Category Archives: you young people

Young bones groan

Just recently, I’ve got heavily into traditional music – specifically, traditional English, Scottish and Irish music. One of the effects has been to make me feel a bit ambivalent about the local folk club – which is ironic, as it’s going to the folk club that exposed me to traditional music in the first place.

I went to the aforesaid club the other night, and a terrific night it was too. There were 16 acts – a total of 18 musicians and two poets – and some of them were stupendously good. Good value, too – singers’ nights are a quid in, and you make that back on the beer, thanks to a cricket club licence (the bitter’s £1.60).

Here’s what I heard. (All numbers arranged for vocal and guitar unless otherwise stated.)

– “Skip to my Lou”, vocal and maraca
– “Changes” (from O Lucky Man!)
– “The ballad of Sir Patrick Spens” (a parody), unaccompanied vocal
– something C+W (possibly traditional)
– two poems by a Danish poet (in translation), recitation
– something bluesy (possibly traditional), vocal, harmonica and guitar
– something bluesy and jazzy (just possibly traditional)
– “When I’m cleaning windows”
– “The house of the rising sun”
– a song about the death of Kirsty MacColl set to the tune of “The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll”
– a love song (original), vocal, guitar and harmony vocal
– a song about housing development set to the tune of “Johnny B. Goode”, two guitars and vocals
– “La vie en rose”, unaccompanied vocal
– two original poems, recitation
– something C+W (possibly traditional), vocal, harmonica and guitar
– “I guess it doesn’t matter any more”, vocal, guitar, harmonica and percussion
– an original song about a Scottish hermit, vocal, guitar, harmonica and percussion
– an original song and two covers

So that’s four poems and eighteen songs, which divide into

original (6)
covers (7)
American traditional (1) (viz. “Skip to my Lou”)
songs in American traditional styles, which may have been any of the above (4)

Traditional songs were either a small minority or a tiny minority, and there was nothing at all from an English, Scottish or Irish traditional source. (The Sir Patrick Spens parody almost qualified, but it was original material – and it did mock traditional ballads & their singers, albeit quite fondly.) I can’t help thinking that’s a bit weird, for a folk club.

Poking about on the Mudcat site I found this comment by Jim Carroll from a couple of years ago:

I came to ‘folk song’ at the beginning of the sixties through the ‘folk clubs’. In those days, while there was much debate on HOW the songs should be performed, there was virtually no ambiguity about WHAT you would hear if you turned up at a folk club. You chose your club on the basis of performance, not on material.

This changed fairly rapidly and the revival divided into two camps, those who adhered pretty well to the ‘traditional’ definition of ‘folk’ (some of whom saw it as a form to create new songs relevant to today), and those who went along with the broader ‘singing horse’ interpretation. Gradually the latter won the day and began to dominate the field; many of those who had gone along with the former crossed over and became experimenters and you got the mini-choirs, the ‘Electric Muse’, the fifth-rate comedians and the singer-songwriters. Those of us who preferred our folk music the way we had originally come to it, abandoned the term ‘folk’ and adopted ‘traditional’ as a description of the type of songs we preferred. We jogged along in our own particular enclaves in spite of the finger-in-ear and purist sneers, until gradually we became swamped and there was a massive exodus away from the scene, mainly because people no longer knew what they were going to get when they turned up at a ‘folk club’. What was left dwindled, the electric crowd and the mini choirs moved on to fresh fields and pastures new, some of the comedians found their niche in television; what remained was largely the ‘singing horse’ crowd tinged heavily with the ‘near enough for folk song’ philosophy. That seems to me, with a few notable exceptions, is how matters stand at present.

The ‘singing horse’ crowd – ouch. As it happens, somebody used the “never heard no horse sing” line the other night – and I confess I’ve used it myself (introducing a song by Beck Hansen on one of my first outings). These days I tend to think, with Jim, that that’s a very poor definition of ‘folk’ – not so much because it’s open to anything, as because in practice it seems to be open to anything except actual folk music.

I don’t want to sound too grudging; it was a very good night of acoustic music, and the closing act in particular is well worth paying a pound to see, if not two. (His name’s Mark Simpson and I expect him to go a very long way. He reminded me of the young Cat Stevens – and back then the young Cat Stevens was essentially God, as far as I was concerned.) But I do wonder what’s happened to the folk scene, that it’s doing so well – and getting so many people performing – without there seeming to be much folk involved.

Another up-and-coming local act got a big write-up in the local paper the other day:

Manchester duo The Winter Journey conjure up gorgeous tapestries of rustic country folk music. Like a merry meeting of Nick Drake, Belle & Sebastian and BBC’s Springwatch programme, it’s the sort of music which effortlessly evokes images of woodland retreat and summery splendour.

Make no mistake, The Winter Journey are definitely worlds apart from your typical Manchester acoustic folk act. As you’d expect from a band named after a short story by the celebrated French author Georges Perec, The Winter Journey are a group dripping with quaint romanticism, bookish sophistication and lots and lots of cool refinement. Think Stephen Fry were he to form an acoustic folk group, and you might be getting close.

[the album] sits up there with the best debuts by a local act this year – a bewitching journey through Seventies pastoral folk, but with a daring sonic palette which squeezes in influences from Elliot Smith to Gainsbourg to Krautrock. … it’s also an album oozing a warm-blanket intimacy. – Each of the eleven songs strives for a pure, old-world innocence and romance, and firmly intent on keeping those values safe from the big, bad avaricious world we live in.

“There definitely is a dusty vinyl quality to the album,” explains Anthony. “It’s the sort of record which tries to ignore the modern world and popular culture. It’s almost from another age, and that reflects our retro influences.”

I love the idea of harking back to the pure old-world innocence of the 1970s, when folk was pastoral and vinyl was dusty. (Emitex, that’s what you need. Kids these days.)

Anyway, I’ve listened to some of their stuff on their Myspace page; it’s pleasant enough in a close-miked, mostly-acoustic, slightly creepy way, like Nico recording demos with James Yorkston. (Or Espers. Actually quite a lot like Espers.) What it’s not, of course – and never claims to be – is traditional music in any way, shape or form. It’s in the genre of Seventies pastoral folk, supposedly: it gets the ‘folk’ label because it sounds a bit like Vashti Bunyan, in other words. (I’m not touching the Nick Drake comparison. The first album was half orchestrated, the second was a genre all its own (acoustic TV-theme jazz-funk) and the third was the sound of a man singing like an angel while waiting to be swallowed by his own loneliness. Nobody sounds like Nick Drake.)

Anyway, calling the Winter Journey ‘folk’ on this basis makes very little sense – they sound a bit like a lot of people, not least the Velvet Underground. But somehow ‘folk’ is the label to claim, even if you then go on to claim a score of other influences. In fact the ‘folk’ label seems to have an odd combination of attraction and repulsion: folk is cool, but what’s really cool is to be folk-and or folk-but-also (folk-and-Serge-Gainsbourg-but-also-Krautrock in this case).

The problem with this is that it destroys any prospect of actually defining ‘folk’. You go from

1) artists called ‘folk’ because they do folk material
to
2) artists called ‘folk’ because they do their own material in a similar style to group 1)
to
3) artists called ‘folk’ because they do their own material in a style that’s similar to group 2) only different (‘worlds apart’, even)

And repeat. Give it a couple of years and, for all we know, The Winter Journey may be a touchstone of what contemporary folk sounds like – with new ‘folk’ acts coming through that sound a bit like them, only different.

Me, I’m a folk singer who also sings his own songs; they go down well in folk clubs, some of them, but they aren’t folk songs. (Not even the Patrick Spens parody.)

A system and a theory

WorldbyStorm:

Once Blair et al dreamed of a hegemonic project that would dominate the centre left for decades. At this rate they’ll be lucky to salvage anything from the wreckage.

Which reminded me of something I wrote for Casablanca (anyone else remember Casablanca?) in October 1994. To set the scene, John Major’s Conservative government had been re-elected two years earlier; John Smith had died in May; Tony Blair (the then Shadow Home Secretary) had been elected to lead the Labour Party in July; Melanie Phillips was still writing for the Observer; and Barry Norman presented Film 94. I don’t understand the bit about Bill Clinton.

A gloom of one’s own

Just what is it that makes today’s Left so different, so depressing?

When I was an infantile leftist there were two main groups on the Left, the Campaigners and the Believers. (Three, if you count the Labour Party Members). The best kind of Campaigning, it was generally agreed, was going on strike. The rest of the Left would immediately rally round and offer comradely advice – to stay out for as long as it took (the Trots), to stay out forever and picket everyone in the world until they came out too (the anarchists), to make the rich pay for the crisis (the RCPB(M-L)). Campaigning by leafletting, blocking the traffic and so on was not so good: this made you a Single-Issue Campaigner, and you would usually only be allowed into the Left after most people had gone. (Being on the Left means knowing all the Issues). And if you Campaigned by harbouring foxes and releasing chickens nobody would even talk to you except the anarchists, but that didn’t matter because it’s about something much bigger than just like politics, right.

Like many people, I rapidly graduated from Campaigning to Believing. This is considerably less strenuous, as it consists mainly of (a) finding the right Line and (b) recruiting more Believers. The idea is to ensure that, come the inevitable collision with History, you will be equipped with (a) clean ideological underwear and (b) plenty of witnesses. Being a Believer isn’t a bad way of meeting people and it does get you out of the house (usually on Tuesday evenings, for some reason – so three proletarian cheers to the BBC for moving Barry Norman to Mondays). On the other hand, it is fairly pointless. Realising this, many Believers gravitate towards Campaigning organisations, sometimes in quite large and organised groups. Others attempt to unite the Left, presumably on the basis that if you assemble a large enough group of Believers it will automatically turn into a Campaign. The only problem with this strategy is that the idea of uniting the Left is in fact a Line in its own right and thus only attracts its own Believers – just another strand in the Left’s great dayschool.

About the Labour Party Members there isn’t much I can say, never having shared their belief in the capacity of a Labour government to enact socialism – I suppose every movement needs its dreamers. Actually the rest of us always tacitly relied on the Labour Party. The way it worked was that the press and the BBC would attack Labour for being left-wing – or praise them for being left-wing, it didn’t really matter – and we would attack them for not being left-wing enough. Even the anarchists used to join in, attacking Labour as a way of getting at the Left as a whole. It was quite a good recruiting tactic, while it lasted.

That was how I used to see things – I’m less optimistic nowadays. Most of the Believers have never quite recovered from the end of actually existing Stalinism – arguing about whether Cuba is a deformed workers’ state just isn’t the same somehow. You don’t get the same class of Believers these days, anyway – whatever happened to Red Flame? or Big Stripe? These days there’s hardly anyone doing any Campaigning, either, apart from those young people who sit down in front of trees, play didgeridoos and tell us they won’t get fooled like we did. (They call themselves ‘zippies’, apparently – I grow old, I grow old). Good luck to them, anyway – they’ll need it, now that the Labour Party thinks the Criminal Justice Bill isn’t such a bad idea.

Ah yes, the Labour Party. It’s not Labour’s abstaining on the Criminal Justice Bill that bothers me, or their refusal to support the signal workers; it’s not all the weird stuff which Tony Blair apparently believes (cannabis should stay illegal, the electoral system couldn’t be better and the middle class bore the brunt of the recession – Dan Quayle eat your heart out). It’s true that Tony Blair went to a minor public school, but then so did Prince Charles, and look how well he’s turned out. It’s not fair to attack Blair for coming across as smug, ugly and dull, either – put next to John Major, who wouldn’t?

What bothers me (and I’m amazed it doesn’t bother more people – that’s depressing in itself) is Tony Blair’s obvious intention of redefining Labour as a kind of Socially Responsible Mildly Reactionary Party, somewhere between the Right of the Liberal Democrats and the Left of Melanie Phillips. If he succeeds (which means winning two elections – look at Bill Clinton) Labour will have ceased to exist as a party of the Left. If he fails (which seems highly likely – look at Bill Clinton) Labour will probably just cease to exist. Either way it means that, for the first time since the Labour Party was founded, there’s no party worth voting for with any kind of commitment to the Left – which is an uncomfortable prospect for Believers and Campaigners alike.

What makes it even worse is the odd references to ‘socialism’ from Blair’s direction – a ‘socialism’ which, for the first time in history, says nothing about either collective rights (except those of ‘society’) or individual freedoms (except the freedom to ‘achieve’). It’s as if they’d realised that the Left could never be completely defeated while we still had a language to call our own. (We’ve still got ‘Comrade’, I suppose, and ‘Point of order, Chair’, but that’s about it).

It’s almost enough to make you envy the Greens. But not quite.

What I didn’t consider was what would happen if Blair and his acolytes succeeded and then failed, by failing to sort out the succession. Or succeeded and then washed their hands of the whole thing, for that matter. Essentially, Blair’s done to Labour what Thatcher did to the Tories. Leaving… what? Will:

There was always the risk that New Labour was an ironic echo of a former political era. The commitment to the original values of Labour, but without the policies of Labour, always teetered on the edge of farce. The language of ‘tackling poverty’, ‘democratic empowerment’, being ‘progressive’ was not invented, but borrowed from the initial tragedy of failed socialist ambitions. … But to take that socialist vocabulary, then to marry it to Thatcherism, was to invite failure for a second time as farce. Should we be all that surprised that inequality is rising as fast as it is?

But then again, maybe New Labour was the tragedy, because if one thing is certain it’s that it’s about to be followed by a farce. … Within two years, the country will have elected a new government on the basis of no policies whatsoever, and which we have so little confidence in that the honesty or otherwise of their claims is no longer even discussed. The Conservative Party have succeeded in losing all of their unpleasant political baggage by dumping any form of baggage whatsoever.

My silly Cuban heels

A bit more oneirography (I don’t intend to make a habit of it). I had a dream last night which reminded me oddly of a dream I made up some years ago. (I wrote it for a short story (unpublished); the story was vaguely, partially autobiographical, but the dream was completely made up.) See if you can tell which is which. (Yes, it’s Am I Unconscious Fantasy Or Not. That old thing…)

I went round to see my grandmother and apologise for something, I forget what. I saw my grandfather through the glass by the front door, but I didn’t see him after my grandmother let me in. She started to make a pot of tea and asked if Earl Grey would be all right. I assumed she’d be using teabags, and was quite surprised to see her spooning loose tea into the pot; it was bright green and looked like grass cuttings. Reacting to something I’d said, she interrupted me indignantly – “Not Russell! Don’t bother with Russell! You want to get rid of Russell!” As she spoke, she furiously shovelled more and more bright green tea into the pot.

