Category Archives: you young people

I was a young man

It started (as things so often do these days) with a tweet:

As Alex commented, there are some interesting contrasts in there – particularly between 35-44 and 45-54, and then between 65-74 and 75+. Three age cohorts, then. Let’s assume that those _5 dividing lines are partially smoothing out sharper divisions ending with 0 rather than 5; there’s no real reason for this assumption, admittedly, other than the tendency for people to think in terms of being in their thirties or forties rather than being in the 25-34 or 35-44 age range. If that is the case, our cohorts looks like this: under-40s mostly pro-Remain; 40-70 fairly evenly divided, but with Leave sympathy growing with age; and 70+ mostly pro-Leave.

Why, though?

Kicking this around on Twitter, I thought of Douglas Adams’s dictum (from The Salmon of Doubt, which presumably means from his journalism) about technology:

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

I think the effective opposition between 1. and 3. is psychologically true and useful to think with. It’s a bit disquieting – as it suggests that we’ll be equally positive about LimitlessFreeEnergy plc and Unmitigated Charlatanry Inc. if we come across them at the right time in our lives, and equally cynical about both if it’s the wrong time – but that’s no bad thing. I also think that something similar is true of politics and political change, with a couple of qualifications. First, we need to do something about that blank between birth and 15 – and should it really be birth? How much of anything do we retain from before the age of five, say? Second, 35 doesn’t look right for stage 3; I think what we’re looking at there is the point in life at which you’ve got a job, you’ve got somewhere to live and you basically know your way around, whereupon some clever bastard pulls the rug out from under you by inventing some la-di-da ‘spinning jenny’ if you please. Thirty-five seems very old to reach that stage – or rather, thirty-four seems very old still to be finding your feet and keeping an eye out for the Next Big Thing. I wonder if Adams (who became a lifelong Mac user and advocate at 32) had his thumb on the scales at that point.

So here’s a modified set of rules, which I’ve modified some more by relating them to politics rather than technology.

  1. Any political development that happens before your fifth birthday is part of the landscape, for you; it’s how things have always been. This applies even if later changes appear to have reversed it – at a deeper level it’s still how the world is.
  2. Any developments that took place between your fifth and fifteenth birthday are done and dusted. Things did change, but those changes are over now and of no interest to anyone but historians; that’s how things are now.
  3. Any political development between your fifteenth and twenty-fifth birthday is a live issue – it’s important and, in your mind at least, it’s still up for grabs. Even if a particular controversy in this category seems firmly settled now, the position reached is still worth defending or attacking.
  4. Any new political development since your twenty-fifth birthday is less important, less relevant, and not final at all. If you’re in favour, it seems like a lucky break, a good result that couldn’t have been expected; if you’re against – or indifferent – it just seems weird and random. But that’s just what politics is like these days.

Now back to our age groups. Feast your eyes on this:

Not pretty, I know. (You should have seen the original version, with individual years on both axes.) You get the idea, though: each five-year cohort remembers each five-year period, and the events in it, differently. Like the sparrow flying across the mead-hall, our sense of historical events begins with a long retrospect of stuff that’s unproblematically part of the landscape (stage 1), passes through twenty busy years of political contention (2 and 3) and then enters the long decades (4) of disengagement and disorientation – longer the older we get.

Caveat: this isn’t about ‘for’ vs ‘against’, but about ‘taken for granted’ vs ‘new and different’ (or rather, ‘taken for granted’ vs ‘current and interesting’ vs ‘new and challenging’). I’m not saying all old people are bigots, in other words; I am saying that they’re predisposed to take seriously some attitudes which the verdict of time has classified as bigotry, but that’s a different proposition. My late mother, on this scale, would have been firmly in the “not entirely used to this” camp for most things that had happened since the War. She was also a lifelong opponent of racism, sexism and homophobia, and of the laws that (for much of her life) upheld them. But the legalisation of homosexuality, say, was for her always something that had happened, and been brought about by forces unknown to her; it was an achievement, but one that had come out of nowhere and could easily have gone the other way. She was generally in favour of gay people living normal, indistinguishable lives – ‘gay’ just being one more character trait – but she didn’t fundamentally think that that was how the world was; she always had one foot in the world of Julian and Sandy (or rather the world in which Julian and Sandy were new and shocking).

What does this mean in practice, though? I’ll pick out each decade cohort’s head-year and look at some events and changes in each category, to get a sense of how different their mental worlds are. To reduce the inevitable repetition and heighten contrasts, I’ll omit categories 2 and 4 – the “how things are now” developments we witnessed in childhood and the “what politics is like these days” changes that came along after we were 25, when the real issues had already been established.

I am 20.
How things always have been: Britain in the EU; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; no British Empire, no Cold War, no Communism; peace in Ireland; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal duty on local authorities to combat racism; equal ages of consent for gay and straight people; legal abortion; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; health and safety at work; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; 9/11 and the War on Terror; privatised utilities; academy schools; all-day pub opening; the Tories as transformed by Thatcher; Labour as transformed by Blair
The real issues: Brexit; Corbyn; Trump
My first general election: 2017

The way the world truly is, for this cohort, is: democratic, efficient, well-regulated, progressive, but not socialist and not particularly friendly to anyone who falls by the wayside. The live issues are, essentially, the way that everything’s been thrown up in the air inside the last five years. The problems that occupied my generation don’t really figure. Last year I gave my third-year students a lecture on the Troubles; I might as well have been talking about the Wars of the Spanish Succession.

I am 30.
How things always have been: no British Empire; no Cold War; Britain in the EU; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal abortion; legal homosexuality; comprehensive schools; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; health and safety at work; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; privatised utilities; all-day pub opening; Thatcherism
The real issues: gay marriage; the Gender Recognition Act; the smoking ban
My first general election: 2010

The way the world truly is, for this cohort, is pretty similar to the younger cohort, but with more of a sense that the programme of liberal modernisation is incomplete; the live issues are essentially continuations of that programme. I wonder how many #FBPE types are in their early 30s: the sense that a certain kind of regulated social liberalism is basically ‘in the bag’, that there are very few really big issues left to argue about, and that everything that’s happened in the last five years is irrelevant froth, all seems to fit the profile. (On the other hand, by this reckoning a fifty-year-old would see everything that’s happened in the last 25 years as irrelevant froth, which is surely overstating the case. But I think there is a particular mentality associated with having a recent time horizon on the ‘real issues’ category – the meaninglessness of current politics is accentuated and made poignant by the feeling that the ‘proper politics’ train has only just left the station, carrying our own sense of relevance and centrality inexorably into the past (along with David Miliband).)

I am 40.
How things always have been: no British Empire; the (second) Cold War; Britain in the European Community; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal abortion; legal homosexuality; comprehensive schools; health and safety at work; the Race Relations Act; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; Thatcherism
The real issues: New Labour; 9/11 and the War on Terror; peace in Ireland; academy schools; legal duty on local authorities to combat racism; equal ages of consent for gay and straight people
My first general election: 1997

The world, for this cohort, is inherently a regulated and liberal world, but one that was built in some long shadows – sixties social democracy on one hand (the Cold War, comprehensive schools), the defeat of seventies radicalism on the other. The implicit limits of progress are pretty tight. Similarly, this cohort’s sense of the ‘real issues’ is an odd mixture of tendencies towards greater regulated liberalism and away from social justice and civil liberties. (Tendencies, in both cases, which they may either support or oppose; younger cohorts don’t really have that option.)

I am 50.
How things always have been: no British Empire; a bi-polar world, but no Cold War; Britain in the EEC; decimal currency; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women in the same jobs; comprehensive schools; legal abortion; legal homosexuality; compulsory crash helmets; Enoch Powell
The real issues: Maastricht; the end of Communism; privatised utilities; the Miners’ Strike and pit closures; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; all-day pub opening
My first general election: 1987

The way the world is, for this cohort, is a country struggling to modernise after the loss of its imperial role. This group are likely to have mixed emotions both about the modernisation and about the imperial role, perhaps shifting with age. (Decimalisation is an interesting issue here; to have any memories of the old money you’d need to be over 55 in 2018.) Real issues, still at some level up for debate: more regulatory liberalism, plus (the defeat of) Communism, (the defeat of) the unions and (the advance of) the European project. This is the first generation for which major elements of the regulated liberalism project are up for debate, and the first in which ‘Europe’ in some sense isn’t a done deal (the next will be 70). This and the next are also the only age cohorts where recognisably ‘class’ issues are salient.

I am 60.
How things always have been: the British Empire in decline; the Cold War; Britain outside the EEC
The real issues: equal pay including ‘work of equal value’; health and safety at work; the Race Relations Act; metrication; compulsory seatbelts; the Three Day Week; Thatcherism and the Falklands
My first general election: 1979

The world, for this cohort, is an unfriendly place where a slightly reduced Britain goes it alone. The real issues are mostly about that push towards regulatory liberalism – for this generation the entire regulatory programme is a live issue, one on which it’s quite possible to argue both sides (note the appearance of metrication in this category). However, all this is taking place against the backdrop of 1970s radicalism and its eventual defeat by Thatcherism – something which this cohort shares to some extent with the previous one, although the key event here is the Three Day Week (effectively a defeat for the government) rather than the Miners’ Strike (a defeat of the union movement by the government).

I am 70.
How things always have been: the British Empire; the Cold War (and Korea); Britain outside the EEC; rationing
The real issues: colonial independence; Britain in the EEC; decimalisation; Enoch Powell and Powellism; equal pay for men and women in the same jobs; comprehensive schools; legal abortion; legal homosexuality; compulsory crash helmets
My first general election: 1970

The shape of the world, for this cohort, is an impoverished nation, making the best of the legacy of its imperial past. The first small moves towards modernisation and racial or sexual equality are very much up for grabs; other real issues are precisely about the legacy of Empire (colonial independence, relations with Europe, non-White British subjects). A 70-year-old in 2018 would have started earning money before pounds, shillings and pence went out (metrication came even later). Again, to say that these are live issues for this generation is not to say that this cohort supports them – or that it’s against them, for that matter; rather, this is the youngest generation for which these questions were generally treated as being unsettled, as still up for debate.

I am 80 (they can still vote, you know).
How things always have been: the British Empire, allied with the USSR and USA; no EEC; rationing
The real issues: the decline of the British Empire; the end of rationing; the Cold War (and Berlin)
My first general election: 1959

Perhaps the most disappointed cohort: the way the world truly is, for them, includes an imperial power that bestrides the world like a colossus. Significantly, the ‘real issues’ – the issues on which this generation first took (both) sides – include colonial independence and Suez. British power in the world – and the loss of British power – is a ‘hot’ issue for this generation like no other. Rationing is relevant here; an 80-year-old in 2018 would have reached the age of 15 before rationing of sweets ended, 16 before rationing ended entirely. Austerity? Been there, done that.

We carry the history of our lifetimes around with us, and the history of our world in our lifetimes – especially in our first 25 years. In particular, we’re carrying three big historical developments – or, perhaps, two really big developments and, in between them, a dog that barked for a while and then shut up. From 80 down to 50 we’re living in a world defined by the British Empire and its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, with the big questions being about the legacies of empire and Britain’s redefined place in the world. From 70 down to 30 the big context is the long march of regulated liberalism, the melting-away of all the old common-sense prejudices and institutional barriers, the smoothing-down and boxing-up of all the risks and harms we used to take for granted. (Twenty-year-olds for their part are living in a world where this project has succeeded – and witnessing the return of political polarisation in the aftermath. Well digged, old mole!) In the middle, from 60 down to 40 we find a world characterised by class struggle – verging on victory if you’re 60, a gruellingly even match if you’re 50, firmly defeated if you’re 40. Class struggle makes the loss of an imperial role all the more challenging (or frightening) for 60-year-olds, and gives rights-based liberalism a cutting edge for both them and the 50-year-old cohort; for the 40-year-olds its defeat frames the liberal project differently, as the only reforming project in town. (If you put it all together, clearly the people with the broadest political vocabulary and the richest sense of possibility are those 60-year-olds, give or take a couple of years. The fact that I myself am closer to 60 than 50 is merely a meaningless coincidence, however.)

To get a clearer sense of generational change, we can think of pairs of neighbouring age cohorts as disputatious friends or squabbling neighbours, firmly united on some things and divided on others.

30 and 20 agree that we live in a safe, peaceful, liberal, regulated society, albeit one that doesn’t owe anyone a living. 30 knows that politics, as older generations knew it, is dead and gone. 20 disagrees; 20 thinks it’s coming back.

40 and 30 agree that we live in a modern, liberal, regulated, European society. 40 knows that there’s plenty more to be done, and that the liberal project may be threatened by external forces such as terrorism. 30 doesn’t agree; 30 thinks there’s not much to worry about, as the job is pretty much done.

50 and 40 agree that a relatively liberal and modern Britain has some sort of role to play in Europe. 50 knows that our involvement in Europe has definite limits, and that our liberalisation is built on the defeat of class politics. 40 is less conflicted; 40 knows that this defeat has been successfully completed, and that it needs to be entrenched in order to push liberalisation further.

60 and 50 agree that equality and public health are important; that working people don’t like being pushed around (although that doesn’t stop it happening); and that there’s a limit to Britain’s involvement in Europe. 60 knows that Britain stands alone, with no close European partners and only the relics of Empire, in a world overshadowed by Communism. 50 lives in a different world, one in which the threat of Communism is dying, the Empire is dead and gone, and Britain has gone into Europe – but only thus far and no further.

70 and 60 agree that the Empire is becoming a thing of the past, and that Europe and liberalising reforms are in the future. 70 knows that there are things to be said for and against these reforms, and wonders if we could have kept the old ways going. 60 thinks reform is going to be necessary but knows that working people aren’t going to put up with being pushed around, and/or that if you are going to push them around you need to push hard.

80 and 70 agree that Britain stands alone, as far as its European neighbours are concerned; that it’s in the nature of Britain to play an international role; and that Britain could yet play that role again. 80 knows just how imperial that international role was, and doesn’t entirely regret it. 70 knows that you’ve got to move with the times – including the possibility of engaging with Europe, as well as reform on issues like race and sex – but doesn’t entirely welcome it.

Perhaps there are three phases, corresponding roughly to the dividing lines I suggested initially. 70 and 80 grew up in an imperial or post-imperial world; 20 to 40 in a world of EU membership and liberal regulation; 50 and 60 in a more complex and contested world, where the first attempts to find a place in Europe and implement socially liberal reforms were cut across by class struggle politics (from the miners’ defeat of Heath in 1974 to Thatcher’s defeat of the miners eleven years later).

Or there’s a shorter answer, which hinges on the dates of British accession to the EEC (1973) and the Treaty of Maastricht (1993). The odd thing about these dates, though, is that the age cohorts they suggest are ten years out. (NB this paragraph has been updated: the first draft suggested that these dates did work. The first draft was wrong.) Before 1973 Britain wasn’t in the ‘Common Market’. In 1973, today’s 60-year-olds were 15, but 50-year-olds only 5: this would suggest that the European project as a whole is a live issue for over-60s but nobody younger. (Survey says: over-70s.) Before 1993, on the other hand, Britain was in the European Community but not the European Union, meaning that the longer-term project of European integration – together with Britain’s weird patchwork of opt-outs and concessions – wasn’t an issue for anyone below 15 at the time. In 1993, today’s 40-year-olds were 15, but 30-year-olds only 5: this would suggest that European integration is a live issue for over-40s but nobody younger. (Survey says: over-50s.)

Guess it’s the big generational shifts after all.

Updated: forgot the obligatory musical accompaniment. Hey, you young people…!

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Written on your face

“Looking back on life is such a retrospective thing,” Pete Shelley once wrote (although he probably doesn’t like to be reminded of it). Actually, an awful lot of life is a retrospective thing. We all live in the past to some extent; if you didn’t you’d have terrible trouble finding the stairs.

Popular music is one of the more retrospective things, if you’re old enough not to be discovering it for the first time (and if you’re reading this, what are the chances?). I’ve written about Robyn Hitchcock three times on this blog before now, if you set aside brief references in posts on nonsense verse, dreaming and death (2006, 2017). In 2005 I looked back on a 1993 gig, and how Robyn dealt with hecklers during the introduction to a song about watching his father dying; in 2008 I saw Robyn on TV and looked back at my memories of seeing him live, going back to 1979; in 2009 I mused about a recently-completed paper (which would never be published) and a dream about Barack Obama, while listening to a song from 2003 in which Robyn looked back on 1976.

This really ought to make me feel old, but in practice very few things do that. What it does make me feel is slightly dizzy – not so much “the past inside the present”, more the past inside the past, inside the past, inside the past, inside another past – and all of those pasts inside the present, for now. (Will I be looking back on this post in a year’s time – or ten years’ time – and writing, In 2018 I looked back on...? Let’s hope so.)

And it’s been a lifetime
And with you I celebrate my life

I didn’t feel old when I went to see Robyn Hitchcock the other month (I did later, when I had to run for the bus home, but that’s another story). I was a bit startled by how old everyone else was, though – the venue (“Club Academy”, which turned out to mean the basement of the Students’ Union(!)) seemed to be packed out with grey-haired men, with a scattering of grey-haired couples. There were a lot of more or less smart-looking older men, a smaller number of ageing rockers and folkies and a few people who looked as if life hadn’t been very kind to them; what there wasn’t, as far as I could see, was more than a handful of people under 40. I realised what was going on, and wondered if anyone else had been in the audience the first time I saw Robyn, a Soft Boys gig at the Hope and Anchor in 1979; I tried to edit our over-55 selves into my memory of that pub back room, but we looked very out of place. Noticing the number of people checking their phones, I automatically edited my mental image accordingly – black or beige plastic, rotary dials, wires trailing – but now it just looked silly.

It’s been a lifetime – my adult lifetime, anyway. I first saw the Soft Boys a few weeks before I went up to university and last saw them shortly before I graduated, by which time they were in the process of splitting; in between I saw them another three times, including one gig where a couple of friends of mine had talked themselves onto the very bottom of the bill, as an unofficial (and unpaid) support act. I’d been trying vaguely to get started as a singer, and persuaded them to let me take vocals on one of their songs – the fact that neither of them knew the lyrics was what swung it for me. (No, they couldn’t just look them up. It was 1980.) So it was that I made my performing debut, singing the Stranglers’ “Grip” with the (loosely-defined) band Shovel Robinson, supporting (a couple of other bands who genuinely were supporting) the Soft Boys. There’s glory for you.

