What with our culture

With some misgivings, I’m planning on entering some posts for the ridiculously-named Orwell Prize this year. (I hate popularity contests generally, and this one seems more pretentious than most – and, as Phil says, this year at least there is only going to be only one winner. But I could do with getting a few more eyes on this blog – it’s currently getting less attention than my beer blog, which doesn’t seem right.)

So here are the posts I’m planning on entering.

Paint the words upon the wall (25th April)
“Quick quiz, aimed particularly at any readers who are outside the UK (or who don’t go past phone boxes very often). Each of the following slogans has been used in street advertising by one of the main political parties contesting this election … But can you match the slogan to the party?” (They were all Conservative Party slogans in the “Big Society” vein.)

Imitation of life (30th April)
“Apparently Gordon Brown didn’t really think Gillian Duffy’s remarks were bigoted; he thought something she didn’t actually say was bigoted.” (I conclude that Duffy’s remarks were deeply confused, and that racism was actually all that held them together.)

Tomorrow, today will be yesterday (5th May)
“In the last post I revisited the series of posts I wrote before the last election, arguing that Labour supporters should vote for parties to the left of Labour – a category in which I included the Lib Dems. (I voted Green on the day.) This time round, I’m seriously considering voting Labour. So what’s changed?”

The Liberal Democrat Party: a concluding unscientific postscript (9th June)
“Unlike leftish fiction-writer Ian McEwan, I am disinclined to extend much goodwill in the direction of the coalition government. … Tory government is bad; if you join a Tory government, or (even worse) make a Tory government possible, you and your party are off the political roll-call forever. This position seems pretty fundamental to me. But can I justify it on the basis of anything other than what McEwan refers to as ‘deep tribal reasons’?”

Bashkohuni! (26th June)
“Speaking of Albania…” (On the difference between Marxism as a scientific method and Marxism as guarantor of historical correctness.)

Late in the evening (30th June)
“I agree with Ken Clarke, up to a point.” (On the prison population and the danger of over-applying cost-benefit analysis in sentencing.)

A gift from the Queen (10th November)
“I’ve lived through several Remembrance Days … and for most of those I’ve refused to wear a poppy. (And it did feel – and continues to feel – like a refusal, not a free choice.)” (On patrotism, the necessity of unthinking loyalty in the armed forces and the danger of unthinking loyalty to the armed forces.)

Jolly little nothing (25th November)
“A number of people have been all over the latest from the Odious Clegg. Clegg’s big idea is to contrast ‘old progressives, who emphasise the power and spending of the central state, and new progressives, who focus on the power and freedom of citizens’. Old progressives believe in redistribution; new progressives believe in social mobility.” (More on the Lib Dems, this time starting from a truly dreadful thinkpiece by a leader who is clearly way out of his depth.)

Look who bought the myth
“‘we as a party still support the policy of moving towards the abolition of fees and I suspect that we will have something like that in our next manifesto.’ – Tim Farron MP” (I’m surprised nobody else picked up on this astonishing piece of Lib Dem chutzpah. The post wrote itself.)

Scant evanescent things (23rd December)
“Is there anything to say at this stage about Vince Cable and his supposed lack of impartiality?” (Damn right there was.)

Three pre-election posts (one about the Tories and two about Labour); seven post-election, including one about patriotism, one about class consciousness, one about Tory penal policy – and four about the Lib Dems, bless ‘em. All, naturally, written in prose like a window-pane, by a plain and unillusioned man who reports things as he sees them (I find it’s simpler in the long run). If that lot doesn’t win the Orwell Prize, I won’t be at all surprised.

To be someone

“All of us knew Pooky would be famous one day,” Philip Hensher writes in the Independent. This came as a surprise to me, although Pooky was certainly memorable when I knew him at school in Wales. He was small, Welsh and pugnacious, and hit puberty a full year before any of the other boys. He lent my friend Jem Brian Aldiss’s A Hand-Reared Boy, which as far as we were concerned was the dirtiest thing imaginable; Jem was quoting it for weeks.

I only ever heard Pooky called by his real name once, in a Welsh lesson. Our Welsh teacher ran the school branch of Urdd Gobaith Cymru (which we were all encouraged to join) and had no patience for English incomers who had trouble with the language; luckily for me I only qualified on one count. But one English girl in our class had a complete tin ear for the language, and in particular for the consonant ‘rh’, which is a kind of aspirated R (held, not rolled). (And it is tricky; my father came from Rhosllanerchrugog, and I still have to take a run-up at that ‘Rh’.) Unfortunately the kids in our Welsh exercises always seemed to be going up and down the hill (rhiw), so it was hard to avoid. One dreadful lesson, our Welsh teacher could stand this girl’s mangling of her beloved language – and the word rhiw especially – no longer. “It’s not hard! It’s easy! Like this – ‘rhiw‘! It’s just like Hugh with an R in front! You can say ‘Hugh’, can’t you? Come on, stand at the front. Now, look at Hugh and say his name three times, and then say it again with an R in front – Hugh, Hugh, Hugh, ‘rhiw‘.” We had worked out who this ‘Hugh’ person was about halfway through the tirade, and we watched in horror – tempered (as always) by relief that it wasn’t us – as this nice English girl stood at the front of the class and gazed obediently at Pooky the goatboy, saying “Hugh, Hugh, Hugh, roo“. The teacher made her do it three times before she would admit defeat.

You know what? This isn’t the same guy. Hensher was writing about the actor Pooky Quesnel, who knocked him out in Cabaret when he was at Oxford. Me, I confidently expected to hear more after Cambridge of Annabel Arden and Simon McBurney, whose drama workshops I briefly went to (a bit boisterous, and I wasn’t bendy enough). Also, of Roger Hyams; of Jonathan Tafler; of Oscar Moore (who wasn’t actually in theatre, as far as I know, but he was obviously going to be a star in some way or other).

Jonathan Tafler was Chair of Mummers – a university-wide drama society originally founded by Alistair Cooke – when I pitched a play to them in my first year; it was a kind of anti-authoritarian panorama of human history, influenced by Paines Plough, Stuart Christie, Art Bears, R.D. Laing and Scritti Politti’s first single, beginning in the Garden of Eden and ending in the psychiatric ward where a rebel against the authority of state, capital and family had been confined, and in whose head the whole thing was revealed to be happening. “Given time she can think it through…” Jonathan, anyway, told me he thought there was something there, which was amazing… and invited me to meet the rest of the group and pitch it to them in person, which was agony. I was very shy (and rather young); no way could I pitch an idea to a group – I wouldn’t have bothered writing an entire first draft of the play if I could do that – and absolutely no way could I take other people’s suggestions on board. In short, it wasn’t to be, and I gave up any idea of getting involved in the stage soon after that. But I did always vaguely think I’d hear Jonathan Tafler’s name again. It turns out that he’s working; he’s done a ton of radio; and he can tell a Jewish joke. Not so shabby.

As for Roger Hyams, I remember once somebody told a friend of mine that Pip Torrens had told her that Roger already had his own agent, and while we thought this was a bit presumptuous we weren’t in the least surprised – he was so clearly going places. (I think it was Pip Torrens; if it wasn’t him it was probably Pip Broughton. But anyway.) The only time I saw Roger act he was co-starring in Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act – a play whose cast consists of a man and a woman who have been caught in the act of inter-racial sex by the South African police, and who are both naked throughout. (Not quite throughout – he puts on a string vest halfway through.) It’s a strange but rather wonderful play. It’s very static and declamatory, as the name implies; it would work well on radio, if the players’ nakedness weren’t such a powerful element in it. Roger was terrific; if anything he slightly outshone the female lead, who I’m reasonably sure was Tilda Swinton. But where is he now? Here (at least, I think this is him): writing and directing, among other things. The acting didn’t work out, but he’s done all right.

Looking these people up, I chafed slightly at Philip Hensher’s conclusion:

Some people who you meet young have talent and glory just shining out of them. They achieve it, or, alternatively, they settle for labouring respectably while people no one at the time ever heard of, like David Cameron, take over the world. I wonder how many other brilliant Sally Bowleses there are in the world, making a living.

After I left university with my English degree – complete with a commendation for my poetry, which had been judged in part by Raymond Williams – I was on the dole for a year. For the next twelve and a half years I worked in computing – for a pre-privatisation MANWEB, for Manchester City Council and for Swinton Insurance. Now that‘s “making a living”.

There is something very Oxbridge going on between the lines here; I’m reminded of the couple in Peter’s Friends who everyone else more or less openly looks down on, because after Cambridge they ended up in advertising (dear oh dear). It’s as if a career in the arts or literature – at any rate, a career in the vicinity of the star you want to follow – is a given, and success and failure is measured by the calibre of desirable career you end up with. The possibility of ending up in computing or banking or accountancy or management – let alone ending up in one of those jobs where people tell you what to do – can be completely discounted: it’s stardom or drudgery, where drudgery is defined as second leads in Leatherhead and two-line parts on the radio. From outside Oxford and Cambridge – or from outside the groups that feel at home there – it looks different. I suspect that plenty of comets blaze across the firmament of student drama at Durham and Exeter and Cardiff; I also suspect that a much smaller percentage of those stars achieve real-world stardom, and a lot of them drop right through the cracks to end up in, well, computing or banking or accountancy or management. There’s a passage in 1982 Janine where Jock remembers one of the stars of a student production he was involved in many years earlier, and says that she’s now one of the first people casting directors ring when they want to cast a middle-aged female character to appear for a week or two in Casualty; he then points out that, as acting careers go, this is doing pretty bloody well. Viewed from the perspective of most actors, Pooky Quesnel and Jonathan Tafler and Roger Hyams aren’t also-rans – they’re success stories.

PS And if you really want a mute inglorious Garrick, I’ll see your Pooky Quesnel and raise you Dave Bates. Fantastic actor – one of the best I’ve ever seen. He was at my school (in Croydon, not the one in Wales). He was in every school play for a few years: an automatic choice for the lead role until he got bored of doing that, and after that he could have his pick of the roles. He could do anything, from tortured-soul young male lead to Pythonesque gurning (not in the same play). Then he got bored of acting altogether and withdrew his application to RADA, to the horror of our English teacher. No idea what became of him; he certainly didn’t go to Cambridge. I expect he ended up getting a job or something.

Scant evanescent things

Can a post be written entirely in the interrogative mood?

Is there anything to say at this stage about Vince Cable and his supposed lack of impartiality?

