layter – tell me now, which will I take?
Come on Nick, I know you know the way to blue
So help me to be miserable like you

I’m going to sit right down and listen to Leonard Cohen
And if I can find the tune I’ll sing along, although I know it could be heavy goin’*
You don’t really care for music, do you, Len?
But you can make me miserable again

Regrets, you say you’ve had a few,
Well, I’ve had more than you -
Am I right or am I right?
Misfortune has played its part
But failing is quite an art
And it’s an art I’ve mastered
And that’s what’s made me… miserable tonight

I’m going to stand right up and sing till I feel sick
Or until I’ve worn your patience thin – another couple of verses should do the trick
But if you play your part and don’t put up a fight
I can make you miserable too, tonight

I’m going to sit right down and listen to the blues
Then I’ll have a drink and I’ll sing a song, and I’ll probably end up standing by the side of the road with the rain falling on my shoes…
And when I get home and my wife turns off the light
I’ll say, Darling… it was miserable tonight.

*Sorry. It’s the best I could do – you try finding a rhyme for ‘Smiths’.

No king can compare

A post-Christmas meme from Rob.

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags?

Wrapping paper. Bags are for bottles of wine.

2. Real tree or artificial?

We switched to real trees a few years ago. This year was our first dead tree stuck in a bit of wood; it dried out quite a lot over the twelve days, and shed prodigiously when we took it out, but actually stayed greener than last year’s (purportedly) live tree in a tub.

3. When do you put up the tree?

Last weekend but one before Christmas.

4. When do you take the tree down?

January 6th. Obviously.

5. Do you like egg nog?

I think I’ve only had it once. It was OK. Like Rob, I’ll take mulled wine (or Glühwein) any day.

6. Favourite gift received as a child?

Depends what you mean by ‘child’. I’ve got very fond memories of the thing I got one Christmas to go with my Matchbox car track thing whose name I forget no not Hot Wheels… If you put in two D batteries, it would accelerate your cars to enormous speeds, without the need to clip the track on to the side of a table. I was mildly disappointed to see that the dials on the side were painted on, but despite that it was a present and a half (machinery! speed! noise!)

When I was much, much older, I told my parents where they could get Soft Machine’s Third at a 10% discount; since CBS had already cut the price to £2.83 (for a double album), this was quite a bargain. It’s pretty challenging music and I didn’t get it straight away, but that Christmas I really enjoyed not getting it – it had the two great attractions of seeming extremely grown-up and extremely unlike anything my parents would listen to.

7. Do you have a nativity scene?

Yes; it’s plastic and forty or fifty years old. It came from my wife’s mother’s house, when she moved into a home.

8. Hardest person to buy for?

I’ll pass on that one.

9. Easiest person to buy for?

And that one, although it does bring back a memory of when my daughter was quite small. We asked her what she wanted for Christmas; she thought for a while, then said, “A present.”

10. Mail or email Christmas cards?

Physical cards, definitely.

11. Worst Christmas gift you ever received?

Again, I’ll pass on the details, but it was one that made me think I thought they’d know I’m not like that! Closely followed by Do I look like I’m like that? Am I like that?

12. Favorite Christmas movie?

I’m male, I’m married, I’ve got kids, I worked for many years at jobs I didn’t like, so it has to be It’s a wonderful life. Closely followed by Muppet Christmas Carol. This year we also saw Pulp fiction; that was good, too.

13. When do you start shopping for Christmas?

It gets later and later.

14. Have you ever recycled a Christmas present?

Certainly not.

15. Favorite thing to eat/drink at Christmas?

More wine than usual. Posh beer, earlier in the day than usual. I particularly like strong, ‘fruity’ beers at this time of year. I put ‘fruity’ in quotes here because of a beer I saw in a supermarket recently, advertised as made with plums and pudding spices. Not the point at all – your ideal winter beer tastes like Christmas pudding, but also tastes like beer. (See also Orval – my favourite Trappist ale – which somehow tastes exactly like a) marmalade b) very dark plain chocolate and c) beer.)

Cheese straws. Stollen. Lebkuchen. And fruit cake, of course. The runaway winner used to be my mother’s rum cake (a fridge cake, made with (or rather consisting of) sponge fingers, coffee buttercream icing and rum); I must see if I can find the recipe.

16. Clear lights or colored on the tree?

One string of each.

17. Favourite Christmas song?

“In the bleak midwinter”, or “O come all ye faithful” (especially on the day, with the Special Christmas Day Verse – for a moment I can almost believe it again). “I wish it could be Christmas every day” (for a few years in the 1970s, Roy Wood was untouchable) or “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” (the original, sad version). It’s the season for a sentimental pig-out, basically.

18. Travel at Christmas or stay home?

I used to go to my parents’. (For several years the other half and I used to go to our separate parents'; it worked for us.) Then we stayed at home for Christmas and all went to my mother’s for New Year. Then my mother died. So it’s home, these days.

19. Can you name all of Santa’s reindeer?

If there’s anything I hate more than Clement Moore’s ghastly poem it’s that bloody awful song about the stupid bloody reindeer with the luminous nose.

Yes, I can name all nine of them.

20. Angel on the tree top or a star?

We alternate.

21. Open the presents Christmas Eve or morning of Christmas?

Christmas morning – after breakfast, when we’re all together. This was a very big deal when I was a kid (I was one of five); we’d assemble round the dining table, each with a pile of parcels in front of us, and have a kind of diplomatically synchronised unwrapping session. These days it happens on the living-room floor and we let the kids go first, but it’s still a big deal. It’s Christmas, after all.

22. Most annoying thing about this time of year?

I think this year I’d nominate Sainsbury’s Stilton promotion. They bought it in by the ton – with a view to piling high and selling cheap – with the result that what they got was far too young: it was soft, crumbly and clean-tasting instead of solid, waxy and sour. Being young, it also didn’t keep, but went smelly within a fortnight. Bah, supermarkets.

23. Favourite ornament theme or colour?

Not really. We usually buy a new tree ornament every year.

24. Favourite for Christmas dinner?

Well, er, turkey. Followed by Christmas pudding. In flames.

25. What do you want for Christmas this year?

Bit late for that.