The last time I saw the Soft Boys was in 1982, after Kimberley Rew had formally left the band; the other three started the gig without him, and he only joined them on stage for the last few numbers. I only mention this because one of Morris Windsor’s drum pedals malfunctioned mid-gig, leading to a hiatus in which little could be heard apart from intermittent shouts of “Kimberley!” from the back of the room; to this Robyn responded, “I love Kimberley dearly, but he can’t be used for hitting a drum”.

I don’t remember seeing Robyn after that until 1993 (Manchester Academy, with the Egyptians – Morris Windsor and original Soft Boys bassist Andy Metcalfe).

The missing Avenger planes
Will never return to base
Don’t you wait up for them

How often have you boys said
“I ain’t gonna bump no more”?
We ain’t gonna bump no more

Over the subsequent 25 years (steady – touch of vertigo again) I’ve seen him another seven times – solo, with the Venus Three and with other combinations of musicians, including on one occasion Morris and Kimberley, of all people. But that 1993 gig still sticks in my mind: Respect material – still my favourite Hitchcock album – and played by the old gang, or 3/4s of it (supplemented by an additional guitarist). I’ve never seen staging like it, apart from anything else; rather than sit at the back behind a drumkit, Morris Windsor stood at the front of the stage alongside Robyn and Andy Metcalfe, behind a tiny and mostly electronic kit. (And a vocal mic, of course; three-part harmonies were always part of the deal.) The additional guitarist, whose name was Eric, was left to lurk at the back. At one point Robyn, Morris and Andy got into a semi-serious discussion of who’d worked with Robyn longer, who’d been there “at the start”; Robyn wound it up by saying, “Of course, Eric was there all along. Eric’s been there longer than any of us – it’s just that he’s only recently become… apparent.” The Yip Song was amazing (Morris’s ‘kit’ included a real snare), as was its intro; Robyn was on good introductory form generally. Other than that I mainly remember a couple of solo songs mid-set. Robyn did “I’ve got a message for you” and, seemingly irked by the number of people singing every single word back at him, went off-piste in the middle eight:

Though I’m not a piece of veal
Or a piece of beef
The way you sink your teeth in me
Is beyond belief!

I burst out laughing and clapped quite loudly – which Robyn responded to (I was standing right in front of him at the time) by going into an extended drunk-Elvis “Thankyou-ladeez-an-gennelmen-ah-thangyew-so-verr-verr-much” routine. So that was fun, not to mention a bit weird (“Ah felt like I was bein’ fitted with a new artificial arrrm…”).

In the same solo section, Robyn did “She doesn’t exist”, a song which (in 1993) I didn’t know but (at the age of 32) thought was quite pretty and rather sad. After the song I saw Robyn give his eyes a quick dab with a bar towel and thought, “that must really mean a lot to him”; it certainly didn’t mean anything to me. Twenty-five years later, at Club Academy, he did the song – again – as one of a few solo songs mid-set; as soon as I recognised it I thought, you utter bastard. Then stood there for three minutes with a wet face.

They didn’t do “The Wreck of the Arthur Lee” the other night; I don’t remember if they did it that night in 1993, either, although it seems probable. I do know that Arthur Lee was another subject of which I was ignorant, back then. It was three years later that I met the friend who introduced me to the music of Arthur Lee and his psychedelic band Love. That in turn was seven years before she got to meet and hang out with Arthur Lee, which was three years before he died, which is twelve years ago now. The past inside… the past, inside the past, inside the present.

Meanwhile back at the Hope in 1979, Robyn’s switched to bass – a rather striking blue Danelectro ‘longhorn’ bass – and he and Andy are sharing the dense, skittery bassline of “Insanely Jealous”. On guitar, Kimberley is having fun experimenting with feedback and playing with the volume knobs – muting his guitar completely, hitting a chord and then fading it in or wa-wa-ing it in and out. And that’s just the accompaniment. When it’s time for his solo he goes… I wouldn’t say he goes crazy, exactly, not least because that would imply a strong contrast with how he was for the rest of the gig. It’s more that the solo lets him do what he does, only without reining himself in: when it’s time for his solo, he goes. He had – and for all I know still has – an extraordinary sound, reminiscent of Floyd-era Barrett and not really of much else; a kind of lucid, liquid howl. I remember that solo, the best part of 40 years on, and I remember Kimberley’s weird range of ‘psychedelic guitarist’ mannerisms – the gurning, the pouting, the chin-jutting, the Fab Four head-shaking… Kimberley always did have quite an impressive mop of hair, although the last time I saw it I didn’t immediately recognise it, or him (like Robyn, he seems to have more or less skipped ‘grey’ and gone straight for white).

And who is this, on stage with Robyn in 2018 at the rock and roll toilet that is Club Academy, rhythmically jutting his head and pouting, shaking a greying mop of hair as he gets stuck into the solo on “Insanely Jealous”? It’s Luther Russell, of course! Well, of course. And he’s pretty good; seems like a nice guy, too. He doesn’t quite have that sound, though (nobody does). More importantly, there’s never any danger that he’s going to pick the gig up and run off with it; never any question about who’s on stage with whom. It’s odd, though – while he’s no spring chicken himself, Luther would have been only just into secondary school when the Soft Boys broke up (not to mention being located on the wrong continental landmass). He must have watched a lot of videos – and I didn’t think there were any videos.

It was an odd gig; it mostly consisted of 1980s material, although Robyn was also promoting a limited 2011 album which has just had a full(er) release and – almost incidentally – a new album. The new album looks good, sounds excellent (some really nice, gnarly guitar sounds) and includes some of his best material in years; it’s even called Robyn Hitchcock, which might seem to suggest a push into a wider market. There weren’t any copies on sale at the gig, though, which may be why Robyn’s efforts to promote it were fairly perfunctory. That, and the difficulty of selling anything these days. “This is from the new album, which you can’t buy from us, although you can buy it… somewhere. But the music is available everywhere.” (On a side note, I ordered the CD direct from Yep Roc in the States. Postage was reasonable and HMRC didn’t make any trouble.)

Oh God, you were beautiful
Oh God, you were beautiful
Oh God…
Mad Shelley’s letterbox is full of birthday cards

Alternatively, perhaps the passage of time has been weighing on Robyn’s mind as well. (Quick question: why would someone’s letterbox be full of birthday cards? Yes, that, obviously. But why else?) And perhaps Robyn’s opening remarks on reaching retirement age but still being on tour (he turned 65 in March) were more than just rueful banter. The past (“Insanely Jealous”), inside the past (“Chinese Bones”), inside the past (“Madonna of the Wasps”)… inside the past (“Sally was a Legend”), inside the past, (“Goodnight Oslo”), inside the present. You have been listening to: Robyn Hitchcock.

 

But the week is over

A belated footnote to the ‘Czechoslovak spy’ nonsense. (You know the nonsense I mean. And if you don’t – say, if you’re reading this in 2019 or later – my advice would be not to bother looking it up. Oh, all right then (NB goes off the rails a bit towards the end).)

Some interesting polling has been conducted by YouGov and reported by Anthony Wells, suggesting that the whole thing was a bit of a waste of time:

most people pay very little attention to the day-to-day soap opera of politics. 40% of people said they had been completely unaware of the story until taking the survey, a further 31% said they had noticed it, but hadn’t really paid it any attention. That leaves less than a third who had actually taken it in. … Asked if they thought the allegations were true, the results were as you’d expect. … The only people who believed it were Conservatives. This is typical of such allegations: people view them through the prism of their existing political allegiances.  …

Finally, YouGov asked if the spy allegations and the way Jeremy Corbyn had responded to them had changed people’s opinions of Jeremy Corbyn at all. Only 8% of people said it had made them think more negatively about him (and they were mostly Tories to begin with). 6% said it made them think better of Corbyn (and they were mostly Labour voters to begin with). A hearty 64% said it made no difference at all.

Anthony also supplies the full set of figures. It’s not quite true that only Conservatives believed the allegations, but it was certainly only Tories who believed them in any numbers – 46% of the sample, vs 7% of Labour supporters, 15% of Lib Dems and (by my arithmetic) 19% of those who voted for another party, didn’t vote, didn’t remember how they last voted or preferred not to say.

The way this last group split is particularly interesting when we look at that final question: do people think worse of Corbyn as a result of the story? Again, the story is a bit more complicated than Anthony suggests. Overall, 8% of respondents thought worse of Corbyn in the wake of the story (6% thought better of him); 13% of Tories thought worse of him, 3% of Labour supporters and 6% of Lib Dems (as against 1%, 13% and 7% thinking better of him, respectively).

But thereby hangs a tale: how do you get from 13%, 3% and 6% of three subgroups to 8% overall? You could do it if the Tory subgroup was massively dominant, but obviously that wouldn’t be a good sample – and in fact YouGov’s figures show that the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem subgroups make up 34.3%, 32.8% and 6.1% of the overall sample, respectively. (Geeky speculations about sampling follow; skip if not interested.)

I don’t know how these sub-sample sizes were arrived at, but I’m speculating that they’re based on electoral shares from 2017. The figures don’t show much correspondence with the 2017 vote shares of 42.4%, 40.3% and 7.4%, but if you take the total shares of the electorate which voted for the three main parties – 29.1%, 27.6% and 5.1% – and scale them up by 19%, the figures you get are almost exactly the YouGov subgroup sizes. Add the ‘other parties’ share of 7.1%, scaled up by the same factor, and the remainder is 18.4%. The figures suggest, in other words, that the YouGov subgroups are scaled on the basis of reducing the group representing the non-voting population from the actual figure of 31.2% to 18.4%, with the shares of parties people did vote for being scaled up accordingly. This could be justified on the basis of polling both likely voters and unlikely voters, while leaving a final 12.8% – representing those who just aren’t going to vote, ever – well alone. I have no evidence to support this, but the figures make it seem plausible. Certainly the abstention rate at British general elections (measured crudely as “100% minus turnout”) has never been as low as 12.8%; the twentieth-century record is 16.1% (1950), while the lowest rate recorded with the current (post-1970) franchise is 21.2% in February 1974.

Now, 13% of 34.3% gives you 4.5% of the total sample; add the few Labour and Lib Dem supporters who thought worse of Corbyn and you get 5.9% of the total. How do you get up to 8%? Only by including the ‘don’t know’/’didn’t vote’ group – and it turns out that they split less favourably to Corbyn than any other group apart from the Tories, with 4% thinking better of him and 8% thinking worse.

This brings us back to the question of effectiveness. If you’re running a smear campaign against the leader of the Opposition, it strikes me that what supporters of the governing party think is neither here nor there. Yes, 13% of Tory supporters thought (even) worse of Corbyn at the end of the week – but really, so what? The survey did offer separate options of “Think more negatively about Jeremy Corbyn” and “Makes no difference – I had a negative opinion about Jeremy Corbyn and still do”; in a perfect world this would have addressed precisely this problem, tacitly shepherding everyone who already hated the man towards the ‘no difference’ option. However, if you were the Mail reader who’d begun the week thinking Corbyn was an overgrown student politician with some nasty friends in Ireland and the Middle East, and ended it thinking he was all of those things and a potential traitor, it’s understandable that you would think that you now felt more negatively about him.

When it comes to assessing whether the campaign worked, though, those Tories are only going to get in the way. So let’s arbitrarily reassign 10% to the ‘makes no difference’ column, representing the solid Tories, leaving only 3% who, perhaps, were wavering towards Labour and responded to the story by wavering right back. This reduces the overall percentage of those who thought worse of Corbyn to 5% – a 5% which, however, includes 8% of the ‘other/don’t know/didn’t vote’ group. Nearly half of the people negatively influenced are in this group, in fact.

And perhaps that was the real battleground for this campaign: the ‘don’t know’s and non-voters. This would also explain the simplicity of the message and the endless, bludgeoning persistence of the attempts to get it across: a campaign aimed at people who take their politics from the Mail or the Sun can be positively agile and subtle, compared to a campaign aimed at people who don’t even do that. 46% of YouGov’s sample of this group (from my arithmetic) had a settled opinion of Corbyn which wasn’t affected by this campaign; of the remainder, 4% now think better of him and 8% worse, while 42% still don’t know one way or the other. To put it another way, this campaign was aimed at the 54% of non-voters whose opinion of Corbyn is either malleable or non-existent; it reached just over a fifth of those (12% out of 54%), making 8% less likely to support Corbyn (and making the other 4% more likely – so it goes).

Whether the campaign, judged in those terms, should be seen as a success or a failure is another question; certainly that end-of-week figure of 42% of non-voters still in the ‘don’t know’ camp doesn’t suggest a campaign that ‘cut through’. Still, 8% is 8% – if the two main parties had taken another 8% and 4% of the non-voting total in 2017, it could have made a real difference; it would have taken the Tory vote share up to 43.5%, not far short of what Thatcher’s Tories achieved in 1979. My instinct is that we shall need to be on guard for similar campaigns nearer the next election – really cynical attempts to exploit mass media platforms, not to get any particular worldview across but simply to inflame and polarise an audience of people who neither know nor care about politics, and poisoning the well of public discourse as collateral damage. We’ll also need to think about ways that Labour can counter them – which is going to mean thinking about ways to reach an audience which is, by definition, quite hard to reach. If I’m right, the fact that there was never anything to this story isn’t the point; the fact that nearly everyone involved – from Corbyn himself to the Czech secret service itself – laughed it off almost immediately isn’t the point. Even the subsequent outbreaks of not saying just saying among the centrist commentariat (“perhaps Corbyn as such wasn’t a spy as such, and in fact wasn’t ever a Communist as such, but all the same…“) – even they, and all their feebleness, aren’t the point.

If I’m right, they didn’t make it for us.

Not saying, just saying

I’ll get back to the poetry shortly. I just wanted to put down a memory that was stirred by the Anne Marie Morris furore. The evidence that the phrase is common currency in some circles – despite having been so thoroughly lost to the language more generally as to cause both offence and bafflement when Morris used it – is compelling and, frankly, odd. If people (some people) were using a word that’s now streng verboten in normal usage, but using it for the sake of a familiar and resonant idiom, that would be one thing. Using it for the sake of an idiom from the Old (American) South, and one that’s so unfamiliar that most people commenting aren’t entirely sure what it means or whether Moss was even using it correctly – well, it’s odd, and that’s the polite word for it.

A few people have taken to Twitter with memories of hearing an aged relative use the phrase forty years ago, to be met with pursed lips or worse from the speaker’s younger and more enlightened relations. I had a faint memory myself of hearing my mother use the phrase – or rather, quote someone else using it – in a context that made it quite clear that the point of using it was to say that word. But I couldn’t remember the details until just now, when the whole thing bubbled gloopily up to the surface. So here you go.

When my younger sister went to secondary school, my mother got a part-time job, working for the civil service. We lived near Croydon, so what that meant was working for the Home Office in Lunar House, where the immigration applications were processed. I was in Sixth Form at the time and was frequently at home when my mother came home in the early afternoon; I remember we used to have a cup of tea and share a Caramel bar. They had a huge backlog of applications at the time, and it seemed to be growing faster than they could bring it down. Still, they had a pretty good time of it, up there in Lunar House. One Christmas my mother let me come along to see the ‘cabaret’ they’d laid on for the staff party. One man dragged up as Tammy Wynette and led the room in a rousing chorus of “S B Y M” (sic; I never knew why he resorted to initials). Another dropped his trousers at one point to reveal Union Jack underpants. My mother said afterwards that he was the office racist – and an open member of the National Front – and the general thinking was that he probably wore them most days.

But if he was known as the office racist, that does suggest that he was the only one… well, maybe. I certainly remember my mother saying that the level of racism among the Immigration Officers who worked at ports and airports was much, much worse; predictably, Underpants Man was hoping to get transferred (promoted?) out of that office to an IO role. She herself genuinely couldn’t be doing with racism; it’d be silly to imagine that a middle-class White British woman of her generation “didn’t have a racist bone in her body”, as people like to say, but she’d certainly decided some time ago that racism was something she didn’t intend to indulge, in herself or others. This was when the NF were at their height, and when people were organising against them – RAR, the ANL; my mother was a member of Christians Against Racism And Fascism, who struck me as the nicest group of well-meaning Guardian-readers you could hope to meet. Their mailings always seemed to arrive torn and crumpled, all the same. Can’t be too careful, eh?

The other thing about my mother was that she tended to attract people who wanted someone to talk to. There was a rather posh young Black man in the office who confided in her quite regularly, although she was never quite sure how much he was confiding, or how much he knew he was confiding. He would often go for walks at night, just around and about, and sometimes he would meet another man and they’d have a nice chat; it was all very pleasant. One night he met a charming little man who bought him a drink and then gave him a watch. (He showed my mother the watch; it looked good.) We were convinced he was going to get beaten up or worse one of these nights, but happily he never did.

Then there was a very respectable but rather loud Black woman, who also latched on to my mother (perhaps the level of racism in the office was a bit higher than I thought) but who my mother didn’t take to. And this, in case you’ve been wondering, is where we get back to the point – for it was she who used the ‘woodpile’ phrase. As my mother told it, she dropped it – or dragged it – into conversation, quite deliberately and emphatically – “…that’s the N in the W!” (No mystery why I resorted to initials there.) It may even have been applied to herself, talking about some situation where she would stand out or where her presence would be a giveaway – “…and I’d be the N in the W!” Either way, she drove home the exclamation mark by giving her audience a hard stare – as if to say, “anyone offended? are you offended? I don’t know why, because I’m not offended!

It was alright in the 1970s, as they say. I remember this story because of my mother’s reaction when she retold it: disgust, for the most part, but tempered by a kind of grudging respect for the cost and complexity of the manoeuvre this woman had carried out. Not only was she pitching for acceptance by endorsing a prejudice that could – would – be turned against her; she was doing so by endorsing a collective denial that it existed or mattered, in the certain knowledge that the denial was a lie. That’s cold, and it’s low, and it’s desperate and sad – but you could also say it’s smart, and you could certainly say it’s self-denying. (Costly signalling, in short.)

Anyway: that was 1977 or 1978 – around 40 years ago, either way. And back then, in comfortable Tory-voting Croydon, the phrase “N in the W” had a distinct and easily-recognised function: it was what you said when you wanted to signal that you were a member of the group that agreed to deny that racism existed. That signal in turn served a definite purpose: it guaranteed that your racism wouldn’t be challenged and – more importantly – it let the rest of the group know that you wouldn’t challenge their racism.