My father and I were queuing up together at a cold buffet: potato salad, crisps, poached eggs and a large bowl of pickled onions in a sticky red-brown sauce. My father had just come back from Japan, where he’d been for three weeks. “They have a whole different system out there,” he told me, “a whole system!” Then we reached the head of the queue and he began to help me to potato salad. Seen close up it didn’t look very appetising – there were pieces of yellow celery in it and bluish peas, and the lumps of potato were five or six inches long – and I was annoyed to see my father piling it onto my plate. I said, “I can manage, I can manage!” and tried to push him out of the way, flapping my arms uselessly.

“Families, eh?” (S. Freud)

Update 15/6 – it was the first one. I haven’t thought of my grandmother for years, but she’s clearly still in there somewhere; she still connects in some way with things I know I care about. (I know who Russell is, and it’s not T. Davies.) I guess what’s going on in dreams like these is illuminated by Voyer‘s suggestive formulation (emphasis added):

If, for one reason or another, an individual’s character is dissolved, the phenomenal spectacular form of the totality is dissolved in its pretension to pass for the absence of value. Thus we have established, negatively for the moment, an identity between character and the spectacle effect. Whether the subject sinks into madness, practices theory or participates in an uprising, we have ascertained that the two poles of daily life—contact with a narrow and separate reality on one hand and spectacular contact with the totality on the other—are simultaneously abolished, opening the way for that unity of individual life which Reich unfortunately labels “genitality.” (We prefer ‘individuality’.)

Madness, revolution and the practice of theory (on which more here): all areas where ‘character’ (in what I understood to be Reich’s sense of the word) comes unglued and the spectacle with it. Closely related states, I would argue, include dreaming, psychotherapy and childhood. What’s at issue in childhood isn’t the dissolution of character but its initial formation; infancy, in particular, is truly a character-forming experience. As adults we partition off what matters (who’s in government) from what matters (who’s in bed with us), calling one ‘society’ and the other ‘private life’; but for children – as for psychotics, as for revolutionaries – it’s all in there together. And the place where it’s all there is the family. The place we first learn about authority is the same place we learn about love; we learn to acknowledge reality in the place where we learn to desire.

What this means is that your world was sculpted by love and fear before you ever started to put it together rationally – and, somewhere beneath the rational brickwork, it still is. In dreams, Gordon Brown is your Dad.

Taller than him

Or: my life as a biographer.

Rob asked about my reference to writing a biography of Debord. It goes back to the old bastard’s death in 1994. I marked his passing by sending postcards to several people with his dates and the words “Bernard, Bernard, this bloom of youth will not last forever”. More practically, I also wrote to New Left Review asking if they were planning on running something, and if so whether I could write it. (Verso had published translations of the Comments and Panegyric, thanks very largely to Malcolm Imrie; I’d reviewed one and attended the launch for the other, although I never did get my review published.) My letter found its way to Malcolm, who invited me to lunch to talk about it. I duly went to London (in the 1990s half my weekends seem to have been spent between Piccadilly and Euston) with high hopes. The lunch wasn’t sensational – we went to the cheapest Chinese cafe I’ve ever seen, & I paid for myself – but it was productive; by the time I came home I was committed to writing a full-length biography, for Pluto. (Malcolm couldn’t see it working in the Verso list; besides, Pluto was running a series of ‘Modern Masters’-style introductions to modern European thinkers and could use a snappy introduction to Debord.) I put together a rough outline and pitched it to Anne Beech at Pluto; she liked it and we were away. There was some disagreement over the question of an advance; at one point Pluto even sent me their ‘Why we don’t pay advances’ form letter. I eventually persuaded them to pay me an advance anyway (half up front, half on submission of manuscript). I immediately spent the first half on books – a topic which is worth a note in its own right.

NOTE ON BOOKS

I’ve inset this paragraph so that anyone who’s not familiar with Debord can skip it. Seriously, if you don’t know this stuff it’ll just bore you. See you at the next proper paragraph.

After Debord killed himself, his widow Alice Becker-Ho – who changed her name to Debord after his death – devoted herself to getting his work the recognition it deserved. Her efforts have been extraordinarily successful. A 1000-page Oeuvres is now available, along with facsimiles of both his book-form artworks, DVD copies of all his six films, seven volumes of letters (and counting), and complete reprints of the journals Internationale Situationniste and Potlatch. 1995 seems like a very long time ago. The availability of translations wasn’t too bad; things had improved massively since the late 1980s, when there had been nothing out there but Ken Knabb’s Situationist International Anthology, the Black and Red edition of The Society of the Spectacle and the pioneering pamphlet versions of The Veritable Split and the Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition produced by Michel Prigent and Lucy Forsyth. (Fond memories – it was that translation of the Italian preface that turned me on to Debord and, ultimately, to Autonomia.) By the time Debord died, you could also read English renderings of his film scripts, as well as the Comments and Panegyric.

The stuff that hadn’t been translated was harder to get hold of. I remember my first encounter with Alapage.fr. It’s now essentially a French Amazon, but it started life as an email-based ordering service: you mailed them the author you were interested in, they mailed back a list of books available, you mailed them back to say which ones you wanted, and at some later stage some francs would change hands (I never got that far). But even that wasn’t around in 1995 – which was, after all, pretty early in the history of e-business. I found Gérard Berréby’s Documents rélatifs à la fondation de l’Internationale Situationniste in a second-hand bookshop in London and decided (correctly, as it turned out) that I absolutely had to have it, even at the £45 they were asking for it. A trip to Paris (on work business) enabled me to pick up some stuff from Éditions Allia and Éditions Ivrea, although much of it was rather tangential to Debord’s work (I’m the proud owner of a facsimile reprint of Les lèvres nues and a video of L’anticoncept). I also got hold of a copy of Mirella Bandini’s L’estetico il politico, which is one of the key sources on the early years of the SI; locating the publisher and placing an order was quite an undertaking, particularly since I couldn’t really read or write Italian at the time. (My Italian was a lot better by the time I finished reading it.) A couple of years later I tried the same trick with a library copy of Roberto Ohrt’s Phantom Avantgarde – the other key source on the early years of the SI – but Ohrt’s German put up much more resistance than Bandini’s Italian, despite my having done German ‘O’ Level.

But a lot of the good stuff was still out of print; the reprint of Internationale Situationniste dates from 1997. Two lifesavers were an old copy of the Internationale Situationniste volume that I’d borrowed from Lucy Forsyth and some samizdat copies of Lettrist and Situationist documents that Michel Prigent was selling through Compendium. And how I miss Compendium – especially that gloomy basement, where I found Michel’s ‘Port-folio Situationniste’ along with much else from the pro-situ area, some of it even more obscure (instalments of the Encyclopédie des Nuisances, pamphlets by Annie Lebrun). I miss radical bookshops generally: where do people go these days to find pamphlets by Jacques Camatte and John Moore, or the latest from the CWO or the ICC? I guess the answer is that they don’t need to go anywhere – but then, where do they go if they don’t know they want to find pamphlets by Jacques Camatte and John Moore, or the latest from the CWO or the ICC?

So there I was in 1995, books borrowed and advance spent (that didn’t take long), writing the first English-language biography of Debord. What sticks in my mind now is how easy it was. Chapter 1 began with Debord’s encounter with Isidore Isou’s Lettrists and ended, slightly to my surprise, with his break with Isou eighteen months later (I’d been planning to get a bit further). Chapter 2 covered the ‘Lettrist International’ period (1952-7) and Debord’s intense collaboration with Gil Wolman. Chapter 3 dealt with the foundation of the SI and its ‘artistic’ period, from the expulsion of the Italian artists through the purge of the German artists to the split with the Swedish artists; this was the period of Debord’s intense collaboration with Asger Jorn, but also of his involvement with Socialisme ou Barbarie and the recruitment of Raoul Vaneigem and Attila Kotanyi to the SI. The next period, up to 1967, still intrigues me: this was the period of the Hamburg Theses, when the SI fell back on its French heartland, gave up on art and basically went slightly mad, and yet it culminated in Strasbourg – De la misère en milieu étudiant, Le retour de la colonne Durutti and all. This was also the period in which Debord wrote La société du spectacle – and my Chapter 5 was devoted to analysing the book. Chapter 6 was going to be about 1968; chapter 7 would concentrate on the disintegration of the SI and Debord’s intense collaboration with Gianfranco Sanguinetti; and there would be another couple of chapters on the less busy remainder of Debord’s life, following him into Spain and back to France.

1995 was a busy year: I left a job as a Unix sysadmin and started working as a journalist, and my first child was born (I’d resisted the temptation to call him Guy, although I was planning to dedicate the book jointly to him and to Gil Wolman). Despite these distractions, I made a good start on the book – I’d made it to Cosio d’Arroscia in 1957 by the end of the year. 1996 (when I got Debord as far as 1967) was a pretty good year. In January I spoke at Andrew Hussey and Gavin Bowd’s ghastly but memorable conference at the Haçienda; I remember the lack of heating, Gavin Bowd reading out a statement from Ralph Rumney denouncing both him and Andrew Hussey, Mark E. Smith sitting at the back and heckling Tony Wilson, and Len Bracken reading a statement attacking Greil Marcus which he’d written in French for the benefit of Michèle Bernstein, who wasn’t there (“Le temps n’est pas réversible!”) I also spoke at two other conferences and two seminars, one of them on Brighton beach (I’d gone along to listen to a speaker on Debord, but since he didn’t turn up I ended up filling in). I phoned Ralph Rumney a few times and got a letter from Donald Nicholson-Smith; thanks to Bill Brown I made email contact with Bengt Ericsson, who’d been briefly recruited by J. V. Martin to the SI’s Scandinavian section. Happy days. In 1997 I completed my MA by writing a dissertation on La société du spectacle, a brutally-edited version of which became Chapter 5 of the book. (All the Ducasse had to go, and most of the Hegel.)

After that I hit problems. Following Debord and the SI through the 1960s to the Strasbourg scandal, and even onto the Nanterre campus where he met Henri Lefebvre, was relatively easy; I could have a reasonable level of confidence that I’d seen most of the sources, and feel quite sure there were only a couple of hundred people out there who knew all that I did and more. As soon as the student movement got going at Nanterre – let alone when it reached the Sorbonne – I was out in the open, revisiting ground that had been trodden a hundred times before. As well as the reports in Internationale Situationniste, I had Riesel and Viénet’s Enragés and Situationists in the Occupations Movement and Perlman and Grégoire’s Worker-Student Action Committees, France May ’68: good sources, but not good enough to substitute for a lack of a broader historiographic grounding. To put it bluntly, all I knew about what had actually happened in May ’68 I’d learnt from the Situationists – and even a source as close to their perspective as Fredy Perlman suggested that there were other stories that could be told. I immersed myself in all the literature on the events of May (and June) ’68 that I could find – including several books borrowed from a professor at Salford University who’s since retired to France, one of which I’ve still got. (Geoff, if you’re reading this, drop me a line and I’ll post it back to you.)

The effect of hitting 1968, in short, was to make me stop writing and concentrate on reading. What was worse, for me, was that I reached 1968 in 1997; by this time Alice Debord and Patrick Mosconi were starting to get the posthumous Debord publishing industry into gear. I read the first volume of Debord’s Correspondance (1952-7) and realised with a sinking feeling that I’d only written a history of the works; I’d gone straight from the end of the first issue of Internationale Situationniste to the beginning of the second one, for example, skipping over six months of Debord’s life. And now, there it was. It would all have to be rewritten, some time. Actual biographies of Debord were starting to pile up, too. I read Anselm Jappe’s, both in the original Italian and in the revised French edition (those books were a lot easier to get hold of by now). I didn’t read Len Bracken’s or Andrew Hussey’s English language biographies; I doubt I’d agree with Hussey’s approach (see our LRB correspondence). I’ve been told that Christophe Bourseiller’s biography is pretty much the best of the bunch, but I didn’t read that either. After a while there was just too much to keep up with, or catch up with.

For several years Pluto got back to me periodically to find out whether the book was ready yet; not yet, I said, maybe next year. One year, in a fit of optimism, they even announced it; as a result you can still, apparently, find it. Eventually I came clean and the contract was cancelled.

Someone once asked me what I’d like to write about after I’d finished the Debord biography. I said I’d like to write a biography of Cornelius Cardew. I’m not sure where that came from; I’d never read Stockhausen serves imperialism, never heard anything he’d recorded with AMM, and basically knew no more about Cardew than the next Wire reader. Still don’t.

Still seems like a good idea, though.

Says there’s none

Jamie picks up on a handy new proposal for making use of all those ex-servicemen the Iraq war is eventually going to leave us with:

Ex-servicemen and women should be retrained as teachers to bring military style discipline to tough inner city schools, a think tank has said. The Centre for Policy Studies says ex-soldiers could have a profound effect on discipline and learning.

“This is not merely because ex-servicemen are sure of their own moral authority. They are not intimidated by adrenaline-fuelled adolescents: they have, unlike most teachers, been there before,” it added. It also argued that the perception that these teachers had been in a “macho profession” would be well-received by inner city children. “Whether we like it or not, children from more deprived neighbourhoods often respond to raw physical power,” it added.

Chief of Defence Staff Lord Guthrie said knife crime, drugs and violence were reported daily in the inner cities. … “This will not, of course, solve all the problems of the inner city. But it will help,” he said. “It will provide youths with role models who understand discipline and self-restraint at the time in their lives when they need it most. And it will be a terrific boost for our Armed Services.”

Three different propositions seem to have got jumbled up here: ex-servicemen will help reform the rowdy kids by providing role models who understand discipline and self-restraint; they’ll cow the rowdy kids into submission with their raw physical power; and they’ll lock the place down with their military-style discipline. Presumably number 3 isn’t going to happen – apart from anything else, you don’t need military-style personnel to have military-style discipline, you just need to put someone in authority and give them a free hand. So what we want is role models and raw power – and since they’re not also talking about recruiting monks or doormen, presumably what we want is role models with raw power.

“Look at me, children. Hear the evenness of my voice, watch the precision and economy STOP THAT RIGHT NOW of my movements. Learn from me and you will STOP THAT NOW OR I WILL PERSONALLY RIP YOUR FACE OFF be like me.”

As it happens, when I was eight I had a primary school teacher who used to cane us and shout a lot, often about discipline!. But he wasn’t a former professional soldier, he was just mad. Being eight years old, I just thought this was one of those things – some teachers are nice, some are strict, and some are loud and violent and tell long and complicated stories – but I found out later that the school inspectors had been quite taken aback. They came to the school while I was there, and after they’d gone Mr Thomas didn’t come to teach us any more.

