The rest we can leave

To end this slightly hyperactive day, here’s a recommendation you’ve probably seen already: read Johann Hari on Hammersmith.

As I spend days walking across the borough, I find the detritus of the old thriving public sector now shut and shuttered. Next to a big council estate I stumble across the large red-brick Castle Youth Club. It was built in Dickens’ time and bequeathed to the local council “to benefit the children of this area for perpetuity”. The Conservatives shut it down two years ago to sell it off. The deal fell through, so now it sits empty while the local kids hang around on the streets outside.

I realise I am peering into the reality of David Cameron’s “Big Society”. The council here told people that if they took away services like this, there would be volunteers; if the state withered away, people would start to provide the services for each other. But nobody … started a new youth club on their own time and with their own money. The state retreated and the service collapsed. It’s a rebranding trick. The Conservatives know that shutting down public services sounds cruel, while calling for volunteerism sounds kind – but the effect is exactly the same.

Read the whole thing. (I’ll wait.)

And here are a few lines from a comment at Crooked Timber (hi Tim!)

I too would like to ‘punish’ Labour for the GWOT/Iraq business. Brown may not have been enthusiastic about the whole business, but keeping quiet and wishing it would go away while signing off on every penny is of course nowhere near good enough. On the same grounds, I’d like to reward the Lib Dems (as well as liking their noises about Trident and ‘illegal’ immigrants, for example). … But retribution and reward are not top priorities at this point, even they could plausibly be seen as a necessary part of a system of long-term incentives. (The war has already had electoral consequences in prising Blair out, of course.) … The urgent imperative is to keep Cameron out.

The Conservatives have done nothing at all to suggest they have moved toward the centre in broadly economic terms – even with a rightward-bound centre. … The Conservatives have, even before getting in, the most hawkish about spending cuts, and flagrant in their ambitions for top-rung tax cuts like inheritance, for example. Their real intentions have to be guessed at, but they won’t have been understating their brutality. Even the line of verbiage they’ve chosen to fill the ominous silence is actively repellent. All this wittering about voluntarism is familiar enough stuff, now elevated from a weak debating point to a supposed philosophy: ‘other things equal, wouldn’t it be nice if everything were done voluntarily, out of, er, benevolence?’. Other things equal my arse. Tell it to Adam Smith’s baker. Making obligations and liabilities voluntary – repudiable – has only one purpose, as every instance of self-’regulation’ testifies.

I particularly like that last point. Other things equal my arse – Tories of all people should know that you don’t get owt for nowt. But the market doesn’t supply everything or everyone – it’s conspicuously bad at providing universal services, unlimited emergency services or services for people who can’t afford to pay, for instance. The history of public service provision since Joseph Chamberlain has been one of collectively-funded efforts to redress market failure. Turn off the funding and that ‘market’ – the market for home helps, youth clubs, women’s refuges, emergency accommodation – will fail in a heartbeat. And the Tories know that, those of them who are older than 18; they have to know that. The idea of sleek Tory politicians knowingly and heedlessly consigning poor people to lives of misery and fear is terribly old-fashioned and rather melodramatic, I know, but it seems like an awfully good fit.

If you’ve got a vote tomorrow, please use it to help prevent a Tory government. That will be an achievement worth having been part of.

Tomorrow, today will be yesterday

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?

There are four things, I think. Continue reading

Yesterday today was tomorrow

I started blogging in March 2005, after I’d started commenting on Tom Watson’s blog (more on that another time). In particular, I wrote a series of posts on why people shouldn’t vote Labour. They were:

I: 126 as a limit
A shadow of its former self – about 75% of this post got eaten by Blogger one night. Which was a shame, as it established the context for the whole series. Looking at the 2001 results and at current polling data, I established pretty conclusively that the Tories weren’t going to win: tens of thousands of Labour supporters could vote against Labour without costing Labour the election.
II: When you need cover
On Labour’s resort to dog-whistle politics, and a peculiarly empty form of dog-whistle politics at that: rallying the core Labour vote isn’t just difficult for New Labour, it’s the one thing they can’t do. What remains is an empty, moralistic appeal – you ought to vote Labour because, well, you ought to.
III: In the Big Muddy
On what an anti-Labour vote might achieve (a slim majority or a hung parliament at a pinch) and who this would benefit (primarily Gordon Brown – “Turn around men! I’m in charge from now on.”) And why it was worth doing anyway.
IV: I just can’t see myself following you
“We’re living in a strange, muted, deadened political landscape, where many of the most important questions go unanswered or unasked.” On the need to break New Labour’s blockage of the political landscape, but also on the genuine risk of benefiting the Tories in the process.
V: Beneath the flag of democracy
On Iraq: war as “the ultimate trust issue” and the ultimate reason for withholding trust. “If Labour are re-elected with a majority of 80-100, we will have officially drawn a line under Iraq and moved on; we will have told Blair, loud and clear, that we do trust him after all.”
VI: Everything you say is like iron
Against the advice to “hold your nose and vote Labour” which was coming from both the Guardian and the Morning Star, and against the opposition between party loyalty and ‘tactical voting’. “Tactical voting is holding your nose when you vote: voting Labour even at the cost of registering your support for policies you oppose … It’s not tactical voting to vote for breaking the log-jam, and vote to make it more likely that it breaks to the Left. It’s not tactical voting to vote to replace New Labour with something better.”
VII: Put your lips together and blow
More on dog-whistle politics and the difference between loyalty and principle. “There are reasons why I voted Labour at most opportunities between 1979 and 1997, and most of them are the same reasons why I’m voting against Labour this time. I haven’t moved – they have.”
VIII: Arrows with a very bad aim
On good reasons and bad reasons for refusing to vote for a particular party. I took the line that there were good reasons to refusue to vote either for Labour (“There is nothing good to say about the New Labour project.”) or for the Socialist Labour Party (“the SLP, after all these years, urgently needs to give up and let its activists get on with their lives”) but not for refusing to vote Lib Dem.
IX: Yeah yeah, yeah, yeah
On the disturbing possibility that all this messing around on blogs might be entirely detached from the real world, and Labour might still be heading for a three-figure majority. (SPOILER: they weren’t.)
X: None of you stand so tall
I’ll repost this one in full:

Here’s my advice, for anyone who’s interested.

Don’t vote Labour.

Don’t vote Conservative, don’t vote UKIP and for God’s sake don’t vote Veritas. But don’t vote Labour. Here are 35 reasons (hat tip to Ellis Sharp). Iraq is at numbers 11 and 22. There are another 33. The name Blunkett doesn’t even appear on the page.

There are values which have been associated with Labour throughout its history: even under operators like Wilson and Smith; even under chancers like Kinnock; even during the long retreat in the face of Thatcherism. Under New Labour, that’s all gone. Maintenant c’est joué… The party of the Left must be built, and it won’t be built in a matter of days. For now, what’s essential is for the Left to withdraw its consent from the representatives who have betrayed it. If you want to vote for the values which Labour once stood for – under Hardie, under Attlee, even under the member for Monklands East – don’t vote Labour.

This isn’t about the war, except insofar as the war has shown a lot of people in their true colours. As I wrote back here, “this is a single-issue election – and the issue is New Labour.” From which it follows that I don’t advise anyone, anywhere, to vote for a Labour candidate. Not even if they’ve got a good record on the war; not even if they’ve got a good record on control orders and ID cards and tuition fees; not even if they’re Jeremy Corbyn, frankly. (Sorry, Jeremy.)

The objection that these tactics will lose us some good MPs misses the point. This is a boycott. If boycotting something – goods from a certain country, say – didn’t involve forfeiting choices we would normally make, there’d be no need for the boycott: the invisible hand of the market would do the job for us. Boycotts, by definition, cannot be relied on to deliver an optimal choice: that’s not what they’re for. What they do is signal that there are choices we are not willing to make – positions that we are not prepared to endorse – even at a cost to ourselves. I’d hate to have a Tory MP, but I would rejoice to see my Labour MP’s vote drop far enough to make that a possibility.

While Labour is controlled by the New Labour clique (and it is – these people are serious about power), nobody running as a Labour candidate deserves our support. It doesn’t matter whose name is on the ballot paper. It doesn’t matter if Labour won last time or came second or third. If you can’t stand the Trots and the tankies, vote Lib Dem. If you can’t stand the Lib Dems, vote Green.

Don’t abstain. Don’t be an idiot and vote Tory.