So when Tories react to being caught using this phrase by denying outright that it’s in any way racist, or else by insisting that they didn’t mean to offend anyone, we shouldn’t really be surprised. That’s the point of using the phrase in the first place – to deny that racism is racism (look, it’s just a word!), or else to deny that it’s offensive (look, nobody’s upset!). Once one or both of those flags have been run up, we can relax; we know we’re among friends and we can speak freely. If you know what I mean.

Statues dressed in stars

A couple of quick thoughts, or irritations. Very different sources, but I think they’ll turn out to be connected; let’s find out.

First irritation: this piece from yesterday. Slightly edited quote:

Some believe the Richmond Park defeat could catapult [Labour] into an electoral crisis as the Lib Dems gain support in pro-Remain and historically Conservative areas, while Ukip gains confidence among working-class voters in Labour’s heartlands of the north and Midlands.

“We do have two different strong pulls. There are metropolitan seats, in London, Manchester and Leeds; they are strongly pro-EU. Then equally, there are dozens and dozens of seats which are working class, where many did not vote to remain. There’s no doubt it’s difficult to balance the two,” [said] a senior Corbyn ally

None of these statements are obviously self-contradictory, but the combination is hard to make sense of. Are Manchester and Leeds not Labour heartlands in the North? Come to that, does Labour actually have heartlands in the Midlands? (Birmingham certainly isn’t a Labour city in the same way Manchester is, not to mention Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield…) Yes, there are dozens of constituencies which have a working-class majority and were majority Leave, but equally there are lots of majority Leave constituencies that are mainly middle-class; come to that, there are lots of working-class people who are rock-solid Tory, and there always have been (where else did the figure of Alf Garnett came from?).

FourFive different ways of dividing the country are uneasily superimposed in the passage I’ve quoted. There’s geography (rather hazily understood); there’s class; there’s Labour loyalty (solid, wavering, non-existent); there’s Leave vs Remain. Then there’s the fourthfifth layer, which has the weakest moorings in reality but the strongest in emotion: the anti-‘metropolitan’ leftist cultural cringe, which says that anything that happens (a) in London or (b) among people who read the Guardian is shallow, inauthentic and to be discounted. Put them all together and you get a horribly clear picture of the divided opposition to the Tories: divided between solid Labour heartland voters, who voted Leave because they’re working class and are just asking to be poached by UKIP, and shallow metropolitan socialists, who are likely to drift off to the Lib Dems because they’re middle-class Remainers with no Labour roots. It’s a clear picture, a simple picture and a picture that’s almost completely unreliable. Unfortunately it seems to be immune to counter-evidence – see e.g. Oldham West, just twelve months ago. (Working-class majority-Leave Labour heartland voters don’t drift off anywhere, but give Labour an increased majority? Naah, that would never happen.)

Viewed from the perspective of a (not very active) Labour Party member – and with Oldham W in the back of my mind – these prophecies of doom are reminiscent of those crime surveys where they ask people if they think crime is a major problem, then ask whether they think crime is a major problem in their area. This invariably results in much lower figures, as people effectively reality-check their opinions against what they’ve seen and heard (the local news included). Similarly, my own immediate reading of the threat of a Lib Dem/UKIP pincer movement was maybe in some places, but it’s never going to happen round here. Round here – in Manchester – the council recently went from 95-1 (Labour/defrocked independent ex-Labour) to 96-0, and then back to 95-1 (Labour/Lib Dem). At the last round of council elections, there were lots of council seats where the Lib Dems are in second place, but they were mostly really bad second places. And yes, there were lots of other council seats – in parts of Manchester with fewer Guardian readers – where the Kippers were in second place; but again, we’re mostly talking really bad second places. At those elections, the Lib Dems threw everything they had – including the former local MP – at two council seats, and won one of them. They’ve got a pretty good ground game, but their cadre is thin – too many young enthusiasts, not enough old hacks – and the number of members they can deploy isn’t great. Maybe they’ll make it two out of 96 next time round, or even three. I can’t see it happening myself (Labour didn’t let that one seat go easily; our runner-up got more votes than several of the winning candidates in other wards) – but even if they do pull it off, so what? Without an Alliance-style surge in membership and self-belief, the LDs are never going to be in a position to target and win more than a handful of seats on the City Council. As for the Kippers, the most they can say about last time – in a vote held a month and a half before the EU Referendum – is that there were three seats in which their candidate took nearly half as many votes as the winning (Labour) candidate. Even then – when their support in the polls was running a good 5% higher than it is now – they couldn’t overcome their weaknesses: their ground game is poor, their membership’s never amounted to a great deal and their cadre’s basically non-existent. (Such is Labour’s grip on Manchester, even former Tories joining UKIP aren’t likely to be former Tory councillors. There hasn’t been an elected Tory councillor in Manchester since 1995 – and the last time they won a seat from another party was 1988.)

Thinking about voting behaviour I get something of the same double vision as those crime survey respondents. Out there, in all those other places, I’m prepared to concede that people may think like Leavers or Remainers and vote for the Leave-iest or most Remainful candidate they can find. Round here, though, not so much. Round our way, it’s more a matter of organised political machines, or the lack of ditto; who’s organising the door-knocking, who’s getting the posters distributed, who’s going round one more time on the morning of the vote and then once more in the evening. It’s about getting the vote out, in other words; it’s about reminding people that there’s an election on, that there’s a candidate for our party standing, and that there are good reasons to support that candidate. It’s an exercise in organised capillary political communication, one-to-one interactions on a mass scale. And it’s something parties do; barring the odd Martin Bell or Richard Taylor candidacy, it’s something only parties do. Support for political parties is always going to wax and wane, but the speed at which those changes happen in a given area is inversely related to the strength of party support in that area – and that’s directly related to the health of the local party and the resources it can mobilise.

Ultimately, it’s about two different ways of thinking about politics. To the extent that the Labour vote consists of the people who have a personal investment in a particular set of policies and in the leader who puts them forward, the Labour vote is genuinely threatened by Brexit: if what you want is a leader who will campaign to overturn the referendum result – or a leader who will campaign to have it carried out – it’s not at all obvious that Jeremy Corbyn is the man for you. But, to the extent that the Labour vote is a function of the number of people in an area who would say that they ‘are’ Labour, on one hand, and the members and other resources available to the local party, on the other… maybe not. To the extent that we’re talking about organised party politics, that is, and not about some kind of vacuous narcissistic popularity contest (who’s the leader for me?).

Second irritation. I found out that Fidel had died through the medium of Twitter (him and David Bowie, now I come to think of it). I was on my way out, but I thought I’d take a moment to make my feelings on the matter clear.

If you want it at greater length, Corbyn’s tribute contains nothing I disagreed with. (Paul Staines & others made hay with “for all his flaws”, of course – but then, they would, wouldn’t they?)

Some time later I read Owen Jones’s take; as with the piece I quoted at the start, this gave me the odd experience of not quite being able to disagree with any of the individual statements, but wanting to throw the whole thing across the room.

Socialism without democracy, as I wrote yesterday when I caused offence, isn’t socialism. It’s paternalism with prisons and persecution.

Mmmyeahbut…

Many of the people uncritically praising Cuba’s regime are tweeting about it. Practically no-one in Cuba can read these tweets, because practically no-one has the internet at home … sympathisers of Cuba’s regime would never tolerate or endure the political conditions that exist there … is it really acceptable to expect others to endure conditions you wouldn’t yourself?

Yes, but I’m not sure that was exactly what I was…

There are democratic radical leftists in Cuba, and they warn that “the biggest obstacle for democratic socialist activists may be reaching people who, disenchanted with the Stalinist experience, believe in purely market-based solutions.”

Well, second biggest, after being massively outgunned by groups with an interest in those “purely market-based solutions” and the means to impose them. But yes, decades of Stalinism is the kind of thing that tends to give socialism a bad name. And decades of Stalinism plus some uncritical tweets – that ‘practically no-one in Cuba’ will read – is even worse, presumably.

Championing Cuba in its current form will certainly resonate with a chunk of the radical left, but it just won’t with the mass of the population who will simply go — aha, that’s really the sort of system you would like to impose on us. Which it isn’t.

Sorry, are we still talking about Fidel Castro?

From the top: there’s a difference between defining what you want to achieve in the world and recognising something someone else has achieved. Socialism-the-thing-I-want-to-achieve certainly wouldn’t look a lot like Cuba, but we’re not talking about me or my ideals. If you’ve taken an offshore resort colony and turned it into a country with state ownership of industry, universal healthcare and universal education – and maintained it in the face of massive opposition and resource starvation – I’d say what you’ve achieved deserves to be called socialism and you deserve to be congratulated for it. It’s a form of socialism to which I’m personally bitterly opposed, but at the end of the day I’d rather be poor under a socialist tyranny than starving and illiterate under colonial tyranny. That – putting it in its most hostile terms – is the change Fidel made, and he doesn’t deserve to be vilified for it.

As for ‘uncritically praising Castro’s Cuba’, if this means ‘praising Castro’s Cuba and explicitly denying that any criticism is possible’, then fine, I’m agin it. In the present context, though, I suspect it meant something more along the lines of ‘praising Castro’s achievements on the occasion of his death, without also taking care to get some criticisms into the 140 characters’. In which case, I think Owen’s inviting me to take a purity test, and I frankly decline the invitation. When I – and others – responded to Castro’s death with tributes and expressions of solidarity, without pausing (in our 140 characters) to condemn press censorship and the harassment of political opponents, was it really likely that we either (a) didn’t know that Castro’s Cuba had carried out these things or (b) supported them? We can expect the Right to insinuate that (a) or more probably (b) must be true, but I think we can expect better from the Left – or, for that matter, from anyone prepared to use a bit of common sense. (If you know a prominent character to have done something awful and you meet a self-confessed supporter of that character, do you start by assuming that they approve of the awful thing? Think carefully. (Or think Cromwell.))

The final quote is just odd. Perhaps “championing Cuba in its current form” would resonate with the radical Left, perhaps not; I don’t know. (I don’t much care what the radical Left thinks, and I don’t intend to champion Cuba anyway.) But it’s the next part of the argument where Owen really goes wrong. We can’t possibly know what “the mass of the population” thinks; more to the point, we can’t be guided by what people already think. Politics isn’t about putting forward policies that match what people think; it’s about identifying what’s needed and campaigning for that. You certainly need to get a sense of what people are thinking, but only so that you know how much effort you’ll need to put in to get them to support what you believe to be right. Sometimes you’ll be in tune with the public mood, sometimes you’ll need to reframe your campaign in terms that connect with how people are thinking, sometimes your policies will just be downright unpopular. Sometimes you’ll be pushing at an open door (funding the NHS), sometimes the door will be closed so hard it’s not worth pushing (abolishing the monarchy). But you start with what you believe to be right, not with what you believe to be potentially popular; still less by doing what Owen’s actually proposing – ditching anything that looks as if it might be interpreted as being similar to something unpopular.

To put it another way: Owen, this isn’t about you. It’s not about the credibility of the British left, it’s not how the Labour Party can win back “the mass of the population”, and it’s not about making sure that the political stance of prominent Internet leftists is specified in sufficient detail to be beyond critique, at least to the satisfaction of those prominent Internet leftists themselves (it’s not as if the Right aren’t going to attack you anyway). What it’s about is paying tribute to somebody who made a big, positive difference in the world on the sad occasion of his death, and having the decency to reserve whatever else we could say about the guy to a later date.

Again, it comes back to two ways of looking at politics, I think. There’s a frame of reference within which the correct response to Fidel’s death, and the correct view of his achievements, is radiantly clear, and it’s the frame of reference that goes like this: OK, so which side are you on? Allende or Pinochet? The Sandinistas or the Contras? Apartheid or the ANC? (Not questions which the contemporary Right can answer without blushing, or so you’d have thought.) Then there’s a frame of reference that says that we – the Left – can’t be seen to be overlooking this, condoning that, failing to denounce the other, we must always be mindful of the need to maintain our principles on the one hand, without losing touch with the public on the other hand, and so we must move on from the old and discredited whatever it was, while not overlooking the and so on and so forth. To return to my first point, one of these sounds like it’s based in actual political struggles. The other sounds like it’s based in – well, vacuous narcissistic personality contests (where’s the Left for me?).

If Brexit tells us anything it’s that weightless decisions – individual decisions based on nothing more than mood, individual preference, popularity – are bad decisions. We need a lot more politics in this world – in the sense of people getting together and working for their goals, using existing machinery where necessary – and a lot less attitudinising and questing for the perfect platform.

Dark entries

A quick note on ‘entryism’, expanding on some points that got a bit lost in the middle of a recent post.

Entryism is an odd phenomenon; perhaps it’s best considered as an eccentric local custom, like buying beer in pints or listening to the Archers Omnibus. (“But it’s exactly the same thing that was on in the week! And it was supposed to be happening on those actual days!”) Entryism sounds bizarre to most people outside the far Left, but for anyone who’s spent any time in that world it’s a familiar and uncontroversial part of the landscape. A party enters a party as a way to build the party. See? Perfectly straightforward.

It may be worth differentiating between those different types of party. Party(1) is the revolutionary party in which Trotskyists and other Leninists believe: the party which will ultimately lead the struggle of the proletariat to victory over capitalism. No such party currently exists, or (arguably) can exist outside a time of heightened class struggle. Any party(1) would need to be quite substantial in terms of numbers, and have deep roots in the working class, through unions and workers’ councils. Party(2) is the electoral party – the kind of political party we’re more familiar with, in other words. A party(2) may be small or large, elitist or membership-driven, and may occupy a whole range of different political positions. From a Marxist viewpoint, a party of the Left may represent the workers’ interests and may even have organisational roots in the working class; however, this relationship is unlikely to be straightforward or unequivocal, if only because (as Marx would tell us) the interests of the working class can’t be adequately articulated without posing a direct challenge to capitalism. And then there’s the party(3), a voluntaristic grouping of people who hope and intend that their group will eventually form the nucleus of a party(1).

A party(2) – like the Labour Party – can never become a party(1), whereas a party(3) can (in theory at least). But parties(2) do sometimes have resources that a party(3) vitally needs if it is ever to evolve into a party(1): numbers and working-class roots. The party(3), on the other hand, has things that the party(2) rarely has, and things which are equally vital to realise the Leninist dream of the party(1): an understanding of the contemporary situation grounded in theory, a definite programme, decisive leadership. This means that a parasitic relationship with the Labour Party often seems attractive. Just to complicate matters, some parties(3) even parasitise one another, aiming to pick up members and connections from a larger host party(3) by displaying their superior programme, theoretical understanding etc. This rarely ends well for anyone, with the possible exception of those members of the smaller party who defect to the host. I was told once that a mutual friend used to be a member of the international Spartacist tendency [sic], but had jumped ship from just such a raiding mission, preferring the more relaxed and open atmosphere of the host group – the WRP.

As for entryism by British Trotskyist groups in the Labour Party, I think it’s fair to say that there hasn’t been a great deal of it in the last 25 years. If we go back to the years when it was at its height – when ‘readers of Militant‘ were running the Labour Party’s youth wing, while ‘supporters of Socialist Organiser‘ were giving Frank Field headaches (and inadvertently kickstarting Angela Eagle‘s parliamentary career) – we see two things. One is a Labour Party which had functioning, internally differentiated democratic structures. A constituency party chair, an NEC representative, a motion to conference: these were all things that could make a difference to the direction of the party, and as such they were worth voting for and worth fighting over. The other thing we see is that these same democratic structures were poorly functioning, and in many cases becoming moribund for lack of warm bodies. Take these two factors and introduce the party(3), with its core skill of mobilising relatively small but disciplined groups of people, and bingo: entryism.

What entryism does, then, is (i) covertly introduce (ii) a relatively small group of people, who are (iii) already working together for a common purpose, into (iv) a structured democratic organisation which (v) isn’t working very well. Take away any of those factors and you don’t have entryism. Entryists can’t take over an organisation that’s functioning well, and they can’t take over an organisation that doesn’t have any internal structures for them to take over. They can’t enter the organisation in the first place if they advertise what they’re doing (they wouldn’t be allowed in), or if their own organisation is just as large as the new host (people would notice). And they aren’t entryists at all if they aren’t already working together, with a common goal, before they do the entering.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, there was a big effort to sweep entryists out of the Labour Party, led among others by Labour’s ‘youth’ rep Tom Watson (for it is he). In retrospect, the anti-entryist campaign took three main forms. One was reactive – the various measures taken, individually and collectively, against the Mils, Organiser, Briefing and the rest – and aimed to make it impossible for entryists to operate unseen within the party. The other two were preventive. As we have seen, Frank Field and others on the Right of the party argued for the revitalisation of local parties and the implementation of ‘one member, one vote’ in internal elections. They believed – rightly – that entryism flourished when the decay of party machines allowed bureaucratic power to go unchecked. Weight of numbers, supported by open recruitment, was the antithesis of entryism, and could prevent it ever taking root. As we’ve seen (again) membership went up briefly under Kinnock, but slumped under Smith before going up more substantially in the early years of Blair’s leadership. Under Blair, though, there was more emphasis on the second preventive measure: hardening the target by removing it. Under Blair, the Labour Party rapidly ceased to have any form of internal democracy. Policy was proposed by the leadership and ratified by the leadership-dominated National Policy Forum; the National Executive Committee was kept in line by the leadership; candidate selections were routinely overruled by the leadership; and party conference existed largely to praise the leadership. Local parties – and entire rosters of council candidates – could even be suspended by the leadership. By the beginning of New Labour’s second term, there were basically no levers for an entryist group to get hold of; this also meant that there was nothing for members to do, other than raise funds and get out the vote. Unsurprisingly, by 2001 membership had fallen back to pre-Kinnock levels (although it would fall much further in the next eight years).