Self-restraint and raw power; discipline and violence. Or, to put it another way, dominance and submission, enforced through the ever-present threat of superior force. It’s a very old form of social organisation (more on that another time) and obviously has a certain atavistic appeal, but it’s hard to see what it’s really good for, anywhere outside the army – which is obviously a special case in terms of what people sign up for. A couple of comments from that BBC story:

Having taught in an exclusion unit in southern England for a number of years, I can attest that many of the exclusions who attended the unit were boys who had suffered violence at the hands of their military fathers who obviously believed that threatening their offspring was the best way to control them. Indeed, whole military families of children were excluded from school. I visited one family of five boys to give home tuition. All were excluded from school for violent and uncontrollable behaviour. Mother was illiterate and sat in on reading lessons. Father tried to maintain discipline with his fists and complained to me that the more he tried to get the boys to behave, the worse they became

Remembering – with fondness – my instructors from Bassingbourn Barracks, they would make mincemeat of the lot of them. But it has to come from within – the army is voluntary, you expect what you will get. School is compulsory…

I remember Mr Price, the headmaster, telling us merrily how Mr Thomas had been taken away by the men in white coats; a bit rich, really, coming from him. And I remember Mr Cook coming to take the class. He was an improvement: he caned us occasionally, but he didn’t shout very much at all and his stories were funnier and made more sense. He always had this slightly harassed air, as if he was trying to live up to something but he wasn’t quite sure what. It must have been quite a tough gig.

No king can compare

A post-Christmas meme from Rob.

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags?

Wrapping paper. Bags are for bottles of wine.

2. Real tree or artificial?

We switched to real trees a few years ago. This year was our first dead tree stuck in a bit of wood; it dried out quite a lot over the twelve days, and shed prodigiously when we took it out, but actually stayed greener than last year’s (purportedly) live tree in a tub.

3. When do you put up the tree?

Last weekend but one before Christmas.

4. When do you take the tree down?

January 6th. Obviously.

5. Do you like egg nog?

I think I’ve only had it once. It was OK. Like Rob, I’ll take mulled wine (or Glühwein) any day.

6. Favourite gift received as a child?

Depends what you mean by ‘child’. I’ve got very fond memories of the thing I got one Christmas to go with my Matchbox car track thing whose name I forget no not Hot Wheels… If you put in two D batteries, it would accelerate your cars to enormous speeds, without the need to clip the track on to the side of a table. I was mildly disappointed to see that the dials on the side were painted on, but despite that it was a present and a half (machinery! speed! noise!)

When I was much, much older, I told my parents where they could get Soft Machine’s Third at a 10% discount; since CBS had already cut the price to £2.83 (for a double album), this was quite a bargain. It’s pretty challenging music and I didn’t get it straight away, but that Christmas I really enjoyed not getting it – it had the two great attractions of seeming extremely grown-up and extremely unlike anything my parents would listen to.

7. Do you have a nativity scene?

Yes; it’s plastic and forty or fifty years old. It came from my wife’s mother’s house, when she moved into a home.

8. Hardest person to buy for?

I’ll pass on that one.

9. Easiest person to buy for?

And that one, although it does bring back a memory of when my daughter was quite small. We asked her what she wanted for Christmas; she thought for a while, then said, “A present.”

10. Mail or email Christmas cards?

Physical cards, definitely.

11. Worst Christmas gift you ever received?

Again, I’ll pass on the details, but it was one that made me think I thought they’d know I’m not like that! Closely followed by Do I look like I’m like that? Am I like that?

12. Favorite Christmas movie?

I’m male, I’m married, I’ve got kids, I worked for many years at jobs I didn’t like, so it has to be It’s a wonderful life. Closely followed by Muppet Christmas Carol. This year we also saw Pulp fiction; that was good, too.

13. When do you start shopping for Christmas?

It gets later and later.

14. Have you ever recycled a Christmas present?

Certainly not.

15. Favorite thing to eat/drink at Christmas?

More wine than usual. Posh beer, earlier in the day than usual. I particularly like strong, ‘fruity’ beers at this time of year. I put ‘fruity’ in quotes here because of a beer I saw in a supermarket recently, advertised as made with plums and pudding spices. Not the point at all – your ideal winter beer tastes like Christmas pudding, but also tastes like beer. (See also Orval – my favourite Trappist ale – which somehow tastes exactly like a) marmalade b) very dark plain chocolate and c) beer.)

Cheese straws. Stollen. Lebkuchen. And fruit cake, of course. The runaway winner used to be my mother’s rum cake (a fridge cake, made with (or rather consisting of) sponge fingers, coffee buttercream icing and rum); I must see if I can find the recipe.

16. Clear lights or colored on the tree?

One string of each.

17. Favourite Christmas song?

“In the bleak midwinter”, or “O come all ye faithful” (especially on the day, with the Special Christmas Day Verse – for a moment I can almost believe it again). “I wish it could be Christmas every day” (for a few years in the 1970s, Roy Wood was untouchable) or “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” (the original, sad version). It’s the season for a sentimental pig-out, basically.

18. Travel at Christmas or stay home?

I used to go to my parents’. (For several years the other half and I used to go to our separate parents’; it worked for us.) Then we stayed at home for Christmas and all went to my mother’s for New Year. Then my mother died. So it’s home, these days.

19. Can you name all of Santa’s reindeer?

If there’s anything I hate more than Clement Moore’s ghastly poem it’s that bloody awful song about the stupid bloody reindeer with the luminous nose.

Yes, I can name all nine of them.

20. Angel on the tree top or a star?

We alternate.

21. Open the presents Christmas Eve or morning of Christmas?

Christmas morning – after breakfast, when we’re all together. This was a very big deal when I was a kid (I was one of five); we’d assemble round the dining table, each with a pile of parcels in front of us, and have a kind of diplomatically synchronised unwrapping session. These days it happens on the living-room floor and we let the kids go first, but it’s still a big deal. It’s Christmas, after all.

22. Most annoying thing about this time of year?

I think this year I’d nominate Sainsbury’s Stilton promotion. They bought it in by the ton – with a view to piling high and selling cheap – with the result that what they got was far too young: it was soft, crumbly and clean-tasting instead of solid, waxy and sour. Being young, it also didn’t keep, but went smelly within a fortnight. Bah, supermarkets.

23. Favourite ornament theme or colour?

Not really. We usually buy a new tree ornament every year.

24. Favourite for Christmas dinner?

Well, er, turkey. Followed by Christmas pudding. In flames.

25. What do you want for Christmas this year?

Bit late for that.

28. Shopping…Mall or on-line?

I try to avoid both, although it gets harder every year.

29. Do you decorate outside for Christmas or just inside (or at all?)

Just inside.

There’s a lot of my own childhood in the way I think about Christmas, and a lot of change and loss. Perhaps that’s part of what we do when we celebrate the longest night, in among the crackers and the mince pies (“Absent friends!”). Then Christmas passes, the days grow longer and the year turns.

Old Christmas is past
Twelfth Night is the last
And we bid you Adieu
Great joy to the new

Anyway, I hate divorces

I turned 47 recently. Yes, that is quite old. Lines from Krapp’s Last Tape come to mind, as they do from time to time.

I’ve never linked to the Metro before, and never expected to. But this made me laugh out loud:

At this weekend’s Bestival, a three-day music event on the Isle of Wight, the Government will be promoting a ‘text a condom’ service. Festival-goers can text the word condom to 88800 and will receive a return text. They can then visit a number of different tents in the main campsite to receive a free pack.

So, if you thought a draughty tent and a muddy field would prevent people having sex, you would be wrong. A survey by NME released after Glastonbury in 2004 found that, out of the 112,000 crowd, 36,500 people had sex. And it wasn’t just young people.

The age of the average Glastonbury-goer is getting older and even organiser Michael Eavis has criticised his festival for being too middle-aged. Barry Ashworth, of London band Dub Pistols, will be performing at Bestival. He knows a thing or two about festival environments: ‘It’s pretty easy to lose your inhibitions when you’re in a field for three days with nothing to do but watch bands and drink booze. It’s like being on holiday. If you’re ever going to go off with a stranger it’s going to be then and your age is irrelevant. Free love is free love, whether you’re 20 or 35.’

Cheers, Barry.

Some time, maybe

I’ve been away for a week & come back to a letter from my MP, Tony Lloyd. Who writes:

Whilst I do not think there should be a blanket policy for all Iraqis working for the UK Government, we need to give proper consideration to the many Iraqis whose lives are at risk. It is important that they are given asylum as protection as well as gratitude for risking their lives for the UK.

As Alex said the other day, the debate seems to be moving on to the definition of the word ‘many’. Which is a good start.

I also missed this when I was away:

Mr Cameron told the Today programme: “We are not going to deal with anarchy in the UK unless you actually strengthen families and communities in the UK.”

David Cameron was born on 9 October 1966 and was educated at Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford.

Honestly. These youngsters, they know nothing…

And young boys

If not his epitaph – that would be a bit harsh – it was his epithet; the film posters only spelt it out. Ian Curtis: genius. Shaun Ryder: poet. Tony Wilson: twat.

The Evening News recalled this at the front of their tribute, but missed the catch by printing the ‘polite version’: Wilson was nobody’s prat. I don’t want to spend too much time rummaging about in the lexicon of sweary, but it seems to me that a prat is someone who lets you down because of their stupidity or improvidence or, well, general prattishness. A twat is someone who lets you down because of their selfishness – because whatever they’ve got planned is more important than anything you might want. In particular, a twat is someone who prioritises their own plans over you, and expects you to agree.

But what this means is that a twat is actually someone who aims to please – even if their idea of aiming to please is throwing some nonsense of their own at you. Some selfishness goes in disguise, dressing up inadequacy and neediness as a public service – look at me, look at this, it’s just what you want! Twattishness is frankly, openly selfish – look what I’ve got! isn’t it brilliant? – and that makes it oddly generous. If nothing else, a twat will always give you something to talk about – and will always keep coming back. Calling Vini Reilly “the Durutti Column”, so that he could release an album called The return of the Durutti Column. Actually building somewhere called the Hacienda, then spelling it with a cedilla. Those Saville designs, those packages, all the wilful obscurity and mystery (I remember reading on the NME letters page that the colour code on the album sleeve actually reads POWERCORRUPTIRNANDLIES, and I’m not sure what’s sadder – that letter-writer poring over his colour-wheel or me for remembering it after all these years). All those bloody FAC numbers. Indulging Hannett. Losing Hannett. Pouring the label’s finances down the Whitworth Street drain. “Anthony H. Wilson” (what was that about?). Making the money back on the Mondays, then handing it over to them to spend on crack in Barbados. That office (beautiful place, mind you), that bar. Signing the Wendys. Walking away from the wreckage, and resurfacing in a million-pound loft conversion. And then supposedly he was “Mr Manchester” – did anyone call him that, apart from the Evening News? All that North-West regeneration stuff (baggy suits and wavy buildings), and all that nonsense with the flag. I mean, really, what a twat.

He was, always, a bit of a joke – but he was always, partly, in on the joke. Look back at that interview:

Factory has a certain arrogance about it… we have a scattiness – we have a night-club, I think having the Hacienda is significant, which is a pretty crazy and by and large rather stupid thing to do.

The thing about pop music is it can be continuously new. You know, some people are excited by that which is new, some people are excited by that which is going to sell because people have heard it before. By and large we have the problem that we’re excited by stuff that’s new.

My bosses at Granada, some of them are younger than me, they’re grown-ups, they behave like grown-ups. Some people are 22 and are grown-up, more’s the pity for them.

Arrogant, wayward, wilful, childish even, but at the same time always intelligent, reflective, self-aware. (Which prompts the question of why he kept on being so arrogant wayward etc – but that prompts an answer with four letters, beginning with T.) He was a bullshitter, a loudmouth, an egotist and an operator par excellence, and I suspect that having him as a friend was a very mixed blessing, but he knew what he was doing – at least, he seemed to know what he was doing – and he kept on making things happen. I wouldn’t say we’d “grown up together” (I never knew him, and he never grew up), but he’s been part of my imaginative landscape for nearly thirty years. The skyline’s going to look different without him.

Bernard, Bernard, disait-il, cette verte jeunesse ne durera pas toujours: cette heure fatale viendra, qui tranchera toutes les espérances trompeuses par une irrévocable sentence; la vie nous manquera, comme un faux ami, au milieu de nos entreprises. Là tous nos beaux desseins tomberont par terre; là s’évanouiront toutes nos pensées.

“It never vanishes without a trace.”

Tony Wilson, 20/2/1950 – 10/8/2007

melt into men

I heard the news about 8.30 last night; my wife saw it on the BBC Web site. I spent some time looking for hastily-assembled tribute programmes in the schedules – you’d think Granada would have something at least – but nothing. There was a discussion on Newsnight between Stephen Morris, Paul Morley, Peter Saville and Richard Madeley; they gave him a pretty good send-off. (Yes, I did say Richard Madeley.)

I’ll write more about how I feel about the guy later. For now, here’s one I prepared earlier. I interviewed him for the short-lived radical newspaper socialist in 1991. Looking for the text of the interview, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I’ve also got my original transcript – and here it is. I don’t recognise all the references myself at this distance, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff there. I particularly like the distinction between ‘avant-garde’ and ‘experimental’; mostly his borrowings from the Situationists still strike me as random fandom, but this is a coherently Situationist position (nous vivons en enfants perdus nos aventures incomplètes…) The other thing that strikes me now is just how up for it he was – I had a list of for-all-our-socialist-readers questions and another list of never-get-another-chance-to-ask-him-this questions, and he engaged with them all quite happily. We didn’t hang out or socialise, unless you count a brief chat about doing English at Cambridge (we were at the same college, several years apart). It was an interview, it was a job, and he got it done – thoughtfully, intelligently and efficiently. He was an extraordinary guy.

Tell me about Factory.

We’re just a fairly typical – or atypical, in that they’re all quite unique – one of those British independent record labels that came out of punk or post-punk. Many musicians say that they saw the Pistols on stage and thought, ‘God, if they can do it I can do it,’ I think that happened as well to a whole generation of entrepreneurs – or non-entrepreneurs, people who never thought of that but who were brought into it like that. Britain is the correct size to make independent distribution possible, and that possibility of independent distribution was then seized upon by… I mean, the whole thing was a series of accidents… it really began with Rough Trade, who were a very interesting shop in Notting Hill Gate. As I remember they were able, because they were clever, to source some rather rare reggae records, and they discovered by the mid-70s that their ability to source these reggae records meant that there was a demand from other shops around the country, and they set up a rather small distribution system to get these reggae records around, and suddenly as this whole idea of do-it-yourself labels took off in 76/77 the infrastructure was there to build up on. The original independent company was New Hormones, who just brought out a couple of records and that was it, in late ’76. Then there was a second generation of independent record labels – Rabid Records in M’cr, with Jilted John and the rest of it, and John Cooper Clarke; Fast Records in Edinburgh, who were very much an arty independent label, as we’re often seen to be, with the Human League and the Gang of Four, and that was really 77, and then 78, late 78, you get Factory and various others coming along – I suppose Mute as well at that point, Daniel doing his first singles and stuff…

Looking around now there isn’t really a run of indie labels…

Oh, there are. From 81 to 91 there were the big 4, the major indies – Mute, Factory, Rough Trade and 4AD. And every couple of years there’d be a pretender, you know like we’re going to join the ranks – be it, there was Kitchenware at one point, there was Postcard at another point. And they all made whatever mistakes people make and fucked up. In the mid-to-late 80s there was Creation, who made – there’s two mistakes you can make as an indie label, you can sign one of your acts to a major thinking that that will finance the rest of the label, which is committing suicide, or you can take major money and spend it all, and that’s committing suicide, and Alan McGhie did both with Creation and completely fucked himself up but has managed to survive and in fact has been very strong this year. With the ending of Rough Trade as one of the big four labels, I think Creation really stand there now. And if you think that One Little Indian is as good a new competitor as any, and then if you think of the fact that there are several very very active dance independents, then… You see I think a lot of people are confused: a lot of people think the bankruptcy of Rough Trade is something to do with “not everything in the garden is rosy”. Well, not everything in the garden is rosy in the sense that there’s a recession and everyone’s suffering, but the independent labels have never been stronger – particularly the ability to survive the Rough Trade catastrophe.

