How to hate the working classes

In 2001, the year Luke Haines recorded the song after which this post is titled and to which I listened obsessively (“a party of our own”, indeed), I did something that could quite easily have had seriously unpleasant consequences.  Unsettled by the fact that my vote actually mattered – and my being unsettled at such a thought may be a sign that I am not quite as much of a Europhile as I always say I am – because my constituency had been the narrowest Tory hold from the Blairite surge in 1997, and disconcerted by the general climate of a general election (without any doubt or argument whatsoever, the least politicised, least eventful and least memorable there had ever been or will ever be in the United Kingdom and/or possible, though now less likely at least in the short term, successor states) in which these things actually were news, I decided – driven by a “fuck you, fuck everything” mentality very specific to 20-year-olds, just normally driven in other directions – to vote Liberal Democrat instead.

Happily, not enough people listened to my portentious ramblings to make a difference, and Labour did scrape home.  But imagine how I would feel about myself now, even knowing what Labour were like at the time, if they had!  All the bullshit self-justification I went through at the time brings on a deep and profound cringe and I shan’t repeat it now.  But what I refused to face at the time, in my ahistorical ramblings about the Lib Dems being “right” for the constituency and Labour “wrong”, is that this area (which is what has often made the seat marginal; the rest of the constituency is much more Tory) isn’t really part of “the West Country” in the sense that I wanted to identify with; because of its history of what in this area counted as heavy industry (quarrying), and because of its contemporary social reality of considerable levels of deprivation (mentioned in The Guardian only this week) unknown in other parts of Dorset, which between them allowed Labour (other than during its wilderness years of the 1980s – you remember, the ones we all thought would now be replicated) to overtake the Liberals as the main local challenger to the Tories in a manner impossible elsewhere in the region, Weymouth & Portland is much more “an outpost of the North in the South” (to reverse how – Remain-voting, natch – Harrogate was described in an ILM post of the period).

And for a long time thereafter, when I’d grown out of my 2001 posturing, I loved and took pride in it for that.

But I don’t anymore.

Brexit is what done it.  A 61% majority here, which I think may have been the highest in the entire South West England government region; to find the 60% mark being routinely breached elsewhere, you’d have to go to depressed post-industrial areas and parts of the Eastern counties.  I used to think Weymouth & Portland was more progressive for being more like the depressed post-industrial areas.  I don’t now.  One decision, one day, did that for me.  It took out of me most of what I had lived all my life for; after it, I felt myself to be hollow and empty, no longer having anything meaningfully to live for.  And that is still how I feel, and it has heightened my sense of isolation from my physical environment, and made visits to Dorchester – West Dorset was almost for Remain and the towns within it, being more Lib Dem compared to the Tory villages, probably were for Remain – seem much more pleasurable, much more something to look forward to, much more a journey to a better world.

Heresy.  I don’t identify with the working class, at least as they are in my area, anymore; I feel no sense of pride or affinity towards them.  I am perfectly happy to aspire towards the middle class.  Suddenly, I understand anew what I did in 2001 and why I did it.  Suddenly, it makes some kind of sense to me again.

And suddenly, even though I know this certainly isn’t 1992 in that respect, I’m looking at the incredible proliferation of satellite dishes here (my own house first had one in between that 2001 election and what, at least on the global stage if not particularly within the UK, was the Restart of History three months later) – certainly greater than in Dorchester, where they are perfectly commonplace but not on every house for whole roads like they are here – and wondering if this might be some kind of symptom; that Sky viewers (yes, yes, I know about Freesat) are less likely to perceive American pop culture as foreign and, therefore, more likely to vote Leave because the central Remain argument, that we have so many other foreign influences so why single out the EU, didn’t work on them.

Working-class cultural atavistic identities, at least in the sense that are directly open to someone of my background, no longer mean anything to me.  Maybe they never did.  They all leave me hollow, cold, isolated, separated, outside.  In 2001 I refused to relate to the relative Northern-ness of my physical environment partially because I already knew that localism, where I live, had died as a result of pop whereas in the North it had been strengthened by pop.  Now I sense that again.  I always had identified with the Leeds-Harrogate-York triangle far more than the Barnsleys & Doncasters.  Now I know why.

The working class of the great, largely although by no means exclusively Remain-voting, cities continue to make outstanding, inspirational, vital music and culture, and in those cities I will take them unswervingly over the middle class (even if, in this year of the impossible, the unthinkable – when the election was called you could have got a million to one on Labour winning either Kensington or Canterbury and a billion to one on their winning both – the latter now vote more and more with the former).  But not in this environment.  My affinity to Dorchester is greater now than I ever dreamt it could be; when I come home I feel depressed, tired, enervated, trapped.

Now there is talk of the local government distinction between Weymouth & Portland and West Dorset being abolished and broken down.  I’d once have been against that on principle, seeing it as a plot to weaken Labour’s standing, but I don’t care now.  The affinity is gone.  Brexit, again.  Let them merge.  What I’d once have feared I’d now welcome.  And let the leader of our borough council, an active supporter of technological capitalism, talk about “the unique culture of every town and village” as if such things remotely still existed.  Let these people condemn themselves out of their own mouths for future generations’ shock and disbelief, that they were appealing to something their own actions had destroyed.

16 years on, I again didn’t vote Labour, twice.  Partially because I thought Corbynite intransigence and indifference had been a factor in turning me into a walking shell for the rest of my life; partially because I simply didn’t want to be part of that mass, the Leave voters, the people who had disowned me and rendered me stateless.  And I thought hard about it, seriously, just as I had done then (Janey Lee Grace playing Arcadia).  In the general election, voting for Jon Orrell didn’t matter; in a seat won by fewer than 200 votes by two different parties in two consecutive elections so recently, the Tories had an absolute majority.  In the council election, five very long weeks earlier, my Green vote – declining in most places certainly when the general election came and everything had turned, but again it was a matter of who I wanted to be a part of and who I didn’t – actively helped to get a Tory elected.  The shame, the guilt, the fear has lived with me ever since, even since before the polls had closed.  But maybe there was some sort of reason.  Maybe it was because I do, despite myself, hate the working classes, at least the lumpenproletariat.  Maybe there was a reason.  Maybe there is always a reason.


Anti-Semitism: a mea culpa

I must, I fear, express and explain my guilt over all this.

I wish I were not guilty, but I know I am.

And that guilt is over the fact that, by about 2002 or so, people in my political position had come to the conclusion that, because Jews were treated better within the Mail-reading mainstream than they ever had been before, and because they might be aligned with an international geopolitical position to which we were antipathetic, it didn’t matter what we allowed to be said and thought about them.  It didn’t matter who we took as allies of convenience, who we aligned ourselves with.

In time of war, we thought it didn’t matter.  Hadn’t people like us been forced to take sides, twenty years earlier, with as horrific a military junta as has existed anywhere in modern history, simply because its victory was necessary to facilitate ours?  If we could align ourselves with a regime like that, nothing was beyond or beneath us in our fight to get our party back, and in a sense to get our country back as well.  Didn’t we unequivocally mean Attlee’s Britain, rather than Churchill’s, when we used the latter phrase?  And so we stopped caring.

No matter that the places which have become more and more threatening for Jews to live in partially as a result of people like myself taking our eyes off the ball, the places which had once been their only places of safety in Britain – London, Manchester and Glasgow, basically – are still, unlike the places in the Shires which have undoubtedly become more philosemitic as a result of Thatcher’s legacy, the places where most British Jews actually live.

No matter that we could remind ourselves without hesitation or argument – just by reading something on the Times Digital Archive, or watching or reading some (obviously not all) of the films and books I had grown up on – that many of the attitudes that Thatcherism threw on the fire were just as bad as Thatcherism itself, and never deserved to be saved or protected in any way.  Didn’t we recognise how bad anti-ITV snobbery – Shire Tories honestly believing that the ITV of 1975 was what the Sky of 2005 would end up being – had been?  But at the same time, we wanted and needed those views back; for pop, in particular, to be the playground we thought we were being denied we needed Hyacinth Bucket to rise from the grave.  And anyway, if someone was against the Iraq war it didn’t matter.  Hadn’t Churchill taken sides with Stalin?  “You play by different rules in time of war”.  I internalised those words as a mantra.  I didn’t know the dangers.  None of us did.  If anyone warned us, they could be safely dismissed as a “neocon” or “imperialist”.