But don’t vote Labour.

So what’s changed?

Till some progress begins

A cry from the heart at Crooked Timber:

Here is the voting record of Lynda Waltho, MP for Stourbridge, from TheyWorkForYou:

Voted very strongly for allowing ministers to intervene in inquests.
Voted very strongly for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws.
Voted very strongly for replacing Trident.
Voted moderately against laws to stop climate change.
Voted very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war.
Voted very strongly for introducing ID cards.

Never rebels against their party in this parliament.

I can’t vote for this.

I’m in a Lib Dem/Labour marginal, with an untried Labour contender facing a Lib Dem MP who’s had the seat since 2005, so I haven’t got quite the same problem. Continue reading

Know your constituency: Manchester Withington

Inspired by Splintered Sunrise‘s extraordinary series of “know your constituency” posts on the election in the North of Ireland, here are some thoughts on the constituency The Gaping Silence calls home. (Personal to Splinty – how do you do it? I’ve only done this one and it’s taken me all evening…)

2005 results:
Leech (Liberal Democrat) 15,872 (42.4%)
Bradley, Keith (Labour) 15,205 (40.6%)
Bradley, Karen (Conservative) (no relation) 3,919 (10.5%)
Candeland (Green) 1,595 (4.3%)
Gutfreund-Walmsley (UKIP) 424 (1.1%)
Bennett (Ind) 243 (0.6%)
Zalzala (Ind) 153 (0.4%)
Reed (Their Party) 47 (0.1%)

2010 candidates: John Leech (LD), Lucy Powell (Lab), Chris Green (Con), Brian Candeland (Green), Robert Gutfreund-Walmsley (UKIP), Yasmin Zalzala (Independent), Marcus Farmer (Independent)

The Withington constituency, after a bit of boundary adjustment following the 2005 election, extends from affluent, liberal, green-ish East Didsbury northward and westward to green, liberal, affluent-ish Chorlton. It’s a rough triangle, with Northenden and Sale to the southwest, the Heatons and Stockport to the southeast and Fallowfield, Whalley Range and the city to the north.

For anyone who’s tried to buy a newspaper in Chorlton on a Saturday, the political complexion of the constituency might seem fairly self-evident. Continue reading

Imitation of life

Apparently Gordon Brown didn’t really think Gillian Duffy’s remarks were bigoted; he thought something she didn’t actually say was bigoted.

Mrs Duffy had asked him about immigration and also mentioned student tuition fees, among other subjects.

The BBC’s Jeremy Paxman asked Mr Brown to explain what he meant when he said he had misunderstood her comments.

He said: “I thought she was talking about expelling all university students from here who were foreigners. I misunderstood it.”

It’s a sidestep of genius, allowing both Brown and Duffy to be in the right – someone who had said that to Brown would have been a bigot; he simply made the honest mistake of thinking that Mrs D. was that someone.

I also think it’s probably sincere. Here’s a section of the full transcript:
Continue reading

Paint the words upon the wall

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 (by which I mean, one of the parties standing candidates across the country – Labour, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, UKIP and the BNP). But can you match the slogan to the party?

1. GET BRITAIN WORKING

2. BYE BYE, BUREAUCRACY

3. WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER

4. PEOPLE POWER

5. SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY NOT STATE CONTROL

6. BIG GOVERNMENT = BIG PROBLEMS

Answers after the jump. No peeping!

Continue reading

Your scholarly room

Lots of hits over the last few days from people looking for “market managerialism”, or sometimes “what is market managerialism”. No idea why that topic should be popular at the moment, or indeed what they’re finding here that’s relevant. Can anyone enlighten me?

Another recent search term is less hard to understand. Today someone found their way to this blog after searching for

very crude naked ladies pics

I welcome all new visitors, although in some cases I wouldn’t necessarily want to shake their hand. Come for the boobs by all means, but stay for the radical politics, music videos, autobiographical musings and bad jokes. But I must demur at “very crude”. All you can find here in that line is a couple of links to sensitive and artistic naked ladies pics, which are not the same thing at all. Apart from the naked ladies – that element is constant.

Constant, and rather odd when you start to think about it. More years ago than I care to calculate, I remember leafing through a copy of H&E belonging to a friend’s older brother with a mild, amused interest – oh look, there are some women with nothing on… and there are some men with nothing on… and there are some more women with nothing on! All vaguely shocking and transgressive – you knew that people generally took care not to be seen with nothing on – but it didn’t do anything for me (or to me). Then, a few months later, I was on a school skiing trip in Switzerland when I happened on an advert in a magazine featuring a naked woman in a Viking helmet, standing behind a waist-high shield and covering one breast. The effect of this fairly anodyne image was electric and instantaneous; it seemed to go straight from my eyes to my crotch without passing through my brain. Puberty had well and truly arrived, and henceforth the sight of a woman who was… you know… I mean, not wearing any… I mean, you know, in the nude… would turn my head and turn me on, more or less whether I liked it or not.

Realistically, our (my) reaction to p0rn – not to mention our concept of what constitutes p0rn – has to be something that’s learned, culturally-determined and culturally encoded (relatedly, see this discussion of the meaning of the words “naked woman” through history – “naked” has always meant “scandalously under-dressed” but hasn’t always meant “absolutely not wearing anything whatsoever at all”). Some years ago Susanne Kappeler argued that it’s all about sadism and power: a naked woman in a magazine is on display in very much the same way that a shot elephant or a captured slave might be displayed, as an invitation to the man looking at the picture to vicariously celebrate the power over women wielded by the man behind the camera. It’s alarmingly persuasive, but I don’t think it’s the whole story (and not only because there are female erotic photographers); there’s a weird quality of compulsion, even powerlessness, in the way men look at women. (I don’t believe that overrides the more conventional power relation described by Kappeler, though (pace Joe Jackson) – everyone’s more vulnerable naked than clothed, being watched than watching.) I also wonder, when did I learn that way of seeing? Not, surely, between the look-at-the-funny-naked-people half hour with H&E and the Oh. My. God. p0rn thunderclap in Switzerland.

Whatever is ultimately going on, the experience for me was – and, let’s face it, to a pretty large extent still is – an unthinking, automatic, instant reaction to certain images; images which are likely to work the same trick for other straight men. (That said, my ‘certain images’ aren’t going to be exactly the same ‘certain images’ as someone else’s. Pynchon takes this idea to its extreme in Gravity’s Rainbow, where he has a spy being sent a message written in an ink which will only become visible when treated with his semen – and accompanied by an image which calculated to induce immediate orgasm in him and him alone. Yow.)

Ultimately Tom Robinson was right about this (as about much else) – pictures of naked young women are fun. But they’re also odd: a culturally-determined image that’s also a law of nature (or that’s certainly how it feels). In the immortal words of a comic song I heard on the radio years ago,

Men like naked ladies –
The only exceptions are when
They’re either
Guardian readers
Or they prefer naked gentlemen.

Well, one out of two’s not bad.

You talk so hip

In the previous post, I wrote:

not only is the personal political, the political is personal: which way you’re heading, and how fast you want to get there, depends to quite a large extent on something as imponderable as who you are

Which is why I’m rather ambivalent about Andrew Neil’s monstering of Chris Mounsey, he of Devil’s Kitchen.

Mounsey says himself that when he wrote the posts that made Devil’s Kitchen famous he was in part railing against his own situation, and that he’s calmer and happier now. This is good news, and I sincerely wish him well. But that’s not all there is to say.

From my very occasional reading of DK I had formed the impression that the writer was a middle-aged Scot who had missed his chances or been robbed of them, had no real prospect of finding them again and was now taking solace in blaming everyone but himself. It turns out that Chris Mounsey is English and in his early 30s. He’s also an old Etonian; which is to say, his education cost his parents a minimum of £28,851 a year in today’s money. As of 2007/8, 95% of UK tax-payers have a post-tax income of £46,800 or below. Anyone as low down the rankings as the 96th percentile would need to commit nearly 2/3 of their income in order to see their son through Eton; I think we can confidently assume that the income of the senior Mounseys puts them in the top 2-3%. In other words, Chris Mounsey was born into the elite.

Here’s an example of what Chris Mounsey used to get angry about:

The Tories want parents and other organisations to have state funds to set up their own schools.
Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove issued the call in a speech to the NASUWT teachers’ union conference.

And can you guess what the union response was? Go on – have a guess.