You get the impression of a kind of gigantism, massive economies of scale in the music business…

There’s five multi-nationals, and the rumour is there’s space for four so everybody’s buying up to be as strong as possible so they’re not number five who goes. There’s gigantism, at the same time there’s also the feeling that small discrete units work – admittedly small discrete units within a bigger set-up, but that’s been quite commonplace for the last two or three years.

Flexible specialisation

Sure. Within the creative departments of most companies small is beautiful. But obviously at the same time there’s buying everybody up and becoming bigger and bigger, and that goes with the multinational trend.

So what’s different about Factory?

What’s different about independent labels is that there is a slightly more intimate relationship between the musicians and the company – not just the musicians, the manager of the musicians who is the essential piece. It should be a very creative relationship because most of the people who founded these independent labels were in some way the managers of groups, and they are companies by and large led by managers of groups or A&R based people, as opposed to a lot of companies these days that are run by lawyers or accountants, which is the kind of people that a lot of the multinationals use to head up their operations. There’s a kind of A&R and group-management feel about the independent labels which does make them different. What makes Factory different other than that… Factory has a certain arrogance about it… we have a scattiness – we have a night-club, I think having the Hacienda is significant, which is a pretty crazy and by and large rather stupid thing to do. And I think we held on to some crazy concepts a lot longer than anybody else. I always think the phrase to use about Factory is a certain wilfulness – there’s a great wilfulness about the company, that it does what it wants to do, which has gone on for a long time.

Part of the arrogant, wilful image – there’s an air of radicalism about Factory’s stuff, yet without ever actually being right-on

Sure. Thank God – it would be awful to be right-on. I don’t know where it comes from – I know where my political or philosophical background comes from that informs it, but… Maybe it’s more just a delight in the real avant-garde, or a delight in things that are new. The thing about pop music is it can be continuously new. You know, some people are excited by that which is new, some people are excited by that which is going to sell because people have heard it before. By and large we have the problem that we’re excited by stuff that’s new.

You say the real avant-garde, but we’re not talking Red Crayola…

No, but I don’t regard that in a way as… That’s one of the great difficulties of definition of avant-garde. “Avant-garde” essentially means to be in the vanguard, or to be the first wave of an assault, and I think we commonly confuse that with “experimental”. Experimental means that you’re doing new things, but there’s no one coming after you because it’s not actually going anywhere. Whereas avant-garde implies that there will be people following you, and that you are simply the first people to put these different things together. I think on occasions, which have been rather boring, we have done experimental stuff. I’m not particularly interested in experimental stuff myself, I don’t think the label is, I think we’re more interested in being avant-garde – i.e. being ahead of your time, but nevertheless a time that will come, as opposed to just experimental doodlings or whatever.

(argument [forgotten] about Cities in the Park, Electronic and Cath Carroll)

I find Electronic quite fascinating, although the whole New Order axis is twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old the fact that they are more contemporary than any of their contemporaries I always think is a great achievement, that’s largely because they go to the Hacienda and were part of the rave culture when it blew two or three years ago. … Our latest signing [the Adventure Babies] are an out and out pop group, international pop group, which is something we’ve never dealt with before – and that’s going down a road that we are not used to.

What do you think of this idea that ‘Manchester’ is dead, that it’s last year’s thing?

Well, I think it’s fantastic really… I kind of believed it – the scene’s over, it’s all these groups that we thought we’d got rid of, all these boring Melody Maker-type guitar groups, oh my God… I then started going out this autumn and my mouth would drop open, I’d look at these wild scenes, admittedly with a new generation but then the old generation were going to get back into it, wild scenes in the Hacienda and in every club in fucking Britain, and then suddenly about three weeks ago I found out what all these groups are selling, the ones that are on the covers of NME and MM, and they’re selling shit – they don’t sell. So suddenly I think, oh my God, how can I have been taken in by these people? I mean, I know that they’re all cretins, I’m taken in by it all again… It’s a complete pile of crap – ‘Manchester’, or Manchester-type music, of the type that was spawned here over the last few years, in its new generation which is hard-core – hard-core, and techno, and post-House dance music dominates the scene, and basically the press has been up its arse as usual for the last nine months. And then when you say that to the press they say yes, well, but we’ve got the right to because we created it – I say you what? They say well, we gave it all that coverage… I say, you gave it all the coverage a year after it started, you tried to ignore it for the first year. You didn’t create it. Don’t try to take credit – it was a wild scene, you just latched on to it and sold a few papers off the back of it. It was a wild scene – I mean, the idea that they now think they in some way created it. They’re just morons.

The scene in its original date was created by members of the Buzzcocks, Howard Devoto, Richard Boon, Pete Shelley, getting the Pistols to play here in ’76. From that moment onward it’s been everybody in the community, everybody, right the way through. It goes on, and at the moment it’s absolutely wild, and it’s kind of wonderful.

How would you compare what’s going on with ’76/’77?

Well now is a second generation, i.e. a second wave of rave culture – rave culture in general how would I compare it… I think very similarly for me personally… It’s a powerful culture, and is one of those moments when the wheels of youth culture turn very strongly. I think there were things that were better about punk, in that there was a… what was better about punk? I don’t know really – it’s just quite as exciting as punk. I don’t think one could separate – and look at ’67 or ’63, they’re all great moments, they all have different fors and againsts, I don’t think you can judge like by like. I was very fond of the scene that created Guns’N’Roses, although it was abhorrent to me – metal/goth/glam/punk – but nevertheless it was clear on the streets, on Sunset, at 11.00 at night on a Thursday / Friday / Saturday in LA, that there was – kids were out there having the time of their lives. At that point, ’85/’86, in Britain they weren’t. Even though that scene never got anywhere – it never spread outside LA, but nevertheless it produced a group in G’N’R who would dominate or whatever… I don’t like to say this one’s better that one’s worse, they are these wonderful moments when the wheels turn.

Even if two years later it’s vanished without a trace.

It never vanishes without a trace. This one was meant to have vanished without a trace and it hasn’t done, it’s going on, it’s stronger, it’s like you find in Europe now rave culture is at its most advanced stage, as it is in America. It’s kind of weird – we’ll see where it gets to. You’ve got to remember in terms of the world music industry punk had absolutely no impact, punk was really an isolated UK phenomenon. For a variety of reasons – the fact that Malcolm chose to do a rather bizarre Pistols tour after which they broke up, the fact that by the time the Clash got to America they’d become a rock’n’roll band and were irrelevant anyway – punk never happened outside the UK. We see it as a major event in pop history but the rest of the world doesn’t. Pop music is a world thing.

What do you think of this argument that there was something transcendentally radical about punk, and about certain significant figures like John Lydon…

I think there’s something transcendentally whatever about every one of those moments… I think Please Please Me was the most political song ever written. Pop music by its very nature, at its best, is threatening. When it doesn’t threaten it’s trash. But the majority of it does, and is a generational thing. I always see the generation in terms of, like the New Testament, it’s the son saying no to the father, and that’s the political act. It doesn’t matter what pile of garbage, be it Anti-Nazi League or Ecstasy communality (and neither of those are garbage, both of those are fabulous political constructions, but nevertheless they’re not necessary to give credence) – all that’s necessary for me to give political credence to pop music is that it is generational, it is a young generation saying no to an older generation. Or that it is just something that defines you as different, that defines you as being separate, which is part of the whole dawn of the idea of teenage, of pop music, of rock’n’roll in the 50s – it defines youth as being different and having different ideas. And since Please Please Me was the first number one single for the Beatles that began that process of uniting a generation I have no difficulty in regarding that as the supreme political moment.

Don’t you feel yourself in a slightly contradictory position in terms of this generational thing? Being a respectable local businessman…

No, I don’t find any conflict… I always feel immature, I always feel when I’m talking to people – sometimes ten years younger than me – that they’re grown-ups and I’m not, so I’ve never had a problem with that. My bosses at Granada, some of them are younger than me, they’re grown-ups, they behave like grown-ups. Some people are 22 and are grown-up, more’s the pity for them.

So, socialism. Do you see yourself as a socialist?

The only definition I can validly use I think is that one believes that a greater rather than a lesser part of one’s income should be consumed by the state and then re-apportioned to the members of the state, from that point of view I’m a socialist, if one takes that as being the central axiom, to believe in that process. From a lot of other points of view God knows, really. I think one of the confusions is that as a child of the late 60s one ran around shouting anarchist and Marxist slogans, without ever coming face to face with the fact that these are two entirely contradictory ideologies. The ideology that most intrigued me was anarchism. The way I look at the last five years, which have shaken everyone from my background I presume, is that whichever International it was that kicked Bakunin out, 1872 or whatever, that was getting rid of individualism, sooner or later individualism which is part of the human being was going to come and kick the Left’s ass – which is what it has just done for the last five, six years. That’s a way that Marxism Today was – I noticed in one of the reviews at the end of Martin’s empire (in fact it was rather silly, it implied the end of Martin’s empire when in fact he’s ended it to start a new empire, I don’t know what the new magazine’s called but it’s very strongly financed) but nevertheless in the review of that it talked about that idea that they shocked everyone by suggesting that Margaret Thatcher was in touch with the Zeitgeist, which she most certainly was in the 80s, she was a creature of her times. Individualism was going to rear its head, and my God it has done. Everyone’s been forced to rethink on the Left I would hope by the events. To me really with that anarchist background, my background being that at University two of my friends were translators of major anarchist works, and I was enthralled, although not understanding totally the stuff – it seems to me to make a lot of sense now that that’s what went wrong.

(Some stuff about Paul Sieveking and John Fullerton [the British pro-situs referred to here] and Raoul Vaneigem)

I’m intrigued by Factory’s use of the Situationist stuff

Just being a fan. Purely fandom, really. And yet you see the way it works – Greil Marcus’s work in the 80s has given a great degree of prominence to this issue, and his involvement in it comes about precisely through our fandom. He spent two years looking at a sticker, when we sent out our first record it had this sticker of the Durutti Column, and he stuck it on his cassette deck, and he tells the story that he spent two years staring at this strange photo of two cowboys talking French to each other, until he finally decided to investigate it. And that investigation took him through this whole period – and without him doing it maybe all these exhibitions wouldn’t have happened and blah blah blah… Just being a fan

(Digression [completely forgotten] about Le retour de la colonne Durutti and Kim Philby)

These are the three great comedians of the twentieth century in Britain, these three upper-class traitors are the great comics – their lives were amusing statements.

How much of an impact has feminism made on Factory?

Good God… it’s a fascinating question… I don’t have an answer to the question, whether that’s a good or a bad thing. I don’t think we’re a very sexist label, it’s never occurred to me that we are – or that we aren’t, really, and maybe that’s – by saying neither a lot nor a little might imply that we haven’t thought about it. I don’t presume to have actually imagined it would impinge on us…

(Digression about Alan Wise, “local promoter and nutter”, and strippers [some of the MCing at the Cities in the Park gig was done by women in their undies; apparently this was Wise’s doing])

I don’t think we would ever, ever, ever, ever deal with things like that. Certainly that’s not within our remit, we are much more, unfortunately, right-on than that – I say unfortunately, I would refer, though, to the opening night of the Hacienda, where our guest of honour who opened it was Bernard Manning. Now whether Bernard Manning made anti-feminine jokes, or made anti-gay jokes, or made anti- whatever, but I was very pleased with that, because it was épater les bourgeoisie. And everybody else too, please – I mean, épater anybody is great as far as I’m concerned, and I’m only too happy to do that. But no, we’d never go in for stuff like that, I have to say.

(Digression about Revenge and “the whole fetishistic artwork thing”)

I would not regard any of that work as sexist personally, within my own remit.

Happy Mondays just recently took a lot of shit…

It’s like being a Nazi these days – I’ve done so many interviews recently, ten years ago every interview was ‘Are your groups Nazis?’, now it’s ‘are your groups homophobic?’, to which my answer is no they’re not. To me the sub-text of that piece was Steven [Wells], that was your typical SWP member who doesn’t actually know what a member of the working class looks like or sounds like, and when he meets them goes into that like and gets fucked up. You should not confuse an artist with their art, and they are working-class kids. The fact that some of their best friends are gay, and they hang out with them… it doesn’t occur to them that you can go ‘Fucking faggots!’, and they’re your best friends, it doesn’t occur to them that there’s a conflict there. But someone reading that will go ‘oh, homophobic…’ and the rest of it, which is a bunch of crap. Maybe for me I don’t mind, because I enjoy that bit when a middle-class socialist meets a member of the working classes and just doesn’t know what’s going on.

Plus there’s this traditional idea that if you’re in a band you’ve got to have this god-like dignity, either that or just be ultra-right-on and know all the answers to everything…

And it’s complete and utter fucking crap. This whole idea goes back to the Romantic poets, when suddenly the idea that the artist was as important as his art and was a star came into vogue. We’ve had it 200 years now, and it’s a complete pile of shit. W.B.Yeats is the greatest poet of the 20th century in my opinion – what he actually personally thought, wearing brown shirts and the rest of that country house shit, the guy was a complete nincompoop. It doesn’t matter – he’s a nincompoop, his art’s fantastic, let’s not confuse the two.

What’s the next big thing?

No idea! Didn’t have any idea last time, it happens and you go Wow, look! You’ve just got to stay open to things – it’s being hospitable to what comes along, being open to it and not wanting to hear what you’ve heard before.

John Peel said once that he thought there’d been three great waves of Manchester bands: Buzzcocks, Joy Division and the Fall; the Smiths, New Order and the Fall; Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and the Fall.

Wonderful way of putting it.

And viewed in that respect Factory’s record looks pretty good.