And anyway, if Thatcher had taken a side that automatically meant it was bad.  If those she had thrown on the fire had held a view, that automatically made it good.  And didn’t I want to create a dominant Left-wing tradition where none had existed (it could have done if all the potential Hammetts and Lovelesses hadn’t gone to South Wales, but those events had ensured that they did)?  The only way to do that, I thought, was to bring the disillusioned old guard from the other side over, to convince them that their true interests lay in our hands.  And if they were poisonously, hatefully anti-Semitic, what did it matter?  They weren’t the mainstream of their side any more, so it didn’t matter what they hated.  The Sun and Sky News would come through for Israel.  Anything else was fluff in the wind.

People like myself started using “nuance” as a pejorative, just as The Sun itself did.

People like myself stopped caring.  We didn’t think it mattered any more.  The other side would look after them, so who cared what we did?

And so we made some disgusting friends.  I personally was far, far too tolerant of an active BNP member who talked about “kikes” and “a special oven”, simply because he used the words to denounce Paul Wolfowitz.  I was told to delete his comments.  I thought the person telling me was a weak centrist and did nothing.  If someone hated the neocons, he must be one of us underneath, right?

I thought the Palladium show was driven by a hatred of British tradition because those who built ATV would have thought the latter would lead to another Holocaust, and had rendered us indifferent to the first one.  Rhetoric worthy of the Colin Jordan of 1962.  Except it was coming from the mouth of a 21st Century “anti-imperialist”, for whom Chomsky was a God.

I insinuated that Jack Rosenthal’s Your Name’s Not God, It’s Edgar denounced the puritanism and fear of pleasure of the Old Left because its writer was Jewish, and therefore not quite one of us, not built into this land.  Hadn’t ’68 simply set the stage for Thatcherism, created an emphasis on self-satisfaction which could go to any side?  I didn’t realise what “could go to any side” actually meant, i.e. that its ending up on that side was never inevitable, never certain, never ordained.  I thought any kind of “socialism of pleasure” was Thatcherism by other means.  Hadn’t Blair proved that?  And wasn’t Iraq invaded for Israel?  Didn’t that prove that everything, everything, was all a Jewish conspiracy?

I witnessed people of the ostensible Left defending Quentin Letts, and didn’t do a thing to speak out against it, and to make clear that he was everything we should be against.  I actively imbibed the view that if he didn’t like the people who created neoliberalism and invaded Iraq, he must be one of us underneath.

When Momus backed away from any hint of philosemitism, I cheered him along.

When someone sarcastically suggested on my blog that the real reason why I didn’t like Amy Winehouse’s music very much was because she was Jewish, I thought they were a Murdochian troll.  Now I think it was fair comment, and far closer to what the Left should have been.

But still I posted outrageous, conspiratorial shit about football because I wanted Steve McClaren to fail.

I saw people on the same forum using phrases like “Zionist bastards” and thought the only thing wrong with it was that I wasn’t allowed to use the same phrases because I didn’t go to the same pubs.  I saw people relativising away the use of the word “kike” – because after all Rupert Murdoch’s against it, isn’t he? – and nodded along.  When people admitted that they knew that the USA was a fairer society, for all its faults, than Iran even when they were pleased that the latter had beaten the former in the 1998 World Cup, I thought they were giving in to the enemy.

Once I had changed sides and realised how dangerous a place I had been going to, I had to suffer for it.  I was verbally abused and attacked in all kinds of unreasoning, resentful ways.  Over and over again, they were all as I had been.  It didn’t matter.  It’s not our quarrel.  The other side can look after it.  The other side care so much that we don’t need to.

And then they took over the party, and the commanding heights stopped caring too.

And this was always going to happen.

And, I regret to say, it deserves to happen.

No allegiances of convenience, no horrors of war, no changing of sides on the Right, nothing can justify what people like me were accepting, excusing and encouraging.

And until that recognition – the one I made just in time – is total and universal, until all hints that “it’s all being made up by the Zionist Neocon Media” are removed, we will deserve to fail.

At a time when, more desperately than ever, we need to win.

But people like myself saw the people on anorak forums who attacked anti-Semitism and Ahmadinejad from the Left also appearing to defend, or at least make allowances for, Murdoch from the Left, and thought they were scum, beyond belief, beyond argument, beyond reason.

We identified opposition to anti-Semitism with “the wrong side”, and lost everything we had ever stood for, became everything we had ever said we were against.

And so we have given ourselves the threat of defeat when, at least in certain places, victory had looked certain.

And we don’t, really, deserve anything better.

It is an insult to all who have suffered from anti-Semitism to say that pointing attention to it is invariably, and by its very nature, tabloid exploitation and manipulation.  I once believed it was.  We all did.  But it isn’t.  These are questions to answer.

And if the only way to answer them is to move away from certain posturing manifestations of what “socialism” has become, then maybe it has to be.

Because socialism was never this, or meant to be this, or anything like this.

But Corbyn did not grow up in one of its heartlands; he grew up in a Shropshire where anti-Semitism of the Quentin Letts variety would have been casual, unthinking, unremarked.

And just as being against Thatcher didn’t make the Argentinian military junta good, being against Thatcher didn’t make those attitudes any good either.

But we thought it didn’t matter.

And at the one time when we needed it not to bite us, it has, and it would have deserved to bite us whoever was responsible and whoever had created it.

A “socialism” which believes that concerns about anti-Semitism are the stuff of an elite conspiracy is the antithesis of socialism.

And, even if others are not prepared to say it, I’m sorry.

A few thoughts on why Corbyn happened

(Note that I’m honestly not sure whether I believe a word of what I’ve written below, or anything I might say or think in public: for the first time in my life, I have no clear beliefs and no internal self-confidence or certainty about anything.  Marcello wasn’t wrong about guilt: within myself I am crippled, walking through my life with sheer horror, pinching myself in angry disbelief.  And it’s not even as if I don’t want to listen to Jamz Supernova.  But I do have grave doubts about the choice of Seumas Milne and about some of Corbyn’s associations, I think.)

That Dominic Sandbrook’s new TV series actually takes its title from the works of Robbie Williams – some people just can’t let the High Blair era go, can they? – tells a very important story: Williams, like Sandbrook and like most of the people who gave him such astronomical sales, is a fully paid-up supporter of the Pop Culture Party, whatever name it happens to take  (it is, in essence, Whig, but less purely so in the Victorian sense than Thatcher saw herself to be) – so “Labour” for as long as Blair was in control and “Conservative” since – and has no real political views of any sort beyond that (I don’t dispute the implication in the No Parlez TPL entry that Rudebox – the album that turned all those people off – is far superior to most other 2006 UK number one albums, but that says more about that hellish, despicable pop year, for which I still blame Sacha Baron-Cohen and Leigh Francis – that Victor Lewis-Smith, ostensibly right-on in other respects, simply could not see what was wrong with these people’s work tells its own story about the Two Lefts, and about the people they mocked as the limit of, I fear, Corbynites’ empathy – than anything else, even if we discount the single most disavowed and disturbing number one album of all time).  Sandbrook, gloatingly quoted by John Whittingdale at the Tory conference to ram the point home, represents the single biggest reason – a new wave of Europhobic Tory nationalism which, when it talks about “our culture” which needs to be protected from marauding foreigners and meddling statists, unequivocally means the Rolling Stones rather than Elgar in a manner wholly unimaginable in 1994 – why Jeremy Corbyn is where he is.

Think about it.  Labour’s success in the late 1990s and early 2000s was as much about pop culture as the Tories’ success in the 1980s was about efficient management of a market economy; when Labour stole the latter clothes, the Tories had nowhere to go but into a heritagisation of their past which was more genuinely culturally conservative than they have ever otherwise been in my lifetime, but was electorally doomed precisely for that reason: William Hague’s leadership.  Doesn’t that sound familiar, at least on the surface?

