Music of the future

About twenty years ago there was a Radio 4 sketch show called Son of Cliché, scripted by the not-yet-celebrated Rob Grant and Dave Naylor. Nick Wilton was one of the regulars (what’s he doing these days, I wondered when I remembered this; the answer’s “panto, mainly“). The music was by Peter Brewis, including one of the funniest moments in musical comedy I’ve ever heard: the credits sung in the style of Bob Dylan, to the tune of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s door”, with each verse ending

“And the music was by – Peter Brewis,

Peter Brewis, Peter Brewis,

Peter Brewis, Peter Brewis…”



Well, I liked it.



There’s an interview with Peter Brewis in today’s Indie. It’s not the same one – this one’s a member of Field Music – but I do wonder if he’s any relation. Now, Field Music, although they’re quite young lads – this Peter Brewis would have been in nappies when the other one was doing his Dylan impression – make angular, jerkily melodic, thoughtful music, heavy on the keyboards and woodwinds. They’re so 1970s they ought to be on Caroline, in other words. They’re not alone, either. The Feeling are Pilot on a good day (or Supertramp on a bad one), and the Klaxons…

The Klaxons are a bit more complicated (not better, but more complicated). The Klaxons (or is it just Klaxons? I neither know nor care, actually) are ‘new rave’, apparently. Judging from the track “Atlantis to Interzone” (on the B-side of their single “Golden Skans”), ‘new rave’ essentially means ‘retro’; the track starts with whooping sirens and (I kid you not) a woman singing the words “Mu mu”. Then the bass kicks in. A couple of minutes later it kicks out again and the sound gets stroppy and punky, with a kind of 1979 art-school cockney vibe; my son pricked up his ears at this point and asked if it was Adam and the Ants. (He’s a fan of Adam and the Ants.) “Make it new” clearly isn’t an injunction that’s troubled the Klaxons greatly. “Golden Skans” itself takes me back to a period I’d completely forgotten: post-glam, pre-punk pop-rock. Think Graham Bonnet-era Rainbow, but without the metal cliches or the long hair, and with aspirations to make both three-minute singles and deeply meaningful albums. Think Argent earlier in the 1970s, or City Boy later on, or John Miles at a pinch. Punk cut a swathe through prog rock, but the pop-rock scene it destroyed. But it’s back in the hands of [the] Klaxons. I think they can keep it.



The Earlies, now – there’s a fine band. I’m listening to their new album The Enemy Chorus at the moment, and even though it’s only the first listen I can thoroughly recommend it. Most of the tracks have that “I’m going to like this later” itch to them, and a couple are instant synapse-flooding beauties. (Like a good strong cafe con leche, when it’s cold outside. With two sugars. Like that.)



But even their music has its 1970s and late-60s echoes. It’s stacked with them, to be honest – I’ve been reminded of Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, Faust, Neu! and the Beatles, and several times of Family (someone in that band knows Music in a Doll’s House and Family Entertainment).

I’m not complaining about the Enemy Chorus – it’s a wonderful album. But still… it’d be nice to hear something that would pin my ears back the way punk did – and, for me personally, the way the Desperate Bicycles and Scritti Politti did. The Fugees did it; cLOUDDEAD did it (cLOUDDEAD were very punk). Since then, not so much.

I wonder what they’ll find to play at Noughties Nights.

Better in the long run

Pessimistic Clive, 28th December:

When I find myself largely agreeing with UKIP leader Nigel Farage over the two new EU member states, despite disagreeing with the very basis of his party and being largely pro-EU, how much longer can the Union continue to keep its loose supporters on board with all this prevarication, shoddy decision-making and incompetence? There’s only so long you can hold on to hope in the face of so much mounting evidence of ever-worsening illness, after all – and no matter how much you may love your dear dog, at some point the realisation has to dawn that it’s so poorly, so incapable of looking after itself, and so unlikely to recover that the kindest thing is simply to have the poor mite put down and go get yourself a new one.

Optimistic Clive, New Year’s Day:

In the short term, the lack of progress on the constitution, the lack of progress on deregulation, the ever-increasing piles of pointless directives, mountains of wasted produce, and continued disasters caused by the Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries Policies – all of these are problems, some more major than others.But all of these problems are transient in the grand scheme of things. Even if they continue throughout my lifetime, if these initial birth-pangs of an organisation that will only reach its half-century this year are the worst that the EU can produce – after all the centuries of warfare that Europe has suffered to date – then I think we can surive them, if this is what it takes for our children and grandchildren to inherit a better world.

It’s not the volte-face that bothers me so much the particular face Clive seems to have volted into. When I was about fourteen I converted to Communism; it came a bit after my flirtations with Buddhism and Christianity, but lasted a lot longer. I’d read a bit about Cuba, and the news from China was all very inspiring at the time, but what really did it was an anecdote our History teacher told in class (yes, it’s a story within a story – David Mitchell look out). Our teacher said that he’d once met the Russian Ambassador, and asked him whether he really believed that the socialist states were progressing towards communism. Apparently the Ambassador said that he realised that he wouldn’t live to see communism, and he doubted that his young children would – but maybe, just maybe, if everyone kept the faith and worked hard, maybe his grandchildren would live in a communist society. And that thought alone was enough to make him a believer.

To his great credit, our teacher told us that he personally couldn’t believe anything like that, but that he did believe that people could make things a bit better in their own lifetimes, and that was why he considered himself a socialist. Me, I was a sucker for the grand plans and the glorious hopes and the torch of faith handed down through the generations, and I fell for it. It sounds rather as if Clive has too. I’ve arrived at roughly the point my History teacher was at in the seventies – I don’t believe social projects have some sort of Hegelian essence which enables them to develop coherently over more than one human lifetime. I certainly don’t believe in birth-pangs that last half a century. I wonder where the Ambassador’s children are now.

To illustrate the kind of mentality I’m thinking about, particularly for anyone who’s puzzled about some of the terminology I used up there (whether the socialist states were progressing towards communism and so forth) here’s a poem, Roque Dalton’s “On headaches”. (Dalton was a Salvadorean guerrillero, tragically shot by his own side in 1975; he was 39.)

It’s a great thing to be a Communist,
although it causes many headaches.

And a Communist headache
is a historical phenomenon, which is to say
that it can’t be treated by painkillers
but only by the realisation of the earthly paradise.
That’s just how it is.

Under capitalism our heads hurt us
and they take our heads off.
In the struggle for the Revolution our heads are bombs with delay fuses.
During the period of socialist construction we plan out our headaches,
which doesn’t make them go away – quite the reverse.

Communism will be, among other things,
an aspirin as big as the sun.

It’s a beautiful dream – but I don’t trust politicians with dreams.

Update 3/1/06: Clive strikes back, and explains how he can be both cynical and idealistic about the European project. Long, but good stuff.

No secrets left to conceal

Daily Mail, 5th June 2004:

Dr Phil Edwards is the national press officer of the BNP.

He may have an academic title, but Dr Edwards makes his living by letting off fireworks. When contacted via the mobile phone number given for his fireworks display company he is, unusually for a party political press officer, baffled and then furious that a journalist can call him, knows where he lives and has dared to pay a visit.

And, by the way, Dr Phil Edwards isn’t his real name. It is Stuart Russell. When asked, Dr Edwards/Russell tetchily says he uses a pseudonym for ‘personal reasons’ and it’s none of my business why. He is not unusual among his cohorts. Several have used names other than their own for ‘personal reasons’.

Stormfront ‘White Nationalist’ board, 17th April 2006

boutye: Phil Edwards did a great job, and the interviewer knew it. Someone was on earlier from Searchlight saying that isn’t his real name. What’s the crack on that?.:.BNP.:.: His real name is Stuart Russell, he is the father of Julie Russel
[attaches picture of Julie Russell with Jean-Marie Le Pen]

Sweetlips: That’s a bit strange. Why doesn’t he use his real name for heaven’s sake?

BNP’er: Strange? I’ll tell you what’s strange! The Doc and his missis have suffered so much ****e you couldn’t wave a stick at it. He is a personal friend of mine and, like me, he has suffered for the cause of his race. No wonder it was decided to give him a non-de-plume. What I find strange is some stupid bitch trying to imply he has something to hide.