Sure. I think the real question is whether we’re there for the next round. Now it’s all techno records and stuff – we’re not a 12″-single selling label, we don’t have that structure, we don’t have that way of dealing with it. One of the great challenges for Factory is that we believe in Northside, I think they’re a great group – the rest of the world has decided that this is not the case, we’ll see who’s proved right. We went through a few years when everyone thought the Happy Mondays were a pile of shit – we’ve been there before, we’re there with Northside and the Wendys. Next year we have our pop group the Adventure Babies come on stream, that should be interesting if not exciting. It’s a bit difficult now – there’s going to be a very imitative period in the mid-90s. There is a modality, an ineluctable modality, there is a real wave pattern to this, and after every live generation there comes a dead generation. And there will be a dead generation of teenagers coming along in the mid-90s presumably, tragically. But hopefully we will go on as we have done through the 80s through the 90s, and the real challenge will be in the late 90s when the next alive generation comes up, and throws everything on its head, and brings disparate influences together and uses the technology in such a way – that we’ll be alive to it and we’ll be involved. It was the big question for us in the 80s: by the mid to late 80s when we were being successful with New Order all around the world, the question was when the next revolution comes will we be involved? And sure enough it happened behind our back in the Hacienda, and the Happy Mondays who we couldn’t – we signed them because they clearly had the mark of Cain about them, we had no idea what they were going to do – and there they were, they were the ones putting together these black, Chicago / Detroit rhythms with the white English post-punk sensibility. So you have to see. You can’t be sure it’s going to happen. You can be sure something will happen; whether one’s involved with it or not, that’s a question of luck – and judgment.

God save history

Andy:

It is inevitable that there will be a debate about our English identity, and the values that we wish to embrace in our culture. The left needs to participate in that debate, and fight against the Little Englanders. However, we will be greatly aided in this if we recognise that the British state, and the imperial project it entails, greatly disadvantages our people. … the economic policies of the British state, in promoting London as a major financial centre whatever the cost to the underlying economy, and encouraging economic growth in the South East at the expense of the rest of the country must also be challenged.

Andy’s excellent post reminded me of something I wrote for the Socialist Society back in 1988 (yes, that is quite a long time ago, isn’t it?) A version of this piece appeared in Radical Wales; a different version appeared in the Soc Soc’s own magazine Interlink. Needless to say, I don’t hold exactly the same views now as I did in 1988. At the time I wrote this, I was still reeling from the discovery that there are places in England which aren’t blighted by being in London’s cultural rain-shadow. A suburban upbringing will do that for you.

Here’s the article, anyway, fresh from the vault.

The final assumption of Labour’s campaign is ‘Britishness’. In a sense this follows naturally from assumptions about power and the party (…) Just as power disenfranchises the individual and the party neutralises the pressure group, so the nation state marginalises the regions. The whole is structured to fail the sum of its parts. (…) In Chesterfield [1987] one question being asked was not whether Wales and Scotland get decentralised powers, but how to do the same for the English regions. The Irish/Scottish/Welsh ‘problem’ is being recognised for what it has always been: the ‘British problem’.
(Peter Keelan in Radical Wales, Summer 1988)

And there was London, spread out before us like a great capital city and major financial centre.
(Stephen Fry)

Looking out from London, as most of the news media do, England is made up of two places: London on one side (where things get done) and “the regions” on the other (where things happen – floods, motorway pile-ups, mass pickets). Between the centre and the regions, though, there is a grey area, neither central nor provincial: towns widely considered – by their inhabitants as much as anyone – to have nothing going for them except ease of access to London (“it’s amazingly cheap considering”, “it takes no time in the car”). The significance of this is that, from my own experience of living south of London, when you look at “the regions” from London what you see is the grey area: there is London and there are the other towns, and the other towns are probably all awful places with a cinema, two car parks and no soul. Said in the right tone of voice, Preston sounds as funny as Woking.

Of course, where towns like Woking are concerned, it is not just metropolitan snobbery that reduces the town to the role of base for London workers. The subordination of the civic life of these towns to the priorities of the capital is a real and continuing process. But this process – this acceptance, as if by the town itself, of a position of subordination to London – does not apply to towns outside the grey area. It is not that being outside commuting distance of London somehow grants independence from the London-centred economy or the London-based state: indeed, the Scottish experience shows how little cultural autonomy depends on socio-economic autonomy. It is a matter of how easy it is to attempt – or to formulate – alternatives to the economic and cultural hegemony of the British state; and of the extreme difficulty of doing this in a place with too long a record of unchallenged exploitation by the capital of that state.

It is a question of history. On one hand, there is the long concentration of wealth and power in London, and its effect on the rest of the country. On the other, there are “regions” which have never been either wholly independent from London, or wholly reduced to raw material for London. The grey area, appearing to prove that only London is culturally alive, in fact shows the deadening influence of London’s drain on resources – which, in the grey area, has had its full effect. Elsewhere social and cultural resources, and the degree of freedom for new developments, are not so circumscribed. It may be true, as Londoners will assume it is, that Penrith and Dudley and Ipswich are “stifling”, “socially impoverished” “cultural backwaters” whose young people make for the metropolis at the first opportunity. What is certain is that the apparent barrenness of these places (which should not be over-stated) is the result, not of an original sin of not being London, but of their own histories – histories that will supply, if anything can, the means of overcoming that barrenness.

I am arguing against two very British assumptions: that England is composed of a metropolis (definitively English) and a periphery (regional English); and that an English social and political culture – culture of any sort, indeed – is not to be sought in the latter. We need to break with these, not only by denying the superiority of London, but by re-evaluating – and downgrading – London: prising the large city in the South-East of England apart from the home of Britain’s State and most of its Establishment. An English challenge to Britain is needed; and, as a first step, the development of an idea of Englishness rooted in the lives of the actual people of England, most of whose relations with “Britishness” are relations of vicarious participation, indifference or exclusion.

Nor is this only a cultural question. Nothing will impede the development of a politics of England more than continuing to organise nationally from and in London. Our political organisations should at the very least be articulated across England. Their activities should take place as much in Coventry or Newcastle as in London, not out of a desire to “build a presence in the regions”, but because to continue to do otherwise is to reproduce the centre/provinces, government/governed split at the heart of British politics.

A couple of disclaimers. It is easy to over-emphasise the regional issue, either by ranking it above those of class and economic power or by assuming that they are the same thing – “Manchester people will take no shit from no one”, as a Moss Side-born friend once said to me. This is mysticism. The idea of England I am proposing and the received, patriotic-pastoral version are polar opposites. I am not talking about pride in being English, but awareness of being in England: nationalism growing from a sense of common purpose, rather than a sense of common purpose drummed up out of nationalism. The SNP’s poll tax campaign exemplifies this approach.

We can understand the potential of the English perspective by thinking about internationalism. Maybe it is possible to feel international, to “support our lot” in exactly the same way regardless of country. Alternatively, maybe it can be proved that feeling ashamed of the British government is simply a sign of wounded chauvinism. If so, the old axioms hold good. The working class has no country; nationalism is inherently reactionary; progressive forces throughout the world have one allegiance only – the international proletariat. (Hooray!) It seems to me, though, that national feeling can be neither denied nor reduced to its reactionary uses – that the nation is not simply a hangover from the past, but one of the arenas in which history continues to be made. It follows that socialist internationalism is not an indivisible class’s loyalty to itself, but a pooling of national class loyalties; and support for national struggles which does not spring from a nationalistic solidarity is ultimately only dogma or philanthropy. Raymond Williams once described himself as a “Welsh European”. It is that combination of national and international perspectives which we have to realise.

“Nationalism? But I’m English!” Britain is a young nation – not 300 years old yet. There is no genuinely British nationalism; instead, we grow up speaking the nationalism of England’s governors, re-labelled “British” as a reminder that we run the whole island. This lack of a distinctively British national identity has led to the widespread feeling that the British are somehow post-national – “past all that”, too mature as a nation to bother with tribal relics like loyalty to your own turf. This is an illusion: British nationalism is as strong now as when it was first fabricated. The English have the worst of both worlds: a learnt loyalty to the tribal symbols of the English ruling class, and no means of voicing an alternative.

Which is where we come in. It is not just that the project of a Socialist Enlightenment cannot succeed in England unless it provides an alternative to Great British Old Corruption. The English situation merely accentuates a universal phenomenon: the need, integral to the socialist project, for a new national culture rooted in the experience of the people. This is why organising nationally, for those of us in England, must mean organising throughout England; and why we must take on board the sense that there is an England which, as much as Scotland and Wales, potentially has a political agenda other than Britain’s. To quote Raymond Williams again, “Ingsoc is no more English socialism than Minitrue is the Ministry of Truth”: English socialism, a radical politics of the people of England, has still to be developed. And it will be developed outside London, because that’s where England is.

Wrapped in paper (7)

More from the last century. This one had a wider audience than many of my columns, as it appeared in Computing. I wrote five of these columns for the paper in the first half of 1999, working on a rota with four or five other writers, after which they had a big reorganisation and dropped the column. It’s nice to feel one’s made a difference.

This column’s dated surprisingly well, although the obvious anachronisms are now harder to spot. The only bits that have a really odd ring are the bit about ‘free Internet services’ and, ironically, the reference to dialup access ‘costing you money the whole time’. The economics are different these days.

THE CURRENT explosion in free Internet services is sure to create a whole new generation of users: keen, enthusiastic, ignorant. With these lucky people in mind, I’ve put together a brief Guide to the Net.

What is the Internet?

The World Wide Internet (or ‘Web’ for short) was originally set up as a means for American military commanders to communicate with one another following a nuclear holocaust. It was thought vital to national security to assure the continuing availability of chat rooms, games of noughts and crosses and, of course, ‘adult’ material. Although the Cold War ended some time ago in a no-score draw, by some oversight the authorities failed to dismantle the International Net (or ‘w.w.w.’ for short). Many new technologies have sprung up to threaten the continuing viability of the ‘Web’ – the Sega Megadrive, Rabbit phones, the Microsoft Network – but it continues to hold its own. Indeed, some experts believe that it has grown within the last three to five years – and that this upward trend may continue!

Why is it so popular?

The popularity of the ‘Net’ is undoubtedly due to the unparallelled range of information and services which it can offer: the latest news from Kosovo, hardware specifications for everything from a Furby to a Happy Fun Ball, and, of course, material for ‘adult’ eyes. And that’s without mentioning the vast communications possibilities opened up by the electronic ‘news’ and ‘mail’ services which form an integral part of the ‘Interweb’, although it’s a different part from the part that we’ve been talking about up to now. Mail (or ‘email’ for short) quite literally shrinks the world – when you first got an email address, who would have thought you’d soon be getting business propositions from people in Taiwan? Not you, I’ll bet. As for ‘news’, don’t get hung up on that stale old idea of new information presented in an unbiased manner – most of the ‘news groups’ are full of ancient gossip and incomprehensible insults. And they’re all the better for it!

What about the…

Many news groups are entirely dedicated to the provision of material designed for an ‘adult’ audience.

Just checking. So, what are the drawbacks of ‘Net life’?

Net life is a lot like real life: you meet people, you talk about things, you make friends, you fall out, you insult them in public, they refuse to speak to you, you realise you’ve gone too far and try to apologise, it’s too late, nobody ever writes to you again except people in Taiwan with business propositions. The main difference is that when you’re on the Net it’s costing you money the whole time. On the other hand, how many people do you know from Taiwan?

What about the dangers of addiction?

Net addiction – or ‘Web addiction’ for short – is a real danger for today’s ‘knowledge workers’ (people who really have to work at it to acquire knowledge). Sufferers become distracted and irritable when they’ve been ‘off the line’ for too bloody long – often they can’t even complete a simple English, oh, what’s the point anyway? Look, I’ll just check my mail, all right? I won’t be on for long.

Does the Net interfere with users’ social lives?

What was that? Sorry, I wasn’t listening.

What are the major growth areas in Web use?

The Web is international – hence the name! This means that the only laws which apply on the Web are laws which apply all over the world. This is good news for casinos, which have expanded far beyond their original base in the North of England, as well as for providers of material intended for customers who can be described as ‘adults’. Another recent growth area, also taking advantage of the Net’s ‘offshore’ existence in ‘cyberspace’, has been drug trafficking (or ‘e-commerce’).

What is the significance of encryption?

Nfx n fvyyl dhrfgvba…

My notebook and my limit

A while ago Rob passed me the meme stick with a couple of questions deriving from Big Brother:

Tell your readers three things about you that would make you the Ideal Housemate if you were imprisoned in a house with ten random strangers for weeks on end. Then three things that’d make you the Housemate From Hell.

I’ll take them in reverse order.

I would be the Housemate from Hell, in any imaginable Big Brother-type scenario, because:

a) I hate being thrown together with strangers
b) I really hate being under surveillance
c) I really, really hate Big Brother and all its derivatives. When I first read about Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment I was fascinated but simultaneously disgusted and alarmed. I felt that Zimbardo’s experiment, like the Milgram obedience experiment, prompted some large and troubling questions about 20th-century American society, which we haven’t yet managed to answer. (The question of whether Milgram’s or Zimbardo’s findings related only to American society – or only to capitalist societies, or only to the twentieth century – is obviously one of the largest and most troubling.) I don’t know what Big Brother is if it’s not the Stanford experiment, fine-tuned and played for laughs.

Ideal Housemate is going to be a bit of a sticky wicket, in the circumstances, but let’s give it a go.

a) Sometimes what you really want from a housemate is that they leave you alone. This suggests that a really good housemate would really leave you alone, for hours or even days at a time, occuping themself instead by reading a book somewhere quiet.
b) I tell you what I can do: I can keep my head when all about me, etc. When people start flapping I’m quite good at staying calm and working out what actually needs to be done. This isn’t always popular.
c) Conversely, I can flap – sometimes to the point of losing it completely – when those about me are perfectly calm. Which, I don’t know, might have a certain entertainment value if nothing else.

On balance I think ‘Housemate from Hell’ has it.

Meanwhile, Philippe has passed me the ‘eight random things’ meme. Here goes:

1) When I was 12 I fell off a cliff I was attempting to climb and landed headfirst. I was unconscious for 36 hours.

2) I once went to France at GMTV’s expense; one morning in June 2004 I appeared on screen for approximately 30 seconds, standing on the beach at Arromanches and talking about the landings. I was credited as a ‘military historian’. (I’d specifically asked them not to credit me as a military historian.) My travelling expenses came to between three and four times my fee.

3) My father’s father was a miner; my mother’s mother was in domestic service. I get a bit peeved when people deny the relevance of class.

4) I have no knee reflex; my knee does not jerk. This was first noticed after 1) and may be a result.

5) Raymond Williams liked my poetry.