The article published in August 2001 in The Independent claiming with confidence that “the 1960s claim their final victim: the Conservative Party” might as well have been written 140 years ago, not 14; it seemed true enough then, but the Golden Jubilee – the real birth of Cameron (it is astounding how few people point attention to the fact that the upsurge of a nationalism thought obsolete happened between April and June, exactly as it had done twenty years earlier) – already cast severe doubts.  By 2004, the social make-up of pop in its mass sense – the only sense that can work in a ruthless, unrepresentative game of targeting 800 people in Dartford or Watford – had already changed sufficiently as to make what had seemed impossible perfectly possible.  And the triptych was completed by Iraq; the use of boomer rock and its legacy to justify British involvement, together with the social shift within pop (the way Keane et al took the place in Middle England CD collections and on Middle England commercial radio of multiple Scottish bands seems analogous to the way that part of English society lost faith in the Union and cast its fellow citizens adrift before there was a real chance of the reverse; see also what I believe to be the non-existence of Scotland within the Downton Abbey universe when set against its intimate connection with Upstairs, Downstairs as a reflection of those of Julian Fellowes’ politics coming to see the Union as a hindrance, a restriction) and the way pop had helped the oldest elite of all when even they had clearly suspected if not assumed it would fail, had killed every assumption behind that article, rendered it as archaic as a prediction of continuing British imperial glory written on Coronation Day 1953, or indeed an article at the same time suggesting that there were no long-term risks to the international status of the England football team, would have seemed a comparable amount of time later.

The only way out – and it was real, that summer; the Tories still seemed fatally confused and internally divided and had not yet had enough time to create their new agenda – was not taken in the autumn of 2007, and from then on the power of pop culture was indelibly associated with the side for which it had once been seen as the final nail.  Martin Jacques, in his thoughts on Corbyn recently quoted by John Harris in The Guardian, seems to be wholly aware of this, and he must be considered a test figure in the same way that Peter Hitchens’ opposition to the golliwog or the broadcast of the N word when it is used in old films makes it even harder for those on anorak forums who defend such things to justify themselves.

Thatcher, at the start, brought together those for whom “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was a bit much and those excited by the libertarian impulse of 1960s rock culture; Corbyn has brought together a strain of socialism for which Elvis was a severe problem and people for whom Britpop was what their parents partied to before they settled down and brought them up, people for whom the Easyjet 20th anniversary ad using “Disco 2000” is really far more ancient history than 1960s pop culture was to the Britpop generation.  Corbyn can appeal to his young supporters partially because, as a non-pop-cultural figure (and certainly not part of the Ian MacDonald idea of the political legacy of boomer rock – the one to which people still give my name, when they really should give his, not least because he got there in 1993 – in the way those of his generation who were dominant when he was in exile were and are), he can represent the antidote to the hegemony of a certain kind of pop culture within Tory nationalism for those for whom that culture is boring, irrelevant, old, effectively their Elgar (if you see what I mean).  The New Old Left is probably an inevitable byproduct of the fact that the continuing huge creativity of youth in the UK is now concentrated pretty much entirely in forms which are hard enough for a lot of people even of my age really to understand or grasp (and I am half Martin Jacques’ age), and maybe both British pop and British politics are better for it.  Certainly another Britpop couldn’t help the same side the first one did; that kind of pop is far too far gone, now.

But I would have more hope for Corbyn if there had been a movement for the socialist restructure of UK broadcasting which fired in 2004, was legally suppressed in 2007 and had inspired massive political protest and disconnection from the ruling class in the subsequent years.  I’d have more hope if there had been an unequivocally socialist recording act of some form or description – full of rage against the consensus of their time – who also exploded in 2004, had reached their apotheosis in 2012 and had since slipped noticeably on an artistic level and whose relevance was in serious doubt, but at the same time become embedded in the international jet set in the way which is usually – as it very definitely was in that case (Tony, you’re a fool to cry …) – the tipping point for genuine, top-level political impact.  And that is where the guilt and self-doubt comes back.  I keep telling myself that, if he ever did win, Corbyn could still change a lot even without that, but then I wonder where Thatcher would have found herself, and how great her legacy would really have been, had she only ever been able to do what she thought she was doing as opposed to what she actually did, and I ask myself: if the equivalent side to the one which won in Thatcher’s case also won in this case, would it not be a grand betrayal, and would that not make my whole life a lie?

But this is why it is important that a tweet by Paul Canning (who often writes, and thinks, good stuff, and is certainly right that Western Putinism is the politics of despair) criticising Seumas Milne’s appointment (about which I myself have profound doubts) quoted “The End” by the Doors, and significant that it was retweeted by someone with “Mersey” in their Twitter handle rather than, say, “Tyne”.  That is what the split between the Two Lefts is all about, and that is the single greatest dividing line in Britain today, by far.  That is also why the most important thing Milne has ever tweeted was an approving reference to William Rees-Mogg, decades after the fact, having sniffed out Thatcherism in the Stones and “soft-Leftism” in the Beatles.  It really is all the final act of what some (not me) once called Carmodism.

But maybe, in the end, none of this matters.  Maybe we are all permanently disenfranchised, permanently cursed, permanently denied happiness (if we even want it; Zizek says that we don’t, and he might well be right) by the seven-vote failure of electoral reform in 1917.  Maybe everything that is wrong in our lives to this day stems from that moment, really much more than that war itself, for all its disfiguring qualities (the First World War, in its way, orphaned the English people, but had that bill succeeded, it might have done some good, rather than leaving us with the worst of all worlds).  Bringing forward Individual Electoral Registration so it is more likely to hit the EU referendum and disproportionately disenfranchise those who are not hysterically paranoid about The Wrong Kind of Foreigners … it is obvious where this is leading and what it means.  It took guts for me even to write this.  It’s as much as I can face, as much as I can do.

I know ‘cos I was there: what grammar school lobbyists are really on about

I was wondering the other day why I associate bull-headed opposition to the serious study of popular culture in two different social groups and for two different reasons – specifically the twin reactionary beliefs which need each other for either to survive, both “we’re beneath it” and “it’s above us” – more with south-east England than anywhere else, and specifically with the county in which I grew up.

And then I remembered that that county has retained a 1950s education system.

It should go without saying that I abhor with all the fibre of my being the de facto privatisation of state education which the current government is continuing to accelerate.  I regard it as one of the very worst acts of vandalism among many so far committed under Cameron’s watch.  But even after the de facto privatisation of Portland’s schools, I still regard the education system here as infinitely preferable to the one I left behind (Hitchens Minor, in particular, really should wonder – which means he won’t, of course – how his portrayal of New Labour as some kind of Trotskyist fringe movement in power fits with the fact that they left the grammar schools which had effectively survived by mistake very much in place).  It is possible, of course, that a right-wing movement might take over effectively privatised state schools in places like this and use them to demonise, and de-Anglicise, urban England; I never felt, as some other elements on the Left did, that this invalidated concerns about what appears to have happened in Birmingham (although Hitchens Minor also defended that, for different reasons), but I do still feel it is an issue of concern.  But I think young people in places like this would all, pretty much universally, instantly and unequivocally reject it; even if some of their parents (I think more so, if anything, those who have moved from places like Birmingham than those with older roots here) want to take them in such a direction, virtually none of them want to go there, and I also don’t think the academy process blots out quite the same tradition of progressivism in state schools here as it does in some other places – there might, if anything, have been more teachers with those reactionary ambitions in the past than there are today.  You can’t effectively take young people with the aspirations that young Portlanders mostly have and mould them into the Wurzels, even if you want to.

The other problems are obvious enough if you think like me; I think of that letter to The Times in 1995 – 1995! – about one of the Buckinghamshire girls’ grammar schools insisting on knitting as the first module in its science GCSE, which inevitably reminds us of the fact that the anti-science culture in grammar schools, and the failure to develop technical schools properly, did more damage to Britain in the thirty years after the war probably than anything else.  It is all very well to talk about France and Germany; they don’t have the inherent social impairments built into their societies that we do.  In a society such as this, we simply cannot afford such a system as they no doubt can, because it cannot but indulge negative social tendencies here, and cannot be the relatively fair judge of aptitude that I believe it pretty much is there.  I have people in my own family who never fulfilled their considerable potential, and are still living out lives which are far narrower than they should be or need to be, precisely because they weren’t put forward for grammar school because they weren’t considered The Right Sort.  I’d love us to be the sort of society where there is no risk of that.  But there still is, even now, and you can’t wave a magic wand and turn us into France or Germany overnight.  That’s why the comparison doesn’t hold.

