You are the fairest creature

Listen, if you can (the audio may be taken down before long), to this. It’s one of those traditional tunes that seem to do everything that a tune can or should do, twining around the scale like ivy and resolving back where it started. It’s a particularly fine rendition by Jon Boden, with a harsh, keening fiddle accompaniment (played by Jon) which perfectly accentuates the darker notes of the song. I think it might be the best thing Jon’s done all year.

If it has been taken down, have a listen to this:

That is a beautiful song.

Now listen to this:
Scritti Politti, “Hegemony”
There’s no getting away from it – at some level that’s the same song. (And yes, Googling establishes that Green Gartside was a folkie in his youth, and specifically a huge Martin Carthy fan. There’s a small puzzle here, though, which is that Carthy didn’t record the song until 1980, after Scritti Politti had recorded “Hegemony”. He did sing it as part of the score of the theatrical version of “Lark Rise to Candleford”, which was staged at the National Theatre in 1978 and 1979; perhaps Green was in the audience. Either that, or he heard Peter Bellamy’s version, released in 1975.)

I’m slightly staggered by this. Picture a fan of cutting-edge contemporary art who turns his back on the edgy echo-chamber of conceptual this and reinterpreted that, and rediscovers craft – good stuff well made. And imagine that, a few years down the line, he’s appreciating a particularly well-made pot, when he realises that it’s a Grayson bloody Perry. That’s me that is. Here’s a song which does what folk songs do, and does it so well – a slow, deliberate melody; lyrics that say one or two simple things, but simple things that have stayed true; a spare, delicate arrangement. No anxiety, no uncertainty, no rough edges, no contemporary resonance that wasn’t equally resonant 200 years ago. And here’s a song which is pure punk (intellectual wing): it’s all uncertainty and rough edges, an urgent, gabbled bulletin from the front line of one man’s confrontation with the world that faces him. And it’s the same bloody song.

As it happens, although I was vaguely into folk in the 70s – and I did see “Lark Rise” – I never really heard that much of it: Steeleye, Pentangle and, er… By 1979 I had given up on it altogether, partly in reaction against Steeleye’s new direction but mainly because the cultural earthquake of punk had seemed to make it utterly irrelevant. So I never heard “Sweet Lemany” until after I’d got back into folk, 30 years later, in search of the well-made pots of the tradition. Even then I only heard it at singarounds; it was only when I heard Jon Boden’s version last week that I really listened to it. And suddenly I’m back with Green in 1979, agonising over the production of meaning and semantic instability in ‘beat’ music in that legendary Camden squat, and I’m in my room at Cambridge poring over the sleevenotes and feeling his sense of the utter necessity of intellectual work and his despair at the isolation it brings with it –

About the university the pages let you down
It helps you find your way around in any English town
About the university the pages are in French
It helps you find your way around in any English town

And then I’m not.

As I was a-walking one fine summer’s morning,
Oh he fields and the meadows they looked so green and gay;
And the birds were singing so pleasantly adorning,
Right early in the morning at the break of the day.

Hark, oh hark, how the nightingale is singing,
And the lark she is a-taking her flight all in the air.
On yonder green bower the turtle doves are building,
The sun is just a-glimmering, Arise my dear.

Arise, oh, arise and get your charming posies,
They are the fairest flowers that grow in yonder grove.
I will pluck off them all sweet lilies, pinks and rosies,
All for my Sweet Lemeney, the girl that I love.

Oh, Lemeney, oh, Lemeney, you are the fairest creature,
Yes, you are the fairest creature that ever my eyes did see.
And she played it all over all upon her pipes of ivory,
Right early in the morning at the break of the day.

How could my true love, how could she vanish from me
Oh, how could she go so I never shall see her more.
Well it was her cruel parents who looked so slightly on me,
And it’s all for the white robe that I once used to wear.

In retrospect there’s something nightmarish about the political life lived with the kind of intensity that Green appeared to advocate back then. Certainly there’s a nightmarish quality, rather than a hopeful or liberating one, about the idea that everything could and should be transformed, from the conventions of pop songwriting to the living conditions of the band – after all, what if you forgot something, or allowed your guard to slip, and the old world crept back in? (“And ‘common sense’ is things just as they are”.) But if you get to the point where everything is a problem, the problem that you need to deal with is all yours. Green has dismissed the recordings of this period as “some anti-produced labour of negativity, kind of structurally unsound and exposed, by design and default … evocative of extraordinary times and a bit winceworthy”. For all that he’s the artist, that seems more like a list of symptoms than a description of the condition. I think something like “Hegemony” is best seen as the product of an attempt to fuse three things – the music, the politics, the personal sense of urgency and wrongness – which didn’t really belong together and certainly didn’t fit together. It struck some extraordinary sparks – thirty years on I still know “Hegemony” word for word, which is saying something given that I’m not even sure what all the words are – but it couldn’t ever work. The trouble was, the fact that it didn’t work chimed with the personal sense of the world’s wrongness, which was validated by the politics, and round the process went again.

I remember reading an interview with Jackie Leven, in about 1980, in which he talked about having worked his way to a place where he’d regained his innocence – “waking up a virgin the morning after the gang-bang” was his image. Green recovered his psychic virginity by journeying into shiny manicured pop – a long way from the anxiously self-deconstructing racket of “Hegemony”, and a long way from “Sweet Lemoney” too. As for me, Scritti Politti’s first few releases meant a huge amount to me at the time, and an important time it was too – Green was a lasting intellectual influence on me, just before Raymond Williams and a couple of years ahead of Guy Debord. So it’s interesting – and somehow at once chastening and heartening – to think how much of the power of those songs came from the music; and how much of the music, in this case, came from a song that had nothing to do with the manufacture of consensus and a lot to do with love and flowers.

“Hegemony” is still strange, powerful and unsettling; some of the songs Green wrote a couple of years later, on the cusp of his rediscovery of pop, are amazing (“The ‘Sweetest Girl'”, “Lions after slumber”, “Jacques Derrida”). But I’m going to stick with Limandie, playing on her pipes of ivory at the break of day. For all the tradition-garbled pastoral imagery, that song’s still about something true – and it’s something much more livable-with than “Hegemony”‘s anguished protest at the impossibility of changing everything immediately. The old songs endure, with their strangely elaborate melodies, their stock of familiar images and their tiny repertoire of subjects – love, sex, babies, death. They’re songs to remember.

Cheers then mate

The second point I want to make about the debate over last Saturday’s violence (following on from the previous post) is about the representation of violence in the media.

There’s a widespread view that the black bloc’s approach was wrong because of how it looked – specifically, because of how it looked on TV. Thus Christopher Phelps on Sunday:

Here is what the story for yesterday’s demonstration should have been: half a million marchers, in the largest show of labour union strength in decades, turn out to oppose the government’s draconian cuts.

Here is what the story became: a few hundred anarchists, many dressed in black, trashed businesses and clashed with police on Oxford Street and in Trafalgar Square.

The anarchists, calling themselves the black bloc, stole the headlines from the 500,000 other protesters who’d travelled from all over the UK to express the refusal of millions to accept austerity as the consequence of a crisis they did not create.

and commenter Andrew on CT:

Demonstrations matter only insofar as they impact public perception. You have x minutes on the news, y column inches, and z number of reported salient facts to make that impact.

It makes very little difference whether those actually at the demonstration saw a mostly peaceful gathering; what matters is x, y, and z – at least if you’re interested in effecting change.

A small group of anarchists can switch over any number of those z salient facts, x TV minutes, and y column inches to negative.

Call me an old pro-situ, but I get very twitchy when I see it argued that what matters about a demonstration is how it looks on TV. It reminds me of something Joe Strummer (and a few friends) said in 1977, in the middle of a rendering of “What’s My Name” that was being shown on Revolver. Sang, rather – he inserted an extra verse, which went like this:

JOE: Here we are on TV!
What does it mean to me?

[looks at crowd]
What does it mean to you?
JOE AND CROWD: F*** ALL!

I remember that feeling: what mattered was to do it yourself, and if you couldn’t do that what mattered was to be there. And if you couldn’t do that, well, you could read about it in the NME, and read the letters the following week saying the first writer got it all wrong, and try to get along next time. Punk could disrupt TV, but it couldn’t work within TV any more than it could work within the marketplace – what would be the point? (Punk didn’t last.)

Radical politics, same same. As a general thing I think we all pay far too much attention to rally-as-spectacle as distinct from rally-as-collective-event. I’ve been on marches and demos, and I can confirm what Simon and Edd say:

A great thing about protests is the transformations in political consciousness that take place: people no longer feel alone, they feel empowered and part of something big; they are prompted to think about the issues that moved them to protest; they form political friendships.

There are moments, on huge demonstrations, where you can see and feel the ocean of people surrounding you, the jokes being cracked, the songs being sung, the drums beating. You lose a friend in the crowd, swap an anecdote with a stranger, and you think, “How can this possibly not make any difference?”

Even at a small demo of a couple of hundred people, the atmosphere changes; life feels different. Collective action seems like a reality, a possible way of living – in fact, for the duration of the demo collective action is a reality, and you’re living it. This change in the air is only temporary, and it has built-in limits. To continue the quote from Edd:

and you think, “How can this possibly not make any difference?”

Then you walk past Parliament and Downing Street, and you remember that just marching never makes any difference.

But it’s a temporary experience that can be returned to and built on. Back to Simon:

Uplifting mass protests, though, come with a danger attached. Unless they become the beginning of something sustained, with the capacity to keep a large number of ordinary people engaged, they can serve to simply defuse anger at the expense of political change. … This must be the first mass demonstration against this government, but not the last. There have to be regional events, industrial action, and occupations.

If it becomes the beginning of that sort of process – or, more precisely, another step in the development of that process, which (future historians may judge) began last autumn with the university occupations – the march will have done its job. What it looked like on TV is neither here nor there.

I’ve been particularly bemused by Harry’s argument on CT, seconding Christopher Phelps’s piece and comparing the march with the (huge and inspiring) mobilisation in Wisconsin. Harry:

We’ve lost in the short term (but so have the Brits), and yes, now, the issue is reversing some of the damage (as in the UK case). But we were not, according to the opinion polls, smeared as extremists or as having done $m of damage. That is, the party in power attempted to smear us as such, but failed … People are upbeat and optimistic, which enables them to do the dreary footwork of going to meetings, taking petitions door to door, making the arguments to their recalcitrant neighbors and workmates … 150 anarchists (or whatever they are) would have had a good shot at making the smears successful.

I think CP’s original piece was a bit of a vent, partly probably because the Brits seem so inured (as lots of you do) to this kind of thing and its effects, accepting that it will happening and discounting the effects of good press, or of negative press that can’t actually get a grip on the public because there is nothing to back it up. He doesn’t have a solution, nor do I, but it sounds as if nobody here thinks these folks can be more marginalised than they already are. Maybe that’s right, but its hard to believe.

Here’s why I’m bemused:

good press

I remember being at a union meeting, about 25 years ago, discussing possible strike action (it was a bit easier in those days; the first time I went on strike the decision was taken at a mass meeting, would you believe). A senior manager who had come along spoke at some length about how striking just now couldn’t achieve anything, there was this going on and that just round the corner, so really it was the wrong time to strike. Someone asked – either very naively or not naively at all – whether, in that case, he would support us if we called a strike in three months’ time. The manager actually laughed at this – No, of course not! I’m management!

