Category Archives: class

If a tree don’t fall on me

Apparently I’m up to blogpost #100, a little short of the blog’s first anniversary. How about some beer?

In south London, where I learned to drink, the bitter is generally tawny and malty. In south Wales and East Anglia, the next two areas where I tried the beer, the bitter is usually both malty and tawny. The types of bitter native to Scotland, Cornwall and Yorkshire, in my experience, have similar characteristics. There are variations – Cambridge beer is flat and tannic; a lot of Scottish beer tastes as if a bag of toffees has been dissolved in it (which in a sense it has); and South Walian beer is the best in the world bar none. But they’re variations within a shared style: in most parts of the country, if you order the local bitter you can safely expect something T and M.

Manchester is an exception. At least since the heyday of Boddington’s, there’s been a distinct local style of ale: pale and hoppy, with variations ranging from light-but-sour through cyanide-with-a-hint-of-malt to just-plain-undrinkably-bitter. I am not, as you may have gathered, a fan of this style – but the brewery which owns one of my two main locals is very big on it. They brought on a seasonal ale in summer (when, to be fair, pale and hoppy styles do go down well); I tried it once and seriously considered leaving the pint unfinished. It was the bitterest thing I’ve ever tasted, clove oil not excepted. The brewery does three or four different bitters, but they’re all pale and hoppy; most of the time the guest beers are pale and hoppy too. There’s a definite demand there, too. You can tell by the way the regulars’ favourite guests keep coming back – and the way their names keep including words like ‘white’ or ‘golden’. I’m in a minority on the tawny-and-malty front. A couple of years ago I had two pints of a guest mild they had on, and the barman asked me when I wanted to have the other 62.

The local with the pale, hoppy ales I’ll call Old Local. It’s not particularly old – it’s six or seven years old, in fact – but it looks it; the decor is classic Pub Basic. It’s a small pub, tied to a small local brewery; on an average night they have four or five of the brewery’s ales on, plus a couple of guests and a real cider (from a one-gallon barrel, kept in the fridge). It’s less than ten minutes’ walk away and handy for a good Chinese takeaway.

Then there’s New Local, which was opened a little more than a year ago and looks it. It’s less than ten minutes’ walk away (in the other direction) and handy for a good Indian; it’s a Thwaites’ pub, usually serving Bomber and Thoroughbred plus a couple of guests. New Local doesn’t serve real cider, and they serve the bitter a couple of degrees too cold. But it’s good ale – their Thoroughbred in particular is a very nice pint, without the slightly curdled caramel heaviness of the Bomber. New Local also has a bar snacks menu consisting mainly of things like miniature salamis and Japanese rice crackers. (Old Local, to be fair, serves Kettle Chips and Bombay mix, so it’s not that stark a contrast; I’m not sure where you’d go round here for pork scratchings.) Another difference between the two is that you don’t hear many local accents in New Local; from what I’ve overheard I get the impression that most of the clientele are incomers (like me), working in the social services or education (like me).

Can you guess which of the two has a no-smoking policy?

Last October I wrote (in comments here)

I could approve of a complete smoking ban if we were arguing about the effects on pub staff, whose exposure to smoke in pubs is much more extensive than any(?) of their customers’. If we’re talking about the punters (as people discussing a ban generally are) the case is much less clear. You express puzzlement that market forces have failed to create choice between smoking and non-smoking pubs, but actually this was entirely predictable for as long as smoke actively repelled a lower proportion of pub customers than the absence of smoke. Since smokers have historically been either a majority or a large minority among pub-goers, and since non-smokers aren’t likely to suffer withdrawal symptoms from the lack of clean air, these conditions haven’t obtained; the balance has also had an added level of ’stickiness’ owing to the lack of anywhere for non-smokers to actually go. What’s happened recently is that smokers have dwindled to a small enough proportion of the population that some pub managers can afford to disregard their preferences; there’s also been a decrease in the tolerance of the non-smoking population, although I don’t think this is anything like so significant a factor. Consequently non-smoking pubs have become a reality (one opened from scratch a year ago, just down the road from me in Manchester, & is now doing a roaring trade) – which in turn makes competitive pressures that much freer to operate.So what worries me most about the proposed smoking ban – and almost equally draconian half-measures such as the creation of airtight(!) smoking rooms – is that this nannyish attack on the pleasures of the working class* will take place precisely when it’s no longer necessary.

