Your weakness is none of my business

One interesting aspect of the election result is that it’s been bad for all three of the main party leaders. (You could even extend that and say that it’s been bad for all the party leaders – Ieuan Wyn Jones, Alex Salmond, Salma Yaqoob and Nick Griffin have all had a disappointing time of it, not to mention Reg Empey and Peter Robinson – but it doesn’t quite work; Caroline Lucas had rather a good night, and I don’t think the non-Unionist parties in the North of Ireland are complaining. Bad joke about wearing of the green goes here.)

But Brown, Cameron and Clegg have all had a bad result, and will all be facing criticism from within their party: it’ll be argued that a different style of leadership could have saved Labour from the wipeout, could have given the Tories an outright majority, could have made the Lib Dem breakthrough a reality. (This is clearly magical thinking to some extent – after all, if all the parties had performed better their results would presumably be stuck pretty much at their current level. Also, the idea that the leader has a defining influence on the party’s performance smacks of power-worship and is almost certainly inaccurate anyway. But we’ll go with it for the time being, because the current stalemate does put the leaders front and centre, and I want to think about what they’re going to do next.)

Now, the one thing a party leader can never do – or not while remaining party leader – is to lose face by conceding to criticism from others. (This is what made the Gillian Duffy story so grimly fascinating; Brown did nothing that we haven’t all done, but his political position meant that a loss of face was a tremendous risk – and it was extraordinarily difficult to extricate himself without one.) There are two main strategies for dealing with criticism without losing face: one is to double down and make a virtue of the position being criticised, demonstrating its strengths and merits; the other is to adopt the criticism as one’s own and address it without seeming to concede anything to the critics, getting out of trouble in a kind of knight’s move. All three of the main party leaders are going to have to adopt one of these tactics over the next few days, and it’ll be interesting to see which escape route they each choose.

What Brown did wrong – or what Brown will be seen to have done wrong; or the area where Brown will be seen to have gone wrong by acting like Brown – was to hang on like grim death: refusing an early election, refusing a leadership election, refusing to resign as leader, refusing to call the election until the very last minute. Right from when he took over from Blair, Brown was determined to k. b. o., in Churchill’s immortal phrase. It’s going to be hard over the next few days for him to make a virtue of this approach; flexibility and surprise are going to be at a premium. The obvious escape route – in more ways than one – would be to resign, but I don’t see Brown resigning as PM or party leader and simply walking away, like Heath in 1974 (as PM) or Wilson in 1976; I think his parting gift to the party would be to resign in such a way as to hand power to a chosen successor, as the prospective head of a coalition government. I haven’t the faintest idea how that could be fixed – it would need to involve an awful lot of talking to the Lib Dems and other parties – but I wouldn’t be surprised if Brown’s working on it.

What Clegg did wrong – or where Clegg went wrong by acting unlike Ashdown or Kennedy, say – was clearly to move the party to the Right. You can look at this as an attempt to return to equidistance between the main parties after getting uncomfortably close to Labour, or simply as a move rightwards: tailoring the party’s approach to its main target seats by appealing to Tory voters, while banking the support the party had already gained from former Labour voters. Either way, it backfired spectacularly on the night: faced with a party that seemed destined for coalition and refused to rule out coalition with their least favoured party, many people not only declined to vote Lib Dem but actually cast an anti-Lib Dem vote. 23% isn’t a bad vote, but it’s well down in the realms of the third-party squeeze – in a way that the 26-28% the polls seemed to promise wouldn’t have been. Clegg could double down on the move rightwards by sealing the deal with Cameron; he could even double down on ‘equidistance’ by proposing a Grand Coalition, although I suspect that if he was going to do this he would have done it by now. These options would not be without problems, to put it mildly. I’ve been defending the Lib Dems for years, pointing out their radical policies to Labour loyalists and socialists who dismiss them as ‘yellow Tories’. I’ll never say another word in their defence if they make a deal with Cameron now – and I imagine there are many more like me, some of whom have actually voted for them. The alternative would be to cut the knot by dumping equidistance, shifting back leftwards and forming a ‘progressive’ alliance; that would work – it could solve our problems as well as Clegg’s own – but I’m not sure Clegg’s the man to do it.

Cameron is probably in the worst position of all, and in the most need of some quick and innovative thinking (hmm…). His critics are sure he’s done something wrong – something bad enough to turn a Tory landslide into a mere 307 seats, without even any Ulster Unionists to prop up the numbers – but they don’t agree on what it is. For every Tory who thinks Cameron should never have linked up with the assorted nutters of the European Conservative and Reformist group, there’s one who thinks he’s too much of a Europhile; for every Tory who thinks he should face down the climate change deniers, homophobes and cadet Teabaggers who now find a home in the party, there’s someone who thinks those groups are the future. And then there’s Philip Blond and the ‘Big Society’ theme, which hardly anyone has any enthusiasm for – but it’s hard to even hang that on Cameron, since it’s not clear that he has much enthusiasm for it either. The problem is, he’s not a conviction politician and never has been; he’s Dave from PR (or rather, Eton, BalliolBrasenose and PR). Both of the tactics I’ve been describing – doubling down on the offending behaviour or convincingly repudiating it – are going to be hard for Cameron, since they would require him first to identify something people think he’s doing wrong and then to make a convincing case for it. (Or, indeed, against it.) I think rather than open any of these ideological cans of worms, he’ll take a couple of steps back and conceptualise his approach to leading the party as one in which they trust him and he gives them power – and on that basis where he’s gone wrong is in failing to deliver. This would make the escape route easy to identify, too: he gives them power, they get off his back.

With all this in mind, I think we can expect the Tories to go quite a long way to meet the Lib Dems halfway. Whether it will be enough is another matter, as the one thing they will need the most in that situation – some way of maintaining their credibility on the Left – won’t be in the Tories’ gift. Cameron could go some way to providing it by offering the Lib Dems a loose alliance, with a free vote on non-confidence measures; however, this wouldn’t be enough to solve his own problem, by guaranteeing the Tories power as well as office. At some not too distant point it’ll be up to Brown to produce a better offer, i.e. one which solves his problem as well as Clegg’s; in principle this seems, if anything, more achievable than a durable Lib Dem/Tory deal, but the practicalities may be against it.

With the possibility of PR aroud the corner and the possibility of the Lib Dems taking a definitive step to the Right in the mean time, the stakes are high. The British political scene may be about to become a great deal more fluid, or the music may be about to stop, freezing it in a definitively right-of-centre configuration. All we know at the moment is that it’s not over yet; we can still hope for the best as well as fearing the worst.

UpdateThoughtful postscript The question is what arrangements there are which would allow two of the party leaders to pull off one of the self-justifying/self-exculpatory moves described above. As we’ve seen, Clegg could answer the critics of equidistance by collapsing the Lib Dem waveform either rightwards or leftwards. Justifying himself by sticking it out seems less likely, if only because the only practical way of doing this – offering a Grand Coalition – is in nobody else’s interest. Going Left would probably be easier than going Right, if only because the Tories are unlikely to be able to offer enough to make the deal palatable to the Lib Dem base. But if the Lib Dems can’t meet Cameron halfway, he’s going to be stuck: unlike the other two leaders, there isn’t a reverse gear (or a knight’s move) available to him. All he can do is double down on being him: Dave from PR, the sincere opportunist, the liberal Tory, the reactionary moderniser; all the contradictions of the post-Thatcher Conservative Party swept under one shiny new market-ready carpet. But that’s only going to work for as long as it delivers results, which it may be about to stop doing.

As for Brown, a good move would be to make a virtue of repudiating his limpet-like tendencies, by offering his resignation as a sweetener to a deal with Clegg. As well as being a costly signal, this would up the ante on the Lib Dems (what else do you want?). A really good move would be to make a virtue of going while also making a virtue of staying, as the one politician capable of steering Britain through these troubled times, and so forth.