Guardian, 27th April 2006:

Even if it is not your usual thing, there is a video report worth watching on the Sky News website. It concerns Phil Edwards, the far-right BNP’s national press officer, and the recording of a telephone conversation he had at the start of last year with a student. When the student started working, Mr Edwards explained, he would be paying taxes to raise black children who would “probably go and mug you”.

Daily Telegraph, 27th April 2006:

Dr Raj Chandran, a GP and Mayor of the Borough of Gedling, Nottinghamshire, was not prepared to let the unfounded allegations on the BNP website go unchallenged, said solicitor Matthew Himsworth.

Mr Himsworth said that the BNP press officer Dr Stuart Russell – who wrote the article – and website editor Steve Blake “freely and completely” accepted that Dr Chandran was misidentified in the article.

Guardian, 21st December 2006, “Exclusive: inside the secret and sinister world of the BNP”

The techniques of secrecy and deception employed by the British National party in its attempt to conceal its activities and intentions from the public can be disclosed today. Activists are being encouraged to adopt false names when engaged on BNP business, to reduce the chance of their being identified as party members in their other dealings with the public.

The techniques, adopted as part of the campaign by Nick Griffin to clean up his party’s image, were discovered after a Guardian reporter who had joined the party undercover was appointed its central London organiser earlier this year.

Nothing like investigative reporting, eh?

Update 12/2/07

Last week “Dr Phil Edwards” made another appearance in the Graun, in an article co-authored by Ian Cobain (he who went underground in the BNP and emerged with the shocking news about activists being encouraged to adopt false names). I complained, as I generally do, but this time I included some of the material I dug up for this post. The result was a phone call from Ian Mayes (the paper’s Readers’ Editor) who was very concerned; he said he’d advise the news department to refer to Stuart Russell under his real name from now on, and asked me if there was anything else I wanted from them. (I said No, since I don’t really feel that I’ve been defamed by the blighter. There was one occasion a few years back when my mother said she’d heard “Phil Edwards of Manchester” announced on Any Answers and been quite surprised by the views which followed, but I doubt many people were confused.)

So: a result, provisionally (we’ll know when the Graun refers to Russell under his own name). I think it was probably the Torygraph quote that swung it. Top tip: if you’re going to publish under a pseudonym, don’t write stuff that puts you in the dock for libel.

Update 8/5/07

Here we go again:

Asked if there were serving police officers who were also BNP members, Phil Edwards, a spokesman for the extremist organisation, said: “I believe there are.”

I’ve written to the article’s author and to Ian Mayes, again. We shall see.

Heart of this nation

Who’s with me?
We have to wake up. These forces of extremism based on a warped and wrong-headed misinterpretation of Islam aren’t fighting a conventional war but they are fighting one against us – and ‘us’ is not just the West, still less simply America and its allies. ‘Us’ is all those who believe in tolerance, respect for others and liberty



We must mobilise our alliance of moderation in this region and outside it to defeat the extremists.

And mobilisation begins at home:

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and other faiths have a perfect right to their own identity and religion, to practice their faith and to conform to their culture. This is what multicultural, multi-faith Britain is about. That is what is legitimately distinctive. But when it comes to our essential values – belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all, respect for this country and its shared heritage – then that is where we come together, it is what we hold in common; it is what gives us the right to call ourselves British. At that point no distinctive culture or religion supersedes our duty to be part of an integrated United Kingdom.



Obedience to the rule of law, to democratic decision-making about who governs us, to freedom from violence and discrimination are not optional for British citizens. They are what being British is about. Being British carries rights. It also carries duties.



We are a nation comfortable with the open world of today … But we protect this attitude by defending it. Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it; or don’t come here.

One more?

The refusal to engage with opponents and the exaltation of intolerance are the ante-chamber to blind violence — and this must not be granted any space.

(OK, I cheated – that last one wasn’t Blair. I’ll come back to that.)



There’s a point to be made here about Blair’s record with regard to the rule of law and democratic decision-making, to say nothing of freedom from violence. But there’s something going on here that’s deeper – and stranger – than simple hypocrisy. Look at that odd formulation from earlier this month, we protect this attitude by defending it: to be open is to reject anyone who threatens openness; to be free is to reject anyone who refuses freedom; to be moderate is to reject anyone who isn’t. Or look at that list where democracy and non-violence are prefaced by ‘obedience to’ – as if democracy were not an achievement but a duty, not something we build but simply something we’re ruled by. For Blair, apparently, tolerance really is something to conform to.



You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means. But this isn’t simply the eternal Anglo-American invocation of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ as brand names. The terms Blair leans on most heavily are adjectives like ‘moderate’ and ‘tolerant’, which have the odd property of being positive but not absolute. You could make a case for maximising freedom for all people at all times and in every situation. It would probably turn out to be a lot harder than it looks, but you could do it – and you could do something similar with democracy, justice, equality or love, sweet love, to name but a few. Talk to me about universalising moderation and I’ll ask for details of your moderate position on the death penalty or freedom of speech; talk about maximising tolerance and I’ll just ask, of whom and of what? Where moderation and tolerance are concerned, it makes a difference. Some beliefs shouldn’t be held moderately; some practices shouldn’t be tolerated.



As for deciding what those beliefs and practices are, that’s what we have politics for. But it’s precisely that debate which Blair is trying to foreclose, by rhetorically turning ‘moderation’ and ‘tolerance’ into absolute principles, counterposed to their eternal antagonists Extremism and Intolerance. What’s missing here is any real sense of what we’re supposed to be moderate about and tolerant of – and where that moderation and tolerance is supposed to end. Of course, Blair has his own ideas about this – even in multicultural, multi-faith Britain, freedom from violence and discrimination trumps the right to practice [your] faith and to conform to [your] culture. I don’t dissent from this statement; what I object to is the idea that these limits to tolerance and moderation can somehow be justified by the principles of tolerance and moderation themselves – and not, for instance, by a broader statement of liberal humanist principle.



But then, the beauty of relative virtues is precisely that they don’t lead out into broader statements – or broader debates. If I could make an appeal to everyone else in the world who believes in freedom, I’d get some replies from people with very different ideas about freedom for whom from what and for what purpose, but I think we’d recognise that we were all interested in starting the same kind of argument. If I could appeal to everyone who called themself ‘moderate’, the chances are I wouldn’t recognise half the people who reply as deserving the name. (You’re a moderate Creationist?) When I say ‘moderate’ I mean ‘moderate like me’; and when Blair says ‘moderate’ he means, more and more explicitly, ‘us’. Where ‘us’ means ‘not them’ – or, if the cap fits, ‘not you’.



Rochenko went over much of this ground some time ago. Excuse the long quote, but this stuff is hard to cut (and I know, I’ve tried).

The much-spoken of Manicheanism of the US and UK governments and their media supporters plays out now alongside the Israelis’ pursuit of the fantasy of the unbreakable iron wall of security. In both cases, the fantasy of incommunicability covers everything. The hatred of our values by all those who practice Terror, the existential threat posed by Hizballah.



The fantasy is fed by the belief in the incommensurability of values. I cannot communicate with you because your fundamental beliefs are absolutely at odds with mine. There is undoubtedly slippage, in politicians’ and media talk about the current ‘global situation’ between this hard Manicheanism and the kind of disagreements better represented as cases when ‘you’ don’t agree with ‘me’ about lots of things that I consider to be important. When someone mentions, usually in a racially or ethnically inflected context, ‘alien values’, they often slide very easily – and often hysterically – from a case of the latter to a case of the former.



The only thing that can overcome this situation, generally referred to as something like the ‘failure of multiculturalism’ or whatever, is held to be a reaffirmation of ‘common values’, be they ‘core British’ or whatever. Supplementing the fantasy of incommunicability with one of unproblematic communication is I suppose the natural thing to do. But it’s a highly damaging manoeuvre. Obviously we cannot locate any ‘British’ values, except either at the level of popular culture, or at the most generalist and therefore inclusive level, where their supposed Britishness and purported minimal exclusiveness immediately evaporates. But the whole gesture of trying to solve the problem of communication by commanding those you have defined as alien to subscribe to a set of values is again an affirmation of your separation from them, which simply reproduces it. We rule you, and we shall demonstrate it by defining your world for you.