I feel very similar about the possibility of demonstrations ever getting ‘good press’ in this country – and about the related question of the policing of demonstrations ever getting a bad press. There is a narrative of the events of last Saturday which assumes that the overall outcome was negative and locates all the responsibility for this in the black bloc: something like

1. Mass peaceful demo
2. Violence by anarchists
3. Police are forced to attack anarchists to prevent violence
4. Media are bound to cover anarchist violence, because it’s more newsworthy than the peaceful demo
5. Demonstrators smeared as vandals and hooligans, lose popular support

(More radical commenters may substitute “are forced to” at 3. with “take the opportunity to”.) By contrast, in Wisconsin there was

1. Mass peaceful direct action
2. No violence by anarchists
3. Police not forced to take on anarchists
4. Media cover peaceful demo
5. Demonstrators not smeared as vandals and hooligans, retain popular support

Which sounds great, and I’m glad the mobilisation is going so well in Wisconsin. But I’m also slightly baffled, for three reasons. Firstly, I’ve never believed that the police reaction to a demonstration is something that can be controlled by the demonstrators – any demonstrators. The relationship between political activity, heavy policing and arrests for public order offences is very well established in this country; it goes back to Duncan v Jones 1936, in which the court effectively endorsed the right of a police officer to prevent a public meeting taking place if the officer anticipated that disorder would result. The police, the logic runs, are there to prevent disorder, which may involve restraints on political activity; if the form taken by these necessary restraints involves physical force (or the denial of freedom of movement), too bad. This way of thinking gives limitless discretion to the police in deciding when a forceful response is needed: it does nothing to prevent them from escalating the level of confrontation unnecessarily, or even from provoking a level of violence which will justify the use of superior force on their part. The first of these certainly happened in and around Trafalgar Square on Saturday, and from what I saw (on TV!) I wouldn’t rule out the second.

Secondly, I’ve never believed that demonstrators have any influence over the media coverage of the demonstration, either. Where there is violence – any violence – it will be focused on, and the narrative of the Violent Minority who Spoil Everything will get trotted out. (Interestingly enough, where there is mass violence, as at Millbank, the narrative of the Violent Minority will still get trotted out.) In the unlikely event that a demo passes off completely peacefully, they’ll find another stick to beat it with – I remember coming home from a huge Anti-Nazi League demo with my mother (who had gone along with the Christians Against Racism And Fascism contingent) and hearing the BBC newsreader explain that the size of the demo was all down to “the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party, which has been recruiting in schools”. I still watch the news – let’s not get all this out of proportion; I still call the police if I get burgled, too – but, when it comes to reporting protest, the media are not on our side and never have been. In the case of last Saturday, I don’t believe the day would ever have ended without a few breakages and some graffiti – or, for that matter, without the Met getting some kettling action; consequently I don’t believe the media coverage would ever have been positive or unbiased or balanced or respectful. Everything would always have been Spoilt.

Thirdly, and to end on a positive note: after all that, I don’t believe the anti-cuts movement has lost any popular support. Or rather, I don’t believe it’s lost any of the popular support that it had. Like Simon, I started the day following Twitter (#march26, #26march or #march26march?), and like him I was struck by the level of hostility displayed by a few people. And this was while the coaches were still on their way – people were denouncing the march before it had even set off, much less been ‘hijacked’ or ‘eclipsed’. Some people really hate trade unionists; some people really hate workers in the public sector generally. Some people are convinced (at least for as long as it takes to compose a one-line message) that real workers – good, honest, British workers – cross picket-lines, work Saturdays and don’t get a pension, and that the worst injustice being done to these hardy souls is the extraction of income tax from their pay. And, needless to say, some people hate the whole idea of collective action. We didn’t lose the support of any of those people, and it’s hard to see how we could have gained it. So who did we lose? Are there a lot of people out there who didn’t go on the march and don’t know anyone who might have gone, and who might have supported it but for the intervention of the violent anarchists? Even if there are, can we be sure that taking the anarchists out of the picture would have resulted in media coverage that was entirely supportive, or police reactions that were entirely proportionate and restrained?

I don’t think we should be too quick to heap blame on the violent minority: partly because they aren’t entirely to blame for the impression that’s been created around them, and partly because that impression may not have done all that much damage. But there’s also a third reason, which is that the demand to identify, isolate and denounce ‘violent extremists’ is a very old one, and one which rarely does the Left any good – or is meant to. I’ll get on to that in the next post.

An extremist scrape

Our Margit declares if hoo’d cloas to put on,
Hoo d go up to Lundun an’ see the young Queen,
An if things didn’t alter when hoo had been,
Hoo swears hoo would fight, blood up to th’een.
Hoo’s nought agen t’queen, but hoo likes a fair thing,
An’ hoo says hoo can tell when hoo’s hurt.
– “The Four Loom Weaver” (trad., 1830s)

Well, I didn’t go – partly influenced, I confess, by dystopian fantasies of mass kettling – and it went off brilliantly:

a wonderful, spirited, and conviction-driven multitude of ordinary people, representative of the British population in their diversity, marched in their hundreds of thousands.In doing so, they made it clear – we made it clear – that we simply will not accept the dismantling of our welfare state and public services

And I’m not going to qualify that. The march went off brilliantly. Half a million people, give or take, assembled in the middle of the capital to protest against the government’s attack on public services. Activists, burnt-out veterans and absolute beginners, they came from all over the country – from the post-industrial northwest to the Tory shires – and they marched together. It was a truly remarkable march and it went off brilliantly.

Shall we look at that picture again?

I was right the first time: that was what last Saturday looked like. Cheerful, united, determined and very, very large.

If you stop here you won’t miss much. Continue reading

Unvanquishable number

Reports that Police estimate there being 450,000 at #26march. Whatever the amount, clearly a great turnout, well done all #pcs26 #march26

Wish I was there. All the best to all the marchers and protesters – shout loud and stay safe!

Smoke lingers

Recent email, lightly edited:

Many thanks for entering this year’s Orwell Prize. The longlists will be announced next Wednesday, 30th March, at 7pm.

For the first time this year, we will be holding a special event to celebrate the longlist announcement. Drinks from 6.30pm will be followed by the announcements at 7pm and a special discussion on blogging featuring previous winner, Richard Horton (police blogger, ‘Jack Night’) and one of this year’s judges, David Allen Green (‘Jack of Kent’), chaired by Jean Seaton (director of the Prize).

The event will take place at […] The event is FREE – if you would like to come, please email […]

We hope that the event will be a fitting celebration of all of this year’s entrants. Many wonderful books, great journalists and brilliant bloggers unfortunately won’t make it onto the longlists – but we want to celebrate all the excellent writing which has come in, and say thank you for making the Prize what it is.

Do feel free to share the invitation with colleagues and friends.

I guess that’s a No, then. Nice of them to make it a free event, though – asking people to pay to come and hear their name not being read out really would be adding insult to injury.

Update 31/3/11 Yes, it was a No. Congratulations to Laurie, Dave and especially Anton – well-deserved. What some of the other names are doing there is anybody’s guess. Daniel Hannan?

After “No Cuts!” the marchers’ favourite slogan was “Fairness!” Alright, then. How about parity between public and private sector pay? Or job security? Or pensions? How about being fair to our children, whom we have freighted with a debt unprecedented in peacetime? How about being fair to the boy who leaves school at 16 and starts paying taxes to subsidise the one who goes to university? How about being fair to the unemployed, whom firms cannot afford to hire because of the social protection enjoyed by existing employees?

Conservative pigging Home?

Whilst the Prime Minister David Cameron has secured a resounding success in persuading Arab governments to support intervention in Libya, the anti-war coalition has – unsurprisingly – been busy voicing its support for murderous dictatorship. A large gang of them congregated outside Downing Street in Whitehall last Thursday evening and handed out spurious and demagogic leaflets whilst waffling on about western imperialism. … The coalition is a cross-section of fruitcakes, loonies and closet masochists, mostly.

(I like the ‘mostly’. Judicious, dude)

And then – on the ‘Left’ – there’s Molly Bennett, who works for a Labour MP and writes about his constituents: they seem to be mostly “whingers”, several of them are “nutters” (some of whom she names), and one of them (also named) is an “enormously fat man” who gets around using a “fatmobile”, ho ho. What puzzles me about this blog is not so much how it’s got longlisted as why Ms Bennett’s employer hasn’t demanded that she take it down toot sweet. (Unless there is no Molly Bennett and it’s actually Chris Morris. That would make sense.)

I’m not the greatest fan of George Orwell – I think he was a dreadful old fraud who mistook unquenchable self-loathing for staunch radicalism – but his worst enemies would admit that he wrote well. He wrote clearly, and with some insight into the overtones of his imagery and the limitations of his arguments; and he wrote humanely, by and large (as long as nobody mentioned vegetarians). About the only connection between Orwell and the blogs I’ve quoted is that it would have been fun to see him take them apart.

One cold May morning in June

Ken, in comments at B&T:

I find Douglas Adams’ comic writing deeply melancholic to the point of being depressing, and Terry Pratchett’s quite the opposite. I suspect the difference has to do with the sense of underlying logic in Pratchett, versus the sense of arbitrariness and absurdity in Adams. I get the same sense of arbitrariness in what I’ve looked at of Sharpe, and I didn’t like it at all. Same with (closer to home) Robert Rankin.

Jasper Fforde, that’s what I say. But I’ll get back to that.

I tend to agree with Ken about Adams & Pratchett. The thing about Hitchhiker is that it makes perfect sense as a Cambridge revue sketch, i.e. something whose writer is trying to flatter and stay one jump ahead of a clever but cynical audience: hence the wordiness, the displays of erudition and worldly-wisdom, the dash for the next gag. But I think the darkness which is overpowering by the time of Mostly Harmless was always there, and I suspect that it’s related. One of the few snatches of HH I caught on the radio, back in 1978, was the digression about the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints division (“the only part of the Corporation to show a consistent profit in recent years”) and how its giant illuminated motto – “Share and Enjoy” – unfortunately now appeared to read “Go stick your head in a pig”. The explanation was followed by a hideously atonal vocodered jingle, beginning “Share and enjoy” and ending (of course) “Go stick your head in a pig”. A basically rather grim idea is taken further and further, with an odd kind of doggedness, culminating in a deliberately unpleasant jingle – which itself goes on just a bit too long to be amusing. It’s strange and rather gruelling stuff; I remember thinking at the time that this wasn’t exactly light entertainment. (You can hear for yourself. Share and enjoy!) And that’s not to mention Slartibartfast’s melancholia –

Slartibartfast: Perhaps I’m old and tired, but I think that the chances of finding out what’s actually going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say, “Hang the sense of it,” and keep yourself busy. I’d much rather be happy than right any day.
Arthur Dent: And are you?
Slartibartfast: Ah, no… Well, that’s where it all falls down, of course.

or the appallingly dark comedy of the basic setup: the Earth has been destroyed and nobody cares. If you were going to take it really seriously, you could say that Marvin’s function is to make Arthur’s predicament even more desperate, by effectively blocking off the escape route of outright depression. Arthur is a thin character – one of those Boring Ordinary People who the Pythons kept returning to, upwardly-mobile Oxbridge snobs that they were – stuck in a mindbendingly ‘thick’ situation, and doomed to make jokes about it. Which nobody hears.

Adams: dark. I think the darkness and the “sense of arbitrariness and absurdity” Ken refers to may go back to the same root. I wonder if, for Adams when he was writing Hitchhiker, the cynicism and erudition and wordplay was basically all there was – not in the sense that it was all he could do (we should all be so limited), but in the sense that he didn’t believe there was anything else that mattered. Bear in mind that he was only in his mid-20s when Hitchhiker went out – still very much in the “after Cambridge” stage. Being erudite and good with words is quite a big deal if you’re a student, and can have real rewards. Get to Oxford or Cambridge, and it’s easy to form a world-view which basically says that clever people get privilege, very clever people get lots of privilege and really clever people run the world. Coming down from Cambridge (in more ways than one), to discover that boring ordinary people in boring ordinary jobs were doing quite nicely thankyou, while clever people like oneself were scraping around to make ends meet… well, I found it a bit of a shock myself, and I wasn’t even a star at Cambridge. The world of Megadodo Publications and the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation is a world where knowledge and intelligence confer power, but only on people who are willing to misuse them. To some extent that mentality seems to have stuck, for Adams – there’s a cold wind blowing through a lot of his later work, from Mostly Harmless to The long dark tea-time of the soul: a mood not just of “this is all there is” but of “yes, this is all there is, you don’t have to keep asking”. You can see how he would have taken to rationalism and Darwinism – which, to be fair, do seem to have given him a sense that there was a there there, and consequently cheered him up a bit. (This theory doesn’t really account for Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, one of his best works & also one of the most upbeat. Maybe he should have written more about music.)