Is there any politician who is unaware of the activities of Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation? Is there any politician who has no views on the management and ownership of the broadcast media? Is there any politician whose views on the media do not imply a preferred state of affairs?

Can we imagine the “quasi-judicial” regulatory role Cable was to fill being taken on by a politician who had no opinions about the state of the media? or one who had no strong preferences about how the media should be organised in future? or one who knew nothing about News Corporation’s past and present operations?

Does Robert Peston’s “biased judge” analogy have any relevance, given that the business of a courtroom is to determine legal guilt or innocence of a specific charge, and that the past conduct of a suspected offender is ruled out of consideration on those grounds? Considering that the government’s role in this case is to consider the findings of a regulatory body concerning a proposed change to a known state of affairs and apply a further public interest test, is this analogy in fact spurious and misleading?

If Vince Cable’s expressed opinions render him incapable of impartially applying a public interest test, what politician is capable of the desired level of impartiality? If Jeremy H*** can be confidently expected to set aside his own views on Murdoch when in “quasi-judicial” mode, why should Cable not be trusted to set aside his?

And which is worse for a political career, threatening to bring down the government or threatening to obstruct Rupert Murdoch?

(We know the answer to the last one, at least.)

Heave a sigh

How long do you leave a blog before you stop reading it, or take it out of your RSS feed? I currently follow 29 blogs; some (e.g.) I’m willing to leave for weeks or months between posts, because when they do post I know it’ll be worth reading. (A new post from Luke would be appreciated, though.)

But I’m saying goodbye to Splintered Sunrise. The blog hasn’t been updated since September the 2nd, and it seems unlikely that it will be now. As you who read this may well already know, something a bit odd happened to Splinty’s blog a few months before it shut down. Like most of his regular commenters, I saw Splinty firstly as a socialist blogger and secondly as a good source on what was going on in Ireland; his occasional polemics against the National Secular Society were just some of the padding that came with the package, of no more significance than his appalling taste in music or his occasional lapses into Cyrillic. Besides, I am myself the son of a preacher man (well, a lay reader man), and I didn’t have much of a problem with the occasional argument to the effect of “these militant secularists don’t understand how religious people think”. Some time around mid-year, this type of argument started to dominate Splinty’s blog; at the same time, there was a shift in the claims being made. We began to read posts that could be summed up as “these unbelievers don’t understand how Catholics think”, which had me squirming a little – and then “these so-called liberals don’t understand how true Catholics think”, which had me looking for the exit. And then, suddenly, silence fell. My immediate assumption was that Splinty had realised that he was espousing two radically different bodies of ideas – or, at least, that he was talking to two radically different audiences – and had retired, in a certain amount of bemusement, to work out how to reconcile them. This theory got a bit of a knock from the discovery that Splinty had resurfaced on the one-line Web, where he continues to post like the proverbial bandit – and never gets the opportunity to set out his views at length, or gets challenged to justify them in detail. So I guess that’s a happy ending of sorts.

I’m also going to stop checking on Rob Knox’s intermittent but frequently brilliant blog Law and Disorder (even the URL is an education). Rob’s last post on that blog reads, in part: “So, anyway, I have made a New Year’s resolution to try and post much more frequently, we’ll see if this actually comes about”. It’s dated 18th January 2010. I look forward to reading the book on international law that he will indubitably end up writing.

On the other hand, I am going to start reading Between the Hammer and the Anvil (which I currently catch up on every couple of weeks, very much the way I read XKCD) and Bad Conscience (which I read when it’s linked from Stumbling and Mumbling, i.e. quite often).

Finally, does anyone know what’s happened to Liam Mac Uaid’s blog? It’s currently coming up as “deleted”, which is surprising and a bit alarming. I’m hoping it will resurface in another form before too long (sectarian joke about relaunching with new name and slightly larger membership goes here).

A treasure hunt, but the treasure’s gone

Recent discussion on CT has made me aware of some startling disparities:

UK(2001) Oxford admissions (2009)
White 71.1% 84.9%
Mixed 3.2% 4.6%
Asian 12.1% 4.6%
Black 10.9% 1.0%
Chinese 1.1% 1.8%
Other 1.6% 0.3%


A massive over-representation of the White majority, together with a really glaring under-representation of British Asian and especially Black students, who are being rejected literally nine times out of ten, whereas…

Hang on, wrong figures. That first column is the ethnic breakdown of the population of London (which is where David Lammy MP was born and has lived most of his life, not to mention the obvious point that it’s where he works). Here’s the UK:

UK(2001) Oxford admissions (2009)
White 92.1% 84.9%
Mixed 1.2% 4.6%
Asian 4.0% 4.6%
Black 2.0% 1.0%
Chinese 0.4% 1.8%
Other 0.4% 0.3%

White majority: slightly under-represented. Chinese and mixed-race groups: over-represented. British Asians: very slightly over-represented. Black British…

Well, OK, Lammy has got something here, but it’s not quite as big an issue as it might look if you’re coming at it from an ethnically-mixed background (also known as a ‘city’). The UK population in 2001 was still 92% White – there are whole areas of the country where you just won’t see a brown face, or if you do you’ll go home and tell somebody. I won’t be surprised if the figure that comes out of the 2011 Census is a bit lower, but I’ll be amazed if it’s below 90%. So the fact that the Oxford student intake is 85% White is not, in itself, a problem, except insofar as it suggests that recruitment from Scotland, Wales and the North-East might need a bit of work.

All the same, it’s true that Black students are seriously under-represented; a factor of 2 isn’t as bad as a factor of 10, but it’s not good. But this seems to be a point specifically about Black students and not about non-Whites more generally. If racism on the part of Oxford admissions tutors is at the root of what’s going on here, either it’s specifically anti-Black racism or there are other factors outweighing racist attitudes towards other groups.

Or is the problem at the application stage? Here’s how applications look in comparison to UK population figures (bearing in mind that these are 2001 figures and hence almost certainly out of date). In 2009, there were approximately 185 Oxford applications for every 1,000,000 UK citizens. If the same figure is calculated for each ethnic group, you get the following:

Applications per million Over/under
White 155 83.5%
Mixed 703 379.4%
Asian 353 190.7%
Black 192 103.8%
Chinese 918 495.2%
Other 364 196.6%

Relative to the size of their ethnic group within the population as a whole, White students are under-represented. Asians and the ‘Other’ group – which consists mainly of people who declined to state their ethnic group – are over-represented; Chinese and the ‘Mixed’ group are massively over-represented. Black students are right in the middle of the distribution, a fairly small population represented – relative to the total of applications – proportionately to its size.

Here are the admission figures again, this time side by side with the application figures:

Applications Admissions Success Over/under
White 76.9% 84.9% 27.6% 110.0%
Mixed 4.4% 4.6% 26.5% 105.6%
Asian 7.6% 4.6% 15.3% 61.0%
Black 2.0% 1.0% 12.2% 48.6%
Chinese 2.1% 1.8% 21.6% 86.1%
N/K 6.3% 2.8% 11.1% 44.2%

The “over/under” figure gives the relative success of each group as compared with the overall success rate of 25.1%. And it’s an interesting figure. Relative to applications, White students are quite substantially over-represented, while every other group is under-represented, with the exception of the ‘Mixed’ group (the cynical explanation that they’re seen as ‘white enough’ suggests itself).

Here, finally, is what it looks like if you put it all together. (These are the same numbers I’ve been crunching so far. The ‘Over/under’ figure for applications is the ratio between the number of applicants per million in each group and the number of applicants per million UK residents. The ‘Over/under’ figure for admissions is the ratio between the success rate of applicants in each group and the overall success rate of applicants.)

% of population % of applications Over/under % of admissions Over/under
White 92.1% 76.9% 0.835 84.9% 1.103
Mixed 1.2% 4.4% 3.794 4.6% 1.057
Asian 4.0% 7.6% 1.907 4.6% 0.610
Black 2.0% 2.0% 1.038 1.0% 0.488
Chinese 0.4% 2.1% 4.952 1.8% 0.862
Other 0.4% 0.8% 1.966 0.3% 0.428

Every line tells a slightly different story. The Mixed ethnic group comes off best, with a massive over-representation in applications which is entrenched at the admissions stage; Chinese students are also over-represented, with a larger over-representation among applicants only slightly scaled back at the admission stage. A smaller over-representation over Asian students is almost entirely reversed by the rejection of 85% of applicants. The White group is significantly under-represented among applicants, although the admissions process partially compensates for this with a slight over-representation, relative to applications. Alone among all the major ethnic groups, Black students apply to Oxford at roughly the same rate as the population as a whole, neither over-represented among applicants (like most others) nor under-represented (like White students). However, the Black group suffers enormously at the admission stage, with a rejection rate of nearly 88%; this compares with 74.9% for all applicants and 72.4% for White students.

So what is going on? A large part of what’s going on seems to be that White schoolchildren aren’t getting the top grades in the numbers we’d expect – although this is still being compensated during admissions. Where Black Oxford applicants are concerned, it seems undeniable that something is going wrong somewhere in the admission process. The numbers of Asian – and to a lesser extent Chinese – applicants are cut down fairly significantly in the admissions process, but this is compensated by a massive over-representation of those groups among applicants. Black students get hit both ways: they’re not over-represented (although I would find it hard to label this as a fault, particularly given the performance of my own ethnic group), and they’re turned away at an even higher rate than Asian applicants. Oxford’s own investigation concludes that subject choice must bear some (most? all?) of the blame:

BME students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed courses. Oxford’s three most oversubscribed large (over 70 places) courses (Economics & Management, Medicine and Mathematics) account for 43% of all BME applicants and 44% of all Black applicants – compared to just 17% of all white applicants.

Well, maybe, but I can’t help feeling that this explanation stops where it ought to start. It’s hard to believe that subject choice is the only reason why Black students’ faces so consistently fail to fit; more to the point, the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ subject choices themselves are not entirely weightless and without a history.  I passed this snippet on to my wife (we met at Cambridge). Apparently Black students aren’t being advised to choose the right subjects, I said, and that’s why not many of them get into Oxford. What, she said, they’re not applying to do Land Economy?

Look who bought the myth

we as a party still support the policy of moving towards the abolition of fees and I suspect that we will have something like that in our next manifesto.Tim Farron MP, President of the Liberal Democrats

Let’s get this straight.

