A man he may grow

Michael Rosen’s written a long and thoughtful piece about his experience of the grammar school system in the 1950s. I don’t know if it’s going to appear in print or on a higher-profile blog, but at the moment it’s just a post on his own blog – and he’s such a prolific poster that it’s going to roll off the bottom of the front page at any moment.

So catch it while you can – it’s a must-read for anyone who’s interested in the debate around grammar schools, or interested in debates about selective education, or secondary education in general. And anyone who’s got kids at school, has kids at school or is ever likely to. And anyone who went to a grammar school, or a selective school, or a comprehensive, or a secondary modern… Basically, you should read this.

It rings so many bells, both positively and negatively (really? we didn’t do that) that I’m tempted to live-blog my reactions to it, but that would be rather self-indulgent. I’ll just mention one small detail of Rosen’s story. He mentions that he was born in 1946, his mother’s second son, and that she died in 1976, aged 55. My own mother had her 55th birthday in 1976; I had my 16th. The coincidence of one date, and the differences of the others, raise all sorts of questions. I can’t begin to imagine my life if my mother had died in her 50s; it was hard enough when it did happen, thirty years later. Then: is it easier for an adult to lose a parent who dies relatively young? Then: easier than what?

But back to school, and a detail of Rosen’s story that sparked off a problem-solving train of thought. He writes:

the pass rate for the 11-plus wasn’t the same for boys and girls and it wasn’t the same from area to area. That’s to say, it panned out at the time that girls were generally better than boys at passing this exam. However, the places for boys and girls was split evenly between us. Somehow or another they engineered what was in reality something like a 55-45% split into a 50-50% cent split. Clearly, some five per cent of girls were serious losers in this and some five per cent of boys some kind of gainers – at least as far as the system thought of us.

But that last sentence can’t be right.

Say for the sake of simplicity that the children taking the test were evenly divided between boys and girls, rather than being 49:51 or 48:52. Then we want to know how many kids passed, and then how many were pushed up or down to even up the figures. Another thing I learned from Rosen’s post is that the pass rate varied from region to region(!), depending on the availability of grammar school places(!!), but let’s forget that for the moment and assume that about one in five passed the 11-plus (in fact the proportion ranged from 30% down to 10%).

So we’ve got, oh, let’s say 10,000 kids, made up of 5,000 boys and 5,000 girls, and 2,000 of them are going to Grammar School, the lucky so-and-so’s. Now, 55% of those 2,000 – 1,100 – are girls, and only 900 are boys. So we need to balance things up, and we skim off the dimmest 100 girls who passed and promote the brightest 100 boys who didn’t (each and every one of whom is officially less bright, and hence less able to benefit from grammar school, than the 100 girls we’ve just sent to the secondary mod, but we avert our eyes at this point).

So that’s 5% of girls demoted, 5% of boys promoted? No – it’s 100/5000, or 2%. When you massage that 55% down to 50%, the 5% that’s lost is 5% of the cohort that passed the exam (male and female), not of the girls (passed and failed). You could also say that the really serious losers – the ones who have been unfairly discriminated against even by the system’s own standards – are 100 out of the 1,100 girls who passed: roughly 9.1%. The serious gainers, on the other hand, are 100 out of the 4,100 boys who failed, roughly (reaches for calculator) 2.4%.

So there you go: applied maths for real-world problem-solving.

Clearly, some two per cent of girls (or nine per cent of the girls who passed the exam) were serious losers in this and some two per cent of boys some kind of gainers – at least as far as the system thought of us.

At which point I feel a bit like Babbage correcting Tennyson, but it’s right, dammit. And besides, without the maths I wouldn’t have arrived at the figure of nine per cent – for the girls who passed the eleven-plus but were artificially failed to even up the numbers – which is pretty shocking.

You divers bold

Here’s my version of Child ballad #68, variously known as “Young Hunting”, “Young Redin” and “Earl Richard”. It’s one of the strangest stories in a collection that has plenty of them. It’s not so much the supernatural elements which make it unusual as the fact that they’re essential to the resolution of the plot – a plot which is about a rather sordid murder case.

My text comes mostly from the version recorded by Tony Rose, who credited it to a folk singer called Pete Nalder. On looking at the original in Child’s collection (which is online) it turns out that Nalder did an extraordinary job piecing together a coherent song out of a disparate and fragmentary set of texts. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I’ve gone back to Child and tweaked it some more.

Here’s Nalder’s text and my text, and some notes on where it all comes from. Child has eleven versions, lettered A to K. Three of them – G, H and I – are short fragments; of the other eight, A and J tell a slightly different story, while D, E and F end (or break off) part way through. (It’s version 68F, more or less, that was later collected as “Earl Richard”; it’s been recorded by Spiers and Boden, among others.) B, C and K all tell the whole story. What Pete Nalder seems to have done, as you’ll see below, is to piece together a complete song from at least five different versions, probably B-E and J. For myself I either used or modified every verse of Nalder’s version except one (verse 13, the one with the “heavy smell”). I added three verses, all corresponding to verses in versions C and D. Like Nalder, I ended up using something from all of versions B, C, D, E and J.

A blank in Nalder’s column means I’ve added a verse; a blank in my column means I kept Nalder’s verse.

Pete Nalder Phil Edwards Child source
Title: Young Hunting Title: Earl Richard Young Hunting: A, K
Earl Richard: D, F, G
As she was a-walking all alone
Down in a leafy wood
She has heard the sound of a bridle rein
And she hoped that it might be for good.
The lady stood in her bower door
In her bower door she stood
She heard the sound of a bridle rein
And she hoped that it might be for good.
C, E, K
“Bower”: C
“Wood”: E
She thought it was her father dear
Come riding over the land
But it was her true love Earl Richard
Came riding to her right hand.
C (Note 1)
“Come down, come down, you fine young man,
You’re welcome home to me,
To my cosy bed and the charcoal red
And the candles that burns so free.”
“Come down, come down, young Earl Richard,
You’re welcome home to me,
To my cosy bed and the charcoal red
And the candles that burns so free.”
B-F, K
“stay the night”: B, C, F, K
“O I can’t come down and I won’t come down
Nor come into your arms at all
For a finer girl than ten of you
Is a-waiting beneath the town wall.”
B-F, K
“come into your arms”: E
“Oh well, a finer girl than ten of me
I wonder now how that might be?
For a finer girl than ten of me
I’m sure that you never did see.”
C, E
Then he has leaned him across his saddle
For a kiss before they did part,
And she has taken a keen, long knife
And she’s stabbed him to the heart.
C-F
Saying, “Lie there, lie there, you fine young man
Until the flesh it rots from your bones
And that finer girl than ten of me
Can weary wait in alone.”
Saying, “Lie there, lie there, young Earl Richard,
Until the flesh it rots from your bones
And that finer girl than ten of me
Can wearily wait alone.”
D-F
“Until the flesh it rots”: from Young Henry, a later American version
(D has “till the blood seeps from your bone”)
But as she walked up on the high highway
She’s spied a little bird up in a tree,
Saying, “O how could you kill that fine young man
As he was a-kissing of thee?”
 C-E, G, J
“Come down, come down, you pretty little bird
And sit upon my right knee,
And your cage shall be made of the glittering gold
And the spokes of the best ivory.”
 A-G, I-K
“I can’t come down and I won’t come down
Nor sit upon your right knee,
For as you did serve that fine young man
I know that you would serve me.”
 A-G, I-K
“O then I wish I had my bended bow
And my arrow close to my knee.
I would fire a dart that would pierce your heart
As you sit there a-piping on that tree.”
 D, F, I
“Ah, but you’ve not got your bended bow
And nor your arrows close to your knee.
So I’ll fly across the sea to that young man’s home
And I’ll tell them what I did see.”
“Ah, but you’ve not got your bended bow
Nor your arrows close to your knee.
So I’ll fly away to that young man’s home
And I’ll tell them what I did see.”
D, I
So she’s gone back to her own house
And she’s crossed the threshold with a moan,
And she has taken that fine young man
And she’s walled him behind a stone.
So she’s gone back to her own house
And she’s crossed the threshold with a moan,
And she has taken young Earl Richard
And she’s laid him upon a stone.
E (Note 2)
And she has kept that fine young man
For full three-quarters of a year
Till a heavy smell it began to spread
And it filled her heart with fear.
 Verse omitted E (Note 3)
So she’s called unto the servant girl
And this to her did say:
“There is a fine and a young man in my room
But it’s time that he was away.”
She’s called to her servant girl
And unto her did say:
“There is a fine and a young man in my room
But it’s time that he was away.”
E
B, D, F and J all have “there’s a dead man in my room”,
which is a bit less effective
So the one of them’s took him by the shoulders,
And the other one’s took him by the feet
And they’ve thrown his body in the River Clyde
That runs so clear and so sweet.
Body in the Clyde: A-C, H, J, K
Head and feet: E
Hands and feet: F
And the deepest spot in Clyde’s water
It’s there they’ve thrown Earl Richard in
And they laid a turf on his breast-bone
To hold his body down.
Deepest part of the river: A-C, K
Turf: A, K (Note 4)
And they had not crossed a rig of land,
A rig but barely one,
Before they saw his old father coming
A-riding all along.
D, J (“rig of land” only in J)
“O where you’ve been, my gay lady?
And where have you been so late?
For we’ve come a-seeking for my only son
Who used to visit your gate.”
“O where you’ve been, my gay lady?
And where have you been so late?
For I’ve come a-seeking for my eldest son
Who used to visit your gate.”
D, J
And there came a-seeking for this fine young man
Many lords and many knights.
And there came a-weeping for this fine young man
Full many’s the lady bright.
And there came a-seeking for young Earl Richard
Many lords and many knights.
And there came a-weeping for young Earl Richard
Full many’s the lady bright.
 B
Now the ladies turned them around and about
And they made such a mournful sound,
Saying, “We greatly fear that your son is dead
And he lies ‘neath the water and drowned.”
And the lady turned around and about
And she swore by sun and moon
Saying, “I never saw your son Earl Richard
Since yesterday morning at noon.”
A, J; G and K have the swearing but not the turning around (Note 5)
“I fear, I fear the Clyde’s waters
That run so swift and so deep
I fear, I fear your son has drowned
And under Clyde’s waters he does sleep.”
A, D, J (Note 6)
“So, who will dive from either bank
For gold and for fee?”
And the young men dived from either bank
But his body they could not see.
J; A and K have the unsuccessful diving but not the offer of gold
Then up and speaks that pretty little bird
A-sitting up high in the tree,
Saying, “O cease your diving, you divers bold,
For I’d have you to listen to me.”
 A, C, H, J, K
“And I’d have you to cease your day diving
And dive all into the night.
For under the water where his body lies
The candles they burn so bright.”
 A, C, H, J, K
So the divers ceased their day diving
And they dived all into the night.
And under the water where his body lay,
The candles they burned so bright.
 A, C, J, K
And they have raised his body up
From out the deepest part,
And they’ve seen the wound deep into his chest
And the turf all across his heart.
And they have raised Earl Richard up
From out the deepest part,
And they’ve seen the wound deep into his chest
And the turf all across his heart.
 A, J
And when his father did see this dreadful wound
He made such a mournful sound,
Saying, “O who has killed my only son
Who used to follow my hounds?”
And when his father did see this dreadful wound
He made such a mournful sound,
Saying, “Oh, who has killed my eldest son
Who held my hawk and hound?”
 J (Note 7)
Then up and speaks the pretty little bird,
Saying, “What needs all this din?
For it was his light leman took his life
And then threw his body in.”
Then up and spoke the pretty little bird,
Saying, “What needs all this din?
For it was his true love took his life
And then threw his body in.”
 J
“O blame not me,” the lady says,
“For it was the servant girl.”
So they built a fire of the oak and ash
And they put that servant girl in.
A, B, J
But the fire wouldn’t take upon her cheek
And the fire wouldn’t take upon her chin,
And nor would it take upon her hair
For she was free from the sin.
A, J; similar to B, C and H (Note 8)
And when the servant girl touched the clay cold corpse,
A drop it never bled.
But when the lady laid her hand upon it
The ground was soon covered with red.
B, C, J (phrasing from J)
So they’ve taken out the servant girl
And they’ve put the lady in.
And the fire it reached a ruddy red,
And all because of her sin.
A, B, J (Note 9)
And the fire took fast upon her cheek,
And the fire took fast upon her chin,
And it sang in the points of her yellow hair,
And ’twas all because of her sin.
A, B, J, K (third line from K)