It follows from all of the above that Adams was never a world-builder; I think he felt that the world we had was an absurd and rather shoddy mess which didn’t bear too much investigating, and any other worlds we visited would almost certainly be no better. He makes an odd sort of mirror image to C.S. Lewis in this respect. Narnia doesn’t hang together for five minutes – did Talking Foxes eat Talking Mice, and if not what did they live on? could Talking and non-Talking animals interbreed, and if so what would the offspring be? where are the female Marsh-wiggles, or the female Centaurs? and what the hell is Father Christmas doing there? But it doesn’t matter (and be fair, when you’re reading the story it doesn’t matter) because Lewis wasn’t greatly concerned about how this world hung together either. (He didn’t much care where the female Humans were for most of his life.) The only world that made sense, for Lewis, was Aslan’s Country; Earth or Narnia, they were all dim and muddled reflections, seen δι εσοπτρου εν αινιγματι. But the senseless and disordered worlds he imagined were still basically, ultimately, good and trustworthy places, because they were underwritten by that great unknowable original – just as Adams’s (a) weren’t and (b) weren’t.

Pratchett – who started out as a working journalist – took a very different approach when he started writing the Discworld series, and in retrospect it’s rather an extraordinary one. Pratchett designed a world which feels from the outset as if it ought to hang together (there’s work and crime and government and sex), but couldn’t possibly work: in the first few books there are huge white spaces in the mental map of Discworld, quite openly labelled “and then a miracle happens”. It’s a fantasy, after all; it’s a world where magic happens all the time. One of the remarkable features of the later books has been the way those white spaces have been progressively filled in: magic itself has been less and less of a deus ex machina and more of a source of power, like steam. Pratchett has a real sense of people living in society, and of society as an essentially orderly and comprehensible human creation – even if (as he suggests sometimes) the order rests ultimately on random violence, and comprehending society would involve learning things you’d rather forget. I’ve got a lot of time for the argument, advanced in Interzone at around the time of Guards! Guards!, that Pratchett is a writer of comedy in the fullest and most philosophical sense – comedy as a place where nobody gets hurt (except bad people) and the estranged lovers end up together again (usually), but where some real and serious ideas get played with along the way.

I’m interested in Ken’s other comments. I don’t like Tom Sharpe as a writer, any more than I like Howard Jacobson – Sharpe has a similar sort of thumping smugness, although he carries it off more lightly – but I’m intrigued by the comment about Robert Rankin. I’ve never read any of his stuff (although I do remember when it was actually happening) and I’d be interested to know where other people locate him on the Pratchett-Adams continuum (or should that be Lewis-Pratchett-Adams?).

Another couple of names for you. I like Malcolm Pryce. I’m not convinced his world hangs together, but it feels more solid than a simple burlesque; it’s authentically Welsh enough to seem believable (or maybe it’s just that I’m Welsh enough to find it believable). I’ve got an absolute tin ear for Jasper Fforde, though, and here again it’s something to do with arbitrariness: he really does seem to be making things up as he goes along, without even addressing the question of whether it hangs together. Time travel I like; the ‘banana’ scene in The Eyre Affair is tremendous. People entering books I like, and have done since Woody Allen came up with the idea in “The Kugelmass Episode”. But time travel and people entering books and an alt-historical authoritarian government and a literary popular culture… too much. Most of the way through The Eyre Affair I was convinced that we were going to find out how this world connected to, or diverged from, our own – that Fforde was going to reveal the Point of Departure – but it wasn’t to be. Maybe my expectations were the problem – maybe I should have relaxed and enjoyed the firework display – but it didn’t work for me.

What (and who) am I missing?

When your war is won

Quick announcement: I’m giving a paper at Taking Control, at SOAS this Saturday. It’s a conference on contemporary revolution, with some interesting speakers. It’s also free to register. And – if any more incentive were needed – I’ll be there with a stash of flyers for my book, which you’ll be able to order at the special conference rate (50% off). Roll up, roll up, and so forth. (And no, I do not recommend that you steal this book.)

Here’s the abstract. (Thanks for technical data to the B&T crowd.)

Terrible beauty seeks geometric potency: arms and the law in the anni di piombo

This paper looks at the relationship between broad movements and small groups using violent tactics. The starting point is the Italian experience of the late-1970s anni di piombo (‘years of lead’), when a sustained high level of protest and direct action, associated with the Autonomia Operaia movement, was accompanied by the growth of a distinct milieu of ‘armed struggle’ groups (the best-known being the Red Brigades).

From the point of view of a fluid and horizontally-organised movement, groups dedicated to clandestine violence are problematic in multiple ways: they are typically accused of lacking accountability to the movement, and substituting their own strategic and tactical goals for the movement’s, and of pursuing violence and militarisation for its own sake. Whether these problems are inherent in the relationship between any armed group and any mass movement is open to question. Some have argued that this type of disjuncture can and should be overcome, on the grounds that any revolutionary movement, facing the violence of the state, would need to develop or acquire the capacity to carry out violence of its own. Thus Autonomist theorist Franco Piperno called in 1979 for the ‘terrible beauty’ of large- scale spontaneous direct action to be united with the ‘geometric potency’ of well-directed firepower, exemplified by the Red Brigades’ kidnapping of Aldo Moro (and specifically the shooting of Moro’s five bodyguards).

Using evidence from the North of Ireland as well as from Italy, this paper argues that there is an inherent problem in the relationship between armed minorities and mass movements, but locates the problem not in the sphere of accountability but that of law. The rule of law is seen as prior to state power rather than flowing from it; any sustainable alternative to the state will respect its own law rather than simply imposing its own power. Rather than building the capacity to deliver violence, a radical movement should focus on developing an alternative legality.

Update 15/3 Courtesy of Backdoor Broadcasting, here‘s the audio of my presentation – and here‘s the main conference page. Most of the slides were text-only, but you’ll need the following graphic at around 15:00.

After listening to mine and Ben Whitham‘s papers, someone suggested that what my paper lacked was an illustration of the relative ranges of a P.38 and a fire extinguisher thrown off a roof. Happy to oblige! Here’s M-16 vs P.38 again:

And if we zoom right in, we can see P.38 vs fire extinguisher:

Kids, just say no.

Let memory fade

It’s a small enough thing, but this is profoundly depressing.

Of 360 posts to be cut, 120 are from Future Media & Technology, up to 90 from BBC Vision, up to 39 from Audio & Music, 17 from Children’s, 24 from Sport and 70 in journalism from national news and non-news posts on regional news sites.

Outlining its plans today, the BBC said it will meet with commercial rivals twice a year to clarify its online plans, increase links to external sites to generate 22m referrals within three years and will halve the number of top level domains it operates.

The corporation also outlined five editorial priorities for BBC Online and clarified its remit. The BBC aims to meet all these objectives, and make 360 posts redundant, by 2013. The restructured BBC Online department will consist of 10 products including News, iPlayer, CBeebies and Search. Editorial will be refined, with fewer News blogs, and local sites will be stripped of non-news content. Blast, Switch and h2g2 are among the sites to be ditched. Other closures will include the standalone websites for the BBC Radio 5 Live 606 phone-in show and 1Xtra, 5 Live Sports Extra, 6 Music and Radio 7 digital stations.

In all, the BBC is pledging to close half of its 400 top level domains – with 180 to be gone ahead of schedule later this year.

(That’s top level directories, people – the word that goes after “bbc.co.uk/”. The top level domain is “.uk”.)

The BBC’s Web presence is vast, sprawling and a bit anarchic – a quality it has in the past shared with the groups of people responsible for it. (Back in 2002 I made a concerted effort to get some writing work from the technology bit of BBC Online, a task made more difficult by the impossibility of finding any personal contact information on the site. Sustained and ingenious googling eventually rewarded me with a name and a phone number(!). I rang it and spoke to the right person, only to be told that he’d moved to BBC History and was about to move on again. On the other hand, before he left he did commission me to write an 12,000-word timeline of English history from the Romans to Victoria, so it wasn’t as if no good came of it.) There is an awful lot of good stuff there, much of it user-generated, and lots of little online communities that have grown up to support it. And yes, the bits that the corporation pay for are ultimately paid for out of the licence fee, meaning that they don’t have to make money and hence have an advantage over commercial rivals which do. This is a good thing: there are lots of worthwhile things that can be done very easily with a small subsidy, but can only be done with great difficulty, if at all, on a profit-making basis. There is no earthly reason why a corporation which doesn’t have to make money – and can afford to chuck a few grand around here or there – should behave as if it did and couldn’t. No reason, apart from political reasons. So now BBC Online are going to have a “clarified remit”, and they’re going to show their plans to commercial rivals (!) twice a year (!!), and 360 creative people are going to walk.

What really gives this announcement the smell of wanton vandalism – wilful and ignorant destruction – is the part about all the sites that are going to close. Not the fact that they keep getting the terminology wrong – that’s a minor niggle – but the fact that all these sites aren’t going to be kept up as static pages; they’re not even going to be archived. Like all those old Doctor Whos and Not Only… But Alsos, they’re just going to disappear. (All except H2G2, which is going to be sold – news which leaves me feeling relieved but slightly baffled.) Two cheers for the Graun, which put up the whole list but couldn’t resist playing it for laughs – “Ooh look, there’s a site for Bonekickers – that was rubbish, wasn’t it? Let’s see, have they got Howard’s Way?” There isn’t a Howard’s Way site. There is, however, Voices, Nation on Film, the inexhaustible Cult and a curious online mind-mapping thing called Pinball. Check them out while you can. And do take a look at WW2 People’s War, a truly extraordinary work of amateur oral history, which contains… well, here it is in its own words:

The BBC’s WW2 People’s War project ran from June 2003 to January 2006. The aim of the project was to collect the memories of people who had lived and fought during World War Two on a website; these would form the basis of a digital archive which would provide a learning resource for future generations.

The target audience, people who could remember the war, was at least 60 years old. Anyone who had served in the armed forces during the war was, at the start of the project, at least 75. Most of them had no experience of the internet. Yet over the course of the project, over 47,000 stories and 14,000 images were gathered. A national story gathering campaign was launched, where ‘associate centres’ such as libraries, museums and learning centres, ran events to helped gather stories. Many hundereds of volunteers, many attached to local BBC radio stations, assisted in this.

The resulting archive houses all of these memories. These stories don’t give a precise overview of the war, or an accurate list of dates and events; they are a record of how a generation remembered the war, 60 years of more after the events, and remain in the Archive as they were contributed. The Archive is not a historical record of events, a collection of government or BBC information, recordings or documents relating to the war.

47,000 stories! I’ll declare an interest here: the site also contains “historical fact files on 144 key events”, about 40 of which I wrote. (I found the other day that 16 of them have also migrated to the main WWII page, where I guess they will hang on after the cull.) I hate seeing my work go offline, but that’s not the main thing. The main thing is that I know how much work and care went into each of my pieces; the thought of multiplying that by a factor of, well, 47,000, boggles me. And then to snuff all of that out for the sake of saving a few gigabytes of disk space – or, more realistically, for the sake of making the BBC look as if it’s not competing unfairly with its commercial rivals – beggars belief.

