Jolly little nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuart quotes John Stuart Mill:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

And here’s Clegg’s riposte:

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

I agree with Nick.

Back by Christmas

Well, this is interesting.

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

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

Croxteth (two seats)

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

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

The picture in Wednesbury is a bit more straightforward:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A gift from the Queen

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update A song for today.

Musicians are cowards

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

Arcade Fire & U2 – Love Will Tear Us Apart


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not who we were

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real thing, yeah

[Crossposted from Oh Good Ale]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can’t say fairer than that.

All your bedroom queries

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

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

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

In dark and empty skies

Nineteen years ago today, Peter Bellamy ended his life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Bellamy, 8/9/1944 – 24/9/1991

No mention of girls

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

Continue reading

Of a city like the sky

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

Based on a novel

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

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

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

Scarlett Thomas, The end of Mr Y Continue reading

Both night and morning

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

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

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

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

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

So near my nose

[Crossposted from Oh Good Ale]

There was an interesting article by Gazza Prescott in the July 2010 Opening Times (the CAMRA magazine for Stockport and South Manchester), called “Mid-Atlantic: the new ‘Best of British’?”; it’s a slightly shortened version of a similarly-titled post on Gazza’s site.

Gazza’s argument goes something like this. There’s a distinctive beer style, which Gazza labels “mid-Atlantic”; it’s characterised by the use of lots of hops and the palest possible malt, to give an end result which is clear and pale yellow to look at, light in mouthfeel and very, very hoppy. Gazza traces the ancestry of this style from Exmoor Gold and Summer Lightning, through experiments by Rooster’s and Brendan Dobbin’s West Coast brewery, to today’s Pictish, Phoenix and Marble brews (“brewing of the new style around Manchester continued apace”). The growing availability of new varieties of hop, particularly from New Zealand, has fed into the growth of this style.

So far, so descriptive, but we’re rapidly reminded where Gazza’s allegiances lie. “The drinking public are waking up to pale and hoppy beers – or ‘Mid-Atlantic’ as I call them – with their intense flavours and attractive colour”; “happily, the number of brewers specialising in this new style of beer is growing all the time”. The conclusion is downright triumphalist:

Pale’n’hoppy beers are slowly taking over the beer culture of the UK … in the majority of specialist cask pubs nowadays, it’s common for most – if not all – of the pumps to be pouring beers of this style … this golden revolution is here and, on what I’ve seen atop bars and heard from brewers, it’s only going to keep growing.

“Mid-Atlantic” combines the UK’s growing love of extremely pale beer with the American ethic of large-scale hopping and, in doing so, has created a style of beer which is easy to drink, full of hop flavour, uncluttered by dark malts and – importantly in these image-obsessed times – a delight to behold atop a bar. It’s becoming extremely popular in the UK at the expense of old-fashioned “brown bitter” … we can legitimately claim it to be a new style of beer, one we have invented, and one of which we should be justifiably proud. So, long live “Mid-Atlantic” pale ales… the UK’s new favourite beer style!

I’m particularly struck by the idea that a pale yellow pint is intrinsically more attractive than a nut-brown one, irrespective of which you prefer to drink; it’s not a thought that’s ever crossed my mind before.

For my money, Gazza gets one thing right and a few big things wrong. Here’s the text of a letter I’ve sent to OT:

I came to Manchester in my early twenties, in 1982. In the previous few years I’d drunk and enjoyed beer in London, East Anglia, Cumbria, Scotland and Wales. Those beers were very different – you’d never mistake Buckley’s for Young’s, or Dryburgh’s for Tolly Cobbold – but two things they all had in common: they were brown and they were malty.

In Manchester things were different. The pride of the city was the yellow, hoppy Boddington’s Best; my local served the yellow, hoppy Hyde’s Anvil. I tried seeking out Robinson’s pubs, I tried switching to mild, but I soon realised I was fighting a losing battle: I was going to have to learn to like the Manchester pale style.

It’s taken a while, but I’ve just about managed it. So I agree with Gazza Prescott on two things: there are a lot of these beers around at the moment, and some of them are very good. But I don’t believe this style is anywhere near as new as Gazza suggests, and I don’t believe it’s “taking over the beer culture of the UK”. Without looking particularly far afield, I’ve drunk big malty ales in 2010 from Allgates, Conwy, Dunham Massey, Moorhouse, Robinson’s, Rooster, Titanic… the list goes on. And surely this is how it should be – the strength of British beer is its diversity.

Gazza’s “Mid-Atlantic” (I prefer “Manchester Pale”) isn’t a “golden revolution”; it’s just one style among many, one that happens to be popular this year. Done well (Pictish) it’s very nice indeed; pushed to extremes (Marble) it’s interesting at worst, stunning at best; done badly (no names) it’s bland as Budweiser. Hops have their place, but so does malt; brewers who forget this fact, in pursuit of the taste of 2010, could end up taking British beer up a flowery, lemony, smoky dead end.