28. Shopping…Mall or on-line?

I try to avoid both, although it gets harder every year.

29. Do you decorate outside for Christmas or just inside (or at all?)

Just inside.

There’s a lot of my own childhood in the way I think about Christmas, and a lot of change and loss. Perhaps that’s part of what we do when we celebrate the longest night, in among the crackers and the mince pies (“Absent friends!”). Then Christmas passes, the days grow longer and the year turns.

Old Christmas is past
Twelfth Night is the last
And we bid you Adieu
Great joy to the new

Deep turquoise eyes

I’m sorry to see that Ellis has closed his blog. I’ve enjoyed and admired Ellis’s writing since we were both contributors to Casablanca; I remember he did a piece on the slave trade ostensibly by John Smith, which antedated Tony Benn’s joke at the expense of the Economist by a decade and a half. Unfortunately it also antedated the death of John Smith by a matter of weeks. (To its great credit, Casablanca printed it anyway.)

Anyway, you could be forgiven for thinking that this blog was going the same way, or had already gone; come to that, it would be the obvious conclusion for me to draw myself. Call me Bartleby, but I prefer not to: I’m not closing this blog, and will post again. Admittedly, posting is likely to remain fairly sparse; I’ve been a bit busy lately, and can’t see the situation changing in the next couple of months. But I’ve got something to say about Graham Greene and Corvo, and something slightly less dated about Decent comment on the de Menezes shooting, and something about French supermarkets, and I had this great idea about Bowie’s sax-playing and Kazuo Ishiguro, and I really ought to say something about what I’ve been doing these last few months… Terrors of the earth, I’m telling you. Stand by.

Oh, and a Happy New Year to all my reathe reader of these words. (I’m assuming a solitary reader; I suppose someone could be reading this over your shoulder, in which case the word is ‘readers’.) ¡Hasta luego!

Take or leave us

Apologies for the long silence – and for the post that’s about to follow, which will be of much greater interest to some than others.

Unlike Liam and Andy, I am not now and have never been a member of RESPECT. Like Liam and Andy, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the fallout within RESPECT from George Galloway’s August letter. I think there are some genuinely hopeful developments taking place, in among the backbiting and abuse: a renewed RESPECT could be the socialist-friendly left-of-Labour electoral party England has been crying out for. (Could be – we’re not there yet by any means.)

Here are some of my comments from Andy’s blog. My thoughts on all this have developed over time, but I’ve only edited for clarity, brevity and anonymity.

1st September:

I’ve never liked George Galloway, but I’m pleasantly surprised by the clarity & cogency of this analysis. Yes, it is all about organisational structure, but structure can be very important in deciding what gets done and what doesn’t – and how the membership is involved in those decisions, both before and after they’re made.

You could object that Galloway’s line (and/or my take on it) is naive, inasmuch as there are solid political factors underlying the organisational sclerosis of RESPECT (reasons having to do with the death-grip of the SWP), and he clearly doesn’t address those. I think that would be to underestimate Galloway’s critique (which does after all propose leading roles for Yaqoob and even Thornett). I also think that a lot of the problems with the SWP itself are ultimately organisational – the weird stop/start blend of caution, opportunism and control freakery that the SWP has brought to RESPECT is a culture with quite deep roots in the party itself, and it’s not good for the internal life of the SWP any more than it’s been good for RESPECT. Viewed in this light, I think Galloway’s aim is to stir things up within the SWP, perhaps with the longer-term aim of splitting the party and expelling part of it from the New Model RESPECT. How it pans out will depend on how much discontent there is within the SWP, and how deep the divisions within the leadership run – is anyone sufficiently fed up to want to either break with RESPECT or split the party?

13th September:

There’s something Kremlinological about the lines being drawn – nobody really thinks Galloway is standing up for party democracy, or that the SWP Central Committee wants to eradicate any hint of communalism. As far as I can see the competing lines essentially boil down to “build a weak and diffuse coalition as an element in the SWP’s longer-term socialist programme” and “build a weak and diffuse coalition without preconditions, but in the hope that it will eventually become less weak and diffuse”. The CC line sounds more socialist, but I think in practice it’s less constructive.

22nd September:

I don’t think anyone’s saying “SWP out of RESPECT” – just that the relationship between the two needs to change. If that line prevails and the SWP responds by flouncing out… well, it’ll be a gamble, but I think it’s one worth taking. (Hopefully some of the better SWP/RESPECT comrades would jump the right way.) In any case [if] RESPECT is currently only kept going by the SWP machine, would it really be worth having on that basis?

3rd October:

There’s strong evidence, in some towns at least, that RESPECT has quite consciously targeted Muslim areas. Building on the massive mobilisation against the war isn’t a bad idea, but it depends how it’s done. I’ve seen RESPECT campaign material which focused exclusively on causes of interest to British Muslims. That’s not to say they were causes I wouldn’t support (Iraq, Palestine, anti-racism…) but that the list didn’t include anything calculated to appeal to non-Muslim working-class voters, or for that matter to Muslim voters who saw themselves primarily as working-class.

What does need to be dealt with quite openly is the difference between the type of approach I’m describing and the allegations of ‘personalist and clientelist’ organising. If that’s happened, it’s a disgrace and should be rooted out. But at the moment it’s unclear a lot of the time whether ‘communalism’ refers to this kind of corrupt practice or simply focusing on the Muslim vote – a legitimate approach, albeit one I disagree with on political grounds.

Ultimately I think the approach RESPECT took is a tragically missed opportunity. They could have gone a lot harder at the outset on class perspectives and on potentially divisive issues such as feminism and LGBT; the result would have been a smaller organisation in the early days, perhaps, but a much more coherent one. Instead we get socialist principle wheeled out as a factional weapon within the party, at a time when most of the early successes have been dissipated.

15th October:

Kevin Ovenden and Rob Hoverman expelled for working with Galloway; Nick Wrack expelled for standing for the Organiser post, whose creation Rees & German had agreed to… I can’t see that any of it makes any sense unless the SWP leadership is determined to a) leave RESPECT b) split RESPECT c) wreck RESPECT or d) some combination of the above. These certainly don’t look like the actions of an organisation preparing to operate as a minority current within a broader party – or even preparing to operate within a broader party on terms which might at some point in the future reduce them to a minority current.