Notes

  1. Nalder presents the key meeting as a chance encounter, making the lady’s violence seem more than usually excessive. Most Child versions have the victim as the lady’s “true love”.
  2. I felt all right about changing this, since in Child the lady doesn’t put the body either on or behind a stone. There is a stone in version E, but it’s her doorstep; it’s only really there for a rhyme.
  3. The nine-month time lag only appears in version E; I thought the song worked better if it was all happening in the same time frame. The ‘heavy smell’ was Nalder’s invention (in version E word begins to spread, which is a bit different). I don’t think it was a great idea – it’s bound to break the mood.
  4. I put this back in to prepare for the discovery of the tell-tale turf on the body when it’s brought to the surface.
  5. Child has the (guilty) ‘lady’ turning around and about and swearing (in versions A and J), not the ‘ladies’ (who only appear in version B). This was another case where I thought Nalder’s change worked less well than the source.
  6. The second half of this verse is my addition. I was pleased with the parallelism, although I’ve realised since that it’s not a true parallel (“I fear the waters” vs “I fear that your son is dead”).
  7. “Held my hawk and my hound” is straight from version J; I preferred it to “used to follow my hounds”, which conjures up images of the father as an MFH. On the other hand, both the original and Nalder’s version definitely have “only son”, not “eldest son”; it just came out like that, m’lud.
  8. Versions B, C and H are a bit nastier and more judgmental – they specify that it was only the servant’s hands that were burned by the fire, since she (or in version H he) had used them to help cover up the murder. Version B has an even more discriminating fire – it won’t burn the lady’s cheek and chin either, but only the “false arms” that had previously held the victim (which seems a bit harsh, considering that the story starts with him dumping her).
  9. The fire flaring up is a great detail, but it’s not in Child. In several versions the last couple of verses are longer than the rest, as the ballad writer tries to get more information in while keeping to the basic structure of one idea to each verse; I think Nalder made the right move by splitting this last verse in two, even though it means introducing another idea.

So that’s the work that goes on, or can go on, when you get a folk song out of a Child ballad; June Tabor did something similar when she turned Jamie Douglas (Child 204) into her song Waly Waly. When you look at the source, not one of Child’s recorded variants makes as good a song as Nalder’s composite version, and some of them are so fragmentary as to be unsingable. For instance, here’s version I in its entirety:

‘Come down, come down, thou bonnie bird,
Sit low upon my hand,
And thy cage shall be o the beaten gowd,
And not of hazel wand.’

‘O woe, O woe be to thee, lady,
And an ill death may thou die!
For the way thou guided good Lord John,
Soon, soon would thou guide me.’

‘Go bend to me my bow,’ she said,
‘And set it to my ee,
And I will gar that bonnie bird
Come quickly down to me.’

‘Before thou bend thy bow, lady,
And set it to thy ee,
O I will be at yon far forest,
Telling ill tales on thee.’

That’s your lot. Admittedly that’s an extreme example, but the only versions without any gaps are J and K, which miss out a lot of the early part of the story told by versions A-E.

I think what this brings home to me is just how hard it is to sustain one of the recurring myths of folk music – that it is (or ought to be) Folk Music, the music of the people; that revivalists are simply reviving songs that have fallen into disuse for a couple of decades or centuries, ultimately with a view to taking them back to the people who let them slip in the first place. If you want a singable version of Child 68, you can’t just pick up the text. (There’s also the unavoidable fact that the song in all its versions is written in Scots rather than English, although clearly that won’t be so much of an issue for some singers.) And picking up a text and working with it is what you do with any traditional song – whether it’s a Child ballad, a song that Cecil Sharp collected from a farmworker in 1904, or an unknown song that you’ve just found in a collection of Victorian broadsides.

I’m coming round to the view that folk music is essentially a bank of songs or a repertoire. A broadside, a Child ballad, a song collected from a farm labourer or a Traveller: these are all traditional songs, because they’re all from the accumulated traditional repertoire. And they’re still traditional songs – they’re still part of that repertoire – no matter how you piece the text together and no matter how you perform it.

Folk music as a body of songs is more or less complete, on this reckoning; there aren’t any folk songs being written, more or less by definition. Nor are the Beatles, Arctic Monkeys, Take That or whoever “the folk songs of the future”: there will be no folk songs of the future, because the traditional repertoire isn’t being laid down any more. But it’s there, and it’s big, and it’s a damn good repertoire.

This is what differentiates folk from popular music – but, intriguingly, brings it closer to classical music. When a folk audience hears a song like this one

they will already know it. That’s true for scores if not hundreds of songs, and for the real standards (like this one) it’s an understatement: they’ll know it inside out. They’ll know every word of the song and every note of the tune, and they’ll have heard it sung by several different people (at least seven in my case). What you’re listening to isn’t the song, it’s what the singer does with it. And a folk singer isn’t a folk prophet or a tribune of the people; just a specialist in a particular body of words and music. That’s good enough for me.

Dear Mr Echo

The council are consulting on the future of our local library and leisure centre. I say “library and leisure centre”, and that seems to be what we’re likely to end up with, but they’re currently two separate things; the library, in fact, is a Carnegie library, built before the First World War with money from the great American Republican philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. (Republicans were different then.) And I say “consulting”, but they’re doing it in their own particular way: they state that they’ve identified the three key priorities in libraries’n’leisure, and then ask if we’ve got anything we’d like to add.

The key priorities are:

  1. Facilities should be sited whenever possible in community hubs tailored to the specific needs and requirements of the surrounding neighbourhoods, where residents can access activities, information and advice and use self-service in one place.
  2. The Council should continue to work with commercial partners and external funding bodies to provide new facilities with the aim of improving customer satisfaction levels and reducing running costs.
  3. All Manchester City Council residents should live within a 20-minute walk, cycle ride or public transport journey of a high-quality swimming pool.

Auf Englisch:

  1. Facilities should be sited … in community hubs … activities, information and advice … in one place.
  2. The Council should … work with commercial partners and external funding bodies … with the aim of … reducing running costs.
  3. All Manchester City Council residents should live within a 20-minute … journey of a high-quality swimming pool.

In descending order of enthusiasm, I’m at best neutral about #3; it smacks of drawing circles on a map around three or four shiny new High-Quality Pools and closing the rest. I suspect that all Manchester residents do already live in reasonably easy reach of at least a ratty old local pool, and I suspect more people get more use out of pools that way. I’m suspicious of #1, particularly when the ‘facilities’ we’re talking about are (a) leisure centres featuring a swimming pool and (b) libraries – I can’t see any benefit to anyone in having a swimming-pool in a library, or vice versa. (Has somebody misread Alan Hollingshurst?) As for #2, no, I don’t believe that this is what the council should do; in fact, I think this just what the council should not do. This is a simple case of robbing Peter to pay Paul: the only way that running costs can be reduced (while also making a profit for those “commercial partners”) is by finding the money from somewhere else, by making users pay a bit more on the door or by driving down salaries and service levels. You’d end up, all being well, with a lower council tax, higher per-usage charges and lower salaries, and with profits being taken out of the system – all of which is, of course, the precise opposite of the principles on which council-funded services were set up in the first place.

But there wasn’t a box for that. So I contented myself by adding a fourth priority

All Manchester City Council residents should live within a 20-minute walk, cycle ride or public transport journey of a high-quality library.

Curious omission, that one.

There was also some stuff about what we’d like to see in our shiny new leisure centre (didn’t answer, never go) and what we’d like to see in our shiny new library (I carefully ticked everything that you can only do in a library – see below – and left everything else blank). Then I completed the demographic information at the end, which seemed more like owning-up than usual (Oh, OK, it’s just another Guardian-reader…). And now they’ve consulted me.

There are also proposals – or advance warnings – for what’s going to happen to the Central Library, which has been closed for refurbishment for a couple of years. Things don’t look quite as bad as Jamie suggested – it will be a library, with books – but I think he was right to be suspicious. Highlights:

New ideas, new technology and new storage methods mean we can accommodate a better, more modern library service and accommodate partner organisations, but still streamline and open up spaces, making a feature of this building’s impressive architecture.

We don’t want the new library to just be a place where you come if you have an essay to write. We want you to relax there, meet your friends, drink coffee, enjoy performances, go online or just browse for a few impulse take-home treats. We want you to consider the Central Library home-from-home, open for longer and open for everyone.

They’ve been talking for some time about doing something new and different (but library-based) with the Town Hall Extension. It turns out that the Town Hall Extension will house the extended Central Library (not to be confused with the Central Library, which will be in another building). The extended Central Library will offer… oh, everything. Well, nearly everything.

The extended Central Library will be integrated with a customer service centre providing a one stop shop front for Council services. Open for longer than ever before; the library will be packed with all the things you like best, from best-sellers to DVDs, music and computers. There’ll be something on our shelves for every taste.

This is where new technology will really play its part in making the library more convenient than it’s ever been. You’ll be able to browse online, then call to pick up what you’ve chosen, then issue it yourself with your library card. You’ll be able to download e-books and audio books from home or in the library.

Everyone will find a niche in the extended Central Library, there’ll be songs and stories for little ones in a bright and exciting children’s zone; young people will have a place of their own with computers for school or for gaming, plus books and study support. There’ll be a decent latte in the café and a comfy place to sit while you sip it. We’ll have quiet places and noisy places, you simply choose where you want to be that day. New layouts and technology will enable all types of visit, from groups working collaboratively on projects through to those who want to read the paper in peace.

To sum up:

In the past, libraries were all about books. Now they’re about people.