Was it (a) yes, what a wonderful idea: we’ll show you how a school should be run, given how much we profess to dislike the constant state interference, or was it (b)…

The union did not want to run a school, [union leader] said. Schools should be “democratically accountable” and not operated for and by “the pushy and the privileged”.

Ah. So, schools should not be run for and by “the pushy and the privileged” unless those pushy and privileged are the union members under state sanction.

OK, so this is fairly stupid. Gove suggests a system under which state funding would be used to set up new private schools; these might be excellent or might not, but would sink or swim outside the state system. If standards were low, the government would have no way of raising them; at worst, in other words, this would mean messing up the education of the children unfortunate enough to go to those schools. If standards were high, on the other hand, this would benefit those particular children but nobody else. Anyone who is concerned with providing a consistently good universal service – rather than providing an excellent service to a few and never mind the rest – won’t touch such a scheme with a bargepole. No national teaching union could ever endorse such an idea – Mounsey’s professed outrage is either spurious or stupid. As for his parting shot, I’m not even sure what it means – joining a union, signing up for the collective defence of working standards and employment rights, makes you “pushy and privileged”? Brane hertz. All in all, what we’ve got here is someone with one set of beliefs affecting to be shocked and outraged that someone with a completely different set of beliefs doesn’t agree with him. Or, to boil it down a bit more, someone having a rant at his political enemies. Mounsey, like Gove, doesn’t believe in trade unions, or in state provision, and I shouldn’t think he’s too bothered about the provision of a consistently good universal education. The union leader believes in all three, and so Mounsey hates her.

That was fairly stupid, but it’s not the passage Neil quoted back at Mounsey. The post continued as follows (WARNING: nasty stuff ahead). Continue reading

And I decline

Here’s a late response to the blog theme tune meme, and a tune I can’t believe nobody else has picked:

Maybe it’s just me.

At its most basic, there’s definitely something that appeals to me about songs with far too many words, and songs that nobody understands. At one time in my life Prefab Sprout’s first album meant an enormous amount to me, precisely because some of the songs are so resolutely personal – not in a Kate Nash sense, but in the sense of mapping out a mental landscape which could only ever make sense from the inside (“Oh no, don’t blame Mexico!”). In this song, I like the way the playfulness and sheer high spirits of the music works together with that ridiculous cataract of words (“LEONARD BERNSTEIN!”). And the rueful, headachey conclusion – “Time I had some time alone” (truncated from this video, unfortunately) – I’ve had days like that.

But it goes a bit deeper. The personal is political, and not just in the sense that one will get you to the other. To put it another way, not only is the personal political, the political is personal: which way you’re heading, and how fast you want to get there, depends to quite a large extent on something as imponderable as who you are. Someone who likes well-chaired meetings that run to time will join a different party, with different goals, from someone who likes to keep talking until everyone’s agreed – or someone who likes to handle disagreement with his fists. See also the debate that Daniel kicks off from time to time, regarding the association between the political spectrum and the undesirable trait of BACAI (where ‘B’ stands for ‘being’ and ‘AI’ ‘about it’). (The debate hasn’t got very far as yet – we’re more or less agreed that most of the Decent/Euston crowd is positively committed to BACAI, but generalising from that is hard.)

As for me, I’ve always been temperamentally drawn to no-holds-barred abolish-everything ultra-leftism. If you read Debord, or the early Marx – or even if you start reading Capital at volume 1, chapter 1 – it seems staringly obvious that communism is not going to involve capital formation, or commodity production, or wage labour, or money. (Whether it would involve law is a separate question.) Obviously the maximalism that this vision implies can only be theoretical in anything other than a pre-revolutionary situation, but maximalism on the plane of theory isn’t nothing:

If constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.
– Karl Marx to Arnold Ruge, September 1843

(The original strap line of my old blog was adapted from that quote.)

Or you could just say that I’ve got a weakness for nihilism.

Qu’est-ce que le nihilisme ? Rozanov répond parfaitement à la question quand il écrit : “La représentation est terminée. Le public se lève. Il est temps d’enfiler son manteau et de rentrer à la maison. On se retourne : plus de manteau ni de maison.”

“No more coats, no more home.” It’s possible, I suppose, that Rozanov was talking about nothing more than planting a bomb in a theatre, which has never struck me as a valid political tactic[1]. I’ve always read that passage more metaphorically. It’s the image of everything disappearing at the end of the show that’s stayed with me. Picture it: you’re just emerging from a consensual illusion and returning to reality, when you realise that the reality you thought you were returning to was itself a consensual illusion, and it’s gone. You wake up… and then you wake up.

(Right? Right!)

What this perspective gives you, I think, is a sense of how provisional all our social arrangements are, a sense that everything solid could melt into air[2]. It’s just a ride, in other words, and we can change it any time we want. And that in turn goes together (for me at least) with a kind of ironic optimism: in terms of political programmes there’s nothing out there I can actually identify with, but there are lots of points where closed-down possibilities can be nudged open. And lots of stuff that we don’t actually need to preserve – which brings us back to the song. Clear the floor to dance!

[1] Not everyone agrees with this point, it should be said. Alfredo Bonanno made a pretty good fist of arguing for indiscriminate, spontaneous anarchist violence in his 1979 pamphlet Concerning terrorism, certain imbeciles and other matters. “What if we don’t want to wait for the ‘big day’, and we begin to do something, here and now, to stop defending ourselves and begin to attack power? … What would doing this make us – would it make us terrorists?” Maybe not terrorists as such, but it would certainly make you voluntarist, adventurist, substitutionist, deeply irresponsible and ultimately rather apolitical. To put it another way, it would make you a bunch of dangerous headbangers.

[2] I’ve read that this is a mistranslation deriving from Ernest Jones’s inadequate grasp of German, and that what Marx actually wrote was more like “all fixed reference points go up in smoke”. I don’t know if it’s an improvement or not – the “melts” version is more vivid and poetic, but it has a dreamy, Tempest-like quality which doesn’t really go with historical materialism. More research needed. Have any German-speaking Marxists read this far? (I did say I was an optimist…)

Career opportunities

Jim asks:

I’d really love to know how to go about earning a crust (or even half a crust) out of freelance writing. Yes, I’m aware that’s the Holy Grail for every blogger but if, dear reader, you’ve worked out how to achieve it, I’d be eternally grateful for your advice.

As it goes, my career as a freelance writer overlapped with my time as a blogger, but not by much – I’ve been blogging since a few weeks before the last election, in 2005, and I last sold an article in September 2007. I’ve had a few things in collections of blog posts, but my experience of turning bloggery into money is zero.

However, Jim also mentions that he’s soon to embark on a PhD thesis, and I can trutfhully say that I supported myself through my PhD thesis as a freelance journalist. The bad news is that it took me five years to complete my thesis, in which time I gained no academic experience at all – this is not recommended. I did look into the possibilities of doing bits of teaching, but concluded that the rate of pay was so low, relative to the living I was managing to make as a writer, that I’d effectively be doing it for nothing – and I couldn’t afford to do it. I got my first permanent academic post six years later.

So the first thing I’ve gleaned from my career as a freelance journalist is that it’s laborious and time-consuming work, and it will soak up time and effort which you could have done with keeping back for other purposes. It’s hard. When it’s going well it’s also one of the best jobs in the world – but even then it’s hard work, and it will cost you.

As for how to do it, three golden rules.

Rule 1: On getting the work. The rule is: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. That doesn’t mean that you need to have had Condé Nast executives invited to your christening – although if they were, you certainly won’t have to read self-help posts like this. It means, work your connections. If you haven’t got any connections, take an educated guess on which of your friends has got connections and work them. Don’t bother cold-calling, doorstepping or otherwise propositioning an editor you don’t know. There are 100 other ambitious unknowns who could write the article you want to write – or something which would look as good as that article to people who don’t know your area, a group which will probably include the editor you’re trying to pitch to and will definitely include his or her boss. Not only that, but out of those 100, 50 are younger than you, 20 are slightly better-known and three know the editor, or say they do.

Getting a start in journalism is all about having some kind of personal connection with someone who can take a chance on you. If you know the editor – even slightly, even tenuously – and you can persuade him or her to let you have a go at something, then you’re in. If not, not. So if you don’t know any editors, you will need to change that situation. (I should say, incidentally, that this isn’t current advice – it’s based on my experience in the early 90s, when the journalistic climate was positively balmy compared to now.)