Firstly, the Lib Dems’ collective volte-face on tuition fees has done enormous damage to the party’s credibility on any issue you care to name. To put it bluntly, why should we believe anything they promise ever again? As for believing promises on the specific issue of moving towards the abolition of fees… words fail me. We are not going to be fooled again in the same way, by the same people, on the same issue. I’m sure lots of individual Liberal Democrats, up to and including Tim Farron, are unhappy about the way the vote went; I’m glad that so many Lib Dem MPs (including both Farron and my own MP) voted No on the day. But that day is over. For better or worse – mainly worse – the Lib Dems are not, now, a party that supports the abolition of fees. Voting Lib Dem doesn’t even mean voting for a party that supports fees being frozen, or linked to inflation, or doubled. Voting Lib Dem, as of now, means voting for the party that made it possible for the Tories to treble fees – and, failing some fairly radical developments over the next few months, that’s what it always will mean.

Secondly, there’s an argument going round (notably from Vince Cable) to the effect that we shouldn’t set too much store by what the Lib Dems said before the election – which, just for the record, was:

We will scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.

We shouldn’t hold them to that undertaking, Cable told us, because it related only to the eventuality of a Liberal Democrat majority government; once they actually had to negotiate from a position of weakness, why, naturally all bets were off. There’s one obvious answer to this, which is that the promise which was signed by 500 Liberal Democrat candidates wasn’t about what the party was going to do: each of those 500 candidates (including every sitting Lib Dem MP) pledged “to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”. Not a huge amount of wiggle room there. But I don’t think the party collectively can get off the hook that easily, either. 6.8 million people voted Liberal Democrat in May; I doubt that very many of them thought the party was going to form a majority government. Nobody in the Lib Dem leadership ever said “there will have to be negotiation and in practice not all of this will get done”, because nobody needed to: Lib Dem voters were well aware that the best the party could hope for was to enter government as a junior member of a coalition. Everyone knew that what was implemented in practice would be a complex set of trade-offs, with only a few policies surviving unchanged and most being heavily watered down. But what Lib Dem voters did expect, quite reasonably, was that the party’s leaders would at least attempt to keep their promises and to implement a diluted version of their policies – not to shred their promises, implement the diametric opposite of their policies and then plead political realism.

Thirdly, a promise is not just a promise: every commitment on a single issue takes its meaning from a broader set of arguments and values. The politician who promises to keep a military shipyard open is affirming his belief in the armed forces, imperialism and the glories of war; the politician who privatises hospital cleaning services is stating her love of profit, her contempt for public service and her hatred of trade unions. (Not invariably, obviously, but I think these are good rules of thumb.) And the politician who – like Nick Clegg, before the election – commits himself to abolishing university tuition fees is also committing himself to a belief in higher education and public provision. People understand this. Clegg, Cable and the rest of the whole sick crew have not just ditched a promise; they have made a handbrake turn on two of the most important issues in politics. It’s not too much to say that they’ve gained power by promising to do the right thing, and used it to do the wrong thing.

There are three distinct but related political fallacies here. The first point – like Farron’s incredible comments – relates to the fallacy of good intentions: ask not who we are, where we’ve been or what we’ve done, ask what we can do for you next time! The second fallacy you could call the fallacy of executive omnipotence: the assumption that electoral promises relate only to the situation in which the party is powerful enough to have a free choice about whether to implement every single one of them; if those conditions don’t obtain (as they never really do), all the promises can be shelved, or turned into open-ended statements of aspiration. The third is the fallacy of the single promise: the idea that individual political promises are simply that – single items on a list of promises, like beads on a string – so that a politician should be held to account, at most, for the number of promises he or she fails to implement. In any case, they couldn’t realistically have been expected to implement all of them (fallacy 2) – and isn’t it more important to think about what they can do for you next time (fallacy 1)?

Instead of judging politicians on their record and on their overall political direction, we’re implicitly being asked – by Farron as well as Clegg – to look at policy commitments as free-floating mood statements, and give our vote to the politician who seems to be making the right kind of noises. Taken together, this adds up to a formidable depoliticisation of politics, as well as a Get Out Of Jail Free card for individual politicians.

Or you could just call it base, cynical vote-whoring. And from the Liberal Democrats, too – I’m shocked, shocked.

Update If you want to know what the fees issue is really about – and why the reaction of so many academics has been one of incredulous horror – read this. As Colin rightly points out, a graduate tax could have forced students to pay just as much money for their education, and would have been easier to administer – and easier to make more equitable – than the nightmare system we look like being landed with. However, a tax would also have been channelled through the state, effectively keeping universities publicly funded; it also wouldn’t have set universities competing against one another on price, and hence on cost (if you can deliver the same teaching with fewer staff, you won’t need to charge your students as much). As our Vice-Chancellor recently commented, few of us went into higher education with the aim of working in the free market, but that’s where most of us look like ending up.

Hang your freedom higher

The situationists … don’t talk of a real utopia but an abstract utopia. Do they really think that, one fine morning or one decisive evening, people will turn to one another and say “That’s enough! Enough work and boredom! Let’s make an end of it!” and that they’ll embark on an endless festival, on creating situations? Maybe it did happen once, at daybreak on the 18th of March 1871, but that conjuncture won’t come round again.
- Henri Lefebvre, October 1967

Although I’ve written about activism, I’m not an activist; I tried it for a few years, in my late 20s and early 30s, but after a while I wanted my evenings and weekends back. I joined the 24th November demo in Manchester, although I legged it when it looked as if we were going to get kettled; I missed yesterday’s altogether (I was at a seminar on student activism, ironically enough) and I haven’t been to the Roscoe occupation.

So I’m seeing the current movement from a distance, and I may be getting it wrong in any number of ways. But, from what I’ve read, it seems like this could be the start of something big. This, from OxfordCambridge, is absolutely exemplary in terms of tactical, organisational and ideological innovation:

On Sunday, occupying students will host a General Assembly for all those who have been inspired by their action against the cuts and the ConDem government. “It is clear that the cuts we are facing go far beyond the student movement and so should the resistance. This large general meeting aims to address the question: “what next?” By bringing together school, sixth form, and university students, academics, workers, trade unionists, pensioners, anti-cuts and community groups we will help to build the movement in Cambridge and beyond.”

The Cambridge occupation has now ended, but occupations continue at Bristol, Leeds, Nottingham, Newcastle and of course Manchester; in London there are occupations at KCL, UCL, the LSE and SOAS. (This is not an exhaustive list.) There are thousands of angry, inspired and well-informed people out there, who have made a serious commitment to this movement; for a lot of them the occupations are providing some great experiences, enabling them to get to know themselves and what they’re capable of.

There is depth of feeling and attention to detail, along with the inevitable earnestness; reasoned debates take place over coffee – they’d bought a machine since continual café runs had eaten into the kitty – and stale sandwiches donated from a staff meeting. They look cleanish though tired and cold – the heating got turned off on Sunday night and today is Wednesday – but they’ve learned to get round things: a shower and a night at home every few days, a few hours’ work on their essays before bed, a break for a lecture and to pass out flyers. It’s like a ‘really big sleepover’, one student tells me; another says that it’s almost become a way of life. They talk of the dance-off they’d had with the Oxford Radcliffe Camera occupation via Skype, of the ‘fun’ they’re having. They didn’t know each other before and now they’re a community.

If the fees bill gets passed today, I think we can be confident that a lot of them will fight on. And in the unlikely event that it falls… I think we can be confident that a lot of them will fight on.

One outcome which I think we can rule out is quick and effective repression of the movement. This is largely because the government is unpopular and disunited; the kind of tactically heavy-handed and legally ingenious treatment the miners got in 1984-5 was only feasible because the government was united in the belief that it was cracking down on the Enemy Within, and an awful lot of ordinary people backed them in that. But we should also give the movement some credit for the way it’s responded to the police attention it has received. There’s a learning experience going on out there:

The Metropolitan Police seems to be on a mission to prove to everyone under the age of 25 that the Marxists are right and the bourgeois state is fundamentally repressive. Last week they gave a bunch of fifteen year olds mild hypothermia and severe anxiety as part of this project.

As we all know a big turning point in every revolutionary’s life is that moment when they learn to really hate cops. The youth are learning. Watch this little video of the student protests on November 30th from The Gabber to see how they dodge the cops’ kettling tactic.

(Do watch it – it’s inspiring and sometimes hilarious.)

Did I mention my book? It’s been fascinating – and heartening – to see the tactical creativity, the ideological openness and the defiant playfulness of the 1970s movements which I wrote about reappearing in this one. Another interesting parallel is the sense that the established revolutionary groups are being sidelined – or, at least, are having to learn how to follow as well as lead:

Here is an expletive riddled account by someone who was at a recent student organised event.

“We were invited guests of the most radical activists in town. They had a very good structure worked out, announced at the start of the meeting. 1 hour of ‘open mic’ on what cuts are affecting your workplace, community, sector or whatever, and what fightback is occurring (if any). 20 mins tea break. 2 hours of strategizing about where next – first in relation to education and then the wider cuts.

|Of course, it only works if people respect the agenda set. And then the f**king deatheaters started with their boring set speeches. Do they not get it? This is not a rabble that needs rousing – they are already more f**king aroused than the constitutional revolutionaries, whose main objective is to win this vote, or that position. Egomaniacs sucking the air and life out of the room.

“The students were too f**king civil – very good at reclaiming space from the establishment but haven’t figured out how to defend their space from sectarians. All they could do was politely remind people to stay on topic.”

You can see why she is furious. If ever there was a moment when the vanguard is running behind the popular mood insisting on its right to lead it is now. Pretending that your small group is the only leaders a movement needs is downright delusional. This could just be one of those occasions when the best thing to do is to let the movement run free and develop its own momentum.

Wise words mate. (“Deatheaters”!)

The other sure sign that the movement is starting to get somewhere is that attempts are being made to separate the “extremists” (those who are revolutionary, violent, criminal, beyond the pale of civilised politics) from the “moderates” (those who are willing to denounce the extremists). Sayeeda Warsi’s attempt to hang the ‘extremist’ label on John McDonnell deserved to be laughed out of court, but sadly – and only too predictably – wasn’t:

While it would be great if Ed Miliband came out explicitly for the occupations, in much the same way the NUS leadership has been shamed into doing, he is unlikely to do so because of the gravitational pull received practice and Labour’s contradictory location exerts on him. Given the choice of supporting students, winning tens of thousands of radical new adherents to Labour, and placing the party firmly on the side of opposition to the cuts; and the prevarication of politics as usual, he will plump for the latter every time.