But if – as I believe is still broadly the case in Kent, although I do also recognise (c.f. one comment here) that even they have evolved in this respect, at least to some extent, though I would still say more because they had to than because they really wanted to – the schools which are perceived as most socially prestigious perceive the serious study of popular culture as beneath them, and the majority are educated in schools which are dominated by an overriding sense of social inferiority and isolation, and are recognised by reliable sources as considerably worse than many in inner London (East Anglian primary schools also scored very low on a recent poll, again possibly the victim of a “learning’s not for people like us” culture – there is a reason why that kind of working class has always been the Tories’ favourite kind; it’s why I have to fight it so hard – which brings on an even greater sense of relief that East Anglia abandoned its grammar schools decades ago, and that Cambridgeshire’s secondary system has long had so much to say for it), the two equally odious twin forms of reactionary sentiment specifically with regard to popular culture, the Sun version and the Telegraph version, are both strengthened in a way they don’t need to be, even (indeed, especially) as they make less and less sense in the wider world.

The chosen few will still be more likely to erect strict high-low divisions, in terms of how they handle and approach the multiple experiences of their developing lives, which they would be less likely to do in other places under other systems; the rest will be much more likely, precisely because of the educational separation, to think taking this stuff seriously “isn’t for people like us”, a betrayal of its authenticity.  Neither will be given an education which addresses what has happened in the wider culture since most of the country moved on in terms of its education system; both will set up equally unnecessary divisions, and both will trivialise mass culture, the one simply as an escape when it can be so much more than that, the other as the totality of their lives when it can be so much more than that, too.  Their tastes within mass culture might well be narrower in both cases, and different cultures within pop will cross over with each other far less, with all the racist and classist implications (worse than ever as a direct result of Blair’s legacy) that carries.  Neither social group will be given the basic grounding they would both get under fairer and newer systems, and both will be weaker and narrower for it.

On his own terms, Hitchens Minor’s vision makes perfect internal sense, and is a lot more honest than the typical pussyfooting of other right-wing hacks.  (And no, I don’t really dispute Hitchens Minor’s points on selection by postcode within the comprehensive system; where I do dispute with him, and the Mail titles as a whole, is in the argument that it would be “communist social engineering” even to attempt to challenge that.)  I think the 2012 series recently repeated on BBC Four was entirely correct that the grammar school model made much more sense in the pre-Beatles world than in the world that replaced it.  But schools have an exceedingly limited power to change and direct the world around them; almost by definition, they cannot create or set trends in themselves.  If you believe – as Hitchens Minor does – that schools should ignore the world around them and pretend that all the important things which have happened in it haven’t happened and won’t go on happening, then of course you will prefer grammar schools.  If you believe they have other responsibilities, you won’t.  It’s really remarkably simple.

And I suffered for it directly, and my education never fully recovered, even when we came here.  Quite apart from my barely-diagnosed condition doing what it did, I grew up in a house where both Bullseye and Radio 4 were on as a matter of course.  How could I possibly have fitted in such an arrangement?  Unlike a lot of people of my age and below, I know, ‘cos I was there.

Our kingdom in horses

When Greg Wood wrote in The Guardian that Kauto Star was “the first, and greatest, star of National Hunt (racing)’s modern era” I thought to myself at first: wasn’t that Best Mate?  Then I realised that Wood was absolutely right; Best Mate belongs to a different and separate era, a time when – astonishing as this would go on to seem in the context of the huge jump racing boom of the Kauto era – jump racing was perceived by some to be in an inexorable and irreversible spiral of decline, a supposed victim of the alleged Tuscany Tony’s similarly alleged War on the Countryside (apropos an earlier comment on here – that third album didn’t stick around long now, did it? – Marcus Mumford was, indeed, the same age in 2002 as Mick Jagger in 1958).  Best Mate isn’t quite part of jump racing as big business; he’s part of the era when I could, briefly and fleetingly, sense such a paranoia and fear in Dorchester that I could almost imagine the 1974 Lena isn’t currently writing about directly (although she is, I think, writing about it indirectly; TPL – fifteen years later – is currently in a period of two Scottish and two Liverpudlian number one albums in quick succession, but Toryism had already become Whig to such an extent that such a dominance within pop was arguably already on borrowed time).  And he was trained by a former girls’ boarding school teacher married to a totally unreconstructed man of the old Shires (both of whose accents have disappeared every bit as completely as the traditional accents of areas with large BAME populations, if not in fact more so), neither of them genuine business people in the way Paul Nicholls is (if a certain other Somerset institution represents the roots of the new capitalism in old hippiedom, he represents its other roots in a now largely excised feudalism).

Kauto Star was about other currents within British life of his time as well – to some extent he represented mainland European sophistication set alongside the rugged traditionalism of his Irish-bred (though trained in the same English stable) rival Denman, although we mustn’t forget how important the first real wave in history of Irish capitalists making money out of the British market was in the transition of British jump racing into big business – but above all else he was about the realisation that, in fact, jump racing had had little to fear from New Labour because it had already, without anyone really noticing, become out-and-out capitalism and therefore eliminated any elements to it which might have been a threat to them even if you believed the wilder claims.  More than that, he was about The Shires losing that paranoia about modern culture and embracing and becoming part of that culture, and about that culture meeting bona fide capitalism halfway, and about the politics of capitalism dropping whatever notional hostility they had had to The Shires … about the creation of a version of capitalism which was both accepting of what capitalism actually does and broadly supported in The Shires such as there had never been before, and about the creation of a shire culture which, also for the first time, accepted the logical outcome of capitalism as much as the notional idea of capitalism itself.  In short, Kauto Star was about the entire politics of his era, his moment, from the month Cameron became leader to his second Christmas in office (his span of Grade 1 wins).  No wonder he was so symbolic, so significant.

Other National Hunt horses who have made an impact on the wider public feel like similar cyphers and metaphors (to some extent, the most recent Flat horse to have done the same – something harder for the highest-class horses even before jumping had embraced bona fide capitalism, because they always stuck around for much less time – also feels like this; the Frankel Moment was also the moment when it seemed as though Murdoch might fall and gentlemanly capitalism might actually be restored, a moment which was dead even before Henry Cecil himself was).  The fact that Mill House was Irish-bred means that it would be simplistic to identify him purely with the English ruling class, and Arkle was in fact owned by someone whose name ended with the words “Duchess of Westminster”, but there can be no doubt that Arkle’s rise felt like a moment of Irish self-assertion, stepping out of long and overpowering shadows, which might well have seemed symbolically linked with what was happening in Britain (some of it, at least in terms of pop music, driven in part by people of Irish descent).  That he transcended his ownership to become a genuine people’s hero in the Republic of Ireland was, if anything, easier at that moment, before old wounds were reopened in the North in the harshest way possible, and it would have been hard, I think, not to equate the fall of Mill House with the fall of Alec Douglas-Home, the fall which in the end was not permanent, once capitalism had, in the 2000s, lost whatever qualities it had which made it slightly unpalatable to such people.

Simply because he was trained on Merseyside and achieved his greatest successes there, Red Rum‘s career is, of course, also inexorably linked with the Irish – Catholic and Ulster Protestant alike – presence in Britain, and with the planting of the seeds for the revival of the Grand National as a great people’s festival, but he also seems to symbolise the strength and power of the working class, the small man, in the Britain of the 1970s; that he could do what he did to a horse who seemed to exude semi-aristocratic self-confidence and measured cool (although even here there are ironies; that horse was in fact New Zealand-bred, one who might once have been seen as a “jumped-up colonial”, in the year that country felt itself abandoned by Britain’s membership of the EEC and would respond initially with the last top-down, state-based Tory movement the Anglosphere is ever likely to see, before a subsequent Labour government was, in a sense, Roy Jenkins, Thatcher and Blair all in one go).  But Red Rum did what he did in a setting profoundly run down and on its last legs; it felt as though public will and affection might not be enough to keep this rotting edifice alive.  The national sense of decay which many felt in the 1970s – however driven by an essentially Tory worldview and however much some people outside that culture did not feel it, and still do not feel it in retrospect – fitted very closely with the state of Aintree and the Grand National.