But the problem with this whole fantasised solution to the problem of incommunicability is that communication doesn’t require ‘common values’ in the first place – not, at least, at the concrete level where disagreements take place. The fantasy of incommunicability mirrors the relativist concept of the untranslatability of languages … this states that in recognising someone as a speaker of language, we already have understood that they operate with criteria of consistency and truth, and that we therefore already have the capacity to understand them. Without a commitment to consistency and truth, there is no possibility of a ‘perspective’ in the first place. What matters in such situation is not ‘common values’, but the capacity to make a creative gesture of translation … The shift here is in possibility: from a standpoint where the only possibility seems to be separation, sealed-in individuality, the clash of civilisations, to the emergence of another space in which two or more agents are located, not yet as interlocutors perhaps, but now no longer as implacable contraries either. Such movements are always possible.

trying to solve the problem of communication by commanding those you have defined as alien to subscribe to a set of values is again an affirmation of your separation from them, which simply reproduces it. To demand a response you will understand is to demand a response you already understand, and to dismiss any other response as incomprehensible. To demand tolerance and moderation is to demand tolerance and moderation in precisely those areas where you display them, and no others.



Ultimately, as that third quote demonstrates, to demand tolerance is to offer intolerance. The refusal to engage with opponents and the exaltation of intolerance … must not be granted any space. This wasn’t written this year or in this country; the source is a front-page opinion piece in the Italian Communist Party’s daily paper l’Unità, the year is 1977 and the subject is the radical youth movement of that year. Which, as I’ve noted before, didn’t end terrifically well. Rather than granting the movement any kind of legitimacy – or even stealing their ideological clothes – the Communists repeatedly denounced ‘violence’ and ‘intolerance’ and demanded that the moderate students dissociate themselves from the violent minority. No ‘moderate’ student movement ever did make itself known, not least because every time a group of students did dissociate themselves from violence the Communist Party raised its demands (if they’re really opposed to violence, why don’t they co-operate with the police?). In the mean time, the party backed the police clampdown on the movement to the hilt. By the end of 1978 the movement had been policed into submission – but the number of actions by left-wing ‘armed struggle’ groups had risen dramatically, from 169 in 1976 to 1,110 during 1978.

The refusal to engage with opponents and the exaltation of intolerance are the ante-chamber to blind violence. Well, maybe so, but the thing with ante-chambers is that they have a door on each side – and if you can’t get your opponent out of one door you might push them through the other.

The most cruel has passed

Newsflash…. General Augusto Pinochet of Chile has just died. His condition is described as ‘satisfactory’.



(Thanks, Rob.)



Like Rob (and Ellis), my thoughts turned to Victor Jara, the Chilean Communist singer whose brutal murder would be enough in itself to damn Pinochet, even if Jara hadn’t been one of 3,000. Jara’s writing is vivid, poetic, charged with love, passion and humour – and it’s deeply political. Look at this song, “Abre la ventana”:



María

Abre la ventana

Y deja que el sol alumbre

Por todos los rincones de tu casa



María

Mira hacia afuera

Nuestra vida no ha sido hecha

Para rodearla de sombras y tristezas.



María ya ves,

no basta nacer, crecer, amar,

para encontrar la felicidad.



Pasó lo más cruel,

ahora tus ojos se llenan de luz

y tus manos de miel.



María…

Tu risa brota como la mañana brota en el jardín.



María…



Our life wasn’t made to be eaten away by shadows and sadness



Let’s remember one of the great unpunished crimes of the last century: a moment of revolutionary joy and revolutionary hope, snuffed out by the General. I could almost believe in Hell if I thought he’d rot in it.

Update 12th December

OK, OK, here’s a translation.

Open the window

Open the window, Maria
Let the light shine in
To every corner of your house

Look around, Maria
Our life wasn’t made to be eaten away
By shadows and sadness

Now, Maria, you can see
There’s more to finding happiness
Than just living, growing, loving
The worst time has gone
Now your eyes are filling with light
And your hands with honey

Maria…
Your laughter breaks as the day breaks over the garden

Maria…

Pasó lo mas cruel. Gets to me every time.

I’m no leader…

Here’s why I like Italian politics. My recent Sharpener post on the state of the two major Italian alliances concluded that a key concern of both Berlusconi and Prodi is securing the loyalty of the former Christian Democrats who are in their coalition and, if possible, luring across some of those on the other side. And:

In this game Prodi is faring conspicuously better than Berlusconi. The leftish ex-Christian Democrats of ‘the Daisy’ are resigned, if not positively committed, to an eventual merger with the ‘Left Democrats’; by contrast, Pierferdinando Casini of ‘Christian Democrats United’ periodically makes pointed comments about having his own electorate to represent and not wanting to be a follower of Berlusconi all his life. The dream of rebuilding the centre also seems more likely to damage Berlusconi than Prodi. One ‘centre’ splinter has already flaked off from Casini’s party: Marco Follini, Casini’s predecessor as party leader, now leads a tiny new party called ‘Middle Italy’. The chances are that Follini’s going nowhere, but his defection hasn’t helped Berlusconi.

That was the 23rd of November. On the 2nd of December Berlusconi presided over a huge rally of his coalition, widely seen – not least by Berlusconi himself – as the first step towards a federation, and ultimately a single party of the Right. The only person on the scene missing was Casini, who unfortunately had a prior engagement – addressing a rally of his own party. The snub hasn’t gone unnoticed; Berlusconi’s immediate reaction was to demand that Casini ‘come back’, adding a warning that he’d better make it soon. Casini’s response:

I don’t accept ultimatums from Berlusconi or anyone else – I was fighting the Left when I was in short trousers … My job is not to ape Berlusconi or to dance along behind him, but to win over disillusioned Prodi voters

Berlusconi’s reply also deserves quoting: “I was just making a joke when I said that we were rearing the fatted calf and that we’d kill it when Casini’s party came back. And I said, jokingly, that I hoped they came back soon, because otherwise somebody else would get to eat the fatted calf. It was just a joke – it’s not my nature to make threats.” Say what you like about Berlusconi, he’s got a sense of humour.

There are regional elections in Italy next March; Casini’s party has its annual conference the month before. If Casini breaks with Berlusconi and brings his party with him, Berlusconi can forget about coming out ahead at those elections – or any other elections. If Casini breaks with Berlusconi and leaves his party, the party is going to suffer – as is Berlusconi’s coalition. The one thing that isn’t going to happen is Casini bowing the knee and taking his place alongside Berlusconi’s other lieutenants, Bossi of the Northern League and Fini of Alleanza Nazionale. They both need Berlusconi to give them respectability and a way into national politics. Casini seems to have realised that he doesn’t.

And this is why I like Italian politics: there’s always something going on. The multiform polarisation of the main political parties, together with the inherent fragility of coalition politics, makes for an unusual combination: it’s machine politics, only it’s played out with real issues. Ironically (if predictably) both Berlusconi and Prodi want to build single parties, putting an end both to the uneasy coalitions which give Italian politicians leverage and to the small parties which enable them to stand for identifiable principles. So enjoy it while it last: in ten years’ time Italian politics may have been normalised into Anglo-American torpor.

Don’t shade your eyes

I’m posting from work, because this is (unusually) a work-related question. And I do mean ‘question’: I will be expecting comments. Look sharp.

I’m formulating a research proposal, building on the work I’ve done on what went on in Italy between 1966 and 1980. Basically, you have two successive waves of protest: one which starts in the universities around 1966, spreads to the factories and goes crazy around 1969 before subsiding; and another which starts in the factories around 1972, spreads to working-class neighbourhoods and from there to the universities, and goes crazy around 1977 before subsiding.

I’ve made them sound reasonably similar, but there was one crucial difference between the two. The first wave died away because Communist-affiliated trade unionists got behind it, with the result that the workers basically got what they were asking for (on the condition that they stayed with the union). By the time of the second wave, by contrast, the Italian Communists were in their ultra-respectable phase: the second wave died away largely because the police forced it off the streets using armoured cars and live ammunition, with the Communists’ full support. So in one case the protest achieved a lot and stopped because, for most people, it wasn’t needed any more; in the other case it achieved next to nothing and stopped because, for most people, it wasn’t worth the aggro any more.