*Pardon my Johnreidism, but this does seem like the most class-correlated proposal I’ve seen in a very long time – and not in a good way, either.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the pending smoking ban is that it won’t come into force for another eighteen months. I imagine that the imminent threat of a ban will give market forces another nudge, so that by the time the ban actually takes effect it will look even less necessary than it does now. (But then, ‘market forces’ only ever make sense within a given framework of law, custom and expectation.)

But it’s not just clean air that the ban will promote – or rather, it’ll promote clean air by promoting a broader shift of values. And that’s what worries me. I’m a middle-class incomer, with an incomer’s accent, an incomer’s taste in beer and an incomer’s habit of taking the LRB to the pub and sitting on my own reading it (or sometimes, particularly in Old Local, standing on my own reading it). Or maybe that last one’s just me. But anyway – middle-class incomer I am. But I like Old Local because I can feel at home there without being entirely surrounded by other middle-class incomers; conversely, I like New Local, but I’d like it more if it wasn’t quite so full of people like me. I’m settled here – I’ve been in Manchester for 23 years and in this specific area for 18 – but I still feel like an incomer, and I think that’s appropriate: I like the fact that I share a local with people who are actually from around here, and I don’t object to being reminded that I’m not. At some deep level, the opening of New Local and places like it feels like a different kind of middle-class influx – not so much immigration, more colonisation. And the smoking ban seems like a big vote of confidence to New Local, and a big ‘up yours’ to the Old Local crowd.

I wonder if Chris goes far enough:

To New Labour, health egalitarianism is a strong enough principle to justify restricting freedom, but not strong enough to justify seriously attacking inequality.

I think we can simplify: to New Labour managerialists, just about any principle is good enough to justify restricting working class freedoms, and just about any principle is more important than seriously improving working class life chances. (And no, the smoking ban isn’t about doing just that – or if it is, it’s a peculiarly limited and indirect way of achieving that goal. See Chris’s post for more.)

Update A friend challenged me today to specify less coercive means of effectively protecting bar staff from passive smoking. I don’t think it’s that difficult. Firstly (and symbolically), you’d give legal status to smoking bans imposed by the management of pubs and clubs: you light up and it’s not just the management you’re taking on, there’s a chance you could actually be fined. (Or at least have a fee extorted – but that’s another rant.) This in itself wouldn’t do much more than make it easier to non-smoking establishments to open. Secondly, you’d legislate so that the continued tolerance of smoking, in a smoking establishment, rested on the consent of the people who work there: you’d enable bar staff to hold binding ballots on converting to (or, to keep it fair, from) non-smoking status and encourage pubs and clubs to hold such ballots regularly – starting now. If there is any groundswell of support for a smoking ban, among pub customers or pub workers, this should be enough to turn it into reality. And if not, what are we doing imposing one?

Updated update: Brian‘s post reminds me that, with the exception of the clause about balloting the staff, I’ve just reinvented the 2005 Labour manifesto position on smoking. Since the Blairite takeover there have been numerous cases of people and policies moving from respectable centre to extreme left without actually changing; it usually takes a bit longer than this, though.

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We’re never together

Back here, I wrote:

Social software may start with connecting data, but what it’s really about is connecting people – and connecting them in dialogue, on a basis of equality. If this goal gets lost, joining the dots may do more harm than good.