Rule 2: on getting more work. Once you’ve got your foot in the door the advice changes. All you need to do then is get the work done. Get it done, whatever it is; get it done on time, to the exact specs you’ve been given. I used to work on programme support for the Channel 4 ‘Real Lives’ strand – an odd gig which involved watching the programme, writing a 1000-word précis and recommending at least three books & at least three Web sites for the ‘Find Out More’ section (this was often the hardest part). I’m quite proud of my work on the Wallis Simpson programme, for no other reason than that I got the tape at 10.00 one morning with strict instructions to get the work filed by 5.00 at the latest – which I did, complete with three URLs and eight (count ‘em) book recommendations. That was a good day.

Anyway, rule 2 can be stated just as bluntly as rule 1: if you do exactly what they ask you for – whatever they ask you for – and do it on time and do it well, then you may get repeat business. Not ‘will’, but definitely ‘may’ – and if not, you definitely won’t.

Depressed yet?

Rule 3: on next month’s work. If you can write, and if you’re in touch with commissioning editors, and if you can write to order, to length and to deadline, then you should be able to make enough to live on… for this month. However, you will also need to eat next month. You know how you had to work to get your first commission, and your second, and your third – shmoozing, pitching ideas, scrounging for repeat business? Fancy doing that again and again, month after month, indefinitely? Me neither, and I don’t believe anyone actually lives like that.

Hence Rule 3, which comes in two parts. Rule 3.1 is: get a regular gig. Better still, have a regular gig lined up before you make the leap. I embarked on my PhD knowing that I had first refusal on at least £5,000 a year’s worth of work from my previous employer. £5,000 a year isn’t a lot – rule 3.1.1 is get another regular gig – but it’s a big improvement on £0.

It gets worse, I’m afraid. Rule 3.2 is: be prepared for when the work dries up. Freelance writing work is inherently precarious. Editors move on, magazines close, production companies take their writing work in-house, once in a while you may even screw up an assignment and fall out with an editor. (The advice here is, of course, don’t ever do this. But the chances are that you will.) Freelancing isn’t a fallback – in the immortal words of James Thurber, falling back on journalism would be very much like falling back full-length on a kit of carpenter’s tools. Have something in reserve – some other marketable skill, or just a couple of months’ rent money stashed in an account you never touch.

I have to say, as if this post wasn’t negative enough already, that I don’t know if I’d be able to pay the bills for five years if I was starting out as a freelance journalist today. Certainly the nets I dropped a couple of years ago – when it looked as if academic freelance work (that’s another story) was drying up – almost all came up empty: most of the outlets I wrote for have closed, and there’s very little call for the kind of stuff I used to write (“if you’ve got a great idea for a column, keep it for your blog”, one editor told me bluntly). But then, if I was starting out as a freelance today I wouldn’t be trying to write the kind of stuff I wrote in the 1990s, or working the contacts I had then. I wouldn’t tell anyone to go for it!, but I realise I’m not in a position to tell anyone definitely not to.

In other news*, Toby Young is an unmitigated idiot. In all of my five years as a freelance I made a point of taking a week off in summer and disconnecting completely from work. This in no way prevented me from paying the bills, despite the fact that I was writing Web pages for Channel 4 and sub-editing German computing advertorials rather than, say, for instance, writing a column in the Guardian and having my million-selling autobiography made into a film. Tosser.

*OK, not news** as such.

**Inasmuch as the column dates from 2008, I mean, not the ‘unmitigated idiot’***. I was going to blog on it at the time, but it infuriated me too much.

***Although that too.

Indonesian Cryptozoology Latest

That last post left me thinking Red Pepper, eh? Blimey, that was a long time ago… (My involvement with it, I hasten to add, not the magazine itself, which is going strong. (Well, strong-ish. “In Autumn 2007 Red Pepper relaunched as a bi-monthly magazine with more emphasis on the role of its website.” To be fair, these are hard times for print magazines all round. I also noticed this: “In contrast to the mainstream media, Red Pepper’s content comes directly from an international network of writers based in the alternative movements for radical social and environmental change. Given our limited resources, we are unable to pay writers for their contributions, although that is our long-term aim.” No, I’m saying nothing. Lips, sealed.))

Anyway, it all seems like an awful long time ago, until I consult the perpetual present of the Web. It’s the book, you see – reviews of the book haven’t been abundant (although there have been some) and I want to start hustling it a bit more. At the very least I want to make sure that the review copies that have gone out have got to the right people.

So, Google, who’s Books Editor of Red Pepper?

You know, I’m almost certain it’s not him.

Maybe they call it Culture Editor? (They did in my day…

…as you can see.)

Oh well, I’ll just have to write to Hilary.

There will be emus in the Zone

Searching the Lovefilm catalogue the other day, I was delighted (and slightly amazed) to find that you can rent Chris Marker’s La Jetée from them – not only that, but that Sunless comes on the same disc. I don’t really want to say anything at all about La Jetée, except that everything you’ve heard about it is true: it’s half an hour long, it’s in black and white, it’s told almost entirely in stills with voiceover, and it’s the greatest film ever made. Well, one of. Top ten, definitely. The title, incidentally, is much less romantic than it sounds – for a long time, before I saw it, I thought it meant something like “the leap” or “the throw”, très kierkegaardien. It actually refers to part of a 1950s airport – “the pier”, I guess it would be if you translated it.

Sunless is a bit more conventional, inasmuch as it’s 90+ minutes long, shot on film and in colour. Unlike La Jetée, though, it’s not narrative; it’s more of an essay or a long poem in the medium of film. And it’s also the greatest… well, one of the greatest films ever made. (Top ten, no question.) It’s shot mostly in Guinea-Bissau and Japan, and to begin with you could take it for a travelogue. But Marker’s not interested in places so much as people: people in streets, in bars, in markets, in boats and on quaysides, caught by the frank, intelligent, appraising gaze of the man behind the camera and returning it in kind. His eye is extraordinary: the film stock he’s using frankly isn’t great (in purely visual terms it’s more like watching a news report than a feature film) but he creates, or finds, some truly beautiful compositions. The composition of the film as a whole is remarkable, too: just as it seems it’s starting to sag, around the 80th minute, he pulls the whole thing together and makes you realise what it’s about. It’s about revolutionary politics, in part, and about how the struggle to turn an unjust world upside down is always continuing. But at a deeper level it’s about time: how time destroys everything and defeats everyone, and how we need to live within that situation and do justice to it, and about art as a way of bearing witness to it and resisting it.

Fantastic, beautiful film. (And quoted on a recent waxing by a popular singing group called the Kasabians, apparently.)

I wrote about Sunless once before, in the February 2000 issue of Red Pepper; it was my contribution to a “lost classics” feature called Memory Hole. Here’s what I said then:

Chris Marker is best known here for La Jetée, a thirty-minute science-fiction film composed almost entirely of still pictures and the avowed inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. In fact Marker is a prolific film-maker, working mainly in the documentary idiom; he is also a deeply political artist whose films attest to his passionate engagement with the left. However, while many of Marker’s works have been distributed in English versions, their uncommercial nature has consigned most of them to oblivion. One which richly deserves to be retrieved is Sans Soleil (Sunless).

The film opens uncompromisingly, with several seconds of black screen followed by a snatch of film showing three children in Iceland in 1964; this represents a moment of happiness, the narrator explains. The film is a meditation on the loss of time and the particularity of place. Marker watches the people of Tokyo honour their dead; in Guinea-Bissau he performs an act of commemoration himself, evoking the long forgotten revolution of Amilcar Cabral and its wider effects, in Portugal and elsewhere. In Japan, he juxtaposes traditional street festivals with department-store imitations of American style, rituals to commemorate broken dolls with the struggle over the building of Narita Airport. The film is also extremely beautiful, with frequent freeze-frames to pick out a single face, a single glance.

Marker’s leftism is rooted in a deep interest in people and how they live their lives; perhaps his nearest parallel outside cinema is John Berger. Sunless conveys this political passion with heart and style.

Yeah, that still holds up. Not so sure about this one, though (reviewing another film I’ve recently found on Lovefilm).