I would argue that Labour’s “contradictory position” isn’t just that of the party of organised labour within a capitalist democracy, which is what Phil has in mind here. Labour is also, like the Italian Communist Party in the 1970s, occupying the role of “gatekeeper” in a relatively closed political system. The party is the arbiter of the leftward limit of what’s politically thinkable, and maintains that position by either denouncing or appropriating innovations from the broader Left. The fact that under Ed Miliband the ratio of appropriation to denunciation is likely to rise above zero doesn’t change that context, or its constraining effects: placing the party firmly on the side of opposition to the cuts would simply be politically impossible.

Rather more disappointing was the failure of a leading Green to get it:

The Green Party’s Jenny Jones who is also a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority … opted to issue a scabbing statement saying:

“In my 40 year experience of going to protests, the violent people aren’t real protestors at all. They are criminals who use the cover of a demo to do as much damage as they can. Real protestors want to make their point and get good headlines for their cause.”

a fault line is going to start running through every trade union, students’ union, political party, Christmas party and football team as the struggle heats up. It’ll be around trivial stuff like vandalism but underneath it will be a choice about whether you’re on the side of the fighters or the capitulators. Jenny Jones won’t be the last to jump the wrong way.

I think this is exactly right, except that it won’t be – at least, it won’t purport to be – about trivial stuff like vandalism: it’ll be done through accusations that protestors were being violent, or threatening to be violent… or tolerating other people’s violence… or tolerating other people’s threats of violence… or failing to denounce other people’s violence… or failing to denounce other people’s tolerance of threats of violence… and on it will go, if the protestors let it. I wasn’t entirely enamoured of Clare Solomon’s tactics when she was grilled on Newsnight, but she clearly recognised the importance of not walking into a trap when it’s been laid for you – which, sadly, is more than you can say for Aaron Porter. When people get angry they often damage property and break laws. Damaging property and breaking the law is generally a bad thing, but getting angry is sometimes entirely appropriate: an angry demonstration does not turn into a criminal demonstration if some of its participants commit offences, and nor is the movement behind the demo tainted by those individuals’ actions. (Nor should it necessarily back them to the hilt, on the other hand. I agree with Mary Beard, up to a point – being punished for breaking a law which you set out to break cannot reasonably be called unjust. That said, I think what she misses is that no law is ever applied with absolute uniformity. There is always a broader context which determines whether the law will be applied in particular cases; in this case the protests against the law, and the claim that the law was broken in a just cause, are part of that context.)

A couple of quotes from my book seem relevant here. (SPOILERS: they’re the last sentences of the last chapter proper and the methodological appendix, respectively. But it’s even better if you read the whole thing.) My book, incidentally, has sold 248 copies in the UK; considering that it has an rrp of £60, and is presumably only being bought by libraries and the odd eccentric millionaire, I think this is pretty good going. The hardback edition is only 400, and if we can sell that out a paperback should be on the cards; so if it’s not in a library near you, why not request that they buy a copy? It’s starting to acquire a certain amount of contemporary relevance.

In Britain, where the electoral system excludes social movements from the national political system, the Labour Party remains the principal Left gatekeeper. Faced with a disorderly and uncontainable rival to its left, Labour would have the same options as the PCI. An inclusive engagement would require the party quietly to appropriate and absorb the demands and tactics of the new movement, while publicly denouncing its leadership as irresponsible extremists. An exclusive engagement, in contrast, would involve denunciations of violence, escalating demands for dissociation and emphatic assertions of the party’s own commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Thirty years on, the Italian political system and the remains of the Italian Left still demonstrate how disastrous the effects of this approach could be.

in political systems which remain relatively impermeable, we should be alert to the power of the labelling mechanisms deployed by gatekeeper parties, in particular in the conditions of a negative engagement. We should be particularly wary of attempts to draw an authoritative dividing line between the ‘moderate’ and the ‘extremist’ elements of a social movement. A resolution passed by a national meeting of the ‘movement of 1977’ in April of that year concluded: ‘The movement does not carry out excommunications and does not accept the criminalisation of any of its elements.’ Neither should we.

One puzzle about this movement is where it came from: nationwide university occupations don’t come out of a blue sky, do they? One answer would be to refer back to poor old Lefebvre and say that sometimes they do just that. I think also there’s a combative mood that’s been building for a while, smouldering just below the surface. Ironically, it’s been fostered – or at least permitted to continue – by the fact that Labour were in office for so long. New Labour were certainly an authoritarian and pro-business government, but the two elements weren’t combined (as they had been under Thatcher) in a war on “militant left-wingers” and “union bully-boys”. New Labour’s authoritarianism mostly took aim at much softer targets – Islamism and “anti-social behaviour” – in a kind of punitive reinforcement of the social exclusion already suffered by marginalised groups. The result was that a generation forgot the lessons that were drummed into us under Thatcher: “pickets” meant “thugs”, “militants” meant “loonies”, “mass meeting” meant “mob rule”. In short, the taboos against collective action quietly faded away. Lindsey was an early – and impressive – sign of the kind of action that had become thinkable again. At the same time, and for similar reasons, radical ideas began to have a bit more purchase: the language isn’t always the same, but the ideas still work. A speaker at yesterday’s seminar suggested that “neo-liberalism” is becoming a master-frame for the current wave of activists: neo-liberalism gave us Iraq and Afghanistan, neo-liberalism gives us public spending cuts and now neo-liberalism wants to give us massively increased tuition fees. Neo-liberalism, nein danke. Those two taboos – against leftist thinking and against collective action – were the product of years of Thatcherite Kulturkampf, beginning in the mid-70s; it would take years to reinstate them, and it would take a stronger and more united government than this one to do it.

The other question is, of course, where it goes next. If precedent is anything to go by – and if that statement from Cambridge is at all typical – the next step will be to link up with workers in struggle; the next but one, to link up with workers who aren’t in struggle yet. We shall see. I don’t think today’s vote in Parliament will be the end, or even the beginning of the end – but it may be the end of the beginning.

Thou art my darling

Well, this is odd.

Back in January 2008 I started keeping beer tasting notes on the blog. Repeatedly updating that post rapidly became a pain, so I hived off the tasting notes to a separate page, which turned into a series of pages; quite soon after that, I started a dedicated beer blog and put the pages on there.

Earlier this year – on the 10th of August, to be precise – I started putting posts up on Oh Good Ale. Traffic was pretty slow to begin with, but once I’d got the blog listed on a couple of aggregators and exchanged comments with a few other beer bloggers it soon settled down to a regular 10-50 hits a day.

Then I posted this.

Here’s the last week’s stats on the Gaping Silence:

23/11: 40
24/11: 37
25/11: 34
26/11: 43
27/11: 66
28/11: 37
29/11: 82 (so far)

And on Oh Good Ale:

23/11: 11
24/11: 30
25/11: 7
26/11: 25
27/11: 19
28/11: 89
29/11: 1288 (so far)

It’s been linked, it’s been tweeted, it’s sparked a debate on an American beer forum (To be fair, when reading a UK blogger’s opinion on beer, you have to take into account the effects of insular dwarfism). In the immortal words of Sandeesh off the Apprentice, like influenza and e. coli, it’s gone viral.

I’ve always thought 100 hits in a day was good going on this blog, and on Oh Good Ale I don’t think I’ve ever even reached that. And now look at it. If I’m not getting asked to say something about beer on Radio 4 by the end of the week, I won’t be at all surprised.

Anyway, why am I even talking to you lot? My beer people await…*

*Joke. Honest. This will always be my main blog. And I’ll try and put a word in for The Gaping Silence over there, promise.

Jolly little nothing

A number of people have been all over the latest from the Odious Clegg. Clegg’s big idea is to contrast “old progressives, who emphasise the power and spending of the central state, and new progressives, who focus on the power and freedom of citizens”. Old progressives believe in redistribution; new progressives believe in social mobility. “Social mobility is what characterises a fair society, rather than a particular level of income equality” (my emphasis).

There’s not a lot to be said in favour of this speech (Jonathan Calder has a go, but even he baulks at the stuff about “new progressives”); there’s rather a lot to be said against it. It begins with a blatant strawman (“Old progressives are straightforwardly in favour of more state spending and activity” – oh really?) and a blinding glimpse of the obvious (“The question is not how much money the state is spending, it is how it spends it”); it doesn’t get much better from there on. Clegg never explains why he believes that achieving income equality would be a bad thing, let alone why increased social mobility is supposed to be an alternative to decreased inequality rather than a complement to it (or a result of it, for that matter).

“Inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on, generation to generation,” Clegg writes, adding, in a typical sententious flourish, “That’s when societies become closed, stratified and divided.” There are a number of objections to this assertion. One is that, as Chris says, it makes it effectively impossible to know whether an individual government’s efforts to combat “injustice” have succeeded or failed:

Poverty … is easily measurable, with only a short lag: how many have an income less than 60% of the median? But social mobility can only be measured decades after policies have been implemented: it’ll take 30 years for us to tell whether the pupil premium has increased mobility. What Clegg is doing, therefore, is choosing ignorance: he’s asking for his actions to be judged by a measure that won’t be available until he’s long-forgotten.

We could also say that if (as Clegg strongly implies) inequalities only become injustices when they’re passed on, no inequality in this generation can possibly be unjust: you may think that the differential between your minimum-wage job and Sir Fred Goodwin’s wedge stinks to high heaven, but don’t jump to any conclusions – just wait another thirty years and see where your kids have ended up. This is unsatisfactory, to say the least. And I think we could be excused for finding it relevant that Clegg himself is exactly and precisely the beneficiary of an inequality that’s been passed on, generation to generation; his parents paid £29,000 a year at current values for his secondary education, and look at him now. (“I was very lucky to go to a great school,” Clegg told Kirsty Young. More to the point, he was lucky enough to be born in a household rich enough to send him to a very expensive school.)

But the main reason to object to the opposition between income equality and social mobility is that it makes no sense. Granting for the sake of argument that inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on, generation to generation, why wouldn’t it still be appropriate to intervene at the level of inequality? Even if they were fixed, smaller inequalities would mean smaller injustices. We can imagine a limit case: if taxes and benefits were manipulated to the point where everyone had exactly the same income, would social mobility be likely to increase or decrease? Mobility from a lower to a higher income would cease, by definition, but mobility in the more obvious sense of overcoming accidents of birth – being the daughter of a dinner lady and growing up to run the English National Opera, that kind of thing – would predictably increase. If nobody was running a large surplus of income over necessary expenditure (again, by definition) then no career or qualification could be restricted to those with lots of spare cash, as many careers and qualifications now are. But thinking about social mobility probably doesn’t come easy to Nicholas William Peter Clegg (Westminster and Cambridge), son of the chairman of a bank, grandson of a White Russian Baroness; perhaps he wasn’t really thinking about that kind of social mobility. Or any other kind.