There’s a much bigger question than the relative merits of RESPECT and the Labour Left, which is what happens if RESPECT goes under. To put it another way, which is the worse outcome for the Left in England – successful RESPECT or failed RESPECT? I think for the project to fail now would be bad news for all of us. But I think there’s a chance that what comes out of the current crisis will be a more coherent organisation with a clearer identity, not to mention a healthier relationship with the SWP and other groups. I think that possibility and that danger are far more important than anything that can be said about Galloway. (Whom I dislike, distrust and have very little faith in. Makes a good speech, mind.)

23rd October:

even if we take the SWP leadership at their word and assume they have adopted the vision of a more explicitly socialist RESPECT, vision and strategy aren’t the same thing. I believe RESPECT has the potential to become a coherent left-wing electoral party with an active socialist minority, which is rather more than it is now – but I don’t believe it can realise that potential by allowing the SWP leadership to control it. Anyone who wants to see RESPECT thrive and survive should welcome the critique being voiced by Galloway, Yaqoob, Wrack, Francis et al.

24th October:

a lot of the initial policy compromises have evidently been unmade in the course of the last four years, possibly thanks to the influence of principled leftists within RESPECT. The opposition to the SWP leadership within RESPECT isn’t a monolithic bloc, and they certainly don’t all dance to Galloway’s tune. There’s a left and a right within the Galloway/Yaqoob/Francis/Socialist Resistance wing of RESPECT, in other words, and I’m confident that the left will counter any attempt to push the project to the right. At the risk of offering hostages to fortune, RESPECT isn’t over yet; it may just be getting going.

30th October:

It all started, it seems to me, with a power-play by Galloway. If it was implemented unchanged, Galloway’s original proposal would have created a rival to John Rees’s position within RESPECT, with a power base among Galloway’s allies and a focus on electoral success (bearing in mind that we all thought there was an election coming up at the time). As such, the proposal obviously wasn’t welcome to Rees & his allies, and it called for some hard bargaining and careful management. What couldn’t be done was to kick it into touch, because it expressed more than just Galloway’s political self-interest and his belief that a party that stands candidates in elections ought to try and win them. RESPECT hadn’t flourished under the stewardship of Rees & co, and significant groups & individuals within the coalition had some genuine concerns about the way things were going. Galloway’s letter gave a voice to those concerns and put names to some of the people expressing them. It meant that the SWP’s leadership role in RESPECT would never be unchallenged again.

Rees and friends could have bargained and managed the situation; they could have accepted a collegiate leadership; they might well have re-emerged as ‘first among equals’ further down the line. Instead of which they declared war on Galloway – and, by extension, on anyone aligned with him, whether for reasons of principle or convenience.

I said at the time of Hoveman and Ovenden’s expulsions that the SWP leadership’s actions were incomprehensible unless they wanted to leave, split or destroy RESPECT, or some combination of the three. I don’t take any satisfaction in having, apparently, been proved right.

1st November:

for the SWP to pull out of RESPECT tomorrow, taking every dual member with it, would be disastrous for RESPECT. For Linda Smith & her allies to witch-hunt the SWP out of the organisation would be to saw off the branch they’re sitting on; tactically it would be crazy, stupid or sectarian to the point of obsessiveness. I don’t believe they’re any of those things.

So what is going on? I think it’s important to draw two distinctions: between reducing someone’s power and reducing it to nothing; and between long-term and short-term. The first is the difference between Edward Heath’s approach to the Left and the unions and Thatcher’s; the second is the difference between Thatcher and Pinochet. The Smith/Yaqoob/Galloway side of the argument are agreed that the SWP’s formal power within RESPECT needs to be reduced. There are people on that side of the argument (possibly Galloway himself) who believe that in the longer term it should be reduced to nothing. There isn’t anybody, as far as I can tell, who believe that it should be reduced to nothing immediately – that the SWP should be chased out of RESPECT.

The SWP leadership are doubly to blame for the escalation of this dispute, it seems to me: they’ve interpreted a demand for reduction of their power as an all-out threat to their position, then interpreted that as an immediate threat. In the process they’ve created that confrontation. It’s true to say that some, at least, of the SWP leadership’s critics have taken a position of “if you want a fight, you can have it” – and this is regrettable. But when concessions are exploited, well-intentioned criticisms are dismissed unread and challenges are met with strident denunciation and refusal to debate, it does tend to try one’s patience.

(Part of the problem, of course, is that you don’t start a position war with the SWP with much hope of winning – SWP cadre do tend to be very good at this stuff. It’s just not the stuff that’s needed right now.)

Having said all that, it’d be nice to think that the RESPECT which comes out of all this would include some SWP members. (Even now, the RESPECT-loyalists don’t seem to have any political quarrel with the SWP-loyalists – and that goes double for someone like Lavalette, whose work is a model of what RESPECT should be doing.)

2nd November:

I don’t think there’s any mystery around why Linda Smith & her allies don’t want to see the conference go ahead. They’ve stated their reasons – they’ve been comprehensively outmanoeuvred, out-organised and out-mobilised, by both fair means and foul. As a result, the legitimacy of the organisational structures of the coalition itself have been brought into dispute – but, as part of the same process, internal democracy has been boxed off to the point where that dispute can’t take place. In this situation, a pause for thought is the only option – ‘full speed ahead’ equals ’self-destruct’.

With two conferences now scheduled for 17th November, this last comment needs some expansion. By pressing ahead with organising for the planned conference, without addressing any of the issues raised by Smith & Yaqoob, the SWP put the ‘renewal’ camp in an impossible position. Turn up at the conference and they’d almost certainly be outvoted and outmanoeuvred; stay away and they’d lose by default. Worse, organising their own event at a later date would risk organised intervention by SWP partisans. (Before anyone cries paranoia, I’ve been in conferences where the SWP wanted to make sure that a mildly critical point of view got across; it’s not pretty. The ‘single transferable speech’ is one word for the tactic (In response to the last speaker, I’d just like to say that one of the earlier speakers raised a crucial question…)) Holding their own event on the same day was really the only option.