The first point here is Gazza’s “mid-Atlantic” family tree. I yield to no one in my respect for Brendan Dobbin, but – as anyone who remembers Boddington’s Best can attest – Manchester’s affinity with pale hoppy bitters goes back well before he got started. I wrote about this back in 2006 (in a post on the class politics of the smoking ban). [Updates in square brackets.]

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

Manchester is an exception. At least since the heyday of Boddington’s, there’s been a distinct local style of ale: pale and hoppy, with variations ranging from light-but-sour through cyanide-with-a-hint-of-malt to just-plain-undrinkably-bitter. I am not, as you may have gathered, a fan of this style – but the brewery which owns one of my two main locals [viz. the Marble] is very big on it. They brought on a seasonal ale in summer (when, to be fair, pale and hoppy styles do go down well) [the original (2005) Summer Marble]; I tried it once and seriously considered leaving the pint unfinished. It was the bitterest thing I’ve ever tasted, clove oil not excepted. The brewery does three or four different bitters, but they’re all pale and hoppy; most of the time the guest beers are pale and hoppy too. There’s a definite demand there, too. You can tell by the way the regulars’ favourite guests keep coming back – and the way their names keep including words like ‘white’ or ‘golden’. I’m in a minority on the tawny-and-malty front. A couple of years ago I had two pints of a guest mild they had on, and the barman asked me when I wanted to have the other 62.

The other points I don’t agree with Gazza on, clearly, are whether this style is “taking over” (clearly it isn’t, although it is having a bit of a vogue in a few parts of the country) and whether it would be a good thing if it did (absolutely no way at all). As Pub Curmudgeon commented at the time,

It’s probably also fair to say that these beers are the beer world’s equivalent of highly-peated malt whiskies such as Laphroiag and Talisker – very well-respected, but too much biased towards one extreme end of the flavour spectrum to appeal to many people as a regular tipple. You might well enjoy one or two during an evening’s sampling of a variety of beers, but few would want to drink them all night.

That’s about right. I’m baffled by Gazza’s repeated assertion that these beers are outstandingly ‘drinkable’ or ‘easy to drink’. Most Marble beers, in my experience, have a full-on front-of-mouth attack combining bitterness with hop aroma. Sometimes they’re brilliant beers, but they’re certainly not easy drinking bitters; sometimes, when a brew is particularly hoppy or has a particularly strong nose, I’ve found it a challenge to get through a whole pint (especially when they were using that particular hop variety which smells of stale beer and vomit – or is that just me?).

To my mind, Gazza let the cat out of the bag in a sentence which was cut (diplomatically?) from the print version of his piece. Describing the characteristics of the “mid-Atlantic” (or Manchester Pale) style, he says

The malt is here to give body, alcohol and a suggestion of flavour and not to balance the hops; if you have balance then there’s something wrong!

I like a lot more malt in my beer than Gazza, but I also like the sense that the different flavours are in balance. I think great beers almost invariably give that impression of balance, of no one flavour swamping the others; this is as true of Summer Lightning as it is of Old Peculier. What Gazza’s presenting is not so much a “golden revolution”, more a Hopheads’ Manifesto.

Then take up the strain

One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.
– Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds

There’s an old Chinese story about an acolyte who asks his teacher what he should do (to achieve enlightenment, or with his life, or that day, it doesn’t really matter). Sweep the path, says the teacher. He sweeps the path for an hour. The teacher takes one look at it and slaps his face. It’s not clean! He sweeps the path for two hours. He goes down on hands and knees and picks off every last speck of dirt. He tells the teacher he’s finished. The teacher takes one look at the path and slaps him again. It’s not clean! Not knowing what else to do, he sweeps the perfectly clean path for the rest of the day. As the sun sets the teacher comes out of his cell, looks at the path and slaps him once more: It’s not clean! Despairing, the acolyte pleads with the teacher to tell him how he can possibly make the path any cleaner than it is. The teacher takes a handful of rose petals and scatters them on the path. Now it’s clean.

Here’s a song by the Canadian songwriter Stan Rogers (starts at about 1:40, but the first part of the clip is worth watching).

You can read the lyrics here. The chorus goes like this:

Rise again! Rise again!
That her name not be lost to the knowledge of men
Those who loved her best and were with her till the end
Will make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.

I last heard that song at a singaround last week. Continue reading

Playing across the river

Here’s a meme of sorts, for anyone who’s interested.