Clegg has, of course, said that he’ll give the Tories first go at winning him over, but it occurs to me that he might be playing quite a clever game. If Clegg had announced after the election that the Lib Dems would talk to both major parties, he’d have been lynched by the press. So perhaps the plan is to talk publicly to the Tories, but also talk to Labour without telling them. Then, by the time the Tories reach their high bid, Labour will know the target they need to beat; they’ll also know by then that they need to make an offer pronto. These could be very interesting times.

That was a thoughtful and prescient postscript written on the 8th of May. Not an update written with hindsight on the very interesting evening of the 10th – certainly not.

The world’s behind you

As I write it’s 9.30 a.m. and 614 of 650 seats have declared. The Conservatives have 290 of them. Taking into account the Speaker’s Buckingham constituency, this means that the possibility of David Cameron leading a majority government has just disappeared. Shouldn’t he make a speech at this point?

Last night’s extraordinary exit poll – giving the Tories 305 seats, Labour 255 and the Lib Dems only 62 – is starting to look more or less accurate, albeit a bit too generous to the Lib Dems; I’m guessing the final result will look more like 305:260:55 (with a couple more ‘Other’s than the poll reckoned for). Interesting times.

No more coats and no more home

1:30 a.m.: David Blunkett calls the election for the Conservatives and calls on Labour to unite the opposition in resistance to the Conservative government, to blunt their attacks on working people and “above all, to avoid what happened in the 1980s in my city”.

David Blunkett was leader of Sheffield City Council from 1980 to 1987. Wikipedia:

The Conservative MP for Sheffield Hallam, Sir Irvine Patnick, coined the phrase “People’s Republic of South Yorkshire” to describe the left-wing politics of its local government; Sheffield was designated as a nuclear-free zone. Blunkett became known as the leader of one of the furthest left of the Labour councils, which was regularly denounced as “loony left” by the newspapers of the right. Blunkett was one of the faces of the protest over rate-capping in 1985 which saw several Labour councils refuse to set a budget in a protest against Government powers to restrain their spending. He built up support within the Labour Party during his time as the council’s leader during the 1980s and was elected to the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee.

We’d certainly better avoid that. What happened in your city in the 1980s was that you resisted, David. You fought back and led a fightback, and for a while you were a bit of a hero. Some of us like resisting and admire people who resist – and besides, resisting meant you could do a lot of people a lot of good. (I still remember getting a bus in Sheffield and having to root around for coppers; fares were about a fifth of the equivalent in Manchester, ranging from 3p all the way up to 13p for a journey from one side of the city to the other. Admittedly, 13p was 13p in those days – you could probably get a Mars bar for that money. And if you tell the young people today… Sorry, where was I?)

Blunkett’s rewrite of the 1980s prompts perhaps the most depressing thought on a very depressing night: that an incoming Conservative government which has cauterised its own historical memory and has no idea what it believes in (but knows who it hates) is going to face a Labour opposition with very similar characteristics. It looks as if we’re going to be stuck in Tony Blair’s cafeteria at the end of history for a bit longer.

Already in me

I can’t remember where I saw this linked, but this piece on cosmic dualism from 2004 is well worth reading. Apparently the Manicheans have had a raw deal:

as orthodox dualists, they believed that the forces of Good and Evil were not engaged in some continuous and messianic struggle, but rather that their contrasting presence was the very basis of the spiritual order. For the Manicheans, this dualism constituted the structure of the spiritual world that framed each individual’s relationship with reality. Everyone, they believed, would benefit from identifying the presence of Evil within themselves and should endeavor a personal journey to allow Good to dominate.

The War On Terror, in particular, is more Zoroastrian than it’s Manichean (and it’s not very Zoroastrian).

But the real reason I’m posting is because of an informative comment left by a reader:

The term “Manichean” is also one applied to a person from Manchester, England. Indeed, when I first saw the title to Skinner’s piece, that I thought that was to whom he was referring and wondered why those from Manchester would really care about American political elections, other than most casually.

Well, up to a point.

Relatedly, after the Roses fell apart somebody painted “RENI LIVES” in big letters on the old railway bridge down the road – which was accurate and supportive but a bit odd, given that nobody had suggested he was dead. A friend of mine said that somebody should add the words “ROUND HERE”, which would have made it equally accurate and more informative.

The rest we can leave

To end this slightly hyperactive day, here’s a recommendation you’ve probably seen already: read Johann Hari on Hammersmith.

As I spend days walking across the borough, I find the detritus of the old thriving public sector now shut and shuttered. Next to a big council estate I stumble across the large red-brick Castle Youth Club. It was built in Dickens’ time and bequeathed to the local council “to benefit the children of this area for perpetuity”. The Conservatives shut it down two years ago to sell it off. The deal fell through, so now it sits empty while the local kids hang around on the streets outside.

I realise I am peering into the reality of David Cameron’s “Big Society”. The council here told people that if they took away services like this, there would be volunteers; if the state withered away, people would start to provide the services for each other. But nobody … started a new youth club on their own time and with their own money. The state retreated and the service collapsed. It’s a rebranding trick. The Conservatives know that shutting down public services sounds cruel, while calling for volunteerism sounds kind – but the effect is exactly the same.

Read the whole thing. (I’ll wait.)

And here are a few lines from a comment at Crooked Timber (hi Tim!)

I too would like to ‘punish’ Labour for the GWOT/Iraq business. Brown may not have been enthusiastic about the whole business, but keeping quiet and wishing it would go away while signing off on every penny is of course nowhere near good enough. On the same grounds, I’d like to reward the Lib Dems (as well as liking their noises about Trident and ‘illegal’ immigrants, for example). … But retribution and reward are not top priorities at this point, even they could plausibly be seen as a necessary part of a system of long-term incentives. (The war has already had electoral consequences in prising Blair out, of course.) … The urgent imperative is to keep Cameron out.

The Conservatives have done nothing at all to suggest they have moved toward the centre in broadly economic terms – even with a rightward-bound centre. … The Conservatives have, even before getting in, the most hawkish about spending cuts, and flagrant in their ambitions for top-rung tax cuts like inheritance, for example. Their real intentions have to be guessed at, but they won’t have been understating their brutality. Even the line of verbiage they’ve chosen to fill the ominous silence is actively repellent. All this wittering about voluntarism is familiar enough stuff, now elevated from a weak debating point to a supposed philosophy: ‘other things equal, wouldn’t it be nice if everything were done voluntarily, out of, er, benevolence?’. Other things equal my arse. Tell it to Adam Smith’s baker. Making obligations and liabilities voluntary – repudiable – has only one purpose, as every instance of self-’regulation’ testifies.

I particularly like that last point. Other things equal my arse – Tories of all people should know that you don’t get owt for nowt. But the market doesn’t supply everything or everyone – it’s conspicuously bad at providing universal services, unlimited emergency services or services for people who can’t afford to pay, for instance. The history of public service provision since Joseph Chamberlain has been one of collectively-funded efforts to redress market failure. Turn off the funding and that ‘market’ – the market for home helps, youth clubs, women’s refuges, emergency accommodation – will fail in a heartbeat. And the Tories know that, those of them who are older than 18; they have to know that. The idea of sleek Tory politicians knowingly and heedlessly consigning poor people to lives of misery and fear is terribly old-fashioned and rather melodramatic, I know, but it seems like an awfully good fit.

If you’ve got a vote tomorrow, please use it to help prevent a Tory government. That will be an achievement worth having been part of.

Tomorrow, today will be yesterday

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?