It’s not about connecting machines, either – and the same caveat applies. Via Thomas, I recently read this item about location-based services (which, I remember, were going to be quite the thing a couple of years ago, although they seem to have faded since people started actually getting their hands on 3G technology). Anyway, here are the quotes:

This project focuses on [location-based technology’s] collaborative uses: how group of people benefits from knowing others’ whereabouts when working together on a joint activity … we set up a collaborative mobile environment called CatchBob! in which we will test how a location awareness tool modifies the group interactions and communications, the way they perform a joint task as well as how they rely on this spatial information to coordinate.

And how did that work out?

“We found that players who were automatically aware of their partners’ location did not perform the task better than other participants. In addition, they communicated less and had troubles reminding their partners’ whereabouts (which was surprising). These results can be explained by the messages exchanged. First the amount of messages is more important in the group without the location-awareness tool: players had then more traces to rely on in order to recall the others’ trails. And when we look at the content, we see that players without the location-awareness tool sent more messages about position, direction or strategy. They also wrote more questions.”

Really, we’re back with ‘push’ technology – which was going to be quite the thing round about 1998, as I remember. Give people device for talking to each other: works. Give people device which gives them a constant stream of information: doesn’t work.

The trouble is, we’ve got the technology. The problems with social software are social; see this deeply depressing Register story.

Alongside video on demand TV services from Homechoice, the SDB [Shoreditch Digital Bridge] will offer a “Community Safety Channel” which will allow residents “to monitor estate CCTV cameras from their own living rooms, view a ‘Usual Suspects’ ASBO line up, and receive live community safety alerts.”

Other aspects of the Shoreditch Digital Bridge are less controversial, but likely to be considerably harder to execute. The SDB proposes an education channel, “allowing children and adults to take classes, complete on-line homework assignments and log-on to ‘virtual tutors'”, a “Health Channel” allowing patients to book GP appointments, and providing “virtual Dr/Nurse consultations and on-line health and diagnosis information”, a “Consumer Channel, allowing on-line group buying of common services such as gas, electricity and mobile phone tariffs”, and an “Employment Channel, providing on-line NVQ courses, local jobs website and virtual interview mentoring.”So within that little lot, the educational aspects will require substantial input from, and involvement of, existing schools and colleges, the Health Channel will need a whole new interface to NHS systems that are already struggling to implement their own new electronic booking systems, and the Consumer Channel will merely have to reinvent the co-operative movement electronically.

But CCTV – ah, now, we’ve got CCTV…

Will:

Yet again, the technology arrives promising us a vibrant civic and economic future … then beds down as a means of protecting us from each other.

Or rather, as a means of protecting us from Them (caution – sweary link).

If we’re talking about social software or social networks, let’s be clear that we’re talking about connecting people rather than dividing them. Connecting machines doesn’t necessarily help connect people.

Who took the money?

This is a fascinating post (in Italian) by Pietro Speroni on the relationship between authority, communities and markets. This is an interesting and controversial area; the fact that Pietro also invokes the Long Tail (which, as you’ll recall, is not what it seems) makes it all the more compelling (to me at least).

I’ll translate as I go along; hopefully Pietro will correct me if I go wrong.

I don’t believe that the ruling class has vanished. I believe that it has simply been transformed – just as the world itself is being continually transformed from day to day. Decades ago, our world was simpler – more homogeneous, less diverse. If you followed a martial art, it would be judo or karate. A game? Chess. A religion? Christian, Jewish, perhaps Muslim at the outside.

on the Net, via Google (and wikipedia), you can find the specific branch of the specific religious tradition which best meets your needs. … And this is not true only of religions, but of everything: interests, political groups, passions, games, ways of life.

Now, every one of these groups has its own implicit hierarchy. … And everyone is a member of more than one group. And in every group you listen to some people, and what you say influences other people.

[In every area of my life] I have leaders: people I trust; people who I admire and learn from. But they’re not the same people as your leaders. Not only that, but there are other people who come to me to learn (worse luck for them!), in some fields more than in others. The process of diversification tends towards having as many groups as people – and every one of us, of necessity, becomes the small-scale leader of a small-scale group, scattered around the world.