1. Which blogs did you read regularly when you first started blogging?

The first blog I read regularly was Tom Watson‘s, of all things. It was the run-up to the 2005 election and I was one of the people pushing (at least within blogworld) for anti-Labour tactical voting; Tom Watson is a pretty good blogger for an MP, and – being a Labour MP – took a fairly straight-up-and-down “vote Labour to stop the Tories” line, which was fun to argue with. I started my own blog when my comments started getting too long, and started leaving comments and links on a bunch of related blogs – Blood and Treasure, Chicken Yoghurt, Europhobia, the Yorkshire Ranter, the Jarndyce Blog (defunct).

2. Which blogs do you read regularly now?

These days, on the other hand, my main hangouts are Aaronovitch Watch, Splintered Sunrise, CT and Daniel’s blog, although I do still read the Ranter and B&T. (Edit: since I began this post I’ve had to give up on Splintered, or at least start reading with a very long spoon. The comments threads there, in particular, have changed overnight from a thoroughly congenial environment to, well, something else.)

3. Which blogs have you stopped reading, and why?

I’ve tried to find some kind of political trajectory in the blogs I’ve spent a lot of time on over the years – Tom Watson to Gauche to Dave to Socialist Unity to AaroWatch, what’s that, right to left? Labour loyalist to not actually anti-Labour as such? anti-Trot to, er, slightly less anti-Trot? The fact that three of my favourite political blogs – Liam, Splinty (when he’s on form) and Cedar Lounge – write about Ireland may also be significant, or it may just be that I like the way they write.

Another couple of categories of blog I’ve stopped following are easier to identify. I used to run two separate blogs, one of them devoted to what was then work-related stuff; this was in what retrospectively looks like an odd period in my career, when I was heavily into ethnoclassification (a.k.a. ‘folksonomy’), the Semantic Web, ontology modelling and so forth. (A philosopher friend remarked that the entire ‘ontology’ project was doomed to confusion the moment they adopted that term – ‘ontology’ in this context signifies a logically-structured and locally complete set of inter-related terms, the mental universe of a particular discipline or application. An epistemology, in other words.)

Anyway, I spent quite a while looking for pointers on this brave new world of software-enabled social networking, while also looking for stuff to write about on my work blog and looking for something to read in between working. At one point I started writing a series of posts debunking the then-fashionable image of the “Long Tail”, and was at once downcast and relieved to discover that Tom Slee had done it all already. (Tom’s a fine blogger and I strongly recommend his book.) Nick Carr gave me several “oasis in the desert of hype” moments; he also gave me personally some useful advice when I was looking for writing work, for which much thanks. I used to read Dave Rogers with more attention than he solicited; he oscillated unpredictably between LiveJournal-ish chat, testy common sense and flashes of real wisdom. I discovered Maciej Ceglowski’s Idle Words by way of his “Dabblers and Blowhards” essay taking down a writer called Paul Graham, which is (a) much more widely applicable and (b) hilarious. (It occurs to me that a lot of my favourite bloggers from this period were (or are) essentially anti-boosters; people who react to the latest from Clay Shirky or Chris Anderson or Dave Sifry with varying proportions of scepticism, irritation and laughter. On Clay specifically, this from Tom is brilliant.)

At some point I noticed that most of my work blog feed was American (or Canadian), while almost all my home blogs were British (or Irish); at a later and less definite point I more or less decided to make a policy of this. So when I stopped reading blogs (from the world of software-enabled social networking) at work, none of the transatlantic blogs I’d been reading made it onto my feed at home (even if they weren’t all about s.-e. s. n.) It was an arbitrary decision, only really justified by the fact that my home feed was quite long enough as it was. I sometimes miss reading these blogs regularly, & sometimes check back on them. The blog from this period I look back on with most fondness is Shelley Powers’s Burningbird, which is currently running as five or six separate blogs but at that stage was all in one place. I can understand the decision to split it up – as a single blog it must have been taxing and challenging on quite a personal level – but from my selfish perspective as a reader I miss the single BB; it combined green politics, software development, feminism, the Semantic Web, personal experience and photography in some extraordinarily rich and powerful ways.

The other main category of blogs I’ve stopped reading consists of blogs that have stopped appearing. Short of dropping off the Web altogether, like the Jarndyce Blog, it’s not always clear when a blog has gone silent for good; I guess in practice it’s partly a matter of how long different readers are prepared to wait for the next post. Martyn Connell’s beer blog Zythophile went quiet for half of last year before coming to life again – I unsubbed at the time and had a six-month backlog by the time I caught on. I’m keeping Rob on the list for now, despite his silence for most of this year, in the hope that he’s also just resting; as far as I can see there’s nobody else doing what he used to do with that blog (viz. blogging a Marxist engagement with the legal form). By contrast, both Ellis and Justin put a fairly definite full stop to their blogs (although Ellis went on to do something not quite completely different). They’re both fine writers and these were both great blogs, which made me feel there were people out there doing the kind of thing I wanted to do with a blog. Saying any more than that seems both pointless and impertinent.