Perish the thought that something hugely worthwhile and massively popular, which ITV and Sky can’t do and don’t want to do, should get done for no other reason than that the BBC can do it and do it well. Perish the thought that public money should be spent on capturing irreplaceable memories and assembling them into “a digital archive which would provide a learning resource for future generations”. Perish the thought that a public service media organisation should actually provide a public service. Utter, wanton vandalism.

Go! Goodbye!

“In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate, citizens, during these very difficult circumstances Egypt is going through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down from the office of president of the republic and has charged the high council of the armed forces to administer the affairs of the country. May God help everybody.”
– Omar Suleiman, 16:12 GMT, 11/2/2011

You can no longer depend on the land in which you were born.
You can no longer depend on any land in which you choose to place yourself.
You can no longer depend on the bed in which you lie by night, or the room in which you sit by day.
You can no longer depend on the pillow on which you lay your head.
You can no longer depend on your lover for anything.
You can no longer depend on the existence of silence in your mind when you close your eyes.
Go to England, baby-raper, false economist! Call yourself King Charles III.
Nobody will notice. Nobody will be alarmed. There is no constitution.
Go! Goodbye!
Goodbye.

They’ve done it; they’ve actually done it. It took eighteen days, but they’ve done it.

The significance of Mubarak stepping down as President today cannot be overstated. It marks the arrival onto the stage of history the Arab masses as an actor rather than the passive and infantilised observers they had been for generations. The stranglehold of dictatorship has been broken from below.

The Arab world shall never be the same. The remaining dictatorships and kleptocracies throughout the region have just moved closer to their end. In Washington, London, Paris, and Tel Aviv frantic efforts to adapt to a new reality will be taking place.
John Wight, Socialist Unity

You know something big has happened – or is starting to happen – when you get that sense that the power holders of the world are running to keep up. Something’s happening here, but they don’t know what it is…

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Of course, what comes next is anybody’s guess, and it certainly won’t be the triumph of a movement of generalised occupation and the establishment of workers’ councils (which some of us were hoping for). This is where the real struggle starts. But that’s precisely the victory that’s been won: after 30 years of imperialist-imposed stasis, the people of Egypt have won the right to fight their own battles. A clock that was stopped half a lifetime ago has started again. This, perhaps, is why the Eastern Bloc parallels seem so appropriate. Here’s another, from 1989.

Nagy Imre, 1896 – 1958

These are the hard times. Not the remembered days
Of tanks in the streets and firing in the square;
When today was torn off from yesterday, when
The light of the day was broken, swept aside,
Reduced to painful breaths in a doorway
As the achieved future rolls on past you;
Not hearing your ruler confess imaginary crimes,
Starved in tie and glasses; sentenced; shot;
Buried under earth and a number. Now,
Thirty-one, thirty-three years on – these are the hard times.

For their future is over, and you are still here.
All that we do is watch, but we have watched
While their history moved on, while the decades
Ground into place, slabs across our memories.
It wasn’t enough – thirty-one years, thirty-three –
And they are tired and their future is over,
And people whose children lie in the empty coffin
Are still here. The present begins again for you
As we still watch. And these are the hard times.

Husni Mubarak’s future is over – the future so many people wanted to prolong, from the government of Israel to Tony Blair. The people he oppressed are still here. These are the hard times, right enough – but now is a time for celebration.

Dreaming your eyes away

A recent exchange from CT.

John Quiggin:

The disastrous bloodbaths generated by revolutionary alternatives to democracy have by now provided sufficient warning that no such alternative can attract any genuine support.[3]
[…]
fn3. The turn to terrorist methods by groups like the Red Brigades has served to discredit revolutionary approaches even more, and thereby further stabilise representative democracy.

Me:

The footnote about the Red Brigades gives such a superficial and distorted image of a huge, important and genuinely challenging group of social movements that I’m struggling to formulate any reply to it. (Can I suggest you read the book?) You can, of course, argue that you’re not talking about the reality of what the Red Brigades (plus the other armed groups, the broader armed movement and the still broader movement which refused to disown the above) were but the effects of how the Red Brigades (etc etc) were represented, and that what was a superficial and distorted image at the time has in effect become the historical record; I’d have no answer to that, except to thank God that there’s more than one historical record.

Quiggin:

The standard version of history is always selective and often distorted. But the Red Brigades did the things for which they are now remembered, and the effects are as I said, even if they also did lots of other things that are now forgotten.

Me: Continue reading

Le retour de la colonne Taafe

The complacent bourgeois academy’s recuperation of the challenge of the Situationist International reached a new height last night, culminating in a feeble attempt to commoditise what must surely appear to the cadres of the reactionary media as the most radical (and hence most marketable) gesture of all, selling it to a jaded public in the debased spectacular guise of entertainment.

To put it another way, the Sits were on Uni: the kind of thing I could never have imagined at the time I started writing my biography of Debord – and here it is happening, and I never even finished the damn thing. (Get me William Morris.) Even more embarrassingly, I missed the first question, which was something of a gimme – I was concentrating on something else at the time, resulting in this:

PAXMAN: “blah blah drone drone… the last edition of its influential journal carrying an analysis of the student riots in Paris in 1968?”
My wife: “You ought to get this one.”
Me [baffled but trying to look knowledgeable]: “Not sure, sounds like it might be Annales…”
STUDENT: “No idea, sorry.”
PAXMAN: “That was the Situationist International.”

Damn!

For any other pro-situ nostalgics out there, the questions (and answers) were as follows:

PAXMAN: Your bonuses are on a radical philosophy. Firstly for five, which radical group was founded in Coscio d’Arroscia [sic] in northwest Italy in 1957, and was dissolved in 1972, the last edition of its influential journal carrying an analysis of the student riots in Paris in 1968?
STUDENT: No idea, sorry.
PAXMAN: That was the Situationist International. Secondly for five: the 1967 book Society of the Spectacle was by which French political activist who, together with Raoul Venegeim [sic], was one of the principal theorists of the Situationist International?
STUDENT: Don’t know, sorry.
PAXMAN: That was Guy Debord. And finally, the 1953 situationist work Formulary for a new urbanism gave rise to the name of which Manchester institution which operated from 1982 to 1997?
STUDENT: The Militant Tendency.
PAXMAN: No, it’s the Haçienda nightclub.

So that’s the situationists for you: it all started in 1957 or possibly 1953, it was a radical philosophy (ouch!) put forward by a political activist (ouch!) called Debord and someone else with a weird name, and, hey, Madchester. Got to love the answer to question three, too. One of the things that was so powerful about the Sits – and one of the reasons why dreamers like poor old Chtcheglov loom so large in its history – was precisely that they didn’t use words like ‘militant'; not positively, anyway. But I have to admit that “Militant Tendency” would have been a great name for a club night.

Avert your eyes from his gaze

Michael Gove is an enduring mystery to me. (For some time I was convinced that he was the same Mike Gove who ran the UK branch of the OS/2 User Group in the 1990s – something which would make him quite interesting in a perverse corporate-rebellious sort of way, as well as conferring considerable geek cred – but apparently that was someone else.) How on earth has such a sanctimonious nullity risen so far? He seems to be trading on a reputation as an intellectual, validated by his experience as a broadsheet journalist. But that just raises the same question in a different form: however did someone with so little to say, and such an irritating way of saying it, achieve so much prominence in the media? (He even used to appear on the Review Show, of all things – although on reflection that’s not such a surprise: even at its best that programme was basically a blend of heavyweight contrarianism (Paulin, Greer) with lightweight ditto (Tony Parsons, Allison Pearson), and these days the heavyweight slot seems to get taken by Natalie Haynes or Bidisha.)

Perhaps part of what Gove has going for him, from the Right’s point of view, is that he’s a good hater. The other week on the News Quiz, Jeremy Hardy recalled how Gove, in opposition and writing for the Times, had outed him and Linda Smith as SWP moles, infiltrating the commanding heights of Radio 4 comedy programmes so as to, er… have to get back to you on that. I was curious, and didn’t entirely take the story at face value (he’s a comic, he tells good stories), so I did some googling. Initially I thought Jeremy Hardy was talking about Revolutionaries with RP accents, a lump of Goveage that appeared in the paper at the end of 2004. (Some bloke on Twitter seems to have come to the same conclusion.) But on inspection that story was attacking the BBC for putting on Hardy & Smith (and Mark Steel! he’s another one you know!):

Radio 4 operates, as so many British institutions do, on two levels. Its structures reflect the natural conservatism of the British people, but the world view of its guiding spirits is more naturally radical, leftish and Guardianista. From the Royal Opera House to the Foreign Office, the same combination of traditional outward forms legitimising bien-pensant attitudes is at work.

The most successful leftwingers in British life have been those, such as Clement Attlee, whose personal style has been most bourgeois. It was no coincidence that, during the 1980s, the greatest threat to moderation within the Labour Party came from one sect, Militant, which insisted on a certain douce respectability from its adherents, demanding that they appear suited and tied, while other Trotskyists wallowed in combat-jacketed irrelevance.

The leftish bias in Radio 4’s content manifests itself subtly, yet insistently. Voices from the far Left such as Linda Smith and Jeremy Hardy are introduced on the News Quiz, or given their own shows, in a way which gives no clue to their political shading. The station treats them as though they were souls with no mission save laughter, like Humphrey Lyttleton or Nicholas Parsons, but the humour of Smith, Hardy and others such as Mark Steel is deployed for a particular polemical and political purpose.

Which is a bit different from accusing them of infiltrating; an unkind way of putting it would be to say that it’s a higher level of paranoia – “actually it turns out they don’t even need to infiltrate, because actually the people running Radio 4 want them there…” (In passing, I was also struck by the reference to “commentators from the Left, such as Jonathan Freedland or Andrew Rawnsley”. Perhaps they’re sleepers.)

Then I found this from the New Statesman:

The red menace, like the poor, is always with us. We must all be grateful to Michael Gove of the Times for taking a fresh look under the bed. In two articles, he reports that Trotskyist and communist organisations, all “dedicated to eventual revolution . . . and hostile to private property and profit”, have sunk old sectarian disputes to become the Socialist Alliance. Inevitably, he finds they are behind the recent rail strikes and are set to tighten their grip on “a major British institution” (he seems to mean South West Trains). Worse, they have “infiltrated” the legal profession. But most damning is their “skilful manipulation of the media”. Socialist Alliance stalwarts such as Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and Linda Smith, disguised as comedians, get themselves on Radio 4, notably The News Quiz, where they “make jokes about the Conservatives and the government”.

Date: 21st January 2002. This looks much more promising. Googling found a copy of the first of the two articles, which is dated 15th January and makes quite interesting reading. (Pardon the long quote – this is actually a fairly heavily edited excerpt from the original column.)

The biggest component in the Socialist Alliance is the old Socialist Workers Party (SWP) … As well as old Bennites and the SWP, the Alliance has fused together a bewildering array of hard-left parties. They include the Communist Party of Great Britain, the International Socialist Group (not to be confused with the also allied International Socialist League), the Revolutionary Democratic Group, Socialist Solidarity Network, the Alliance for Workers Liberty, Workers International, Workers Power and Red Action. What unites these groups, apart from membership of the Alliance, is a commitment to Marxist thought and practice. Dedicated to eventual revolution, contemptuous of social democrats such as the Blair Government, and hostile to private property and profit, they remain dedicated followers of communism long after others in the Left have condemned it as the god that failed. None, perhaps, are as deeply dyed revolutionaries as Red Action.

Listed on the Socialist Alliance website as a fully participating organisation, Red Action has a record of violent protest that stretches from low-level street violence to the involvement of two of its members, Patrick Hayes and Jan Taylor, in an IRA bombing campaign. On Red Action’s website, its part in planting a bomb outside Harrods in 1993 and placing another on a train from Victoria to Ramsgate is recorded. The website also notes Red Action’s leadership role in the organisation Anti-Fascist Action and AFA’s involvement in deliberately triggering street brawls with the British National Party. … Under the Alliance’s umbrella constitution Red Action members have the same rights as the Pilgers and Pinters to help to select candidates and vote on policy. But the existence of an IRA-supporting, street violence-endorsing group among the Alliance coalition does not yet apparently attract the criticism of other activists such as Tariq Ali, Greg Tucker, Jeremy Hardy or Imran Khan, the campaigning lawyer.