If we then fast forward to 2015, how much has changed? With one obvious exception, very little has been done to revitalise the party’s internal democratic structures; the role of party conference is still advisory and the National Policy Forum is still in place. A really well-organised Trotskyist group, with a really low profile, could get its people elected to key positions in a couple of constituency Labour parties – at least, they could have done until recently – but it wouldn’t gain them very much. As for the potential entryists themselves, it has to be said that this isn’t a very good time to be a Trot. I could (though I won’t) name a number of groups which have either formally entered or ‘dissolved into’ the Labour Party over the years. They range from small to very small; I’d be surprised if the total number of people who identify with any of them is as high as 500. There’s a scattering of smaller Trot parties(3) operating outside the Labour Party – there’s even something that still calls itself the WRP – but again we’re talking either tens or very low hundreds. Then there are what I suppose we must call the big three – the Socialist Party (E+W), Left Unity and the dear old SWP. (I’m not counting Scottish Trotskyist groups here – but then, entryism is the least of the Scottish Labour Party’s problems.) The only one of the three whose total membership is definitely in four figures is the Socialist Party; if you put them all together we’re probably talking about 3,000. I suppose we could extend the list, and bump up the numbers, by including groups from the Communist wing of Leninism – mostly, but not exclusively, flotsam and jetsam from the wreck of the Communist Party of Great Britain – but what would that get you? Another thousand, maybe?

So the Leninist threat to the Labour Party in England and Wales numbers, at most, 5,000 people – most of whom, so far from having a common purpose, hate one another’s guts in true Life of Brian style. And there’s nothing really there for them to ‘enter’ anyway – most of the old levers of power have been dismantled or locked away. And even if they all did have a collective rush of blood to the head and decide to sink their differences (pauses for hollow laugh) and become born-again Corbynites – and even if their applications for membership were accepted – five thousand people would hardly make a dent on the party these days, what with the rate that people are joining…

hang on a second. Back a bit. Did I really just say that the number of people joining the party at the moment – not to mention the flood of £3 voters last year, and the unexpected but even larger flood of £25 voters this year – is an obstacle to entryism? Isn’t this, as some maintain, entryism in action? Yes, I did, and no, it isn’t. For one thing, no Trot group or combination of groups has anything like that kind of numbers; if they did, politics in the last couple of decades would have been very different. These are individual choices, tens of thousands of them; those individuals may have been whipped up by Momentum and Maxine Peake, but that doesn’t make them any less rational adults – any more than if they’d been whipped up by Saving Labour and J.K. Rowling. And, as I said in an earlier post, mass recruitment of individual members has been a flagship policy of the Right of the party for decades now, along with devolution of decision-making powers to individual members and (a more recent innovation) the involvement of interested individuals outside the party. When Ed Miliband, on the advice of Arnie Graf, proposed to run future leadership elections on a ‘one member one vote’ basis – disenfranchising both union leaders and MPs – did Chris Bryant MP warn against the possible influx of Trots and Greens?

How about Polly Toynbee? Any reservations about encouraging people to join Labour? Far from it:

I am shocked by the number of people I meet who refuse to join a party. Everyone who cares about politics should join, just as they should join a union. I am weary of the pretensions of those who won’t join Labour because it isn’t exactly what they want it to be: no party ever will be – and certainly not if people refuse to join. … Miliband needs to succeed in opening Labour up and making it less dependent on anyone but its members. And Labour needs more members.

That was July 2013. A few days later a letter appeared in the Guardian which I’m going to quote in full; it really has to be read to be believed. Not the letter itself, that is, but the signatory list.

We welcome Ed Miliband’s bold speech setting out reforms to ensure that Labour politics is more open and that machine politics is consigned to history. Organisations like Pragmatic Radicalism, through its Top of the Policies events, are pioneering new ways to encourage the participation of the broadest possible range of people in Labour policy-making. We support Ed Miliband’s view that Labour must “reach out to others outside our party” in order “to genuinely build a movement again”, and agree that primaries may help this process. While no panacea, experimenting with primaries between now and the next election will show the British public that we are an outward-looking party that aspires to bring in a wider range of people as our candidates, not just a narrow elite.
John Slinger Chair, Pragmatic Radicalism
Cllr Mike Harris International officer, Pragmatic Radicalism
Jonathan Todd Vice-chair, Pragmatic Radicalism
Amanda Ramsay Vice-chair, Pragmatic Radicalism
John Mann MP
Gisela Stuart MP
Steve Reed MP
Jenny Chapman MP
Graham Jones MP
David Lammy MP
Ann Clwyd MP 
John Woodcock MP
Kevin Barron MP
Lord Rogers of Riverside
Cllr Theo Blackwell London Borough of Camden
Cllr Simon Hogg London Borough of Wandsworth
Cllr Rachel Rogers Chair, Labour Group, Weymouth and Portland Borough Council
Robert Philpot Director, Progress
Joe Dancey Acting director, Progress
Peter Watt Former general secretary of the Labour Party
James Bloodworth Editor, Left Foot Forward
Hopi Sen Former head of campaigns, parliamentary Labour party
Cllr Mike Le-Surf Leader, Labour group, Brentwood Borough Council
Anthony Painter Author, Left without a future?
Cllr Stephen Cowan Leader, Labour group, London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham
David Goodhart
Jess Asato Labour PPC for Norwich North
Alex Smith Former Ed Miliband adviser/ Editor LabourList
Jonny Medland Secretary, Battersea Labour party
Atul Hatwal Editor, Labour Uncut
Lord Turnberg

I’ve got to admit I’m not over-familiar with Pragmatic Radicalism; a quick glance at its Web site & Twitter feed suggests that it was launched in 2011 and has been more or less dormant since 2014. Setting that aside, what a list! Ironically, for a letter criticising over-reliance on a ‘narrow elite’, it’s a veritable rollcall of the Labour Right: Progress, Labour Uncut, Bloodworth, Sen, Goodhart, they’re all there – and that’s before you get on to the list of MPs. And what was this veritable post-Blairite Brains Trust calling for? Primaries: you know, those systems where people outside the party get to vote in internal elections after paying a token fee. They’re good if you want to bring in a wider range of people, apparently. Well, you can say that again.

To sum up, the leadership election in 2015 was run under a system designed to minimise, even prevent, entryism – a system which was approved by the Right of the party for precisely that reason. What’s more, it was run at a time when the conditions for entryism didn’t exist – too few vantage points to occupy within the Labour Party, too few Trots to occupy them. Needless to say, neither of these factors has changed greatly in the last year. Some of the Trot groups may have put on a bit of a spurt membership-wise, but any advantage this might give them is more than counteracted by the influx of new members; this has made the party still less hospitable to entryism, by making it impossible for party structures to be colonised by small and unrepresentative groupings. The membership of the Labour Party was around 200,000 before the 2015 leadership campaign began. 240,000 members eventually voted in the leadership election, as well as 100,000 £3-a-head registered supporters; the party now has somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 members, and in the coming leadership election 180,000 people have applied for votes as £25-a-head registered supporters (although some of these will certainly be people who have joined the party since January).

When a mechanism designed to prevent entryism is activated, in conditions already hostile to entryism, it would be quite odd if entryism was the result. But this is what we’re being asked to believe. The argument seems to be that some bad things have happened – an unknown person has put a brick through a window; some overcrowded meetings of a bitterly divided party have got a bit shouty; and some internal party elections have gone the wrong way – and this must be the work of a bad group of people. (Update: it turns out that the window that was put through was a window on a stairwell in a building, on a busy road, which houses Angela Eagle’s constituency office, along with those of several other organisations. The ground floor window of the office itself – complete with Labour Party sticker – was untouched. There’s a distinct possibility that this wasn’t an act of political violence at all, in other words.)

Perhaps the best formulation of this argument – and I’m using the word ‘best’ in a strictly relative sense – is this bit of impressionistic hand-wringing from Polly Toynbee (none other):

A surge of enthusiasts joining Labour should be a strength. But the incomers, sincere believers, are fronted by a small handful of wreckers armed with political knuckle-dusters, relishing turning Labour meetings into a fight club. Meetings became so nasty that they have been suspended. It’s a heartbreaking repeat of the early 1980s when those who couldn’t bear long warfare in evening meetings gave up or split – which turned out badly.

Something I saw a lot, when I was reading 1970s publications from the Italian Communist Party, was the rhetorical use of words like ‘violence’ and ‘intimidation’ (sopraffazione). Communist Party stewards could form cordons three deep, search people’s bags and chase rival demonstrators away without ever being guilty of anything worse than ‘strength’ and ‘firmness’ (fermezza). By contrast, far-left student protesters and Autonomists could be denounced as violent and oppressive for no more than standing their ground, chanting loudly or marching in a group. Something very similar is going on here. These ‘wreckers’ – are they actually smashing things up? Are they actually staging a ‘fight club’ or actually wearing ‘knuckledusters’? (Come to that, were the bad guys of the early 1980s actually conducting warfare in those long evening meetings?) Of course not – it’s all figurative. But what the figurative language stands for in reality is left completely unspecified – and meanwhile the ‘small handful of wreckers’ stands condemned of violence and intimidation, if not in action then in tendency: the suggestion is not that violence has actually taken place, but that we’re dealing with people who are themselves, inherently, violent.

And then, of course, there’s the ludicrous statement (not even a suggestion) that the incomers, sincere believers, are fronted by a small handful of wreckers – and that as a result [m]eetings became so nasty that they have been suspended. This, I suppose, is what happens when you try to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at once: that the membership of the Labour Party has trebled in the last twelve months, with a massive influx of radical new members; and that it’s all a matter of disruptive, 1980s-style entryism. It falls apart as soon as you think about it. If there was a handful – nay, a small handful – of wreckers, how and in what sense could they ‘front’ all of us sincerely-believing incomers? Have all Labour party meetings got too nasty to continue? (Maybe my ward’s an exception, but we’ve been fine.) How could a ‘small handful’ of people cause all that trouble; what are they doing, touring the country stirring up anarchy? To what end? (Wreckers? What does she suppose they’re trying to do, destroy the Labour Party?) More to the point, what are we, the new members are we sheep? All told it’s a gross misreading of the situation, endorsing an attack on party democracy at just the time when the future of the party is in dispute.

And it’s only sustainable because of the persistence of the myth of entryism – but that’s not the only reason why I’ve devoted so much time to demolishing that myth. The main reason is that the image of entryism has been used, far too often, as an all-purpose explanation for what’s going on in the Labour Party at membership level, and as an excuse for not thinking any further about it. But this really won’t do. Entryism as an explanation for the party’s recent membership growth isn’t just debatable or challengeable, it’s straightforwardly impossible. You might as well say that the new members are freemasons sworn to destroy the party from within, or that they’re all under the hypnotic control of Diane Abbott – it makes about as much sense.

If it’s not entryism, though, we need another explanation. And the best one I can see is that things are as they seem: hundreds of thousands of people are joining (or rejoining) the Labour Party, to revitalise the party and campaign for socialist policies. (Or rather, mostly rather mild social-democratic policies, but never mind.) If you’re a socialist, this is staggeringly good news – a real game-changer. If you’re not – well, it’s still a game-changer. This, to my mind, is the real weakness of the core anti-Corbyn group: they genuinely believe that the Labour Party is the property of MPs (and their backers), with individual members there to make up the numbers. The new level of party membership – and the new members’ commitment to being more than direct-debit cannon fodder – means that this way of thinking doesn’t work any more. The best the plotters can hope to achieve is to consolidate MPs’ power, and the power of their chosen leader, to the point where 2-, 3- or 400,000 members give up and leave the party, perhaps to join something like Left Unity – and that would be a disaster for Labour. (Imagine a grassroots movement for socialism as big as CND was in the early 1980s. Then imagine the Labour Party defining itself against it. Now, who’s going to deliver all those leaflets?) That’s their best-case scenario. What’s far more likely is that they would simply end up having to ‘fight, fight and fight again’ against the membership of the party – not a small minority within the party, but the main body of the membership itself. It’s not a good look; it’s certainly not an electable look.

If Corbyn stays (as I believe he will), his critics and the smaller group actively plotting against him are going to have to come to terms with the membership. But if Corbyn goes, his critics and opponents are still going to have to come to terms with the membership. This is not 1993 and you are not Tom Watson (even if you are Tom Watson). Entryism is dead; the Labour Right’s reforms killed it, just as they were intended to. Perhaps (a cynic writes) the calculation was that they would also kill ground-level activism and leave not a wrack behind – only a simulation of democracy operated by people too contented to vote. Instead, the world changed. We’re now in a whole new situation for party democracy, and potentially for Labour and for the Left more broadly. There may be trouble ahead – to be honest, there almost certainly is trouble ahead – but the longer-term outlook is decidedly hopeful.

 

When is an extremist not an extremist?

Cross-posted from the blog of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies, of which I am a member.

When is an extremist not an extremist? If violence is dangerous, is non-violence safe?

Earlier this year, Gavin Bailey and I organised a seminar (with support from the British Society of Criminology North-West) focusing on myths and realities of extremism and counter-extremism. The event was attended by academics from across the region, with lively debate on topics ranging from the “Trojan Horse” affair to the peace process in Northern Ireland. But what we kept coming back to was the government’s Prevent programme, particularly as it affects schools and young people.

Prevent is the counter-terrorist programme that counters extremism at the individual level. The aim is to prevent people from becoming involved in political violence by intervening ‘upstream’, at a point when they are beginning to develop extremist sympathies. Last year the government imposed a ‘Prevent duty’ on schools and many other institutions. This is a duty to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”; the scope of the duty “includes not just violent extremism but also non-violent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit”. In other words, children and young people are now being monitored – by law – to ensure that they don’t express ‘non-violent extremist’ opinions, and inadvertently give popularity to views that terrorists may be able to exploit. We already have numerous examples of where this can lead: the ten-year-old interviewed by police after he wrote about living in a ‘terrorist house‘, the four-year-old whose mother was threatened with referral to social services after he mispronounced ‘cucumber’ as ‘cooker-bomb‘.

Here’s another story, involving a different kind of radicalisation. Aged 14, P becomes interested in Communism; he reads around a bit and decides that he is a Communist. Over the next couple of years, P develops a fascination with the guerrilla forces who were then fighting US-backed regimes in central America; he even daydreams about going out there himself. A teacher intervenes, but he isn’t discouraged. Wider reading persuades him that Communism isn’t the answer after all – only anarchism will do. He buys anarchist magazines and grows interested in the urban guerrillas operating in Italy and Germany at the time…

How does the story end? I’ll tell you how it ends: P (wannabe Communist, age 14) is now Phil (lecturer at MMU, age none of your business). It ends with P – me – going to university, writing a lot of poetry, getting a girlfriend, graduating, moving to Manchester and getting a job. My teacher’s intervention, incidentally, consisted of telling us it was nice to see a bit of Communism in class, even though he didn’t agree with it himself; everyone moves Right as they get older, he said, so at least some of us would still have somewhere to move to. (Thankyou, Mr Fairman!)

How many ‘P’s are out there now, inspired by jihadism instead of Communism, watching IS videos on Youtube instead of reading anarchist magazines? And how many of them would, left to themselves, leave it all behind them as a natural part of growing up? (My guess is: almost all of them.) Several participants in our seminar argued that Prevent discriminated against young British Muslims, putting thousands of innocent young people under surveillance for no good reason – and with the risk of creating alienation. But there’s a bigger question: should we be monitoring children for signs of extremism at all?

Kids break laws; offending is far more widespread for people in their late teens and early twenties than it is in any comparable age-group. If you think about it, this also tells us that almost all of those offenders grow out of it. There are many reasons for this – physical maturation brings more considered thought processes; leaving the parental shelter of childhood makes rebellion seem less attractive; legal adulthood opens up legitimate opportunities; long-term relationships give people a stake in society. And if this is true of crime – which can have life-changing consequences even for very young offenders – surely it’s all the more true of nebulous things like ‘views which terrorists exploit’ and ‘non-violent extremism’.

So I worry about the effects of Prevent on kids – not just four-year-olds who aren’t even talking about bombs, but teenagers who are.  I’d expect any class of 14-year-olds to contain several kids who would tell me (for example) that the CIA blew up the Twin Towers, a few who had watched IS videos, and at least one who sincerely believed in implementing Shari’a law in the UK – just as I believed in the dictatorship of the proletariat when I was that age. Under the law as it stands, unfortunately, I’d have a legal duty to report every one of them.

Kids should live their teenage years in safety, even (especially?) at school. Prevent is often justified in terms of safeguarding – as if being drawn into terrorism was the same kind of risk as being groomed for abuse – but trying to protect kids from thinking the wrong thoughts strikes me as precisely the wrong way to go. Young people need to be able to experiment – make a bit of noise, flare out, mess up and try something different. And, for some kids, political extremism is a great way to experiment – just as it was in my day.

He knows so much about these things

 

Eddie Izzard, interviewed (paraphrased?) in the Times magazine’s “What I’ve learnt” column, 7th May:

I’m not a transvestite. I have some of the same genetics as women, so I’m transgender. When I see a pair of nice heels I think, “Yeah, that could work. That could be kind of fun, kind of sexy.” Anyone can feel that. We’re obsessed with the differences between someone with a penis and someone with a vagina. Everyone should calm down and take a chill pill.

There is, as you’ve probably noticed, quite a lot of this stuff around at the moment. Opinions are divided – rather bitterly – as to just what it is we’re seeing. Is it a liberal movement, a claim for rights by a new constituency – are transgender people a disadvantaged and hitherto overlooked minority, whose struggles for recognition the rest of us should support? It’s worth pausing here to say that if that were all we were talking about, there wouldn’t be anything to talk about: singling out Sally (who I know or suspect to have been born male) for any kind of special treatment is no more appropriate or justifiable than doing so with Sam (who I know or suspect to be Jewish). That’s not controversial; it’s barely even political. In most social situations, the liberal assumption of universal human equality gets us all where we want to be: people are people, and that’s the only starting assumption anyone needs.

But it sometimes seems as if the trans thing is about something more than that, or something else entirely. Is it a more unsettling form of radicalism, a new wave of gender-subversive activism which seeks to challenge the pink/blue girl/boy female/male binary order most of us live in, rather than staking out a place within it or alongside it? Or is there something else again going on – something not particularly radical or even liberal? I mean, what does “a pair of nice heels” have to do with anything?

I was troubled by Eddie Izzard’s comments – not to mention his decision to rewrite his own identity as transgender rather than transvestite. (He’s been out as TV since the early 90s, but to my knowledge he’s never claimed to be transgender before this year.) I flashed back to this LRB column from a few years ago by an occasional cross-dresser: “I like wearing a dress and tights, and I want to look good in them, and I like being addressed as Stephanie … I like my life as Stephen just fine, so long as I get to be Stephanie now and again”. I wondered, is it wearing a dress or is it ‘be[ing] Stephanie’? Does Stephanie ever wear trousers? (My daughter’s been in trousers since she could walk – she only frocks up for parties.) The writer attends a makeup workshop at a trans convention:

The workshop itself was helpful but intimidating. ‘To be born woman is to know,’ Yeats wrote, ‘Although they do not talk of it at school,/That one must labour to be beautiful’: adults who weren’t born as women have a hard time learning later on. Among the lessons of the session were that girlish looks need more blush, sophisticated adult looks less, though they may need more mascara.