What I’m looking for is examples of the same scenarios happening in Britain. Either:

  1. Protest starts
  2. Protest spreads
  3. It all kicks off in a big way
  4. Demands are more or less met with a little help from Labour
  5. Protest dies away because most people don’t see the need any more

or

  1. Protest starts
  2. Protest spreads
  3. It all kicks off in a big way
  4. Public order clampdown with full support of Labour
  5. Protest dies away because most people don’t think it’s worth it any more

I don’t think I’m going to have an enormous amount of difficulty thinking of examples of the second scenario – the 1993-4 period springs to mind straight away. I could do with some suggestions for examples of the first scenario, though. There have to be some…

Becoming more like Alfie

It seems to be compulsory for reviewers of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s 5.55 to get in a couple of references to her father. This is unfortunate; the fact that the singer is the daughter of the more famous Serge is certainly an angle, but it’s not one that tells us a lot about this album.

So forget Serge; forget Charlotte, even. Consider 5.55 for what it (mostly) is: a set of songs composed and played by Air, with lyrics by Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon. Godin and Dunckel, Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon, together at last. And a French actress supplying the vocals.

No, it’s not as good as that sounds. But it’s not far short.

Air never were particularly spiky, and over the years they’ve lost a lot of the rough edges and homed in on a lush, lounge-friendly sound; played after “Cherry blossom girl” or “Alone in Kyoto”, Premiers symptomes sounds positively avant-garde. The instrumentation of 5.55 is very lounge; most tracks are dominated by Dunckel’s grand piano, backed by a string section. What redeems it and makes it interesting is a couple of oddly spare, pared-down elements amid the general lushness. One is the composition itself, which centres on simple, repeated patterns of five or six notes on the right hand; not so much Air, more Beta Band. The other – and the really unique feature about the album – is Gainsbourg’s singing voice, which is quiet, light, delicate and frankly rather weak. But the contrast between that voice and that accompaniment – the sweeping strings and the lush, circling piano figures – is arresting; it makes you listen.

And there’s a lot here to listen to. There are three songs which slide back and forth between English and French. The Godin and Dunckel composition “Tel que tu es”, beautifully sung – and beautifully enunciated – by Gainsbourg, had me struggling for a translation: “such as you are”? “how you are”? “just the way you are”? The last verse is in English; the line is “Come as you are”. Very nice. “Jamais” similarly plays with the different expressive qualities of the two languages. Each verse sets up a rejoinder of “Never”, which is delivered in French:

You think you know me, that’s your trouble
Never fall in love with a body double
Jamais

The word ‘never’ is an undramatic trochee – one stressed syllable and one ‘uh’; ‘jamais’ is much more satisfactory, with two good vowels and a stress on both syllables. Lyrically it’s fine stuff:

I can act like I’m dumb, I can act like I’m clever
You thought that was me? Well I never!
Jamais

And then there’s the title track, a fragile, bruised meditation on insomnia, which gets a lot of its effect from the sound of that pre-dawn time-check in English and French: ‘five fifty-five’, resigned, hopeless, here I still am; ‘cinq heures cinquante-cinq’, nagging, insistent, isn’t it morning yet?

A cinq heures cinquante-cinq
Nothing will ever change
On the altar of my thought
I sacrifice myself again
And again and again
Five fifty-five

Two songs are co-written by Neil Hannon, who even plays guitar on one of them; I suppose he must have been passing. “Beauty mark”, I’m sorry to say, stinks. I’ve never really understood – or believed – the classic film reviewer’s dismissal of porn as ‘boring’, but I must admit that this track’s attempt to conjure a certain kind of atmosphere rapidly gets tedious. “This darling bud… this little death…” Yes, yes. Put it away now.

Hannon’s other song, “The songs that we sing”, is one of the album’s highlights.

I saw a photograph:
A woman in a bath of hundred-dollar bills
If the cold doesn’t kill her the money will

I read a magazine
That said, by seventeen your life is at an end
Well, I’m dead and I’m perfectly content

What really lifts this track is the animation in Gainsbourg’s voice; it’s a perfect match with the lyrics.

And these songs that we sing,
Do they mean anything
To the people we’re singing them to?
Tonight they do

The vocal on this track is particularly powerful precisely because of the contrast with the previous track and the next track; it’s certainly not that strong in itself. (Charlotte Gainsbourg sings Ethel Merman will not be appearing any time soon.) It’s a trick that can be pulled perhaps twice in the space of an album. The second time, and the album’s other highlight, is the penultimate track, “Everything I cannot see”. By the standards of this album it’s a big production number. Gainsbourg pushes her voice to the limit: she peaks with a kind of petulant mew, bizarrely affecting in the emotion it doesn’t quite convey. Dunckel’s piano-playing similarly lets rip, sprouting flourishes and curlicues of melody in all directions. Even Jarvis’s lyrics jettison all traces of irony and pitch for heartfelt without worrying about overshooting:

You’re my friend, you’re my foe
You’re the miles left to go
You are everything I ever wanted
And you are my lover

After that, the album closes with “Morning song”, whose lyrics (in English) are by Gainsbourg herself; it’s either about falling in love with a ghost or about spending the night with an ex-lover, it doesn’t really matter which. All that matters at this point in the album is the still, trembling presence of Dunckel’s vibraphone and Gainsbourg’s half-whispering voice, gently promising or warning:

Ah, but to get to the morning, first you have to get through the night…


On the subject of Serge Gainsbourg, I’m pleased to report that What I wrote is now hosting the first in a series of extracts from the recollections of Sir Frederick William Jefferson Bodine, a man equally at home in theatreland, Hollywoodland and the Land of Green Ginger. In part 1 of his showbusiness memoir Remembering Judy Garland, Sir Frederick brings to life the Serge Gainsbourg he knew:
the uke had to go, for a start. The songs got a lot slower, and of course their lyrics had to be translated into French, pretty much in their entirety. Even then, they didn’t really take to him. Eventually I realised the name was giving us problems: we’d changed everything else, but Alfie was still going out with an English name. So out went ‘Khaki’ Gainsborough and in came ‘Serge’ Gainsbourg.

And more, much more than this.

Just like they said they would

There’s a point in some political arguments where opposition turns into personal antagonism, which itself is liable to turn into smouldering, resentful bitterness – normally I wouldn’t think anything of it, but seeing that he’s one of those people…. We’re lucky in this country – as compared with, say, the USA – that it’s very rare for people to view other people’s political allegiances as this kind of personal threat or affront. I’ve had Tory friends, and while I’m quite sure they thought I had idiotic and dangerous ideas, I never had any sense that they thought I was a dangerous idiot. (Is there an inverse correlation between levels of political activism and the tendency to take politics personally?)

There are exceptions, of course. The miners’ strike of 1984-5 was one; Ireland has often been another. I remember one day in 1988 when the office where I worked ground to a halt for a morning while we debated the ‘Death on the Rock’ shootings in Gibraltar – and Michael Stone’s attack on the victims’ funeral in Milltown cemetery. Everyone had an opinion – and a strong one, which coloured their view of anyone who disagreed. Not that many people did. The view with regard to Gibraltar was that the SAS commando were reacting on the spur of the moment to an imminent threat, and had no choice but to act as they did; I was in a minority of two in dissenting from this. The view with regard to Milltown, on the other hand, was that there were all kinds of murderous headcases on both sides, and Michael Stone might well have been working for the IRA to gain them public sympathy by making them look like victims. I was in a minority of two on this one as well, although I had a different fellow-dissenter this time. Things were a bit tense in that office for the next few days.

But not as tense as they must have been in a lot of other workplaces, a short hop from Holyhead. My other memory of 1988 is the New Statesman column which reprinted a poem in praise of Stone that was circulating in Loyalist areas of Northern Ireland – a broadsheet, really. It consisted mainly of a list of the various Sinn Fein worthies who were at the cemetery, each of them described as panicking, running away, soiling his pants and so forth as the noble Stone took them on. (A completely fanciful description, incidentally – Martin McGuinness for one reacted by heading towards Stone, showing what can only be called courage under fire.) The poem ended by apostrophising Stone:

Your brave deed today
Against Sinn Fein/IRA
Put you top of the heap – BOY YOU’RE GREAT!

Michael Stone was a folk hero in certain circles – a symbol of intransigent opposition to the ‘Shinners’. And this despite the fact that this symbol had not only attempted to murder McGuinness and Gerry Adams while they attended a funeral, but succeeded in killing three other mourners.