4. What blog did you start reading most recently?

My most recent addition to the RSS feed list is Jon Boden’s A Folk Song A Day, which does more or less what it says on the tin and does it rather well. But that isn’t really a blog so much as a project exploiting blog software. My latest blog discovery is Luke Roelofs’ superb (and exhaustingly prolific) Majestic Equality. Despite its title – taken from that Anatole France quote about the law – Luke’s blog is not devoted to a Marxist engagement with the legal form (although I wouldn’t be surprised if he gave it a go). What Luke does is to argue from first principles, taking a standpoint informed by Marx and Spinoza, and tackling questions like these:

What is meant in calling a prediction of the future, or a political theory making such predictions, ‘utopian’?

what goes on in someone’s mind when they help someone else with something?

is a human society possible, in which individuals will, except in very exceptional circumstances, be able to act without violating any genuine value, given sufficient wisdom?

It’s a bit like what Stumbling and Mumbling might look like if the more challenging arguments were followed through instead of grinding to a halt in a sputter of rhetorical questions – and it were written by a Canadian anarchist instead of a writer on the Investors’ Chronicle. Strongly recommended. For a taster, try these three posts on the deceptively intuitive concept of “violence”.

5. List every blog you’ve ever contributed to.

Actually Existing. I started blogging in March 2005, as a spinoff from the arguments on Tom Watson’s blog; my first post (digging out some material from 1997 which I hadn’t known what to do with) was rapidly followed by this bit of navel-gazing and this post, which before it was chewed up by Blogger was quite a decent bit of psephology. Another nine “how should we vote” posts followed, all concluding that we shouldn’t vote Labour. In the circumstances I don’t think that was wrong.

Apparently… (later Cloud Street). My work blog, set up later in March 2005. “I’ve started this blog as a place to collect my thoughts on user-centred ontologies, ethnoclassification, folksonomies, emergent semantics and so on.” They can’t touch you for it. First post: a reply to a comment on a blog post by Clay Shirky, taking a sceptical view of the claims then being made for Wikipedia.

What I wrote. A short-lived attempt to use Blogger to showcase (or park) some offline writing which I thought could use a wider audience. All three of these were merged into The Gaping Silence in March 2007, or November 2006 if you believe What I wrote.

Then there was the 2005 UK Election Roundup group blog (which no longer exists) and its larger, shinier, more ambitious but ultimately less coherent successor, The Sharpener (link goes to a list of all my posts). The Sharpener started well, with a bunch of us between us publishing at least one good post every day, but ultimately foundered because none of us were really sure what its identity was. I think in retrospect we should have been able to work “not Left but not anti-Left” into a USP – it would certainly be unique – but we couldn’t even agree on that much. The alternative was simply to be the politics blog that was open to everyone who wanted to write on a politics blog that was open to everyone who wanted, etc, but that wasn’t enough in the end to keep regulars motivated or stop occasional contributors from drifting away. The new Sharpener? LibCon for dedication, Fistful for variety, AaroWatch for attitude.

But my first blog, or blog-like thing, dates from 2003. On May 28 I put up the first two instalments of

A life in theatreland, clubland, Hollywoodland and the Land of Green Ginger: the memoirs of Sir Frederick Bodine.

and waited for the plaudits to start rolling in, if that’s what plaudits do. Oh well. The title of the blog was Remembering July Garland. An introductory post explained all:

“Ditch the rainbow song!”

The words were mine, all those many years ago; those sad, misguided words were mine. Fortunately for all concerned, my advice was ignored, as it would be so often in the future. But that’s another story for another day.

Of course, dear Judy didn’t ditch ‘the rainbow song’; indeed, it would be associated with her name for many years to come. It affords me a crumb of solace to note that the song was heavily edited before recording, eliminating most if not all of the elements to which I had objected. Even the title had to change – “Have yourself a merry little rainbow”, what sense does that make? None! None, I say!

These, then, are my memories of a life in the green room; a life which I can truly say has been lived among the stars; a life that’s full, in which I’ve travelled each and every byway. But more, much more than this.

I tried to place Sir Frederick’s memoirs with some of the top publishing houses, but sadly without success. (To be precise, I ran them past someone at Word (who said “very nice, but no thanks”) and someone at Mojo (who said “not really us, try Word“).) My dreams of finding fame and fortune as the Bodine amanuensis were dashed. But it was fun while it lasted.

Perhaps it was the drink talking, but at one point I asked old Morrie what had gone wrong – why wasn’t he the big star he used to be? He wasn’t best pleased, I can tell you. He glared at me, brandished an old Smiths 12″ and said, with great aplomb, “Sir Frederick, I’m still big – it’s just the records that have got small.”