Heels and genetics, mascara and being ‘born woman’. The slippage goes both ways: first, wanting to look like a girl – to present in ways that have been coded as female – turns into being female; then it seems that being female (as 51% of the population are generally agreed to be) requires looking like a girl, labouring to be beautiful, dragging up. Just as it did in Yeats’s day, and just as it seemingly always had done. There’s a wrong turn somewhere here.

I was also reminded of a friend of mine, and of what we talked about one time when I dropped in on him just before Christmas. I found him and his family – wife and two kids – putting up decorations. They had some long, heavy coloured tinsel garlands, for hanging on the wall in swags; when I came in my friend had two of these draped around his neck like feather boas, and was giving one of them a twirl. The effect was very camp, but not in a mocking, exaggerated way; he looked remarkably comfortable like that, twirling his boa, chatting with his kids. I said “oi, Conchita!” or something similar. We got talking about Eurovision, and we agreed that Conchita Wurst’s performance had been stunning; my friend said what an amazing moment it had been when Conchita won, how inspiring and how right it had felt. (I remember we both avoided using the words ‘he’ and ‘she’ – Conchita this, Conchita that…)

Later, we talked some more about camp and about drag. My friend said he and his wife had bonded, years ago, over the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Frank in particular – that ‘sweet transvestite’, somehow coming across as both fussily camp and powerfully macho, in heels, stockings and a basque. Role model? I asked. He laughed – well, not exactly… but it would be nice sometimes to have that element of display, you know? I guess I was spoiled by glam rock… (And we talked a bit about Bowie.)

Later still, my friend said to me, You know, my best friend at school was always a girl – always. Well, not when we moved and I went to a single-sex school – but right up till then. Other kids said we were going together – when I was eleven or twelve, this was – but it wasn’t like that. From about the age of six it was always a girl I looked to, when I wanted someone I could talk to properly, someone I could trust. And of course when I started having girlfriends that’s what I wanted from them – someone to trust, someone to talk to. Always wanted to start with that, not with the dancing and flirting and silly fun stuff. Probably missed out. But I wouldn’t want a relationship that wasn’t based on it – friendship, I mean.

I don’t suppose I’ve ever told you about my trans period. Mmm? (I tried not to look startled.) No, I know I haven’t – I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone. I would have been about fourteen, struggling a bit with puberty. I was an intellectual little sod and I had very mixed feelings about being permanently randy, like you are at that age: puritanical mixed feelings, mostly. Basically I hated my body. I was at a boys’ school by this time, so I had lots of exposure to the less attractive side of masculinity – rugby, bullying, people going on and on and on about sex… I used to read the Guardian, including the women’s page; I had several female role models, people I’d always looked up to – older sisters, a godmother – but not much in the way of male ones… It all stacked up. Long story short, I turned against maleness in all its forms & decided that I should have been a girl. But I did have enough self-awareness to realise that if I were a girl I would still be attracted to girls; in my diary I referred to myself as a male lesbian.

You go through a lot in your early teens. Oh, you do – you try things out. It must have been around that time that I converted to Buddhism for a week; it wasn’t meant to be temporary, but it just happened it was the week before Easter, and on the day itself I had an intense emotional response to Christianity and promptly converted back. This lasted a good bit longer than that, though. It wasn’t an intellectual pose, either; the consciousness of not being a girl made me genuinely unhappy for quite a while.

What happened then? A couple of things. One was that I told my best friend, who was taken aback, but not in the way I’d expected – it turned out that he’d been working up the courage to tell me exactly the same thing about himself, and he clearly felt I’d stolen his thunder. I don’t remember ever discussing it with him again. But his actual sex life took off quite soon after that – and that he did discuss with me – which made the whole thing a bit academic. (I saw his name in the paper the other day, incidentally; he’s OK, and still a bloke.) The other thing I did was tell my Mum; she was sympathetic, but took the view that I should think about it for a good long time before committing myself to anything I might regret. She recommended Jan Morris’s Conundrum, which I got out of the library.

The classics, eh? Oh yes. Mum recommended Orlando, too, but I was more curious about somebody who’d actually been through it. The main thing I remember is how certain Jan Morris was, after completing gender reassignment, that she felt different, thought differently and even saw the world differently: she was more emotional than he had been as James but less interested in politics, and she’d acquired the ability to look at distant objects and see them as toys. (“So you see, Jan, these are small, but those are far away…”) I ran some of this past my mother; she didn’t quite give it the Nora Ephron treatment, but she was distinctly unconvinced. That stayed with me; it may have occurred to me even then that the qualities I admired, in the women I admired, didn’t include susceptibility to flattery or tolerance of being overcharged by tradesmen.

The other thing that stuck in my mind from that book, oddly enough, was Jan Morris’s retrospective celebration of the joys of being James Morris. There was a certain kind of energy and physical confidence which (Jan believed) went with being male as well as young and fit; and there was the memory of having sex with his (and subsequently her) partner, for which Jan didn’t see any need to apologise. “For when your lover pants beside you he is not necessarily enjoying the orthodox satisfactions of virility” – but this is your lover, and he is panting beside you, and that’s not nothing. It makes me think now that there might be loads of heterosexual men out there having sex without “enjoying the orthodox satisfactions of virility”, whatever that actually means; but Jan Morris didn’t reflect on that. Anyway, it was a small but definite influence on me, that book; a reality check (it can be done, she did it!) but with a bit of “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” thrown in (…and now she likes men holding the door for her?).

So you didn’t want to… Transition? (He grimaced.) No, there was no danger of… But actually, you know what, I’d say I did: I transitioned into being the person I wanted to be. It took me a few years, but I got there in the end. I remember thinking 27 was a very good age to be. Things have got better for me since then – much, much better. But by the time “Suedehead” came out I pretty much knew what was what.

Why do you telephone? Why indeed. Great unanswered questions of our time.

So what was 27? Mostly, 27 was not being one of the kids any more; it was feeling that I didn’t have anything to conform to any more – or to rebel against conforming to. It made everything a lot simpler. What was the person I’d wanted to be, after all – the person who I’d thought couldn’t possibly be male? Someone like my mother, my godmother, my aunt – someone intelligent but also caring, sympathetic but thoughtful, cultured but funny…

Sounds like quite a family. OK, someone like an idealised version of those people. But you take the point. Wanting to look good was part of it – I was so disappointed when I discovered ‘menswear’! – and wanting to move with a certain amount of grace, not just barging through everywhere. Hating my body was part of it, too; thankfully I got past that, eventually. But mostly it was about the kind of person I wanted to be – and after a while I found I could try to be that person without worrying, or being made to worry, about being a man. I mean, once you get to 27 there aren’t so many people calling you a ponce for using long words, or telling you that boys don’t talk about their feelings. There aren’t so many people policing the way you move or the clothes you wear, come to that, so you can pick up that side of it as well.

I don’t know if a 27-year-old woman would agree with that last part. Perhaps not. And that actually relates to one of the things that bothers me about the trans moment we seem to be in, culturally – the draggier end of it, anyway. Femininity seems to have become a site of transgression for men without ceasing to be a uniform for women. I’m willing to bet there are workplaces out there where a man who came in wearing makeup would be frowned on less than a woman who came in without it – he’s being bold and transgressive, she’s just not making an effort. It’s as if patriarchy reserved a second-class space for women – a space for emotion, not logic; for the body, not the mind; for falsity and display (“paint an inch thick”), not for the unadorned truth – and now men are even entering that space. While still trying to keep women inside it – we frock up to play at being something we’re not, but for women femininity is what they are. (When we’re talking about trans we always seem to be talking about women in the end.)

Aren’t you over-thinking this? What about that confused, lonely teenager who just wants… What about him? Didn’t I just explain that I was that teenager? I’m prepared to believe that my gender dysphoria was milder and more short-lived than many other teenagers’, but you’re not telling me that it wasn’t genuine. Besides, if it was mild and short-lived, mightn’t the reaction it got have something to do with that?

Are you complaining? No, I’m getting ahead of myself. What I’m saying is that the guarded tolerance with which my mother greeted my story gave me no encouragement, and no condemnation to react against either. I was left to share my feelings with my best friend, with my diary and with a book by Jan Morris. All of these did something to keep those feelings alive, but after a while I got interested in something else and they faded away. And, thirteen short years later, I was 27. It was a hell of a slog getting there – “will Nature make a man of me yet?” and so on – but growing up usually is.

So my message for that confused, lonely teenager is: “Hang on. You’ll be fine. It’ll all be all right. It doesn’t seem possible now, but it will be. You can be the person you want to be; you will be the person you want to be. And it doesn’t have to involve surgery, or drugs, or cross-dressing, or even changing your name.” (Although I was obsessed with changing my name when I was a teenager – the search for the perfect pseudonym occupied me for years.)

Should we call you Conchita after all? No, no, it was my surname I wanted to get rid of – I couldn’t imagine becoming a rock star with a name like mine. And it’s true, I never changed my name and I never did become a rock star.

So, “hang on”… And is that what you’d say to teenagers who think they might be gay? Should everyone wait till they’re 27? No, of course not. I would advise fourteen-year-olds not to think that whatever they’re going through is necessarily going to last forever – but they’d never believe me, so there’d be no point. But seriously – when I was seven years old I wasn’t attracted to women; I also wasn’t a practising Christian, a Labour voter or a well-meaning middle-class Guardian reader. My parents expected me to grow up to be all of those things – that was our house for you – and so it came to pass, by and large. But if I’d grown up to be gay, or a militant atheist, or even a Tory, it would still have been a story I could tell from a shared beginning, a story that could make sense. By contrast, my parents didn’t have any expectations that I would grow up ‘as’ a boy – they knew I was a boy, from the moment I was born. (So I was a boy who didn’t like football, who liked wearing bright colours, whose best friend was a girl – so what? Still a boy.) To say that your entire past is a lie – not that your beliefs or your desires have developed in ways you didn’t expect, but that you never were what you were – is an awfully big step, for you as well as for everyone around you. Besides which, saying what you’re not doesn’t enable you to say what you are. You may have a deep-rooted feeling of revulsion against the sex you were born into (I remember that feeling), but you can’t possibly feel that you are the other sex – you’ve no idea what being the other sex is like. I’m a straight, Labour-voting mild agnostic, but I know from personal experience what it’s like to believe in an empty and meaningless universe, what it’s like to vote against Labour and what it’s like to be attracted to another man. What it’s like to have periods – or what it’s like not to have a prostate – I can’t begin to imagine.

All this is without getting into what committing to a trans identity, particularly as a young adult, will commit you to from that point forward. At the very least, going down that route is letting yourself in for years of distress – that’s what I’d say to that teenager. This isn’t about intolerance or prejudice; it’s changing something fundamental about yourself, socially and culturally as well as physically fundamental. I can’t think of a bigger change you could make, with the possible exception of some forms of extreme body modification. So yes, if you possibly can, hang on. But it’s a hopeful message as well – not just “hang on, don’t risk it”. “Hang on – you’ll be fine. It’ll all be all right. It doesn’t seem possible now, but it will be.”

Some would say you’re trivialising… Yeah, maybe. As I say, it’s possible that the gender dysphoria I experienced was an unusually mild and fleeting thing; maybe most kids identifying as trans these days ‘just know‘ who they are, undeniably and unshakeably, and know it from an early age. But I’m not sure. I saw some research the other day vindicating the reality of trans kids’ gender identification. One way we know that trans identities are real & deep-rooted, apparently, is that trans kids tend to socialise and bond with kids of their adopted gender, not their birth gender. So, there you go – me and my female best friend, what does that tell you? (Or should we be asking about her and her male best friend? Good heavens, what kind of weirdoes were we back then?)

At the end of the day, I can only picture the cultural landscape that would face me if I were an unhappy fourteen-year-old boy in 2016, and if I’d become convinced (as for a time I did) that being the wrong sex was the root of all my problems. I picture it and I wonder. I think of the resources of information, support, validation and enablement which I’d be able to find and tap into, and I wonder what my life would be like by the time I got to 27, or even to 21. I don’t think it would have gone the way it did. I might have ended up perfectly happy; I don’t believe in the inevitability of trans misery. But I do believe that there are many routes that most lives can take, many ways that most people can find to be happy – 14-year-old people especially. And if there are many routes to happiness, it seems like a good idea to choose a route of minimum self-imposed transformation and maximum self-acceptance – acceptance of your life, your body, your self.

That sounds like the cue for a song. What, ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’?

No.

Mostly harmless

At the LRB blog, Bernard Porter reminisces:

When I went up to Cambridge in October 1960, I found myself, for the first time, in the company of public schoolboys. … They were all very pleasant to me, despite my ‘Estuary’ accent and the fact that I had lived at home during my school years, and I made close friends with a number of them. But there was always this barrier – of adolescent experience – between us. They knew things that I didn’t (and vice versa? perhaps).

One thing was the proclivities of one of the fellows, the Rev. E. Garth Moore, notorious in public school circles as a sexual predator: they felt they needed to warn me, as a comparatively plebbish ingénu. ‘If Garth invites you to tea in his rooms,’ one of them told me on my first day, ‘don’t go. We know about him. You won’t understand.’ I think they were trying to protect me from embarrassment more than anything. It was kind of them. Anyhow, I did get the invitation, and politely turned it down.

This prompted a memory which I’ve never written about before. It wasn’t so much submerged, let alone repressed, as ignored; not in a locked cupboard of memory but in plain sight on a neglected shelf. I’ve never told anyone about it, but there’s a lot on those shelves that I’ve never told anyone about – the time the electricity meter broke, the time I nearly didn’t see Douglas Adams, the time we found the funniest line in Shakespeare… As a rule I haven’t told anyone because I didn’t think anyone would be interested. But maybe this one is worth bringing out.

So. Quite soon after I went up to Cambridge in 1979, I received an invitation to breakfast with Dr Pars, one of the college’s two resident retired fellows; the story was that the college had done away with lifetime residence and dining privileges several years earlier, but that Pars and one other don had hung on to theirs and were determined to exercise them to the last (as indeed they did). Dr L.A. Pars – Alan to his friends, ‘Pars’ to everyone else – was 83 at the time.

Pars, anyway, entertained me and another undergraduate to breakfast in his rooms; I gathered on the grapevine that he was working his way through the first year intake. It was a civilised but not particularly comfortable occasion. The other student was a woman – the college had just started admitting women – and Pars seemed very solicitous in pressing food on her (“I do hate it when people die of hunger at my breakfasts”); she was rather posh and was very gracious with him. I remember there was a fruit course, complete with appropriate cutlery; I ate a banana with a knife and fork, which was fun at least. Then there was a second breakfast invitation, for me and another undergraduate (another man this time); he was a third-generation student at the college, and Pars had known his father (and quite possibly his grandfather). This somehow led to a theatre outing for the three of us (Frederic Raphael’s From the Greek). When Pars sent me an invitation to afternoon tea in his rooms – just me this time – I thought things were looking up. The cakes were nice, the tea was good quality and Pars confided that he too preferred China to India; it was all very civilised.

In retrospect it looks very much like a selection process, but nothing of the sort occurred to me at the time. The breakfasts – and the play – were rather a bore, but having a (very) senior don take an interest in one and serve one China tea in his rooms… well, I was on the Left, but I wasn’t immune to this kind of thing; I’d read a bit of Dornford Yates in my youth and always thought it sounded like fun, the fox-hunting apart.

Then I got a letter from Pars, saying that he’d previously sent me an invitation to the Club (or possibly The Club) and been disappointed to have no reply – but, “as an invitation to the Club was not the kind of invitation one refuses”, he would expect me anyway. Date, time, place – it may even have been at the Master’s Lodge – guest of honour so-and-so, dress lounge suit. (I don’t know if the lost invitation was some sort of ploy or if Pars forgot to send it. There’s very little chance of it actually having got lost, en route from one side of the college to the other.)

Now, I’d never heard of The Club – I’ve never heard of it since, come to that – and had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But I thought it sounded appropriately privileged and inner-circle-ish, and I thought I’d give it a go; I was also slightly concerned about the potential ramifications of refusing, given that this was not the kind of invitation one refuses. My main worry was establishing what a lounge suit was, and – once I’d worked that one out – checking that I looked OK in one of the old suits my father had presciently given me before I went up. (I’d had them altered to fit my measurements, which at the time included a 28″ waist. I didn’t get much wear out of them.)

It was all very new and mysterious. I wrote, asking for advice, to a family friend named Keith – the son of a friend of my mother’s, to be precise. He wasn’t a personal friend – he was nine years older, a daunting gap at that age – but he’d graduated from the same college a few years earlier with a degree in archaeology, and had been very helpful when I was about to go up. I wanted to check out what I was getting into, and possibly show off a bit (“been invited to this thing called The Club, whatever that is…”). He replied, “I wouldn’t worry, Pars is pretty harmless these days.” Worry? Pretty harmless these days? I knew what Keith was – what he must be – referring to, but the thought had never crossed my mind until that moment; I hadn’t been worrying, but I was now (pretty harmless, these days?). What kind of ‘Club’ was this?

Keith was living at home at the time, in between research trips centred on shipwrecks, so I was able to ring him and ask what, precisely, he was saying about Pars. He laughed it off – oh, there were stories, you know… I didn’t know. Oh, you know… choirboys running screaming from his room in a state of undress… It’s all a while ago now – I mean, he’s an old man! I should go, it’ll be fine. Talking to Keith – who was a lovely bloke – reassured me greatly, even though he was actually confirming my suspicions. I rang my mother; she was rather brisk, and said that at this stage I was probably going to have to go, but pointed out that if necessary I could always make my excuses and leave.

So I went. It was a piano recital; there was assorted seating dotted around a rather large (and well-lit) room, there were twenty or thirty people, and I think there was wine. Looking around, I could see that the company was mostly male, but not entirely; some of my more lurid fears dropped away. I could also see that everyone else there was in their thirties or over; I was the only student. I didn’t recognise anyone, with one inevitable exception: Pars. He was sitting on a sofa, and patted the cushion for me to sit next to him. The pianist was introduced and began to play – some classical piece that I didn’t recognise. I noticed Pars nodding and tapping his foot to the rhythm of the piece; I thought this was surprisingly uncultured and concluded that he wasn’t really enjoying the music. Then I noticed his hand, which was on my thigh, just above my knee. He let it rest there for a while then squeezed, as if he was assessing the meat on a cow’s hindquarters. Then he patted my knee a couple of times, and left his hand there.