Eighteen years on, Stone is clearly a troubled man:

“Michael had become obsessed with the idea that the IRA were going to shoot him with the gun they captured from him [at Milltown] before any peace deal was finally concluded. That is why he turned against the Good Friday agreement after initially supporting it. He was totally paranoid and receiving treatment.”

“He saw a deal between the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein coming, and he believes there will not be a deal until he is dead. He has been trying to get put in jail for about the past nine months.”

There are two bitter ironies here. On one hand, Stone’s current state of mind isn’t a million miles from a rational response to his particular situation; if he is paranoid, he’s got more than most to be paranoid about. On the other, his current condition isn’t so far removed from a state of mind which – as that poem suggests – many people over many years have been quite happy to condone, even celebrate. Quoting from the same piece in the Times:

He wrote a book and launched a career as an artist, mainly based on his notoriety. The signature on the back of paintings was the print of his right index finger, which he told buyers was “Michael Stone’s trigger finger”.

It’s no problem, you can’t have it

Robert Skidelsky, author in 1975 of a rather nasty biography of Oswald Mosley (on which I’ve commented before & will do again), is going strong as a cross-bench peer and occasional newspaper commentator. Witness this piece in last Friday’s Indie:

The elements of a “whole Middle East” peace settlement are easy to see, though they will be hard to achieve. These elements include: a federal Iraq, with an agreed formula for sharing out the country’s oil resources between the three main provinces; a fully-independent Palestinian state roughly within the 1967 borders, with an internationally-patrolled demilitarised zone along Israel’s borders; a phased withdrawal of US forces from the Middle East in return for a guarantee of an uninterrupted oil supply; a nuclear free zone, without which Iran will never give up its nuclear ambitions (but Israel will have to give up its bomb as well); finally, a reactivation of the suspended customs union between Israel and Palestine, with a phased extension to Jordan and the Lebanon, and with a “Marshall Aid”-style programme to get it started, as happened in Europe in 1948.

Such ideas may seem crazily unrealistic. But sometimes crazy ideas are the only realistic ones: it is the cautious people who are the real crazies.

There’s a false opposition in that last sentence, or rather a dishonest and wishful conflation of two separate oppositions. I’m reminded of something Terry Eagleton wrote in the current LRB:

the fixed is not necessarily to be regretted, or the fluid to be celebrated. Capitalism is endlessly fluid, whereas the demand that the Israelis stop mistreating the Palestinians should be unwavering. The belief that the malleable is always preferable to the immovable is a postmodern cliché. There is a good deal about human history which ought not to alter (educating our children, for example), and quite a lot of change which is deeply undesirable. Change and permanence are not related to each other as radicalism is to conservatism.

The opposition between change and continuity is not the same thing as the opposition between the cause of righting injustices and the cause of preserving them – and it doesn’t do anyone any favours to pretend that it is the same thing, unless there’s anyone whose interests are served by confusion. Similarly, the opposition between radicalism and caution is not the same thing as the opposition between what can realistically be achieved and what can’t. Boldness of vision may be a political virtue (the Skidelsky who worshipped at the shrine of Mosley certainly thought it was) but boldness alone doesn’t overrule reality. On the contrary, the truly bold vision is the one which identifies a real opportunity for change and formulates it in way that makes it realisable. The true critique of political caution, in some historical conditions, is precisely that it isn’t adequate to reality.

But those conditions can’t be conjured by an act of philosophical will – or by the exercise of imperial force. Under current conditions, Skidelsky’s ‘crazily unrealistic’ ideas suggest nothing so much as a longing for somebody – or a lot of uniformed somebodies – to get stuck in and cut the knot of rebarbative reality. But the point is not to erase our starting conditions but to work within them. Debord had it right, again: “A critique seeking to go beyond the spectacle must know how to wait.”

Never be your woman

Will:

Yesterday I was giving a talk on the egocentricity of the digital revolution … and afterwards stood around chatting to some media lecturers, all seemingly left wing intellectuals. They were dolefully discussing how their students showed no interest in criticising brainless, celebrity-obsessed and pornographic magazines, deeming it to be purely a matter of choice what one reads, and whether a woman chooses to be photographed naked. One of these academics said that it is only around five years since every class contained at least one out-spoken feminist, but that these have either disappeared, or been silenced by a new majoritarian view that it is arrogant/pretentious to take up political positions in such a way.

Five years. The Blair government has coincided with an important generational-cultural shift, just as the Wilson government did 30 years earlier. If racism and sexism started to become unacceptable in the late 60s, thanks to a post-war generation that refused to accept them, then perhaps the defence of rights started to become unacceptable in the late 90s thanks to a post-Thatcher generation that refuses to accept it, on the basis that political rights arrogantly trump consumer rights.

Today the newspapers report that sexual harassment of teachers and pupils in schools is widespread, and that girls are starting to accept sexist language as the norm … Have I simply dragged some value set from the distant past, which I want to see imposed upon this new social avant garde? My sense of frustration about this is doubtless no more morally sincere or keenly felt than that of the 60s conservatives, who despaired at what the kids were doing then. In each case, a moral gulf opens up, and politics struggles in vain to bridge it.

If history really is repeating itself, expect to see a ‘conservative’ backlash, whereby those born between 45-79 seize power and attempt to force some traditional values on the youth (more or less what we’re already seeing, even from Ken Livingstone), followed by a bright new political dawn around 2020, in which a young fresh-faced child of Thatcher marches down Downing Street in a hoodie, swigging from an alco-pop, and announcing in faux-cockney tones that he’s a pretty straight guy who used to be into 50 Cent.

The horror, the horror.

I don’t know about the last paragraph – I just kept it in because it’s funny. The part about sexism is interesting, though. Here’s a comment I posted on Will’s blog:

I am not a Hegelian… oh all right then, I’m a recovering Hegelian… but I think there’s more historical cunning at work than your academic friends allow. As little as thirty years ago, it was widely assumed that women’s only roles were to be decorative and look after children; women who ‘made it in a man’s world’ were freakish oddities. (When Thatcher became leader of the Tory Party, a popular slogan on the left was ‘Ditch the Bitch’. Right on, brother.) If seventies feminists did a lot of shouting, they had a lot to shout about.

So it’s true on one level that magazines like Nuts and FHM take us back forty years, to the days of Titbits and Reveille – and it’s true that pornographic imagery is degrading, oppressively so when it’s ubiquitous. But it’s also true that some of the core feminist arguments have been won, or at least conceded. The very language in which these students defend those magazines reflects the radical liberalism of mainstream feminism, or of the mainstreaming of feminism: why shouldn’t a woman be a doctor/bus-driver/MP/astronaut? why shouldn’t a woman go where she likes and wear what she likes? why shouldn’t a woman take her clothes off for the cameras if she wants to?

Feminism also meant a much harder set of arguments, having to do with dignity rather than freedom of action. These are questions of what’s good for women as women – and, more importantly, who gets to decide. I’d say that the problem on this front isn’t that the gains of women’s liberation have been rolled back, so much as that they were never really made. “Women shouldn’t have to look sexy all the time” is a fine liberal argument – it’s a subset of the belief that nobody should have to do anything. “Women shouldn’t be expected to look sexy” is another matter, and finds a lot of liberals on the other side of the fence – after all, why shouldn’t people have expectations of one another, and why shouldn’t people sometimes choose to comply with other people’s expectations?

It’s an argument which was never really won – and, I would argue, it’s come back to bite us in the shape of the hijab debate. Twice over, in fact: advocates of hijab play a distorted and sexist version of the dignity argument (“why should a woman be expected to put herself on display?”) while advocates of other people’s right to wear hijab play a version of liberalism that seems equally distorted by sexism (“why shouldn’t a woman have the right to shield herself from prying eyes?”).

So I think you can add to your list of prophecies that feminism will be back, but it won’t be so liberal next time. And it’ll probably be wearing a pinafore dress over jeans. (Why do people do that? Women mainly.)


While I’m in philosophical mode, a swift plug for Clive‘s dissection of Blair’s weird and sinister maunderings on the ‘social contract’, which he seems to want to replace with… well, an actual contract (only this time round they would impose it on us, not the other way round). I rarely succeed in getting through Blair’s statements, what with being overcome by outrage, panic or sheer pedantic irritation (no, look, it doesn’t mean that). Fortunately Clive is made of sterner stuff.