There are four things, I think. Continue reading

Yesterday today was tomorrow

I started blogging in March 2005, after I’d started commenting on Tom Watson’s blog (more on that another time). In particular, I wrote a series of posts on why people shouldn’t vote Labour. They were:

I: 126 as a limit
A shadow of its former self – about 75% of this post got eaten by Blogger one night. Which was a shame, as it established the context for the whole series. Looking at the 2001 results and at current polling data, I established pretty conclusively that the Tories weren’t going to win: tens of thousands of Labour supporters could vote against Labour without costing Labour the election.
II: When you need cover
On Labour’s resort to dog-whistle politics, and a peculiarly empty form of dog-whistle politics at that: rallying the core Labour vote isn’t just difficult for New Labour, it’s the one thing they can’t do. What remains is an empty, moralistic appeal – you ought to vote Labour because, well, you ought to.
III: In the Big Muddy
On what an anti-Labour vote might achieve (a slim majority or a hung parliament at a pinch) and who this would benefit (primarily Gordon Brown – “Turn around men! I’m in charge from now on.”) And why it was worth doing anyway.
IV: I just can’t see myself following you
“We’re living in a strange, muted, deadened political landscape, where many of the most important questions go unanswered or unasked.” On the need to break New Labour’s blockage of the political landscape, but also on the genuine risk of benefiting the Tories in the process.
V: Beneath the flag of democracy
On Iraq: war as “the ultimate trust issue” and the ultimate reason for withholding trust. “If Labour are re-elected with a majority of 80-100, we will have officially drawn a line under Iraq and moved on; we will have told Blair, loud and clear, that we do trust him after all.”
VI: Everything you say is like iron
Against the advice to “hold your nose and vote Labour” which was coming from both the Guardian and the Morning Star, and against the opposition between party loyalty and ‘tactical voting’. “Tactical voting is holding your nose when you vote: voting Labour even at the cost of registering your support for policies you oppose … It’s not tactical voting to vote for breaking the log-jam, and vote to make it more likely that it breaks to the Left. It’s not tactical voting to vote to replace New Labour with something better.”
VII: Put your lips together and blow
More on dog-whistle politics and the difference between loyalty and principle. “There are reasons why I voted Labour at most opportunities between 1979 and 1997, and most of them are the same reasons why I’m voting against Labour this time. I haven’t moved – they have.”
VIII: Arrows with a very bad aim
On good reasons and bad reasons for refusing to vote for a particular party. I took the line that there were good reasons to refusue to vote either for Labour (“There is nothing good to say about the New Labour project.”) or for the Socialist Labour Party (“the SLP, after all these years, urgently needs to give up and let its activists get on with their lives”) but not for refusing to vote Lib Dem.
IX: Yeah yeah, yeah, yeah
On the disturbing possibility that all this messing around on blogs might be entirely detached from the real world, and Labour might still be heading for a three-figure majority. (SPOILER: they weren’t.)
X: None of you stand so tall
I’ll repost this one in full:

Here’s my advice, for anyone who’s interested.

Don’t vote Labour.

Don’t vote Conservative, don’t vote UKIP and for God’s sake don’t vote Veritas. But don’t vote Labour. Here are 35 reasons (hat tip to Ellis Sharp). Iraq is at numbers 11 and 22. There are another 33. The name Blunkett doesn’t even appear on the page.

There are values which have been associated with Labour throughout its history: even under operators like Wilson and Smith; even under chancers like Kinnock; even during the long retreat in the face of Thatcherism. Under New Labour, that’s all gone. Maintenant c’est joué… The party of the Left must be built, and it won’t be built in a matter of days. For now, what’s essential is for the Left to withdraw its consent from the representatives who have betrayed it. If you want to vote for the values which Labour once stood for – under Hardie, under Attlee, even under the member for Monklands East – don’t vote Labour.

This isn’t about the war, except insofar as the war has shown a lot of people in their true colours. As I wrote back here, “this is a single-issue election – and the issue is New Labour.” From which it follows that I don’t advise anyone, anywhere, to vote for a Labour candidate. Not even if they’ve got a good record on the war; not even if they’ve got a good record on control orders and ID cards and tuition fees; not even if they’re Jeremy Corbyn, frankly. (Sorry, Jeremy.)

The objection that these tactics will lose us some good MPs misses the point. This is a boycott. If boycotting something – goods from a certain country, say – didn’t involve forfeiting choices we would normally make, there’d be no need for the boycott: the invisible hand of the market would do the job for us. Boycotts, by definition, cannot be relied on to deliver an optimal choice: that’s not what they’re for. What they do is signal that there are choices we are not willing to make – positions that we are not prepared to endorse – even at a cost to ourselves. I’d hate to have a Tory MP, but I would rejoice to see my Labour MP’s vote drop far enough to make that a possibility.

While Labour is controlled by the New Labour clique (and it is – these people are serious about power), nobody running as a Labour candidate deserves our support. It doesn’t matter whose name is on the ballot paper. It doesn’t matter if Labour won last time or came second or third. If you can’t stand the Trots and the tankies, vote Lib Dem. If you can’t stand the Lib Dems, vote Green.

Don’t abstain. Don’t be an idiot and vote Tory.

But don’t vote Labour.

So what’s changed?

Till some progress begins

A cry from the heart at Crooked Timber:

Here is the voting record of Lynda Waltho, MP for Stourbridge, from TheyWorkForYou:

Voted very strongly for allowing ministers to intervene in inquests.
Voted very strongly for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws.
Voted very strongly for replacing Trident.
Voted moderately against laws to stop climate change.
Voted very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war.
Voted very strongly for introducing ID cards.

Never rebels against their party in this parliament.

I can’t vote for this.

I’m in a Lib Dem/Labour marginal, with an untried Labour contender facing a Lib Dem MP who’s had the seat since 2005, so I haven’t got quite the same problem. Continue reading

Know your constituency: Manchester Withington

Inspired by Splintered Sunrise‘s extraordinary series of “know your constituency” posts on the election in the North of Ireland, here are some thoughts on the constituency The Gaping Silence calls home. (Personal to Splinty – how do you do it? I’ve only done this one and it’s taken me all evening…)

2005 results:
Leech (Liberal Democrat) 15,872 (42.4%)
Bradley, Keith (Labour) 15,205 (40.6%)
Bradley, Karen (Conservative) (no relation) 3,919 (10.5%)
Candeland (Green) 1,595 (4.3%)
Gutfreund-Walmsley (UKIP) 424 (1.1%)
Bennett (Ind) 243 (0.6%)
Zalzala (Ind) 153 (0.4%)
Reed (Their Party) 47 (0.1%)

2010 candidates: John Leech (LD), Lucy Powell (Lab), Chris Green (Con), Brian Candeland (Green), Robert Gutfreund-Walmsley (UKIP), Yasmin Zalzala (Independent), Marcus Farmer (Independent)

The Withington constituency, after a bit of boundary adjustment following the 2005 election, extends from affluent, liberal, green-ish East Didsbury northward and westward to green, liberal, affluent-ish Chorlton. It’s a rough triangle, with Northenden and Sale to the southwest, the Heatons and Stockport to the southeast and Fallowfield, Whalley Range and the city to the north.

For anyone who’s tried to buy a newspaper in Chorlton on a Saturday, the political complexion of the constituency might seem fairly self-evident. Continue reading

Imitation of life

Apparently Gordon Brown didn’t really think Gillian Duffy’s remarks were bigoted; he thought something she didn’t actually say was bigoted.

Mrs Duffy had asked him about immigration and also mentioned student tuition fees, among other subjects.

The BBC’s Jeremy Paxman asked Mr Brown to explain what he meant when he said he had misunderstood her comments.

He said: “I thought she was talking about expelling all university students from here who were foreigners. I misunderstood it.”