After the recital I made straight for the door. The Club seemed to be a perfectly innocuous cultural society, and perhaps it really was a privilege to be invited; I hadn’t actually been molested as such, either – nothing had happened. All the same, I had had my leg fondled in public – and, what was worse, Pars had effectively shown me off to the assembled company as his latest (potential) conquest. It was a deeply humiliating experience, and I wanted no more of it. Happily, Pars didn’t pursue me – literally or metaphorically – and I never had anything to do with him again.

I wasn’t angry, though, so much as ashamed; the indignity had been forced on me, but it felt as if the resultant shame was all mine. Shame led to guilt and self-reproach – why didn’t I say no? why hadn’t I said no before? why did he pick me – was there something about me? I told my parents and friends about what had happened (I don’t think I said anything to Keith), but the idea of reporting Pars in some way never occurred to me, and if it had I would have dismissed it. After all, what could I accuse him of? What had actually happened, really? No bones broken, eh? And I’d done all right out of it, hadn’t I? Poor old Pars, he’s harmless enough, it’s sad really when you think about it… So people would have said – or so we thought people would say – back in the 1970s. Even writing about it now, my initial impulse was to change names and details, to protect the… well. So hard to think of it as something that he should have been ashamed of, not me; so hard to think of it as something to feel angry about, not guilty.

Dr L.A. Pars – Alan to his friends – died in 1985, aged 89. The saddest part of the story is that he outlived Keith, the maritime archaeologist. Keith died in 1980, aged 29. He’d just surfaced from a dive in a Scottish loch and was standing in shallow water in a ‘hard’, pressurised diving suit, with the helmet off. A freak wave knocked him off his feet, the suit filled up and he couldn’t get back to his feet; he drowned in four feet of water. Although I never knew him well, I still think of Keith from time to time – I’ve never forgotten him and hope I never will. I’ve never forgotten Pars, either, but I live in hope.

 

The Blind Boys of Albania

Now Mao Tse Tung was a very great man
And a very great man was he
He fought with his hands and he fought with a gun
And he built a proletarian democracy
Now Mao Tse Tung wrote a little red book
And he published it himself
They’re reading it still all round the world
In English, Dutch, Japanese and Welsh
You say what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you, I say it might just brain you
And if you want to find out what I’m talking about
Take a tip from the Blind Boys of Albania

Lee Harvey Oswald took the rap
On the day John Kennedy died
Jack Ruby shot Lee Oswald down
I don’t think anybody even cried
Harold Wilson fell to the KGB
When he let his standards slip
While Enver Hoxha kept the red flag flying
In the model proletarian dictatorship
You say you’re not a political animal, you don’t see what it could gain you
But you’ll reassess your ideological stance
When I’m down your street with the Blind Boys of Albania

PROLETARE TË TË GJITHE VENDEVE, BASHKOHUNI! BASHKOHUNI!
Workers of all nations, do the bashkohuni dance!
PROLETARE TË TË GJITHE VENDEVE, BASHKOHUNI! BASHKOHUNI!
Because if you don’t bashkohuni soon, you’ll never get a bashkohuni chance

Now Communism’s dead and buried
And capital’s doing just great
We’re friends with everyone around the world
Except for the ones that we love to hate
And poverty’s just a fashion statement
Everybody’s middle-class now
There’s a Lottery winner every day of the week
It could be you, it could be me, although I’m not sure how
So disregard this rant as the product of residual political mania
But check your windows and bolt your doors
Because they’re out there now – the Blind Boys of Albania.

Many a deed and vow

Getting to the march wasn’t easy. There was a long wait for the bus into town; when it came it stopped at every stop. After three or four stops a small boy, whose family had got on – complete with home-made placards – at the stop after mine, started tugging at his mother’s sleeve and asking urgently, Was that the first stop? Was that the first stop? Mum… Mum, was that the first stop? She tried to ignore him, possibly because (like me) she couldn’t work out what he was asking or why. Ignoring him didn’t help; fortunately, about five minutes later the bus stopped and we all had to get off. I measured the distance we had to walk to get to the march afterwards; it was the best part of a mile.

The route of the march itself was a mile and a half, give or take; it took us about an hour to get round, ‘us’ meaning me and the people I happened to be walking alongside. There was a contingent there from my local Labour Party, which – having just joined – I was hoping to find, but I never saw them. More by luck than judgment I’d ended up towards the head of the march. At one point, feeling a bit exposed out at the front, I stopped and let the march go by for ten minutes or so before rejoining it, but even then I was well up towards the head of the march, relatively speaking. When I decided to knock it off and go home, two hours after I’d first got to the end of the route, there were still people arriving. I stood and watched them for a while, thinking I was seeing the last few stragglers; a knot of people representing the chiropodists’ and podiatrists’ union seemed to be bringing up the very end of the march, which seemed fitting. Then I noticed, a hundred yards behind the podiatrists, a group of a couple of hundred marching under the usual assortment of union and SWP placards, with no indication that they were the last. I gave it up and went for a drink. I don’t think anyone knows how big the march was; I’d be surprised if it was less than 100,000 strong (the police estimated 60,000).

The march itself was orderly and peaceful, whatever else you may have read; things didn’t kick off, nobody got kettled or baton-charged, and hardly anyone even got arrested (there were four arrests – out of 60-100,000 – including one for being drunk and disorderly). It wasn’t a fun march, though; it didn’t have a carnival atmosphere, despite the entertainments laid on along the way (here a performance artist, there a samba band, and at the end of the route an extraordinary band playing a fusion of jazz-funk and traditional folk). This was partly because of the purpose of the march, which was antagonistic: it was a march against austerity and against the Tories, whose conference in the middle of Manchester has caused serious inconvenience to a lot of people (and bear in mind that there hasn’t been an elected Conservative councillor in Manchester since 1996, or a Conservative MP since 1987). The mood was defiant, and not defiant in a playful, “Tubthumping” kind of way – more a matter of defying authority, and defying people who think they’ve won. Pig pictures, slogans and masks abounded; one woman walked alone in a full-face pig mask, carrying a placard saying “I prefer apples”. (Think about it.) And this level of ridicule goes along with the mood of defiance – as if to say, why should we listen to you? The old “they say cutback we say fightback” slogan got an outing near where I was walking; the chanting was a bit feeble, but ‘fightback’ was very much the way people seemed to be feeling. This was particularly evident when we got close enough to the conference centre to make some noise in its general direction. For some people all the noise-making was probably energising, but I have to say I found it all a bit wearing; if I never hear a vuvuzela again I’ll be heartily grateful.

Back in the 80s, I remember the BBC taking notice of the peace movement (then in its second prime) by broadcasting a god-awful drama called “The Big March”. The big march in question was ostensibly a peace march, but what were the real motivations of the shadowy left-wing group organising it, eh? What indeed. In one scene the central character – a sincere but ill-informed peacenik – is marching (on a smaller march) alongside a seasoned veteran who periodically calls out “It’s coming yet!”, to cheers and echoing shouts from his fellow activists. She, the peacenik, naturally asks him what it is that’s coming yet, and what it has to do with getting rid of nuclear weapons. He launches into an explanation of how he and his co-conspirators are working within the peace movement for a much bigger goal: the goal of realising the unfulfilled revolutionary hopes of, er, Robert Burns:

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that

Terrifying stuff, I think we can all agree. But probably not written by anyone who’s ever been on a march, and not only because slogans aren’t usually written in code. Perhaps I was just in a particularly disorganised part of the march, but the chants and slogans of my fellow activists were more reminiscent of that kid on the bus: I struggled to hear what they were saying, and then struggled to work out why. (What was that – “whose speech? free speech!”? No, hang on – “whose streets? our streets!”. Well, OK.) It just wasn’t that unified; there wasn’t a single revolutionary message that brought us all together (although I have to admit “Tory scum” was pretty popular).

If we weren’t being ruthlessly welded into a weapon of subversion, we didn’t conform to the opposite stereotype either; we weren’t a lawless rabble (although some of the dancing to that folk-funk band was pretty out there). If you’ve followed reports of the march in the press – never mind Twitter – you’ve probably formed the impression that spitting, egg-throwing and close-range intimidation was very much the order of the day. It wasn’t; these stories are so unrepresentative of the march as to be basically false. It’s like the old ‘black sheep’ joke: don’t say “all left-wing protesters are thugs”, say “in one section of one march there were a number of protesters, who may or may not have been left-wing, one of whom spat on Michael Crick at least once”.

Let’s be clear: there was no great failing in the march that ‘allowed’ those individuals to ‘become the story’. On one hand, what is the march supposed to have failed collectively to do? I can’t imagine any feasible mechanism that could have stopped those people from joining the march (as I did), or from doing what they did once there. On the other – more important – hand, that story didn’t just happen: it was written, by people who chose to write it that way and knew (or could have known) that they were grossly misrepresenting the march. And there are reasons why they did this. Often, I think, the reason why right-wing journalists write about violence and thuggery on the Left is that, when they look at the Left, that’s what they see. Whether violent acts are widespread or sporadic, major or minor, real or very largely imaginary is secondary: any actual violent incidents are simply outward confirmation of the violence inherent in the Left. An extreme example: in the late 90s I was on the Steering Committee of the Socialist Society, which involved attending monthly meetings in London. The meetings weren’t eventful; 10-15 people would turn up, we’d get through the agenda by lunchtime, and sometimes someone would give a paper or there’d be a guest speaker. I was pretty chuffed to have got on to the Steering Committee (although it wasn’t actually a contested election) and, before my first meeting, made the mistake of telling someone at work about it. On the Monday morning, another of my colleagues greeted me: “Have a good time in London? Kick many coppers, did you?” I was startled and genuinely confused. “Did you kick many coppers?” she repeated, as if for the hard of hearing. “On your demonstration.” I explained earnestly (clearly there’s been some misunderstanding) that there hadn’t been a demonstration, I’d gone down for a meeting… “Yeah, your socialist meeting – same thing. That’s what you lot do, isn’t it?”

Well, no, it’s not; we know that, and (judging from their firm but low-key presence, and those four arrests) the police know it too. But the Right believe it is, and the Right will always believe it, or affect to believe it. After all, what incentive have they got for not believing it? Define violence as illegitimate – as the mark of political illegitimacy – and then find reasons to denounce the Left as violent: there’s no reason this should ever stop working for them. And the way it works is to put us on the back foot, set us wringing our hands and writing earnest articles about how this sort of thing has no place on the Left. It’s divisive, demobilising and above all endless: they will always come back for more.

The ultimate example of this (so far) is the Tweet in which Dan Hodges announced

The fact delegates to the 2015 Conservative party conference can’t enter without feeling intimidated is a national disgrace.

Now, work with me here: what’s Hodges actually saying? Is protest illegitimate? (Not Hodges’s word, but if something’s a ‘national disgrace’ I think we can assume that whatever brought it about isn’t a legitimate thing to do.) Surely not. Might different considerations apply to protest in large numbers? I think most of us would be reluctant to go down that road, if only from familiarity with the sorites paradox. Is protest only legitimate if it’s targeted at the people directly responsible for the problem in question (viz. the government) rather than ordinary decent people with no direct responsibility (viz. Tory party members)? That won’t work, because the problem people were protesting about was, precisely, the power and prestige of the Conservative Party, in which individual members have a small but definite stake. (If Labour were in power and doing things many people disagreed with, I’d take “Labour scum” as fair comment – it’d be unwelcome and hurtful, clearly, but I’d know where it was coming from and accept that I’d laid myself open to it.) Is protest not legitimate if it hurts people’s feelings? Is it not legitimate if anyone hears? Or is it just flat-out not legitimate, what with the Tories having won the election?

Hodges’s position seems to echo Peter Ramsay’s theory of ‘vulnerable autonomy’, which Ramsay used to explain the rationale of the ASBO; the idea seems to be that making somebody feel unhappy is itself an illegitimate exercise of coercion, against which the previously-happy person has the right to be protected. Carried into politics, and into the field of political protest in particular, this essentially amounts to redefining speech as violence – and, as we’ve seen, violence is the border-post of political illegitimacy, the point where politics ceases. These are deep and dangerous waters, and I recommend my friends on the left to get out of them pronto.

This was a big march; it was a big, well-organised march that went off peacefully; it was a big, successful march. That’s what we need to hold on to, and the message we need to put out. It’s not as if a march like that is going to get a fair depiction in the press or on the BBC. Not in the short term, anyway – in the longer term I’m hopeful, despite all the evidence. It’s coming yet for a’ that.

Our infant might (1)

Red Pepper has launched an appeal to build a network of Corbyn supporters:

As campaigners, grassroots activists, trade unionists and members of social movements, we believe the overwhelming election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader presents a great opportunity. Jeremy has campaigned tirelessly over decades for social justice, and we share his vision for rebuilding democracy, respect and community. This election means we can start building a better country and a better world.

Some of us are members of the Labour Party and others not. Jeremy’s victory was made possible by people inside and outside the Labour Party who share a common hope in the future. There is an alternative. Things can get better.

But there is a steep road ahead, during which the government and its allies will attempt to spread fear and division. Parts of the media will attack him because they do not like his agenda of hope and participation. Many MPs will try to limit and constrain the process of giving power back to the people. This will be resisted.

As Jeremy himself has said, rebuilding this country cannot depend on one person. It demands that all of us take our share of responsibility. We commit ourselves to supporting this attempt to rebuild democracy in Britain.

We call on like-minded people to join us, creating a democratic and diverse network through action across the country – we will support each other’s campaigns at a local level as well as support the development of progressive changes at a parliamentary and legislative level.

Jeremy Corbyn provides space to once more allow people to make their voices heard. We must take it.

This, for me, sounds some very familiar notes. I’ve known Hilary Wainwright, the first signatory, since the late 1980s, when I was involved in the Socialist Society and subsequently the Socialist Movement. The Socialist Movement launched the newspaper socialist, which eventually morphed into Red Pepper; I was socialist‘s Books Editor for a while, and later did a year as Red Pepper‘s Culture Editor. I’ve had an itch to write about my Red Pepper experience more or less since it ended, but never quite got round to it. I remember a friend saying at the time that the components of job satisfaction are money, feeling appreciated and enjoying the work itself; working for the Left hardly ever offers the first of these, but that needn’t be a problem for as long as the other two are there.

Anyway, when I saw this appeal I flashed back to the Socialist Society, and perhaps especially the Socialist Movement. The Soc Soc was founded in 1981, a time when party lines were drawn fairly emphatically: if you were a socialist, there was a good chance you’d be a member of an organised grouping, which would have a definite orientation as regards Labour. As a member of your group, you would be committed either to working within the Labour Party and ultimately winning it for revolutionary socialism (like Militant), or working outside the Labour Party and ultimately building a revolutionary party (like the SWP) – which in turn would limit your opportunities for co-operation with members of groups on the other side of the line. The Soc Soc took the view that where you ultimately wanted to get to was less important than what was going on now, and opened its membership to members and ex-members of all parties and none: the Steering Committee included several International Socialism dissidents and a surprisingly strong contingent from the WRP. We were very much about the battle of ideas; in my time (1986-92) the Soc Soc pushed for the Left to engage more constructively with the green agenda, Europe and electoral reform. I think we did some good.

More to the point, we were also instrumental – if I’m brutally honest, Hilary and a couple of other people were instrumental – in the launching of the Socialist Conference (1987) and subsequently the Socialist Movement (1989). The idea here was to use the “who cares which party you’re in?” open-door logic to build an umbrella organisation instead of a think-tank, bringing together different groups and campaigns as well as individuals. The Socialist Movement’s constitution set out a terrifically ambitious and perhaps over-elaborate structure, allowing externally-organised groups to affiliate and interest groups to constitute themselves within the movement, while also preserving the democratic rights of individual members. Perhaps it could have worked; I’m probably not the best person to comment, as I applied some unauthorised simplifications when I was part of a working group set up to revise the constitution, and was duly called to order by Hilary the next morning. (Quite early the next morning, as I remember.)

Anyway, the idea of the Socialist Movement was to rally socialists both inside and outside the Labour Party, in the hope that people would start working together more productively; an early project was a directory of campaigning groups around the country. The problem with it was that a lot of the more open-minded, forward-looking, non-sectarian people we wanted to attract didn’t necessarily identify with the word ‘socialist’, or (more importantly) with the prospect of working together with a lot of people who did think of themselves as socialists. To quote something I wrote after the 1989 Socialist Conference,

It might have been thought that a conference committed to developing an ecumenical socialism would select its own audience, would attract only socialists (and non-socialists) who shared that commitment; this, though, has not been the case. We have seen far too few partisans of those currents – green, feminist, anti-racist, libertarian – which do not necessarily define themselves as socialist, but towards which the Conference’s socialism has always been oriented; and far too many socialists frankly opposed to what the Conference stands for. This latter group has, it’s true, thinned out lately – there were few present this year to defend the achievements of Cde. Stalin, the rectitude of the Lambert/Moreno line or the wisdom of J. Posadas – but it was very much in evidence all the same.

(Oh, I was so much older then…)

Some groups shunned the Socialist Conferences pretty much from the off – neither the SWP nor the Mils would have anything to do with us; predictable given the firmness of their respective positions regarding the Labour Party, but regrettable all the same. Others – possibly even including the Posadists, although I may have made that bit up – came along for the conferences and tried to recruit. What I, at any rate, hadn’t anticipated was that those groups who stuck with us to the extent of coming in on the Socialist Movement project would end up doing something similar. The constitutional line between external and internal groups blurred when (what’s now) the AWL took over the SM’s internal group for Labour Party members, while (what’s now) Socialist Resistance ‘got’ the groups for trade unionists and women. To be fair, this was probably only possible because the numbers involved in the SM weren’t that great; neither was the level of political activity at the time. The AWL deserted us before long, but the ISG (as they then were) hung on for a bit longer. Eventually a change of direction, pushed by Hilary and others, reoriented the Socialist Movement towards green issues and decentralised policy-making, and renamed it the Socialist Network; the ISG walked and the organisation folded not long afterwards. I think this was 1993, but it’s hard to be certain – as far as the Internet’s concerned the Socialist Network has left not a wrack behind. [UPDATE] It’s worth emphasising that it was only the Socialist Movement in England and Wales that went down the plughole; the Scottish Socialist Movement had already gone its own way, teamed up with the Mils north of the border and re-emerged as the Scottish Socialist Party, of whom you may have heard. So that bit worked, sort of.