I apologised, of course, and Morrie was soon his old charming self again. Apparently the restricted dimensions of CD packaging are a genuine concern for him.

Another couple of blogs need mentioning for the sake of completeness, although my song lyrics blog isn’t one of them (it’s invitation-only, and besides I haven’t updated it for ages.)

Oh Good Ale. At the beginning of 2008 I started keeping beer tasting notes in this post. My notes on beer rapidly outgrew the post and turned into a static page, and subsequently into their own dedicated blog. I‘m planning to turn have just turned the “tasting notes” posts back into static pages, after which I’ll and I may now start writing the occasional post and turn it into a real blog.

¡Vivan Las Caenas! This doesn’t really qualify as a blog I’ve contributed to, as there’s absolutely nothing there; I snagged the WordPress domain name late one night, not realising that I wouldn’t be able to unsnag it. The plan is to spruce it up a bit and put longer, retrospective posts up there – “My life as a military historian”, that kind of thing; either that or an issue-by-issue overview of my involvement with Red Pepper. Or both. The reference is to the revolutionary(?) slogan shouted at the beginning and end of my favourite film – and, indirectly, to the materialist idea that our lives are built in and through circumstances we didn’t create, and have been since before we started thinking about it. Structure determines agency, and agency would be pretty empty if it didn’t. Of course, at the moment it’s all I can do to post here occasionally and keep Oh Good Ale updated, so whether anything will ever appear on ¡VLC! is something of a moot point.

So there you go. Here are the questions again:
Tell us about…

  1. the blogs you read regularly when you started blogging
  2. the blogs you read regularly now
  3. some blogs you’ve stopped reading (and why)
  4. the blog you’ve started reading most recently
  5. every blog you’ve ever contributed to

Have at it!

What I’m looking for

There is (unless I’ve changed the design of the blog by the time you read this) a widget about halfway down the righthand column giving some of the more interesting search terms that people have used to find this blog. I don’t update it very often, partly because I don’t get many interesting searches and partly because I don’t want to bump most of the phrases that are listed there at the moment. I mean, take Dalton aspirin communism headaches – I’m quite proud to have been there for whoever was looking for that, even if the actual post was mainly about the future of the EU. (Note to self: planned Roque Dalton post prompted by recent LRB article now seriously overdue. I mean, recent LRB article no longer all that recent.)

As I write, the search terms for yesterday and today are listed as

“dont think we have enough protest
universita sweater
and was jerusalem builded here rules
underneath elegant women pics
heswall animal rescue
why are americans so uptight about eroti
manchester grammar school naked swimming
scott walker protest song

The last one is odd – “Hero of the war” would qualify, I guess – and I’m sure there’s a story behind the last but one. (Although not one that you can find anywhere on this blog – I’ve never even mentioned Manchester Grammar School before this post.) “and was jerusalem builded here rules” (emph. added) is also a bit of a mystery. As for this week’s Top Searches, here they are:

universita sweater
vivid cambridge topless
fashion shoot with social awareness
fass glas
“these scientists eh? they’re so stupid! you know those black box flight recorders they put on aeroplanes? and you know they’re meant to be indestructible? it’s always the thing that doesn’t get smashed? so why don’t they make the planes out of the same stuff?” the audience roared with laughter at how stupid scientists were, how they couldn’t think their way out of a paper bag, but i sat feeling uncomfortable. was i just being pedantic to feel that the joke didn’t really work because flight recorders are made out titanium and that if you made planes out of titanium rather than aluminium they’d be far too heavy to get off the ground in the first place?

The first three… well, you can find it yourself if you’re curious; I slightly regret posting it, although probably not as much as some people regret clicking through to it. “Fass” and “Glas” both appear to be German words, but otherwise the fourth search term is a mystery to me.

But the fifth is something else. It’s an extensive quote from Douglas Adams, which goes in this instance to this post. Blimey, I was writing proper posts back then. It’s crafted like a sermon, that one – or a good opinion column, which I guess was the model I had in mind: you go from the David Bowie title to the Douglas Adams quote, which turns out to be there to support an observation about Terry Pratchett, which in turn leads into a discussion of… the War on Terror and the London bombings of July 2005. Proper deep thought, and fairly controversial with it. I’m bigging myself up here, but only myself in 2005 – reading that post in 2010 makes me feel quite inadequate.