It’s a sidestep of genius, allowing both Brown and Duffy to be in the right – someone who had said that to Brown would have been a bigot; he simply made the honest mistake of thinking that Mrs D. was that someone.

I also think it’s probably sincere. Here’s a section of the full transcript:
Continue reading

Paint the words upon the wall

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 (by which I mean, one of the parties standing candidates across the country – Labour, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, UKIP and the BNP). But can you match the slogan to the party?

1. GET BRITAIN WORKING

2. BYE BYE, BUREAUCRACY

3. WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER

4. PEOPLE POWER

5. SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY NOT STATE CONTROL

6. BIG GOVERNMENT = BIG PROBLEMS

Answers after the jump. No peeping!

Continue reading

Your scholarly room

Lots of hits over the last few days from people looking for “market managerialism”, or sometimes “what is market managerialism”. No idea why that topic should be popular at the moment, or indeed what they’re finding here that’s relevant. Can anyone enlighten me?

Another recent search term is less hard to understand. Today someone found their way to this blog after searching for

very crude naked ladies pics

I welcome all new visitors, although in some cases I wouldn’t necessarily want to shake their hand. Come for the boobs by all means, but stay for the radical politics, music videos, autobiographical musings and bad jokes. But I must demur at “very crude”. All you can find here in that line is a couple of links to sensitive and artistic naked ladies pics, which are not the same thing at all. Apart from the naked ladies – that element is constant.

Constant, and rather odd when you start to think about it. More years ago than I care to calculate, I remember leafing through a copy of H&E belonging to a friend’s older brother with a mild, amused interest – oh look, there are some women with nothing on… and there are some men with nothing on… and there are some more women with nothing on! All vaguely shocking and transgressive – you knew that people generally took care not to be seen with nothing on – but it didn’t do anything for me (or to me). Then, a few months later, I was on a school skiing trip in Switzerland when I happened on an advert in a magazine featuring a naked woman in a Viking helmet, standing behind a waist-high shield and covering one breast. The effect of this fairly anodyne image was electric and instantaneous; it seemed to go straight from my eyes to my crotch without passing through my brain. Puberty had well and truly arrived, and henceforth the sight of a woman who was… you know… I mean, not wearing any… I mean, you know, in the nude… would turn my head and turn me on, more or less whether I liked it or not.

Realistically, our (my) reaction to p0rn – not to mention our concept of what constitutes p0rn – has to be something that’s learned, culturally-determined and culturally encoded (relatedly, see this discussion of the meaning of the words “naked woman” through history – “naked” has always meant “scandalously under-dressed” but hasn’t always meant “absolutely not wearing anything whatsoever at all”). Some years ago Susanne Kappeler argued that it’s all about sadism and power: a naked woman in a magazine is on display in very much the same way that a shot elephant or a captured slave might be displayed, as an invitation to the man looking at the picture to vicariously celebrate the power over women wielded by the man behind the camera. It’s alarmingly persuasive, but I don’t think it’s the whole story (and not only because there are female erotic photographers); there’s a weird quality of compulsion, even powerlessness, in the way men look at women. (I don’t believe that overrides the more conventional power relation described by Kappeler, though (pace Joe Jackson) – everyone’s more vulnerable naked than clothed, being watched than watching.) I also wonder, when did I learn that way of seeing? Not, surely, between the look-at-the-funny-naked-people half hour with H&E and the Oh. My. God. p0rn thunderclap in Switzerland.

Whatever is ultimately going on, the experience for me was – and, let’s face it, to a pretty large extent still is – an unthinking, automatic, instant reaction to certain images; images which are likely to work the same trick for other straight men. (That said, my ‘certain images’ aren’t going to be exactly the same ‘certain images’ as someone else’s. Pynchon takes this idea to its extreme in Gravity’s Rainbow, where he has a spy being sent a message written in an ink which will only become visible when treated with his semen – and accompanied by an image which calculated to induce immediate orgasm in him and him alone. Yow.)

Ultimately Tom Robinson was right about this (as about much else) – pictures of naked young women are fun. But they’re also odd: a culturally-determined image that’s also a law of nature (or that’s certainly how it feels). In the immortal words of a comic song I heard on the radio years ago,

Men like naked ladies -
The only exceptions are when
They’re either
Guardian readers
Or they prefer naked gentlemen.

Well, one out of two’s not bad.

You talk so hip

In the previous post, I wrote:

not only is the personal political, the political is personal: which way you’re heading, and how fast you want to get there, depends to quite a large extent on something as imponderable as who you are

Which is why I’m rather ambivalent about Andrew Neil’s monstering of Chris Mounsey, he of Devil’s Kitchen.

Mounsey says himself that when he wrote the posts that made Devil’s Kitchen famous he was in part railing against his own situation, and that he’s calmer and happier now. This is good news, and I sincerely wish him well. But that’s not all there is to say.

From my very occasional reading of DK I had formed the impression that the writer was a middle-aged Scot who had missed his chances or been robbed of them, had no real prospect of finding them again and was now taking solace in blaming everyone but himself. It turns out that Chris Mounsey is English and in his early 30s. He’s also an old Etonian; which is to say, his education cost his parents a minimum of £28,851 a year in today’s money. As of 2007/8, 95% of UK tax-payers have a post-tax income of £46,800 or below. Anyone as low down the rankings as the 96th percentile would need to commit nearly 2/3 of their income in order to see their son through Eton; I think we can confidently assume that the income of the senior Mounseys puts them in the top 2-3%. In other words, Chris Mounsey was born into the elite.

Here’s an example of what Chris Mounsey used to get angry about:

The Tories want parents and other organisations to have state funds to set up their own schools.
Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove issued the call in a speech to the NASUWT teachers’ union conference.

And can you guess what the union response was? Go on – have a guess.

Was it (a) yes, what a wonderful idea: we’ll show you how a school should be run, given how much we profess to dislike the constant state interference, or was it (b)…

The union did not want to run a school, [union leader] said. Schools should be “democratically accountable” and not operated for and by “the pushy and the privileged”.

Ah. So, schools should not be run for and by “the pushy and the privileged” unless those pushy and privileged are the union members under state sanction.

OK, so this is fairly stupid. Gove suggests a system under which state funding would be used to set up new private schools; these might be excellent or might not, but would sink or swim outside the state system. If standards were low, the government would have no way of raising them; at worst, in other words, this would mean messing up the education of the children unfortunate enough to go to those schools. If standards were high, on the other hand, this would benefit those particular children but nobody else. Anyone who is concerned with providing a consistently good universal service – rather than providing an excellent service to a few and never mind the rest – won’t touch such a scheme with a bargepole. No national teaching union could ever endorse such an idea – Mounsey’s professed outrage is either spurious or stupid. As for his parting shot, I’m not even sure what it means – joining a union, signing up for the collective defence of working standards and employment rights, makes you “pushy and privileged”? Brane hertz. All in all, what we’ve got here is someone with one set of beliefs affecting to be shocked and outraged that someone with a completely different set of beliefs doesn’t agree with him. Or, to boil it down a bit more, someone having a rant at his political enemies. Mounsey, like Gove, doesn’t believe in trade unions, or in state provision, and I shouldn’t think he’s too bothered about the provision of a consistently good universal education. The union leader believes in all three, and so Mounsey hates her.

That was fairly stupid, but it’s not the passage Neil quoted back at Mounsey. The post continued as follows (WARNING: nasty stuff ahead). Continue reading

And I decline

Here’s a late response to the blog theme tune meme, and a tune I can’t believe nobody else has picked:

Maybe it’s just me.