This whole process mirrors what’s happening in the economy, where a market consisting of niches is growing explosively … The key phrase is Long Tail.

So I don’t believe that the ruling class is vanishing, but that we’re seeing a gradual diversification of interests, which leads to the diversification of the ruling class – accompanied by the redefinition and contraction [ridimensionamento] of the role of traditional leaders.

There’s a lot that I like about this – I think Pietro’s right to say that there’s a new kind of process of diversification under way, and to trace it back to the Internet’s basic sociality, its nature as a medium for conversation.

But… a transformation of the ruling class? Non tanto. Pietro’s larger argument is undermined by a couple of strange elisions. Firstly, it’s true that we all have multiple ‘authorities’ – the topics of folk music, statistics, Belgian beer and operaismo are all important to me, for instance, and in each case I could name an authority I’d willingly defer to. But those people aren’t the people who enforce the laws I obey, or set the level of tax I pay, or price the goods I buy, or write the newspapers I read, or appear on the news programmes I watch. The ruling class, it seems to me, is still very much in place, and whether I’m a tequila-crazed Quaker or a tea-drinking Tantric Buddhist is a matter of sublime indifference to it. Roy Bhaskar has written that historical materialists, by virtue of starting from the material facts of social existence, cannot propose absolute freedom, “a realm free of determination”; what we can envisage is moving “from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”. The world Pietro describes is a world which is governed only by those needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination. It sounds good, but I don’t think we’re there yet.

Secondly, on the matter of niche marketing. Pietro assumes that a proliferation of niche markets will lead to a proliferation of niche suppliers, and hence the dilution of the authority of the big suppliers. I don’t see any reason to believe that this is the case. Indeed, one of Chris Anderson’s own preferred examples is based on Amazon sales rank – and there’s nothing very diffuse about Amazon, or the authority wielded by Amazon. Much of the buzz around the ‘Long Tail’ seems to derive, ultimately, from this confusion of the two meanings of ‘niche’. Clearly, mining niche markets can be profitable, if you’re a monopolistic behemoth like Amazon; but, equally clearly, it doesn’t follow that niche suppliers can make a living in the same way. Indeed, making niches visible to companies like Amazon actually threatens existing niche suppliers. (Ask your local bookshop, if you’ve still got one.)

Of course, Long Tail proponents tell a different story. Back in July, Scott Kirsner quoted George Gilder thus:

His central thesis is that Internet-connected screens in the home – whether it’s the PC in your den or the plasma screen on your living room wall – are going to change the way we consume video by offering us infinite choice.

“The film business will increasingly resemble the book business,” he says, with a few best-sellers that achieve widespread popularity, and lots of publishers making a profit selling titles that no one’s ever heard of.

Lots of who doing what? Run that past us again, could you? While you’re at it, send the good news to the novelist A.L. Kennedy, whose wonderful FAQ includes this:

SO, WHAT’S HAPPENING WITH THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF PUBLISHING?Fewer publishing houses concentrated in conglomerate hands, trying to produce more books of less quality. No full time readers, no full time copy editors and therefore missed newcomers and pisspoor final presentation of texts on the shelves, silly covers, greedy and simple-minded bookshop chains, lunatic bidding wars designed to crush the spirit of unknown newcomers, celebrity “tighten your buns and nurture your inner pot plant” hard backs and much related insanity.

Mass markets are where the units get shifted; niche markets – like literary fiction – are where survivors linger on (until they’re bought out) and upstart competitors emerge (and hang on until they’re bought out). It’s the logic of the monopoly, which is to say that it’s the logic of the market. Some years ago a McDonald’s spokesman, asked if the fast food market had reached saturation point, responded that, as far as his company was concerned, the market would only be saturated if there were no cooked food outlets anywhere on the planet apart from McDonald’s. I don’t think Amazon, or the publishing conglomerates, or the media companies who would source Gilder’s ‘infinite choice’, think any differently.