That said, it would be good if a split could be avoided; I was particularly glad to see that Michael Lavalette had been willing to share a platform with Galloway and Yaqoob (Andy has photographic evidence). The game is clearly not over yet. (Although after this post I’ll probably go back to the usual mixture of political philosophy, popular singing groups and miscellaneous geekage.)

Not enough protest songs

Yes, this is a very fine song (and this is a very fine version of it, which I hadn’t seen in 25 years).

You see Robin,
I’ve been searching for the young soul rebels.
I’ve been searching everywhere, I can’t find them anywhere – where have you hidden them?

How we laughed.

The strange thing about “There there, my dear” – and about Searching for the young soul rebels, the album it closes, and about the work of Dexy’s Midnight Runners in all their various incarnations – is that it’s brilliant all the same. It’s embarrassingly earnest in a puppyish teenage way, it’s tiresomely arrogant and pugnacious (also in a puppyish teenage way), and it’s clumsy and awkwardly executed. But it’s brilliant all the same. Searching for the young soul rebels is a wonderful, life-enhancing album – I wouldn’t go quite that far for the other two, although I wouldn’t be without them – and this is a glorious track.

And it’s not just down to that extraordinary Stax sound. The lyrics – if you can find them written down – are… well, they’re embarrassingly earnest and clumsily executed and basically pretty dreadful in several different ways. But they’re brilliant all the same.

Not convinced? Here, because I feel like it, is the annotated “There there, my dear”.

Rrrrr-Robin, hope you don’t mind me writing, it’s just
There’s more than one thing I need to ask you.

After beginning with the old General Johnson trill, Kevin comes in on the wrong beat here – Rob-IN hope YOU don’t MIND – but it’s OK by the end of the first line.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, you’re so anti-fashion – so wear flares
Instead of dressing down all the same

“Why not wear flares?” in the published lyrics. It’s a good question, but I don’t think anyone’s that anti-fashion.

It’s just that looking like that I can express my dissat-
Robin, let me explain,
But you’d never see in a million years

Shame about ‘dissatisfaction’. We’ll see more of Kevin’s ruthless way with line endings later on. Now shush, there’s a good bit coming up.

Keep quoting Cabaret, Berlin, Burroughs,
J.G. Ballard, Duchamp, Beauvoir,
Kerouac, Kierkegaard, Michael Rennie…
And I don’t believe you really like Frank Sinatra.

Seriously, how good is that? The fourth line is one of the all-time great put-downs. (I did once see a copy of Songs for Swinging Lovers lying prominently around in the flat of an irritatingly hip friend, and a Dexy’s poster on the wall. Unfortunately I only thought of the line later.) The other three lines are pretty good, too (Michael Rennie!). A couple of things about that long, ridiculous list are worth noting. One is that, despite the line-cramming that goes on elsewhere, the scansion here is fine; Kevin even has time to fit in a quick ‘brrr!’ between Beauvoir and Kerouac. It obviously wasn’t just dashed off. The other is its odd, self-contradictory quality. Dexy’s first single “Dance stance” uses a similar list as a demonstration of how much they know and you don’t: Never heard about – Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neill, Edna O’Brien and Lawrence Sterne… (“It’s as if a gang of punks had taken the Irish Academy of Literature hostage and used the Stax headquarters for barricades”, as this site says (I think).) Here, though, Kevin’s reeling off a list of obscure and pretentious references as a way of criticising someone for using obscure and pretentious references. The song’s playful and self-mocking – almost despite itself – at the same time as being deadly serious.

Robin, you’re always so happy, how the hell?
You’re like a dumb, dumb patriot.
You’re supposed to be so angry, why not fight?
Let me benefit from your rage.

“How the hell do you get your inspiration?” in the published lyrics; also “benefit from your right”, which doesn’t make much sense. I was convinced when the song came out that it was addressed to Ian Page of the (relatively) prominent mod revivalists Secret Affair, mainly I think because of this verse. (Apparently it’s addressed to “NME indie bands”, which makes more sense of the Burroughs Ballard ect ect.)

You know the only way to change things is to shoot men who arrange things

Ah, Baader-Meinhof chic. Takes me back.

Robin, I’d try and explain
But you’d never see in a million years.
Well, you’ve finished your rules, but we don’t know that game,
Robin, I’d listen to your records but your logic’s far

“Far too lame” in the published lyrics, but since Kevin’s tried to get a whole couplet into the space previously occupied by “Robin let me explain” he’s forced to swallow a couple of words before the next line. Which is:

And I’d only waste three valuable minutes of my life with your insincere

“…with your insincerity” in the published lyrics, but Kevin wisely doesn’t attempt that. So we’ve got “And I’d only waste” instead of “But you’d never see”, and instead of “in a million years” we’ve got… um. Fourteen syllables crammed into five. You’ve got to wonder about the thought process that led to keeping ‘valuable’ in there. And respect it, frankly – he’s the one stuck with singing it.

Then we’re into the spoken section:

You see Robin,
I’ve been searching for the young soul rebels.
I’ve been searching everywhere, I can’t find them anywhere – where have you hidden them?
Maybe you should…
Maybe you should welcome the new soul vision!
Welcome the new soul vision!
Welcome the new soul vision!

Of course, he doesn’t mean that ‘maybe’, any more than Andrew Anthony really thinks he may be wrong, but from Kevin you don’t mind the equivocation so much. The obvious induction is that that’s because Kevin’s talking about a nebulous lifestyle statement involving sixties music and woolly hats, whereas Andrew Anthony is talking about matters of great political moment, but I’m not sure that’s it. They’re both ultimately talking about their own beliefs, and putting their own credibility on the line.

In this sense, protest singers aren’t all that different from columnists and other professional opinionators. All of them take the risk of looking like egotists, eccentrics or both – the compensation is that they can win the audience round anyway if their act is good enough. (‘Good enough’ here can mean persuasive enough, new enough, strong enough. Beyond a certain point it can even mean egotistical enough, or eccentric enough; I think this is the tightrope Martin Amis has just fallen off.) And if it’s not, not.

Kerouac, Kierkegaard, Michael Rennie

I agree with Andrew Anthony, up to a point:

My book is a polemical memoir. It’s not ‘The Truth’. It’s part of a debate. I may be wrong. It could be that if the troops are withdrawn from Iraq and we turn a blind eye to Islamic extremism at home, Jihadist terrorism will disappear. I happen to believe otherwise and base my case on historical fact and precedent.