At its most basic, there’s definitely something that appeals to me about songs with far too many words, and songs that nobody understands. At one time in my life Prefab Sprout’s first album meant an enormous amount to me, precisely because some of the songs are so resolutely personal – not in a Kate Nash sense, but in the sense of mapping out a mental landscape which could only ever make sense from the inside (“Oh no, don’t blame Mexico!”). In this song, I like the way the playfulness and sheer high spirits of the music works together with that ridiculous cataract of words (“LEONARD BERNSTEIN!”). And the rueful, headachey conclusion – “Time I had some time alone” (truncated from this video, unfortunately) – I’ve had days like that.

But it goes a bit deeper. The personal is political, and not just in the sense that one will get you to the other. To put it another way, not only is the personal political, the political is personal: which way you’re heading, and how fast you want to get there, depends to quite a large extent on something as imponderable as who you are. Someone who likes well-chaired meetings that run to time will join a different party, with different goals, from someone who likes to keep talking until everyone’s agreed – or someone who likes to handle disagreement with his fists. See also the debate that Daniel kicks off from time to time, regarding the association between the political spectrum and the undesirable trait of BACAI (where ‘B’ stands for ‘being’ and ‘AI’ ‘about it’). (The debate hasn’t got very far as yet – we’re more or less agreed that most of the Decent/Euston crowd is positively committed to BACAI, but generalising from that is hard.)

As for me, I’ve always been temperamentally drawn to no-holds-barred abolish-everything ultra-leftism. If you read Debord, or the early Marx – or even if you start reading Capital at volume 1, chapter 1 – it seems staringly obvious that communism is not going to involve capital formation, or commodity production, or wage labour, or money. (Whether it would involve law is a separate question.) Obviously the maximalism that this vision implies can only be theoretical in anything other than a pre-revolutionary situation, but maximalism on the plane of theory isn’t nothing:

If constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.
- Karl Marx to Arnold Ruge, September 1843

(The original strap line of my old blog was adapted from that quote.)

Or you could just say that I’ve got a weakness for nihilism.

Qu’est-ce que le nihilisme ? Rozanov répond parfaitement à la question quand il écrit : “La représentation est terminée. Le public se lève. Il est temps d’enfiler son manteau et de rentrer à la maison. On se retourne : plus de manteau ni de maison.”

“No more coats, no more home.” It’s possible, I suppose, that Rozanov was talking about nothing more than planting a bomb in a theatre, which has never struck me as a valid political tactic[1]. I’ve always read that passage more metaphorically. It’s the image of everything disappearing at the end of the show that’s stayed with me. Picture it: you’re just emerging from a consensual illusion and returning to reality, when you realise that the reality you thought you were returning to was itself a consensual illusion, and it’s gone. You wake up… and then you wake up.

(Right? Right!)

What this perspective gives you, I think, is a sense of how provisional all our social arrangements are, a sense that everything solid could melt into air[2]. It’s just a ride, in other words, and we can change it any time we want. And that in turn goes together (for me at least) with a kind of ironic optimism: in terms of political programmes there’s nothing out there I can actually identify with, but there are lots of points where closed-down possibilities can be nudged open. And lots of stuff that we don’t actually need to preserve – which brings us back to the song. Clear the floor to dance!

[1] Not everyone agrees with this point, it should be said. Alfredo Bonanno made a pretty good fist of arguing for indiscriminate, spontaneous anarchist violence in his 1979 pamphlet Concerning terrorism, certain imbeciles and other matters. “What if we don’t want to wait for the ‘big day’, and we begin to do something, here and now, to stop defending ourselves and begin to attack power? … What would doing this make us – would it make us terrorists?” Maybe not terrorists as such, but it would certainly make you voluntarist, adventurist, substitutionist, deeply irresponsible and ultimately rather apolitical. To put it another way, it would make you a bunch of dangerous headbangers.

[2] I’ve read that this is a mistranslation deriving from Ernest Jones’s inadequate grasp of German, and that what Marx actually wrote was more like “all fixed reference points go up in smoke”. I don’t know if it’s an improvement or not – the “melts” version is more vivid and poetic, but it has a dreamy, Tempest-like quality which doesn’t really go with historical materialism. More research needed. Have any German-speaking Marxists read this far? (I did say I was an optimist…)

Career opportunities

Jim asks:

I’d really love to know how to go about earning a crust (or even half a crust) out of freelance writing. Yes, I’m aware that’s the Holy Grail for every blogger but if, dear reader, you’ve worked out how to achieve it, I’d be eternally grateful for your advice.

As it goes, my career as a freelance writer overlapped with my time as a blogger, but not by much – I’ve been blogging since a few weeks before the last election, in 2005, and I last sold an article in September 2007. I’ve had a few things in collections of blog posts, but my experience of turning bloggery into money is zero.

However, Jim also mentions that he’s soon to embark on a PhD thesis, and I can trutfhully say that I supported myself through my PhD thesis as a freelance journalist. The bad news is that it took me five years to complete my thesis, in which time I gained no academic experience at all – this is not recommended. I did look into the possibilities of doing bits of teaching, but concluded that the rate of pay was so low, relative to the living I was managing to make as a writer, that I’d effectively be doing it for nothing – and I couldn’t afford to do it. I got my first permanent academic post six years later.

So the first thing I’ve gleaned from my career as a freelance journalist is that it’s laborious and time-consuming work, and it will soak up time and effort which you could have done with keeping back for other purposes. It’s hard. When it’s going well it’s also one of the best jobs in the world – but even then it’s hard work, and it will cost you.

As for how to do it, three golden rules.

Rule 1: On getting the work. The rule is: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. That doesn’t mean that you need to have had Condé Nast executives invited to your christening – although if they were, you certainly won’t have to read self-help posts like this. It means, work your connections. If you haven’t got any connections, take an educated guess on which of your friends has got connections and work them. Don’t bother cold-calling, doorstepping or otherwise propositioning an editor you don’t know. There are 100 other ambitious unknowns who could write the article you want to write – or something which would look as good as that article to people who don’t know your area, a group which will probably include the editor you’re trying to pitch to and will definitely include his or her boss. Not only that, but out of those 100, 50 are younger than you, 20 are slightly better-known and three know the editor, or say they do.

Getting a start in journalism is all about having some kind of personal connection with someone who can take a chance on you. If you know the editor – even slightly, even tenuously – and you can persuade him or her to let you have a go at something, then you’re in. If not, not. So if you don’t know any editors, you will need to change that situation. (I should say, incidentally, that this isn’t current advice – it’s based on my experience in the early 90s, when the journalistic climate was positively balmy compared to now.)

Rule 2: on getting more work. Once you’ve got your foot in the door the advice changes. All you need to do then is get the work done. Get it done, whatever it is; get it done on time, to the exact specs you’ve been given. I used to work on programme support for the Channel 4 ‘Real Lives’ strand – an odd gig which involved watching the programme, writing a 1000-word précis and recommending at least three books & at least three Web sites for the ‘Find Out More’ section (this was often the hardest part). I’m quite proud of my work on the Wallis Simpson programme, for no other reason than that I got the tape at 10.00 one morning with strict instructions to get the work filed by 5.00 at the latest – which I did, complete with three URLs and eight (count ‘em) book recommendations. That was a good day.

Anyway, rule 2 can be stated just as bluntly as rule 1: if you do exactly what they ask you for – whatever they ask you for – and do it on time and do it well, then you may get repeat business. Not ‘will’, but definitely ‘may’ – and if not, you definitely won’t.

Depressed yet?

Rule 3: on next month’s work. If you can write, and if you’re in touch with commissioning editors, and if you can write to order, to length and to deadline, then you should be able to make enough to live on… for this month. However, you will also need to eat next month. You know how you had to work to get your first commission, and your second, and your third – shmoozing, pitching ideas, scrounging for repeat business? Fancy doing that again and again, month after month, indefinitely? Me neither, and I don’t believe anyone actually lives like that.