The Stop the War Coalition is run by, and in the interests of, the Alliance, allowing it to proselytise and recruit. It is only one of several organisations run by Alliance activists. Others include the anti-globalisation movement Globalise Resistance and the race-campaigning National Civil Rights Movement run by Suresh Grover … More targeted, but no less important for the Alliance, has been the industrial action of the RMT. The timing of the strike on South West Trains has given Tucker and [Bob] Crow the perfect opportunity to secure attention as the workers’ defenders in advance of next month’s internal elections. The death of Jimmy Knapp left the position of general secretary vacant and Crow is determined to secure it, along with the funds, influence, and strike-calling power it yields. If Crow is successful, Tucker is in line to step into his shoes as the union’s number three.

Crow was a former member of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party before joining forces with the Alliance. The SLP is almost certainly Britain’s hardest-line left-wing party. It supported Slobodan Milosevic’s presidency, argued that the September 11 bombings were America’s own fault and had a “Stalin Society” in its ranks for that large proportion of its members who venerated the memory of the Russian dictator. Whether Crow left the SLP because its ideological position proved too much, or he thought its political prospects came to so little, has never been made clear. Tucker is a Trotskyist, a member of the International Socialist Group (ISG) that proudly proclaims its adherence to the Leon Trotsky-venerating Fourth International of revolutionary parties. The ISG believes that social democratic governments such as new Labour are continuing an “offensive against the working class” and argue that revolutionaries such as themselves should enter and take over “broad campaigns” to advance as part of a “United Front.” Tucker is secretary of the London Socialist Alliance and was granted leave by South West Trains to stand as an ISG candidate, under the Socialist Alliance umbrella, in Streatham during the last election. Tucker’s platform did not, however, attract many fellow travellers. He secured only 906 votes, barely denting the majority of the incumbent Labour MP, Keith Hill. It is expected, however, that Tucker can rely on many more votes in the forthcoming RMT election than he secured in Streatham.

The effective takeover of the RMT by Alliance supporters such as Crow and Tucker worries the TUC high command. In a private briefing note they have recorded that he has “been associated with around 30 strikes in his ten years in office” and he “believes strike action raises the class-consciousness of the rank and file.” The TUC fears that “if an extreme left team are elected the result will be more chaos on the railways.” Success for the Alliance in the RMT elections would, on the basis of its activists’ pronouncements, lead to more politically motivated disruption. It would also mark the raising of the hard Left’s flag over a major British institution. There is a red warning signal flashing on Britain’s rail network. And no ministerial hand is reaching for the brake.

Socialist Alliance, eh? Those were the days. But anyway… In some ways this is standard right-wing froth: note the entire paragraph about the relatively insignificant Red Action (you do realise they actually support the IRA?) and another about the totally insignificant SLP (Scargill, you know he really is a Communist?). What stands out is the level of detail, in those paragraphs and elsewhere. I mean, that’s some serious leftist trainspotting; I didn’t even know that about the ISL being affiliated to the SA. (The ISL is of course the British section of the Lambertist LIT, and – as Gove says – not to be confused with the ISG, which was the British section of the Fourth International.) Also note the tone: he knew who he hated, did Gove, and he hated every single one of them (or should I say ‘us’): he wanted there to be no doubt that he loathed the entire Left, from the Bennites leftwards. Which, ironically, rather undermines the effect of all that research (or all those briefings), once you start to put it all together: it’s not at all clear to me in what sense the harmless old Stalin Society was more “hard-line” than the anti-Leninist Red Action, for instance. But this infodump wasn’t really put on display for analytical purposes. We point, we jeer, we demand that Something is Done, without troubling too much about the detail (what exactly was a “ministerial hand” supposed to do about the menace of Stalino-Trotskyite railway chaos – arrest Bob Crow and put him on trial for subversion?). Then we turn the page, feeling worldly-wise and pleasantly outraged. Job done.

But, sadly, there’s nothing in there about the “skilful manipulation of the media”, or about the dastardly leftist comedy plot. So if anyone out there is in a position to leaf through the Times for the month of January 2002, hilarity awaits – along with insight into Michael Gove’s mental processes, although perhaps that’s less of an incentive.

In the mean time, consider this (paywalled) from Robert Hanks’s review in the current LRB of a new biography of Dennis Wheatley:

Wheatley suffered from a sickly adoration of the rich and well-born, and a contrasting suspicion of the masses and any political system that allowed them any influence. … In 1955, proposing the motion at the Oxford Union ‘that equality is in theory a pestilential heresy and in practice a pitiful illusion,’ Wheatley argued that extra votes should be given to those of ‘superior mentality’. He was sure that he would come under that heading.

[after marrying] he continued the life of conscious hedonism, dressing and dining beyond his means, chasing (at times his technique seems to have verged on stalking) women, at one point installing a mistress in a flat. He built up an expensive collection of books, mainly erotica and modern first editions

His first published work, The Forbidden Territory (1933), was an immediate hit … A thriller set in Soviet Russia, it introduced Wheatley’s ‘Four Musketeers’: the wealthy, worldly-wise Duke de Richleau, a monarchist exile from France, and his young friends Simon Aron, a brilliant Jewish banker, Rex Van Ryn, a brash, genial American multimillionaire, and the comparatively colourless Englishman Richard Eaton, supposedly a self-portrait. The plot (a hunt for tsarist treasure, a Bolshevik scheme for world domination – plus a bit of romance) is a helter-skelter mess … the action is, as one critic observed, ‘essentially Ruritanian’, and Wheatley’s prose, overwrought and under-punctuated, barely readable.

You get the general idea. Wheatley was a dreadful man – an arrogant, snobbish, libertine mediocrity – who turned out really dreadful books (“Duke de Richleau“? would an editor who could spell have been too much to ask for?) However, he was good at marketing (before he ran the family firm into the ground, apparently, he was “something of a pioneer of wine bullshit”). And, while he was a man of fixed and rather strange ideas, his prejudices were entirely compatible with the maintenance of the status quo, which never hurts. So perhaps it’s not too surprising that Wheatley still seems to have at least one fan:

one journalist wrote that Wheatley ‘of all people, deserves to come back from the dead and win a new following of thrill-starved souls in thrall to his dark magic’. That was Michael Gove; the idea that a man who admires Wheatley is now in charge of the nation’s schools is more genuinely terrifying than anything Wheatley ever wrote.

Cold water in the face

A remarkable variety of people have poured scorn on Clegg Minor’s contribution to the Sun, and rightly so. The point I want to make, following on from that fourth link, is that we need to watch the Liberal Democrats – now more than ever. (‘Watch’ here includes ‘exacerbate the contradictions within'; there are some good people in Clegg’s party, even now.) The problem is not just that the party’s support is going down the drain, or that the party’s reputation as a byword for unscrupulous vote-whoring has escaped the politically active minority and gone viral: trust can always be regained, to a greater or lesser extent. (And at the end of the day they don’t have to outrun the bear: it doesn’t matter if they don’t look whiter-than-white any more, just as long as they look cleaner than the other two parties.) What’s more to the point is that the reputational capital the party built by coherently positioning itself to the Left of New Labour was thrown to the winds last May; a sizeable chunk of the party’s 2010 vote went with it, and it’s not coming back. On top of that, the experience of coalition – the extraordinarily passive and timorous experience of coalition – is surely chipping away at the party’s bedrock support: from David Steel back to Jo Grimond, the party always stood for something, whatever that might actually be in any given period. The ‘standing for’ part seems to elude the party at the moment – quite possibly because they’ve been stitched up like a kipper by their coalition partner – and their former supporters have noticed.

The problem for the Lib Dem leadership is that they need to stem the flow of disaffected supporters. (The party took 23% of the vote last May; UK Polling Report currently has them averaging 9%, and doesn’t record a single poll when they’ve exceeded 15% since the beginning of November.) Or if they can’t do that – and they haven’t had much luck so far – they need to get support from somewhere else. And cue “Alarm Clock Britain”:

There are millions of people in Alarm Clock Britain. People, like Sun readers, who have to get up every morning and work hard to get on in life. People who want their kids to get ahead. People who don’t want to rely on state handouts. People who don’t need politicians to tell them what to think or how to live their lives. People who are not poor but struggle to stay out of the red.

They are the backbone of Britain. These are the people who will get this country moving again. It is their hard graft, day in, day out, that will get us out of the hole Labour left us in.

This Government is formed by a coalition of two parties and we want to join the people of Alarm Clock Britain in another coalition. A coalition of people prepared to roll up their sleeves and get the nation back on its feet. Ed Miliband may be prepared to hide under his duvet from the problems Labour left us with. But we will get up every morning and face up to them. In Alarm Clock Britain, people don’t want a handout but they appreciate a helping hand. And that is exactly what the Coalition Government is offering them.

I know that times are difficult right now. We are having to make cuts to pay off Labour’s debts and some bills are going up. Now more than ever, politicians have to be clear who they are standing up for. Be in no doubt, I am clear about who that is.

That is why the Liberal Democrats made a promise to voters on the front of our manifesto. That no basic rate taxpayer will pay any tax on the first £10,000 they earn. We’ve already taken the first steps which will take nearly 900,000 out of paying tax altogether. From April, every single taxpayer earning less than £42,500 a year will see their income tax bill cut by £200. By the time of the next election, 23 million people will be paying £700 less.

The Government is lending a hand in other ways, too.

(That’s enough Lib Dem promises – Ed.)

“Now more than ever, politicians have to be clear who they are standing up for. Be in no doubt, I am clear about who that is.” And who is he standing up for? Why, it’s you, you lucky Sun-reader! “People, like Sun readers, who have to get up every morning and work hard to get on in life.” People in work, in other words. Follow it through: these are also people who “want their kids to get ahead”, “don’t want to rely on state handouts” and (bizarrely) “don’t need politicians to tell them what to think or how to live their lives”. And they’re “the backbone of Britain”: Nick Clegg thinks they’re great, he really does.

Obviously life isn’t always quite that neat, but that’s OK too. Maybe you are receiving benefits of some sort or other – lots of working people do – but that’s all right: you’re just one of those people who “don’t want a handout but … appreciate a helping hand”. Maybe you’ve found that you just can’t “get on in life”, no matter how early you start work, but not to worry – you’re not poor, it’s just that you “struggle to stay out of the red”.

Which is just as well, because if you were poor, or – God forbid – if you didn’t have a job to get up for in the morning, then this offer would no longer apply. You would no longer be putting in the “hard graft, day in, day out, that will get us out of the hole Labour left us in”; on the contrary, you would be digging that hole deeper with every day you lived on benefits, and making life harder for “the backbone of Britain” with every morning that you didn’t stir from your lazy idle bed.

Who Nick Clegg is standing up against turns out to be just as important as who he’s standing up for. The message seems to go something like this: Tired after a long day? Taking on extra shifts? Working unpaid overtime? Blame them – blame the workshy, blame the bone-idle, blame all those people living on benefits. They don’t know the meaning of a hard day’s work, not like you do… This would be nasty, vindictive stuff at the best of times. At a time when the unemployment rate stands at 7.9%, or 2.5 million people – and when (as Clegg well knows) the government is poised to throw many more people out of work – it’s outrageous.