As I said at the top, other people have been all over this. Sunder asks a polite but pertinent question:

If levels of inequality and income distribution by the state have little or nothing to do with social mobility, please name three “high inequality” or “small state” countries with comparatively high social mobility? Could he please explain what he thinks the drivers of high mobility are in Sweden and other societies which rank highest in the OECD?

Stuart quotes John Stuart Mill:

The social problem of the future we considered to be, how to unite the greatest individual liberty of action, with a common ownership of the raw material of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour.

While you could argue that Mill’s open egalitarianism puts him towards the Left of the Liberal tradition, Stuart argues persuasively that Clegg’s outright indifference to unequal outcomes puts him right off the map: “The real choice, then, is not between the new and the old progressives. It is between Cleggism and liberalism.”

At the Third Estate, lastly, Reuben draws attention to some sharp practice in Clegg’s attempt to pass off the openly regressive Comprehensive Spending Review as in some sense progressive: the poor may be getting poorer, but hey, there’s the pupil premium, and NHS funding isn’t actually being cut, so they’re coming out ahead overall, right? (Sorry, that was Blair; Clegg’s just as self-righteous, but his tone is more Mr Collins than ‘rocking vicar’.) This harks back to Clegg’s response to the Institute of Fiscal Studies report on the CSR – “People do not live only on the basis of the benefits they receive. They also depend on public services, such as childcare and social care. All of those things have been airbrushed out of the picture by the IFS.” (You see what I mean about the tone.) Now, as it happens, this argument was demolished a month ago at Next Left. The reality is that the effect of the planned service cuts will be even more regressive than the proposed direct cuts to welfare: “the poorest ten per cent of households will be hit 15 times harder than the richest ten per cent as a result of service cuts announced in the comprehensive spending review”. But once again, let’s give Clegg the benefit of a doubt which doesn’t really exist, and assume that service provision can in some sense taking up the slack for cuts to benefits. But then… in what sense? Reuben:

Clegg essentially presents access to public services as interchangeable with cash income, when considering the impact of his and Cameron’s budget, as though the former were a perfect substitute for the latter. The point, however, is that in this society, cash is special: It does not merely contribute to somebody’s material well being but confers a crucial degree of autonomy upon the individual, enabling them to exercise a bit of control over their day to day existence. Somebody trying to live on £200 a week in London will lack such autonomy, even if they enjoy access to a good library and hospital, and their neighbourhood is well policed.

And that lack of autonomy – that endless grind of making do and doing without, never saying no to an extra shift and never saying Boo to the boss, that climate of daily anxiety and besetting fear for the future – that is precisely what makes talk of social mobility a bad joke. If you’re going to move up in the world, you need the leisure to plan for the future and the confidence to believe in your plans; you need to be able to take on unpaid or low-paid work, and to spend hours at a time making phone calls and sending emails; you need to go to the right events and make yourself known to the right people. In short, and to be brutally frank, you need to have money behind you. No amount of NHS funding (even if it were actually increasing, which it isn’t); no amount of improved schooling (even if there were any new money, which there isn’t); no amount of Sure Start childcare (even if it weren’t being cut, which it will be) will give an underpaid worker the chance to raise her head from the daily grind and think about social mobility. (Even if social mobility were an adequate solution to the injustice of present-day poverty, which it quite clearly isn’t.)

Nothing to me better sums up the vacuity of Clegg’s world-view than the words he uses to disparage any kind of redistributive approach to poverty.

Old progressives see a fair society as one in which households with incomes currently less than 60% of the median were to be, in Labour’s telling verb, “lifted” out of poverty. The weakness of this approach is that significant resources end up being devoted to altering the financial position of these households by fairly small amounts – just enough, in many cases, to get them above the line. But poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness. It represents an approach to fairness dominated by the power of central state to shift money around, rather than to shift life chances.

One sentence in particular leapt out at me: “poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness”. Maybe not, but it’s a hell of an improvement on poverty without the extra pound. I’ve done a variety of part-time and low-paid work for most of the last decade, some of it very part-time and very low-paid; I’m wearily familiar with the kind of forward-planning exercise that concludes “and if nothing else comes up I’ll be in trouble at the end of… that month“. The show has stayed on the road so far, and with any luck will do for some time yet, but there have been times – there have been months at a time – when I was acutely aware of the difference between what was going out and what was coming in. Mr Micawber’s figures need a bit of adjustment for inflation, but I can vouch for the principle:

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and – and in short you are for ever floored.

(And your chances of social mobility are up the Swanee, we might add.)

I’ll hazard a wild guess that this is not an experience Nick Clegg has ever had. “Poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness”, indeed. Poverty plus a pound represents release from poverty, and as such represents security, liberty and happiness; poverty plus a pound is, apart from anything else, a profoundly liberal goal. Warm words about social mobility, on the other hand – well, that and a pound will get you a cup of coffee. If you’ve got a pound to spare.

I think what I find most frustrating about this stuff isn’t what Clegg’s proposing but how badly he proposes it; how little sense he makes from sentence to sentence. In the paragraph I quoted above, for instance, we get no reason why an approach to fairness dominated by redistribution is so ineffective that it actually “does not represent fairness”; no explanation of why such an approach is opposed to one that tries to “shift life chances”; and not a word about what that approach would actually consist of (although leaving poor people in poverty seems to be an important part of it). I’ve read a lot of Tony Blair’s speeches quite closely; they’ve got lacunae you could drive a bus through, but next to this stuff Blair looks like Immanuel Kant.

I almost feel sorry for Clegg: he’s so clearly out of his depth. One explanation for this stuff would be that he’s personally a Tory (not a particularly left-wing one, either) and all he’s trying to do now is cover his retreat; even then you’d have to say that he’s making a very poor job of it. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the reality is sadder and more complex: that he went into the Coalition genuinely believing he’d represent Liberalism in some form, but not realising either how hard the Tories intended to play or how shallow his own beliefs were. But one thing led to another, and now he seems to be on a train he can’t get off. I picture him as being haunted by the suspicion that some people in white coats are going to come into his office any moment and tell him it’s all been a gigantic experiment and now it’s time to go home. Sometimes, perhaps, he wishes they’d hurry up.

Postscript

Googling “Nick Clegg lucky privileged” (for the quote about his school days) brought back this interesting story, from the Glasgow East by-election in 2008:

Mr Clegg’s attack on the Tory leader came after a speech which Mr Cameron made in the constituency on Monday. Mr Cameron appealed for a greater sense of public morality, saying politicians were too afraid to say what was right and wrong. In the most controversial section of his speech, the Tory leader said: “We talk about people being at risk of obesity, instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise. We talk about people being at risk of poverty or social exclusion – it’s as if these things, obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction, are purely external events like a plague or bad weather.”

And here’s Clegg’s riposte:

“You are certainly not going to get any hope from the Conservatives, whose leader had the arrogance to come here just recently and tell you that even if you are struggling on benefits, struggling to make ends meet, struggling to find a job, struggling to cope with poverty, that it’s your own fault and he won’t lift a finger to help you. … I think there is no excuse in politics for the lucky and the privileged to show such contempt for the poor and the forgotten.”

I agree with Nick.

Back by Christmas

Well, this is interesting.

There were two council by-elections yesterday. One was in Croxteth (not to be confused with Toxteth), a ward of Liverpool City Council, which currently has a small Labour majority; the other was in Wednesbury (famed for its reasonableness), a ward of Sandwell MBC, which has a large Labour majority. In Croxteth two seats were contested, one of which had been held by Labour and one by a Liberal Democrat. The Wednesbury vacancy was caused by the retirement of a Tory councillor; the May election result was very close, so there were hopes that Labour would take it.

Here are the results for the main parties (May 2010 and % change in brackets).

Croxteth (two seats)

Labour 1447 (3307; +4.3%)
Labour 1424
Lib Dem 611 (1711; -6.5%)
Lib Dem 479
Soc Lab 135 (244; +0.2%)
BNP 117
Soc Lab 70
Green 63 (78; no change)
UKIP 50
English Democrats 35
English Democrats 33
Conservative 31 (271; -3.5%)
Conservative 29
UKIP 19

There doesn’t seem to be much of a bedrock Conservative vote in Croxteth. The Lib Dem result at first sight doesn’t look too bad – they got 24% of the vote in an eight-way fight (admittedly trailing Labour’s 63.2% rather substantially), meaning that they’ve only lost 20% of the vote they had in May. But bear in mind that there were two seats up for election, one of which was actually held by a Lib Dem, and this result looks a bit more striking.

The picture in Wednesbury is a bit more straightforward:

Labour 1322 (1938; +25.2%)
Conservative 643 (1989; -8.4%)
National Front 76 (BNP 615; -8.5%)
Lib Dem 45 (534; -8.3%)

Get in! The Tory vote has slumped to 30% – a substantial bedrock, but bear in mind this has been a safe Tory seat until fairly recently. The Lib Dem vote has melted like ice in the sun; the same goes for what was a worryingly strong showing by the fash. Labour’s share of the vote is 63.4% – slightly higher than in Croxteth. And this was a safe Tory seat.

Swing away from Coalition parties, swing back to Labour. All highly predictable, surely – is this really worth writing about? I think it is, for three reasons. Firstly, it’s a big swing; that Wednesbury North result, in particular, reminds me of nothing so much as the early days of the SDP. People aren’t just protesting against the Tories – abstention does that just as well; they’re going big on Labour. (And not, apparently, on the far Right. Mind you, I’m not sure how reassured we should be by the collapse of the BNP vote in Wednesbury; there will certainly have been intra-fash sectarian factors involved. I have to say, the implosion of the BNP couldn’t have happened at a better time.)

The second thing that makes this interesting is, precisely, the contrast between the SDP in 1981-2 and Labour now. They had: well-known, well-liked and well-respected leaders (and Bill Rogers); a massive advertising campaign; guarded sympathy from most of the Tory press, and the unswerving and enthusiastic loyalty of the Guardian; and, at least initially, a genuine groundswell of activism at the grassroots. It wasn’t exactly the Tea Party in its intensity – more of a coffee morning – but it was there; I remember that one of my mother’s friends at church asked her if she’d joined yet. The way the party kept winning by-elections against all-comers was a bit of a shock at the time – a friend said that it looked as if they were going to “break the mould” of British politics by replacing it with a one-party state – but in retrospect it’s not all that surprising: with all of that going for them, how couldn’t they win?