Nanni Moretti has a lot on his mind. He’s working on a musical, his wife is pregnant and elections are looming. On top of all that, he’s making a film: this film. Aprile takes Moretti’s film-making to a new level of autobiographical intimacy. A disenchanted left-winger, who follows current events so attentively that he wraps himself up in newspapers, Moretti is an appealing everyman. His story ends hopefully – little Pietro is born, the left wins the elections – but without any real conclusion. Aprile celebrates personal and political achievements, but reminds us that everything is still to play for.
– Michael Travis

That’s from the film review slot in the May 1999 Red Pepper. Having finally seen Aprile, all I can say is, Up to a point, Mr Travis. I can forgive the reviewer for missing what’s now the most famous sequence of the film – Moretti shouting at the TV during a debate between Berlusconi and Massimo d’Alema: “D’Alema, say something left-wing! Not even left-wing, say something civilised! Reply! React! Say something!”. That sequence has hung round d’Alema’s neck ever since (as well it might) but it wasn’t that well-known in Britain at the time. But there are so many small errors – Moretti gives up on the musical to make a radical documentary about the elections, which isn’t “this film” (and never gets made); he’s not an “appealing everyman”, unless your idea of Everyman is an Italian Woody Allen, a middle-aged man who’s so anxious about everything in his life that he never shuts up about any of it; and he doesn’t so much “[wrap] himself up in newspapers” as buy every paper he can find, cut out all the political stories and stick them all together to make one giant newspaper with pages ten feet wide, only to give up trying to make sense of it and wrap himself up in it (although admittedly that would take a lot of words). And there’s one really big error, regarding the ending of the film. It’s not inconclusive in the slightest: Moretti (or ‘Moretti’) has completely turned his life around by the end of the film. He’s stopped worrying about the baby (who is beautiful, incidentally); he’s given up the political film and thrown away his collection of press cuttings (“why should I keep a collection of things that make me angry?”); he’s started work on the musical again; and he’s made a general-purpose resolution to be bold and not to hold himself back, symbolised by a voluminous cape that he wears for the last five minutes of the film (which makes him look ridiculous, but that’s part of the point). It’s not a brilliant film, but it does have a brilliant ending – not least its closing scene, an extended sequence from the shooting of the musical – and Michael Travis missed it completely.

Mind you, he did have an excuse, what with being non-existent (or fictional (another Top Ten nominee behind that link, incidentally)). I was editing the Red Pepper culture pages at the time, and I’d had an offer of a review of Aprile; unfortunately it fell through, leaving me with a space to fill and no time to fill it in. So I read a couple of other people’s reviews of Aprile and I did the best I could. And I have to say that, judged as a review written by someone who hasn’t seen the film, it’s not all that bad.

I’ll do a proper writeup of my time on Red Pepper some day; for now, I’m afraid, it’s a story for which the world is not yet prepared.

Just watch me now

This week (if you’ll excuse the steal) I’ve mostly been listening to the Dandy Warhols’ 2008 album Earth to the Dandy Warhols.

By way of an introduction:

Turn that way up.

There are three things I like about this album. Firstly, the drug thing. When I was a regular gig-goer, I used to start with a can of Red Stripe and follow it with a can of Special Brew. The main point of the exercise was the enveloping alcoholic hit of the first swallow of Special Brew: an almost physical sense of falling backwards, sinking into an alcoholic haze. Some kinds of music conjure precisely this kind of befuddling onslaught – and I don’t just mean ‘psychedelia’. (“I wouldn’t say Doll by Doll are a psychedelic band,” Jackie Leven once corrected an interviewer. “We’re an acid band.”) Take the Beta Band, for instance. Some of their songs had a distinct acid edge to them, but this strikes me very much as cannabis music – in its soft quietness and its insistent precision, and in the way the track seems to take itself apart, come to a halt and then reassemble itself:

The Dandys are no strangers to mood-altering substances. As an album, Welcome to the Monkeyhouse had a distinctly speed-y sound to it. By contrast, Earth to… has a fairly intense downer-ish quality (and let’s face it, calling a song “Valerie Yum” is a bit of a clue). Full-on would be one word for it: a sound that leaves you feeling crushed, enveloped, sated. Intense but not unenjoyable, if you’re in the mood.

The second thing about the Dandy Warhols is that they’re very rock’n’roll; you could almost say they are rock’n’roll. In terms of musicianship and originality they’re pretty ordinary, but that’s part of the point – they’re what a pretty ordinary band would sound like if they were convinced they were the coolest band in the world. As I said about their previous album (which is a bit hard going, I have to admit) what they do isn’t so much rock’n’roll as the sound of what rock’n’roll sounds like – the sound of the process of the form being realised. Very arty…

…and then again (back with the Dandys) not arty at all, because the sound of the process ect ect is, fundamentally, the sound of three chords being cranked out. And that is, let’s face it, a fantastic sound. Lou Reed said somewhere that he’d never had any desire to go beyond rock’n’roll, because he still felt there was a lot to be done with those basic rock chord changes. Listening to the next song, you feel he’s proved himself wrong (sorry, Lou, you’d nailed it for all time by 0:22) but at the same time right (that’s a seam that will take plenty of digging).

Back at the Dandys album, the track after “Wasp in the Lotus” proves it all over again: a perfect three-chord trick, utterly simple and predictable, utterly beautiful.

I like the stunned, languid quality that song has, and the way it just keeps on going; it makes me imagine watching the sky start to lighten, too tired to go to sleep. I particularly like the way the horns come in towards the end, and the raw, unpolished, “just slap it down” sound they have – very rock’n’roll. Ed Kuepper would probably have a fit if you called Laughing Clowns a rock’n’roll band, but what I’m talking about here is very like the immediate, noisy production the horns used to get on Laughing Clowns albums. Laughing Clowns reformed last year; it’s a trumpetless lineup, but Louise Elliott’s sax here has the same raw, punkish quality I hear in the Dandys’ brass.

The third thing, finally, is related to the dogged endlessness of that last track, and the three-chord trick generally: minimalism. Three chords, did I say? The Dandys aren’t the first band to see what happens if you hit one chord and stick to it…

…nor were Stereolab, come to that…

…but I don’t think you’ll hear it done better than here, in a track which originally bore the marvellous (and very Dandy Warhols) title “The World The People Together Come On”. Listen out for the chord change – it’s at 2:13 (at the end of the second verse).

Nice video – especially the first minute or so. I could just fancy a can of Special Brew now…

I don’t wanna seem crude

So there I was in W.H. Smith’s, queuing up with my Radio Times, when… actually I wasn’t buying anything, I was hanging around the magazine racks waiting for my wife and daughter to get finished in Build-A-Bear; I just thought that would take too long to explain. In any case it’s only a bit of scene-setting, I might as well have been getting the Radio Times. Shall we start this again?

I was in W.H. Smith’s – that much is true – when my attention was snagged by a display stand opposite the tills. There, where you might expect to see something by Bill Bryson or an Ordnance Survey road atlas or a new variety of chocolate orange, was this:

Just Kate Moss with no clothes on. Move along, nothing to see here.

Whoa. Tracks, stopped in.

Now, I’m a man of the world; the idea of a magazine printing pictures of Kate Moss naked doesn’t shock me. I have long been aware of the existence of pictures of Kate Moss in the nude; I know that more than one photographer has been granted the opportunity to take pictures of Kate Moss starkers, and more than one of the resulting pictures of Kate Moss in the buff has escaped onto that Internet. I’m quite relaxed about the idea of pictures of Kate Moss letting it all hang out; pictures of a bare Kate Moss are fine by me.

(And people pay consultants to get hits on their Web pages! Piece of cake.)

Kate Moss nue, Kate Moss nackt or Kate Moss desnuda (see what I did there?), it doesn’t bother me. Or indeed surprise me – the model in question has been notably relaxed about doing the whole nude bit. But it was a bit of a jolt to see that image displayed in my face, or rather around waist height. For a moment it took me back thirty-odd years, when I used to get the train home from school every afternoon and hang around the magazine stall furtively glancing at the covers of Der Spiegel and Stern. For some reason German news magazines in the 1970s quite often put topless models on the front cover, which was more than English top-shelf mags did; once or twice Stern even featured a flash of bush, which left the teenage me simultaneously aroused and genuinely shocked (on the cover! can they even do that?). Transgressive stuff there from Gruner+Jahr. (NB “shocking” and “subversive” – not the same thing.) My German isn’t great, but de.wikipedia seems to be saying that a group of women sued G+J in 1978 over the sexist objectification of women in Stern, and frankly I’m not at all surprised. The next time I saw anything like that I was in Schiphol airport, having a drink at a café completely surrounded by hard-core pr0n and thanking the Lord I didn’t have any children with me (“Daddy, what’s ‘hot wet pink action’?”).