6) I used to be a regular contributor to some Usenet groups, in particular alt.folklore.urban, soc.history.what-if and comp.software.year-2000; at one time contributors to c.s.y2k periodically gave their opinion on how bad it would be, using the ‘Edwards Scale’. (Most of us were miles out.)

7) I know Cobol.

8) I also know French, Spanish and Italian, although I can’t hold up a conversation in any of them.

There you have it. As for who’s next, as flattering as it was to get an actual nomination, I think I’m going to take the easy way out and offer a general invitation. If you feel like telling us your own eight random personal facts, have at it.

Update Will writes:

An ‘honest’ reality television would be self-defeating; you might as well stare at your own flatmates for 45 minutes. Instead, reality television distorts, manipulates, refers to itself, because the objectifying properties of television equipment are brought within the frame of entertainment.

What is worse is that reality television not only deliberately plays with form, it laughingly denigrates content. In the same way that Heat magazine revels in using telephoto lenses to reduce film stars to specimens of celulite, reality television uses television equipment to turn people, famous or not, into emotional wrecks. Loss of emotional self-control is the leveller and main spectacle, with rage as the most sought-after. Be it on Big Brother, cooking programmes, home improvement or whatever else, it is the tears, the shouting the breakdown or – yes – the storming out from a photo session over a tiara, that bankroll this cultural vacuum.

So maybe I would be a ‘good’ housemate after all. Wot larx, eh?

171.69

The British land speed record currently stands at 300.3 mph. It doesn’t look as if Richard Hammond will be the driver to break it.

If ‘driver’ is the word. News coverage of the Hammond story has stressed how unlike a car, in any familiar sense of the word, was the thing that Hammond tried and failed to guide down a track. Apparently there’s some form of steering, but apart from that you’ve got a jet engine and some parachutes and, er, that’s it.

No disrespect to the neurally-injured Hammond, but I can’t help feeling that’s not driving. Parry Thomas, now, there was a driver. He was also the chief engineer of Leyland Ltd, but it’s as a driver that he’ll be remembered, or deserves to be. He was the last driver to set the (world) land speed record on a racetrack (Brooklands, where else?); in one extraordinary contemporary film-clip, Thomas’s long-nosed 1920s racer scoots casually past everything else on the track, looking for all the world as if everyone else was standing still.

But there were limits to what you could do on a circuit, and Thomas (along with rivals like Malcolm Campbell) needed space. Hence his choice of the seven-mile beach at Pendine in South Wales, where in 1926 he pushed the record up to 169.30 mph and then to 171.02 (or, in some accounts, 172.33). His car Babs was a heavily-modified Higham Special, bought from the estate of the racing driver Louis Zborowski (killed at Monza in 1924); Thomas even fitted pistons of his own design.

Enter Campbell, who in January 1927 took the record back with a speed of 174.22 mph (or possibly 174.88). In response Thomas took Babs back to Pendine. On the 3rd of March 1927, at a speed of anything up to 180 mph, he lost control of Babs; the car skidded off course, turned over and crashed, killing him instantly.

Babs was buried in the sand, and since then the beach has never again been used for speed trials. There was some talk of mounting a British land speed record attempt there in 2007, supposedly to tie in with the eightieth anniversary of Campbell’s 174 mph; it may not come to anything, particularly after Hammond’s crash. Personally, I’d have thought another eightieth was a bit more pressing.

Babs was buried in the sand, anyway, but it didn’t stay there. In 1969 the car was dug up by a local enthusiast who wanted to rebuild it; my family lived in Pendine at the time, and I vividly remember the exhumation. I remember that my father, who was the Senior Administrative Officer on the local military base, was involved in some capacity – although, thinking about it now, it was probably a “here comes the SAO, look busy” kind of capacity. Eventually Babs was rebuilt, and it now takes pride of place in the Museum of Speed a mile or so down Pendine Sands. It’s well worth a look if you’re passing – and Pendine is well worth passing. (No, I mean it’s well worth passing that way in order to visit… never mind.)

I’d like to say that Parry Thomas was the last British holder of the land speed record, or the last to break the record in Britain, or the last to do so in something even vaguely resembling a car, or something – but history’s not that neat. Nevertheless, you don’t break land speed records these days in a car with a piston engine, and you certainly don’t do it in Britain. Parry Thomas’s death may not have ended an era, but it was very much of an era, and one which doesn’t seem much less distant now than Stephenson’s Rocket.

Footnote: the speed in the title comes from the Tea Set’s 1979 tribute to Thomas. I haven’t seen it anywhere else; all the sources I’ve seen set Thomas’s record-breaking speed either lower or higher. He was going pretty bloody fast, anyway.

I am nine

Here are some of the things that happened when I was nine (give or take a couple of months either way), and which I remember. (I’m using the BBC site rather than Wikipedia, which doesn’t seem to have much British news from that far back.)

Apollo 11 (I remember watching the landing)
The introduction of the 50p coin (I remember ten-bob notes, anyway)
Apollo 12 (I watched that too; I thought this was what life was going to be like)
The first jumbo jets
Apollo 13 (whoa, bad news)
The World Cup
Ted Heath winning an election (vaguely)

And, er, that’s it. I have no memory of (among other things) Chappaquiddick, the murder of Sharon Tate, the Chicago Eight, the Piazza Fontana bomb, Ian Smith declaring UDI or the PFLP hijacking four airliners and blowing them up. (Quite a year, really.)

The first political event I remember? Probably the Aberfan disaster, when I was six. World events didn’t really impinge, although I do remember answering a question at school about plagues by suggesting that you could have a plague of gorillas; there seemed to have been a lot on the news about gorillas recently. My first poem, written at the age of eight on a prescribed theme of ‘sunset’, was about refugees from a ‘bloody war’ ‘far away’ (who didn’t get much joy out of the aforementioned sunset). I was taken to see the headmistress on the strength of it; these days they’d probably call Social Services.

It’s probably not surprising that my musical memories of 1969-70 are a lot clearer. But I mean, a lot clearer. I remember

Thunderclap Newman, “Something In The Air”
(I thought this was wonderful)
Zager & Evans, “In The Year 2525”
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Bad Moon Rising”
Bobby Gentry, “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”
the Archies, “Sugar Sugar”
Rolf Harris, “Two Little Boys”
(I hated this with a passion)
Edison Lighthouse , “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)”
(as with the Thunderclap Newman, I thought this was v. meaningful and moving)
Lee Marvin, “Wanderin’ Star”
(I hated this too)
Simon & Garfunkel, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Dana, “All Kinds Of Everything”
(and I wasn’t too keen on this one)
Norman Greenbaum, “Spirit In The Sky”
England World Cup Squad, “Back Home”
Christie, “Yellow River”
(a friend at school was born in Hong Kong; this song was the bane of his life)
Mungo Jerry, “In The Summertime”
(this was absolutely the best thing ever)

In other words, I’ve got distinct and in some cases vivid memories of just about every number one single in the period. I could even say I remember

Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg, “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus”

inasmuch as I clearly remember watching Top of the Pops the week it was Number One. (At least, I remember the studio audience dancing for three minutes in silence in a darkened studio, but I think memory must be exaggerating slightly.)

Pop music goes back earlier than politics, too. The earliest pop music I remember would have to be the Honeycombs’ “Have I the right”; it was number one the week I turned four (two years before Aberfan). And it still sounds wonderful.

Then there was

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, “Tears Of A Clown”

It’s just outside the period – after Elvis singing the ghastly “The wonder of you”, which followed “In the summertime” – but the memory’s too vivid to pass by. Not so much the song (fabulous though it is) as the accompanying performance by Pan’s People. I can’t remember the details, but I know I fell in love with one of the People there and then. (The pretty one, you know.)

But by then I was ten, which is quite another story.

No more toys for grown-up boys
When I am ten I’ll remember when
I was nine and had a wonderful time
I’ll look back nostalgically…

Ain’t that close to love?

When my son was born the midwife commented on his oily skin – “he’ll be a spotty teenager”. My own skin is noted for its sebaceous quality, so my reaction wasn’t surprise so much as anticipatory fellow-feeling – tempered by the utter inability to imagine this eight-pound armful as a teenager, spotty or otherwise.

He’s nearly eleven now and he’s just got his first spot. I guess it all starts now. I wish him luck.

But I’ve got solid proof that he’s not a teenager yet. We were watching The Breakfast Club last night (online DVD rental, it’s a great system) when he walked in. He asked what it was about, and we told him the setup – five kids are thrown together in a Saturday detention class and we see what happens. He was baffled – he literally could not comprehend why anyone would want to watch a film with no plot, as he put it.

You have to have been a teenager, I think, or else still be one. My son had walked in on the effective, understated scene where the teacher cracks and challenges Bender to a fight. Bender, whose own father regularly beats him up, shrinks into a corner looking scared, bewildered and above all stuck. It’s as if he’s realising that his whole repertoire of bullying and violence depends on adults not replying with greater force – but that adults ultimately, inevitably, will. I can’t imagine even explaining that one scene to my son for another year or two. (Mind you, all of that goes for nothing in the crawl-space blonde-joke scene that immediately follows, where Bender’s back to playing a cross between Tony from West Side Story and Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. But it’s that kind of film – the point’s been made, so it moves on.)

I didn’t see The Breakfast Club when it came out; it’s a bit odd seeing it now, when I’m the age of the older-generation characters (the kids’ parents, the sadistic teacher, the philosophical janitor). Some things which I expected to grate were surprisingly bearable – chief among them the ghastly scene where Molly Ringwald’s character gives the Ally Sheedy ‘basketcase’ character a makeover, turning her from a nervy urban gipsy into a kind of sleepwalking Pre-Raphaelite mannequin, and hence enabling her to get the guy (in the shape of Emilio Estevez, ‘the athlete’). I’d love to think this was ironic, but I don’t think John Hughes really does irony, or not at anything above a Readers’ Digest level (“His parents wanted him to be a success, but it was the pressure they put on him that made him fail!”) If I’d seen that scene back in the 80s I would probably have walked out there and then. Now… meh. It doesn’t offend me, because it’s so clearly not about me. It could even be the kind of thing kids do.

On the other hand, I was irritated by some things which would probably have rung true to me back then. So Bender (‘the criminal’) has problems with his parents, notably that they get drunk and beat him up. It comes out over the course of the day that ‘the athlete’ has problems too – specifically, he has problems with his parents and their expectations of him. Ally Sheedy’s character has problems with her parents (they ignore her); the Molly Ringwald ‘princess’ character has problems with hers, too (they’re divorcing and use her to get at each other). The nerdy Anthony Michael Hall character doesn’t appear to have any problems, until it turns out that he’s contemplating suicide because he’s not getting high enough marks… to satisfy his parents. I mean, come on, kids! Isn’t even one of you losing sleep over your prospective choice of career or your gender identity or a lack of friends or illegal drinking or illegal drugs or illness or your penfriend not answering your letters or your cat dying, or anything apart from your parents? Always with the parents! They haven’t got it easy, you know, and I’m sure they’re all trying to bring you up properly (with the possible exception of the Bender household). We didn’t ask for you to be born, you know. Well, OK, I suppose we did in a sense, but we didn’t ask for you to be teenagers.

Still, they were nice kids. The dancing scene was another one which would have had me groaning and tutting twenty years ago – what’s this doing here, it’s just an excuse for a cut-price pop video…. Last night, I have to say, I found it really charming. I’ve retrospectively hated my teenage years for a long time (my twenties weren’t that great either), but that scene in particular made being a teenager look like a lot of fun; more to the point, it stirred a few vague memories suggesting that it might occasionally have been like that. As I head towards being the father of a teenager – a role I’m sure I’ll screw up horribly, just like everyone else – it’ll be good to have those memories to hand.

And I wish him luck.

When you’re a kid they tell you it’s all grow up, get a job, get married, get a house, have kids and that’s it. The truth is, the world is so much stranger than that, so much darker and so much madder – and so much better.

There’s safety in numbers

Some time in the mid- to late 1970s I saw a fairly right-on play, set in Hulme in a dystopian near-future. (I had never been to Manchester and thought I was hugely enlightened for already knowing not only that there was such a place as Hulme but how to pronounce it – the L was silent, like the second K in Kirkby. The Guardian has a lot to answer for.)

Anyway, the idea of this particular dystopian near-future seemed to be that the out-of-touch benefit-cutting so-called-Labour government had washed its hands of the unemployed, the North or both, and what then? what then, eh? And no, we had no idea Thatcher was round the corner, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about (although it may turn out to be relevant).

There were three characters in this play, a well-meaning politicised couple and a scruffy Manc on his own; they were sharing a squat in Hulme, the couple on grounds of principle and the second guy because he couldn’t find anywhere else to live. As well as being well-meaning and political, the couple are both educated or Southerners, or possibly both. The scruffy Manc is none of the above. He’s the one who complains, at one stage, about the (offstage) West Indians in the squat next door and their incessant loud reggae music.

Well-meaning woman: “Why don’t you go and ask them to turn it down?”
Scruffy Manc: “Because I don’t speak Swahili!”

Of course she came back immediately with some stuff about how they would certainly speak English, and in any case they were as British as he was. What sticks in my mind is that his line got a big laugh. That was the seventies; racism wasn’t Till death and Love thy neighbour – what we tend to forget now is that those programmes were at the liberal end of the spectrum. Racism was a mundane, ubiquitous, unquestioned reality – even among the Guardian-reading types who would have been in the audience for that play. (I could make the same point quicker by referring to the Kinks’ “Apeman” (1970) or John Gotting’s “The educated monkey” (1979), both of which feature white guys affecting West Indian accents and singing about being an ape. I mean, really, what were they thinking? Or rather, what were we…)

So where did it go? Because there’s no denying that the racism I grew up with has gone, or at least changed out of all recognition. When I was a kid ‘Eenie-meenie-minie-mo’ included the word ‘nigger’; forty years on, my children have learned a version that doesn’t involve catching anyone or anything by its toe, and the N-word is rather less acceptable in polite conversation than the F-word. This is certainly a gain in terms of civility, but I’m starting to wonder if it’s anything more than that. Certainly the recent localised electoral victories for the fash suggest that the language of race still has some power to mobilise.

What’s going on? I can see three main possibilities.

1. Genuine Progress (with pockets of ignorance)
The school where my children go is terrifically right-on, which can sometimes be rather wearing. (If they ever use the word ‘culture’ you know what you’re in for, and it’s not Beethoven.) Still, I know my children are far closer to being ‘colour-blind’ than I’ll ever be. The other day my son got picked on in the swimming pool; we asked him to describe the kids who did it, and when we asked him whether they had brown skin he said “yes, but why do you ask?” That told us.

Maybe he’s just less racist than we are in the same way that we were less racist than our parents, let alone our grandparents (ask me about my grandmother some time). Maybe in ten or fifteen years’ time “why do you ask?” will be the default answer. Maybe this is what Progress looks like, and it’s just progressing a bit slower down Dagenham.