I responded to the consultation… no I didn’t, there wasn’t one. All of this is coming, ready or not – “quiet places and noisy places”, “partner organisations” and all. But the City Council’s Web pages all have a little “Was this information helpful?” feedback widget, like so:

So I left a comment there. I don’t know if anyone will ever read it, but you never know. It’s just a grumpy pushback, but sometimes a grumpy pushback is all there is to do. Here’s what I wrote:

Perhaps that last paragraph was meant to be provocative. If so, it’s succeeded.

What is the one thing that you can find in libraries and nowhere else? Books. Physical books, to search or browse through at random; books you’ve heard of but never seen, books you never knew existed, books you always wanted to read, books you never knew you wanted to read. Books that can be borrowed at no charge. Books, and lots of them.

A library is a place of discovery: it’s not a place to go for something you already want, it’s a place to go to find out what you want. And I know this may sound boring – I sometimes think the definition of a librarian is somebody who’s bored with books – but shelves of books do that job better than anything else. All that information, all those ideas, all those stories, packed into an object that fits into your pocket – and next to it, another one, and another, and another.

There’s no better aid to literacy – at any age, but especially for kids – than shelves of books, freely accessible, not being pushed at you by educational diktat or marketing hype, just sitting there waiting to be picked up and read. There are only two places in the world that can offer that, particularly to a child; one of them is a home well supplied with books, and most kids don’t have one of those. The other is a library. Turn a library into a cool multi-media meeting-place that isn’t “all about books” and you destroy the library.

Manchester City Council is one of those councils that were so Labour in the 80s that they effectively had a (right-wing, old-school) Labour council and a (left-wing) Labour opposition. The latter eventually took over, and they’ve been running on self-congratulation and a vague sense of shiny new radicalism ever since. Essentially they were New Labour avant la lettre, and they’re still New Labour now. And they’re still in charge.

It’s over there, it’s over there

I’m slightly long-sighted; I prefer to have the screen a good long way away from me when I’m working. Flat screens and compact keyboards make this more feasible than ever before. Unfortunately this also opens up large expanses of empty desk space, and you know what they say – nature abhors empty desk space.

I was looking for my library card just now – not my work library card or my main library card, but the card for the libraries in the next council area along, and not the actual card but a little dog-tag thing they gave me with my number printed on it; I’m sure I last saw it on my desk. (I wanted it because I’d cleared my browser history a week or so ago, in a vain attempt to get my bank’s online system to do what they said it should be doing, and it wiped my login for the OED online. Did you know you can log in to the OED online with a library card? The actual OED, online – check it out.)

Anyway, I can’t see the dog-tag thing. What I can see, working roughly from right to left, is:

seven ink cartridges (various colours)
a 1 TB external drive, sitting on top of a seemingly identical 500 GB drive
two identical beany cats, sitting on top of the 1 TB drive
a camera (my son’s)
a watch (my wife’s)
a rubber (my daughter’s)
two cork-backed coasters promoting Caraca Cane Beer
a small cube of blu-tack
a pencil
four pens
a wireless mouse
a keyboard (viz. the one I’m using)
a two-level desk tray (don’t ask me what’s in it, we’d be here all day)
a beermat promoting a local beer festival
a Woodbine and Ivy Band badge
an onyx egg
an E-topup card for my phone (never used, no idea what it’s doing on my desk)
the security code for my wireless network, printed out in case I ever need to key it in again
a friend’s address
a screen (the one I’m looking at)
the stylish black screen cloth supplied with the Mac, draped over the iSight lens (I’m assured by those who know that there is no possibility of the iSight activating without me knowing about it, but I still prefer to keep it covered)
a small papier-mache capybara, perched on the screen cloth
a wired mouse, kept handy for when the batteries in the wireless ditto run down
a post-it note with some indecipherable notes in my son’s writing
an ornamental dragon and a pair of chopsticks, brought back by my son from his trip to China
a fortune-cookie motto (“When winter comes Heaven will rain success on you”), acquired in January 2011 and subsequently disproved
a headphone adaptor
two watch batteries
an MP3 player
a sandstone cat (bought many years ago, originally intended as a present for my mother but never given to her)
a papier-mache ornament consisting of two human-looking cats sitting on a sofa (a present from my daughter)
two different USB leads
three memory sticks
the screw-on handle for a digital recorder
another pencil
two pairs of in-ear headphones
two paperclips
a card-reader (from the bank)
a page-a-day Countdown calendar
several old pages from page-a-day Countdown calendars, for when I feel the need of a nine-letter anagram to solve (this rarely happens)
two rubber bands
a ‘medal’ awarded to my team for coming second in a local treasure hunt
a handwritten copy of the code for my wireless network
most of a bar of ‘espresso chocolate’ which tasted like it had chilli in (put to one side until I worked out whether this was normal)
a wireless router (with, may I stress this, nothing on top of it)
a tin of paperclips
an SD card (unused)
one of those little plastic bags with two buttons in that you get with a new jacket (jacket unidentified)
some very small post-it notes
a six-inch ruler (not mine)
four more beermats (awaiting conversion to two double-sided coasters)
a round wooden pot with a perpetual calendar set into the lid
a digital recorder
a recorder (the instrument)
a high G whistle
a D whistle and a C whistle, in a cloth bag
three more D whistles (on loan from a friend); there’s usually another one as well, which is the one I actually play
two plastic rods for cleaning recorders
another pen
a small plastic bag containing a zither tuning key, a length of wire and two plectrums
a printer
a box full of assorted software and PC games, sitting on top of the printer
several more PC games, sitting on top of the box
an AAA battery
another paperclip
an Arctic Monkeys badge
a pile of books and papers (mostly either work- or folk-related, although for some reason the book at the bottom of the pile is Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)
a book of folk songs
a CAMRA membership pack (wonder what’s actually in there? I’ve spent all the JDW’s tokens, I do know that)
an Olympics brochure
another pile of books and papers (almost all work-related, although for some reason the book at the top of the pile is Tom Phillips’ A Humument)

My desk, in short, has every convenience; it’s going to make life easy for me. Hardly any clutter at all.

Wish I knew what I’d done with that library card, though.

Update 18th May
Obviously(?) there’s no great significance to this post, which I wrote mainly so as to get posting here again (and partly to shame myself into tidying my desk a bit). But there is one odd fact to report. There’s one object which I didn’t include on the list, even when I read it through after publishing it and made a couple of additions for the sake of completeness (they were “another pencil” and “another paperclip”, just to illustrate the level of completeness we’re talking about). It wasn’t lurking in a corner, either; it was sitting straight ahead of me, front and centre, between the Countdown calendar and the two USB leads.

It’s a wristwatch; it’s stopped working, which is why it’s on the desk (along with the two watch batteries, one of which I’d bought as a replacement). It’s not just any wristwatch, either; it’s my father’s old watch, handed down to me after he died. My father was bedridden for several months at the end; in fact he was in a hospital bed, which my mother had installed in their bedroom so that she could carry on looking after him. Apart from books, my father didn’t have that many personal possessions when he died; most of his clothes had already been given away, partly because he didn’t need to get dressed any more but mainly because the bed took up so much space that the wardrobe in the bedroom had to go. The books, for their part, stayed where they were until my mother died a few years later. So this watch is one of the few things that I (or anyone) can point to and say, that was his. (Another is his desk – which is an old-style drop-front bureau, and for that reason alone was never cluttered; my son uses it for his homework now.) I wasn’t particularly fond of my Dad’s watch; it’s got a metal bracelet, which I don’t like, and my father had only got it relatively recently, so it didn’t have any history for me. I had to be persuaded to take it when he died; I’m glad I did, though.

This was only my third watch; the second, which I’d had since I was 15, was a mechanical watch (they all were then) which I’d bought from an offer on a box of cornflakes, of all places. It was my father who brought it to my attention and lent me the money – it was about £7, as I remember, which was quite a lot for the mid-70s but well worth it. (I’ve still got it, but after two big repairs, several new glasses and uncountable replacement straps it reached a point where the next repair would cost more than it was worth.) All of which means that the watch I’m wearing – bought at the age of 51 – is the first I’ve ever owned which hasn’t had strong associations with my father.

I’ve been wondering what to do with my father’s watch now that it’s packed up; it’s not going out with the rubbish, for obvious reasons, but it can’t sit on my desk forever (despite some evidence to the contrary). I’ll probably find where I’ve put my (maternal) grandfather’s fob-watch – which was also informally handed down by my mother – and put it with that.

It was an odd thing to leave out, really.

I don’t remember Guildford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orwell:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’d better not talk about him any more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And pray for Kharma under the holy mountain..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One final example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Sir or Madam

I’ve always wanted to get into the LRB. I even got excited when Verso used a quote from a review I’d written in their full-page ad in the LRB – a bit fetishistic, I know, but still: my words! in the LRB!.

I haven’t cracked it yet, but I have just had my second post published on the LRB blog; it’s about the Situationists and Occupy. I think it’s quite an interesting read; it was certainly an interesting write, which ended up changing my opinion on Occupy (for the better). Essential reading: Ken Knabb, The Situationists and the Occupation Movements (1968/2011).

And this is me: Taking Down the Tents.

Ho, OK Ed, on P-hoe knicks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And don’t get me started on ‘jound’.

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

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

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

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

As Flying Rodent said earlier,

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

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

Let’s eat some toast

This blog seems to have ground to a halt rather. I’ve been busy (haven’t we all), and a lot of the spare time I have has been taken up by 52 Folk Songs (which is going well, but I don’t want to go on about it here again). Even the beer blog has been quiet, although not as quiet as this one – having a definite focus seems to help (“haven’t written anything about beer lately…”)

Anyway, I just wanted to say that if you’re not reading Michael Rosen’s blog, give it a go. It’s terrific. He’s got a lot to say, and it’s all good, or at least interesting; it’s mostly about education, but don’t let that put you off if you think you’re not interested in ‘education’. I wish he’d enable comments on it – he writes some really thought-provoking stuff, leaving me at least with nowhere for the provoked thoughts to go – but at the rate he’s posting at the moment it’s probably wise not to.

I don’t know Mike Rosen, although I have argued with him on blogs (mostly not about education). Like a lot of people, I first saw his name attached to children’s poetry, and children’s poetry of a particular kind. Now, I write (one doesn’t write about something, one just writes), and when I was at school I wrote a lot of poems; not because the teachers (or anyone else) wanted me to, but because it was something I enjoyed, felt I could do well, took pride in doing well. (Three slightly different things. I’ll come back to that.) And also because my older sister did and I admired her for it. I was an inquisitive reader and we had lots of books around the place – books we all valued, boringly grown-up books, weirdly grown-up books and (I think quite importantly) books that nobody valued at all; books we all thought a bit ridiculous, that were just there. (My mother’s incomplete Sociology degree had left her with a copy of Criminal Behaviour, by Reckless. What a book. Never once got it off the shelf.) What with the Important New Poetry anthologies and the Ridiculous Old Poetry anthologies, I read or skimmed through quite a bit of poetry, and I got interested in how you write poetry. So I wrote sonnets (both kinds) and villanelles (the proper tetrameter kind) and got into Gerard Manley Hopkins, and recovered from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and (after reading a bit of Shakespeare) got quite accomplished at iambic pentameter; it reached the point where I could turn it out at will, to length, with hardly any strain and quick as speech, or hardly any slower. Only a few of my poems rhymed, but most of them scanned, and the ones that didn’t scan I was generally going for a Ted Hughes-ish solemnity, a “hear the silence around the words” kind of effect.