It was a striking display, anyway – and a cursory examination confirmed what the visual grammar of that cover rather strongly suggests, i.e. that there are pictures without the masking tape inside. (And I do mean cursory – there are times and places for studying pictures of naked women, and standing opposite the till in W.H. Smith’s while waiting for one’s wife and daughter is neither.) A more leisured investigation later confirmed that Ms Moss is one of eight models featured in the issue; that Love, although it’s essentially a fashion magazine, prints rather a lot of elegant monochrome nudity; and that it’s not the only one – there’s a howlingly expensive mag called Purple which seems to specialise in naked female celebrities, while still ostensibly appealing to well-off women who like looking at posh clothes rather than well-off men who like looking at bare ladies. (I guess it’s possible that Purple‘s core audience is well-off women who like looking at bare ladies and posh clothes, but that seems too small a niche.)

There’s been a two-way traffic between fashion photography and the classier end of soft pr0nography for some time, with several people working both sides of the street; they both involve posing impossibly elegant women to look attractive, after all. Classy soft pr0n as fashion photography seems new, and rather odd – although it’s a trend that may have been brewing for a while: take this (NSFW) from a 2008 issue of W magazine, originally captioned “Christopher Kane’s cashmere sweater with polyester paillettes and glass beads”. Hands up anyone who thinks that’s a picture of Christopher Kane’s sweater.

So what’s going on? I considered the possibility that (to rework the saying about music) “if it looks too rude, you’re too old”. Back in the 1970s, when I wasn’t gawping at Stern from a safe distance, I did occasionally buy my very own copy of Mayfair or something – sometimes accompanying it with a copy of New Society or Omni, research purposes you understand…. Back then the combination of (a) a nice-looking woman and (b) no clothes was all a young lad would ask for from his top-shelf mag – which was just as well, as that was all he was going to get. But that’s a long time ago; maybe Kids These Days demand action sequences and extreme closeups, and anything short of that just doesn’t qualify as pr0n. Conversely, maybe nudity’s a tired old Anglo-Saxon taboo, and we’re all relaxed and European now. I don’t think that’s it, though – the reaction to those photos has been far from ho-hum (NSFW). I guess it’s partly a case of “pushing the boundaries” (yawn), getting attention by doing something slightly more outrageous than the last time – and what Love did the last time was a nude Beth Ditto photoshoot, so you can see the logic of going for the multiple-supermodel approach. In the case of American magazines like W and Interview, there may also be a bit of a transatlantic cultural cringe (directed our way for once), with the perception that the Europeans are so cool about nudity and Americans need to stop being so prudish – and massive over-compensation as a result. (That comparison is valid to some extent, but it’s pretty hypocritical either way round. I don’t think American men feel any differently than French or German men about looking at naked women – they all like doing it and think they have a fundamental right to go on doing it. It’s just that one way of putting naked women on display gets labelled as relaxed (or exhibitionistic), while another gets labelled moral (or uptight).)

I think there’s also something going on about the status of professional photographers, in this age of Internet-enabled mass amateurism, and the status of printed magazines. Which is, after all, something of vital interest to a shop like W.H. Smith’s: anything that makes printed magazines seem a bit less dispensable is good news for a printed magazine shop. (I initially wrote ‘physical magazine’, but if you write ‘physical magazine’ over and over again it starts to get distracting. Whatever did happen to Health and Efficiency?)

I think what caught my eye at the weekend was somebody’s USP. (No, not Kate Moss’s. Settle down.) Sure, you can take pictures of what you want when you want, and sure, you can download pictures of more or less anything you can imagine, but have you got a picture of Kate Moss, dressed in nothing but a pair of high heels, artistically lit and printed on large-format glossy paper? You haven’t? Well, isn’t this your lucky day – look what we’ve got here. Right here, just by the checkout.

(Title courtesy of Stuart, cutting to the chase in his inimitable way.

I saw a lady and she was naked!
I saw a lady, she had no clothes on!

Great song; the S/M imagery is particularly appropriate, bringing out how compelling and overpowering this kind of experience can feel (“Why she want to pick on me?”). It’s a hard life being a man, you know…)

What happened once in Italy

I’ve written another paper, this one for presentation at the Alternative Futures and Popular Protest conference in Manchester at the end of the month. Here’s the abstract:

‘Just plain comrades’: Italian armed struggle groups and the mass movement, 1972-80

This paper will look at the difficult and contradictory relations between large-scale radical movements and ‘armed struggle’ groups in Italy in the 1970s. I shall argue, firstly, that the scale and duration of the ‘armed struggle’ phenomenon makes it impossible to dismiss as an nihilist aberration; this was in some senses a social movement in its own right. Secondly, I shall argue that the armed milieu was closely related to the broader radical movement, but that its evolution was conditioned by different social and political factors. I shall trace the different fortunes of the armed groups and the mass movements in three periods (1972-5, 1976-7, 1978 9), looking at the conditions under which armed groups formed and dissolved. Lastly, I shall look at the ways in which the political exclusion of the mass movements appears to have contributed to the growth of the armed groups, concluding by suggesting some parallels with the British government’s current anti-terrorist strategy.

And here are the references:

Balestrini, N. (1989), L’editore, Milan: Bompiani
Balestrini, N. and P. Moroni (1997), L’orda d’oro (revised edition), Milan: Feltrinelli
Del Bello, C. (a cura di) (1997), Una sparatoria tranquilla: per una storia orale del ’77, Rome: Odradek
Della Porta, D. (1995), Social movements, political violence and the state, Cambridge: CUP
Echaurren, P. and C. Salaris (1999), Controcultura in Italia 1967-1977, Boringhieri: Turin
Edwards, P. (2009), ‘More work! Less pay!’ Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-77, Manchester: Manchester University Press
Jamieson, A. (1989), The Heart Attacked: Terrorism and conflict in the Italian state, London: Marion Boyars
Monicelli, M. (1978), L’ultrasinistra in Italia 1968-1978, Rome: Laterza
Moroni, P. (1994), “Origine dei centri sociali autogestiti a Milano”, in Francesco Adinolfi et al, Comunitá virtuali. I centri sociali in Italia, Rome:Manifestolibri
Moroni, P. (1996), “Un certo uso sociale dello spazio urbano”, in Consorzio Aaster et al, Centri sociali: geografie del desiderio, Milan: Shake
Moss, D. (1989), The politics of left-wing violence in Italy, 1969-85, London: Macmillan
Piazza, G. (1987), “Movimenti e sistema politico: il caso di Autonomia operaia” (unpublished thesis), Università degli studi di Catania
Progetto Memoria (1994), La mappa perduta, Milan: Sensibili alle foglie
Progetto Memoria (1996), Le parole scritte, Milan: Sensibili alle foglie
Tarrow, S. (1989), Democracy and disorder, Oxford: OUP
Tarrow, S. (1998), Power in movement, second edition, Cambridge: CUP
Vinciguerra, V. and M. Cipriani (1999), Oppressione, Repressione, Rivolte: Storia d’Italia dal 25 luglio 1943 ad oggi, online
Wright, S. (2002), Storming Heaven: Class composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, London: Pluto

What I really wanted to do was get into why particular armed groups formed at particular times – for instance, there was a flurry of group formation around 1978-9, which seems to be traceable to the contradiction between the vitality of the mass movement in that period and the closure of political opportunities. Having said that, the key period for the smaller groups was 1974-5, which was a period of growth and innovation rather than blockage. More research required!

Greetings to anyone arriving here from Socialist Unity, by the way. Have a look around – you’ll probably find something of interest behind this tag, this one or this one. (I think my favourite’s this one, though.)

Read us a story

I considered voting Tory the other day.

It didn’t last – I knew within a minute that I just couldn’t do it – but for a moment it really seemed like a good idea. I was reading Ross McKibbin’s piece in the LRB about the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF, the government’s latest system for funding academic research, gives a lot of weight to “impact”: deliver[ing] demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life. 25% of the final rating will be decided on the basis of ‘impact’, and funding for university departments will be decided on the basis of those ratings. McKibbin does a great, if inevitably depressing, job on unpacking all the many things that are wrong with this idea; if you haven’t read it, go and read the piece now (it’s not paywalled). Suffice to say that ‘impact’ criteria will be so hard to meet, in just about any discipline, that the government might as well just have announced that it was cutting university funding by 25%; it would have saved us all a lot of time and effort.