Hence Rule 3, which comes in two parts. Rule 3.1 is: get a regular gig. Better still, have a regular gig lined up before you make the leap. I embarked on my PhD knowing that I had first refusal on at least £5,000 a year’s worth of work from my previous employer. £5,000 a year isn’t a lot – rule 3.1.1 is get another regular gig – but it’s a big improvement on £0.

It gets worse, I’m afraid. Rule 3.2 is: be prepared for when the work dries up. Freelance writing work is inherently precarious. Editors move on, magazines close, production companies take their writing work in-house, once in a while you may even screw up an assignment and fall out with an editor. (The advice here is, of course, don’t ever do this. But the chances are that you will.) Freelancing isn’t a fallback – in the immortal words of James Thurber, falling back on journalism would be very much like falling back full-length on a kit of carpenter’s tools. Have something in reserve – some other marketable skill, or just a couple of months’ rent money stashed in an account you never touch.

I have to say, as if this post wasn’t negative enough already, that I don’t know if I’d be able to pay the bills for five years if I was starting out as a freelance journalist today. Certainly the nets I dropped a couple of years ago – when it looked as if academic freelance work (that’s another story) was drying up – almost all came up empty: most of the outlets I wrote for have closed, and there’s very little call for the kind of stuff I used to write (“if you’ve got a great idea for a column, keep it for your blog”, one editor told me bluntly). But then, if I was starting out as a freelance today I wouldn’t be trying to write the kind of stuff I wrote in the 1990s, or working the contacts I had then. I wouldn’t tell anyone to go for it!, but I realise I’m not in a position to tell anyone definitely not to.

In other news*, Toby Young is an unmitigated idiot. In all of my five years as a freelance I made a point of taking a week off in summer and disconnecting completely from work. This in no way prevented me from paying the bills, despite the fact that I was writing Web pages for Channel 4 and sub-editing German computing advertorials rather than, say, for instance, writing a column in the Guardian and having my million-selling autobiography made into a film. Tosser.

*OK, not news** as such.

**Inasmuch as the column dates from 2008, I mean, not the ‘unmitigated idiot’***. I was going to blog on it at the time, but it infuriated me too much.

***Although that too.

Indonesian Cryptozoology Latest

That last post left me thinking Red Pepper, eh? Blimey, that was a long time ago… (My involvement with it, I hasten to add, not the magazine itself, which is going strong. (Well, strong-ish. “In Autumn 2007 Red Pepper relaunched as a bi-monthly magazine with more emphasis on the role of its website.” To be fair, these are hard times for print magazines all round. I also noticed this: “In contrast to the mainstream media, Red Pepper’s content comes directly from an international network of writers based in the alternative movements for radical social and environmental change. Given our limited resources, we are unable to pay writers for their contributions, although that is our long-term aim.” No, I’m saying nothing. Lips, sealed.))

Anyway, it all seems like an awful long time ago, until I consult the perpetual present of the Web. It’s the book, you see – reviews of the book haven’t been abundant (although there have been some) and I want to start hustling it a bit more. At the very least I want to make sure that the review copies that have gone out have got to the right people.

So, Google, who’s Books Editor of Red Pepper?

You know, I’m almost certain it’s not him.

Maybe they call it Culture Editor? (They did in my day…

…as you can see.)

Oh well, I’ll just have to write to Hilary.

There will be emus in the Zone

Searching the Lovefilm catalogue the other day, I was delighted (and slightly amazed) to find that you can rent Chris Marker’s La Jetée from them – not only that, but that Sunless comes on the same disc. I don’t really want to say anything at all about La Jetée, except that everything you’ve heard about it is true: it’s half an hour long, it’s in black and white, it’s told almost entirely in stills with voiceover, and it’s the greatest film ever made. Well, one of. Top ten, definitely. The title, incidentally, is much less romantic than it sounds – for a long time, before I saw it, I thought it meant something like “the leap” or “the throw”, très kierkegaardien. It actually refers to part of a 1950s airport – “the pier”, I guess it would be if you translated it.

Sunless is a bit more conventional, inasmuch as it’s 90+ minutes long, shot on film and in colour. Unlike La Jetée, though, it’s not narrative; it’s more of an essay or a long poem in the medium of film. And it’s also the greatest… well, one of the greatest films ever made. (Top ten, no question.) It’s shot mostly in Guinea-Bissau and Japan, and to begin with you could take it for a travelogue. But Marker’s not interested in places so much as people: people in streets, in bars, in markets, in boats and on quaysides, caught by the frank, intelligent, appraising gaze of the man behind the camera and returning it in kind. His eye is extraordinary: the film stock he’s using frankly isn’t great (in purely visual terms it’s more like watching a news report than a feature film) but he creates, or finds, some truly beautiful compositions. The composition of the film as a whole is remarkable, too: just as it seems it’s starting to sag, around the 80th minute, he pulls the whole thing together and makes you realise what it’s about. It’s about revolutionary politics, in part, and about how the struggle to turn an unjust world upside down is always continuing. But at a deeper level it’s about time: how time destroys everything and defeats everyone, and how we need to live within that situation and do justice to it, and about art as a way of bearing witness to it and resisting it.

Fantastic, beautiful film. (And quoted on a recent waxing by a popular singing group called the Kasabians, apparently.)

I wrote about Sunless once before, in the February 2000 issue of Red Pepper; it was my contribution to a “lost classics” feature called Memory Hole. Here’s what I said then:

Chris Marker is best known here for La Jetée, a thirty-minute science-fiction film composed almost entirely of still pictures and the avowed inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. In fact Marker is a prolific film-maker, working mainly in the documentary idiom; he is also a deeply political artist whose films attest to his passionate engagement with the left. However, while many of Marker’s works have been distributed in English versions, their uncommercial nature has consigned most of them to oblivion. One which richly deserves to be retrieved is Sans Soleil (Sunless).

The film opens uncompromisingly, with several seconds of black screen followed by a snatch of film showing three children in Iceland in 1964; this represents a moment of happiness, the narrator explains. The film is a meditation on the loss of time and the particularity of place. Marker watches the people of Tokyo honour their dead; in Guinea-Bissau he performs an act of commemoration himself, evoking the long forgotten revolution of Amilcar Cabral and its wider effects, in Portugal and elsewhere. In Japan, he juxtaposes traditional street festivals with department-store imitations of American style, rituals to commemorate broken dolls with the struggle over the building of Narita Airport. The film is also extremely beautiful, with frequent freeze-frames to pick out a single face, a single glance.

Marker’s leftism is rooted in a deep interest in people and how they live their lives; perhaps his nearest parallel outside cinema is John Berger. Sunless conveys this political passion with heart and style.

Yeah, that still holds up. Not so sure about this one, though (reviewing another film I’ve recently found on Lovefilm).