By contrast, Labour in 2010 have got Ed Miliband, and, er. I’ve got no more idea what Miliband’s Labour is going to stand for than I did the day he was elected: something Brownite? something a bit Old Labour-ish? is he going to let the Blairites run the show? does he want the Blairites to run the show? We really don’t know, and that kind of uncertainty is (or ought to be) electoral poison – more of a vote-loser than a definite commitment to just about anything. Combine that with the complete absence of all the other factors that played into the SDP’s support, and 60% votes are really not what we’d expect at all. (Yes, I know council elections are different, but they’re not that different.)

The third and most surprising feature of these votes is that nothing’s happened yet. We’ve had the Comprehensive Spending Review, we know that the government wants to put us (or someone we know) out of work, but they haven’t done it yet – they haven’t had a chance. This is still very much the Phoney War. I can only think that what we’re seeing now is basically buyer’s remorse: lots of people who voted Lib Dem, and (interestingly) quite a lot who voted Tory, have taken a look at what they’re going to get and decided they don’t actually fancy it after all. People who used their vote in May to “send a message” to the Labour Party are doing it again, this time to send a message saying “oops, sorry, can you come back?”

I don’t think this necessarily tells us much about where the real anger will go when things start going properly bad; an awful lot will depend on what direction Labour finally settle on. But these results suggest to me that there’s a strong movement of opposition to the Coalition there to be built, if anyone’s prepared to build it. And I wonder if the odds are starting to lengthen on the Coalition lasting the full five years. Interesting times ahead.

A gift from the Queen

Drink to the men who protect you and I!
Drink! Drink! Drain your glass! Raise your glass high!

I’ve lived through several Remembrance Days, you may not be surprised to learn, and for most of those I’ve refused to wear a poppy. (And it did feel – and continues to feel – like a refusal, not a free choice.) Initially this was because I felt I was being asked to endorse Britain’s role in the Falklands conflict and the Irish war: both the British Legion and the government seemed actively to encourage a blurring of the line between the dead in the World Wars and the very different Fallen of the 1980s, which I thought was pernicious. Still, for a few years in the relatively peaceful 1990s I did wear a poppy on November 11th, with the Second World War and more particularly the defeat of Fascism in mind. But for several years now we’ve been back in a period of imperialist war, and I prefer not to celebrate it. I do mourn the dead – including the British dead – but for me they’re dead in a cause that’s pointless at best, barbaric at worst; and you can’t get a poppy with “End this slaughter now” written around the outside.

On the topic of poppies and neutrality Owen is impressively logical:

The red poppy, as the white poppy-producing Peace Pledge Union points out, occupies something of a privileged position among emblems of charitable causes. If you’re a police officer or a TV presenter for the BBC, you’re not allowed to wear a wristband, coloured ribbon or any other kind of symbol that shows your support for a charitable or political cause, and especially not a white poppy, but red poppies, and red poppies alone, are fine.

There are two possible justifications for this that I can see: one is that the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal is neutral in a way that other charitable causes aren’t; the other is that the Poppy Appeal is, out of all the charitable causes in the world, a uniquely commendable cause.

Neutral?

all charities are legally required to be politically neutral, but if you can’t wear an AIDS ribbon or a Livestrong wristband on the BBC then clearly that kind of neutrality isn’t sufficient. But the Royal British Legion clearly doesn’t meet this requirement; the Poppy Appeal is manifestly not even politically neutral; every year the RBL creates ‘Fields of Remembrance’ which are intended as a “tribute to the memory of ex-Service men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their country.” This year there will be one at Wootton Bassett, where the bodies of members of the armed forces killed in Afghanistan are brought. This implies that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security. Regardless of whether you believe this to be true or not, it’s quite clearly not a politically neutral position.

And as for whether the Poppy Appeal is uniquely worthy of our support – well, why would it be?

I’m sure the justification most people would give, if asked, would be something about the fact that servicemen and women put themselves in the line of fire to make the rest of us safer

– but this brings us straight back to the assumption about “all conflicts which the UK has been involved in being justifiable on national security grounds”, which is awfully hard to demonstrate with regard to (say) Suez, or the Malayan insurgency (Britain was agin it, in quite a real and tangible way).

The logic is impressive, but I think Owen misses a couple of obvious counter-arguments – one which I’ve already touched on, and one which Will sums up:

Wearing a poppy is quite a unique thing. There aren’t many ways that the British are able to symbolise a positive relationship to nation without descending to nationalism, to recognise the honour of the military without veering into militarism. It also has a beautiful ambiguity. It may represent something very patriotic and proud, or a form of pacifism. It needn’t mourn the dead of any particular war or even any particular nation. It may even represent mourning for the horrors of the twentieth century more generally. It’s not irrelevant that most of those who have died in war over the last 100 years did not go into the military as a career, but were dragged into hellish territorial disputes. Some people might feel particularly moved by those conscripts, others won’t. These various ambiguities allow people to congregate symbolically without being defined symbolically.

The poppy is about “a positive relationship to nation” and “the honour of the military”. It celebrates membership of a nation state with armed forces, with all the ambiguities and differences of emphasis which that allows: for different people, the same symbol can commemorate an imperialist adventure carried out by professional soldiers and a continent-wide war to defeat Fascism waged by a mass army of conscripts. But these different forms of commemoration remain within the framework of the nation-state: my 1990s anti-Fascist poppies were, precisely, celebrating the role of the British Army in licking Hitler.

This is why it’s beside the point to point out that very few people actually believe that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security – and that anyone putting forward this hyper-militarised view of the world would scarcely qualify as “politically neutral”. The implicit argument here is not that the nation-state is neutral with regard to politics, but that it’s prior to politics: the British state, and the armed forces which underwrite its monopoly of legitimate force, are the precondition of any kind of politics in Britain – and of any kind of public sphere. We are not saluting those who died for no good reason in Iraq or Afghanistan or the Falls Road, but the men who protect you and I. (What we are certainly not doing – and here I entirely agree with Will – is saying that we think being injured is bad and being killed is even worse: an even more pre-political appeal, and one which evacuates the actual poppy ritual of what little politics it still gives houseroom to.)

And it’s because the poppy is a salute to the armed forces – our armed forces – that (coming to my second argument) neither wearing a poppy nor refusing to wear one is a free choice, in the sense that it’s a free choice to wear or not to wear a pink “breast cancer” ribbon or a Help For Heroes wristband. To say that the nation-state is prior to politics – to say that we enjoy British democracy and British liberties – is to say that we, as members of that nation-state, bear allegiance to the ultimate authorities of the state, and the armed forces which are both symbol and last-ditch embodiment of their power over us. (I lived in a Forces town as a child; if nothing else, it leaves you with an abiding respect for the armed forces’ ability to get the job done – whatever the job might be.) And if we bear allegiance, then, once in a while, respect should be paid. Declining to wear a poppy is opting out of allegiance to the state: it’s either an explicit protest or rather distastefully eccentric – after all, why wouldn’t you? (I see this in my children’s reaction to my failure to wear a poppy; I really should make my protest more explicit.) (I’ve never worn a white poppy, incidentally. The white poppy still has an air more of eccentricity about it than protest, perhaps because it says that the wearer wants to join in the ritual of commemoration and yet withdraw from it – like joining a march but insisting on making up your own slogans.)

The danger in all this is that sometimes the most useful thing we can do is not to pay respect to authority – and the time of war may be one of those times. In January this year I was in a pub when a loud and emotional argument broke out between a drunk and a squaddie who was about to ship back out to Afghanistan, where he’d recently seen his best friend killed. He was holding his drink quite well, but he was obviously quite well gone himself. The argument consisted mainly of the squaddie taking exception to everything the drunk said, and trying to shut him up by the drunk man’s usual method of talking over him, very calmly, very loudly and at great length; the drunk responded with the even drunker man’s tactic of carrying on regardless, in the blithe confidence that if he went on talking for long enough everyone in the world would agree with him. It was a fun evening. (I wouldn’t have minded so much, but we were trying to have a singaround at the time.) Anyway, nothing the drunk said upset or offended the squaddie so much as his profession of support and sympathy – “We’re all behind you, mate, we want to get you out of there and get you home safe and sound.” Big mistake. They had a job to do, we were told, and they were going to get it done. Anyone who said different just didn’t understand. There was a job to do, the army had been sent out there to do it and they were going to stay there till the job was done. They had a job on hand, the job was going to get done and they were going to make sure it got done.

From within the armed forces, of course, this is very much how you’d expect the world to look: they’re an instrument of the state and they’re there to get the job done, provided the job involves either weaponry or boots on the ground. The danger of paying respect to our state and our armed forces is that we as citizens buy into this heads-down goal-oriented mindset: theirs not to reason why (why Iraq? why Malaya? why Ireland?), and ours neither. Support the troops, we’re urged – and we’re asked to support them in just the same dogged, unconditional way that they’re told to do their job. But that way, our sympathy for the poor bloody infantry leads us to echo their unquestioning support for the goals they’re asked to achieve – and that’s precisely what we as civilians shouldn’t be doing. They don’t have the luxury of asking whether they should be going where they’re sent, but we do – and we owe it to ourselves to use it.

So: because I don’t think the British nation-state is prior to the politics that matter, in a way that my working-class ancestry decidedly is; and because, while I mourn the loss of life in Britain’s current imperialist adventures, I can’t endorse them; and, above all, because there is a war on, and I believe this is precisely the moment when spaces for debate and dissent most need to be opened up: for all these reasons, I’m not wearing a poppy.

Update A song for today.

Musicians are cowards

Arcade Fire, or rather the popularity and critical esteem of Arcade Fire, mystify me. I mean, they’ve got that big, soaring, early-Springsteen-ish thing going on, but… well, is that it? The other day I looked at some of their performances – well, a couple: I watched this performance from Jonathan Ross’s programme, then I watched one of the Glastonbury performances, and then I just got tired. (Nice to see a hurdy-gurdy on stage, I’ve got to admit, although playing it in heels was surely a bad idea.) Partly I wanted to stop before I was tempted, even out of morbid curiosity, to click on the link that said

Arcade Fire & U2 – Love Will Tear Us Apart

Ugh.