Red Rum also exemplifies some of the problems and faults within the Old Labour or broader Old Northern culture; Ginger McCain was a famously reactionary and unenlightened character (and, as he came from Southport, is a good deal less likely to have been a socialist – even a reactionary one – than if he had come from Liverpool itself; “used car store owner” – and, yes, that’s a 1974 link too – also often codes as “working-class Tory” even in some of Labour’s strongest areas).  After his last hurrah at Aintree during the Blair / Countryside Alliance / Best Mate era, his son Donald McCain has been, overall, a far more successful trainer in far less time precisely through embracing jump racing’s new sense of itself as big business; even if Ginger McCain himself might not have been a socialist, plenty of Northerners of his generation with similarly questionable views on social and cultural matters were, so even though it might require a stretch, you can still make the argument that the generational shift, even if not necessarily this precise family line, represents how Northern English culture, and especially North-West English culture, has simultaneously become more driven by pure commerce and the profit motive, with its capitalism on a much greater scale rather than simply as a hobby, a pastime, while at the same time becoming more socially liberal and pluralist (a profoundly problematic dual dichotomy which I still cannot work my head round).

Certainly, a great many horse racing fans are horrible reactionaries – often, in fact especially, reactionary socialists.  It seems to attract all the most reactionary and unpleasant social tendencies on all sides and in all classes; it has historically drawn massive support from both the aristocracy and the lumpenproletariat (the reactionary tendencies of both of which have always needed those of the other to keep going, feel a sense of justification) and been largely ignored by the more liberal social tendencies in between.  A fantasy project of mine some years ago was to build on the work already done by such as Rebecca Cassidy, Kate Fox (in her blither way – she might be, in this field, a sort of Dominic Sandbrook to Cassidy’s Andy Beckett) and Wray Vamplew & Joyce Kay, and put together a definitive social history of the sport in Britain on a par with Derek Birley or even C.L.R. James’ work on cricket.  I genuinely still think there is life within such a vision, because like the origins of British pop, it certainly deserves to be rescued from some of the reactionaries (on more than one side, in both cases) who have attempted to control the territory for themselves; I just don’t think I’m really capable of writing it.  But it still needs to be written.

The bit at the top of this blog about “the horsiest Leftie in the Anglosphere, but there are many horsier ones beyond” is written advisedly; in mainland Europe (and the greater similarity here is, I think, an underrated factor in Scotland, Wales and Ireland being, on the whole, more Europhile), there is simply not the culture of separation and distinction between Left-wing politics and horse-related (and other rural) activities and enthusiasms such as there tends to be in England.  It is easy to underestimate and forget just how different English political and cultural divisions might be if this split didn’t exist; for a start, you wouldn’t have the phenomenon of Leftists saying that they don’t like other professional regional stereotypes in England but have no problem with the Wurzels, because they don’t imagine that the latter could possibly conceal anything more progressive in the way that they recognise that, say, Brian & Michael damagingly did.  This is pretty much exactly what someone says in the Popular comments to the entry for “Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs”, and is a depressingly predictable view on the English Left, and in itself part of the reason why Tory majorities can just about happen.  These things predict themselves and institutionalise themselves; each side needs the narrowness of the other.  Breaking them down has been an important part of my identity, of what I am.

Those who know me in the flesh will know that I have pulled away from this recently; I haven’t been riding for a while now, prefer to keep my distance, step back a bit.  Naturally this is down to the way I am wired and what I can cope with and cannot, not any antipathy towards the social act in and of itself.  I have no problem whatsoever with the thought of riding; the more people who think like me who can do it the better.  Finding something impossible personally is in no way a criticism of what it actually is; sometimes it can, in fact, be the precise opposite.

Kauto Star saw out Blair and saw in Cameron with rare perfection and accuracy.  But there are other cultures, even out here, which have equal validity and status within the fabric of this country.  The Left and Right alike forget them for alarmingly similar reasons.  They shouldn’t.

On choosing to keep treasure hidden

It was the day before That Night In Barcelona – though for me, it will always be the week “Sweet Like Chocolate”, the moment the other 90s and the other 00s met, was number one – when I first noticed, back when a long train journey to Westminster Library (or from somewhere in Shropshire to the old brutalist Birmingham Central Library, or whatever) was the only way to check these things, that Minnow on the Say had been dramatised by the BBC in 1972, albeit under a different title (I’d find out, much later, that it had also been on Jackanory in 1966 – the Canadian TV adaptation of 1960 feels like one of the last gasps of the old English Canada, at a time when the country was already playing a vital role in Britain’s transition, whether in the development of Armchair Theatre or that of the supermarket trade; in the latter case, precisely as a result of their historically closer ties, their involvement did not feel so much like an admission of defeat in the way actual American involvement would have done, just before the modern Anglo-American relationship was truly formalised and accepted).

I’d already imagined that it might have been televised in that decade – envisaged in my head a Southern Television adaptation (I already knew that it couldn’t have been Anglia, because I think I already knew that they never made any children’s drama, ever, not even one contribution to Dramarama) because I knew that their work, especially in that field, was more quasi-BBC, or to be precise closer to a particular idea of BBC-ness, something deeply necessary for them when the two main parties represented each other’s supporters in broadcasting policy, before Toryism became Whig, and before the accompanying cultural revolution within the more privileged or the aspirationally so (I was once mocked for using, if only by implication, the word “revolutionary” to refer to this change and its direct manifestation, for which I make no apologies; revolutions aren’t only things that the Left approve of, or that you yourself approve of, or that the working class benefit from.  The anti-capitalism – and yes, just because it wasn’t in South Yorkshire or South Wales doesn’t mean it can’t be called that, in my opinion – which would still have existed in the Wimborne Minster of forty years ago has disappeared so utterly and completely that it is fair to call its usurping revolutionary.  That it hasn’t been usurped by socialism, or anything even vaguely resembling it, doesn’t make it any less so.  Marx knew that very well indeed).

It was a weird thing to be an enthusiast for any such field or era of television back then; everything was so incredibly closed off, there seemed barely a moment’s chance of ever actually seeing any of it.  Everything was hidden, closed off, dreamt of from far distance (I still wonder how Cornell, Day & Topping got to see some of what they wrote about back in 1993).  Imagining what certain things might be like was its own kind of sport, its own private fascination.  The motif of elusive treasure rarely seemed more apt.

I found out that the BFI had a copy of Treasure Over the Water (the BBC would also appear still to have the original 16mm film, presumably taken in the summer of “Lady Rose” and “Banner Man”, the one which should have been the summer of “Uncle Albert-Admiral Halsey”, which no doubt would have been too long for Douglas Muggeridge, in the UK singles chart as well) but it was in too poor a condition to be viewed by the public (and I had seen some then-rare – in some cases, it actually still is – material at Stephen Street – no, that isn’t the producer of multiple TPL entries to come, and engineer or producer (don’t be fooled by two of those URLs!) of a few we’ve already seen – myself, and seventeen years on, I can still beat myself up for messing up one of the times I went).  The last I checked, a decade ago, this was still the case.  Certainly, it isn’t in the Mediatheque.  Maybe if it were, I could break out of the Fear and face myself again.  Maybe.

Or maybe I wouldn’t want to.  It isn’t just that an entire cultural movement, and others latched on, tried – my God, did it try – but ended up getting it all so wrong.  It’s more that you can want the world, and when you get the world – and by any comparison to any time in the past, we pretty much do have the world as set out and defined in paragraph 3 – you might not want it so much, you might want to pull away a bit, hold yourself back, hide yourself for fear that it might simply be too much to face before you lose yourself and can’t get yourself back.  You might want to “normalise” yourself for a moment (yes, that word again, the word I can never escape), breathe out, keep hold of your sanity.  Maybe listen to the new Miguel album.  And then, if there’s time, open the box and get to what was once kept out of sight but is now right in front of you, in hope that you won’t hurt yourself too much at the thought of the world you might have lived in, as opposed to the one you actually did.

In other words, there is something appropriate about the fact that the hook for this piece – which grew some way from the squib it started as – is based around the motif of searching for treasure.  In an earlier piece here, I explored the way the implications thereof seem different, and not always more admirable or easier to relate to, when you have passed over into genuine adulthood (which is not to infer or imply any kind of reactionary attitudes, least of all with regard to music, but to infer frame and balance of mind).  But maybe there is a simpler analogy.  You can search for all the treasure in the world, but when it’s right in front of you, you don’t always want to open it, gorge yourself on it, relish and savour its specialness.  You might sometimes prefer to edge yourself out of the world completely, if only to make things seem more palatable when you choose to come back in.