I’m not aware of any causal mechanism through which withdrawal from Iraq and turning a blind eye to Islamic extremism will result in the disappearance of Jihadist terrorism. Yep, he’s got me there.

Earlier on today – before reading Anthony’s column – I was thinking about writing a post consisting entirely of pet hates. One of them was to be the passive-aggressive style in journalism (and blogging, for that matter, although at least bloggers usually do it in their own time). This sort of smug, preening, point-scoring, deceptive and self-deceiving idiocy is a prime example. “You can’t say that I’m saying I’m right! I’m not saying I’m right – I admit I may be wrong. I’m just saying what I think. And it just so happens that I’m right.” Stupid, stupid, stupid.

And the more you look at it, the worse it gets. The argument is based on an either/or formulation with an excluded middle approximately the size of Wales. Firstly, if ‘we’ (by which I think, or at least hope, Anthony actually means the government) turn a blind eye to Islamic extremism and bring the troops home, may this have benefits outweighing the fact that Jihadist terrorism won’t disappear as a consequence? For example, might it have some quantifiable effect on the level of disaffection among British Muslims in general, and by extension reduce the supply of would-be Jihadist terrorists? Even if it didn’t magically abolish the contemporary terrorist threat, in other words, might it help a bit? (I’m taking the art of stating the bleeding obvious to new heights here, I know.) Secondly, is agreeing with Anthony about what needs to be done with regard to Islamic extremism the only alternative to turning a blind eye? Perhaps we should take it very seriously indeed, but as a symptom of something that’s going wrong in British society – which, of course, doesn’t imply any sympathy with the ideology itself. (I’d say exactly the same about the BNP.) Thirdly, might bringing the troops home just be the right thing to do – or the least wrong thing the British government can currently do – irrespective of its effect on Jihadist terrorism? Viewed in this light, all Anthony is doing is finding reasons for the government not to do something it ought to be doing already. (Or rather, is doing already – I’m reminded of Daniel Davies’s crack about waiting for the Decents to organise a Troops Back In march…)

I’m quoting Anthony out of context, of course. Just as well, really, because the context is even worse:

My book is a polemical memoir. It’s not ‘The Truth’. It’s part of a debate. I may be wrong. It could be that if the troops are withdrawn from Iraq and we turn a blind eye to Islamic extremism at home, Jihadist terrorism will disappear. I happen to believe otherwise and base my case on historical fact and precedent.

It may be that an emphasis on cultural difference and group identities is the best means of fostering a harmonious and progressive society, but my own experience, observation and study suggests that it can and does have the contrary effect. It could be that by turning away from violent street crime and waiting for the government to make society more fair and equal, a shared sense of social responsibility will grow. But I don’t think so.

These aren’t fanatical or right-wing positions. They are concerns shared by millions – black and white, gay and straight, religious and atheist – in this country. Attempting to drown them out with shrill denunciations won’t make them go away. But it will help leave the left estranged from reality. And that’s when people really do turn to the right.

Even the multi-culturalism point – and I am willing to dignify it with the name of ‘point’ – gets lost between a gargantuan straw-man (the best means of fostering a harmonious and progressive society) and the customary rhetorical double-shuffle (can and does – that’s a bit like ‘may and will’, or ‘I’m not actually asserting this, oh yes I am’.) I’m not even going to touch the law-and-order line, except to say that I’ve never known anyone (left or right) who believed in waiting for the government to make society more fair and equal.

As for the last graf – what was I saying about Nick Cohen the other day?

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?

PS Yes, I am in a bit of a foul mood at the moment – why do you ask?

PPS I guess I should explain the post title, for once, if only because the post drifted as it went on. It was meant to focus mainly on the passive-aggressive thing; the operative quote is You’re supposed to be so angry – why not fight? (Go on, google it. You’ll be glad you did.)

Just a parasol

The following comment didn’t appear on whatever post it was meant for, as WordPress’s spamcatcher automatically sent it to the bitbucket.

I like your blog and I feel we share sufficient common ground for a link to each others blogs to be mutually beneficial.If you agree to link then please contact me at ‘An Unrepentant Communist’

http://unrepentantcommunist.blogspot.com/

on the commments page of the current post,and I will immediately link your blog to mine.Looking forward to hearing from you.
Gabriel in County Kerry Ireland

Gabriel, for the love of Marx, give it a rest.

Incidentally, can anyone tell me what’s at http://urban75.net/vbulletin/showthread.php?t=222492? There’s a link to this blog there, apparently, but not having an Urban 75 account I can’t tell what it is.

Up to my eyes

Rob has tagged me. I’ve had this particular meme once before, but I’m going to try it anyway and see if I come up with anything different.

Total number of books owned

About 1500, although my wife has just pointed out that many of them aren’t actually mine as such. (I had a big clearout a while back. If you’ve followed that link, I should point out that I do still own two biographies of Ezra Pound.)

Last book bought

Probably Busman’s Honeymoon; I had a Wimsey spree a while back. After that I very nearly bought Last Tango In Aberystwyth, but wiser counsels prevailed and I got it from the library. (Malcolm Pryce is good, but not that good. Besides, I’m economising.)

Last book read

Last one completed: When we were Romans by Matthew Kneale. Starts out very much sub-Dog in the Night-time (or sub-Walker Hamilton, of whom I was reminded when reading it) but develops into something sadder and darker. Last but one: Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Fun, but I felt it was done a bit too much for effect – effortful where it should have been playful.

Currently reading: no fiction, unless you count re-reading the A Series of Unfortunate Events books while reading them aloud to my daughter. (I tend to latch on to whatever someone else in the family is reading, as in the case of the last two.) I am reading Bryan Talbot’s beauteous phantasmagoria Alice in Sunderland, as well as Jean-Louis Briquet’s Mafia, justice et politique en Italie: L’affaire Andreotti dans la crise de la République (1992-2004), which I agreed to review in an optimistic moment. (I am reading it – just not quite as quickly as I’d anticipated.)