A couple of years ago I wrote a parody of the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens. I sang it at a local folk club a while ago, and found myself introducing it with a version of one of Tom Lehrer’s lines – “And if you get the urge to sing along, would you please repress it.” I got the laugh, but that phrasing stuck in my mind afterwards. One of the great things about singing with other people is precisely that you don’t repress the urge: you let rip. It’s easy to assume that there’s something regressive or infantile about this. Certainly it feels as if there’s something sophisticated and adult about sitting in silence and not joining in, but the reverse isn’t necessarily the case. What you’re singing when you let rip isn’t necessarily “la la la”, or “no nay never” for that matter; it can be

With my hump along, jump along,
There drives my lad along:
Pretty, Sparkle, Berry!
Goodluck, Speedwell, Cherry!
We are the lads that can follow the plough,
We are the lads that can follow the plough.

(The tune is equally fiddly.) To be part of a roomful of people singing that is an accomplishment, and takes a bit of practice, but when you get there it’s deeply satisfying – in a way that’s not at all repressed. (We are not the lads that can follow the plough, clearly, but I don’t think this is much of a score against folk music; the crowd at a Queen gig was not in fact going to rock anyone, after all.)

What’s this got to do with Arcade Fire? I believe that rock music is deeply involved with the kind of repression I’ve referred to: it challenges it, but in a very compromised and uncertain way. In other words, a lot of rock music has an anxious quality which isn’t contradicted by, but goes hand in hand with, a certain kind of soaring exultation: Can we (and you in the audience) break down our self-imposed expectations and make a hell of a lot of noise together? No we can’t… no we can’t… but right now you and me We Can! Hell Yeah Yes We Can!… and rest. And repeat. If you can wrap it all around some vague transformative rhetoric – Can we make the world a better place? No we can’t… but right now We Can! – then so much the better.

There’s something deeply spectacular about this, in the sense of grafting a sense of active – and rebellious – participation on to a state of passive spectatorship which is never really challenged. This, I think, is the real fraudulence of presenting Bono or Chris Martin as a political figure: their entire career rests on acting out the impression that repressions are being triumphantly overcome, in a performance which by its very design challenges nothing in the outside world. To take this as a basis on which to mount some sort of rhetorical challenge to real oppression and real injustice is deeply confused, and self-deceiving on the part of everyone concerned: it’s as if Peter Falk and Telly Savalas were holding press conferences demanding better crime detection.

That U2 collaboration tells its own story; it seems to me that the sound of Arcade Fire is very much the sound of imagined triumph over imagined repression, in a style that goes back to “Born to Run” and beyond (even in 1975 I remember thinking that this Springsteen person sounded awfully old-fashioned). Arcade Fire really remind me of someone else entirely, though. I mean, look at them: there’s about twelve of them on stage, most of them playing un-rockish instruments, several of them female, and they make a lot of use of choral vocals and drones. And their album art looks a bit eccentric and home-made, and their songs seem to encapsulate unsettled states of mind, with a vague radical edge. And they’re from Canada. Specifically, French-speaking Canada. More specifically, Montreal. In short, what Arcade Fire really made me think was that there was a market for something like Godspeed You Black Emperor!/A Silver Mt. Zion* – something a bit like that, only upbeat, marketable, radio-friendly: a Lloyd Cole to their Orange Juice, a Kasabian to their Primal Scream.

What’s interesting here is that GYBE!/ASMZ never do that repression/release/exultation thing: the sound they make is loud, challenging and exhilarating, but there’s nothing apologetic or anxious about it, and no sense that We’re Changing The World Right Now! It’s just a great big sound, and it’ll sweep you away. The music’s powerful in an honest, unpretentious way – something that GYBE!’s ‘post-rock’ shares with equally uncompromising forms of music like thrash, or most kinds of dance music. But even so, there’s a lingering sense that the music is there to overcome your resistance: listeners are envisaged as those willingly repressed audience members, holding it together and not letting down their guard, with a lot of the pleasure coming from an almost masochistic submission to the overwhelming power of the music. As I get more involved with folk music – and, probably not unrelatedly, as I get older – this seems like going a rather long way round: wouldn’t it be simpler just to drop your guard, willingly and cheerfully, and take the risk of looking a bit stupid for the greater good of unself-conscious pleasure?

To put it another way, is there anything in the world better than what these people are doing? Take a look at this. We’re still in Montreal, the instruments are not rock and it’s a big group (23 people including two dancers), but you could never mistake them for GYBE! – let alone Arcade Fire.

Anyone who doesn’t smile during that clip deserves to have Laughing Len quoted at them – “You don’t really care for music, do you?” Music you’re actually making, with or without a clogger in a white mini-skirt calling the tunes: there is nothing like it. (And, as that clip illustrates, it actually does change the world.)

*I love them dearly, but there is no way I’m going to follow them through every twist and turn of The Re-Naming Of Thee Bandes. GYBE! and ASMZ to me they will always be. (And let’s face it, you’re not going to think I’m talking about anyone else.)

This is not who we were

Once, listening to my former boss reminiscing with one of his Round Table mates, I had a sudden realisation: I had never in my life bought something so as to sell it for a profit. I’ve never profited from anyone else’s labour, either (should there have been an a fortiori in there?). I was self-employed for a few years, but the point was always to get someone to hire me to fill a page or two; I was always, by design, working for somebody.

I’ve got about as much experience of owning a business as I have of being pregnant, and in the former case it’s partly by choice. I think I’d rather beg in the street than be an “entrepreneur”. (I’m sure I’d have a better chance of making a living.)

So I think it’s fair to say I’m not the target audience for a talk that was recently advertised at my place of work. But I don’t think it’s just me; even making allowances for my own predisposition, I think there’s something deeply weird about a talk called

Entrepreneurship as Embodied Practice: Clues from the Experiences of Pregnant Business Owners

Liberal feminism, I used to tell my students*, started from the position that women should not be excluded from doing anything that men do. Radical feminism, conversely, started from the position that women’s experience was so different from men’s that what women did, or could do, had no necessary connection with what men did or could do. And socialist feminism started from the position that women weren’t excluded but oppressed, by structures of exploitation which shaped women’s consciousness just as they did the consciousness of workers.

Right, I concluded**. Given that theoretical backdrop or choice of backdrops, how the hell do you explain “Entrepreneurship as Embodied Practice: Clues from the Experiences of Pregnant Business Owners”?

It is, of course, an advance for pregnant business owners to exist as an identifiable group, and a further advance for women to be able to get papers like this given and published. Once, in a fit of alliteration, I described my mother in a letter as “prolifically preposterous”; she commented that it was a good thing I hadn’t got the words the other way round, as “preposterously prolific” would imply that she had too many children. I was struck at the time by this oddly restrictive use of the word ‘prolific’. It’s also good news that I can say without much fear of misunderstanding that the speaker is highly prolific – enviably rather than preposterously so (says a man with the REF looking over his shoulder). And “‘Can You Hang On While I Give Birth and Breastfeed?’ Individualisation, Agency and Oppression in Entrepreneurs’ Maternity Plans” is a terrific title.

You could say that “Entrepreneurship as Embodied Practice: Clues from the Experiences of Pregnant Business Owners” goes beyond liberal feminism, but I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing – it’s certainly an awful long way from what radical feminism set out to do. As for socialist feminism, she’s sitting in the corner with her eyes shut, telling herself this isn’t happening. “Clues from the Experiences of Pregnant Business Owners”. O Tempora, O Lordie.

*How a middle-aged bloke came to spend 90 minutes explaining feminism to a room full of 20-year-old women is perhaps a story for another time.
**I didn’t really.

Update (for Lisa and anyone else who’s interested). Well, it was a lecture in the third-year course on Victims of Crime that I developed a couple of years ago. It seemed important to say something about the way that feminist criminologists turned the study of victims around, banishing the victim-blaming and pathologising tendencies of old-school victimology – and once I’d embarked on that it seemed important to say something about where these feminist criminologists were coming from. (Feminism, mainly.) Factor in an 80% female enrolment for Criminology and a tendency for male students not to bother with lectures, and presto: a middle-aged man tells a roomful of young and slightly baffled women at some length about how important and powerful radical feminism is, and how it shouldn’t be confused with socialist feminism (which is also important and powerful but in different ways). The worst of it was that I really don’t think they knew this stuff already. I had some panic-stricken emails a few months later from students who were afraid there’d be a Principal Strands of Feminist Thought question in the exam – most of them women.

The real thing, yeah

[Crossposted from Oh Good Ale]

Following the lead of several beer bloggers, here’s what would be on my ideal jukebox.

I’ve got quite mixed feelings about background music in pubs. (I exempt music sessions and singarounds, which are about making music rather than having it in the background, and which don’t invite an audience: if you’re listening, the chances are you’re also playing or singing.) The only kind I can’t stand is the kind that’s too loud to hear yourself speak; I don’t even like that kind of volume in a club for as long as I’m not actually dancing, and in a venue where you can’t dance it seems downright perverse. I’m not crazy about piped music, or amplified live music for that matter, where it’s loud enough to be intrusive; too much of that and you start hankering after silence. But relatively quiet music can make a good backdrop to a drink and a chat.

The big exception to the rule about intrusively loud music is the jukebox, which I appreciate at more or less any volume. Really, the jukebox is commodity capitalism in musical form: it delivers music in discrete packages, each of which can be purchased for the same fee, and by doing so it generates both demand and competition: if you don’t like what someone else has put on, put your hand in your pocket and buy your own choice. All the same, there’s something liberating – empowering, even – about being able to turn your desire for music so quickly and easily into effective demand: a good jukebox lets you dredge up the song that’s going through your head, be it a B-side or a buried album track, and fill the room with it almost instantaneously. It’s not a million miles away from the buzz of singing a new song at a singaround – although obviously in that case there’s more effort involved, and no money changing hands.

Anyway, here are some songs I’ve filled rooms with in the past and hopefully will do again.

Van Morrison, “Astral Weeks”
“Where immobile steel rims crack, And the ditch in the back roads stop…” What’s it mean? What’s he going on about? Half a minute later it doesn’t matter. Bliss.

the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want”
For a long time I couldn’t pass the Crescent in Salford without going in, and I couldn’t go in without putting this on the jukebox. (To be fair, I only went down that street about once a week.) “I went down to the demonstration, To get my fair share of abuse…” Them weret’ days.

Wizzard, “See my baby jive”
The greatest single ever released. If it doesn’t lift your mood a bit you may be dead.

Radiohead, “Paranoid android”
Sometimes it’s not about lifting the mood. “From a great height… From a great height…”

Mott the Hoople, “All the young dudes”
This single had almost mythical status when I was growing up, largely because nobody I knew had a copy. If you ever found it on a jukebox, what a song. My friends and I were fascinated by the spoken passage that you can just make out in the fade – “I’ve wanted to do this for years… There you go!