But Pietro’s half right: there is something interesting going on, even if it doesn’t mirror what’s going on in the economy; there is a process of diffusion and diversification, even if it doesn’t affect the main sources of authority over our lives. In fact, what’s significant about the Net is that it can host conversations which escape the marketplace and evade pre-existing (‘unneeded and unwanted’) forms of authority. That said, it can also reproduce the marketplace and reinvent old forms of authority – just like other conversational media.

In short, what’s good about the Web is – or can be – very good; what’s bad about is – or should be – very familiar.

We are the weeds

My previous post on Katrina and its aftermath focused on the contribution made by incompetence – albeit willed and cultivated incompetence. This post is about malice.

As I wrote earlier,

FEMA is now functionally subordinate to the Department of Homeland Security, founded after September 11; this may help explain why FEMA’s interventions in New Orleans placed such an emphasis on securing the perimeter of the city and ensuring that nobody, as a general policy, moved. The triumph of the Homeland Security worldview: natural disasters as a public order problem.

Apparently the Homeland Security worldview predates the Department itself; here’s a passage from the FEMA article I quoted earlier:

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration endowed FEMA with extraordinary powers to keep the country running – powers bordering on martial law, critics argued. The agency became responsible for “continuity of government” plans devoted to salvaging national authority in the event of a nuclear attack. Other plans, drafted by the likes of National Security Council aide Oliver North, laid the groundwork for rounding up rabble-rousers in the event of societal breakdown, whatever the cause.

Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Stronsky’s story, in case you haven’t read it already, is a graphic illustration of how this approach works out in practice. Now picture the forces of order going from house to house as the floodwaters subside, taking survivors away to ‘refugee camps’, in handcuffs if necessary (I heard that last detail on BBC Radio 4 this morning). And picture the forces of order waiting outside New Orleans until they had built up a large enough force to pacify a supposed insurrection. (Not for the first time, China at Lenin’s Tomb has got the goods: the army had no delusions about their remit – it was not to secure human life and bring supplies, but to suppress an “insurgency”.) If the aftermath of Katrina is a problem, in other words, the survivors aren’t the people who have got the problem – the survivors are part of the problem. In the words of a FEMA staffer at an Oklahoma internment camp, You don’t understand the type of people that are about to come here.

What type of people is that? Here’s Barbara Bush, wife of one President and mother of another, visiting a stadium in Houston which was being used as a holding camp:

What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality.And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this – this [she chuckles slightly] is working very well for them.

And here’s her boy, visiting Mobile, Alabama:

The good news is — and it’s hard for some to see it now — that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before. Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house — he’s lost his entire house — there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.

Even if we forget who Trent Lott is, this is dreadful, Marie Antoinette stuff. All those people have lost everything? They’ll be OK – after all, my friend lost his house, and he’s building a new one… If we remember that Trent Lott is the Republican who endorsed the segregationist Strom Thurmond (“we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years”); and if we remember that most of the people who got stuck in those New Orleans internment camps are Black… I’m not suggesting that George W. Bush and his government are pursuing an actively racist agenda – that they saw the chaos caused by Hurricane Katrina as an opportunity to to treat poor Black people like dirt. I suspect it’s worse than that. I’m suggesting that the government is genuinely attempting to mount an effective response to the disaster – but that its criteria for an effective response don’t exclude treating poor Black people like dirt, and may even encourage it.

It’s as if the government is running two sets of books on its responsibilities to the public. There are the deep-rooted assumptions of the social contract: if we have a government, and if it intervenes in our lives, it must surely intervene to maximise the safety of its citizens and prolong our lives – all our lives, without distinction. But then there’s a political contract, which isn’t cited openly but informs the government’s rhetoric as well as its policy-making – and that contract says, quite plainly, that those people don’t count. Hence, perhaps, a certain genuine bafflement on Bush’s part in the face of the public reaction to the aftermath of Katrina: what’s up with them? they knew what they were voting for, didn’t they?