Nanni Moretti has a lot on his mind. He’s working on a musical, his wife is pregnant and elections are looming. On top of all that, he’s making a film: this film. Aprile takes Moretti’s film-making to a new level of autobiographical intimacy. A disenchanted left-winger, who follows current events so attentively that he wraps himself up in newspapers, Moretti is an appealing everyman. His story ends hopefully – little Pietro is born, the left wins the elections – but without any real conclusion. Aprile celebrates personal and political achievements, but reminds us that everything is still to play for.
- Michael Travis

That’s from the film review slot in the May 1999 Red Pepper. Having finally seen Aprile, all I can say is, Up to a point, Mr Travis. I can forgive the reviewer for missing what’s now the most famous sequence of the film – Moretti shouting at the TV during a debate between Berlusconi and Massimo d’Alema: “D’Alema, say something left-wing! Not even left-wing, say something civilised! Reply! React! Say something!”. That sequence has hung round d’Alema’s neck ever since (as well it might) but it wasn’t that well-known in Britain at the time. But there are so many small errors – Moretti gives up on the musical to make a radical documentary about the elections, which isn’t “this film” (and never gets made); he’s not an “appealing everyman”, unless your idea of Everyman is an Italian Woody Allen, a middle-aged man who’s so anxious about everything in his life that he never shuts up about any of it; and he doesn’t so much “[wrap] himself up in newspapers” as buy every paper he can find, cut out all the political stories and stick them all together to make one giant newspaper with pages ten feet wide, only to give up trying to make sense of it and wrap himself up in it (although admittedly that would take a lot of words). And there’s one really big error, regarding the ending of the film. It’s not inconclusive in the slightest: Moretti (or ‘Moretti’) has completely turned his life around by the end of the film. He’s stopped worrying about the baby (who is beautiful, incidentally); he’s given up the political film and thrown away his collection of press cuttings (“why should I keep a collection of things that make me angry?”); he’s started work on the musical again; and he’s made a general-purpose resolution to be bold and not to hold himself back, symbolised by a voluminous cape that he wears for the last five minutes of the film (which makes him look ridiculous, but that’s part of the point). It’s not a brilliant film, but it does have a brilliant ending – not least its closing scene, an extended sequence from the shooting of the musical – and Michael Travis missed it completely.

Mind you, he did have an excuse, what with being non-existent (or fictional (another Top Ten nominee behind that link, incidentally)). I was editing the Red Pepper culture pages at the time, and I’d had an offer of a review of Aprile; unfortunately it fell through, leaving me with a space to fill and no time to fill it in. So I read a couple of other people’s reviews of Aprile and I did the best I could. And I have to say that, judged as a review written by someone who hasn’t seen the film, it’s not all that bad.

I’ll do a proper writeup of my time on Red Pepper some day; for now, I’m afraid, it’s a story for which the world is not yet prepared.

Just watch me now

This week (if you’ll excuse the steal) I’ve mostly been listening to the Dandy Warhols’ 2008 album Earth to the Dandy Warhols.

By way of an introduction:

Turn that way up.

There are three things I like about this album. Firstly, the drug thing. When I was a regular gig-goer, I used to start with a can of Red Stripe and follow it with a can of Special Brew. The main point of the exercise was the enveloping alcoholic hit of the first swallow of Special Brew: an almost physical sense of falling backwards, sinking into an alcoholic haze. Some kinds of music conjure precisely this kind of befuddling onslaught – and I don’t just mean ‘psychedelia’. (“I wouldn’t say Doll by Doll are a psychedelic band,” Jackie Leven once corrected an interviewer. “We’re an acid band.”) Take the Beta Band, for instance. Some of their songs had a distinct acid edge to them, but this strikes me very much as cannabis music – in its soft quietness and its insistent precision, and in the way the track seems to take itself apart, come to a halt and then reassemble itself:

The Dandys are no strangers to mood-altering substances. As an album, Welcome to the Monkeyhouse had a distinctly speed-y sound to it. By contrast, Earth to… has a fairly intense downer-ish quality (and let’s face it, calling a song “Valerie Yum” is a bit of a clue). Full-on would be one word for it: a sound that leaves you feeling crushed, enveloped, sated. Intense but not unenjoyable, if you’re in the mood.

The second thing about the Dandy Warhols is that they’re very rock’n’roll; you could almost say they are rock’n’roll. In terms of musicianship and originality they’re pretty ordinary, but that’s part of the point – they’re what a pretty ordinary band would sound like if they were convinced they were the coolest band in the world. As I said about their previous album (which is a bit hard going, I have to admit) what they do isn’t so much rock’n’roll as the sound of what rock’n’roll sounds like – the sound of the process of the form being realised. Very arty…

…and then again (back with the Dandys) not arty at all, because the sound of the process ect ect is, fundamentally, the sound of three chords being cranked out. And that is, let’s face it, a fantastic sound. Lou Reed said somewhere that he’d never had any desire to go beyond rock’n’roll, because he still felt there was a lot to be done with those basic rock chord changes. Listening to the next song, you feel he’s proved himself wrong (sorry, Lou, you’d nailed it for all time by 0:22) but at the same time right (that’s a seam that will take plenty of digging).

Back at the Dandys album, the track after “Wasp in the Lotus” proves it all over again: a perfect three-chord trick, utterly simple and predictable, utterly beautiful.

I like the stunned, languid quality that song has, and the way it just keeps on going; it makes me imagine watching the sky start to lighten, too tired to go to sleep. I particularly like the way the horns come in towards the end, and the raw, unpolished, “just slap it down” sound they have – very rock’n’roll. Ed Kuepper would probably have a fit if you called Laughing Clowns a rock’n’roll band, but what I’m talking about here is very like the immediate, noisy production the horns used to get on Laughing Clowns albums. Laughing Clowns reformed last year; it’s a trumpetless lineup, but Louise Elliott’s sax here has the same raw, punkish quality I hear in the Dandys’ brass.

The third thing, finally, is related to the dogged endlessness of that last track, and the three-chord trick generally: minimalism. Three chords, did I say? The Dandys aren’t the first band to see what happens if you hit one chord and stick to it…

…nor were Stereolab, come to that…

…but I don’t think you’ll hear it done better than here, in a track which originally bore the marvellous (and very Dandy Warhols) title “The World The People Together Come On”. Listen out for the chord change – it’s at 2:13 (at the end of the second verse).

Nice video – especially the first minute or so. I could just fancy a can of Special Brew now…

I don’t wanna seem crude

So there I was in W.H. Smith’s, queuing up with my Radio Times, when… actually I wasn’t buying anything, I was hanging around the magazine racks waiting for my wife and daughter to get finished in Build-A-Bear; I just thought that would take too long to explain. In any case it’s only a bit of scene-setting, I might as well have been getting the Radio Times. Shall we start this again?

I was in W.H. Smith’s – that much is true – when my attention was snagged by a display stand opposite the tills. There, where you might expect to see something by Bill Bryson or an Ordnance Survey road atlas or a new variety of chocolate orange, was this:

Just Kate Moss with no clothes on. Move along, nothing to see here.

Whoa. Tracks, stopped in.

Now, I’m a man of the world; the idea of a magazine printing pictures of Kate Moss naked doesn’t shock me. I have long been aware of the existence of pictures of Kate Moss in the nude; I know that more than one photographer has been granted the opportunity to take pictures of Kate Moss starkers, and more than one of the resulting pictures of Kate Moss in the buff has escaped onto that Internet. I’m quite relaxed about the idea of pictures of Kate Moss letting it all hang out; pictures of a bare Kate Moss are fine by me.

(And people pay consultants to get hits on their Web pages! Piece of cake.)

Kate Moss nue, Kate Moss nackt or Kate Moss desnuda (see what I did there?), it doesn’t bother me. Or indeed surprise me – the model in question has been notably relaxed about doing the whole nude bit. But it was a bit of a jolt to see that image displayed in my face, or rather around waist height. For a moment it took me back thirty-odd years, when I used to get the train home from school every afternoon and hang around the magazine stall furtively glancing at the covers of Der Spiegel and Stern. For some reason German news magazines in the 1970s quite often put topless models on the front cover, which was more than English top-shelf mags did; once or twice Stern even featured a flash of bush, which left the teenage me simultaneously aroused and genuinely shocked (on the cover! can they even do that?). Transgressive stuff there from Gruner+Jahr. (NB “shocking” and “subversive” – not the same thing.) My German isn’t great, but de.wikipedia seems to be saying that a group of women sued G+J in 1978 over the sexist objectification of women in Stern, and frankly I’m not at all surprised. The next time I saw anything like that I was in Schiphol airport, having a drink at a café completely surrounded by hard-core pr0n and thanking the Lord I didn’t have any children with me (“Daddy, what’s ‘hot wet pink action’?”).