Treasure Over the Water is a good analogy.  Even if that is still hidden, there is a huge range in front of us which used to be kept on the other side of an unswimmable lake, not part of the same lives the rest of us lived.  Now the water has disappeared as I wish the English Channel could – as a state of mind, even if not as a physical object – and the treasure is rapturously unveiled.  I must be careful with my words here.  I don’t think too much treasure is a bad thing.  The more of it the better, for whoever can love it and lose themselves to it unequivocally.  I’m not remotely romanticising the glamour of scarcity.  I went there, I did that and I never, ever want to go there again.  But just because it is there, and just because you recognise it as a good thing, doesn’t mean you always want to open it out yourself.  Sometimes the pain is too real.  You see your parallel self too instantly, and you don’t always want to be shown it.

When I met Philippa Pearce in August 1998, a brief mental flash came through my mind.  I wondered, for a second, whether I might push her into the River Cam, such was my hatred and guilt over what I thought were the possible politics I might be endorsing, the worldview I might be legitimising.  I was, of course, profoundly immature – the way I talked that day of her brothers dying as if it were the equivalent of ticking off names in a book!  (Or identifying names in the closing credits of Dad’s Army, safe in the knowledge that you never knew any of them yourself.)  I’d realise, soon afterwards, that the Countryside Alliance – who had sponsored a Top 40 single that very week – didn’t have a monopoly on my territory, and maybe for the first time in my life, started to create something genuinely new as a result of it.  But maybe that fear had some sort of grounding, some sort of reason.

The treasure is unlocked and out there in a world moving ever further away from it and everything it stands for, and having the two together isn’t always quite what it might be for those who are not wired as I am.  Minnow on the Say was published the year before the die for the next six decades was cast, in terms of who was closest to whom, when France still could not face the fact that Germany would, at some point, have to be its closest ally.  Many fewer British people know that the Beatles cheered Britain up after de Gaulle said “Non!” – giving us another way out of what had seemed a maze from which there was no escape – than know that they cheered America up after two months of mourning JFK.  Multiple different people, in different walks of British life, have wildly different reasons for not wanting people to know that.  The thought that being in an already gradually unifying Europe might have once seemed like a national salvation is hard to grasp today.  But it absolutely was, and if it had been, would pop even have been necessary?

When you wake up, the treasure will look different, and darker.

The only edition of Treasure Hunt in the BFI Mediatheque is mainly there, I suspect, because it puts in a very jolly-hockey-sticks heritage Englishness context the heritagisation of the former industry of north-east England (as also discussed in Adam Curtis’ The Attic, which rescued me from This England, the Mail and the Telegraph when I needed it).

Once you reach adulthood, you know that there is no treasure.  The proliferation of former rarities in the present era simply confirms what was probably always true anyway.  And what you thought was a panacea might be a chimaera.

But life can always surprise you, and at isolated moments you can still get the thrill you got when isolation was that much more complete, that much more total.  And if I had chosen to deny myself that thrill in the name of treasure, maybe I would now have thrown myself off that cliff, maybe I would be lying somewhere under the English Channel, unconsciously and unknowingly drifting out to beach – beyond consciousness, certainly far beyond dreaming – off France, the land of a million half-dreamt treasures.

Thinking the Unthinkable

Those deluded and pseudo-patriotic enough to support EU withdrawal love to accuse people like me of “whataboutery”, an insult which hurts sufficiently that I try not to accuse others of it (although in some cases, on other, largely unrelated issues, it is almost unavoidable, as for example when alleged Marxists dismiss the victims of the Iranian state as “inconvenient”).  Those who believe EU withdrawal is a universal national panacea rather than the Union-unravelling chimaera it would actually be love to invoke the concept of “the art of the possible”; that what they talk about is possible and what I talk about isn’t.  They don’t always even deny that the EU is in no way or sense whatsoever the greatest threat to our “sovereignty”; they simply say, in that nauseating shrugged-shoulders way (in no culture but that of England could a party like the modern-day Conservative Party even exist), that they are concentrating on threats that actually can be reversed or turned around and I am not.

Apart from defining the terms and criteria of the anti-EU whingers – the cynically anti-political nature of it all – it also reveals their desperately narrow political horizons.  The other, far more profound and far more total, changes could still, even now, actively be reversed if only anyone had the will.  Reversing the tides of media deregulation and American-led pop culture, and of the hollowing out and stripping to nothing of our public culture and institutions, would of course require a deeper and more profound effort, a far greater commitment to changing every aspect of our lives, which is precisely why the whingers aren’t prepared to commit themselves to it – the only change they’re prepared to make is one which involves ticking one box on one day and then just doing everything exactly the same way they’re used to, which is a big part of the reason why their cause is so useless, hollow and empty.  But it is all perfectly possible.  It would simply require a genuinely patriotic government at Westminster, and we have not had one of those which was strong or potent enough to do anything on those lines, whether in the Tory or Labour traditions (if indeed we have had one at all, in either tradition) for thirty-six years.

But that’s not my fault.  It’s the whinging Europhobes’ fault, absolutely, entirely, 100%.  But I’m not going to be blamed for what I am (which is really another way of letting them define me, which I have fought against for so long).  It’s not my fault that they can only see what is directly in front of them, not what might be.  It’s not my fault that their outlook on the world is so mundane, banal, predictable.  Above all else, it’s not my fault that they are not prepared to think the unthinkable.

(apropos what I wrote below, it occurs to me more and more that the strange and overnight resurrection of Williams’ career and his first solo TPL entry, which did absolutely no business at all for its first two months, was a direct response to the wheels dramatically coming off the Oasis bandwagon at exactly the same time; in other words, he filled the gap Liam had left, and probably would always have left once the Blair government actually existed.  No doubt TPL will get to this and come up with a reasoned analysis of it, when the time comes.  But enough of that.)

Robbie Williams and the heat death of the white working-class hero

(or: TFI, the sequel and aftermath and logical end point)

I keep thinking about Williams at the 2002 Brit Awards, just before the royal events which decisively set the tone for the effective merger of pop culture and the culture that is ritualistically showcased this time every year, 55 minutes from Waterloo (which is why that event feels worse than it once did; it isn’t quite as much a museum anymore, its connections to the wider mass culture are much greater).  His speech attempted to render class politics explicit in his attack on the man, also destined to feature repeatedly (not as often, but in the end more lastingly) on TPL, whose rise to fame had just confirmed the scale and the extent of the cultural revolution within those who would once have been genuine Tories but had become Whigs, specifically in terms of their view of commercial television; “you want to take my food from my table, stop my kids going through school …”

(Something that might be relevant here is that the Tory ministers who had turned up at the Brit Awards during the first phase of Toryism-as-Whiggery – Tebbit, Baker, eventually Thatcher herself – were exclusively those Who Had Worked Their Way Up, albeit via the grammar school route which pop had decried in favour of multiple other options even when most areas still had such schools; you can’t begin to imagine Heseltine or Hurd or Moynihan showing themselves.)

But of course it didn’t work, and couldn’t have worked; what makes it worse is that it didn’t deserve to work.  If pop culture as a (white) working-class phenomenon had reached the end point of Robbie Williams, I don’t blame those who were exposed to it on no other level and in no other way – and for whom all manifestations of purely working-class pop would simply have been too much, not on the John Harris/Stuart Maconie New Old Left level but on much simpler, consumerist, commercial radio terms – coming to the conclusion that it had reached the end of its natural life.  Far more explicitly than Liam Gallagher (precisely because Williams’ peak era was when the Blair government was a reality, not a dream, and is the natural conclusion which TFI hysteria leaves out), he represents the moment where sheer hubris, arrogance and contempt for the rest of the world finally brought the concept of “working-class boy made good/bad/good” which had sustained much of pop culture for the previous four decades crashing to the ground, and made it pretty much inevitable that what remained of the old “respectable working class” would end up preferring the likes of James Blunt, because even he was – by mistake and by default – closer to the social values that class had once cherished, before there was pop (which of course was where much of the UK, in many ways, ended up again).  If he was all that people knew about it in the present tense, in a sense that they could relate to and see as on their level and in their world (and I know there are many reasons, and unsettling ones at that, why they did not feel that way about certain artists who the industry was doing its best to ghettoise, but let us take the empirical approach here), it shouldn’t be a surprise that it fell in the way it did.