So that was poetry, and it was something I could do; I enjoyed doing it, enjoyed feeling I could do it well, took pride in doing it well. For a studious middle-class child – or perhaps I just mean “for me” – the thought of me taking pride in something I could do came with a definite corollary, which was that there were lots of other people (or kids) out there who couldn’t do what I could do. And this didn’t bother me greatly; if anything, I thought of all the things those kids could do (centring on sport and respect) and thought, well, at least I’ve got this. The thought of writing poetry being a way into reflective & creative language use – and reflective & creative language use being something that everyone can benefit from doing, especially children, the earlier the better – didn’t cross my mind. If it had, I would probably just have thought “they’ll be sorry…

Then along came this Rosen character with his “poems” that just look like somebody’s sat down and started writing – or not even that, just like somebody’s stood up and opened their mouth. Along came Rosen and “poems” that anyone could write. Seriously, anyone. You didn’t have to understand poetry first, you didn’t have to read poetry first, you didn’t have to make your language fit a metric grid (should be metrical, need to work on that) – you could just write about stuff, and that was poetry! I was appalled.

The rest of the story can be told quite quickly. I was wrong.

He was right (about the whole writing poetry being a way into reflective & creative language use thing).

And he’s still being right – or at least interesting – about a bunch of things, mainly but not exclusively related to education.

Read the blog, it’s great.

Shifting the gear

(Crossposted from 52 Folk Songs and based on comments posted at fRoots.)

The Indigo album marks the first quarter of the 52fs year: 13 songs down, 39 to go. With that in mind, here’s a quick retrospective post on the project.

Songs posted so far: 34
Traditional songs: 22
Contemporary songs: 12 (authors: Peter Bellamy, Bellamy/Kipling, Peter Blegvad, Noel Coward, Bob Dylan, Green Gartside, Richard Thompson, Lal Waterson, Joss Whedon)
Whistle tunes: 3
Songs with backing: 11 (including all the last eight)
Backing instruments: 4 woodwind, 3 free reed (including a melodica I didn’t own two months ago), drums (not played for 30 years), voices, some programming

I had no idea there was going to be all this playing involved when I started! The next frontier is harmony; the ‘white’ album (over Christmas and New Year) is going to feature a fair amount of singing in parts, something I’ve never done before. It’ll be great, probably.

So, what have I learned so far?

1. My voice sounds very different when recorded. Very very very different. Obviously I knew this already, but spending a lot of time with my recorded voice has really brought it home to me. Lots of takes, lots of close listening, and you start hearing a voice that’s very different from what you thought you were producing…
1a. …and start thinking “maybe I need to work on that”. In my head I’m always giving a peak performance – that hypnotic Musgrave I did that time, that back-wall-nailing Trees They Do Grow High… Listening back, this turns out not to be the case; a lot of the time, particularly on first takes, what I hear is just this bloke singing…
1b. …and sometimes not in a terribly distinctive voice – although sometimes I do listen to a take and think “that’s me – I’ll do more like that”. I’ve been singing all my life, and singing in public on a fairly regular basis since 2004; it seems weird to be thinking about ‘finding a voice’ now, but there it is.

2. Although I’ve always seen myself as an unaccompanied singer, it turns out that accompanied singing is a lot of fun…
2a. …especially drones (which I never thought I’d get into)…
2b. …but also harmonies, rhythm tracks, chords (I love my melodica)…
2c. …although doing them all multi-tracked is an incredible time-sink…
2d. …which imposes definite limits on how close to perfection I can afford to get…
2e. …and layering separate tracks recorded without a click is an absolute no-no, unless you really enjoy wielding the virtual razor-blade in Audacity. There’s timing that sounds absolutely regular, and then there’s timing that is absolutely regular, down to the tenth of a second – and that’s a lot harder.

3. Uploading home recordings to a Web site is not going to enable me to give up the day job. (Fortunately I like the day job.) Obviously I knew this already too, but it’s really been brought home to me…
3a. …that there aren’t millions of people who like listening to this stuff, at least not online, not all the way through (why don’t people just leave the thing playing?) and…
3b. …there definitely aren’t millions of people who like downloading it; and, more generally…
3c. …the Web is no place to build a profile, unless you’re very talented, very photogenic, very lucky or gifted with a herd of football-playing pigs; it’s a great shop-front, but I think you still need to build awareness in the real world. There is just too much music out there for a single project like this to make much of a splash. (Or maybe it’s a slow-burning splash; there have definitely been more plays per day per track of the songs on the Indigo album than the ones on its Violet predecessor. We shall see.)

4. Bandcamp’s statistics distinguish between ‘complete’ (>90%) plays, ‘skips’ (stopped before 10%) and ‘partial’ (>10% but <90%). The number of partials and skips is extraordinary, not to say slightly alarming. (On the other hand, the songs with the most partial plays generally have the most full plays as well, so I suppose it all works out.) Aggregating all three, my top five tracks are:
1 Lord Bateman
2 There are bad times just around the corner (Noel Coward)
3 Derwentwater's farewell
4= Us poor fellows (Peter Bellamy)
4= The unfortunate lass

On full plays alone, the top five (or seven) are:
1 Lord Bateman
2 The unfortunate lass
3 There are bad times just around the corner
4 The cruel mother
5= Derwentwater's farewell
5= Us poor fellows
5= The death of Bill Brown

Propping up the table (sorted on all plays together) are

28. Hughie the Graeme
29. St Helena lullaby (Rudyard Kipling)
30. Serenity (Joss Whedon)
31. Percy's song (Bob Dylan)
32. The unborn Byron (Peter Blegvad)

(I'm excluding the album-only House[s] of the Rising Sun from the list; hence the last place is number 32, not 34.)

Things look slightly different if we sort on full plays, as there are six songs for which the 'complete play' count is stuck at zero – these songs haven't been played all the way through at all. What are you like, world? There's some great stuff here:

The unborn Byron
The death of Nelson
Percy's song
Boney's lamentation
Dayspring mishandled (Rudyard Kipling)
Danny Deever (Rudyard Kipling)

Generally the newer stuff seems to have gone down less well than the traditional songs – which are, after all, what 52fs is all about, so I can't really complain.

5. Even if I were the only audience – which I'm not, although (as we see) for a couple of tracks it's a close thing – 52fs is proving to be an incredibly enjoyable and absorbing project; I'm learning all the things about music I've always vaguely thought I ought to know, as well as some unexpected but useful things about my voice.

Here's the link to the album again: 52 Folk Songs – Indigo. Roll up! Roll up! And here are links to a couple of personal favourites, plus a couple which may have had less attention than they deserve.







Ciao, Ceausescu

It may be worth noting that La Repubblica appears to have just called Berlusconi a dictator:

An empty regime by Ezio Mauro

Unable to save Italy, they’re trying desperately to save themselves. This is all that’s left of the titanic force of Berlusconism, the “liberal revolution”, the government of “getting things done”, the Lega’s wind from the North. A terrified political class, afraid even to show their faces to their own supporters, unable to manage the crisis and now unable to come up with the solutions in government which the country needs.

The only solution offered is a cut-price agreement, inadequate at best and probably useless, which they hope will distract Europe’s attention for long enough to offer some breathing space for the shared desperation of Bossi and Berlusconi, shut away in government offices that have turned into their last bunker.

Both the effective leaders of Europe (Sarkozy/Merkel) and the formal leadership (Van Rompuy and Barroso) told Berlusconi that he had three days to pass the necessary measures to get Italy out of the Greek circle of Hell. The Prime Minister agreed. Then, back in Italy, he had to deal with the brick wall of the Lega Nord; with open crisis in his own party and in Bossi’s; with the ungovernability of his parliamentary majority; and with the self-evident exhaustion of his own leadership and its total loss of authority.

He should resign, allowing the country to try and save itself while there is still time. But he is no statesman; he sees his own personal fate as more pressing than the fate of Italy. He is locked into a political death-agony like something from the last days of the Christiam Democrat empire*, which may end up producing a lowest-common-denominator agreement, but can no longer produce either a political programme or a government. Europe and the markets will pass judgment on this utter lack of responsibility. We should also take note: governments regularly fall when their political time is up, but regimes can never find a way to end**.

* un’agonia democristiana, da tardo impero
**mentre i governi cadono regolarmente quando una fase politica si esaurisce, solo i regimi non sanno finire

The key word is ‘regime’: this is strong stuff in the Italian context, as it specifically refers to non-democratic regimes – whether Communist or, er, what was the other one…

I’ve got a piece in the next issue of the Bulletin of Italian Politics about ‘the Italian transition’: the idea that the period since 1993 has been a period of transition from the Christian Democrat-dominated First Republic to some new and more politically ‘normal’ settlement, featuring (among other things) Left and Right parties which can change places in government without bringing the entire system into crisis. Against this idea, many people argue that 18 years (and counting) is a bit on the long side for a period of transition; maybe this is the Second Republic and we (or rather the Italians) are stuck with it. I think the extraordinary fragility and turbulence of the current Berlusconi government, which itself derives from the steady erosion of his original centre-Right coalition, tells against this; we’re clearly not there yet, as there’s no ‘there’ here. In the paper I suggest that, rather than compressing the period of transition, we should extend it: the real ‘transition’ is the transition from Fascism to democracy, which stalled in 1948 with the imposition of Christian Democratic hegemony, stuttered into life again around 1993 and then ground to a halt again under Signor B.

Fascism has never quite been forgotten in Italy; the Republic was built on massacres by Fascists and massacres of Fascists. This is not to say that Italian politics is riven with anti-Fascist and anti-Communist passions; on the contrary, the strongest and most widely-shared passion is the passion for centrism, the dream of being a normal European country without any ‘opposed extremisms’. But this means that the one essential requirement for an Italian leader is the ability to put the Fascist past decisively behind him or her, to lead a governo and not a regime. La Repubblica is a centre-Left paper, generally more ‘centre’ than ‘Left’; its writers share that passion for normality, and the underlying passion for avoiding civil war. As a result they generally give the government – any government – the benefit of the doubt; a typical Repubblica editorial will urge the government to be more responsible and moderate, even when it’s clear that they’re committed to being anything but.

No longer: the paper’s served notice on Berlusconi that he is the problem. He must go, and soon.

Although I’m not rich

I’m a folkie, in a small way. In my teens I was mildly, vaguely into folk – folk-rock, really – until punk happened; I forgot all about it then, and didn’t rediscover it until three or four years ago. By that time I’d been a regular performer at a local folk club for several years, but the folk club didn’t lead me to folk music – I would have got there much sooner if it had done. (As I’ve said elsewhere, on an average night there you can hear sizeable helpings of anything but – and as folk clubs go it’s not by any means unique.)