Setting these rather jaded reflections to one side, I am absolutely not against the principle of collaboration between socialists in different groups, regardless of party membership (including Labour Party membership). I think it’s the kind of thing we’re bound to end up doing, as and when things get a bit livelier, so we might as well get used to it now. I do think that putting out the “collaboration across parties” welcome mat has an unfortunate tendency to attract groups which (a) are already committed to the principle of collaboration across parties and (b) think they can profit from getting involved in this particular initiative, while not doing much to attract or mobilise people more broadly; it might be just as effective simply to run up a flag saying “Socialism” – or “Stop Climate Change” or “Save Addenbrooke’s”. But that’s an implementation question.

So. “Some of us are members of the Labour Party and others not.” “Jeremy’s victory was made possible by people inside and outside the Labour Party who share a common hope in the future.” “We call on like-minded people to join us, creating a democratic and diverse network through action across the country”. They’re playing my song, right?

Answer in part 2.

TCM 9 – The company he keeps

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
– Bob Dylan

I think a lot of the sound and fury about the Corbyn campaign can be understood better – not that this will make it go away – if we think about what it means to have political allies.

To take an easy case, what does it say about you if you’re involved in politics and you don’t have any allies at all – if you have your own political programme, which is yours and belongs to you, and you never make common cause with anyone? Does it mean you’re a person of principle, an inspiration to the young and a light to the nations? Or does it mean you’re scrupulously avoiding having any practical effect on the world and making sure your political career will be consigned to a footnote? I’m thinking here of every politician who gets too big for their own party, from Kilroy-Silk to Galloway, but also of those politicians who get so attached to the sound of one particular bell that they ring it in the morning and ring it in the evening, till their name and their pet cause become synonymous. The late Willie Hamilton, a Scottish Labour MP, was a good example of this approach. Willie Hamilton was a republican; he believed that the royal family were a waste of public money, and he said so whenever he was asked. He certainly kept republicanism alive as an idea, but for most people the idea in question was “that thing Willie Hamilton’s always banging on about”. Less extreme examples would be Tam Dalyell and the West Lothian Question, or Frank Field and the undeserving poor.

So let’s assume that you’re a politician and that you’re right about everything – I mean, I know I am – but that you want to get things done from time to time. You’re going to have to make alliances, with people who don’t agree with you about everything. Which means they’re wrong about some things – maybe a lot of things. You’re going to have to make alliances with people who believe wrong things. It’s either that or be Willie Hamilton, or Frank Field at a pinch. Sorry – no one ever said politics was easy.

Of course, there are red lines; there are people you’ll never want to ally with for any reason – aren’t there? There are people who will make you take your name off a letter if they sign it, who will make you walk out of a public meeting if they walk in, who will make you reconsider your support for a policy if you find out they support it. And we all know who they are… don’t we?

Well, maybe.

It seems to me that this assumption, in different forms, has given the Left an enormous amount of trouble over the years. I’ll be honest, I read Homage to Catalonia at a formative age, and I used to be a staunch anti-Communist (it’s one of the few things you can be staunch about). I had absolutely no truck with any apologetics for Stalinism, post-Stalinism or neo-Stalinism, and I wasn’t particularly keen on Leninism (a.k.a. proto-Stalinism). The fact that, at the time I was striking these attitudes, the actually existing Communist Party was made up of equal parts of Scargillites and SDP sympathisers – while the ‘Leninist’ parties were, almost without exception, made up of utter tossers – made it a lot easier to stay truck-free and congratulate myself on being both Socialist and Principled. But you’ve got to ally with somebody, if you’re going to get anything done; the group I was in duly aligned with the Labour left on one hand and carefully selected Leninist tossers on the other. And of course blind eyes were turned; we tended to cough and change the subject when anyone started talking about the class nature of the USSR or which side to support in imperialist wars, or mentioned Ireland. (They all sounded the same…)

When I was wearing my It’s 1940 And I Am Victor Serge hat, I used to think there was a place for a really principled left somewhere to the… well, how to put this… not exactly to the right as such… OK, OK, somewhere a bit to the right of the ‘hard left’; I used to look wistfully at the likes of Chartist and Independent Labour Publications and Tribune and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform. The people involved might not get into the Guardian any more often than the hard Left, but at least they weren’t ridiculed when they did – and at least they weren’t asking us to do six impossible things before breakfast (“support the IRA”, “read the Morning Star“). What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was hankering after a position that was itself impossible – not on the hard Left, but not actually against it either. I was aware that, when I talked to contacts at ILP or Tribune, they didn’t observe these niceties, but were quite happy to bang on about Trots, tankies and assorted Labour Left headbangers in a way that seemed quite genuinely hostile – you could almost call it sectarian. But maybe that could be our goal – to be on the soft Left but not against the hard Left, leading by example, sort of thing. Maybe.

As a group we had the luxury of having been established as a cross between a discussion group and a go-between; our goal was to promote debate and co-operation, and ultimately set much larger forces than ourselves in motion. We weren’t a party, in other words, and as such didn’t feel we had to take a position on absolutely everything. So at the time of the Gulf War we were agin it, but didn’t take a definite position between the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf (mostly Labour Left, anti-war) and the Campaign Against War in the Gulf (mostly Trot, anti-imperialist); indeed, with our ‘left unity’ hat on we could argue that it was our job not to take a position between them. (We didn’t have any trouble taking a position with regard to the third anti-war campaign, on the other hand – the Ad Hoc Hands Off the Middle East Committee could sod right off.) Then, a couple of years later, the rest of the Left started to take notice of a region I’d been following for a few years – the soon-to-be-former Yugoslavia – and promptly got it completely wrong. This wasn’t discernibly a soft Left / hard Left thing, though – unless you counted Tony Benn as ‘hard Left’ – so much as an “almost everyone who knows about the area already”/”almost everybody else” thing. There was a ‘soft Left’ tune to be played – the “critique of kneejerk anti-imperialism” one – but at the time it seemed less urgent than “do you actually know what they’re doing out there, who’s doing it and why?”

A few years after that, there was Kosovo – a nation whose cause I’d supported for even longer than that of a united multi-ethnic Bosnia; a conflict which seemed utterly unambiguous in terms of right and wrong; and a conflict where, once again, the Left promptly lined up with the wrong side. Or so I thought. This was the turning-point for me: as the NATO bombing campaign wore on I realised that what I supported was a war of liberation, fought by the Kosovars themselves against the Serbian armed forces – or, ideally, not having to be fought at all, the Kosovars having sufficient armament and support to induce the Serbs to back off. (The ideal outcome in Bosnia would have been similar.) What was happening, on the other hand, was high-level bombing of civilian targets, as part of a war of aggression, fought by a military alliance from outside the region, seeking to impose its own terms on Serbia – terms that included, among other things, the establishment of a free-market economy. In short, it was an illegal war being fought by illegal means by illegitimate combatants in order to dictate unjust terms; the only thing it had in common with the war I thought I was supporting was that Serbia was involved. And this war – the war that was actually taking place – was wrong and, when it came down to it, needed to stop. Ultimately my only disagreement with the “stop the war” crowd – the “anti-NATO” crowd, the “kneejerk anti-imperialist” crowd, the “solidarity with Serbia” crowd – was that I thought the Serbian government had to be defeated and/or overthrown after this was over. I wasn’t alone in finding my way to this position. The group I’d been in had dissolved by this time, but I remember a friend being involved with another small group which had the double slogan STOP THE BOMBING – ARM THE KOSOVARS.

The anti-Communism that I’d grown up with, the anti-Leninism that I’d lived by, the opposition to “kneejerk anti-imperialism” that had made me dislike Chomsky so much – I was starting to wonder what it was worth, really. I could still see the point of being against the people I’d always been against, but I was starting to wonder whether it was really a principled position – and about who I was lining up with. Frances Stonor Saunders’ Who Paid the Piper? came out in 1999, and a passage in Francis Mulhern’s Red Pepper review stuck with me:

[The CIA’s] goal was to establish an America-friendly, anti-Soviet hegemony over Europe’s intelligentsias, and to do so by supporting the cultural projects of ‘non-communist lefts’ (‘NCLs’). Reactionaries were of little interest; professional ex-Stalinists such as Arthur Koestler were a nuisance. T.S. Eliot was all very well, but honest George Orwell was a precious resource. The IRD financed campaigns against the New Statesman, thought to be insufficiently hostile to the USSR, but supported Socialist Commentary, the house organ of Labour’s Atlanticist right, as well as Tribune: one anti-Stalinist was as serviceable as another. There is a difficult moral here, worth pausing over even – or especially – in our post-Wall world.

Then all of a sudden our world was no longer post-Wall but post-9/11, and everything was changed, changed utterly – except that the same hard Left was attacking our own government and going easy on their enemies (however vile they might be), and the same soft Left was denouncing them for it. Rather more of us were occupying ‘hard Left’ positions now – apart from anything else I seemed to have become hard Left myself, somewhere along the line. Perhaps this wasn’t too surprising, as the price of admission to the soft Left now seemed to include actually supporting an actual alliance of imperialist powers conducting an actual illegal war of aggression. (Just reporting how it looked from the outside.)

I think there’s a division on the Left which is at once very deep and very impermanent, like a crevasse in sand; there’s a chasm between the two sides, but where that chasm actually is – and how much space there is on each side – changes over the years. (There’s also a real and permanent fault-line, which doesn’t always coincide with the impermanent one; I’ll come back to that.) Which side you’re on will determine where you look for allies – what kind of wrongness you can tolerate in order to get things done: if you’re on the ‘soft Left’ side, attitudes to the EU may be negotiable, but having the wrong position on the former USSR won’t be permitted. The wrongness of our allies is something we can turn a blind eye to – it’s called practical politics. The wrongness of our opponents’ allies, on the other hand, is a glaring and inexcusable fault: in fact, the very fact that they can have allies who are so wrong demonstrates how wrong they are. This – never particularly productive – approach has surely reached its nadir now, with people being accused of having allies who sympathise with IS, by people whose allies include the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

There’s something cultural – almost temperamental – about the ‘soft Left’/’hard Left’ division: a preference one way or the other (thinking that the Morning Star is a well-produced, informative paper, or that the SWP are disruptive headbangers) doesn’t automatically give you beliefs to match (opposing British troops being used anywhere or thinking the Iraq war was a good idea, respectively). Those preferences do mean that you’re more likely to meet people who do have the ‘matching’ beliefs – but not that you’ll only meet people with those beliefs, or that your own beliefs will have to be moulded to fit. Back in the 90s, Chartist and Briefing may have squared off against each other as soft- and hard-Left respectively, but they were both genuinely pluralistic groups with a lot of overlap between them. (Chartist – which is still around, with some of the same people involved – has come out for Corbyn.)

When the Kosovo conflict began and the SWP leapt to express solidarity with Milosevic – at least, to express a solidarity with the Serbian people which didn’t seem to exclude endorsement of their government – I remember feeling that this was something different: a real line was being drawn, and people we had thought to be allies were turning out to have a very different project of their own. I think now I was wrong twice over – in overstating the permanence of the line being drawn and in the side I put myself on. I also think that an enduring line was drawn a few years later – over Iraq and over the reaction to the 7/7 bombings. Or rather, the hard/soft line was drawn so as to coincide with the underlying, permanent fault-line I referred to earlier: the fault-line between imperialism and anti-imperialism. Think of it in terms of the difference between rivalry and opposition. As between two rivals, one can’t succeed without the other one failing; when one rival does defeat the other, anything the first rival has achieved is likely to be rolled back. Nevertheless, both have a shared cause, even if they understand it differently; either one would be glad to have the other as a collaborator, if only they would abandon their rivalry. Between two opponents, for one to succeed is to make the other fail: the two have opposed causes, and it’s unimaginable that one could collaborate with the other. The hard Left and the soft Left are rivals for the Labour Party; imperialism and anti-imperialism are opponents.

Essentially, the old soft Left has ended up positively committed to supporting aggressive wars conducted by imperialist powers. Positive support for imperialism has never been universally popular on the Left, if only because it goes against both left-wing and liberal principles, it’s supported by the Right and there’s nothing left-wing about it. If the soft Left – which has never been pro-imperialist by definition – had had a look round after Iraq and backed quietly out of the corner it had talked itself into, the damage might have been rectified. Instead, many of them now seem to be determined to talk themselves further in. The clearer this becomes, the less popular the soft Left gets – and the less of a stumbling-block the hard Left’s choice of allies starts to appear. I think over the summer a lot of people have started to feel that, firstly, there are more important things in politics than who a person’s allies are, particularly given that an ally is (by definition) somebody you don’t agree with on everything; and, secondly, that on some of those important things, the hard Left may actually be more right than wrong, and the soft Left (at least in its current form) a lot more wrong than right.

All this, as may have become apparent, is by way of a response to ‘Bob from Brockley’ and his ‘vague sense of worry and depression’ (my words) about some of Jeremy Corbyn’s allies and connections. On mature consideration – and speaking as somebody for whom, at one time, the wrong kind of anti-imperialist allies would have been an instant deal-breaker – I’m disposed to be a bit firm with regard to this one. On the hard Left/soft Left level, as far as I’m concerned the whole question of allies is fluff. Everyone has allies; we don’t agree with them about everything; we turn a blind eye to our allies’ shortcomings and make a big deal of those of our enemies’ allies. My friend and colleague voted in support of General Jaruzelski’s restoration of order in Poland? A perfectly legitimate opinion in historical retrospect! (Thinks: tankie bastard, I knew he’d be trouble.) Your ally was wined and dined by a private healthcare provider? An all-too-typical example of the corruption which is destroying democracy! (Thinks: what an idiot, he didn’t even need to declare that.) And so on. If a dodgy friend or contact is influencing our man’s opinions or judgments, show us the opinions or judgments which have been affected and we’ll talk about them. Otherwise, it’s fluff.

To the extent that it runs deeper than that – to the extent that a political opponent has allies that you can’t imagine associating with under any circumstances whatsoever – I suspect that what’s really going on is an opposition that runs deeper than that: that is, a case of true opposition rather than rivalry. This, of course, is why the old Cold War rivalries on the Left were sometimes so bitter: somebody who wanted to defend ‘actually existing socialism’ and somebody who wanted to undermine it may have been rivals within the British Left, but on the broader stage they were opponents. We don’t tend to turn a blind eye to our rivals’ defects at the best of times; we certainly aren’t going to be that charitable if we’re positively opposed to what our rivals want to achieve. But here again the actual question of allies is, ultimately, fluff. If, at the end of the day, you’re opposed to Jeremy Corbyn because he’s a consistent anti-imperialist, it won’t matter whether he’s been hanging out with Gerry Adams, Vinnie Jones or the Pope – just as, for his supporters, it doesn’t matter whether Tony Blair hangs out with Islam Karimov, Khaled Meshaal or George W. Bush.

If Jeremy Corbyn wins this election, he’ll be the first genuinely anti-imperialist leader of the Labour Party for a long time – possibly the first ever. Many people, unfortunately, will oppose him for that reason. I just wish they’d acknowledge that they do oppose him for that reason, rather than maintaining that they’re ‘raising concerns’ about his ‘judgment’ and so on. Maybe the reason that these ‘concerns’ are having so little impact on Corbyn’s support is that this isn’t just another case of rivalry within the Left. Maybe we’re not actually on the same side here.

And find out what’s behind it

Cross-posted from ¡Vivan las Caenas!, where a series of retrospective posts is currently under way. This one is essentially ‘my life as a mature student’, and features what I didn’t realise then was the beginning of my interest in the law.

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails.”
– T. H. White, The Once and Future King

I was 30. After graduating I’d spent a year on the dole – you could do that back then – before getting a job as a computer programmer. (I’d been a member of the college Micro Society and spent many hours writing Atom BASIC.) Eight years after that, in my third job, I was getting rather bored and very demotivated: work just seemed to be a series of tasks to which I had no commitment, to be judged by standards I barely understood. (“Ennit all?”) I found interest elsewhere, as a member of the Socialist Society and the Socialist Movement, and as a writer for Tribune, New Statesman, Lobster and the SM’s short-lived paper socialist (grandparent of Red Pepper). In the pub one night, after a meeting of the Manchester Socialist Movement group, a guy I knew slightly mentioned that he’d signed up to do a part-time degree. It’s embarrassing to recall how transformative this tiny encounter was for me. It didn’t so much plant a seed as decontaminate the soil – suddenly, absurdly, there was no good reason why I shouldn’t do another degree. Or rather, suddenly there never had been. (So you can change the past!)

But what and how? I wanted to do something that I was passionate about, and that didn’t seem to be English any more. And was it an MA I was looking for? I considered going straight for an MPhil, or a doctorate at a pinch; I got as far as making a shortlist of two alternative thesis topics, one on the experience of UFO encounters and one on computing in business. (At least one dodged bullet there.) On reflection – and after taking advice from my former Director of Studies – I decided that an MA would be more straightforward and less lonely. It took a while to find the right course – it had to be part-time, for one thing – but eventually I embarked on an MA in Politics and Contemporary History at Salford. The course was modular, but in my case covered International Relations (which was awful), Nazi Germany, Resistance in Occupied Europe, Collaboration in Occupied Europe (which was fascinating) and Post-War Italy, with a dissertation on Guy Debord and The Society of the Spectacle. I graduated with a Distinction, and was encouraged by more than one of my tutors (finally!) to think about a doctorate. I made a second and more realistic shortlist of topics: resistance in Vichy France (with a particular focus on groups and individuals which (arguably) played both sides of the street, such as Emmanuel Mounier’s personnalisme movement); or radical movements in 1970s Italy (with a particular focus on those which (arguably) had a Situationist influence, such as Gianfranco Faina’s armed group Azione Rivoluzionaria). My tutors all agreed that, while both these topics were interesting and appropriately specific, one of them was pretty well mined out while the other was still honkingly obscure. So I set out to write a group biography of Azione Rivoluzionaria. Unfortunately they turned out to be just a bit too obscure, so I did this instead. (Looks pretty interesting, eh? Has your library got a copy?)