I don’t want to romanticise boomer rock culture; there were plenty of people within that who were happy to take the toffs’ wealth as long as absolutely nobody else from their background ever had it (“here’s to the salt of the earth” was never about redistribution of wealth; those who attended schools some of my own friends went to, in no way reformed even to the extent that they were in most of the United Kingdom – Kent now probably has more institutional social ghettoisation than any other part of the UK, not least because it has the pockets of genuine poverty that, say, Buckinghamshire doesn’t – were only glamorous to the extent that their glamour didn’t take the spotlight from Jagger’s own).  I sort of became famous, long ago, for taking such a stance when it was a considerably braver and rarer position to take than it is today, after all.  But at least there were isolated individuals within that culture who didn’t simply want their children to make such schools less institutionally formal without changing them in any other sense (which of course is what actually happened to them, and precisely why this government can exist) and who didn’t simply want to dine while others starved.  Not enough, by a very long way – indeed some of them were further from that mould than the ruling elite of the day – but enough to make it wholly believable that, with different politics subsequently, we might have no reason to have the doubts about the era’s pop-cultural impulses that we do.

By Williams’ time, all that had dissipated entirely; there was no attempt whatsoever on his part to deny that he only wanted food on his own table, and his kids in Wellington College for all I know; how could he possibly be expected to be taken seriously or given any respect at all when his only objection to people more privileged than himself in his own sphere of activity was that their power might prevent his own children from joining the very same class?  How did he expect to be taken seriously on socialist terms when socialism is all about the abolition of social class, not simply perpetuating it as long as your own children can do well out of it, and damn everyone else?  His objection to Will Young was merely that Young supposedly wanted to keep his class for himself and keep everyone else out of it; Williams’ desire actually to abolish those privileges was nil.  Indeed, he was casting himself as The Right Kind of Working Class – manna from heaven for the mean-minded little Tories in the industry, for whom some of the crossovers of the previous three years had been worrying and threatening, The Wrong Kind of Profits from The Wrong Kind of People – and glancing ahead with cynical accuracy to a time when Noel Gallagher would complain that if his children were not educated privately, they might pick up Multicultural London English, as if it were a contagious disease.

It would be casting him in far too positive a light to describe Robbie Williams today as a tragic figure; to call someone that is largely a term of praise, which implies respect and admiration for someone of huge personal gifts thwarted by the nature of the world in which they found themselves, and maybe by aspects of their own personality as they translated in purely social terms, the obvious and directly relevant example in this case being Gordon Brown.  He was far too obnoxious, far too riddled with greed and self-love, and most importantly, far too successful for far too long to befit that description.  What he eventually became was rather someone who simply could not face the implications of why he had fallen and why those who had replaced him had replaced him, hence his rant to (of course) The Sun about his kind of pop still being “a despised art form”, as if the entire transition from actual Toryism to Whiggery, and the entire marketisation of society, not to mention a profound shift of attitudes among what remained of liberal intellectualism, had never happened.  It must indeed be very tempting for someone in Williams’ position to pretend that these changes have not occurred.  If he did, he might have to face the reasons for his eclipse.  It isn’t the comfort you probably need in the loneliness that must have befallen him, before he eventually did arrive at fatherhood, and no doubt the enforcement via such a means of elite control.

The albums he kept at number two in the UK were by R.E.M. (hey, coincidence! – although in that case they were much further behind), Gabrielle, My Chemical Romance (they were held off by Rudebox, which actually, and tellingly, represented some kind of commercial peak for him in mainland Europe), André Rieu and the Johann Strauss Orchestra, and Gary Barlow.  I can’t see any of these, even the last, inspiring a TPL epic.  All I can see is a long goodbye.  Even the fact that you can’t see him being one of the lumpenproletariat whose presence at Royal Ascot is, contrary to popular myth, precisely what the ruling elite want doesn’t make him seem any less of a social and cultural embarrassment, someone who justified everything he said he was against simply through being what he was.  Could anyone’s life be less justified than that?

On his third TPL entry, though, he almost uniquely reached for some kind of ideal, and got it; “The Road to Mandalay”, considerably nearer on Popular (where it will appear, a year after the album came out, as the less prominent part of a double A-side with a rather depressing “this is me” new song) remains a wonderful song, and is really the only thing he did that I’ve ever liked or felt able to like: momentarily, he evoked what might lie behind his facade, and got close to some kind of notional lost Eden.  Even if (like all such concepts, and we’re dangerous fools if we pretend otherwise) it could only exist within the human mind, it stripped down all the greed, all the arrogance, all the basic contempt for others and for anything vaguely social.  Even if it could only be a dream, it was a beautiful one.

But behind the frosted glass there are no dreams.  And that’s where white pop – the only pop Harris and Maconie consider “legitimately” working class, the fools – left us, and died.  Pop as a whole is, in many ways, more alive than ever.  But what a shame it is that the closest thing to a meaningful escape route should have made so many dangerous friends and allies, even out of “convenience”.  Homelessness is a cloak we must all wear, even those of us who never became so famous that all we could do in the end was destroy ourselves.

The Falcon that heard the falconer

The shelves were empty, 4pm darkness
Snow such as we hardly saw even at the end of ’10
The edge of capitalism, the last stop before you fall over
Such as no generation will know again

A town that crumbled and decayed; turned round in ’00
No next generation will know the journeys beyond
Isolation, one step out, what couldn’t be obtained
An edge which fell between all and pleased few

(The Beatles vinyl my mum wanted, when I was a young fogey)

iTunes, YouTube and Spotify can have no equivalents
That might have been a problem for Tories in another time
But all they are today is Whigs; Marx phase one without phase two
And the fewer gates are kept the better

Last day in another town, first colour ad on Southern
The shelves were emptier still, it was Lawrence
Filthy dark, cold, instant inspiration
And never did I know better that you can never go back

(Author’s note: the subject of the last verse here led directly to something I wrote on my first site.  The usual reservations apply, but in this case, its inspiration actually liked it.)

On not reading my old stuff, and staring my past in the face

When we left the house I grew up in twenty-one years ago – the Friday before the release of Definitely Maybe and The Holy Bible, and just as the last Russian troops were leaving the former Soviet empire, when everyone assumed that would be the end of the story, for good, forever – a box was thrown out in the process.  Probably not even recycled.  It contained the teachers’ notes for most of the schools programmes we had followed during my primary-years home education (all but one of the music programme brochures has since been recovered via eBay, but most of the others are still missing) and relevant material for the various children’s clubs I had been a member of, at the end of a culture which, for all that it very obviously does not represent the full social scope and range of Britain during its core period, deserves a full, definitive study (Valerie Grove’s biography of Kaye Webb suffered more than anything else from being by Valerie Grove, and managed, towards its end, simultaneously to internet-bash and Gordon Brown-bash in the same sentence).  The material from my brief membership of the Junior Puffin Club before it ceased to exist in that form (some of it was on eBay, but slipped through my fingers), the material from my substantially longer-lasting membership of the Young Ornithologists’ Club (Facebook friends may have seen my recent thoughts on this; for the record, all but two of what I assume to be the relevant magazines have been recovered, again via eBay) … and, I am pretty sure, the material from my membership of a club which shared its name with an ITV children’s programme, the same programme from which I believe (it was found at what is now ITV plc’s base in Bristol; the programme concerned was made by HTV West) the footage of a current inmate of Stafford Prison, who was loved and appreciated by millions of people in a way that none of the others ever really quite were, drawing a former wrestler from Leeds and saying to him that “we go back a long way together” comes.

I have never searched for any of the last-named on eBay.

There you have it.  You have the one.  You have the other, too, not to mention the fact that William Mayne was never allowed to sit next to a child at any Puffin Club gatherings, and had already been dropped from Oxford University Press in the year that Eleanor Graham had retired from Puffin, six years before the club existed; it was known, sort of, but at the same time it wasn’t known.  I myself know that I was one of the lucky ones.  Had I had the same condition and been born twenty years earlier, I shudder to imagine what might have happened to me.  Some of the children who were abused in Rochdale had similar conditions and were only very slightly – a year or two, in some cases – my senior.  Alienated as I was from the state education system, I used – based on a misreading of what was itself a deliberate misreading; while not as explicitly political as Anthony Buckeridge’s only non-school story (I wish he’d written more), A Funny Thing Happened, whose conclusion is an unbelievably direct metaphor for a completely unreformed feudal community accepting and coming to terms with the Attlee legacy and inheritance, the Jennings books portray an infinitely nicer and more pleasant world than the vast majority of prep schools came anywhere near in the 1950s, and are very clearly the work of a socialist painting a picture he wished could be real – to imagine myself attending a prep school, blissfully unaware of the reality that someone as socially introverted and private as me would have found everything infinitely harder even than I already found it.  And abuses in such schools were still, in quite a few cases, an occupational hazard.