So I was sunk in McKibbin-induced gloom when I read this line:

David Willetts, the shadow minister for universities and skills, has said that the Conservatives will delay the REF ‘by up to two years to establish whether a sound and widely accepted measure of impact exists’.

I could have kissed the man (and yes, I do know who David Willetts is). Certainly voting Tory suddenly seemed like the right choice. For a moment it really seemed like a good idea, but I knew within a minute that I just couldn’t do it. You’d have to leave the house intending to vote Tory, walk down the road planning to vote Tory, and when you got to the polling booth… bear with me, this part is hard to talk about… In the polling station you’d have to get your ballot paper, and then you’d have to take it to the polling booth and in the polling booth you’d have to… I mean, you’d actually have to pick up the pencil and you’d have to…

No. Best draw a veil, I think.

On one level I’m not a Labour loyalist – I gave up on the party some time around 1992 and have never voted for them since. (Green, mostly, or any token Leftist who’s available. Might have voted Lib Dem once, possibly.) Deeper down, though, a Labour loyalist is precisely what I am: the question “Labour or Tory?” causes me about as much hesitation and heart-searching as the question “What’s your name?” On that basis I was surprised that Andrew Rawnsley was surprised to hear that Roy Hattersley had decided to pan his book sight unseen (I had not realised that Roy possesses such advanced critical faculties that he is able to decide that he will give a bad review to a book before he has actually read it); can he really have thought that career Labour politicians would sabotage the party’s chances for the sheer joy of sticking the knife into Gordon Brown? Apparently he did:

There has been little loathing lost between Lord Mandelson and Ed Balls. Tony Blair will campaign for a Labour victory despite the oceans of poison … that flowed between him and Gordon Brown. It may be hilariously bogus for these men to pretend that they are all good friends. But there is also something quite awesome about their ability to subordinate so much venomous personal history in the greater cause of retaining power for their party. … Despite the odds against Labour, despite the epic deficit that will be inherited by the next government, despite all the hatreds that seethe below the surface, they will still fight to the last ditch to stay in power.

But of course they will – what else would they do? Not even Mr Tony Blair actually wants a Tory victory. (Not sure about Patricia Hewitt – although I love Alex’s “signalling” idea in comments to that post, not least because it confirms my main point.)

It’s been interesting, now an election is looming, to see Labour starting to tap into these deeper reserves of support; in any case it makes a change from endlessly trying to impress us with their patriotism, fiscal rectitude and intolerance of yobs. Our own candidate, the ghastly Lucy Powell, recently sent round a ‘questionnaire’ concluding with two tick-box questions: which party you intended to vote for, and whether you would prefer a Labour or a Tory government. This is a Lib Dem seat – gained from a right-wing Labour MP on an anti-war vote – which the Tories have zero chance of winning. (Even the Lib Dems have written them off: they’ve started telling us that the Greens “can’t win here”.) But a Labour or a Tory government… hmm. If that’s dog-whistle politics, then tickle my tummy and call me Rover.

With all that in mind, this from Jenny Diski was interesting:

In 1979, there was a strike at the National Theatre that caused trouble with a Simon Gray play Pinter was directing. Fraser writes: ‘“Union selfishness and violent behaviour at the National” was what convinced Harold to vote Tory in May. I too voted Tory but that was quite unashamedly in order to see a woman walk into No. 10. Neither of us knew much about Mrs Thatcher’s politics.’ She got her wish, Mrs Thatcher did walk through the door of No. 10, but ‘subsequently, Harold, by his own account, regretted his vote.’

That’s nice to know. Diski also comments on the radical stands Pinter took – “always of the astonished variety”,

as if, having read or thought nothing on the subject previously, he woke up one morning and discovered that there was torture or tyranny occurring in the world beyond. Then he’d pronounce it a bad thing in a poem, a one-act play or a speech to the rest of us who were assumed to be entirely ignorant of such events. Sometimes he, Antonia and other fascinating famous people attend a lily-waving demonstration outside the wrong kind of embassy to bring his awareness to the notice of the entire world. His rage at corruption and the misuse of power was wholly admirable, but his sense of it as a brand new, unpleasant discovery was odd, I always thought.

Travelling light makes it easier to see things with a fresh eye, I guess; and seeing things with a fresh eye is a good thing, I guess. But I lean more towards Robert Wyatt’s answer when asked about his ‘politics’ – I don’t have ‘politics’, just certain loyalties. I’m also reminded of Marc Riley’s brisk demolition of Paul Weller, and in particular Weller’s 1980s re-emergence as a beacon of Leftist integrity –

Who loves the Queen and who votes Tory?
Come on, joker, read us a story!

Hey! Hey!

Congratulations to Dr Phil, as one to another! I started my first permanent academic job the other day – only four and a half years after I graduated, although it sometimes felt like longer; it’s a career I can warmly recommend to anyone who’s motivated enough to seek it out.

Phil’s also been on the memes again, as indeed has Splinty. I quite like this one:

Since leaving my teeny bopper past behind me my musical tastes have evolved in a shamelessly snobby direction – first electronica/dance, followed by indie, then a detour into heavy rock, and for the last seven years or so back to the bleepy beaty side of things. It’s the sound of the future, man. At all times I’ve dismissed the mainstream with a derisive snort, and quite rightly so – most of it is pap. But now and then one song stands out among the dross and gets its hooks into you. You can’t get the bloody thing out of your head and to your eternal shame, you really like it. This post is dedicated to three such songs from the 80s, 90s and 00s.

I quite like this one, apart from the ‘shamelessly snobby’ part. I mean, I used to listen to Mixing It – in fact I used to tape Mixing It and dub the good tracks onto another tape; I’ve still got six of them, including everyone from Astor Piazzola to People Like Us by way of DJ Spooky, Bill Frisell and FSOL (who recorded a 25-minute piece, including samples from their interview on the programme). I put it to the honourable blogger that some of us were listening to the Faust Tapes at the age of 13, found our first Beefheart album a letdown (all a bit, y’know, conventional) and were for a long time baffled by the very concept of music to cop off by, since most of our favourite music induced sensations of alienation, disorientation and Angst. I’m not particularly proud of that last part – but then, I’m not proud of any of it; I just did have rather spiky and esoteric musical tastes in my 20s and 30s. (Then I discovered folk – but that’s another story.) It’s not better or worse than “the mainstream”, it’s just different. I’m not saying that everything is equally valuable – as musicians, FSOL were a much more interesting proposition than JLS. I am saying that “mainstream” is no guarantee of mediocrity – and obscurity certainly isn’t a guarantee of quality.

So here are some songs of which (as Jake Thackray said about a religious song of his) I’m not very… ashamed.

2000s
No, not Fireflies. Unlike Andy, I like Fireflies, but I don’t think it’s anything to get embarrassed about. For one thing, I think there’s a bit more going on there than Laurie says. Yes, it’s a sweetly pretty reverie set to sweetly pretty music and given a sweetly pretty video (and yes, that kind of thing does slip down very easily in hard times). But isn’t it also a song (and video) about loneliness, and the kind of isolation from which we seek relief in fantasy? (A fantasy whose inevitable come-down, bringing with it a renewed awareness of the underlying need for human contact, is all the harder to bear for being unassuaged by reality – since we live, as we dream, alone.) On the other hand, I may be reading too much into it.

More importantly, it’s hard to be embarrassed by anything that wet. Anything I’m going to admit to being ashamed of liking is going to be brash, emphatic, big. So let’s start as we mean to go on, with a big arrangement, a big sentimental tune and a big voice. Actually five big voices. Five big Latvian voices, singing in Italian. One of the few great flaws of the Eurovision Song Contest is Italy’s longstanding refusal to take part, but these guys made up for it handily.

I don’t think the Italian is perfect – “Ora e poi” should be “D’ora in poi”, shouldn’t it? – but the singing is lovely. I was slightly disappointed when the last singer came on – I was hoping they’d carry on wandering on throughout the song and the stage would end up packed with them, rather like Colin Newman’s contribution to People in a room. (Although on second thoughts Eurovision have a limit of six people on stage, so that would never have worked.)

Moving swiftly along…

1990s

No, listen. Seriously, click the Play arrow and listen.