That’s the optimistic version. Then there’s

2. “Face don’t fit”: prejudice by quota
The pessimistic assumption underlying this model is that people, en masse, have a tendency to hate, and they’ve got to hate somebody. We tend to hate people, en masse, on fairly irrational grounds, and probably always will – at least until the glorious day when people are spat at in the street for carrying the Daily Mail. (All right, not glorious as such, but you can’t deny it’d be an improvement.) And, if one form of out-group identification is repressed, another will take its place. On this model, if we no longer talk about niggers and queers – that is, if nobody talks about niggers and queers – this isn’t because tolerance and harmony have permeated white straight society. It’s the other way round: if we don’t routinely use offensive terms, after a generation or so the out-group production mechanisms which they stand for won’t work any more.

But if, for whatever reason, people need an out-group to hate; and if, for very good reasons, the out-groups I grew up with have been ruled unavailable; then where does the hatred go? Ask a Traveller; ask a pikey. As much as I hate even appearing to agree with Julie Burchill, I think the hatred and contempt heaped on ‘chavs’ is a sign of something seriously wrong in our culture. (To be clear about this, I’m pretty sure that all actually-existing cultures have at least one thing seriously wrong with them. Which doesn’t mean it’s not worth concentrating on what’s wrong with this one round about now – any more than saying that most gardens are full of big stones makes it less useful to dig ours over.)

The key point about ‘chav’ is that it derives from Traveller slang, and ultimately from the Romani for ‘boy’ or ‘lad’; ‘pikey’, similarly, derives from (or rather is) a straightforward outgroup label for people who travel the turnpikes. Hatred of Travellers is the only form of racism which is still respectable. When a new outgroup was needed the ‘gipsy’ stereotype was readymade: ‘chavs’ are idle spongers, aren’t they, and they’re dirty and dishonest and flashy and aggressive… If the racism we knew has virtually disappeared, in other words, this may only mean that it’s been replaced by new bigotries that we don’t yet recognise as such.

Alternatively, maybe we should be thinking in terms of

3. The bitch who bore him
Think racism’s gone away, or at worst gone to Dagenham? Think a brown skin is less of a bigot-magnet than a Burberry check or a tight ponytail? Well, actually, so did I, but I’m not sure now. It was a Manchester Evening News roadside hoarding that got me thinking. The headline read:

VIOLENT MIGRANTS STILL AT LARGE

VIOLENT MIGRANTS – there’s a certain evil genius to that phrase. Back in the 1970s people moaned about reggae and the smell of curry, or at worst about ‘them’ coming over here and taking our jobs and our houses. You’d have to be at a National Front rally before you’d hear anyone talking about big black men who would kill you if you weren’t careful. But here we are in 2006 and there it is on the front of the Evening News: VIOLENT MIGRANTS STILL AT LARGE. In other words, KILLER WOGS – BE AFRAID.

And this language has real effects. Here‘s that nice Dave Cameron’s shadow Home Secretary; he’s talking up recent prison breaks by arguing that earlier prison breaks, while there might have been more of them, weren’t so bad because of the kind of prisoner involved:

The shadow home secretary, David Davis, said: “The Home Office’s claim that the level of absconds from open prisons is the lowest for 10 years misses the point entirely.”Ten years ago the people absconding from open prisons were not dangerous criminals or deportees. Since the government’s decision in 2002 to put such people in open prisons, every abscondee represents an unnecessary potential risk to the public.”

Dangerous criminals or deportees – classy. Here‘s what it’s like if this unnecessary potential risk to the public has your name on it:

Since April 25, when the foreign prisoner story broke, at least 200 – perhaps many more – foreign inmates have been moved, without warning, from open prisons to closed ones. It seems unlikely, to say the least, that all of them had “offended against prison discipline” – the usual reason for such transfers. Last Friday [May 26], 300 prison officers in riot gear rounded up 135 foreign nationals at Ford open prison, Sussex, to be taken to closed jails. The previous week, according to a prison source, 30 foreign inmates were transferred from Latchmere House, a highly regarded resettlement prison in west London, to closed jails in the London area. Similar exercises have been carried out across the country, although yesterday [May 30] a home office spokesman said only that “around 70” prisoners had been removed from open prisons in this “temporary measure”.Lawyers and organisations such as the Prisoners’ Advice Service have heard from scores of prisoners who have been suddenly moved in this way. Many are EU citizens; a few, though born overseas, even have British passports. Meanwhile, prisoners who were expecting to move from closed to open conditions have been told that the transfers are cancelled. At least some were not expecting to be deported at their end of their sentences. Elsewhere, prisoners who had been released under licence have suddenly been hauled back to jail. Some of these also had no reason to expect to be deported.

Perhaps even the qualified progress of the second model is an illusion. Perhaps the old forms of hatred are just as available, if you break through the crust of conventional anathema, as the new forms. And perhaps all it takes to bring racism back into the mainstream is a new spin, and (most important) a reason why a powerful group would want to try and pump it up – and groups don’t come much more powerful than the Home Office.

Next: the lurking menace of the paedophile asylum-seeker. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Cold if you want it

I interviewed Mark Thomas once – you can probably find the interview on the Red Pepper Web site if you look hard enough. Originally it was in three or four sections, each one prefaced with a quote from “White man in Hammersmith Palais”; a bit of a pretentious device, which unsurprisingly got lost in subbing. It seemed important to get punk in, though; Mark Thomas is a bit younger than me, and like me had his head turned round by what happened to music in 1976-7.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, and so forth. But I’m not sure you can really remember ’77 unless your memory goes back a bit further than that. The letters pages of the NME and Sounds at the time were full of what were essentially conversion narratives – Until last week I was a hippie – I had long hair, wore flared jeans and went to one concert a year… It wasn’t quite that abrupt for me (or Mark Thomas) but there was definitely a before as well as an after.

Mark Thomas: I was into Yes, ELP… the first album I bought was Tarkus
Phil: Top album!
MT: No! Sorry, no – it is not a top album. Step away from Emerson, Lake and Palmer…

Actually I’ve never heard Tarkus – I was basing my opinion on the track “Aquatarkus” on the live triple album Welcome back my friends to the show that goes on and on for bloody ages. I wasn’t even into ELP. No, I was strictly Gentle Giant and Soft Machine.

I’ll say more about Giant another time – I still think of their stuff with some fondness, as well as a lot of embarrassment. This post is about the Softs.

I got into Soft Machine rather late; around the time of their seventh album, to be precise. They were featured on a TV programme which I now can’t identify (don’t suppose anyone reading this has a copy of Graham Bennett’s Out-Bloody-Rageous to hand?) on which they played, among other things, the track “Nettle bed”. It consists mostly of a synthesiser solo, played over an endlessly-repeated synthesised bass riff, which itself is played over the kind of 4:4 drumming that gets called ‘driving’. It’s atypical of Seven, which itself was pretty unlike most of what Soft Machine had done before, but I didn’t know that at the time. The music – combined with the sight of Mike Ratledge, all long hair and dark glasses, jabbing studiously at a bank of keyboards – made the same kind of impression on me as Eno-period Roxy Music had done a couple of years earlier: I thought I’d seen the future. For several days afterwards I held forth to anyone who would listen – my best friend, mainly – about my discovery of a whole new genre of music, which I called “soft rock”. (Eventually my friend unsportingly pointed out that a) other people were already using the phrase “soft rock” to mean something different, and in any case b) I couldn’t actually describe what I meant by the term without referring back to the track “Nettle bed” by Soft Machine.)

Still, I was sold – and the subsequent purchase of Soft Machine Seven only confirmed my conviction that this was the stuff. Over the next year I got hold of almost everything that was available by the band – which would involve a serious investment in time and money now, but at that time meant that I bought three albums. I remember that CBS had marked down both Third and Six, the band’s two double albums, to £2.83; since my friendly local record shop took 10% off the price of everything, I got them both for £2.55. (Or rather, I got Six and my parents got me Third, an album which consists of four twenty-minute slabs of experimental jazz/rock. What a Christmas that was.) I also got Fifth, with its black-on-black sleeve design – but not Fourth, as by the time I got to it the stark embossed tan sleeve had been replaced by a two-tone brown-on-tan design, which wasn’t nearly as impressive. (For anyone who’s counting, the first two albums were either deleted or had never been available in the UK.) Still, with that lot in hand I had a good two and a half hours of music to keep me going while I waited for Soft Machine Eight.

Which never arrived. Soft Machine were a band who had gone through some serious changes, and one of the most serious happened around that time. To simplify an extremely complicated band family tree, Soft Machine from the second to the fourth album consisted of founder members Ratledge and Robert Wyatt (drums), together with bassist Hugh Hopper (who replaced original bassist Kevin Ayers). Hugh’s brother Brian played a bit of sax on the second album; he was replaced on a more permanent basis by Elton Dean (as of the third album), after a brief but productive experiment with a seven-piece lineup including trombone, cornet and flute. On the first couple of albums the Softs combined psychedelic pop songs with experimental jazz; Elton Dean’s arrival tipped the balance definitively towards jazz, and began what’s generally regarded as the Softs’ great period. They were a band stretched taut between Dean’s soloing and Ratledge’s disciplined compositions, driven on by the power of the brass section and underpinned by a bassist and a drummer who could switch between 7/8 and 5/4 without drawing breath (“A few fives to take away the taste of all those sevens…”). A typical Soft Machine number would set up a melodic theme – often over an odd chord sequence and almost invariably over an odd time signature – then let a soloist loose on it (often Dean but sometimes Ratledge – an extraordinary soloist in his own right – and occasionally Hopper). But nothing went on too long: Soft Machine worked in suites. On Third, the LP-side-long track “Slightly all the time” actually consists of three separate pieces, built on themes with accompanying solos (in 11/4, 11/8, 9/8, 6/4 and 9/8 again). The power, the range and the sheer confidence of the band were extraordinary. They really were quite good.

But, on a personal level – as Bennett’s book makes clear – it was all a bit of a mess. Wyatt liked to drink and socialise; he also liked singing, and tried for a long time to keep a vocal element in Soft Machine’s music – in songs and then, as the big-band sound took hold, as scat improvisation. Neither Hopper nor Ratledge was big on the party scene, and neither of them had any interest in music with vocals. Third is a magnificent album, but the vocal/instrumental patchwork of the previous album is conspicuous by its absence: Wyatt’s vocals are confined to the song “Moon in June”, most of which was played and recorded by Wyatt alone and unaided. (One of my many anorakish niggles with Bennett’s book is that he doesn’t say enough about what was going on on that track – did Wyatt play the acoustic guitar solo? Is that Marc Charig’s cornet parping forlornly at the end, Nick Evans’ trombone or something else entirely, such as Wyatt making mouth noises? And am I the only person to spot the quotes from Kevin Ayers’ “Hat Song” (what about me…?)? Bah.)

Ultimately, Wyatt was going to have to go; ultimately he went, but not of his own volition. Perhaps due to the nature of the leading personalities in the band, being in Soft Machine was never a particularly convivial experience, but the sacking of Wyatt seems to have started a process which chilled the atmosphere in the band permanently. Dean got hold of a replacement drummer, the extravagantly energetic Phil Howard; Howard’s style of drumming, heard on the first half of Fifth, isn’t so much time-keeping as a permanent drum solo, with accents chosen for their expressive value as much as for the beat. Unfortunately, Howard got on much better with Dean than either Hopper or Ratledge, who felt the band was drifting into free jazz territory. So Howard in turn had to go, and Dean had to be the one who told him to go – an experience which soured Dean on the band. When he left, ironically, his replacement was nominated by Howard’s replacement, John Marshall – Howard’s antithesis, a timekeeper of metronomic precision (even in 11/4). The reeds gig went to Karl Jenkins, a personal friend of Marshall with whom he had played in Ian Carr’s Nucleus. Jenkins was one of Britain’s few jazz oboists and a fluent composer, if not a great one; Bennett quotes Hugh Hopper describing Jenkins’ musical ideas as “third-hand and third-rate”. (Incidentally, Bennett didn’t manage to speak to either Jenkins or Ratledge, but includes quotes from both of them; like several of the book’s quotes from Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen and other ex-Softs, these are taken from published sources and printed without attribution. This is seriously shoddy practice, which really diminishes the value of the book – although I can’t say that I wasn’t interested in what they said, whenever it was they said it.)

With Jenkins’ arrival, at the time of the band’s sixth album, the nature of Soft Machine’s music changed. Listening to Six after Fifth, much of the improvisation is more pedestrian than before; the rock-influenced approach of improvisation over a riff is more prominent, as distinct from the jazz structure of theme and elaboration. Another thing that stands out when you listen to the Softs’ albums chronologically is the quality of Jenkins’ own solos, on oboe and sax; compared to Dean’s endless melodic invention they’re pretty thin stuff. Thin, and scratchy with it. With Hopper’s fuzz bass and Ratledge’s fuzz organ, there always was something abrasive about Soft Machine’s sound; it was never easy listening, in any sense of the phrase. Jenkins’ oboe solos take this to a new level, not only because of the harsh, whining tonality of the instrument but because of the narrowness of his range as an improviser: there’s lots of high-then-low squawking and parping in octaves and fifths, lots of trills, lots of nagging repeats of a single note. Close-mike the instrument, as he did on Seven, and the sound’s not so much abrasive as downright inhuman. To be fair, Jenkins always was a composer first and foremost. Some of Jenkins’ contributions to the sixth album are fully-scored, with no improvisation at all; in others the improvisatory element is confined to conservative electric-piano doodling. The composing’s pretty conservative, too. Spotting the time signature had always been an incidental pleasure of listening to Soft Machine; on Third, Ratledge’s superb “Out-bloody-rageous” (another track which doesn’t really get its due from Bennett, ironically enough) is in the unheard-of time signature of 15:8, variously divided for rhythmic purposes into a 6 and a 9, a 7 and an 8, and three 5s. (Hence the title, presumably.) Nothing says more about Jenkins’ approach than the fact that “The Soft Weed Factor”, his contribution to the studio-based half of the album, is in 4:4. Where’s the fun in that? (The other three-quarters of the studio LP are much better; Ratledge’s “Chloe and the Pirates”, in particular, which is built around two contrasting oboe themes, both equally striking but entirely different in mood. I’d been playing it for weeks before I realised that the second one was the first one played backwards.)

Seven came after Six – and after Hopper had left the band – so listening to it now, thirty-odd years on, should have been a massive disappointment. And, to a large extent, it was: the riffing is dogged and narrow (very rock); the solos (Ratledge’s apart) sound elbowy, simultaneously unimaginative and ostentatious; the short tinkly piano pieces sound more than ever like a waste of space. I still enjoyed it, though: it’s got the best production of any Soft Machine album, combining some emphatically synthetic tonality with a real sense of space and texture. (Kieran Hebden would like it.) And, if the solos and the compositions now sound like a poor copy of Third, I know that when I first heard the album I was comparing it with the likes of the Neutrons, Camel and Genesis – and, considered as jazz-rock, it’s really not so shabby.