Setting aside where it leads, a couple of things about that search term boggle me. I can’t imagine why somebody would type the whole thing into a search box, and find it hard to imagine that anybody would. Nevertheless, somebody (and perhaps more than one somebody) does seem to have done so – the lower-case letters in particular (was i just being pedantic) militate against cut and paste. I hope they found the post interesting when they got to it. I was also struck by the fact that my blog isn’t the only hit for that chunk of text – it’s actually the eighth out of eight (although the post on my original blog is third; I think I copied the text myself from the first hit, which is on Charles Arthur’s blog). It’s nice to see that there’s an audience for Adams-related blogging, as I’ve been planning to do a bit more – well, I’ve been planning to write something about And another thing, anyway. I wasn’t thinking of using it as a lead-in to anything else, though, except possibly another book I’ve read recently. (I feel like apologising to Phil of 2005 – I’d be a great disappointment to me. Not sure what’s changed; perhaps it’s because I had a less interesting job back then, or I pinned more hopes on blogging – or just because I was newer to it?)

For now, can I interest you in Douglas Reed? “Bernard, Bernard, this bloom of youth“? giant octopus? They’re not necessarily the best posts I’ve ever written, but I can guarantee that none of them is about the future of the EU.

Update 5th August. Search of the day: “fashion photography from the boobs”. Yes, it’s another one of those searches – I’m starting to wonder about taking those posts down – but ‘from’ is curious; wouldn’t that rather defeat the object?

I’ll get my raincoat.

I got a message

Back in December 2008, commenting on the career of the recently-deceased Conor Cruise O’Brien, Daniel Davies casually sketched out… well, I’ll let him tell it:

I think his decline and fall from sensible, interesting, Good Bloke to reactionary ballbag outlines the Three Prime Directives, the rejection of which defines Decency:

1. Think about the consequences of what you’re saying

2. Don’t become an ethnic partisan

and, the Ultimate Prime Directive

3. No need to be a c**t about it.

CCO’B started off on the right side, but one by one he gradually broke them all.

(Daniel didn’t use asterisks, but I’m a bit less fearless about causing offence. Plus I’m getting quite enough one-handed traffic as it is, thanks to this post.)

In the shortened form of ‘BACAI’, the phrase has entered the language – at least, it’s entered the jargon used on Aarowatch and D^2 Digest. What does it mean? I’ve written elsewhere on what precisely the insult in question signifies, and Daniel’s usage isn’t that far from mine. Basically there is no need to start from the assumption that disagreement can only be motivated by evil and stupidity; no need to be aggressive, wilfully insensitive and deliberately offensive; no need to challenge the other person to jump through hoops of your own devising and denounce them when they fail to do so. Above all, there’s no need to enjoy doing all this, or to congratulate yourself and others for doing it. (If anything sums up the meaning of the C-word in BritEng, it’s this combination of insensitivity and self-congratulation: he’s ruined your day and not only does he not care, he thinks he’s been rather clever.)

As well as identifying the deep affinity between BACAI and what’s become known as the Decent Left, Daniel has repeatedly stressed the importance of the (Ultimate) Prime Directive in blog discussions (the other two have rather fallen by the wayside). I think the PD can be unpacked into two equally important statements:

1. Whoever you are and however just your cause, there is no need to BACAI.
2. This matters: BACAI is never a good thing and should always be avoided.

The second statement is there to help enforce assent to the first, which everyone is wont to regard as dispensable on special occasions (e.g. when they’ve been annoyed by somebody enough to want to BACAI).

Fast forward to last weekend and TAM 8 – the eighth annual session of The Amazing Meeting, James Randi’s sceptics’ conference. And:

Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” talk, in which he decried what he sees as the rise of incivility in the skeptical blogosphere.

Continue reading

Owing to my state of mind

Jamie is on the trail of derelict mental hospitals (not ‘asylums’, thanks all the same). I used to work at Cane Hill – well, I worked there for about six months in 1979, but it seemed a lot longer. Some of the pictures behind that link looked incredibly familiar, even with several years’ worth of dilapidation – looking at one of the corridor shots I was half expecting to see someone pushing a floor-buffer. As an unqualified Nursing Assistant I did shifts more or less wherever I was needed, so I saw just about everything: the psycho-geri wards (very quiet but quite a lot of dirty work); the short-term ward (for people who had only just come in and people who would soon be well enough to leave, although these weren’t always the same people); the locked ward (less scary than it sounds – largely because everyone was drugged up to the eyeballs – but not much less). I spent most of the time I was there on a long-term ward; it was about half-and-half schizophrenics and people who were just too institutionalised to function anywhere else, many of whom had originally been found on the streets.

It was a dreadful place, which institutionalised patients more or less as a matter of course, and in some cases confined them for decades; there was an old man on the ward who’d had a bit of a weird episode at the age of 16, in 1932, and been locked up ever since. It also put vulnerable people at the mercy of staff many of whom were both dedicated and competent, but not all of whom were either. The long-term ward was run on the basis of a flurry of activity in the morning (wash, shave, dress and feed 25 men), another at lunchtime and a third in the evening. Between those times, nothing happened – nothing at all. Once the morning rush was over, in particular, the charge nurse would take the opportunity to call for tea and biscuits, then tell me and the student nurses about his views on life at enormous length. One long-term patient died while I was there (although after I’d been moved away from that ward); apparently he fell on the steps up to the ward, hit his head and lay there all night undiscovered. He was an unusually florid schizophrenic – nothing they could give him would stop him having strange ideas and compulsions, which generally involved wandering around the hospital – and the door to the ward was often kept locked to stop him getting out, although this was officially an open ward. As I understand it was locked that night.