David Bowie, “Sound and vision”
I think we don’t always hear how weird this single is. It sounds as if the elements of a pop song have been shuffled and then put back together; they’re all there but nothing fits properly. It’s only let down by patches of downright ineptitude – he should have got rid of that saxophonist.

the Phantom Band, “Throwing bones”
Today on this programme you will hear gospel, and rhythm and blues, and jazz. And folk, and angsty singer-songwriter introspection, and quite a lot of Krautrock. And Scottish accents.

the Pet Shop Boys, “Left to my own devices”
There had to be some Pet Shop Boys (at least, when I’m in a pub there often is). “Being boring” and the wonderful “What have I done to deserve this” were strong contenders, but this won out – the eight-minute album version, of course. (You may detect a theme emerging here. By my reckoning these eight tracks come in at 47 minutes.) Strings by Trevor Horn, rap by Neil Tennant:
I was faced with a choice at a difficult age
Would I write a book, or should I take to the stage?
But in the back of my head I heard distant feet:
Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat.

You can’t say fairer than that.

All your bedroom queries

Nice to see WorldbyStorm lighting on the Passage the other weekend. I started composing a comment after I’d listened to a couple of the tracks and rapidly realised I had far too much to say. Only one thing for it, really…

For a band by whom I own virtually nothing – one 7″ single, bought long after the event, plus one track on a ubiquitous compilation – the Passage have meant a remarkable amount to me. I think this is largely because the band crossed my path on four separate occasions – which, in fact, corresponded to four distinct versions of the band (there were six in all).

First, there was “New Love Songs”. Continue reading

In dark and empty skies

Nineteen years ago today, Peter Bellamy ended his life.

I didn’t pay much attention to folk music between about 1976 and 2001, so Bellamy’s death in 1991 passed me by. More to the point, I’m afraid that Bellamy’s career passed me by; I remember hearing one track by his unaccompanied vocal group The Young Tradition, but at the time I just didn’t get it. (Who would want to sing folk songs unaccompanied, in a raw and unadorned style that harked back to the way people used to sing them? What can I say, I was so much older then.)

After I started getting back into folk music, and in particular after I started spending time on the Mudcat, I began to hear Bellamy’s name dropped. I followed up a few suggestions and rapidly realised I’d been missing something big. Bluntly, anyone who thinks they know about the folk revival of the 1960s to 1980s and doesn’t know about Peter Bellamy is a bit like a classical music expert who’s never heard of J.S. Bach.

It’s hard to overstate Bellamy’s achievement – although not, sadly, his success. For me he towers over Ewan MacColl, and may even have the edge on Dolly Collins. Consider: here’s Bellamy in the role of (in his own words) “boring bleating old traddy”, singing a song from the Copper Family repertoire with Louis Killen singing harmony.

Here’s one of Bellamy’s settings of poems by Rudyard Kipling, sung by the Young Tradition (the poem can be found here).

And here’s an eighteenth-century broadside ballad sung by June Tabor:

I lied: “The Leaves in the Woodland” is a Bellamy composition – words and tune. It’s one of the highlights of his extraordinarily ambitious 1977 “ballad opera” The Transports, which tells the true story of a couple transported to Botany Bay in the late eighteenth century. In 1977 I had other things on my mind, musically speaking, and with one thing and another I didn’t hear The Transports until quite recently. I’m regretting that now – it’s stunning. It’s through-composed (music by Bellamy, arrangements by Dolly Collins) and played on period instruments; the lead roles are taken by Mike and Norma Waterson, with supporting parts for June Tabor, Nic Jones, Martin Carthy, Cyril Tawney and Bellamy himself, among others.

But the songs are the thing. Most folkies, even those most immersed in the traditional repertoire, never turn out more than a couple of songs which can be sung alongside traditional songs and not stand out. Exceptions are rare and striking (Tawney, MacColl, Dylan before he got bored and moved on). In The Transports, Bellamy basically wrote a whole album of them (a double album in its time – the CD version is 75 minutes long). Not only do his songs sound like long-lost traditional ballads, they each have a place in the plot of the opera – and in most cases advance it. The most remarkable example is “Roll down”, a shanty (sung by Cyril Tawney) which has entered the repertoire of contemporary shanty-singers like Kimber’s Men, despite the fact that its lyrics include a fairly detailed account of a transport ship’s voyage from England to Australia.

Not every song is as strong as “The Leaves in the Woodland”; come to that, not every singer sounds as good as June Tabor (Mike Waterson’s singing on this album is something of an acquired taste, to say nothing of Bellamy’s own). But The Transports is a towering achievement in anyone’s language. And I’ve scarcely scratched the surface of Bellamy’s traditional work, or his long and fruitful engagement with Kipling, to say nothing of his love of the blues and his ear for a cover.

I suppose I should say something about Bellamy’s politics, although it’s hard to know what. His father was Richard Bellamy, a fairly high-ranking member of the British Union of Fascists, but it would be absurd to label Peter Bellamy as an extreme right-winger. Certainly he was never on the Left, and regarded the radical wing of the folk revival with suspicion and hostility; I think he’d have agreed that traditional songs were songs of the people, but interpreted that last word more in patriotic than class terms. (What he would have made of the Imagined Village is anybody’s guess.) But at the end of the day I think he was genuinely uninterested in politics; a cultural patriot rather than a political nationalist. That he was a personal friend of Dick Gaughan speaks volumes; according to Gaughan, Bellamy “spent his life in the place Hugh MacDiarmid called “where extremes meet”, the place where I believe all artists should live”.

Bellamy’s suicide, at only 47, remains a tragedy and remains a mystery. Dick Gaughan commented,

it is my belief that Peter never quite produced the masterpiece which his talents suggested; he came close on many occasions but always gave the impression that each was just another step on the road to truly finding his real voice. I have a suspicion that frustration with this search may have played a part in his death.

“Try again, fail again. Fail better.” We all fail in the end, God knows, but few musicians ever tried so hard or so persistently, or failed with such superb results, as Peter Bellamy.

“Bernard, Bernard, he would say, this bloom of youth will not last forever: the fatal hour will come whose unappealable sentence cuts down all deceitful hopes; life will fail us like a false friend in the midst of our undertakings. Then, all our beautiful plans will fall to the ground; then, all our thoughts will vanish away.”

Peter Bellamy, 8/9/1944 – 24/9/1991

No mention of girls

I’ve got a review! One in print, in a magazine people actually read! The August/September issue of Red Pepper, to be precise:

Continue reading

Of a city like the sky

I’ve written another paper. This one falls into the category of “developed out of the thesis”, and indeed “complementing the book”. I’ve done a couple of conference papers like that, but up to now I’ve fought shy of doing one for publication; I think I’ve vaguely felt that conference papers count as adverts for the book or free samples, whereas a published paper covering similar ground would be cheating. Excessively scrupulous, I think. Apart from anything else, this paper has the great merit of stating the argument plainly – it is there in the book, but my writing style back then was a bit less forthright. (As for the thesis, it essentially manoeuvres great ramparts of evidence into a kind of logical labyrinth and then steps back and mutters to itself, now look at the path you’ve been forced to take! “Unassuming Edwards”, they used to call me, or would have if they’d noticed.)

It’s nearly done, anyway – all over bar the editing – and if anyone wants to look at a draft they’d be quite welcome. Title, abstract, bibliography:

“Rejecting all adventurism”: The Italian Communist Party and the movements of 1972-9

The history of the Italian Communist Party in the 1960s and 1970s was marked by the party’s engagement with a succession of radical competitors. Following the work of Sidney Tarrow, this paper argues that the party benefited from its engagement with the “cycle of contention” which centred on the Hot Autumn of 1969. However, a second cycle can also be identified, running from 1972 to 1979 and fuelled by ‘autonomist’ readings of Marxism. The paper identifies conjunctural and organisational reasons for the contrast between the party’s engagement with the first cycle of contention and its hostile engagement with this second group of movements. It argues that this hostile engagement was a major contributory factor to the subsequent decline of the party, as well as the suppression of the movements – and the subsequent growth of “armed struggle” groups.

Continue reading

Based on a novel

Something a bit different (and hopefully a bit briefer): some thoughts on the last two novels I’ve read.

The context is that, while I used to review books fairly regularly, I haven’t done it for years; also, I hardly ever buy hardbacks, don’t go out much and don’t buy many CDs. So if I tell you about the last new film I’ve seen it will either be something I’ve gone to with the family (Toy Story 3) or something I’ve caught up with on DVD (District 9, and what a film that was). My CD purchases are several months behind the reviews, and if I tell you about the last book I’ve read, it’s as likely as not to be something I’ve picked up secondhand or got out of the library. So this is an experiment in reviewing without any novelty value; reviewing for its own sake. The other bit of background is that I’m between novels at the moment, so these books are as fresh in my mind now as they’re ever going to be.

Right, better get on with it. The last book I finished was Eoin Colfer’s And Another Thing; the one before that was

Scarlett Thomas, The end of Mr Y Continue reading

Both night and morning

“for Mr Ó Nualláin, ‘might have been’ has loomed largely in his college life – larger than his bantam strutting will admit”

“When Mr Fitzpatrick grows up, he will find that ‘might-have-been’ figures too largely in his own little life, as in everybody else’s, to be safely employed as a weapon against others.”

I’ve recently read No laughing matter, Anthony Cronin’s biography of Brian O’Nolan (a.k.a. Flann O’Brien). It’s one of those books that I bought on a whim but took a while to get round to reading, and when I say a while I mean ten or fifteen years. Having finally read the book, the delay seems horribly appropriate – this was someone who’d written two masterpieces before he was thirty, but then did basically nothing for the next twenty years. Reading the life backwards, as a biography inevitably does, makes him seem like a lifelong ‘might-have-been’ – even back when he was a might-have-been-to-be. (The exchange quoted above is from 1935, when O’Nolan was 23.)

It’s not a very good biography – Cronin knew O’Nolan and acknowledges assistance from his widow and several siblings, which may account for a slightly cramped, reined-in quality to some of the writing. There is too little on the great books (but rather too much on The Dalkey Archive, including a slightly embarrassing account of Cronin’s dismayed reaction to the work in progress); an account of the first Bloomsday celebration, in which Cronin and O’Brien were both involved, peters out midway without describing “the breakdown of the grand scheme”; there isn’t even a conclusion to the book itself, which simply stops at the moment O’Nolan dies.

What there is, though, is both suggestive and troubling. Continue reading

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