Having abandoned any pretence of a position to the Left of Labour, Clegg seems to have decided that fishing for support to the left of the Tories isn’t working either, and he’s trying out the populist far Right. I’ve got a nasty feeling this isn’t going to be a one-off: Clegg may be staring into the abyss, but he’s not going down without a fight. In 2011, watch out for our Deputy Prime Minister celebrating Crimestoppers Britain (“people who don’t want to see lynch law, but can’t let petty criminals make their lives a misery”), Easter Egg Britain (“people who are not racist, but simply know how to value their own traditions”), Beside The Seaside Britain (“people who don’t hate other nations, but know the truth of that old adage – east, west, home’s best!”) and (of course) Poppy Day Britain (“people who don’t glory in war for its own sake, but know that sometimes it is the only honourable choice”).

On the plus side, by the end of the year they’ll probably still be stuck on 9%.

Update Oldham East and Saddleworth: Labour 42.1% (up 10.3%), Liberal Democrat 31.9% (up 0.3%), Conservative 12.8% (down 13.6%); turnout 48.1% (down 14.1%). An interesting result, not least because the shares of the vote aren’t that different from earlier results:

Votes for the main parties in Oldham East and Saddleworth, 1997-2011 (rounded to nearest %)

Year Labour Lib Dem Tory Tory + LD
1997 42 35 20 55
2001 39 33 16 49
2005 41 33 18 51
2010 32 32 26 58
2011 42 32 13 45

At every election from 1997 to 2005, Labour has been at least 6% ahead of the Liberal Democrats, with the Tories taking less than 20% in third place. You could see 2010’s result as a local example of last year’s swing against Labour, and last night’s result as the return of business as usual. But if 42% and 32% are around what you’d expect Labour and the Lib Dems to be getting in OE&S, 13% is very low indeed for the Tories; there will have been some defection to the extreme right, but not a lot (the combined BNP and UKIP vote share went up by a little over 1% against last May). The best explanation is surely that the consistency of the Lib Dem vote is deceptive, and that some – perhaps quite a lot – of last night’s 32% were tactical Tory votes. It’s also worth noting that the combined Tory and Lib Dem vote was lower last night than it’s been at any time since 1997; it’s only the second time it’s been below 50% (and 2001 was an unusual election; this was the year of the BNP’s big push in Oldham, when they took 11% of the vote).

However, unlike Tom Clark, I don’t believe that this result supports Clegg’s apparent new direction:

YouGov this week reported that by 51% to 16% , the small band of remaining Liberal Democrats would prefer a Tory government led by Cameron to an Ed Miliband Labour administration.

The shrinking Lib Dem electorate, then, is now much more inclined to the centre-right than it has been historically, and Oldham suggests that as it retreats from the left it can hope to make good some of the losses by advancing on the right.

Dear oh dear. The Lib Dems have lost 14% of the 23% support it had in May 2010 – more than half; 51% of 9% equates to 20% of 23%. Lib Dem voters are more right wing than they used to be because there are fewer of them, and the left-leaning voters are the ones that have given up on the party. (As UK Polling Report puts it, “the remaining rump support for the Liberal Democrats is made up of those more positively inclined towards the Tories”.) This doesn’t mean that there are votes to be gained by “advancing on the right”; in fact it specifically and precisely means that that’s a good way to lose votes.

Nor does OE&S suggest that there are votes to be won on the Right; actually what it suggests is that the party’s vote is only holding up thanks to the generosity of Tory voters. This kind of grace and favour arrangement may keep the lights on for a while, but it doesn’t bode well for the party’s future; it suggests that a party with Liberal in the name is, once again, locked into a decaying orbit around the Conservative Party. Into which, precedent suggests, they would disappear without a trace.

Update 19/1/11 Polling data bears out my speculation that the unchanged Lib Dem percentage vote masked a partial collapse in the vote, propped up by borrowed Tory votes. UK Polling Report:

of 2010 Lib Dem voters, only 55% of those who voted in the by-election stuck with the party, with 29% instead defecting to Labour … This drop in Lib Dem support was cancelled however out by Conservative tactical voting: of 2010 Conservative voters, 33% who voted in the by-election ended up backing the Liberal Democrats.

Only 49% of the 2010 Conservative voters in the sample voted Tory in 2010; 91% of the 2010 Labour voters stayed loyal, but then there were fewer of them. Shift all the Tory-LD defectors back to the Conservatives and you get a notional Tory vote share of 22%, vying for second place with the Lib Dems on 23%. Of course, this is working back from answers to a phone poll to the actual result, which isn’t really legitimate, but what’s interesting about these figures is how much of the shift in voting patterns they do in fact seem to account for. You can do it yourself if you’ve got a spreadsheet handy:

2011 Labour = 91% 2010 Labour + 29% 2010 LD + 5% 2010 Tory (!)
2011 LD = 5% 2010 Labour (!!) + 55% 2010 LD + 33% 2010 Tory
2011 Tory = 0% 2010 Labour + 3% 2010 LD + 49% 2010 Tory

Let 2010 Labour = 32%, 2010 LD = 32% and 2010 Tory = 26%, and the 2011 figures come out at 40%, 28% and 14%; you only need to massage the figures a bit to cover variable turnout and you’ve got the real results of 42%, 32% and 13%.

These figures bear out the big difference between the Tory base and its Lib Dem counterpart. Tory support is flexible, and will go under other colours if it’s for the good of the party. Lib Dem support is just soft – and, given what they’re currently being asked to support, it’s no wonder.

The barren weeks, the amnesiac years

Apparently it will be two years before we find out what the Labour Party stands for in 2011 (or rather 2013). In the mean time, presumably, the Shadow Cabinet can just make it up as they go along – I mean, now that Blairism doesn’t work any more, what else could they do? It’s not as if they could learn anything from the history of the Labour Party before Blair. Or perhaps they’re just working on the basis of waiting for the government to announce something so that they can say “and we’re against that!”.

That’s certainly the kindest explanation for this appalling story.

Following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, ministers propose to lift the ban on votes for prisoners for those serving jail sentences of up to four years. Although David Cameron stressed he was doing so reluctantly, the Liberal Democrats have long argued that prisoners should not be denied the right to vote. Labour delayed a decision on implementing the Court’s ruling before last May’s election but is now ready to form an unlikely alliance with Tory MPs in an attempt to force a U-turn. More than 40 Tories are said to oppose the Government’s plan – potentially enough to defeat it with the backing of the Labour Opposition. Labour wants the right to vote limited to inmates serving up to one year in jail. That would restrict the number to 8,096 of the 83,000 people in Britain’s jails

As it happens, the ECHR isn’t demanding that all prisoners in British jails be given the vote; the court’s ruling allows for national governments to take a view on withdrawing the franchise from particular categories of prisoner. What it has demanded – with the force of law, or at least the force of severe diplomatic embarrassment – is that the blanket ban we’ve had since 1840 be replaced by some kind of detailed policy with some kind of justification. (I doubt that the ECHR would find Labour’s mean-spirited amendment satisfactory – it seems designed to target the category of “won’t be in very long, probably didn’t do anything too bad, and best of all there aren’t very many of them”. But committing the government to yet another position the ECHR won’t accept, thus booting the question into the long grass for another year or so, may well be the object of the exercise.)

Either way – whether this is a wrecking amendment or just a vindictive attempt to weaken the legislation – Labour seem determined to attack the Tories from the Right:

Sadiq Khan, the shadow Justice Secretary, expressed concern that more than 28,000 inmates would be allowed the vote under the Coalition’s proposals. He said: “This is a slap in the face for victims of crime. We have already seen the Conservative-led government break their promise on knife crime. Now they are also giving thousands of offenders the vote.”

The Tory manifesto promised to bring in mandatory custodial sentences for anyone found carrying a knife (yes, carrying). It’s an insanely draconian policy, which they can never seriously have intended to implement. As for the notion that victims will in some way be adversely affected by ‘their’ offender having the vote – how? why? If this is what victims of crime want, then victims of crime are wrong. Actually I doubt that victims of crime want any such thing; left to his own devices, I doubt that Sadiq Khan would come up with this stuff either. What we’re seeing here is (in Andrew Ashworth’s phrase) “victims in the service of severity” – and, what’s worse, severity adopted cynically, in the service of winning votes (from the kind of people who like the idea of prisoners suffering).

Tory MPs also reacted angrily to the disclosure and signalled their willingness to work with Labour on the issue. Philip Davies, Tory MP for Shipley, said: “I have yet to find anyone on our benches who agrees with it. It is totally unacceptable to allow prisoners the vote. The whole point of going to prison is that you lose your liberty; one of your liberties is the freedom to vote.”

“Disclosure”, by jingo. That would be the shock news that the European Court of Human Rights found against Britain’s blanket denial of the vote to prisoners in 2005, since which time precisely nothing has been done to bring Britain’s laws in line with its international obligations. If anything, the news is even older than that: the ECHR’s ruling is entirely in line with the common-law position, as expressed by Lord Wilberforce in 1982. Ruling on a case in which a prison governor claimed to have the right to read prisoners’ mail – essentially on the grounds that it was his house and his rules – Wilberforce found against the governor and stated:

under English law, a convicted prisoner, in spite of his imprisonment, retains all civil rights which are not taken away expressly or by necessary implication

“Expressly or by necessary implication”. Contra the repulsive Davies, this means that a prisoner no more forfeits his right to vote than he forfeits, say, his right to wear clothing in public or his right to speak without being spoken to – or, for that matter, his right to sanitation (yes, the fine old British tradition of slopping-out was found to constitute a breach of human rights law in 2004, and about time too). Certainly it is open to a judge when passing sentence to stipulate that conviction for a particular offence – or type of offence – should lead to forfeiture of the vote; it is even open to Parliament to legislate along those lines. But the blanket denial of the vote to prisoners is almost impossible to bring into concordance with Wilberforce’s statement.

And it’s straightforwardly impossible to reconcile with the ECHR’s 2005 judgment – which is where we came in. The last government’s effective refusal to legislate in line with the ECHR’s judgment, dragging its feet for all of five years, was shameful: it contrasts very unfavourably with the actions of the governments of Ireland and Cyprus, both of which introduced votes for prisoners in 2006. The coalition’s grudging acknowledgment of the reality of the situation is to be welcomed (grudgingly). For a Labour opposition (a Labour opposition, to misquote Neil Kinnock) to campaign against it, lining up with troglodytes like Davies, is really disgusting. It seems that Miliband and his circle are still doing politics the same old way: a nervy attention to the Sun and the Mail from day to day, combined with a kind of dogmatic ignorance of every liberal or socialist principle their party has ever stood for. Why, this is New Labour, nor are we out of it.

What with our culture

With some misgivings, I’m planning on entering some posts for the ridiculously-named Orwell Prize this year. (I hate popularity contests generally, and this one seems more pretentious than most – and, as Phil says, this year at least there is only going to be only one winner. But I could do with getting a few more eyes on this blog – it’s currently getting less attention than my beer blog, which doesn’t seem right.)

So here are the posts I’m planning on entering.

Paint the words upon the wall (25th April)
“Quick quiz, aimed particularly at any readers who are outside the UK (or who don’t go past phone boxes very often). Each of the following slogans has been used in street advertising by one of the main political parties contesting this election … But can you match the slogan to the party?” (They were all Conservative Party slogans in the “Big Society” vein.)

Imitation of life (30th April)
“Apparently Gordon Brown didn’t really think Gillian Duffy’s remarks were bigoted; he thought something she didn’t actually say was bigoted.” (I conclude that Duffy’s remarks were deeply confused, and that racism was actually all that held them together.)

Tomorrow, today will be yesterday (5th May)
“In the last post I revisited the series of posts I wrote before the last election, arguing that Labour supporters should vote for parties to the left of Labour – a category in which I included the Lib Dems. (I voted Green on the day.) This time round, I’m seriously considering voting Labour. So what’s changed?”