From then on that was about as good as it got, though. In June 1974, eight months after the release of Seven, Soft Machine did a session for Jazz in Britain. I never listened to JiB, so I don’t know how I found out about it – idle reading of the Radio Times, probably. They did two tunes, “Plain Bob” and “The man who waved at trains”. I taped the latter, an eight-minute composition. It began with a discordant cymbal-and-gong improvisation, which gave way to a beautiful, meandering oboe and guitar theme. (From “Slightly all the time” through “Pigling Bland” (Fifth) to “Chloe and the Pirates”, Ratledge always did write good themes.) The statement of the theme was followed by a change of pace and a hurried, urgent oboe solo, before the track ended with a restatement of the theme. Unfortunately my supply of cassettes was limited at this point; after playing “TMWWAT” to death for a couple of weeks I taped over it, reasoning that it would be bound to appear on the band’s next album.

Before that was released, though, there was one more major event in my career as a Soft Machine fan: I saw them live, for the first (and only) time. Since I was 14 and the gig was up in London – at the Rainbow, no less – my older sister accompanied me, with her boyfriend; as you can imagine, I didn’t get much conversation out of them. The gig was a bit of an anti-climax. I remember very little about it now, possibly because Larry Coryell, the support act, overran wildly; by the time the band actually came on it was past my bedtime and looking ominously close to the tube-drivers’ bedtime. (Bizarrely, I had a very similar experience at the Rainbow four years later, when the Slits were supported by Don Cherry. Must be something about the venue.) I remember the gig began with some complex but bland two-electric-piano noodling, which began, then went on without developing very much, then went on some more. I remember John Marshall pausing midway through his percussion solo to sprinkle some kind of powder on his skins; I remember that people started a slow handclap at this point, and that Marshall replied by holding up his sticks in a V sign. And that’s about all I remember about the music. I do remember making what I hoped was a wittily blasé comment about looking forward to one of Ratledge’s ghastly fuzz organ solos, directed at no one in particular (I’d given up on my sister by this stage); I remember making this remark at least twice, to no reaction from anyone. I don’t remember any organ solos, certainly not with fuzz. Then again, I don’t remember a guitarist, and I’m pretty sure Alan Holdsworth would have been there. I do remember the writeup in the next day’s paper: “Musicians’ musicians to a man, Soft Machine played themselves into a corner last night”. Spot on, although of course I refused to admit it at the time.

There were flexis [Translator’s Note: the flexi-disc or flexi was a seven-inch single, manufactured using thin plastic rather than standard vinyl and generally produced for promotional purposes] on the seats at the Rainbow, featuring extracts from the Softs’ forthcoming album Bundles. For the first time ever, a Soft Machine album had a title, and a singularly unenlightening one it was too (it didn’t even match the album cover). When the album came out, a few months later, I was pleased to see “The man who waved at trains” present and correct in the track listing but mystified to find (on getting the record out of the sleeve on East Croydon station) that the vinyl it occupied only looked a couple of minutes long; if that was eight minutes, I reasoned obtusely, how long was the whole album?. Of course, the band hadn’t mastered some bizarre groove-cramming technique. “TMWWAT” really was only a couple of minutes long, and consisted of a theme, a bit of desultory oboe noodling and a restatement of the theme; the other parts of the composition had been scissored into separate tracks. “Plain Bob” was there, too, covering most of side 1 under the ridiculously pretentious name of “Hazard Profile parts 1-5”; as it turned out part 4 was just a riff, part 2 was a brief piano composition, and part 3 was an even briefer bridge between the two, with ascending organ chords and Allan Holdsworth’s guitar in plangent, Camel-ish form. With part 5 a rather unexciting Ratledge synth solo, the main action was in part 1, where Allan Holdsworth sounded less like Andy Latimer and more like John McLaughlin.

Holdsworth’s Soft Machine solos are extraordinary stuff, it has to be said, but his sudden prominence in the band was a bad sign. The Softs needed a soloist with the range, speed and melodic invention of Dean or Ratledge in his heyday, and Holdsworth certainly fitted the bill. But, unlike Third-period Ratledge, Holdsworth wasn’t a writer as well as a soloist – and, unlike Dean, he wasn’t working in creative dialogue with a writer. (Dean’s blowing and Ratledge’s chamber composition had a strange but productive relationship, summed up by Dean’s one composing credit on Fifth: the final track, Bone, consists of the improvisation by Dean which opens the first track, Ratledge’s All White, played note-for-note by Ratledge on fuzz organ.) Essentially, the problem with Holdsworth was that Ratledge wasn’t doing any serious writing by this stage – and Jenkins, who had ostensibly replaced him as the driving force of the band, didn’t have anything like his chops as a composer, let alone as an improviser. Jenkins’ Soft Machine was a band which went from tasteful piano noodling to heavy-booted riffing and back again. They were in a rut, and plugging in a soloist – even one as driven and driving as Holdsworth – wasn’t going to lift them out.

I didn’t formulate all that at the time, but I did take Ratledge’s overdue departure from the band – midway through sessions for the ninth album, the ironically-titled Softs – as a cue to lose all interest in them. (Plus by this stage punk was starting to kick off.) After Holdsworth, as I understand, John Etheridge joined on guitar; after Etheridge, Alan Wakeman joined on sax and Ric Sanders on electric violin. After that – not long after that – they wound up, although Jenkins later made a ‘Soft Machine’ album with Marshall and various other people; it’s called The land of Cockayne, it’s fully-scored and it’s bland in the extreme. Jenkins later worked for several years with Ratledge (of all people) on music for commercials (of all things); Ratledge even had a small part in the early days of Jenkins’ hugely successful ‘Adiemus’ project.

I remember vaguely believing – certainly at the time all this was going on, and for some time afterwards – that being in a band was rather like being in a gang, only more so, what with being grown up: if you didn’t actually live in the same house, you would certainly spend lots of time hanging around together and know one another really, really well. And what did it mean when a band split up, other than that friends had fallen out? I couldn’t imagine that you could be in a band and not spend time with the other members of the band, outside the times when you were actually making music together. Ironically, this was precisely true of Soft Machine, the band I followed more than any other. Bennett spoke to several ex-members of the band, and most of them tell the same story: from Fourth onwards – which is to say, from the time of Wyatt’s departure – to join Soft Machine was to join a band whose members didn’t socialise, didn’t go to the bar together before a gig or the pub afterwards, didn’t even chat or exchange the odd smile during rehearsals. You played the charts, you did your solo, you went home.

What I take from all this is that music is hard – or rather, working in groups is hard. For most of the time between Volume Two and Fifth, Soft Machine was a difficult band to be in – but throughout that time they produced music which (even with thirty years’ hindsight) ranges from good to startlingly brilliant. Ten or fifteen years ago, I was in a political group called (hopefully) the Socialist Movement; we spent a lot of time and effort shaking off Trotskyist groups who wanted to latch onto us. Shortly after we’d got rid of the last of them – a tiny grouplet which held the British franchise of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International – the whole thing folded, either because we didn’t have the numbers to run it any more or just because agreeing with each other was no fun. I think something similar happened in Soft Machine: the years when the group was biting chunks out of itself were also the most productive years. By the time of Seven (and “Nettle bed”) the group had settled down in reasonable harmony around the core of Jenkins, Marshall and bassist Roy Babbington – all old Nucleus hands, effectively replacing the old Volume Two trio of Ratledge, Wyatt and Hopper. But by then Ratledge (still just about in the band) had long lost his fire, and the music had lost its edge. This just left Jenkins, neither opposed nor assisted by any other band member, to turn it out by the yard – as he has done ever since.

Groups shake themselves apart; if they’re not doing that, they’re stagnating. Perhaps.

And when I have destroyed you

This is the country where I grew up:

The half-sheet of neatly typed paper is still where it has been for the last 40 years, tucked under the perspex cover of a map table in an underground operations room beneath a nondescript suburb of York.”Thirty minutes after the above occurrence the DC is to check Display A to see if the burst designation has been underlined in Yellow Chinagraph pencil, indicating that the first and/or amended communication has been incorporated in a MIDDD BB message. If not, enquiries are to be initiated to rectify the omission.”

If there had been a failure in the yellow pencil department, that would probably have been because the observers who phoned in reports of nuclear bombs falling on the moors and dales of Yorkshire, and the operators who took the messages in the bunker, were all dead.

“This bunker was designed to contain a full complement of 60 people for up to a fortnight, but it couldn’t have withstood a direct blast or even one reasonably nearby,” said Kevin Booth, curator of the building, whose steel door will soon be thrown open to the curious for the first time. “It’s perhaps just as well it was never tested to destruction, because I’m not sure how well it would all have worked.”

It’s all there. There’s the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, coupled with the (well-founded) suspicion that the government’s main priority in responding to this threat would be to ensure that its own bolt-holes were in working order. I was too young for the first Cold War (although I heard great things about the destruction of RSG 6), but in the 1980s Protect and Survive made radicals of us all – and War Plan UK made a lot of us into conspiracy theorists. Then there’s the atmosphere of insanely detailed bureaucracy and jobsworthery (enquiries are to be initiated, indeed) – and that’s coupled with the lingering suspicion that none of it, when push came to shove, would have actually worked.

It was a strange country, Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. I miss it, sometimes.

There’s more on the Holgate bunker here (visiting times) and here (pictures); this page has more about English Heritage’s bunker estate (and there’s a phrase I never expected to write).

Some things remain from that distant post-war landscape. There’s the pottering enthusiasm of bright-eyed antiquarians like Kevin Booth; small-town museums, bookshops and tourist attractions have been staffed by people like him for as long as I can remember, and it’s good to hear that a relic of the Cold War will receive the same kind of care. And there’s understatement – blessed British understatement.

“It’s perhaps just as well it was never tested to destruction, because I’m not sure how well it would all have worked.”

I do like that ‘perhaps’.

Ship’s a goin’ down

The word on the streets:

“Even the most loyal Labour voters look embarrassed and look away. Others just laugh. Now, I’ve never had that before,” says one leading MP.

Loyalty to the Labour Party runs deep. You don’t just vote Labour or support Labour, you are Labour. “We’re Lib Dems” is a statement of principled, idealistic affiliation; “we’re Conservatives” is similar, but without the principle or the idealism. But “we’re Labour” is a statement of identity – it’s an adjective, not a noun. (Of course, this may just be because Labour is the only major party whose name isn’t already an adjective.)

Many of us on the Left used to be Labour, and many of us would quite like to be Labour again. The thought of voting for a Labour councillor, given the alternatives, is tempting. Many people who are still Labour are revolted by what they’ve had to accept since 1997 – since 2005, even – and have stayed with the party nevertheless. For them, a vote for a Labour councillor is an easy way to keep faith with the party – a party which has always meant much more than the policies of some clique of MPs.

But it’s time, if it will ever be time, to abandon ship. Andy Newman:

The degree to which the party has changed is disputed, but it is certainly not a natural home for grass-roots trade union or community activists; the party no longer gives voice to its working class supporters; and within the party there is no significant ideological strand that prioritises the cause of organised labour as distinct from other interest groups, except an historical and financial legacy with the trade unions. What is more, the Blair/Brown victory over constitutional questions within the party means that the triumph of the right in the Labour Party is probably irreversible. Even under Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party had a vigorous internal life, and although much ward level and constituency activity was mind-numbingly boring, the national conference gave real expression to debates within the movement, with input from the trade unions and constituency parties, as well as the MPs. This will never be seen again.It is significant that the government have not implemented even the modest promises of the pre-general election Warwick agreement with the unions. … New Labour fully accepts neo-liberalism, but they are pragmatic, and largely work around organised resistance, rather than provoke confrontations. So their privatisation of the NHS, and their attacks on education are long drawn out and exhausting battles, not Thatcher style set piece battles. The stop go dance of the public sector pensions crisis shows how New Labour could wear out the resistance, unless the union leaderships lift their game.

The background therefore is that the Labour Party has a broadly progressive electoral constituency, and historical links with the trade union infrastructure, but it is in continued antagonism with both of these elements. Nevertheless, although the Party no longer articulates the aspirations of these support groups, they do provide a constraint upon it, and mediate the transformation of the Labour Party, so that it appears less dramatic than it is.

The key word here is ‘appears’. That, and ‘electorate’: given the New Labour leadership’s control over the party, Labour as a party is now significantly to the Right, not only of its union activist base – that much is old news – but of its own voters. Moreover, the fact that those voters keep the faith with the party – the fact that so many people still are Labour, even now, nine years down the line – has an effect on the image of the party: it mediate[s] the transformation of the Labour Party, so that it appears less dramatic than it is.

My father was Labour, and not on the Left of the party; he’d backed Gaitskell against Bevan, for instance. He died in 2001, and wasn’t much interested in politics for the last year or so. Still, he saw Labour take power, and he saw what they did with it – and he was convinced that the “New Labour” turn was a stratagem adopted to gain power, and that Blair would eventually steer back to the Left. “He’s going to surprise us all,” he used to say. What Andy Newman’s argument suggests is that for people like my father to back the party under its current leadership is strictly a one-way bargain. The longer Old Labour loyalists give New Labour the benefit of the doubt, the easier it will be for New Labour to retain control of the party, to retain the support of the party’s voters – and to continue to remake the party in their own image. Nothing will make New Labour actually listen to Labour voters – nothing, that is, except losing their support. In 2006, that’s all they deserve – and it’s gratifying to see that it’s beginning to happen. It’s time to abandon ship.

PS Elsewhere in the piece quoted at the top, Polly (for it is she) writes:

As each new crisis eclipses the last, leaving no fewer than seven cabinet ministers in some trouble, their one comfort is in finding no great enthusiasm for Tories or Lib Dems either. The won’t-votes or the anything-but-Labour voters are motivated by a negative push factor away from Labour with little positive pull towards anyone else. Expect the lowest turnout ever, according to seasoned observers. The Institute for Public Policy Research is dead right to call for compulsory voting, but this is hardly the week for Labour to press it.

Negative push factor away from Labour … little positive pull towards anyone else … dead right to call for compulsory voting. The thought processes here are a bit too obvious. What Chris says of Geoff ‘Buff’ Hoon appears to apply to Polly as well:

He hopes compulsory voting will raise the Labour vote disproportionately. He hopes a disaffected Labour voter – the sort who stayed away from the ballot box last year – who is forced to vote will figure: “well, since I’m here, I might as well vote for the party I’ve always supported.”This, I guess, is the only way New Labour can get votes now.

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