Five books that mean a lot to you

Nanni Balestrini and Primo Moroni (eds), L’orda d’oro: 1968-1977. La grande ondata rivoluzionaria e creativa, politica ed esistenziale
Worth learning Italian for. The subtitle says it all. (The main title means ‘The Golden Horde'; I was about halfway through the book before I realised it means that, rather than (for instance) ‘the golden turd’. It didn’t matter.)

Walker Hamilton, All the little animals
A novel which I borrowed, more than once, from Laugharne Library in 1973 and haven’t seen since. I see from ABE Books that it’s been reprinted – unlike Hamilton’s only other novel A Dragon’s Life, which will still set you back £30 or more.

Kazuo Ishiguro, The unconsoled
What a novel. I read The remains of the day, but I only got properly into Ishiguro when I read When we were orphans. I worked back to The unconsoled, which blew me away. A novel to get lost in. (But if you don’t like what you’re reading by the end of the second chapter, give up.)

Tom Phillips, A humument
Tom Phillips’s work has been a constant in my life for over 30 years. A humument is a touchstone for me – that’s how to do it. (Never mind what ‘it’ is.)

The Internationale Situationniste anthology.
After months poring over an old copy borrowed from a friend, I can still remember the thrill of getting hold of the reprint – all the more so when I found that the new edition included Debord’s notes on the Hamburg Theses!!!1!!1!! (OK, so it’s a minority taste. It’s my blog.)

As for tagging anyone else – well, I know I’ve done it before, but I can’t remember who else has. So I’ll take the easy way out and say that if you want it, you can take it – but leave a comment here so I know you’ve got it from me.

PS How did I do? One slightly different question – the number of books I’ve owned hasn’t changed much over two years. The Italians and the Sits were there in 2005, but along with Berger, Williams and Thompson instead of a couple of novelists and a painter (although, to be fair, I did give Phillips an hon mensh). I guess some years are more The unconsoled than The foot of Clive.

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?

Writing frightening verse

The papers have been all over Will Reader‘s presentation at the British Association Festival of Science; the Guardian alone has run two separate stories by James Randerson, headed “Social networking sites don’t deepen friendships” and, more bluntly, “Warning: you can’t make real friends online”.

I’ve been socialising online for over ten years now, and I’m pretty sure I’ve made (and lost) some real friends in that time, so I think that second headline is a bit silly. More to the point, I think presenting the story that way risks creating controversy rather than debate: I know that I’ve made friends online, you know that they can’t have been real friends, we shout at each other in comments boxes for a few days and entertainment results. (Possibly. Traffic results, anyway.)

What Reader is reporting is more nuanced and more tentative than that. From the Graun‘s story (the one with the ‘warning’ headline):

The team asked more than 200 people to fill in questionnaires about their online networking, asking for example how many online friends they had, how many of these were close friends and how many they had met face to face. The team found that although the sites allowed contact with hundreds of acquaintances, as with conventional friendship networks, people tend to have around five close friends.

Ninety per cent of contacts whom the subjects regarded as close friends were people they had met face to face. “People see face to face contact as being absolutely imperative in forming close friendships,” added Dr Reader. He told the British Association Festival of Science in York that social networking sites allow people to broaden their list of nodding acquaintances because staying in touch online is easy. “What social network sites can do is decrease the cost of maintaining and forming these social networks because we can post information to multiple people,” he said.

But to develop a real friendship we need to see that the other person is trustworthy, said Dr Reader. “What we need is to be absolutely sure that a person is really going to invest in us, is really going to be there for us when we need them … It’s very easy to be deceptive on the internet.”

The results are interesting – although ‘more than 200′ sounds like a pretty small sample – and Reader’s interpretation seems pretty reasonable. But I part company with him in the last couple of sentences quoted here: the major problem with online sociality is not the lack of identity verification. I’ve been on a couple of mailing lists for several years; there are fifty or sixty people I’ve known, online, for longer than I’ve known many of my real-world friends. We use our real names on those lists; we talk about work, family and relationships; we occasionally arrange meetings.

All in all, the scope for deliberate deception is very limited. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t call every one of those fifty or sixty people a close friend. The point isn’t that online relationships are a fraudulent imitation of emotionally real relationships, which are demanding and require commitment; the point is that online relationships have their own emotional reality, which is relatively uncommitted and relatively undemanding. There’s a broader truth to Clay Shirky’s pessimistic comments about the Howard Dean campaign, which I wrote about back here:

the pleasures of life online are precisely the way they provide a respite from the vagaries of the real world. … the difference between “would you” and “will you” is enormous — when “would you use this product?” changes to “will you use it?”, user behaviour frequently changes dramatically. “Would you vote for Howard Dean?” and “Will you vote for Howard Dean?” are two different questions, and it may be that a lot of people who “would” vote for Dean, in some hypothetical world where you could vote in the same way you can make a political donation on Amazon, didn’t actually vote for him when it meant skipping dinner with friends to drive downtown in the freezing cold and venture into some church basement with people who might prefer some other candidate to Dean.

Similarly, with the best will in the world there’s a difference between Would you put yourself out for a friend? and Will you put yourself out for a friend? – particularly when you’ve never actually met the friend in question. In other words, the point is precisely not that we can’t be absolutely sure that a person is really going to invest in us [and] is really going to be there for us when we need them: the point is that we can’t assume that those two things go together. This disjuncture between emotional investment and binding, push-comes-to-shove mutual obligation isn’t entirely new – think of penfriends or AA groups – but I think it’s fair to say that the spread of online sociality has made it a much more widespread experience.

What’s going on – or rather, what’s specifically not going on – is summed up by the phenomenologist Alfred Schutz, quoted here by Ulises Mejias:

In order to observe a lived experience of my own, I must attend to it reflectively. By no means, however, need I attend reflectively to my lived experience of your lived experience. On the contrary, by merely “looking” I can grasp even those of your lived experiences which you have not yet noticed and which are for you still prephenomenal and undifferentiated. This means that, whereas I can observe my own lived experiences only after they are over and done with, I can observe yours as they actually take place. This in turn implies that you and I are in a specific sense “simultaneous,” that we “coexist,” that our respective stream of consciousness intersect

Simultaneity, the ability to experience our consciousness in parallel, is a defining feature of face-to-face interactions. The outcome of this inter-subjectivity is not that we are able to “read” the other person’s mind. It is simply a realization that ‘I am experiencing a fellow human being.’