The Liberal Democrat Party: a concluding unscientific postscript (9th June)
“Unlike leftish fiction-writer Ian McEwan, I am disinclined to extend much goodwill in the direction of the coalition government. … Tory government is bad; if you join a Tory government, or (even worse) make a Tory government possible, you and your party are off the political roll-call forever. This position seems pretty fundamental to me. But can I justify it on the basis of anything other than what McEwan refers to as ‘deep tribal reasons’?”

Bashkohuni! (26th June)
“Speaking of Albania…” (On the difference between Marxism as a scientific method and Marxism as guarantor of historical correctness.)

Late in the evening (30th June)
“I agree with Ken Clarke, up to a point.” (On the prison population and the danger of over-applying cost-benefit analysis in sentencing.)

A gift from the Queen (10th November)
“I’ve lived through several Remembrance Days … 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.)” (On patrotism, the necessity of unthinking loyalty in the armed forces and the danger of unthinking loyalty to the armed forces.)

Jolly little nothing (25th November)
“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.” (More on the Lib Dems, this time starting from a truly dreadful thinkpiece by a leader who is clearly way out of his depth.)

Look who bought the myth
“‘we as a party still support the policy of moving towards the abolition of fees and I suspect that we will have something like that in our next manifesto.’ – Tim Farron MP” (I’m surprised nobody else picked up on this astonishing piece of Lib Dem chutzpah. The post wrote itself.)

Scant evanescent things (23rd December)
“Is there anything to say at this stage about Vince Cable and his supposed lack of impartiality?” (Damn right there was.)

Three pre-election posts (one about the Tories and two about Labour); seven post-election, including one about patriotism, one about class consciousness, one about Tory penal policy – and four about the Lib Dems, bless ’em. All, naturally, written in prose like a window-pane, by a plain and unillusioned man who reports things as he sees them (I find it’s simpler in the long run). If that lot doesn’t win the Orwell Prize, I won’t be at all surprised.

To be someone

“All of us knew Pooky would be famous one day,” Philip Hensher writes in the Independent. This came as a surprise to me, although Pooky was certainly memorable when I knew him at school in Wales. He was small, Welsh and pugnacious, and hit puberty a full year before any of the other boys. He lent my friend Jem Brian Aldiss’s A Hand-Reared Boy, which as far as we were concerned was the dirtiest thing imaginable; Jem was quoting it for weeks.

I only ever heard Pooky called by his real name once, in a Welsh lesson. Our Welsh teacher ran the school branch of Urdd Gobaith Cymru (which we were all encouraged to join) and had no patience for English incomers who had trouble with the language; luckily for me I only qualified on one count. But one English girl in our class had a complete tin ear for the language, and in particular for the consonant ‘rh’, which is a kind of aspirated R (held, not rolled). (And it is tricky; my father came from Rhosllanerchrugog, and I still have to take a run-up at that ‘Rh’.) Unfortunately the kids in our Welsh exercises always seemed to be going up and down the hill (rhiw), so it was hard to avoid. One dreadful lesson, our Welsh teacher could stand this girl’s mangling of her beloved language – and the word rhiw especially – no longer. “It’s not hard! It’s easy! Like this – ‘rhiw‘! It’s just like Hugh with an R in front! You can say ‘Hugh’, can’t you? Come on, stand at the front. Now, look at Hugh and say his name three times, and then say it again with an R in front – Hugh, Hugh, Hugh, ‘rhiw‘.” We had worked out who this ‘Hugh’ person was about halfway through the tirade, and we watched in horror – tempered (as always) by relief that it wasn’t us – as this nice English girl stood at the front of the class and gazed obediently at Pooky the goatboy, saying “Hugh, Hugh, Hugh, roo“. The teacher made her do it three times before she would admit defeat.

You know what? This isn’t the same guy. Hensher was writing about the actor Pooky Quesnel, who knocked him out in Cabaret when he was at Oxford. Me, I confidently expected to hear more after Cambridge of Annabel Arden and Simon McBurney, whose drama workshops I briefly went to (a bit boisterous, and I wasn’t bendy enough). Also, of Roger Hyams; of Jonathan Tafler; of Oscar Moore (who wasn’t actually in theatre, as far as I know, but he was obviously going to be a star in some way or other).

Jonathan Tafler was Chair of Mummers – a university-wide drama society originally founded by Alistair Cooke – when I pitched a play to them in my first year; it was a kind of anti-authoritarian panorama of human history, influenced by Paines Plough, Stuart Christie, Art Bears, R.D. Laing and Scritti Politti’s first single, beginning in the Garden of Eden and ending in the psychiatric ward where a rebel against the authority of state, capital and family had been confined, and in whose head the whole thing was revealed to be happening. “Given time she can think it through…” Jonathan, anyway, told me he thought there was something there, which was amazing… and invited me to meet the rest of the group and pitch it to them in person, which was agony. I was very shy (and rather young); no way could I pitch an idea to a group – I wouldn’t have bothered writing an entire first draft of the play if I could do that – and absolutely no way could I take other people’s suggestions on board. In short, it wasn’t to be, and I gave up any idea of getting involved in the stage soon after that. But I did always vaguely think I’d hear Jonathan Tafler’s name again. It turns out that he’s working; he’s done a ton of radio; and he can tell a Jewish joke. Not so shabby.

As for Roger Hyams, I remember once somebody told a friend of mine that Pip Torrens had told her that Roger already had his own agent, and while we thought this was a bit presumptuous we weren’t in the least surprised – he was so clearly going places. (I think it was Pip Torrens; if it wasn’t him it was probably Pip Broughton. But anyway.) The only time I saw Roger act he was co-starring in Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act – a play whose cast consists of a man and a woman who have been caught in the act of inter-racial sex by the South African police, and who are both naked throughout. (Not quite throughout – he puts on a string vest halfway through.) It’s a strange but rather wonderful play. It’s very static and declamatory, as the name implies; it would work well on radio, if the players’ nakedness weren’t such a powerful element in it. Roger was terrific; if anything he slightly outshone the female lead, who I’m reasonably sure was Tilda Swinton. But where is he now? Here (at least, I think this is him): writing and directing, among other things. The acting didn’t work out, but he’s done all right.

Looking these people up, I chafed slightly at Philip Hensher’s conclusion:

Some people who you meet young have talent and glory just shining out of them. They achieve it, or, alternatively, they settle for labouring respectably while people no one at the time ever heard of, like David Cameron, take over the world. I wonder how many other brilliant Sally Bowleses there are in the world, making a living.

After I left university with my English degree – complete with a commendation for my poetry, which had been judged in part by Raymond Williams – I was on the dole for a year. For the next twelve and a half years I worked in computing – for a pre-privatisation MANWEB, for Manchester City Council and for Swinton Insurance. Now that‘s “making a living”.

There is something very Oxbridge going on between the lines here; I’m reminded of the couple in Peter’s Friends who everyone else more or less openly looks down on, because after Cambridge they ended up in advertising (dear oh dear). It’s as if a career in the arts or literature – at any rate, a career in the vicinity of the star you want to follow – is a given, and success and failure is measured by the calibre of desirable career you end up with. The possibility of ending up in computing or banking or accountancy or management – let alone ending up in one of those jobs where people tell you what to do – can be completely discounted: it’s stardom or drudgery, where drudgery is defined as second leads in Leatherhead and two-line parts on the radio. From outside Oxford and Cambridge – or from outside the groups that feel at home there – it looks different. I suspect that plenty of comets blaze across the firmament of student drama at Durham and Exeter and Cardiff; I also suspect that a much smaller percentage of those stars achieve real-world stardom, and a lot of them drop right through the cracks to end up in, well, computing or banking or accountancy or management. There’s a passage in 1982 Janine where Jock remembers one of the stars of a student production he was involved in many years earlier, and says that she’s now one of the first people casting directors ring when they want to cast a middle-aged female character to appear for a week or two in Casualty; he then points out that, as acting careers go, this is doing pretty bloody well. Viewed from the perspective of most actors, Pooky Quesnel and Jonathan Tafler and Roger Hyams aren’t also-rans – they’re success stories.

PS And if you really want a mute inglorious Garrick, I’ll see your Pooky Quesnel and raise you Dave Bates. Fantastic actor – one of the best I’ve ever seen. He was at my school (in Croydon, not the one in Wales). He was in every school play for a few years: an automatic choice for the lead role until he got bored of doing that, and after that he could have his pick of the roles. He could do anything, from tortured-soul young male lead to Pythonesque gurning (not in the same play). Then he got bored of acting altogether and withdrew his application to RADA, to the horror of our English teacher. No idea what became of him; he certainly didn’t go to Cambridge. I expect he ended up getting a job or something.

Scant evanescent things

Can a post be written entirely in the interrogative mood?

Is there anything to say at this stage about Vince Cable and his supposed lack of impartiality?

Is there any politician who is unaware of the activities of Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation? Is there any politician who has no views on the management and ownership of the broadcast media? Is there any politician whose views on the media do not imply a preferred state of affairs?

Can we imagine the “quasi-judicial” regulatory role Cable was to fill being taken on by a politician who had no opinions about the state of the media? or one who had no strong preferences about how the media should be organised in future? or one who knew nothing about News Corporation’s past and present operations?

Does Robert Peston’s “biased judge” analogy have any relevance, given that the business of a courtroom is to determine legal guilt or innocence of a specific charge, and that the past conduct of a suspected offender is ruled out of consideration on those grounds? Considering that the government’s role in this case is to consider the findings of a regulatory body concerning a proposed change to a known state of affairs and apply a further public interest test, is this analogy in fact spurious and misleading?

If Vince Cable’s expressed opinions render him incapable of impartially applying a public interest test, what politician is capable of the desired level of impartiality? If Jeremy H*** can be confidently expected to set aside his own views on Murdoch when in “quasi-judicial” mode, why should Cable not be trusted to set aside his?

And which is worse for a political career, threatening to bring down the government or threatening to obstruct Rupert Murdoch?

(We know the answer to the last one, at least.)

Heave a sigh

How long do you leave a blog before you stop reading it, or take it out of your RSS feed? I currently follow 29 blogs; some (e.g.) I’m willing to leave for weeks or months between posts, because when they do post I know it’ll be worth reading. (A new post from Luke would be appreciated, though.)

But I’m saying goodbye to Splintered Sunrise. The blog hasn’t been updated since September the 2nd, and it seems unlikely that it will be now. As you who read this may well already know, something a bit odd happened to Splinty’s blog a few months before it shut down. Like most of his regular commenters, I saw Splinty firstly as a socialist blogger and secondly as a good source on what was going on in Ireland; his occasional polemics against the National Secular Society were just some of the padding that came with the package, of no more significance than his appalling taste in music or his occasional lapses into Cyrillic. Besides, I am myself the son of a preacher man (well, a lay reader man), and I didn’t have much of a problem with the occasional argument to the effect of “these militant secularists don’t understand how religious people think”. Some time around mid-year, this type of argument started to dominate Splinty’s blog; at the same time, there was a shift in the claims being made. We began to read posts that could be summed up as “these unbelievers don’t understand how Catholics think”, which had me squirming a little – and then “these so-called liberals don’t understand how true Catholics think”, which had me looking for the exit. And then, suddenly, silence fell. My immediate assumption was that Splinty had realised that he was espousing two radically different bodies of ideas – or, at least, that he was talking to two radically different audiences – and had retired, in a certain amount of bemusement, to work out how to reconcile them. This theory got a bit of a knock from the discovery that Splinty had resurfaced on the one-line Web, where he continues to post like the proverbial bandit – and never gets the opportunity to set out his views at length, or gets challenged to justify them in detail. So I guess that’s a happy ending of sorts.

I’m also going to stop checking on Rob Knox’s intermittent but frequently brilliant blog Law and Disorder (even the URL is an education). Rob’s last post on that blog reads, in part: “So, anyway, I have made a New Year’s resolution to try and post much more frequently, we’ll see if this actually comes about”. It’s dated 18th January 2010. I look forward to reading the book on international law that he will indubitably end up writing.