As for the law, consider a couple of themes I touched on in the previous paragraph: the challenges to political normality represented by the Nazis on one hand and the Situationists on the other. My fascination with the Nazi period (I can’t speak for anyone else’s) stems from the regime’s effort to normalise inherently destructive and corrosive values: to build an enduring system based on aggression, competition and brutality, in all areas of life and at all levels, undermining and corrupting cultural and institutional survivals from the old regime. (In little more than a decade they managed to build alternative forms of politics, an alternative (anti-semitic) form of Christianity and – of course – an alternative criminal justice system. There were cases of blatantly political prosecutions being dismissed by the judge, only for the suspect to be re-arrested as he left the court and taken into ‘protective’ custody by the Gestapo.) By looking at collaborationists, in particular – and respectable Nazi sympathisers such as Douglas Reed and Arnold Wilson – I thought we could think our way inside the genuine appeal of what is to us an obviously vile and unsustainable project. The Third Reich had a life span of less than a generation, so inevitably most Nazi supporters came to the Party as adults: did they all have 180-degree conversions, or were there areas of overlap between the National-Socialist project and other, legitimate political ideologies – and, if so, what could those overlaps tell us? In short, I was very interested in alternative normative systems, and in the idea of treating our own norms as just one set among others. At the other political extreme, the Situationists were a classic example of a radical group whose intellectual ability and self-confidence enabled them to develop and maintain a set of political norms quite distinct from those of the mainstream (to the end of his life Guy Debord was proud of a line of graffiti he’d written as a teenager: NE TRAVAILLEZ JAMAIS). The question here was less of overlap than of availability. May 1968 suggested that, given the swift kick of a general strike, entire towns and cities could jump the normative tracks and exist, at least temporarily, in a universe where spontaneous co-operation was the norm and wage labour was an aberration. I remembered Henri Lefebvre dismissing the Situationists as a band of dreamers: why, they even imagined that there could be a spontaneous general strike, in France, in the 1960s! The question of what makes a good normative system – one, potentially, better than our own – seemed to be a live one.

Those late-70s Italian movements, for their part, had it all: the dawning dreams of a world made new and the queasy horrors of political violence, plus a conflicted relationship with an uncomprehending official Left – which itself embodied an alternative system of values, in more or less compromised form. The law does start to show itself here as a field of contention: I was very struck by the legal amnesty achieved following the Hot Autumn of 1969, such that offences committed during the strike wave ceased to have been crimes. I also remember a debate in the Italian parliament as to precisely what happens when a Molotov cocktail goes off: if the explosion had been classed as a mechanical process rather than a chemical reaction, Molotovs would have been classified as weapons of war and their use would have carried much higher penalties. Politics, as Green Garside never said, is prior to the vagaries of the law – but those are some interesting vagaries.

Although I’d hit a dead end with Faina and Azione Rivoluzionaria, material on the broader topic of the radical movements of the 1970s (and their interaction with the Italian Communist Party) was surprisingly abundant. A couple of years earlier I’d taught myself Italian by brute force (reading a book about the Situationists with a dictionary next to me); I now took my Italian to the next level by much the same method, using Nanni Balestrini’s wonderful novels Gli invisibili and L’editore. (The first page of Gli invisibili took me most of a day: “the… the corridor was, was lined with… with what which whatly did what and made it look like a what?”. The entire book’s written without punctuation, which didn’t make it any easier. But I got there.) I discovered Primo Moroni a matter of months after his death (damn it), and corresponded more or less briefly with Steve Wright, Steve Hellman, Dave Moss, Donatella della Porta, Nanni Balestrini, Olivier Turquet and Gennaro Barbarisi (the writer of an opinion column in a 1976 edition of l’Unità). I carried out research in Colindale (Corriere della Sera on microfilm) and at the University of Reading (l’Unità in hard copy – the only place in the UK which held it) and presented my work in Edinburgh and Milton Keynes; I didn’t get to Italy, though (no budget).

Along the way I also discovered Alfred Schutz, read a lot of Rorty and a fair bit of Dewey, and sketched out a reconciliation of Bhaskar’s critical realism with Schutz’s social phenomenology; as well as blowing Rorty out of the water, this theoretical synthesis was going to give a definitive non-Foucauldian account of the relationship between power and truth. I should probably get back to it some time. Or maybe not. One of my first tutors on the MA had pointed out that I tended to take on too much and range too widely; clearly, I still had that problem. I began to realise how much of a problem it was a few years later, when a friend who was launching a new journal asked me for an 8,000-word paper and I turned in 16,000. (To his great credit, he spotted a way of turning it into two separate papers – and took both. Most editors wouldn’t be anywhere near so accommodating.) It’s a familiar pattern, recurring in a slightly less disabling form. The unique me-ness of me! All right, so I could play with ideas, but I wasn’t going to play with other people; I mean, I couldn’t, really. I’d do it over here, in my own way; it’d be brilliant, but nobody was going to see it till it was finished. I’d be uniquely brilliant! (Ta-da! Sixteen thousand words! How good is that?) Or, if necessary, I’d be uniquely useless; that would work, in its own way. (Eight thousand – eight, not sixteen! How can I be so stupid?)

While all this was going on, I was freelancing as a writer and researcher – I’d left IT for a job editing a computing magazine shortly after starting my MA, and left that job after three years to start work on my doctorate. Lots of writing to a deadline and editing to a word count, lots of instant research, lots of playing with sources and story-building – ask me anything about Wallis Simpson, or Jasper Maskelyne, or Helen Keller… What I didn’t do, while I was a postgraduate, was teach; I did sound out one of my tutors about the possibilities of teaching work, but I rapidly concluded that the day rate for technical journalism was better – I mean, much better. (Plus I could do it without leaving the house, or interacting with anyone except by email.) This was probably a mistake.

The gate to the law (part 1)

So why all the legal stuff? I seem to be posting little else these days; I’ve even started a separate blog, devoted to one specific corner of legal theory. Am I a lawyer? (No, I’m a lecturer in criminology.) Have I got a legal background? (No.) Is it connected with my work? (Well… no, not really. Not just yet.)

So what is the fascination of this (very specialised) field of study? And what has it got to do with my actual academic career – particularly bearing in mind that I began this career fairly late on (it’s my third, roughly speaking), and it took me several years of hard work to get across the starting line? It’s taken me long enough to get to here, in other words, so why am I digging over there?

I’ve been wondering about this, and here’s what I’ve come up with. Here’s the first instalment, at least; the rest will appear on another blog.

BROD: Then there’s no hope?
KAFKA: Plenty of hope, endless amounts of hope! But not for us.

It begins, as far as I can make out, with damnation. Continue reading

That would be an ecumenical matter

Small personal update. I’ve just spent two days on a bid-writing retreat, organised to support people working in Humanities departments at my university – criminologists (like me), sociologists, linguists, historians, geographers and a lawyer or two. ‘Retreat’ was the operative word – it was a very quiet two days, rather solitary in fact. This was very much thanks to the venue, a huge Victorian house run since the mid-70s by a Christian community. One door had a sign saying that the room beyond was reserved for quiet meditation; it turned out to be a large, light and well-furnished living room, in which I could have meditated quietly for hours or more. The atmosphere was scarcely any less tranquil when the room had been occupied by five people staring at laptops.

I had a bit of trouble with my bid. I got a permanent position in 2010 and applied myself fairly concentratedly to teaching for the next couple of years. Now that I’ve cleared a bit of time and headspace for research, I keep finding I’ve had a brilliant idea which somebody else has already researched or written about – very often within the last two years, infuriatingly enough. (Or, most infuriatingly of all, a brilliant idea which has superficial but obvious similarities to part of a research project that somebody else has carried out within the last couple of years. Not that I’m bitter.) Anyway, I ended up essentially ripping up my original idea and starting again – a productive but difficult process which can’t really be done while sitting in front of a laptop. Standing up is involved – pacing, ideally; there is generally speech, also, or muttering at the very least.

In search of a room to pace and mutter, I found myself in a sunroom on the first floor. I did some quite useful rethinking, then looked around and noticed the books. I’d seen a couple of bookcases around the place and taken a vague bibliophilic interest in the religious texts in them, but the books in the sunroom were something else. There were books in that room I hadn’t seen in five years – ten, even: books that I’d last seen on my parents’ bookshelves. (My father died in 2001, my mother in 2006; they were both pillars of the local church and had been all my life.) Then I noticed the chairs – two in particular out of the many armchairs in that one room (that house was extraordinarily well upholstered). They were old-style high-backed armchairs, well-used, in covers with a light-coloured William Morris-ish floral pattern. I’d seen chairs covered with that particular material before – specifically, I’d seen them in my parents’ living room. When we’d set about clearing the house there had been some discussion with a Christian group, although it didn’t come to anything (fire regulations); I wondered for a moment if some less discriminating charity had come back later and scooped up chairs and books and all. They would then need to have transported them to the other end of the country, though, which I realised was unlikely. It was an odd moment. At the end of the first chapter of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The unconsoled (very minor spoiler), the narrator looks around his Central European hotel room and is reminded momentarily of his boyhood bedroom, before being struck by the realisation that it is his boyhood bedroom – the room he remembers so fondly has been rebuilt in this distant city, especially for him. This was a bit too close to that scene for comfort.

But of course (I reminded myself) there are lots of armchairs out there covered with Morris-esque florals. And, when I really looked, it turned out that most of the books I’d recognised actually weren’t books I’d seen on my parents’ bookshelves – not within the last ten years, at any rate. They were books, and authors, like these:

Michel Quoist
Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man)
Paul Tillich (The Courage to Be)
Don Cupitt
Rollo May’s Love and Will
The Truth of God Incarnate (this stood out a bit; it was written as a riposte to The Myth of ditto, which would have fitted much better but wasn’t there)
Bias to the Poor
Colin Morris (Unyoung, Uncoloured, Unpoor)
The ‘Honest to God’ Debate (although not John Robinson’s Honest to God itself)
The New Inquisition (a critical commentary on the excommunication of Hans Küng)
a book taking a positive view of Taizé
a book taking a positive view of Pentecostalism

And now the trapdoor of memory really opened. Never mind ten years, these were books I hadn’t seen in thirty years or more; many were books I hadn’t even thought of in thirty years. They were still instantly familiar: they gave me the same kind of jolt of recognition that you get when you dream of meeting someone who’s died – “why did I think I’d forgotten you?”. (Even as I write it I’m struck by how eerie the simile is, but it is apt. Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt, and I think books are particularly rich in them.) Some of these were books that my parents had had in the house where I grew up, and turned out when they moved to Brighton in the mid-1980s; some were books that had been on the lending shelf in our local church, or on the freely-lent-from bookshelves in the Rectory, where the Rector’s wife used to keep open house for artists, musicians and local kids.

In short, as I looked around that room I was breathing the air of a certain kind of church in the 1970s (where ‘church’ means the community more than the building). I hadn’t realised how much I missed it. As well as being ecumenical as regards other Christians, being a Christian in a church like this meant being non-literalistic and generally non-doctrinaire on the Christian story itself. (When David Jenkins said that the Resurrection was “more than a conjuring trick with bones”, he was very much talking our language: as if to say, we’ll concede the flesh-and-blood resurrection if that means we can talk about what the Resurrection actually means. Shame it didn’t come across like that.) It meant not believing that you, or your church, had all the answers, or that anybody did (apart from God); it meant not worrying too much about being saved but believing that there was work to be done in this life (in the words of the Christian Aid motto, “We believe in life before death”). More specifically, it meant taking Jesus seriously when he talked about the eye of the needle and giving away your coat and the sheep and the goats. The Christians I met when I went away to university were all about Biblical literalism and accepting Jesus as your personal saviour; it was like going from seminars on number theory to being drilled in multiplication tables, badly. I never really went back to the church after that; I visited my parents’ new church in Brighton a few times and got to know the vicar (he preferred ‘priest’), but it wasn’t the same kind of church – higher, quieter, more doctrinally orthodox, less radical politically.

All of this is, of course, rather a long time ago; when you’re looking back at the age of 52, the people you had around you in your teens are often not there any more. Around 1979, the Rector moved on and was replaced by a new Rector (who didn’t much hold with the intellectual stuff and certainly didn’t hold with the ‘open house’ thing). Around 1984, my parents moved to Brighton. In the 1990s, the Rector died (fairly young, unexpectedly), and the new Rector retired (I don’t know who replaced him). The years since 2000 have seen the deaths of my father, the vicar in Brighton (who also died young and unexpectedly), my mother and the Rector’s widow. (My entire academic career to date has taken place in the same period, and most of it since my mother died – a disjuncture in time which made it particularly poignant to be faced by those books in that setting.) It’s as if the books had outlived their readers. Michel Quoist and Teilhard, Honest to God and Unyoung, Uncoloured, Unpoor: names like these make up a picture, for me, but it’s not a picture I can easily check out with anyone else. Memory can be lonely, even when it’s supported by tangible things; perhaps especially then. Maybe that’s another, not too strained, reading of sunt lacrimae rerum – “these are the tears of things”: tears which the things keep to themselves until somebody strikes the rock and draws them out.

All this in a few minutes – it was a dense experience as well as an odd one – in between pacing and muttering. As for my bid, having abandoned something about subjective experiences of procedural justice, I came away with an idea about subjective experiences of the rule of law – much more exciting. (It actually is much more exciting as far as I’m concerned, which hopefully will make for a more persuasive bid; I should certainly be able to dedicate more of myself to it.) It would make a better story if I said I would now be conducting research on the inter-generational construction of non-denominational religious identities, or something, but reality is obdurate. Besides, I need to keep something for the blog.

A man he may grow

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

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

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

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

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

But that last sentence can’t be right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s eat some toast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the blog, it’s great.

They really are a treat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you really want to be

Quoth John B, in comments on something else entirely at B&T:

Anyone who a) has career aspirations when they’re 17 and b) they’re not vet, doctor, scientist, writer or pop star, is a disturbing weirdo.

adding

+ ACTOR & sportsperson, on reflection, but that genuinely is about it

I’m not sure, for two reasons. One is that being 17 now really isn’t what it was when me and thee were lads (unless thou art significantly younger than me). Snagging another B&T comment:

Life may have changed I suspect – or at least the balance of ‘acceptable to express hopes for the future’ may have altered amongst 17 yr olds. All this endless droning on about (i) the skills based knowledge economy and wot not; and (ii) the need to up our national game vis a vis the Asiatic surge to 21st Century dominance may have had its effect.

I’m certainly teaching students who have a much better idea of where they’re going than I did at their age. Come to that, my son has a much better idea of where he’s going than I did at his age, and he’s not even in Sixth Form.

More importantly, I’ve got a nasty feeling the disturbing weirdoes always did have the right idea. When I was 16 my career aspirations went something like this (in order of decreasing desirability and increasing realism – i.e. mentally insert “and if that doesn’t work out…” after each one).

  1. Poet, famous for writing poems that everyone thinks are brilliant, paid to write more poetry. Something like Dylan Thomas, only not drunk all the time. Not sure if anyone does that these days, but if they don’t I will.
  2. Rock star, kind of post-Bowie, bit intellectual, bit arty, costumes and dancing and so on. Something like Peter Gabriel. I could definitely do that, I’ve got the voice and I can learn the songs and everything.
  3. University lecturer. That would be OK, I’d be good at that. English or poetry or something. I could definitely do that.
  4. Journalist maybe? Can you get a job in journalism? What would you actually do?

By the time I was 21 and finishing my degree I’d crossed off 1. and 2. Unfortunately I’d also crossed off 3. – I’d got a look at the way graduate students studying English literature seemed to live, and decided it was simpliciter sanguinarius atrox (Joyce): privileged, unreal, pointless. Like the Leyton Buzzards, I didn’t want to end up posh and shirty – I wanted to work and get my hands dirty, or at least work at a proper job with an ordinary employer and a salary and hours of work and everything. Looking back, I’m not at all sure what was behind this impulse, although I think the Buzzards could have given me a clue if I’d listened more closely[1]. In particular, I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me that lecturers were employees too – and that graduate students, who weren’t even that, actually had things pretty hard. Really, I had it backwards – it’s not a life of privilege undercut by arid scholasticism, it’s a life of penury compensated by doing work you love. Perhaps the real problem was that I was in the process of falling out of love with Eng Lit, and it didn’t occur to me then to look further afield academically (and see [1]).

Anyway, I ended up as a journalist (and in answer to my teenage self, what you do is anything and everything that they ask you to do). After only nine years of writing for a living I managed to work my way into academia, and little more than five years after that I had a proper job. (Criminology, it turns out, is where it’s really at for me. Criminology and sociology. Sociology, criminology and the law. Criminology and socio-legal studies, and that’s my final offer.) Oh, and I’d worked in IT for eleven years before I managed to get into journalism, and I was on the dole for a good six months before I got my first programming job.

In short, I went into university with unrealistic dreams and came out with a goal that was realistic – there were lots of jobs in computing – but almost entirely wrong for me. (It wasn’t all bad. Coding can be fun, database admin is a good job in many ways and data analysis is brilliant.) It took me a good few years to get the boat turned round, and the key move was one I still look back on with mingled pride and horror, as it involved resigning from a perfectly good job with only a couple of months’ work lined up. (Twelve years on, I’m still not earning as much as I was paid at that job, even in cash terms.) It’s worked out, though, pretty much; arguably I should have stuck to one of my dreams all along (#3 would have been a good choice).

I don’t know, though. Settling for a job I didn’t enjoy, on the vague pseudo-radical grounds that most people had jobs they didn’t enjoy (and see [1]), wasn’t a good idea. The problem is that #3 and #4 were dreams, just as much as #1 and #2 – they were careers that were just going to happen to me somehow. I remember thinking that a medical student friend of mine was a bit strange because his dreams seemed to be so specific – from about 20 he knew what branch of medicine he was going to go into, how high he was going to rise (consultant), how much he’d be earning and what car he was going to drive. I realise now that they weren’t dreams, they were plans – and they were going to get him into his ideal career in a lot less than 20 years. (And yes, he is a consultant, and if he doesn’t drive that car it’s because he’s traded up.)

Still, who wants a life that’s been planned out? Me, I’d much rather be happy than right any day.

[1]

Don’t want to end up posh and shirty,
I want to work and get my hands dirty.
Middle-class boy brought up like me
Got to do something to earn credibility.
Don’t want my friends all looking at me
As a hoity-toity, airy-fairy,
Arty-farty little twerp!

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