I suspect that this experience of continuous mutual presence – what Schutz called the ‘We-relationship’ – is the distinguishing feature of close friendships. It’s a relatively rare experience – and social networking software doesn’t make it any less so.

One final thought. What would a collective We-relationship – the experience of the consciousness of time passing, of an event unfolding, shared and reflected within a group of people – look like and feel like? Something like a really good meeting? (Physical presence, again, is hard to do without. I’ve attended multi-site Access Grid meetings; it’s great being able to see people’s faces, but it’s impossible to meet anybody’s eye.) Or something like this?

Modern religions demand ‘belief’, an act of the imagination; traditional ritual didn’t need to demand any such thing as it offered direct experience of ‘god’, ie, of society, of social solidarity.

But you don’t know me

I don’t know Tilda Swinton. At all.

There are, of course, many people I don’t know; the list could be extended more or less indefinitely, potentially forming the basis for a rather unchallenging game (“Yeah? Well, I don’t know Charles Kennedy, Jason Orange or Hufty from the Word…”) The point about Tilda Swinton in particular is that, if you stopped me in the street and asked me if I knew her, I’ve got a horrible feeling I’d say Yes. (At least, I used to… Well, when I say ‘know’, I met… actually no, I never actually met… sorry, what was the question?)

Obviously, the image of anyone you’ve seen a lot on the screen can get painted on the back of your mind, to the point where they seem as familiar as a friend or neighbour (“In the street people come up to Rita/It’s Barbara Knox really but they’re still glad to meet her” – Kevin Seisay). I suppose something similar’s going on here, assisted in this case by the fact that I was at the same university as Tilda Swinton for at least one year; I even saw her in a college theatre production once, playing opposite a friend of a friend of mine. (I think. It may have been someone else.)

I’ve never even had any contact with Tilda Swinton, if it comes to that. I did once try to get in touch with her, for a series of brief interviews we were running in Red Pepper at the time. A friend gave me the number of a friend, who she thought had known her and might be able to put me in touch. I duly phoned the friend’s friend, who was a bit taken aback and suggested that if I wanted to speak to Tilda Swinton I should probably go through Tilda Swinton’s management. Nothing ever came of it.

In short, whatever fantasies I may half-consciously harbour, the real world is unanimous on this one: I don’t know Tilda Swinton, at all. I’ve got a friend who’s got a friend who may once have known her, and I had a friend at college who had a friend who may once have acted with her, but none of that adds up to anything.

Or it didn’t, until LinkedIn.

LinkedIn is a social networking site for people who want to make their social network work; it’s designed to enable members to exploit “the professional relationships you already have”. You join LinkedIn by writing a ‘profile’ (a c.v., more or less). You then ‘build your network’ by exchanging emails with existing members of LinkedIn who you already know; the software helpfully provides lists of LinkedIn members who are, or were, at your workplace, former workplace or university. When your emailed invitation has been accepted, the user you invited becomes one of your ‘connections’, while you become one of theirs. Ultimately you end up with a network “consist[ing] of your connections, your connections’ connections, and the people they know, linking you to thousands of qualified professionals”. ‘Thousands’ is no exaggeration: after a month’s membership I’ve got 41 ‘trusted friends and colleagues’, and many LinkedIn users have five or ten times as many. It adds up, or rather multiplies out: if you count “[my] connections’ connections, and the people they know”, I’m connected to over 200,000 people. Woohoo.

There are two main ways to make money out of social software – adding advertising or charging a fee for a premium service – and I’m generally in favour of the latter. This is the route LinkedIn have chosen. Annoyingly, the result in this case is not simply that fee-paying users benefit but that free riders are penalised. The profiles of users outside your network are only shown in full if you’ve got a paid-for account, which can be frustrating. Worse, the highest echelons of power-networking users can opt out of receiving common-or-garden email invitations, so that they can only be contacted using the network’s ‘InMail’ facility – which is, of course, only available on paid-for accounts. There’s being linked in, and then there’s being linked in. I suppose this says something about the nature of the service they’re providing: a professional social network is one with lots of people excluded from it.

The bigger question is what LinkedIn actually provides (apart from the warm glow of knowing that somebody else has been excluded). I wrote last year that tagging, for me, is more an elaborate way of building a mind-map than anything to do with bookmarking pages and finding them again; I’m interested to see that Philipp has reached a similar conclusion (“Let’s put it straight: Using tags to find my bookmarks later just doesn’t work. I give up.”) Similarly, I suspect that one of the main benefits of LinkedIn – at least for us non-power-networkers – is the capacity it gives you to contemplate the scale and plenitude of your own network: all those people I know, sort of! I mean, I know someone who knows them, or else there’s a friend of a friend who knows them… So I sort of know them, really, don’t I, just a bit?

But Tilda Swinton’s not on LinkedIn. So I don’t know her at all.

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.

Anyway, I hate divorces

I turned 47 recently. Yes, that is quite old. Lines from Krapp’s Last Tape come to mind, as they do from time to time.

I’ve never linked to the Metro before, and never expected to. But this made me laugh out loud:

At this weekend’s Bestival, a three-day music event on the Isle of Wight, the Government will be promoting a ‘text a condom’ service. Festival-goers can text the word condom to 88800 and will receive a return text. They can then visit a number of different tents in the main campsite to receive a free pack.

So, if you thought a draughty tent and a muddy field would prevent people having sex, you would be wrong. A survey by NME released after Glastonbury in 2004 found that, out of the 112,000 crowd, 36,500 people had sex. And it wasn’t just young people.

The age of the average Glastonbury-goer is getting older and even organiser Michael Eavis has criticised his festival for being too middle-aged. Barry Ashworth, of London band Dub Pistols, will be performing at Bestival. He knows a thing or two about festival environments: ‘It’s pretty easy to lose your inhibitions when you’re in a field for three days with nothing to do but watch bands and drink booze. It’s like being on holiday. If you’re ever going to go off with a stranger it’s going to be then and your age is irrelevant. Free love is free love, whether you’re 20 or 35.’

Cheers, Barry.