On the other hand, I am going to start reading Between the Hammer and the Anvil (which I currently catch up on every couple of weeks, very much the way I read XKCD) and Bad Conscience (which I read when it’s linked from Stumbling and Mumbling, i.e. quite often).

Finally, does anyone know what’s happened to Liam Mac Uaid’s blog? It’s currently coming up as “deleted”, which is surprising and a bit alarming. I’m hoping it will resurface in another form before too long (sectarian joke about relaunching with new name and slightly larger membership goes here).

A treasure hunt, but the treasure’s gone

Recent discussion on CT has made me aware of some startling disparities:

UK(2001) Oxford admissions (2009)
White 71.1% 84.9%
Mixed 3.2% 4.6%
Asian 12.1% 4.6%
Black 10.9% 1.0%
Chinese 1.1% 1.8%
Other 1.6% 0.3%


A massive over-representation of the White majority, together with a really glaring under-representation of British Asian and especially Black students, who are being rejected literally nine times out of ten, whereas…

Hang on, wrong figures. That first column is the ethnic breakdown of the population of London (which is where David Lammy MP was born and has lived most of his life, not to mention the obvious point that it’s where he works). Here’s the UK:

UK(2001) Oxford admissions (2009)
White 92.1% 84.9%
Mixed 1.2% 4.6%
Asian 4.0% 4.6%
Black 2.0% 1.0%
Chinese 0.4% 1.8%
Other 0.4% 0.3%

White majority: slightly under-represented. Chinese and mixed-race groups: over-represented. British Asians: very slightly over-represented. Black British…

Well, OK, Lammy has got something here, but it’s not quite as big an issue as it might look if you’re coming at it from an ethnically-mixed background (also known as a ‘city’). The UK population in 2001 was still 92% White – there are whole areas of the country where you just won’t see a brown face, or if you do you’ll go home and tell somebody. I won’t be surprised if the figure that comes out of the 2011 Census is a bit lower, but I’ll be amazed if it’s below 90%. So the fact that the Oxford student intake is 85% White is not, in itself, a problem, except insofar as it suggests that recruitment from Scotland, Wales and the North-East might need a bit of work.

All the same, it’s true that Black students are seriously under-represented; a factor of 2 isn’t as bad as a factor of 10, but it’s not good. But this seems to be a point specifically about Black students and not about non-Whites more generally. If racism on the part of Oxford admissions tutors is at the root of what’s going on here, either it’s specifically anti-Black racism or there are other factors outweighing racist attitudes towards other groups.

Or is the problem at the application stage? Here’s how applications look in comparison to UK population figures (bearing in mind that these are 2001 figures and hence almost certainly out of date). In 2009, there were approximately 185 Oxford applications for every 1,000,000 UK citizens. If the same figure is calculated for each ethnic group, you get the following:

Applications per million Over/under
White 155 83.5%
Mixed 703 379.4%
Asian 353 190.7%
Black 192 103.8%
Chinese 918 495.2%
Other 364 196.6%

Relative to the size of their ethnic group within the population as a whole, White students are under-represented. Asians and the ‘Other’ group – which consists mainly of people who declined to state their ethnic group – are over-represented; Chinese and the ‘Mixed’ group are massively over-represented. Black students are right in the middle of the distribution, a fairly small population represented – relative to the total of applications – proportionately to its size.

Here are the admission figures again, this time side by side with the application figures:

Applications Admissions Success Over/under
White 76.9% 84.9% 27.6% 110.0%
Mixed 4.4% 4.6% 26.5% 105.6%
Asian 7.6% 4.6% 15.3% 61.0%
Black 2.0% 1.0% 12.2% 48.6%
Chinese 2.1% 1.8% 21.6% 86.1%
N/K 6.3% 2.8% 11.1% 44.2%

The “over/under” figure gives the relative success of each group as compared with the overall success rate of 25.1%. And it’s an interesting figure. Relative to applications, White students are quite substantially over-represented, while every other group is under-represented, with the exception of the ‘Mixed’ group (the cynical explanation that they’re seen as ‘white enough’ suggests itself).

Here, finally, is what it looks like if you put it all together. (These are the same numbers I’ve been crunching so far. The ‘Over/under’ figure for applications is the ratio between the number of applicants per million in each group and the number of applicants per million UK residents. The ‘Over/under’ figure for admissions is the ratio between the success rate of applicants in each group and the overall success rate of applicants.)

% of population % of applications Over/under % of admissions Over/under
White 92.1% 76.9% 0.835 84.9% 1.103
Mixed 1.2% 4.4% 3.794 4.6% 1.057
Asian 4.0% 7.6% 1.907 4.6% 0.610
Black 2.0% 2.0% 1.038 1.0% 0.488
Chinese 0.4% 2.1% 4.952 1.8% 0.862
Other 0.4% 0.8% 1.966 0.3% 0.428

Every line tells a slightly different story. The Mixed ethnic group comes off best, with a massive over-representation in applications which is entrenched at the admissions stage; Chinese students are also over-represented, with a larger over-representation among applicants only slightly scaled back at the admission stage. A smaller over-representation over Asian students is almost entirely reversed by the rejection of 85% of applicants. The White group is significantly under-represented among applicants, although the admissions process partially compensates for this with a slight over-representation, relative to applications. Alone among all the major ethnic groups, Black students apply to Oxford at roughly the same rate as the population as a whole, neither over-represented among applicants (like most others) nor under-represented (like White students). However, the Black group suffers enormously at the admission stage, with a rejection rate of nearly 88%; this compares with 74.9% for all applicants and 72.4% for White students.

So what is going on? A large part of what’s going on seems to be that White schoolchildren aren’t getting the top grades in the numbers we’d expect – although this is still being compensated during admissions. Where Black Oxford applicants are concerned, it seems undeniable that something is going wrong somewhere in the admission process. The numbers of Asian – and to a lesser extent Chinese – applicants are cut down fairly significantly in the admissions process, but this is compensated by a massive over-representation of those groups among applicants. Black students get hit both ways: they’re not over-represented (although I would find it hard to label this as a fault, particularly given the performance of my own ethnic group), and they’re turned away at an even higher rate than Asian applicants. Oxford’s own investigation concludes that subject choice must bear some (most? all?) of the blame:

BME students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed courses. Oxford’s three most oversubscribed large (over 70 places) courses (Economics & Management, Medicine and Mathematics) account for 43% of all BME applicants and 44% of all Black applicants – compared to just 17% of all white applicants.

Well, maybe, but I can’t help feeling that this explanation stops where it ought to start. It’s hard to believe that subject choice is the only reason why Black students’ faces so consistently fail to fit; more to the point, the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ subject choices themselves are not entirely weightless and without a history.  I passed this snippet on to my wife (we met at Cambridge). Apparently Black students aren’t being advised to choose the right subjects, I said, and that’s why not many of them get into Oxford. What, she said, they’re not applying to do Land Economy?

Look who bought the myth

we as a party still support the policy of moving towards the abolition of fees and I suspect that we will have something like that in our next manifesto.Tim Farron MP, President of the Liberal Democrats

Let’s get this straight.

Firstly, the Lib Dems’ collective volte-face on tuition fees has done enormous damage to the party’s credibility on any issue you care to name. To put it bluntly, why should we believe anything they promise ever again? As for believing promises on the specific issue of moving towards the abolition of fees… words fail me. We are not going to be fooled again in the same way, by the same people, on the same issue. I’m sure lots of individual Liberal Democrats, up to and including Tim Farron, are unhappy about the way the vote went; I’m glad that so many Lib Dem MPs (including both Farron and my own MP) voted No on the day. But that day is over. For better or worse – mainly worse – the Lib Dems are not, now, a party that supports the abolition of fees. Voting Lib Dem doesn’t even mean voting for a party that supports fees being frozen, or linked to inflation, or doubled. Voting Lib Dem, as of now, means voting for the party that made it possible for the Tories to treble fees – and, failing some fairly radical developments over the next few months, that’s what it always will mean.

Secondly, there’s an argument going round (notably from Vince Cable) to the effect that we shouldn’t set too much store by what the Lib Dems said before the election – which, just for the record, was:

We will scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.

We shouldn’t hold them to that undertaking, Cable told us, because it related only to the eventuality of a Liberal Democrat majority government; once they actually had to negotiate from a position of weakness, why, naturally all bets were off. There’s one obvious answer to this, which is that the promise which was signed by 500 Liberal Democrat candidates wasn’t about what the party was going to do: each of those 500 candidates (including every sitting Lib Dem MP) pledged “to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”. Not a huge amount of wiggle room there. But I don’t think the party collectively can get off the hook that easily, either. 6.8 million people voted Liberal Democrat in May; I doubt that very many of them thought the party was going to form a majority government. Nobody in the Lib Dem leadership ever said “there will have to be negotiation and in practice not all of this will get done”, because nobody needed to: Lib Dem voters were well aware that the best the party could hope for was to enter government as a junior member of a coalition. Everyone knew that what was implemented in practice would be a complex set of trade-offs, with only a few policies surviving unchanged and most being heavily watered down. But what Lib Dem voters did expect, quite reasonably, was that the party’s leaders would at least attempt to keep their promises and to implement a diluted version of their policies – not to shred their promises, implement the diametric opposite of their policies and then plead political realism.

Thirdly, a promise is not just a promise: every commitment on a single issue takes its meaning from a broader set of arguments and values. The politician who promises to keep a military shipyard open is affirming his belief in the armed forces, imperialism and the glories of war; the politician who privatises hospital cleaning services is stating her love of profit, her contempt for public service and her hatred of trade unions. (Not invariably, obviously, but I think these are good rules of thumb.) And the politician who – like Nick Clegg, before the election – commits himself to abolishing university tuition fees is also committing himself to a belief in higher education and public provision. People understand this. Clegg, Cable and the rest of the whole sick crew have not just ditched a promise; they have made a handbrake turn on two of the most important issues in politics. It’s not too much to say that they’ve gained power by promising to do the right thing, and used it to do the wrong thing.

There are three distinct but related political fallacies here. The first point – like Farron’s incredible comments – relates to the fallacy of good intentions: ask not who we are, where we’ve been or what we’ve done, ask what we can do for you next time! The second fallacy you could call the fallacy of executive omnipotence: the assumption that electoral promises relate only to the situation in which the party is powerful enough to have a free choice about whether to implement every single one of them; if those conditions don’t obtain (as they never really do), all the promises can be shelved, or turned into open-ended statements of aspiration. The third is the fallacy of the single promise: the idea that individual political promises are simply that – single items on a list of promises, like beads on a string – so that a politician should be held to account, at most, for the number of promises he or she fails to implement. In any case, they couldn’t realistically have been expected to implement all of them (fallacy 2) – and isn’t it more important to think about what they can do for you next time (fallacy 1)?

Instead of judging politicians on their record and on their overall political direction, we’re implicitly being asked – by Farron as well as Clegg – to look at policy commitments as free-floating mood statements, and give our vote to the politician who seems to be making the right kind of noises. Taken together, this adds up to a formidable depoliticisation of politics, as well as a Get Out Of Jail Free card for individual politicians.

Or you could just call it base, cynical vote-whoring. And from the Liberal Democrats, too – I’m shocked, shocked.

Update If you want to know what the fees issue is really about – and why the reaction of so many academics has been one of incredulous horror – read this. As Colin rightly points out, a graduate tax could have forced students to pay just as much money for their education, and would have been easier to administer – and easier to make more equitable – than the nightmare system we look like being landed with. However, a tax would also have been channelled through the state, effectively keeping universities publicly funded; it also wouldn’t have set universities competing against one another on price, and hence on cost (if you can deliver the same teaching with fewer staff, you won’t need to charge your students as much). As our Vice-Chancellor recently commented, few of us went into higher education with the aim of working in the free market, but that’s where most of us look like ending up.

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