Here’s Alasdair Gray in 1982 Janine:

[Frazer] was telling us about Machiavelli’s The Prince. “Listen,” he said, “you have just conquered a neighbouring state, right?, and you want to conquer another. So what do you do to the defeated people to stop them revolting against you when you withdraw most of your army?”
We could not answer because we had not read Machiavelli.
“Easy!” cried Frazer, “You split the population into three, take most of the wealth away from one-third and divide it with the rest. The majority have now profited by being conquered. They accept your government in return for your help if the minority start a civil war to get their own back, a civil war which will not occur because the impoverished losers know they are bound to be defeated. The conqueror can now repeat his manoeuvre elsewhere. What I don’t understand,” said Frazer, “is why no
governments have taken Machiavelli’s advice? Surely the first to do it would conquer the world?”

Alan, who seemed not to have been listening, said, “They do.”
“Where?”
“Here.”
After a pause I said, “You don’t mean the British Empire.”
“No. I mean Britain.”

I don’t think this is a question of racism, in other words. (A friend of mine once wrote that she saw just as much evidence of a class structure in the US as she had in her native Britain; the only difference was that Americans persisted in referring to class as ‘race’.) The concerted neglect and casual brutality which have characterised the US government’s response to Katrina seem to be the product of an authentically Machiavellian philosophy of government, which holds that leaders can gain consent by mobilising their subjects against one another. We don’t get many hurricanes here, thankfully, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought that this was someone else’s problem:

Mr Blair said he wanted to change the culture of the criminal justice system. He called for “an historic shift from a criminal justice system that asks, first and foremost ‘How do we protect the accused from the transgressions of the state or police?’ to one whose first question is ‘How do we protect the majority from the dangerous and irresponsible minority?'”.

A criminal justice system which downgrades the presumption of innocence, the better to neutralise the ‘dangerous and irresponsible minority’. An emergency management system which lets people die, the better to control poor and unruly survivors. All we need now is more votes for the decent folk – and perhaps that’s not far away (Non-registration was highest in densely populated urban areas with mobile populations, particularly inner London, and areas of economic deprivation).

“Where?”
“Here.”

All those pretty lies

A few weeks ago I spotted a really dazzling example of stupidity – and cynical exploitation of same – in the LRB. David Runciman was writing about the American campaign to repeal death duties (‘estate tax’), which succeeded despite the fact that the change only really benefited the top 1%. Ah, but…

A poll conducted by Time/CNN on the estate tax issue in 2000 revealed that 39 per cent of Americans believe that they are either in the wealthiest 1 per cent or will be there ‘soon’.

There it is. If you think you already are obscenely rich – or that you’re going to be obscenely rich some day soon – you aren’t likely to identify with all those little people down there. People who aren’t obscenely rich and probably never will be. People like you yourself. In the immortal words of Kermit, stupid, stupid, stupid.

But there’s more to this than stupidity – quite a lot more. There’s the politics of aspiration (got to keep selling the Dream, or the people will vote for somebody who will); behind that, there’s the politics of division and atomisation (treat the workers mean, keep the workers keen); and behind that there’s the 1% themselves, pursuing business as usual by swinging a ‘democratic’ government behind their interests. The layers fit together only too well.

Still, only in America, eh?

Charles Kennedy yesterday sought to capitalise on the feelgood factor from the Cheadle byelection victory, calling on his colleagues to be “bold, positive and united”.

Mr Kennedy said the party was not afraid of redistribution, but added: “High taxes are not a moral good in themselves. We were correct to point out at the general election that only 1% of all taxpayers would be affected by our proposals on top-rate taxation. But we must not lose sight of those who aspire to achieve income levels which will bring them into the top rate taxation band in time to come.”