Anyway, three or four years ago a combination of circumstances let me to discover – fall headlong into – folk music, and I haven’t got out yet. I still go to folk nights and sing songs, but nowadays I’m a dedicated traddie, devoted to that great ocean of songs that you never hear on the radio.

Last year Jon Boden of Bellowhead put together A Folk Song A Day: a Web site featuring a different song, newly recorded, every day for a year. There was some debate about some of the choices (I think “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” worked better than anyone had expected), but by and large AFSAD was a magnificent project. (And is. The Webmaster is currently cycling through the year for a second time, re-upping the songs month by month; if you missed it first time round, check it out.) Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and AFSAD has had quite a few emulators: there’s An Australian Folk Song A Day (which has been going for eight months), A Liverpool Folk Song A Week (six months) and A Folk Song A Week (seven weeks).

And there’s my own project, 52 Folk Songs, which is just about to enter its eighth week. The idea of 52fs is that the revitalisation of old songs shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of star musicians like Jon Boden, who have armies of fans, state-of-the-art recording facilities, multi-instrumental musical talents, encyclopedic knowledge and a pleasing and tuneful voice. No, we amateur singers can all play our part – even if we have very few of those attributes, or for that matter none of them.

I therefore set myself to record and upload a folk song every week for a year. Common sense and good taste might have suggested limiting myself to one song per week, but if they did I wasn’t listening: there are quite a few extras there too, not all of which are even folk songs. Those with time to kill and/or severe insomnia can read about the tenuous links I’ve made between the songs chosen each week at 52fs. The total for the first six weeks is 14 songs and three tunes:

1 Lord Bateman (FS01)
2 The Death of Bill Brown (FS02)
3 The Unfortunate Lass (FS03)
4 The Cruel Mother (FS04)
5 Lemany (FS05)
6 The London Waterman (FS06) + Constant Billy
7 Over the hills and far away
8 There are bad times just around the corner (Noel Coward)
9 My boy Jack (Rudyard Kipling)
10 Us poor fellows (Peter Bellamy)
11 Down where the drunkards roll (Richard Thompson)
12 Child among the weeds (Lal Waterson)
13 Hegemony (Green Gartside)
14 Spencer the Rover + Three Rusty Swords / The Dusty Miller

Not content with inflicting these assorted squawks on the world, I’ve had the effrontery to present them to the public under the guise of an ‘album’: 52 Folk Songs – Violet. This is the first in a series of eight virtual ‘albums’ (I use the quotation marks advisedly) that will be appearing over the year, unless I can be induced to stop. It can be downloaded at 52 Folk Songs – Violet for a token payment of 52p (you see what I did there). This sum (which could do some genuine good in the world if donated to an appropriate charity) will get you 40 minutes of what can loosely be called singing and some frankly amateurish whistle-playing, plus a hastily thrown-together PDF file containing full lyrics plus assorted pictures, comments, musings and afterthoughts. The whole lamentable package is fronted by the most un-folk-like image you could imagine (“what’s the purple doughnut for?” – my wife).

Alternatively you can download the tracks individually and pay nothing at all, or simply listen online. Or you could listen to something else instead.

52 Folk Songs is at http://www.52folksongs.com.

The purple doughnut is here.

Share and enjoy.

Kadoodle-oodle-skippety-wee!

As long ago as Long Ago, and as Long Ago Again as That, the City of Peking in the Ancient Land of China rang with jubilation and rejoicing; for a Son and Heir had been born to the Emperor Aladdin and the Empress Bedr-al-Budur

the Grand Vizier summoned a Special Meeting of State in the White Lacquer Room of the Imperial Palace. You may judge for yourself the importance of this Meeting, when I tell you that His Gracious Majesty the Emperor Aladdin presided over it Himself. Others present included the Lord Chamberlain; the Prime Minister; two Senior Generals from the Palace Guard; the Master of the Horse; the Mistress of the Robes; and an Unidentified Friend of the Master of the Horse.

‘Your Majesty!’ began the Grand Vizier imposingly. ‘Also Lords and Ladies of the Imperial Court! Also the Friend of the Master of the Horse. We are met here this evening to give Formal Voice to our Humble and Unworthy Joy at the birth of a Son and Heir to our Celestial Emperor of all the Chinas’

Thus chapter 1. In the next chapter, time having passed in the mean time, Aladdin’s son and heir comes of age, a topic discussed at an equally important meeting attended by the Prince himself and both his parents:

‘Your Imperial Majesties!’ began the Grand Vizier, imposingly. ‘Also, Your Imperial Highness! Also, Lords and Ladies of the Court! We are met here (all except the Friend of the Master of the Horse, who has been sent to his Room till Tea-Time) to give formal Voice to our Humble and Unworthy Joy at the Very Important Event of the Coming of Age of the Heir Apparent’

From Noel Langley, The Land of Green Ginger (1937 and 1966). It’s uncanny.

Update What I really find hard to comprehend is the glacial pace at which this story’s moving. Liam Fox seems genuinely not to have any idea that he’s done anything wrong, and the government hierarchy seems pretty nonchalant as well; the idea seems to be that he’ll be hung out to dry if and when the story becomes too embarrassing, which by implication it hasn’t done yet. Perhaps it’s deliberate news management; certainly it’s made life difficult for the BBC news, which has been left without any editorial stance on the story, other than noting that suspicions continue to grow that Fox may at some time possibly have done something that people might consider wrong in some way. This page is comedy gold; I like the 11.35 quote from Nick Robinson to the effect that Fox is telling people he’s the victim of a “hate campaign”. I may be out of touch, but I don’t think Liam Fox is hated by anyone who doesn’t know him personally – he’s not that important. If he’s the victim of anything, it’s a “WTF did you think you were doing (and who are you anyway)?” campaign. Interesting line of defence, too:

friends have also rallied round to help defend his corner, telling Robinson Werritty was a “a groupie who kept turning up pretending to be something he wasn’t”

(A ‘that’ would have helped there. Robinson Werritty – who’s he?)

The point here is that, even if that were true (which I don’t believe for a moment) it would still suggest that Fox was a bumbling incompetent who should be sacked pronto. Werritty “kept turning up” and helping himself to a seat at the conference table – and he just let him sit there? Why, exactly?

Final (genuine) quote from Fox, asked to identify the unnamed friend who was staying over the night his flat was burgled:

For the sake of clarity,
it wasn’t Adam Werritty.

Kadoodle-oodle-skippety-wee!

And come to dust

The Belgian radical surrealist journal Les lèvres nues once featured a slogan which I found simultaneously funny, heartbreaking and intensely inspiring:

SAVE LIEBKNECHT

For someone with my kind of politics, “Remember Liebknecht” would be a great slogan, one to bring a tear to the eye and a clench to the fist; “Avenge Liebknecht”, even. But “Save Liebknecht” is something else – it evokes all those feelings but takes them somewhere else. As if to say, we’re not just going to bring about an irreversible transformation of capitalist relations of production and the everyday life they produce, we’re going to transform the past! The choice of Liebknecht rather than the more obvious Luxemburg is interesting, too – as if to say, we’re going to do a proper job; we’re not just going for the top-rank heroes here. History? The revolution spits in its eye. By the time we get finished, the wind will be blowing into Paradise!

Those crazy surrealist Belgians. But, visiting the British Library the other day, looking at a proof copy of “the Ballad of Reading Gaol”, I found myself feeling something very similar. The thought process went something like, “Oscar Wilde do two years hard labour? Stuff that. No way. We’ll have to do something about that…” And I realised it wasn’t the first time I’d felt the urge – the determination, almost – to change the past; I felt it when I discovered the work of Primo Moroni and realised he’d died the year before (aged 62). For some reason the English folk music scene seems to be particularly rich in might-have-beens, or rather really-shouldn’t-have-beens. OK, Mike Waterson and Johnny Collins both made it to 70 (although that doesn’t seem old these days) but Tony Rose was only 61 when he died, and Tony Capstick didn’t even see 60 – and he’d ditched the folk music twenty years before that. Get Cappo Cleaned Up will be high on the agenda of the post-revolutionary temporal rectification unit (musical branch). Not to mention non-fatal disasters such as Shirley Collins’s dysphonia or Nic Jones’s bloody brick lorry. And then there’s Bellamy:

Peter Bellamy dead by his own hand, in 1991, aged 47? No. Absolutely no way. We’ll definitely have to do something about that.

Earlier today something reminded me of this old post, in which I revealed (or rather discovered) that in some ways I’m more oriented towards the past than the future. The future, obviously, is where things are going to have to get fixed, but at a gut level I feel there are hopeful – vital – possibilities buried in the past, which we need to preserve and can revive. Which is part of why I identified with Moroni – an activist but also a historian and archivist – and why my book’s partly a work of history.

It’s also, perhaps, why the things I spontaneously feel determined to put right are things that never will be. Or not, at least, until the revolutionary conquest of time both past and future. SAVE BELLAMY!

They work so hard

After the party’s over, my friend,
There’ll be nothing you can put your finger on
Just a parasol…

One’s a member of government, one’s a member of the opposition. To be more precise, one’s an independent-minded but powerless member of the government coalition; one’s a leading member of the parliamentary opposition, with nothing to lose by attacking as forcefully as possible. Also, one’s 30 years older than the other. See if you can tell which is which from these quotations:

“I am not against a private element in the NHS, which may bring innovatory ideas and good practice, provided it is within the framework of a public service … But why have they tried to get away from the NHS as a public service, among the most efficient, least expensive and fairest anywhere in the world? Why have they been bewitched by a flawed US system that is unable to provide a universal service and is very expensive indeed? The remarkable vision of the 1945 Attlee government, of a public service free at the point of need for all the people of England, should not be allowed to die.”

“As David Cameron’s government railroads the health bill through parliament, MPs are being denied their constitutional role to properly scrutinise his plans for the NHS. The prime minister has already done a political fix with Nick Clegg on the health bill, and now he’s trying to force it through with a procedural fix.”

You’ll note that the second politician says nothing about the substance of what’s being done, why it’s wrong, why it’s not even cost-effective in its own terms, how it betrays one of the greatest reforms of the last century, or for that matter what it is. Instead, this person focuses entirely on procedure and personality, reducing issues of huge importance and interest to playground gossip about rule-breaking and who said what to whom. Apart from anything else, whether or not the revised health bill is being forced through with a “procedural fix” really doesn’t matter, in the scheme of things – if it weren’t being “forced through”, would that make it OK?

Comedy break:

As for who’s who, the first quote came from the semi-detached member of government (Shirley Williams, 81); the second from John Healey (51), who is currently Shadow Health Secretary. Healey was at Cambridge from 1979 to 1982 (as I was myself); he was elected to Parliament 15 years later, having spent the entire intervening period as a political hack (starting with a role as “deputy editor of the internal magazine of the Palace of Westminster, The House Magazine for a year in 1983″). It’s depressing that Baroness Williams sounds so much more left-wing than Healey – what with him being in the Labour Party and so on – but what’s really striking is how much more political she sounds, in the good sense of the word: the sense of talking about how the country is run, in the knowledge that this is a huge and endlessly important subject, and with the awareness that the conversation itself is serious and has been going on for decades. Healey could be talking about backstairs intrigue at Borchester Land.

But perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising. It was 1997 when Healey was first elected: his entire parliamentary career has been in New Labour. And New Labour has emphatically not been about principle or history or serious discussion of how the country is run, if only because all of those things were a bit, well, Old Labour. What Blair brought to Labour, as I wrote a while back, wasn’t mere opportunism or lack of principle but something more motivated and more destructive:

it’s more like a commitment to abandoning the party’s principles, repeatedly and demonstratively, so as to disorientate and marginalise the opposition, so as to make it impossible for the party not to be in power. The trouble is, this can’t possibly be a long-term strategy. Political principles aren’t a renewable resource; abandon them once and they’re gone.

And when they’ve all gone, what have you got?

To focus on the issues myself, you can read more about the Tories’ plans to privatise the NHS here. Thanks, Spinwatch.

Looks are deceptive

Mark Carrigan has an alarming post consisting of nothing more than comments on a Daily Telegraph story. Here are a few:

Most people prefer the company of others of their own race. Forced integration therefore causes tension and resentment. Race is an important element in individual and group identity, which means it is impossible to build a society in which race does not matter. People of different races build different societies. Blacks—wherever they are found in large numbers—establish communities with certain characteristics, and whites and others do the same.

Interesting argument, professor (it’s got a ‘therefore’ and everything).

What you are seeing, and what nobody is prepared to say in public, is that “diversity” and “pc” PCs has created no-go areas in London. Unless and until the Police cease to be the paramilitary wing of the thought crime ministray, and can nick people without worrying about being accused of racism, then this is only the beginning.

Indeed, the police should be able to nick people without fear or favour, whether they’re black or…

What winds me up is all the talk of “community”. What sort of “community” gets enraged when a policeman shoots an armed criminal who had already fired on police? Maybe we should be looking at least as closely at this community as we are at the police?

Hmm.

It could have been Brixton or Toxteth, or Miami, or Detroit, or Chicago, or Los Angeles, or Johannesburg, or anywhere where Labour’s favourite community rules the roost.

I think we’re getting the picture. To be fair, Labour aren’t entirely to blame…

The Tories have to accept that they are partly to blame. The fact that these colonists exist in our capital city cannot be solely blamed on the Left. The Tories have stood by while the violent 3rd World colonies have spread and grown.

…just mostly.

Black youths,black community leaders,black MP welcome to black London.Just another reminder of black labours immigration policies.

Shades of Python – Rastus Odinga Odinga has taken Wolverhampton Southwest, that’s Enoch Powell’s old constituency – an important gain there for Darkie Power. That David Lammy, why doesn’t he go back to where he came from? (Tottenham.)

But what is to be done?

You see these chippy small-time blacks every day in inner London – with their swagger, their hoodies, their ridiculous urban patois and their permanent scowl. They should all be put in work camps for re-education.

Work camps? That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?

We need a new Riot Act – basically, martial law. ”All looters will be shot on sight”. See how long the riots last then.

Oh. Maybe not.

The rioters are fortunate that, at present we do not have the sort of totalitarian government and police regimes other countries do have. The body count during an incident, series of incidents like last night’s would have been spectacular.

Wipe that drool off your chin, man!

To sum up, the problem is the blacks, and the solution is to shoot them as soon as they get out of line. And all of this needs saying, as often as possible, because it’s what nobody is prepared to say in public – nobody is prepared to tell it like it is, except a plucky band of fearless Daily Telegraph readers.

I’m not even going to look at the Daily Mail.

Just another country

1. The obligatory Italian parallel

The true intentions of certain groups of young people, who had arrived at Parco Lambro with their ski-masks in their rucksacks alongside their spanners and bottles of petrol, became clear yesterday afternoon … there was the sense of an organised manoeuvre, in the true sense of the word, and police intervention became inevitable: stones were thrown from one side, tear-gas grenades from the other
- l’Unità, 29th June 1976

Last night was an extreme situation. We haven’t dealt with such co-ordinated looting before. People set out to steal. This is a type of organised crime we’ve never seen before. This was organised: I was out last night and people were asking for directions to our town centre in order to attack it. … Businesses are angry, but people are calm. They understand this wasn’t social unrest, it was something different.
- Stella Creasy MP, 8th August 2011

I understand what has led many young people to break shop windows, but I don’t consider it to be the next step in the Italian revolution.
- Rossana Rossanda, 1977

2. Three tweets about looting

@jamesrbuk James Ball
Hard to see anything overly political in the looting of an electrical store (Curry’s) on other side of town (>10miles) to #Tottenham

@kpunk99 Mark Fisher
The right wing line on #tottenham makes no sense: if it’s all down to ‘criminals’, why the sudden upsurge in ‘criminality’ last night?

@sunny_hundal sunny hundal
Seems to me, what encourages looting isn’t poverty but the expectation you can get away with it. Same applies to the banks


3. Why Cynthia Jarrett is less relevant than the Martians

This is a peculiarly unsatisfactory piece: Jonathan Jones observes that images of the Tottenham riot and its aftermath make him feel weird (they are “uncanny and reminiscent of late Victorian science fiction”), then suggests that evoking apocalyptic imagery might be “a corrective to the mis-application of history”, i.e. the temptation to draw parallels with the rioting of the early 80s. But why shouldn’t we draw parallels with the 80s – why would that be a mis-application of history? Jones’s answer, in total, is: the rioters themselves are too young to remember the 80s; Marx warned against misapplying historical parallels in the 18th Brumaire; and…

It is worth looking at images of London’s violent weekend and asking how they make you feel. Far from fitting into any historical model, they seem to me to come from an imagined London, a horror scenario of the city as a blazing wilderness

…in other words, images of the Tottenham riot and its aftermath make him feel weird. What Jones is resisting here becomes a bit clearer in an afterword:

Walking out in my neighbourhood after writing this, I found that Gay’s the Word bookshop on Marchmont Street, one of central London’s best-known gay landmarks, had its window smashed last night. A substance seems to have been thrown at the window before it was broken. This was the only business attacked on the street. So much for any attempt to see radicalism (at least of a cuddly leftwing variety) in these events.

I’ve got to say, I’m gutted to hear that Gay’s the Word has been attacked & hope they get back to normal before too long. (That said, I’m not aware of any trouble in Bloomsbury on Sunday night – this could just be a nasty coincidence.) But there’s a more important point, which is that – as far as I can tell – nobody anywhere is reading a “cuddly leftwing radicalism” into the riots; certainly nobody is saying that looting Curry’s in Brixton was a political gesture. The “Robin Hood” interpretation of the rioting is a strawman, just as much as it was when Rossanda dismissed it in 1977: Jones (and James Ball) can trample it all they like, but it won’t dispose of the real question posed by the riots.

4. Where are we going, and why are we all in this handcart?
What people are saying (self included) is that politics doesn’t stop when crime starts. There are reasons why people steal and smash windows; more importantly, there are reasons why most people don’t steal and smash windows, most of the time. (Sunny was more or less on the right track here – but I don’t think the calculation that you wouldn’t get away with it is the only reason why people tend to obey the law, or the most important one.) One or two people whose behaviour isn’t governed by our usual reasons to obey the law is a problem for the police, the social services and politicians, in that order. The problem becomes political first and foremost when lots of people start acting differently – when all those reasons suddenly stop working in a particular place and time. And then, as Mark says, the question why can’t be avoided. More to the point, the question why is an interesting question – and it’s one that politics is much better equipped to answer than evocations of Wells or fantasies of manoeuvres organised by lurking criminal networks, vast and cool and unsympathetic.

What do I think it’s all about? A couple of quotes, lifted from comments on Guardian posts:

Even if the rioting is just an opportunity to lob stuff at the police and loot local mobile phone and shoe shops (as it appears to be in Enfield) it’s obvious something has been brewing for a while. It may be disorganised and opportunistic but still speaks of a disatisfaction with things as they are.

There’s a widespread myth that law and order is preserved by police, politicians and other forces of authority. Not true. Never has been. If we all decide to go out and chuck a dustbin through Argos’s window and help ourselves, it would take about 15 million coppers to contain it. We actually have about 150,000.

Law and order is kept by a collective acceptance of mutual goals. If, as a society, we look after each other, offer everyone a share and a stake in the common weal, maintain some semblance of a Rousseauian Social Contract, then the vast majority of people will mostly stick to the rules without ever needing to see a police officer. When people lose that sense of being looked after, no longer feel part of society, no longer feel like they have any kind of share in any kind of collective, the ties that bind begin to be broken.

Rioting, especially the type of vandalism and looting we’ve seen in London, is a sure sign that the social contract is unravelling around the edges. In the days and weeks and months to come, we shall see how far it has frayed.

A Socialist Worker friend of mine once explained to me in some detail how every Prime Minister since Attlee had been to the Right of the one before; I’m not sure how he got over Macmillan/Wilson, but he made quite a good case for Heath/Wilson. (This was before Thatcher/Major). I wouldn’t go that far, but it does seem pretty clear that certain trends that were set in motion during Thatcher’s first term have never really been reversed. Over the last 30 years, work at every level has been steadily proletarianised: employment is nothing but a contract providing money in return for a working day, and a contract that is ever easier for the employer to revoke. Business values permeate all areas of society. The overriding goal, at all times, is to turn a profit: anything that contributes to that goal is good, anything that doesn’t is dispensable at best. The service ethic – the idea of taking pride in a job well done, at whatever level; the idea that the job you do is a way of contributing to a society where ‘we look after each other’ – is little more than a nostalgic fantasy. The institutions that used to nurture it, and whose daily workings made it into a lived reality, have been asset-stripped and hollowed out by ideologues with MBAs. Social life has been radically privatised, and deinstitutionalised in the process – party membership, union membership, local authority employment have dwindled away, without anything taking their place. One of the things that gets eroded in the process is deference to authority – because who are these authority figures anyway? Just ordinary people, just interchangeable employees doing an interchangeable job – even if the job involves chasing people with sticks. (And then they start talking about a Big Society!)

What’s it like to grow up in this world – a world where your only consistent role is to ‘consume’, because nobody, at any level, has any interest in you as a worker? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to take whatever job you can get, on whatever pay you’re offered, and not to depend on the job still being there for you next year or next week? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to prove you’re actively looking for work before you can sign on as unemployed – or that you’ve got to prove that you’re incapable of work before you can claim disability benefit – and you’ve got to prove these things to someone who won’t get paid if they believe you? And what’s it like to have grown up in a world like this, and then to be told by a government of unprepossessing Old Etonians that you’ve had it far too easy up to now? And then, what’s it like to read that those same politicians, and the people who write the papers you buy, and the police who keep everything under control, are all involved in a network of corruption and deceit?