Cooler than being cool

I happened to watch Matt Weddle’s acoustic cover of “Hey ya” today, courtesy of whoever posted it on YouTube. The video’s great, if you like watching bearded men playing acoustic guitars. After watching it I spent a happy five minutes reacquainting myself with the video for the original song, which is still a very fine piece of work – as, indeed, is the song. I don’t think Matt Weddle does anything very exciting with it, but he does demonstrate – almost by a process of elimination – that the song’s extraordinary catchiness doesn’t derive from the gospel backing singers or the sproingy bass line or that strange keyboard riff or the handclaps or the back-chat, fun though all of these are. Take all of those away and you’ve still got a song that loops round and round in a way that seems somehow wrong, to the point where it takes up residence in your mind like an unsolved crossword clue.

I think it’s a matter of an unexpected chord change, and in particular of an unexpected bar of 2:4. This, interestingly enough, is a feature which “Hey ya” shares with another infuriatingly memorable song – as you can see below.

One, two, three, four!

1 2 3 4
  My baby doesn’t
Post- man Pat,  
1 2 3 4
mess around be- cause she
Post- man Pat,  
1 2 3 4
loves me so and this I
Post- man Pat and his
1 2
know for    
black and white    
1 2 3 4
sure…      
cat…      

Coincidence? You be the judge.

Some time, maybe

I’ve been away for a week & come back to a letter from my MP, Tony Lloyd. Who writes:

Whilst I do not think there should be a blanket policy for all Iraqis working for the UK Government, we need to give proper consideration to the many Iraqis whose lives are at risk. It is important that they are given asylum as protection as well as gratitude for risking their lives for the UK.

As Alex said the other day, the debate seems to be moving on to the definition of the word ‘many’. Which is a good start.

I also missed this when I was away:

Mr Cameron told the Today programme: “We are not going to deal with anarchy in the UK unless you actually strengthen families and communities in the UK.”

David Cameron was born on 9 October 1966 and was educated at Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford.

Honestly. These youngsters, they know nothing…

Low and high

I’ve just updated “Still haven’t found” – my running list of recent search strings – to include

Jim Khambatta
Douglas Reed

Yes, this blog is your number 1 source of “Jim Khambatta” “Douglas Reed” information. Best “Jim Khambatta” “Douglas Reed” site on the Web. Accept no substitute.

As for the person who came here looking for “Phil Edwards” “Socialist Society”, yes, that’s me. Hi. Drop me an email, why don’t you. (Gmail account, three guesses.)

And young boys

If not his epitaph – that would be a bit harsh – it was his epithet; the film posters only spelt it out. Ian Curtis: genius. Shaun Ryder: poet. Tony Wilson: twat.

The Evening News recalled this at the front of their tribute, but missed the catch by printing the ‘polite version': Wilson was nobody’s prat. I don’t want to spend too much time rummaging about in the lexicon of sweary, but it seems to me that a prat is someone who lets you down because of their stupidity or improvidence or, well, general prattishness. A twat is someone who lets you down because of their selfishness – because whatever they’ve got planned is more important than anything you might want. In particular, a twat is someone who prioritises their own plans over you, and expects you to agree.

But what this means is that a twat is actually someone who aims to please – even if their idea of aiming to please is throwing some nonsense of their own at you. Some selfishness goes in disguise, dressing up inadequacy and neediness as a public service – look at me, look at this, it’s just what you want! Twattishness is frankly, openly selfish – look what I’ve got! isn’t it brilliant? – and that makes it oddly generous. If nothing else, a twat will always give you something to talk about – and will always keep coming back. Calling Vini Reilly “the Durutti Column”, so that he could release an album called The return of the Durutti Column. Actually building somewhere called the Hacienda, then spelling it with a cedilla. Those Saville designs, those packages, all the wilful obscurity and mystery (I remember reading on the NME letters page that the colour code on the album sleeve actually reads POWERCORRUPTIRNANDLIES, and I’m not sure what’s sadder – that letter-writer poring over his colour-wheel or me for remembering it after all these years). All those bloody FAC numbers. Indulging Hannett. Losing Hannett. Pouring the label’s finances down the Whitworth Street drain. “Anthony H. Wilson” (what was that about?). Making the money back on the Mondays, then handing it over to them to spend on crack in Barbados. That office (beautiful place, mind you), that bar. Signing the Wendys. Walking away from the wreckage, and resurfacing in a million-pound loft conversion. And then supposedly he was “Mr Manchester” – did anyone call him that, apart from the Evening News? All that North-West regeneration stuff (baggy suits and wavy buildings), and all that nonsense with the flag. I mean, really, what a twat.

He was, always, a bit of a joke – but he was always, partly, in on the joke. Look back at that interview:

Factory has a certain arrogance about it… we have a scattiness – we have a night-club, I think having the Hacienda is significant, which is a pretty crazy and by and large rather stupid thing to do.

The thing about pop music is it can be continuously new. You know, some people are excited by that which is new, some people are excited by that which is going to sell because people have heard it before. By and large we have the problem that we’re excited by stuff that’s new.

My bosses at Granada, some of them are younger than me, they’re grown-ups, they behave like grown-ups. Some people are 22 and are grown-up, more’s the pity for them.

Arrogant, wayward, wilful, childish even, but at the same time always intelligent, reflective, self-aware. (Which prompts the question of why he kept on being so arrogant wayward etc – but that prompts an answer with four letters, beginning with T.) He was a bullshitter, a loudmouth, an egotist and an operator par excellence, and I suspect that having him as a friend was a very mixed blessing, but he knew what he was doing – at least, he seemed to know what he was doing – and he kept on making things happen. I wouldn’t say we’d “grown up together” (I never knew him, and he never grew up), but he’s been part of my imaginative landscape for nearly thirty years. The skyline’s going to look different without him.

Bernard, Bernard, disait-il, cette verte jeunesse ne durera pas toujours: cette heure fatale viendra, qui tranchera toutes les espérances trompeuses par une irrévocable sentence; la vie nous manquera, comme un faux ami, au milieu de nos entreprises. Là tous nos beaux desseins tomberont par terre; là s’évanouiront toutes nos pensées.

“It never vanishes without a trace.”

Tony Wilson, 20/2/1950 – 10/8/2007

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