But I’m not totally convinced that hospitals like that were a bad thing. One of the drugs we used to administer to schizophrenics was fluphenazine, a.k.a. Modecate. It was a slow-release ‘depot’ injection, designed to keep the visions and compulsions damped down for a fortnight at a time, and as such was administered intra-muscularly; you’d draw a cross on one of the patient’s buttocks with an alcohol swab, take aim for the upper outer quadrant and away you went. (I never did this myself – being untrained, unqualified and terrified – although I was repeatedly urged to have a bash.) I asked one day what would happen if you were careless and jabbed them in the lower inner quadrant. You don’t want to do that, you could paralyse them, I was told. This all came back to me the other day, when I noticed packets of Modecate on the pharmacy shelves at our local Boots, presumably for people being cared for in the community to take away and self-administer. The idea of trusting schizophrenics to inject their own anti-psychotic medication, at just the time when the previous dose is wearing off, strikes me as a bit hopeful.

Tangentially, it’s things like this which make me wonder what on earth the Tories’ plans for public expenditure cuts are actually going to mean. The old institutions aren’t there to be cut any more: the erstwhile populations of Cane Hill – and the others – have already been tipped out into community care. Similarly, councils have already been forced to outsource what used to be in-house services, the profitable bits of the postal service have already been carved up by TNT and DHL, and Stagecoach have already eaten public transport. If (on top of all that) defence is going to be protected, it’s hard to see what’s left to cut. Perhaps in another thirty years we’ll be looking at slideshows of abandoned universities.

When the winds begin to sing

Winter ade!

I went to a graduation ceremony at the University of Manchester yesterday. I’ve worked there for most of the last six years, so I’d taught a lot of yesterday’s graduands in all three years; it was good to see them make it to the end.

I’ve been to the last couple of graduations, but this will almost certainly be my last; I started work at another university at the beginning of February. For most of the previous three years I’d been working as what my new employer calls an hourly-paid lecturer. (Manchester, less grandly and less descriptively, calls the post “Teaching Assistant”.) This is not a great position to be in, particularly over summer. Summer 2009 was particularly difficult, and the start of the new academic year wasn’t much better. (It’s no coincidence that this blog was dormant for most of the calendar year 2009, or that I’ve been posting a lot more since February.) My current job was the right opportunity at the right time.

So yesterday’s ceremony roused some very mixed emotions. Leaving Manchester was a wrench, but it was the right thing to do and I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I left Manchester and it was the right thing to do, but it was a wrench. I’ve got the Anselm Kiefer picture at the top of this post on my desk at work (literally on my desk – I must invest in a mount or at least some sellotape). The verse handwritten across it is adapted from a German folk song; it reads

Winter ade,
scheiden tut weh,
doch dein Scheiden macht
daß mein Herze lacht…
gerne vergeß ich dein,
kannst immer ferne sein
Winter ade,
scheiden tut weh.

Which means something like this:

Goodbye Winter
Leaving hurts
But your leaving makes my heart laugh
Gladly I forget your leaving
May you always be far from me
Goodbye Winter
Leaving hurts

Everything you stand for

In itself, there’s nothing unusual about someone being left wing when young and becoming more right wing as they get older. What’s strange about the RCP, though, is the way the group seems to have moved together

From Jenny Turner’s terrific piece on the Institute of Ideas and its siblings and precursors.

What’s particularly good about this article, apart from its length and thoroughness, is its open-endedness: the title is “Who are they?”, and this question – like the related question “what are they doing?” – is never really answered other than descriptively. Turner’s conclusion gestures towards the idea that the ex-RCP network might be keeping its powder dry for the coming upsurge in class struggle, but her heart isn’t really in it. More typical is her remark that “it isn’t clear what the Continuity RCP is after, except that someone, somewhere, really likes setting things up”.

I seem to have jumped the gun on anecdotes involving the RCP, but don’t worry, I’ve got more. One more, at least. In 1993 or thereabouts, I was in London on an assertiveness training course. I was on my way back to my hotel when a Living Marxism seller made the mistake of approaching me. Usually I would just walk straight past, but that night I said No, thankyou!, quite loudly and distinctly. I was feeling rather pleased with myself when the guy called after me, “Why not?”. I stopped and spun round. Why not? Because you’re a bunch of fucking fascists, that’s why not! (This language is of course aggressive rather than assertive, and is not recommended in a workplace scenario; the poor guy would have been well within his rights if he’d told me that he had an issue with the way I addressed him. He didn’t, though.)