What we’ve got at the moment isn’t a protest movement, or even a wave of riots; if anything, it’s a particularly long and broad wave of looting. And looting isn’t a political act – but it sends a definite political message. It says, I’m not going to wait any longer; I’m not going to wait for next month or next year when I could have what I want now. It says, I’m not going to play by the rules of your system; I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but right now I’m having it. It says, I’m not going to live in your world any longer; I don’t know where I’m going to be next week, but right now I’m just going to do what I want.

5. A concluding unscientific postscript
Paul:

while people may have come together to riot and loot, they are likely to be doing so for different reasons. Some may be angry that they have no job.  Some may be keen to have a free mobile handset. Still more may be there because they fear their friends would call them a “pussy” if they did not attend.  Others may be there because they want to be able to talk about it with their mates in the days and weeks to come. For most indeed the reasons will not be fixed, and may change during the evening. I am sure some will have gone down for a look, and found the temptation of a broken-into off-licence a little too great.

We can, ultimately, establish no single motivation, and it is useless to try.  It just makes you sound like Theresa May. What we can say, though, is something about comparative incentives.

Most people from richer areas, who have jobs or who have a good chance of getting a good job, will not riot in the next day or few because their retaining their job or job chance through not getting a criminal record is greater than any of the other incentives I have listed above. … People from poorer, more deprived areas and backgrounds are rioting for different, shifting motivations, but they are doing so because they do not have enough invested in what the state can offer them to outweigh the benefits of that rioting. That is, the state has temporarily failed, because a significant group of people in London have decided it is just not worth living within its jurisdiction.

And Laurie:

People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all.

To end on the ghost of a positive note, that sense of collective power – that if you get a few people together, suddenly the rules don’t have to apply any more – is at the heart of a lot of radical mobilisation, although intellectual honesty compels me to note that it’s also at the heart of counter-revolutionary mobilisations and pogroms. Either way, a lot of the kids who were out last night are going to remember that feeling – is it ridiculously optimistic to hope that some of them will draw the right lesson (“don’t forget, we can also build”)? But that’s some way off. For now, I’m afraid things are going to get worse before they get better – I don’t see why the looting shouldn’t kick off again tonight (or any other night, for that matter), and the crackdown when it comes is going to be no fun at all.

Scaring the nation

Antonio Lo Muscio probably wasn’t a very nice guy. In 1976 he was involved in an armed attack on a senior anti-terrorist police officer, which left one of the officer’s bodyguard dead. Three months later he was sitting on a bus with a member of the same armed struggle group, who was identified by a policeman who chanced to be on the bus; Lo Muscio shot him and the two made their escape.

A bit of a scary individual, then, and rather seriously mistaken about the degree to which extreme violence could play a constructive role in revolutionary politics. But I don’t think he deserved to die (another three months on) like this:

Antonio Lo Muscio … was surprised by carabinieri while sitting on the steps outside a church in Rome having something to eat with two other members of the same group. He tried to run and was disarmed, but was hit by a burst of machine-gun fire. He was finished off by a pistol shot to the neck while he lay wounded on the ground.

The two militants who were with him, who were injured, were arrested.

(To judge from another account, the two women who were with Lo Muscio did not try to escape but were beaten up anyway, to the point where at least one of the two was taken away in an ambulance.)

The quotation above is from the invaluable collection La Mappa Perduta, which also records a statement by Lo Muscio’s sister:

a few days earlier he had said to me, “Prepare yourself for the worst – if they get me this time they won’t send me to prison, they’ll just do away with me. The police and the carabinieri travel with my picture on their dashboards.” And that’s just what happened. … The carabiniere fired at my brother with a machine gun while he was running away without a weapon in his hand; he was wounded and fell face down to the ground, defenceless. The carabiniere went over, emptied the magazine of his machine gun into him, then finished him off with a pistol shot to the head, behind his left ear.

What remains interesting about the Lo Muscio killing at this distance is the press reaction. The Corriere della Sera was in no doubt, hailing “the carabiniere who killed Antonio Lo Muscio, the most dangerous political killer on the loose in Italy” as a “man of courage”:

he did not shoot until Lo Muscio had opened fire on him and his colleague. Then he pursued the terrorist, loosing multiple bursts from his machine gun and defying the shots from his opponent’s Colt Special

The Communist-aligned l’Unità laid off the heroics but gave an even more unequivocal account:

Lo Muscio died instantly, struck full in the chest by a burst of machine-gun fire while he attempted to flee with pistol in hand, having already opened fire against the carabinieri

Did Lo Muscio fire his pistol at the carabinieri? L’Unità and the Corriere both say so; LMP doesn’t say either way. Was he holding a loaded weapon – or posing any immediate danger – at the moment he was shot? Here the papers are less believable: both try to imply that he was, but don’t assert it outright. LMP specifically says that he wasn’t. Was he killed by machine gun fire as he ran? L’Unità says he was; the Corriere suggests that he was; LMP specifically says that he wasn’t.

There are two different stories here. One is of the carabinieri taking a broad view of the concept of ‘self-defence’, shooting dead someone who had shot at them (and, on past evidence, would shoot at them again) but wasn’t posing any imminent threat at that precise moment. The other, more straightforward but bleaker, is of the summary execution of an unarmed man. Either one could be true; in theory, at least, which one we believe to be true depends on how we think the details of the story stack up. The problem is that people – including journalists – are always inclined to believe some kinds of story and not others – and that affects the way that the details of the story are perceived and presented. Details that are particularly hard to fit into a preferred narrative will, at best, tend to be reported reluctantly and with reservations; at worst, they will be distorted, caricatured and ignored.

Daily Mail:

Duggan, a known offender from London’s notorious Broadwater Farm Estate, became aware that he was being followed and opened fire on the officers. He shot the officer from Scotland Yard’s elite firearms squad CO19 in the side of his chest with a handgun. The bullet lodged in the police radio that the undercover officer was carrying in a side pocket. Armed officers shot the gunman dead seconds later.

Residents said at least three shots were fired when officers swooped during the evening rush hour at about 6.15pm.

Guardian:

Initial ballistics tests on the bullet that lodged in a police officer’s radio when Mark Duggan died on Thursday night show it was a police issue bullet, the Guardian understands.

The Guardian’s crime correspondent, Sandra Laville, reports:

The bullet which was found lodged in the radio of one of the officers at the scene is still undergoing forensic tests. But reliable sources have said the first ballistics examinations suggested it was a police issue bullet. These are very distinct as the Metropolitan Police uses dum dum type hollowed out bullets designed not to pass through an object.

The early suggestion from the IPCC was that the Met officers had returned fire after someone in the minicab opened fire. But the result of the ballistics early test suggests both shots fired came from the police.

Emphasis added.

Update Guardian, 8th August:

the C019 firearms officer has said that he never claimed Duggan had shot at him.

The firearms officer is understood to have told investigators that he opened fire because he believed he was in danger from a lethal weapon. Two shots were fired, it is understood; one hit Duggan and one missed, lodging in another officer’s radio.

Well, that didn’t last.

In the depths of some men’s minds

Ken:

Two things have to come out of this: first, the mainstream left and labour movements have to take seriously security and self-defence; second, the mainstream right must be made to pay a heavy political price for this atrocity.

As Gramsci wrote 90 years ago, in a world now lost: War is War.

Flying Rodent goes into more detail:

There are plenty of calls for calm around today, with reasonable people counselling against linking one man’s horrific crimes to the deranged views he espouses, those being a half-baked political analysis that has been festering on the internet and even in the pages of the mainstream right wing press such as the Mail and the Spectator for years.

I disagree. I think that now, more than ever, fingers need to be pointed squarely at those who have been disseminating this poisonous cack, and searching questions need to be asked. First up – What the fuck did you think you were doing?

I sympathise with both posts, and I certainly don’t think we need to devote too much time to the “reasonable people” who initially tried to depoliticise the crime for reasons which I don’t entirely follow. (Dan Hodges‘ argument seems to be that when a murderous neo-fascist nutter who believes in killing socialists succeeds in killing a large number of socialists, after devoting years of his life to plotting how to kill large numbers of socialists, this should be reported with the words “murderous nutter kills a lot of people”: anything more political would be, well, political. I think Hodges is in the minority on this one; even the BBC News, which this evening gave a startled world a few glimpses of “Andrew Berwick”‘s copy-and-paste meisterwerk, has started reporting the attack as an attack on the Norwegian Labour Party. (To judge from the URL of Hodges’ piece, even his own magazine is thinking along similar lines.)

This wasn’t just any old borderline-psychotic killing spree – it was an extreme-right borderline-psychotic killing spree, supported by arguments very similar to those used by right-wingers who fill daily papers and sell books. As far as that goes, I’m with Ken. But what conclusion do we draw? Three possibilities:

1. He’s one of theirs and they can lump it.
I can certainly see the appeal of this one. But what do we say when the Phillipses and Clarksons and Littlejohns claim that this wasn’t what they meant? Anyone who doesn’t wash their hands of this guy good and hard, hang ‘em out to dry; they’re not the problem. (Incidentally, is the leader of the EDL really called Stephen Yaxley Lennon? That’s some name.) But there are differences between peddling poisonous lies about Muslims and the Left, on one hand, and refusing to condemn mass murder on the basis of poisonous lies about Muslims and the Left, on the other; one difference is that I’m happy to accuse Melanie Phillips of one, but not the other. In fact the worst of which we could accuse Phillips and co on this basis is inconsistency – willing the end but not the means – and in this context that’s pretty much a compliment. If, on the other hand, we cut the knot by saying that the lies themselves are the problem – the ground in which mass murder grew – we’re taking a big step towards criminalising political expression. Another possibility:

2. Keep talking.
On psychotic murderous Islamists, my line has always been that the psychotic murderousness is the problem, the Islamism being something we can oppose by normal political means. (Which, of course, doesn’t mean “gently” or “by conciliation”. I didn’t think that Thatcherism, or even the openly reactionary Toryism of the Monday Club, should be fought by being banned – but I certainly didn’t think they should be appeased.) Sauce for the goose: if the nonsense of “Eurabia” now has an armed wing, that doesn’t mean that the people who came up with it have been – or should be – delegitimated as Preachers of Death. Apart from anything else, leftists have been known to do crazy and horrible things in the name of their beliefs: the Khmer Rouge stated, and some of them probably believed, that what was going on in Democratic Kampuchea was an extreme form of class struggle. I don’t believe that Communism was delegitimated by Pol Pot or Islamism by bin Laden. Should the racist fantasies of “Eurabia” be any different – should they be grounds for getting the Special Branch involved? I don’t believe so.