Q: Why is the Italian government letting convicted fraudsters out of prison?
A: It’s all because of the Christian Democrats.
Q: But the Christian Democrats ceased to exist over a decade ago, didn’t they?
A: Indeed they did, my knowledgeable questioner. But they’re still making the political weather.
Q: Oh. What’s that about then?
A: Read “Open up the nicks“, new from me at the Sharpener. The second in a six-monthly series of commentaries on Italian politics. Possibly more interesting than it sounds. (I can’t really tell – I mean, it sounds pretty interesting to me…)

They don’t know about us

Some dystopian thoughts on data harvesting, usage tracking, recommendation engines and consumer self-expression. First, here’s Tom, then me:

“This is going to be one of the great benefits of ambient/pervasive computing or everyware – not the tracking of objects but the tracking and collating of you yourself through objects.”

This sentence works just as well with the word ‘benefits’ replaced by ‘threats’. It all depends who gets to do the tracking and collating, I suppose.

Now here’s Max Levchin, formerly of Paypal, and his new toy Slide (via Thomas):

If Slide is at all familiar, it’s as a knockoff of Flickr, the photo-sharing site. Users upload photos, which are displayed on a running ticker or Slide Show, and subscribe to one another’s feeds. But photos are just a way to get Slide users communicating, establishing relationships, Levchin explains.

The site is beginning to introduce new content into Slide Shows. It culls news feeds from around the Web and gathers real-time information from, say, eBay auctions or Match.com profiles. It drops all of this information onto user desktops and then watches to see how they react.

Suppose, for example, there’s a user named YankeeDave who sees a Treo 750 scroll by in his Slide Show. He gives it a thumbs-up and forwards it to his buddy” we’ll call him Smooth-P. Slide learns from this that both YankeeDave and Smooth-P have an interest in a smartphone and begins delivering competing prices. If YankeeDave buys the item, Slide displays headlines on Treo tips or photos of a leather case. If Smooth-P gives a thumbs-down, Slide gains another valuable piece of data. (Maybe Smooth-P is a BlackBerry guy.) Slide has also established a relationship between YankeeDave and Smooth-P and can begin comparing their ratings, traffic patterns, clicks and networks.

Based on all that information, Slide gains an understanding of people who share a taste for Treos, TAG Heuer watches and BMWs. Next, those users might see a Dyson vacuum, a pair of Forzieri wingtips or a single woman with a six-figure income living within a ten-mile radius. In fact, that’s where Levchin thinks the first real opportunity lies – hooking up users with like-minded people. “I started out with this idea of finding shoes for my girlfriend and hotties on HotOrNot for me,” Levchin says with a wry smile. “It’s easy to shift from recommending shoes to humans.”

If this all sounds vaguely creepy, Levchin is careful to say he’s rolling out features slowly and will only go as far as his users will allow. But he sees what many others claim to see: Most consumers seem perfectly willing to trade preference data for insight. “What’s fueling this is the desire for self-expression,” he says.

Nick:

I’m not sure that I see, in today’s self-portraits on MySpace or YouTube or Flickr, or in the fetishistic collecting of virtual tokens of attention, the desire to mark one’s place in a professional or social stratum. What they seem to express, more than anything, is a desire to turn oneself into a product, a commodity to be consumed. And since, as I wrote earlier, “self-commoditization is in the end indistinguishable from self-consumption,” the new portraiture seems at its core narcissistic. The portraits are advertisements for a commoditized self

Granny Weatherwax:

“And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is. … People as things, that’s where it starts.”

More precisely, that’s where some extraordinarily unequal and dishonest social relationships can start.

Remembering Judy Garland [1]

From the memoirs of Sir Frederick William Jefferson Bodine.

I’ll never forget Judy Garland. So few artistes have the compassion that she so often showed. That poor man, I remember she said to me once – he’s been cleaning all those windows and now he’s leaning on a lamp post at the corner of the street, doesn’t he ever get to sit down? She actually sought out George Formby and sent him a note, with a signed photograph and a rather nice armchair. I don’t know what became of it, though, I never actually worked with George.

Our paths did cross once, now I think of it, over a matter of pastiche and travesty rights. Remember young Alfie Gainsborough? Much the finest ex-Services George Formby impressionist of his day, on the Wirral circuit at least. To begin with he didn’t have the clothes for the part, you see, and after a time we made a feature of it – we got him billed as ‘Khaki’ Gainsborough. Worked like a charm – they loved him in Heswall, I can tell you. (Well, they clapped.)

Anyway, Alfie lugged his ukulele up and down the A540 for a couple of years, but after a while he decided to look further afield. So we relaunched him in France. He had to make a few changes, obviously: the uke had to go, for a start. The songs got a lot slower, and of course their lyrics had to be translated into French, pretty much in their entirety. Even then, they didn’t really take to him. Eventually I realised the name was giving us problems: we’d changed everything else, but Alfie was still going out with an English name. So out went ‘Khaki’ Gainsborough and in came ‘Serge’ Gainsbourg.

The rest of course is history: where Heswall led, the Left Bank could only follow. As time went by Alfie had more and more difficulties adapting the old George Formby material; he often told me he was working on a new version of ‘the window song’, but nothing ever came of it. That said, one of Alfie’s biggest hits was adapted from an old Formby number, albeit one that George’s people would never let him release – it was called “When I’m Between Your Kidneys”. Racy little number, as I recall.

That was with the Birkin girl, of course. Lovely girl – daughter of a judge, I believe. She’d known Alfie back home, you see, and quite by chance she ran into him in Paris one day. She was quite taken aback by his appearance, apparently, and she blurted out, “Qu’est-ce que c’est donc de quoi il s’agit dans l’ensemble, Alfie?” She was concerned that he’d become a little too French, you see; she wanted him to lose the strings of onions, you know, and the stripey jumper, and the red wine and the Gauloises and the womanising. I suppose one out of five isn’t too bad.

Marvellous career, he had, Alfie – influential in all sorts of ways. Take young Whitney Houston – she’d never have had that big hit of hers if not for Alfie. She actually jotted down the first draft straight after their meeting; it was originally called “I Will Always Love You (If You’ll Get This Ghastly Frenchman Out Of My Face)”. But do you know, ‘the window song’ evaded Alfie to the last. In the end he handed it over to an old Forces friend who’d also set up on the Continent – Jack ‘Clanger’ Bell (or ‘Clanger’ Brel as he preferred to be known by that time). Old Clanger turned it round in no time:

Les oiseaux noirs du désespoir
Ne chantent pas seulement pour toi -
Ils chantent doucement pour moi,
Quand je lave les fenêtres!

“The black birds of despair sing sweetly for me, when I’m cleaning windows” – rather nice in its way. They wouldn’t have it in Hoylake, mind you. Funny thing, years later little Dirk McCartney got hold of that song and tried to translate it back into English. Missed the whole point, though – lost the windows for one thing. No professionalism, these youngsters.

Just the power to charm

Dave:

In a post yesterday, I pointed out that Tony Blair – currently in Pakistan to meet president Pervez Musharraf – at least did not feel the need to salute the military dictator’s ‘courage, strength and indefatigability’, as George Galloway famously did on meeting Saddam Hussein.

But I’ve just heard the World at One on Radio Four. There was Blair, praising Musharraf’s ‘courage and his leadership in taking Pakistan on this journey of change and modernisation’.

Modernisation, eh? This touches on something Chris wrote recently:

[the] invocation of modernity is one of Blair’s common rhetorical tropes … Managerialists like Blair don’t like the language of value judgment and choices. So they try to pass these off as things that are inevitable, modern. David Marquand has said that this is the “myth” of New Labour:
There is one modern condition, which all rational people would embrace if they knew what it was. The Blairites do know. It is on that knowledge that their project is based, and by it that their claim to power is validated.