They do consistently tend to rouse strong feelings, the RCP – never more so than in that period, when Bosnia had substantial parts of the Left feeling fairly aggrieved with one another. But “fascists”? Not really. It would have been true to say that I felt an absolute enmity towards the RCP, more than I did towards Labour or even the Tories – or anyone else except the fash – but that’s not quite the same thing. Turner again:

‘RCP members were the first to imitate neo-Nazis and deny the existence of a Serb concentration camp in Bosnia,’ Nick Cohen wrote in 2006. Neo-Nazis? Really? ‘Living Marxism’s attempts to rewrite the history of the camps,’ Ed Vulliamy wrote in 2000, ‘was motivated by the fact that in their heart of hearts, these people applauded those camps.’ How could he possibly know that?

It’s a point that needed making. They’re not fascists; in many ways they’re quite recognisable revolutionary socialists. The contrarianism, and the dogged rationalism that backs it up, aren’t at all unusual – back in the eighties any socialist worth their salt could explain at some length how it was that the Labour Party were the real class enemy, the British Army in the North of Ireland were the real terrorists, or whatever. Also very familiar is the stultifying fakery that comes of combining front work with cadre organisation:

These days, IoI bods look like delegates at a Unison conference, or the seekers who gather at Landmark seminars and the Alpha Course. The ones who make the speeches are mostly white and in their thirties and forties (the volunteers on the cameras and boom-mikes are younger and more diverse). They’re more relaxed than they used to be, less aggressive and overtly controlling, but they still have a habit of sitting on panels together, pretending they don’t already know each other, and they still dominate meetings with tedious, well-rehearsed spontaneous interventions.

I’ve noticed something similar from SWP members, some of whom seem to have taken a vow never to mention the party itself – even when the conversation turns to Martin Smith (of Unite Against Fascism), Weyman Bennett (of Love Music Hate Racism) or Marxism 2010 (“great speakers, great workshops, have you thought of going?”).

What’s not clear is why the RCP have ended up staking out this weird business-friendly anti-green smug-libertarian corner – or, for that matter, why they went quite so heavily for the pro-Serb (or anti-anti-Serb) cause in the 90s. I don’t believe they’re provocateurs in any straightforward sense, but their psychological makeup does seem to include a love of the wind-up – a sense that getting a reaction is an end in itself.

The magazine’s Bosnia coverage had a very odd tone, cold and flippant and a bit sarcastic. The July 1992 edition had Serbia on the cover, described as the ‘WHITE NIGGERS’ of the New World Order. ‘The world’s media have invented a veritable Holocaust in Bosnia,’ Furedi wrote, under his own name, a couple of months later. ‘It is surely only a matter of time before gas chambers are discovered in the car park of the Agriculture Ministry in Belgrade.’ LM was perhaps trying to counteract the ‘very one-sided, anti-Serb’ gushiness it objected to in ‘the liberal media’ but the effect is not cool, disciplined, objective – it’s just mean.

Put it another way. Suppose you were accused of denying that a prison camp known to be a place where people were brutalised and murdered was really as bad as all that. You probably wouldn’t set up a libel defence campaign and advertise it with a picture of the barbed wire that caused all the trouble in the first place. You probably wouldn’t call it ‘Off the Fence’.

Their more recent angles – denying global warming, denouncing anti-racism – are perhaps a milder form of the same kind of shock tactics; they’re certainly aimed at shocking the same kind of people. It’s not, to put it mildly, the way political groups generally make propaganda. It’s more like a particularly dedicated satirist, trying to identify the few kindred souls who get it by setting out to offend almost – but not quite – everyone in the audience.

So what is it all about? Back in 2003, Jamie suggested that this might be what you get if you keep the vanguard role going (with its contrarian and rationalist presumptions) but quietly lose the revolutionary politics that gave it its point:

Their oppositionism has been the one constant thing about them. Yet it does seem to have led over the years to a kind of surreptitious hankering after nihilism, expressed at one level by their eager apologetics for genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda and on another by their inability to avoid mechanical sneering at any social or political phenomena. In theory, they are apparently in favour of confident humanity making choices. A glance at Spiked tells you that they can find nothing good to say about the choices humans make. The whole site reads like the effusions of the snottiest 14 year old in the grammar school playground. This is apparently where vanguardism for its own sake leads.

Or perhaps they run campaigns and hold conferences and issue press releases because it’s what they’re used to doing – someone, somewhere, really likes setting things up – and their pro-corporate evolution is just a kind of tropism towards a guaranteed source of funding.

Anyway, read the article. Jamie’s post about it is also well worth a look, particularly the comments thread.

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