It was a striking display, anyway – and a cursory examination confirmed what the visual grammar of that cover rather strongly suggests, i.e. that there are pictures without the masking tape inside. (And I do mean cursory – there are times and places for studying pictures of naked women, and standing opposite the till in W.H. Smith’s while waiting for one’s wife and daughter is neither.) A more leisured investigation later confirmed that Ms Moss is one of eight models featured in the issue; that Love, although it’s essentially a fashion magazine, prints rather a lot of elegant monochrome nudity; and that it’s not the only one – there’s a howlingly expensive mag called Purple which seems to specialise in naked female celebrities, while still ostensibly appealing to well-off women who like looking at posh clothes rather than well-off men who like looking at bare ladies. (I guess it’s possible that Purple‘s core audience is well-off women who like looking at bare ladies and posh clothes, but that seems too small a niche.)

There’s been a two-way traffic between fashion photography and the classier end of soft pr0nography for some time, with several people working both sides of the street; they both involve posing impossibly elegant women to look attractive, after all. Classy soft pr0n as fashion photography seems new, and rather odd – although it’s a trend that may have been brewing for a while: take this (NSFW) from a 2008 issue of W magazine, originally captioned “Christopher Kane’s cashmere sweater with polyester paillettes and glass beads”. Hands up anyone who thinks that’s a picture of Christopher Kane’s sweater.

So what’s going on? I considered the possibility that (to rework the saying about music) “if it looks too rude, you’re too old”. Back in the 1970s, when I wasn’t gawping at Stern from a safe distance, I did occasionally buy my very own copy of Mayfair or something – sometimes accompanying it with a copy of New Society or Omni, research purposes you understand…. Back then the combination of (a) a nice-looking woman and (b) no clothes was all a young lad would ask for from his top-shelf mag – which was just as well, as that was all he was going to get. But that’s a long time ago; maybe Kids These Days demand action sequences and extreme closeups, and anything short of that just doesn’t qualify as pr0n. Conversely, maybe nudity’s a tired old Anglo-Saxon taboo, and we’re all relaxed and European now. I don’t think that’s it, though – the reaction to those photos has been far from ho-hum (NSFW). I guess it’s partly a case of “pushing the boundaries” (yawn), getting attention by doing something slightly more outrageous than the last time – and what Love did the last time was a nude Beth Ditto photoshoot, so you can see the logic of going for the multiple-supermodel approach. In the case of American magazines like W and Interview, there may also be a bit of a transatlantic cultural cringe (directed our way for once), with the perception that the Europeans are so cool about nudity and Americans need to stop being so prudish – and massive over-compensation as a result. (That comparison is valid to some extent, but it’s pretty hypocritical either way round. I don’t think American men feel any differently than French or German men about looking at naked women – they all like doing it and think they have a fundamental right to go on doing it. It’s just that one way of putting naked women on display gets labelled as relaxed (or exhibitionistic), while another gets labelled moral (or uptight).)

I think there’s also something going on about the status of professional photographers, in this age of Internet-enabled mass amateurism, and the status of printed magazines. Which is, after all, something of vital interest to a shop like W.H. Smith’s: anything that makes printed magazines seem a bit less dispensable is good news for a printed magazine shop. (I initially wrote ‘physical magazine’, but if you write ‘physical magazine’ over and over again it starts to get distracting. Whatever did happen to Health and Efficiency?)

I think what caught my eye at the weekend was somebody’s USP. (No, not Kate Moss’s. Settle down.) Sure, you can take pictures of what you want when you want, and sure, you can download pictures of more or less anything you can imagine, but have you got a picture of Kate Moss, dressed in nothing but a pair of high heels, artistically lit and printed on large-format glossy paper? You haven’t? Well, isn’t this your lucky day – look what we’ve got here. Right here, just by the checkout.

(Title courtesy of Stuart, cutting to the chase in his inimitable way.

I saw a lady and she was naked!
I saw a lady, she had no clothes on!

Great song; the S/M imagery is particularly appropriate, bringing out how compelling and overpowering this kind of experience can feel (“Why she want to pick on me?”). It’s a hard life being a man, you know…)

What happened once in Italy

I’ve written another paper, this one for presentation at the Alternative Futures and Popular Protest conference in Manchester at the end of the month. Here’s the abstract:

‘Just plain comrades’: Italian armed struggle groups and the mass movement, 1972-80

This paper will look at the difficult and contradictory relations between large-scale radical movements and ‘armed struggle’ groups in Italy in the 1970s. I shall argue, firstly, that the scale and duration of the ‘armed struggle’ phenomenon makes it impossible to dismiss as an nihilist aberration; this was in some senses a social movement in its own right. Secondly, I shall argue that the armed milieu was closely related to the broader radical movement, but that its evolution was conditioned by different social and political factors. I shall trace the different fortunes of the armed groups and the mass movements in three periods (1972-5, 1976-7, 1978 9), looking at the conditions under which armed groups formed and dissolved. Lastly, I shall look at the ways in which the political exclusion of the mass movements appears to have contributed to the growth of the armed groups, concluding by suggesting some parallels with the British government’s current anti-terrorist strategy.

And here are the references:

Balestrini, N. (1989), L’editore, Milan: Bompiani
Balestrini, N. and P. Moroni (1997), L’orda d’oro (revised edition), Milan: Feltrinelli
Del Bello, C. (a cura di) (1997), Una sparatoria tranquilla: per una storia orale del ’77, Rome: Odradek
Della Porta, D. (1995), Social movements, political violence and the state, Cambridge: CUP
Echaurren, P. and C. Salaris (1999), Controcultura in Italia 1967-1977, Boringhieri: Turin
Edwards, P. (2009), ‘More work! Less pay!’ Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-77, Manchester: Manchester University Press
Jamieson, A. (1989), The Heart Attacked: Terrorism and conflict in the Italian state, London: Marion Boyars
Monicelli, M. (1978), L’ultrasinistra in Italia 1968-1978, Rome: Laterza
Moroni, P. (1994), “Origine dei centri sociali autogestiti a Milano”, in Francesco Adinolfi et al, Comunitá virtuali. I centri sociali in Italia, Rome:Manifestolibri
Moroni, P. (1996), “Un certo uso sociale dello spazio urbano”, in Consorzio Aaster et al, Centri sociali: geografie del desiderio, Milan: Shake
Moss, D. (1989), The politics of left-wing violence in Italy, 1969-85, London: Macmillan
Piazza, G. (1987), “Movimenti e sistema politico: il caso di Autonomia operaia” (unpublished thesis), Università degli studi di Catania
Progetto Memoria (1994), La mappa perduta, Milan: Sensibili alle foglie
Progetto Memoria (1996), Le parole scritte, Milan: Sensibili alle foglie
Tarrow, S. (1989), Democracy and disorder, Oxford: OUP
Tarrow, S. (1998), Power in movement, second edition, Cambridge: CUP
Vinciguerra, V. and M. Cipriani (1999), Oppressione, Repressione, Rivolte: Storia d’Italia dal 25 luglio 1943 ad oggi, online
Wright, S. (2002), Storming Heaven: Class composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, London: Pluto

What I really wanted to do was get into why particular armed groups formed at particular times – for instance, there was a flurry of group formation around 1978-9, which seems to be traceable to the contradiction between the vitality of the mass movement in that period and the closure of political opportunities. Having said that, the key period for the smaller groups was 1974-5, which was a period of growth and innovation rather than blockage. More research required!

Greetings to anyone arriving here from Socialist Unity, by the way. Have a look around – you’ll probably find something of interest behind this tag, this one or this one. (I think my favourite’s this one, though.)

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