Do they really believe this – do they really think we won’t vote for them if they don’t sustain our ‘aspirational’ illusions by lying to us? After May 7, surely not – the party’s great successes were against Labour, and much of its political capital derived from the appearance of being a little more honest than Labour, willing to tell a little more of the truth. The simplest explanation is the most depressing: that the Lib Dems have finally taken the blue pill and rejoined the neo-liberal consensus.

“Yellow Tories”? Not quite. ‘Tory’ has to mean ‘worse than Labour’, to my mind – ‘worse than New Labour’, even – and I can’t see that the Lib Dems are quite that bad. But by God, it’s getting to be a close thing.

Meaders can have the last word:

“Left-wing”? This shower?

What I tell you three times is true

Ellis Sharp, whose Marxist surrealist fiction deserves better than lazy tags like ‘Marxist surrealist’, has a fascinating post here about Robert Lowell’s poem “The Fens”. It’s a short poem, so I’ll include it here:

The Fens
(After Cobbett)

From Crowland to St. Edmund’s to Ipswich
The fens are level as a drawing board:
Great bowling greens divided by a ditch –
The grass as thick as grows on ground. The Lord
High Sheriff settles here, as on a sea,
When the parochial calm of sunset chills
The world to its four corners. And the hills
Are green with hops and harvest, and a bitch
Spuddles about a vineyard on a tree;

Here everything grows well. Here the fat land
Has no stone bigger than a ladybug,
No milkweed or wild onion can withstand
The sheriff’s men, and sunlight sweats the slug.
Here the rack-renting system has its say:
At nightfall sheep as fat as hogs shall lie
Heaped on the mast and corncobs of the sty
And they will rise and take the landlord’s hand;
The bailiff bears the Bell, the Bell, away.

From Robert Lowell’s second collection ‘Lord Weary’s Castle’ (1946)

There’s nothing much I can add to Ellis’s discussion of the poem’s language, its politics, its roots in Cobbett’s writing and his politics. But I can throw some light on that mysterious last line, which – with its onomatopoeic repetition of “the Bell” and that weird, mythic capitalisation – seems to evoke everything from the Bells of Aberdovey to Lewis Carroll’s Bellman. Ellis:

The landowners rule the Fens through their complete social control and their lackeys. The bailiff is the sheriff’s agent. To bear the bell means to take the prize. (The notes to the ‘Collected Poems’ say of this line: “See the anonymous ballad ‘The Baily Beareth the Bell Away’”, but what you see when you do isn’t explained. This is irritating since none of the ballad collections I’ve consulted contain it.)

In an online nursery rhyme collection, I’ve found a piece titled “The Bailiff Beareth”:

The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay,
The silver is white, red is the gold,
The robes they lay in fold;
The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay;
And through the glass window
Shines the sun.
How should I love and I so young?
The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.

And so it ends. I don’t know if it’s a fragment of a longer piece; I certainly don’t know what it’s ‘about’. It is an extraordinary piece of writing: a kind of verbal stained-glass window pieced together out of luminous, resonant images, and written almost entirely in the kind of poetically heightened language which has always seemed archaic but never actually been in common use (“pass us my robes, love, it’s time I was off to lay the lily and the rose”). Perhaps it’s about a girl being given in marriage and seeing herself as property being confiscated from her family home. Or perhaps that’s an over-intellectual reading, and it’s simply ‘about’ the lily and the rose, silver and gold, the window and the sun – and the sad alliterative fall of the bailiff bearing the bell away.

It’s beautiful, either way. And it’s another way in to what Lowell was trying to do with that poem, it seems to me: to write something that could carry both types of workload, functioning as a constellation of luminous images and at the same time as a critique of rural property relations. An exercise, as Ellis said, but an interesting one – and a reminder of how political good writing can be (and vice versa).

(Incidentally, I’ve never knowingly read a damn thing by Lowell before this poem. Thanks, Ellis.)

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