One more quote, this one from myself back in 1997:

Perhaps the strongest theme in the repertoire of New Labour – certainly the most inspirational – is that one word: New. Curiously, among the true believers – many of whom seem to be former Communists – the fervour for ‘renewal’ coexists with a passion for ‘realism’: a fierce disdain for anyone advocating reforms which would actually redistribute power or wealth. Ultimately the two enthusiasms seem to spring from the same source: the convulsive, triumphant abandonment of all those things Kinnock and Smith spent years edging away from. It must be quite a relief to admit that you don’t really oppose the status quo – nuclear weapons, privatised railways, 40% top rate of tax and all: it must feel like coming home. What is new about New Labour, in short, is that the party doesn’t plan to change anything fundamental and it admits it. (This combination of ideas also enables the party’s ideologues to claim that Labour’s policies had to change because they were ‘old’: a deeply dishonest presentation of a transformation which was entirely political, and by no means inevitable.)

Like David Marquand, I think there’s more going on here than ‘managerialism’. ‘Modern’, in its New Labour usage, reminds me strongly of the old Communist term ‘progressive’. Both terms have an emptily circular quality – the leaders of New Labour (or the CP) call for commitment to the progressive cause (or modern values), but the only way to find out if a specific policy is modern (or progressive) is to ask if it’s supported by the leadership of the Party (or the Party leadership). At the same time, however, progress (or modernity) is seen as a real political value, rousing genuine commitment – even fervour – in Party loyalists. To be modern, as Marquand suggests, is to be cutting with the grain of history. Things are changing, in ways nobody can resist; great forces of historical change are working their purpose out in the world. (The pseudo-religious language is deliberate; Christopher Hill suggested in The world turned upside down that one way to understand the Puritanical sense of being part of a blessed revolutionary elect may be to think of the Marxist sense of working for the forces of historical progress. And, perhaps, vice versa.) ‘Modernisation’ (or ‘progress’) is both a world-historical force and a tangible fact; the only question is whether we are going to let ourselves be crushed by the steamroller or climb aboard – and, posed in those terms, the question answers itself.

But the emptiness of the concept remains. In 2006 as in 1997, for Blair to describe something as ‘modern’ means nothing more specific than that he supports it and anyone who opposes it is deluded. The positive content of ‘modernity’, in other words, is all in the type of commitment it evokes; the term itself is purely rhetorical, and can be applied to any policy, any regime, any change, any resistance to change. What interests me about Blair’s invocations of ‘modernity’, in other words, is not the indiscriminateness with which he sprays them around, but the reverse. If we could track the specific ideas, things and people Blair has identified as ‘modern’ over the years, I suspect it would give us a pretty good picture of how Blair’s thinking has evolved – and of which specific all-powerful historical forces have populated his personal cosmology at different times. In 1997 ‘modernity’ had something to do with Thatcherism; now, apparently, it has something to do with Pervez Musharraf.

Mistakes were made

The incomparable Emma Brockes has turned music critic:

The orchestral arrangements for [the ballet] Chroma were commissioned last year by Richard Russell, head of the XL record label, as a gift to the White Stripes’ Jack and Meg White. Three of their songs, The Hardest Button To Button, Aluminium and Blue Orchid, were re-arranged by Joby Talbot of Joy Division

I’ve commented before now on my admiration for Joby Talbot; he’s a bright lad. But he was never a member of Joy Division – not least because the band ceased to exist when he was nine years old. A howler like that could be quite embarrassing for Ms Brockes (and her editors). It’s just as well nobody’s likely to read this stuff. It’s only a ballet review, after all.

On the front page. Of the Saturday edition.

Everything new is old again

Printed in iSeries NEWS UK, February 2006

Everybody’s talking about Web 2.0! Web 2.0 offers a whole new way of looking at the Web, a whole new way of developing applications and a whole new way of making enough money to retire on for some irritating bunch of American students who dream up applications you can’t see the point of anyway! Web 2.0 is different because it’s a whole new departure from the old ways of doing things – and what makes it new is that it’s so different.

Web 2.0 breaks all the rules. The rigid document-based format of HTML became a universal computing standard in the early days of the Internet, some time around Web 0.9 [Can we check this? - Ed]. Web 2.0 emerged when a few pioneering developers broke with this orthodoxy, insisting that a page-based document markup language like HTML was better adapted to marking up page-based documents than to running high-volume transaction processing systems. With the industry still reeling from the shockwaves of this revelation, an alternative approach was unveiled. The key Web 2.0 methodology of AJAX – Asynchronous Javascript And XML – breaks the dominance of the HTML page. Now, applications can be built using pages which are dynamically reshaped, driven by back-end databases and the program logic defined by developers. Screen input fields can even be highlighted or prompted individually, without needing to refresh the entire screen! It’s this kind of innovation that makes Web 2.0 so different.

What’s more, it’s new. Web 2.0 is not in any way old – it’s not even similar to anything old! Some people have compared the excitement about Web 2.0 with the dotcom boom of the late 1990s. It’s true that Web 2.0 is likely to involve the proliferation of new companies which you’ve never heard of, and most of which you’ll never hear of again. However, there are three significant differences. The typical dotcom company raised big money from investors, spent it, then got bought out for small change by an established business. By contrast, the typical Web 2.0 company raises small change from investors, spends it, then gets bought out for big money by an established dotcom business. Secondly, dotcoms usually had a speculative long-term business case and a meaningless name interspersed with capital letters; they also used buzzwords beginning with a lower-case e. By contrast, Web 2.0 companies generally have a speculative short-term business case and a meaningless name interspersed with extraneous punctuation marks; also, their buzzwords tend to begin with a lower-case i. Finally, Web 2.0 is quite different from the dotcom boom, which took place in the late 1990s and so is now quite old. Web 2.0, on the other hand, is new, which in itself makes it different.

Above all, Web 2.0 is here to stay. In the wake of the dotcom boom, dozens of unprepared startups crashed and burned. As the painful memories of WebVan and boo.com faded, little remained of the brave new world of e-business: these days there are only a couple of major players in each of the main e-business niche areas, and some of them are subsidiaries of bricks-and-mortar businesses, which is cheating. By contrast, the big names of Web 2.0 are all around us. In the field of tagging and social networking alone, there’s the innovative picture tagging and social networking company Flickr (now owned by Yahoo!); there’s the groundbreaking bookmark tagging and social networking company del.icio.us (now owned by Yahoo!); and let’s not forget the unprecedented social network tagging company Dodgeball (now owned by Google). Meanwhile blogging, that quintessential Web 2.0 tool, guarantees that fresh new voices will continue to be heard, thanks in no small part to quick-and-easy blog hosting companies like Blogger (now owned by Google) and the new kid on the block, Myspace (now owned by Rupert Murdoch).

Web 2.0 is new, it’s different, and above all, it’s here – and it’s here to stay! So get down and get with it and get hep to the Web 2.0 scene, daddy-o! [Can we check this as well? - Ed] Don’t say ‘programming’, say ‘scripting’! Don’t say ‘directory’, say ‘tags’! Don’t say ‘DoubleClick’, say ‘Google AdSense’!

And don’t say ‘hype’. Please don’t say that.

Got a web between his toes

Now that Nick has read the last rites for Web 2.0, perhaps it’s safe to return to a question that’s never quite been resolved.

To wit: what is Web 2.0? (We’ve established that it’s not a snail.) Over at What I wrote, I’ve just put up a March 2003 article called “In Godzilla’s footprint“. In it, I asked similar questions about e-business, taking issue with the standard rhetoric of ‘efficiency’ and ‘empowerment’. I suggested that e-business wasn’t – or rather isn’t – a phenomenon in its own right, but the product of three much larger trends: standardisation, automation and externalisation of costs. (Read the whole thing.)

Assuming for the moment that I called this one correctly – and I find my arguments pretty persuasive – what of Web 2.0? More of the same, only featuring the automation of income generation (AdSense) and the externalisation of payroll costs (‘citizen journalism’)? Or is there more going on – and if so, what?

Update 16/11

It would be remiss of me not to give any pointers to my own thinking on Web 2.0. So I’m republishing another column at What I wrote, this time from February of this year. Most of you will probably have seen it the first time round, when it appeared in iSeries NEWS UK, but I think it’s worth giving it another airing. Have a gander.

In Godzilla’s footprint

Published in e-Pro magazine, March 2003

Monster movies never give you a good view of the monster until halfway through. Representing Godzilla through one enormous footprint — or even one enormous foot — is a good way of building up suspense. It’s also realistic: if Godzilla came to town, one scaly foot would be all that most people ever saw.