God knows I can’t be bothered with anything she’s done since this song, and I really hate the influence she’s had on music (or I suppose the influence her influence on Simon Cowell has had on music); there’s a right place and a wrong place for going crazy with the melismatic grace-notes, and the wrong place is almost everywhere. But this song is a marvellous bit of deep soul. (Way better than Faithless, anyway. Back on the current song, is that a hat-tip to Green in the second verse? You decide.) Play it, anyway – listen all the way through, and if something doesn’t happen to you when she hits “sweet destiny” the second time, I despair of you.

1980s
Speaking of Scritti Politti, have you heard this? Doesn’t belong in this post, because it’s fantastic and not remotely embarrassing. “My fragility, my discre-e-e-tion”… (Better than the album version, too.)

Moving on… I am quite genuinely slightly embarrassed to say I own a Donna Summer single, and that it’s not I feel love. But this is extraordinary:

Zeke Manyika raved about this single in the NME – said he liked the drumming, and the singing reminded him of Zimbabwean choral singing & made his hair tingle. I’d agree with all of that, and put in a word for (a) the bass and (b) Donna’s singing, both of which are pretty fine too. This came out just after the invasion of Grenada; I remember thinking that with new verses it would have made a terrific protest song. (Better than “Amber and the Amberines“, anyway.)

1970s
It was the Desperate Bicycles’ second single, “The medium was tedium“, that enabled me to “get” punk. I liked the Desperate Bicycles because of their attitude and because they sounded a bit like Stackridge. They didn’t sound particularly punk, but that wasn’t really the point – as a band they were very punk.

None of which is embarrassing as such, but this is. As far as I was concerned, this was the “Medium was tedium” of disco – the single that enabled me to Get It. (And indeed Dance to It.) I still think it’s pretty good of its type, although I admit I haven’t played the video all the way through.

1960s
I was a young man way back in the 1960s… Actually I was at primary school way back in the 1960s, but music was already making a pretty deep impression on me. I remember hearing “Days” for the first time (and “Plastic Man”), I remember the Tremeloes and Marmalade and Amen Corner, I remember all kinds of stuff by the Beatles, and I have very fond memories of this:

No, shut up, that’s lovely. No, it is. Oh all right, it isn’t, but it sounded pretty damn good when I was eight. Nice intro, too. (Did John Lennon rip it off for Dear Prudence? Probably not.)

And I tag… you, dear reader. Go to it.

No sad songs for me

Oh, go on then. Picking up the gauntlet thrown down by Phil and Splinty, here are some of the saddest songs you could ask for. One per decade as required, although my musical memories go back a bit longer than totherPhil’s. (Back to this, if you must know – although I’d never seen that rather peculiar promo before tonight.)

Moving along, here’s one from the 1960s.

An early example of Scott Engel’s way with a song. Trundles along quite happily for a couple of minutes, then something strange and quite desolate happens. The good bit is almost immediately smothered by a ludicrous kitchen-sink big finish, but I think it’ll stick in your mind.

For the 1970s, Splinty’s had the obvious candidate; no song said She’s utterly gone and I’ll never, ever see her again like that one. But this comes close:

In the 1980s we get on to songs I actually knew at the time. I remember listening to this album in the winter of 1981, wrapping Christmas presents at my parents’ house – it’s a happy memory, which ought to disqualify the song. But it’s not a happy song; it’s really, really not a happy song.

You know that song Never Be Alone (a.k.a. We Are Your Friends)? I’ve always thought that was partly about fans’ imaginary relationship with pop singers, à la Rubber Ring (“A sad fact widely known…”) When I was 21 Julian Cope was my friend – it felt as if he’d not only read my mind, but been to places I was afraid of going in my mind and reported back. (When I read Head-On, years later, I discovered that the second part of this was quite correct.)

Runner-up: Anthony Moore’s Nowhere to Go, probably the most desolate and despairing piece of music I’ve ever heard; almost too despairing. That and Swans’ God Damn the Sun, which goes right over the top but redeems itself by being beautiful.

The 1990s go to Robyn. His saddest single song is probably She Doesn’t Exist, but the album version is meh. This, on the other hand, will pin your ears back. I’m not quite sure why it’s such a sad song, except that it seems to be about being lost and lonely – lost inside your own head (a mood it shares with the the previous song).

Hon mensh: Peter Blegvad, Something Else (Is Working Harder).
Yes, and don’t it feel like nothing’s real…?

2000s: oh, you’ve got to hear this.

I’d heard it a few times & simply heard a wistful, sweetly pretty song; then I read an interview in which KC explained that the song’s about his daughter, and specifically about talking to his ex-wife on the phone. Promise you’ll tell her…

Happy listening. Well, sort of.

Update 17/2/10 “With your repertoire, you could nominate the saddest song of the 1790s” – the Mrs.

Don’t know about that, but I do feel duty bound to bring to your attention the

Saddest Song Of All Time

Take it away, Tony. (No, that photo isn’t great. The album came out in 1976 and the sleeve has dated rather badly. The music hasn’t. That’s the thing with folk.)

If there’s a sadder song than that, I’m not sure I want to hear it.

A parting on the right

The police forces of England and Wales implemented a new set of rules for recording crimes in 2002-3, following earlier piecemeal adjustments in 1998-9. The National Crime Recording Standard (NCRS) was designed to be more victim-friendly than the counting rules which had preceded it: rather than the police insisting on corroborating evidence before a crime was recorded to have happened, a crime was to be recorded whenever one was reported unless there was evidence to the contrary. There was a certain amount of resistance to these changes, which had the direct effect of apparently increasing the crime rate and the indirect effect of lowering the police’s clear-up rate. Nevertheless, the Home Office felt very strongly that police figures were far too low – the British Crime Survey, based on reports from a representative sample of individual victims of crime, suggested that only about 25% of predatory crimes were getting into the police figures – and the changes duly went through. Comparability was also an issue, although less of an issue with each passing year of data being produced under the new rules. The Home Office has in any case made it very clear that there is no comparability of police crime figures between 2002 and 2003, making available figures like the ones from which the graph below was compiled.

As you can see, there’s a strong correlation between the impact of the NCRS and the amount of evidence typically left by the offence. Recorded burglaries weren’t greatly affected, but recorded crimes of personal violence – where supporting evidence is particularly thin on the ground – went up by almost a quarter from one year to the next, on the basis of nothing other than a change in counting rules.

Now, there is no particular reason why the average member of the public should know about all this. It’s inconceivable that anyone with a professional or academic interest in crime or policing wouldn’t know about it, though; it would be like claiming expertise in English history and getting the date of the Battle of Hastings wrong. So this was an interesting story about the Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling.

Sir Michael Scholar, chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, has warned [Grayling] that the way he used figures for violent crime were “likely to mislead the public”. … Mr Grayling’s office arranged for a press release to go out in every constituency in England and Wales, purporting to show that violent crime had risen sharply under Labour, as part of a campaign spearheaded by Mr Cameron about “broken Britain”. But Mr Grayling had failed to take into account a more rigorous system for recording crime figures introduced by the Home Office in 2002. … Mr Grayling has used comparison between the figures before and after the rule change to suggest that the Labour government has presided over a runaway rise in violent crime.

“I do not wish to become involved in political controversy but I must take issue with what you said about violent crime statistics, which seems to me likely to damage public trust in official statistics,” Sir Michael wrote in a letter to Mr Grayling yesterday.

Mr Grayling replied by promising to “take account of the request by the Statistics Authority, particularly with regard to the changes to recording practices made in 2002-03″. But he insisted that he would “continue to use recorded crime statistics, because they reflect an important reality; that the number of violent crimes reported to police stations, and particularly serious violent crimes, has increased substantially over the past decade, even taking into account any changes to data collection”.

But we don’t know the number of violent crimes reported to police stations, because we don’t know the number which are reported but not recorded; that number is not recorded, surprisingly enough. (There was a proposal a few years back to keep separate tabs on ‘incidents’ (i.e. everything that comes over the front desk or over the phone) and ‘calls for service’ (the subset of incidents that the police do anything about), but as far as I’m aware it didn’t come to anything.) In other words, Grayling has not only managed to ignore a really basic piece of statistical general knowledge; he’s gone on to ignore a correction by an expert in the field, responding in a way which demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what he’d just been told.

The question this leaves is, is David Cameron’s first choice for Home Secretary very, very dishonest, or just very, very stupid?

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