3. Yes, but this is different.
The third possibility is that there are specific reasons for labelling this particular set of political beliefs indelibly with the massacre carried out in their name. Can we say that the massacre was a logical extension of the beliefs, in a way that’s not true of Communism and Pol Pot or Islamism and bin Laden? I think there may be something in this. As Flying Rodent says, the endless drip-feed of anti-left and anti-Muslim propaganda may not be intended to incite violence, but it’s genuinely hard to see what else it was supposed to be doing: the negativity, the anti-political populism (those out-of-touch liberal political elites!) and the personalisation of the problem all point away from any form of political participation. And then there’s the dimension of power, as John commented at FR:

The Muslims whom Phillips etc have long accused of giving succour and support to extremists – even if we accept that there is a minority who do – differ in one very important respect from the Eurabia lobby: power. Who is it who has access to prominent media platforms in the UK, US, Canada and elsewhere? Who is it who can command rewarding publishing contracts for their latest shroud-waving volume? It’s not poor kids on the streets of Bradford, that’s for sure.

Another way of approaching the question of how this kind of propaganda differs from other ideologies which have been linked with atrocities is to look at the atrocity itself. It’s been noted that indiscriminate mass killing is, historically, the “terrorism” of the Right. As I wrote myself,

a sharp distinction must be drawn between [the left-wing armed groups'] actions and terrorist acts such as the Piazza Fontana bomb: indiscriminately lethal attacks on apolitical targets, calculated to produce maximum alarm. The actions of the ‘armed struggle’ groups were mainly directed against property rather than people; all violence against the person was directed against individuals, and most was non-lethal; and targets were invariably selected for political or strategic reasons, albeit with varying degrees of accuracy.

Left “terrorists” who kill people have generally known exactly who they were killing and exactly why, and been able to justify each killing individually; even particularly repugnant crimes, like the murder of Aldo Moro’s bodyguards or of the brother of an informer, could be given a specific tactical justification (if not necessarily a very convincing one). The Norway attack certainly didn’t follow that model. However, there’s a problem here, which is that it didn’t follow the Piazza Fontana model either: the killer specifically targeted those kids because of what they were in his eyes. It’s closer to the late C19/early C20 anarchist mad bomber tendency (for whom throwing a bomb in a theatre was OK, because anyone who was there was bound to be a bourgeois) – or, for that matter, to the jihadist “collective responsibility” argument, whereby anyone working in the Twin Towers (or travelling on the Tube) is ipso facto complicit in the crimes of imperialism.

What we’re looking at here, then, is a form of politics based on denouncing threats to “our way of life”, blaming them on an identifiable minority, and dismissing politicians as either complicit or powerless to resist. It’s preached by rich and powerful people whose wellbeing is under no threat at all, and finds an audience among people who think of themselves as having a stake in society but feel insecure and under threat. And, when it is taken up by a murderous lunatic, the form it takes is neither random terror nor targeted assassination, but hunting and killing members of a selected group – pogrom, in short.

This is not just a matter of hanging a lone nutter on the Right, or even on the racist extreme Right. It’s the other way round: if we take the massacre as the starting point, and look back from there at the writers the killer respected, we can see the outlines of something new emerging. Or rather, the outlines of something all too familiar, whose latest form has been developing in plain sight. This will, hopefully, be a defining moment – one in which the Littlejohns and Phillipses get a good look at the tiger they’re now riding. And so do we.

They really are a treat

On a not particularly amusing day, I was amused by the news that the LGBT section of the EDL had planned a leafleting session on Canal Street in Manchester, but had bottled ithad a change of plan.

What do we know about Canal Street? Three things. Firstly, it is mad busy these days; the top end of the street, especially, is basically paved with little round tables, and if you pass through after work on a weekday you’ll find a good half of them occupied. (I should say before I go much further that Canal St makes a particularly good short cut from the station to a bus stop that I use; I’ve passed through quite a few times over the years.) Some of the venues are bar/clubs, some are restaurant/bars; some are ‘mixed’ (i.e. straight-friendly), some are gay but tolerant of the hen-night trade, several are gay with a capital G. It doesn’t make much difference: walk down Canal Street at 5.00 on a Thursday and they’ll all be buzzing. What a sunny Saturday afternoon is like I don’t know, but I can guess. If we assume that the Canal St clientele has a similar political makeup to the population as a whole, that would mean that 60-70% of those people were positively hostile to the EDL. Tough crowd.

Secondly, it’s been the place to go for a gay venue from way back. Back in the 80s – before any of the joints I’ve just referred to existed – there used to be more of a (heterosexual) ‘red light’ vibe to Canal St; once when I was heading for my bus a young & cheerful woman actually fell into step with me and walked along next to me describing her services. (Wonder where she is now. Hope she’s OK.) Even then, pubs like the Rembrandt and the New Union were spoken of in hushed tones, as if to say no really some of the people who go in those places actually are gay, some of them even look gay… Then came Manto, a ‘mixed’ bar at the bottom of Canal St where I used to go quite a lot on Saturday afternoons in the mid-90s; at the time I don’t think there was anywhere else in Manchester where you could drink beer while sitting on hard chairs at little round tables on a terracotta pavement, and the novelty was quite appealing for a while. There also weren’t many places where nobody would care whether you were gay or straight. Compulsory heterosexuality has never really cramped my style, but I still quite liked the atmosphere created by a bit of discreet outness. Manto was the first of many, and not the most assertive by any means. (It’s still there now, under different management, although it’s looking a bit sad; it’s been rather left behind by the development of the area.) The point is, Canal Street was gay-friendly at a time when being gay-friendly was deeply unfashionable, culturally and politically – and the nationalist right were the most hostile of all.

Thirdly, the hostility was reciprocated. Digressing a bit, here’s something I wrote in response to Michael Walzer a few years ago:

We live in a complex, enduringly structured and meaningful social world, Bhaskar argues; wherever we go and whatever we do, there will always be a lot of other people out there, whose actions and words will influence us. Consequently, we can never hope to achieve absolute liberation, a leap “into a realm free of determination”; what we can hope to do is move “from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”.

the question is whether there are groups whose ‘determinations’ I regard as malign; whose freedom to infringe on my freedom of action I would therefore like to see restricted; and to whom I don’t have any reasonable means of communicating this preference, short of the use or threat of force. I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a street-fighting man, but I can think of several candidates without pausing for breath. A bridge in Manchester which I used to pass regularly bore the graffiti “KILL NAZI SCUM”. As I say, I’m not a violent type, and death to me is quite a big deal, but I found it very hard to see that message as anything other than a public service. The message I would like to get across doesn’t involve death – it’s more along the lines of “SEVERELY DEMORALISE NAZI SCUM” or “NAZI SCUM ARE UNWELCOME VISITORS TO THIS AREA” – but I can’t help feeling that these messages were conveyed more effectively by the graffiti as it stood.

The bridge was over the canal, beside Canal St. Happy leafleting, lads.

I’m still here

It’s been a busy few weeks. When I got abstracts accepted at the York Deviancy Conference and the British Society of Criminology conference, I wasn’t really thinking about how close they would be together; I wasn’t really thinking about where the papers would come from, either, although I knew that I had a couple half-written and a bunch of relevant material downloaded. Many days of intensive reading and bibliography-snowballing ensued; I called a halt to this when I realised that every paper I read was bringing up three or four interesting references, so that I was going backwards all the time. (Even now, with both papers written & delivered, there are 137 papers in my “ASB/To read” folder, but I’m happy to say that there are even more in the main (read) ASB folder.) The writing was gratifyingly easy, as it often is when I’ve got something to say and an occasion to say it; it’s just a shame how rarely both conditions apply.

Anyway, I went to York (on Thursday the 30th of June and Friday the 1st of July), & then went to Newcastle for the BSC (on Monday the 4th); I’ve since had to give another two presentations in another two Northern towns, although I won’t go into those. Busy, busy – not to mention tired, tired.

At York I gave

Broken windows, broken promises: from the CSO to the ASBO.

This paper looks into the origins of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order, New Labour’s talismanic instrument of social control over disorderly individuals. The Community Safety Order, proposed by Labour in opposition, was designed to address concerns expressed in working-class communities about the difficulty of either deterring or prosecuting certain forms of criminal activity. Instead of the CSO, Labour in power introduced the ASBO: an all-purpose instrument for the control of non-criminal behaviour, whose widespread use – encouraged by central government – led predictably to the criminalisation of large numbers of vulnerable and marginalised people. A measure which could have been used to empower disrupted communities was, in practice, an instrument for entrenching exclusion and disempowerment. Drawing on parliamentary and public statements by some of the politicians responsible, this paper will identify the key factors in this evolution, including the influence over the Home Office of American ‘right realism’ and the influence over Tony Blair of Thomas Hobbes.

This went over OK, although it was perhaps a bit socio-legal for the venue. Another slight problem was that the conclusions weren’t as dramatic as I’d hoped they would be. My hunch when I started researching this properly was that the initial impetus for the CSO was broadly progressive and left-realist-ish – the proverbial ‘neighbours from hell’ are a real problem, and it doesn’t impinge mostly on rich people. I have to say that research didn’t really bear this out, although I may just need to dig down a bit further. Also, I never got to the bit about Hobbes, although I did make some non-trivial connections with the “Broken Windows” agenda (and, more to the point, the original “BW” article).

At Newcastle, three days later, I gave

Did you observe all the warnings? The ASB Day Count and the production of the anti-social

This paper looks at the relationship between anti-social behaviour, social control and criminal justice, by way of the apparently technical question of how a cost can be put on incidents of anti-social behaviour. It takes as its starting-point the 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Day Count, an exercise carried out in order to both enumerate and place a monetary value on anti-social behaviour. The continuities and discontinuities between the Day Count and its inspiration, Stanko’s 2000 ‘domestic violence audit’, are traced. Together with an analysis of the methodological flaws of the Day Count, this makes it possible to make some suggestions as to the type of knowledge which the Day Count was set up to produce. This discussion is then related to more general considerations regarding the difficulty of enumerating or evaluating unwanted social interactions experienced in the form of a continuous ‘climate’ or as a series of individually trivial ‘incidents’, and the parallel difficulty of controlling this type of trouble through the criminal justice system. The paper concludes by arguing that the anti social behaviour powers introduced under New Labour tend to resolve troublesome situations into a series of infringements which can be punished through social exclusion, to the detriment of the communities affected and of the criminal justice system itself; a much more far-reaching review of these powers is called for than the Coalition has so far announced.

This went pretty well; the main problem was getting it into a 15-minute slot. There’s some quite interesting stuff in there about the costings used in the ASB Day Count, and some stuff about Betsy Stanko’s DV audit, and… and much, much more. (The ‘climate’/’incidents’ stuff is still a bit undeveloped.) I ended up wrapping it up with more “Broken Windows” and a killer line (not my own) about “internal outsiders”. A very senior criminologist in the front row was seen to burst out laughing at this juncture, doubtless from the sheer delight of intellectual discovery. (Or it may just have been that the VSC in question has used that line himself.)

Anyway, there’s work to do on both of these before they’re ready to publish, but published they will be.

On a related topic, my publishers supplied me with flyers offering my book at a special conference rate – a 50% discount, or £30, which for a well-produced academic hardback isn’t totally absurd. I know that just leaving the flyers lying around doesn’t guarantee that everyone who might want one manages to get one; fortunately I’ve got a few left over. So if you missed out on a flyer and would like one now, get in touch.

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