Some things are so big they’re hard to see. Although e-business is making some huge changes to the way we live and work, we don’t often think about where it’s coming from and why. Asked to identify trends driving e-business, analysts tend to resort to general statements about business efficiency or customer empowerment. Alternatively, we get the circular argument which identifies e-business as a response to competitive pressures—pressures which are intensified by the growth of e-business.

The real trends driving the evolution of e-business are at once more specific and more far-reaching. Moreover, these trends affect everyone from the B2C customer at home to the IBM board of directors, taking in the hard-pressed WebSphere developer on the way.

The first trend is standardization. On the client side, there is now only one ‘standard’ browser. A friend of mine recently complained about a site which was not rendering properly (in Navigator 7.0). The Webmaster — presumably a person of some technical smarts — replied, “This is not a problem with our site, but your browser. I am running Windows 98 with IE 5.50 and everything displays perfectly.” At the back end, conversely, the tide of standards rolls on—from CORBA to XML to SOAP to ebXML. Interoperability between servers is too important for any company, even Microsoft, to stand in its way.

Whether standards are set by mutual agreement or by the local 800-pound gorilla is secondary; however it’s achieved, standardization has fostered the development of e-business, and continues to do so. The effect is to commoditize Web application servers and development tools; this in turn promotes the development of a single standard application platform, putting ‘non-standard’ platforms and environments under competitive pressure. From OS/400 to Windows 2000, platforms which diverge from the emerging Intel/Linux/Apache norm are increasingly being forced to justify themselves.

The second trend is automation. Since the dawn of business computing, payroll savings have been an ever-present yardstick in justifying IT projects. E business continues this trend with a vengeance. Whether you’re balancing your bank account or making a deal for office supplies in a trading exchange, you’re interacting with an IT system where once — only a few years ago — you would have had to deal with a human being. The word processor was the end of the line for shorthand typists; e-business is having a similar effect on growing numbers of skilled clerical employees. The next step, promised by Microsoft and IBM alike, is an applications development framework so comprehensive that business analysts and end users will be able to generate entire systems: even application development will be automated. (No, I don’t believe it either, but are you going to bet against IBM and Microsoft?)

The third trend is externalization of costs. Not long ago, if you asked a shop to deliver to your home, you could expect to see a van with the name of the shop on the side. Place an order online today, and your goods may well be delivered by a self-employed driver working with a delivery service contracted to an order fulfillment specialist. Talk of ‘disintermediation’ as a trend in e-business is wide of the mark. By offering more agile, flexible and transparent inter-business relationships, e business makes it possible for intermediaries to proliferate, each contracting out its costly or inconvenient functions. On the B2C front, meanwhile, operating costs are increasingly passed on to the customer: I sometimes spend far longer navigating a series of Web forms than it would take to give the same details to a skilled employee.

A drive for standardization, forcing all platforms into a single generic framework; automation for all, cutting jobs among bank tellers and programmers alike; businesses concentrating ruthlessly on core functions, passing on costs to partners and customers. These trends have had a huge impact on IT and society at large — and there’s more to come. In the e-business world, we’re all in Godzilla’s footprint.

Still wearing flares

Do you have some jeans that you really love,
Ones that you feel so groovy in ?
You don’t even mind if they start to fray
That only makes them nicer still

I don’t have a lot in common with Donovan Leitch, but I can agree with him on this one. I wore the jeans that I really love last weekend, briefly – they were £5 from Dunne’s Stores and worth every penny – but I had to change out of them later; the fraying certainly makes them nicer still in my eyes, but it’s reached a point where few other people are likely to share this view.

In short, they’re now my decorating jeans. For wearing outside the house, they had to be replaced some time ago, even at the cost of another fiver. (It’s a good five years since I stopped paying proper money for jeans. Not having a permanent job will do that.) On that occasion Dunne’s Stores came up with a bit of a curate’s egg: a pair of jeans whose cloth is a pleasure to behold in both weight and texture, but whose cut features a high waist and what I believe professional tailors refer to as a huge baggy arse. I tried to persuade myself I’d get used to the style, but it was no good – I had to haul the waistband up to my navel, which left me feeling as if I was auditioning for the Drifters.

So it was back to the mostly-reliable Dunne’s Stores, where a “20% off” promotion gave me a third pair of jeans for a mere £3.20. (I know, but I wasn’t going to argue.) The cloth isn’t as nice this time round, but at least the waist is where it ought to be. The cut of this pair does have one disconcerting feature, though: the leg’s got a slight flare.

I haven’t worn flares since 1977. For the benefit of readers who don’t immediately understand that statement (I know that some will), 1977 was when everything changed: music changed (both what it sounded like and who could make it); politics changed (what mattered and who could say so); and, perhaps most enduringly, trousers changed. Robert Elms said once that punk was first and foremost a trouser revolution, and I have to admit that the slimy little soulboy has a point. I was wearing flares in 1972 (and the kids I looked up to were wearing big flares). I was wearing flares in 1975; at my sister’s wedding in that year I wore a brushed denim suit with aircraft-carrier lapels and, yes, big flares. I was forcibly reminded of that suit this summer – the evidence is preserved in my sister’s wedding photographs, a set of which we found when we were sorting out my mother’s things. (Not visible in the picture is a pair of fudge-brown platform shoes with chocolate-brown piping, of which I was enormously proud. Those were different times.)

Come 1977, I was still wearing flares – at least at the beginning of the year. And, if you were around at the time, so were you. The flares, the wide lapels, even the platform soles became mainstream after a while; the soberest ‘business suit’ would have broad lapels and a discreet flare. One of the less obvious changes made by punk was to banish the flare and return jacket lapels to their previous modest, Graham Parker-ish proportions. Punk, in short, didn’t just change what the kids wore; it changed what the next generation of kids wore, and even what the kids’ parents wore. By 1979, if you were wearing flares, you were by definition still wearing flares. It’s hard to imagine any subsequent wave of musical fashion – the cocktails and zoot suits of the early 1980s, say, or the tatty jeans and lumberjack shirts of grunge – having effects as far-reaching as this.

The 1970s, it seems to me, really were different times. Looking through my mother’s old photographs – and there were plenty of them; even the ones taken by my father go back to 1950 – I was suddenly struck by how different the clothes didn’t look. Show me a flared trouserleg and an acre of lapel, and I immediately know we’re in the early 1970s – but where were the blatantly obvious fashion statements which signalled the 1960s, the 1950s, even the 1980s? Before and after the 1970s, people just seemed to be wearing stuff.

There’s a school of fashion writing, associated in particular with men’s tailoring, which I find unutterably boring; I just don’t understand how Elms (among many others) can get excited about the presence of four cuff-buttons instead of three, or about a chalk stripe being 1/12th of an inch across instead of 1/16th. A set of those tiny differences adds up to a whole different style, I realise that – and consequently much of the history of fashion is ultimately about these tiny differences. I realise that, but it doesn’t move me. Why should I choose between white and pale blue when I’d rather choose turquoise? Why should I agonise over switching from dove-grey to battleship-grey, when I could be wearing jet black with a purple lining? And if I couldn’t, why not?

The history of counter-cultural fashion (hippie, punk, goth) is the history of sweeping challenges like these, just as the history of mainstream fashion isn’t. Perhaps what happened in the 1970s – something that may never have happened before or since – was that the boldness of a particular counter-cultural fashion went so unchallenged for so long that it actually permeated the mainstream. (It’s only a shame it had to be that particular fashion.)

Or perhaps I’m just more conscious of fashions that were around when I was a teenager.

The curse of the underground

I’ve started another blog, What I Wrote. As well as being a homage to the second greatest double-act ever, it’s a home for relatively long-format stuff that I’ve written but not blogged – articles for the radical press, columns for small-circulation magazines, position papers for now-defunct organisations, and various pieces that somebody should have published but nobody did. Not that I’m trying to put you off or anything. There’s going to be some funny stuff in there too.

I’ve kicked it off with two pieces, one written in 1997 about why I hadn’t just voted Labour and one from 1993 about the former Yugoslavia. I’ll be updating it a couple of times a week – I’ve got what’s technically known as a bunch of stuff to draw on – so stay tuned, or indeed subscribed.

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