So it is obvious that my childhood takes on a strange look at this distance; living, largely out of my own choice, in a world that was already largely ceasing to exist, I created an entire private universe.  And, as I now know (previous pieces on here may be of relevance), private universes can only ever crash and crumble and leave you on the cold hard ground, staring at the world beyond with less knowledge than ever of how to get back into it.  The fact that for people like me they are usually the only way to live doesn’t mean that I don’t know that you can’t permanently and sustainably continue to live in them.

And when I have gone somewhere, I never go back to it (I have never revisited the town, or even the county, in which I grew up since that day, which was also in the week “Parklife”, the song, was released as a single).  I never re-read any of my old stuff, even the Sea Songs era (though doesn’t the last post I wrote there seem newly relevant after tonight’s match in Cardiff?).  The embarrassment is always too profound; there’s always something that jars, leaps out at you, hits you in the face.  That is why, although the childhood memories I wove together when I wrote a 2001 piece which I alluded to in my last essay here are still very strong and potent in my mind, and I know exactly how I combined them and how I worked them out in my head, I have no desire to return to the piece itself.  It’s far too blithe, far too superficial, far too basic and emotionally incomplete, getting to the surface but no deeper.  I doubt whether most people could do better at 20.  I also know that the temptation to write like that in times such as those (it was April of that year, as I recall), when minor differences as to whether to vote Labour or Lib Dem in which seat, and which would be the best option to push the Tories even further to the fringe, were major national headlines, is much greater than the temptation in times such as these.  But in the end that piece was the work of a very young man for whom childhood was maybe not even the day before yesterday yet, just yesterday; what I am writing now is the work of an adult who can grasp what all this stuff actually means and who understands, as no 20-year-old really can, what time actually is and what it actually does.  It contained far too many aspirations to be TV Cream / Andrew Collins “normal”; if I couldn’t be that kind of “normal”, and if its gatekeepers mocked me for not being so (as they already were doing), maybe I could out-normalise them, hyper-normalise myself, pretend that my narratives were on that level and maybe they actually could become so and I’d be what I couldn’t be.  I have no such ambitions now.  It is the “Tracy Jacks” syndrome again, to keep the argument within Britpop (which seems weirdly appropriate, since so much of that movement was about, initially, ironically aspirational “normality” which so quickly and unequivocally became the real, plain thing); as a Melody Maker critic memorably observed at the time, Damon Albarn’s obsession with being normal just wasn’t normal.  It was the sign, as we’ve all realised since, of someone suffering very much the same internal crisis that I was seven years later.

There are some people I never google, because I want to keep them there.  There was one particular poster on the political newsgroups in the early 2000s whose support, rooted in an aggressively urban version of Leftism which has always differed quite fundamentally from mine, for the invasion of Iraq more or less amounted to “the Rolling Stones were inspired by the blues so we have a duty to do this” (Michael Gove was saying similar things in The Times already, but not quite the same thing).  With one exception, I doubt whether most of my eventual readers ever had any contact with this man, or knew his name.  I’ve never sought him out in any other context.  But he, more than anyone else, was the reason why Carmodism, as it developed (in the sense that Mark Sinker observed that John le Carré and David Hare were “totally bamboozled by Thatcherism and Murdoch and America and ‘the 60s'” which are “all connected without going the full Carmody” – my italics), took shape.  How to come to terms with the fact that a culture I so loved, and valued and cherished so passionately and saw as a great progressive development, could be used openly to justify something I so fervently abhorred?  While heavily influenced by Ian MacDonald, and framed (consciously, I hope in retrospect, and aware of the implications) in the slipstream of his decision to leave this world, the reassessment of everything I thought I knew which came out in the way it came out came almost entirely from my encounters with someone most of my acolytes and critics alike never had the slightest idea even existed, and who I had met in a part of the internet which was already becoming archaic and falling into ghostlike disuse.  I’m gruesomely intrigued with how he dealt with the way that the people he regarded as his ultimate enemies, the people against whom the war had to be fought – the Etonians, the “toffs”, the shire types – openly embraced what was in effect his position and took it up as their own from 2005 onwards (if the invasion of Iraq happened today, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if The Daily Telegraph might use the socio-cultural arguments he invoked in favour of it unequivocally and with those words in that order, whereas in 2003 even its Murdochian rival could only print them in an adjusted, diluted form).  But not enough to want to know how, and if, he actually did.

Similarly I have had no contact for a very long time now with someone I once thought of as a very close friend, and who instinctively responded and related to my thoughts on Minnow on the Say (which also contain a line which in the post-Yewtree context seems creepier, perhaps, than it once did, however great our desire not to judge by association); the sadness of the last political years would, I know, have eaten away at him even more than it has eaten away at me, because he actually was there the first time.  I am forever haunted by his words to me shortly after the 2005 election – before Cameron had emerged as the leading choice by any means – that a Tory comeback rooted in pop culture had become inevitable.  I know all too well that The Guardian‘s refusal to print the letter I wrote them (and to which his words were a response), probably ten years ago this week, suggesting that there was nothing surprising about Cameron having his particular tastes, and that there had already been a long-term connection between Toryism and pop culture such as the paper was deliberately refusing to admit existed, tells its own story about what is still, even now, even after all that’s happened, a deliberate and active form of denialism in some cases, which lingers on painfully refusing to die.  John Harris wrote the article concerned.  Of course.  If the person I’m writing about is reading this, perhaps he could tell me.  But I still won’t google.  There’s less pain that way.

I don’t have the letter concerned, or indeed the vast majority of my emails from when email was still dominant.  That wasn’t planned, or deliberate.  But I don’t wholly regret that it worked out that way.  What I do still have are the books of poetry – in some cases in my family since the George Mitchell Minstrels could have number one albums, imaginary cream in non-existent coffee – on which I was brought up and which, whenever I’m in my deepest mood of melancholy, are still there.  Reading them is my passport, my voyage, my journey to a place where what makes no sense in normal life – that word again – suddenly does make sense, where order and structure and art on its own terms can make sense of my being.  But even then, I knew that on its own this could not convey everything, and there are other books too, books which convey and describe the dismantling of that world, the loss of that certainty.  Somehow I never read those so often, precisely because I know they’re truer, and so are a harder fit for self-comfort and self-justification.

When I was a child, the Jennings and Famous Five books (both of which I loved and could re-read to the point of exhaustion) could still just about be superficially updated – decimal currency, jeans in the cover illustrations, dates and number plates subtly changed – and the vision could be sold on credible capitalist terms; such was the delusion of the heritage boom (in the context of most of what surrounds it, the Jimmy Young-voiced ad in the clip linked to above, fourteen months before Michael Ryan, is the sight and sound of capitalism eating its own and Cameron, Johnson and Osborne, who knew where it could lead them even then, cheering it on).  How could anyone, even then, have thought that anyone possibly could take seriously the idea of a Billy Bunter book in which his postal orders were for decimal amounts?  What audience did they think they could ever have?  Who on earth were they aiming at?  The answer, I regret to say, was me.  Toryism as if the market didn’t exist was where I existed in my head.  Only as an adult would I realise the full implications of this, the extent of the lie which was being sold, and in different forms and under different names, is still being sold.  Adulthood can make the memory of childhood turn as nasty as it is calming, as threatening as it is reassuring, as much a force for self-hatred as for self-comfort, and in no sense whatsoever any kind of solace for self-respect or self-justification.

My copy of Minnow on the Say is to all intents and purposes – it would appear – the original text, perhaps with the odd casual, unthinking use of then unremarkable phrases (as late as 1978, the broadly liberal Monthly Film Bulletin editor Richard Combs surprisingly let through Tom Milne’s use of the phrase “n***** in the woodpile”, and if I ever knew that what may be seen as racist was simply generational, if there were ever a case where I knew the David Irving defence would not just be weasel words as it obviously was when Irving himself used it, it would be in the case of a critic like Tom Milne) discreetly removed, but there is a curious moment where the OUP of 1989 has presumably changed a reference to a text of 1588 to being “over four hundred” years old.  I remember the anniversary of the Spanish Armada myself – remember the TSW-produced series using the well-worn News 39 to News 45 technique, the sort of thing it gets harder and harder to believe was ever shown during ITV’s children’s time – but I would never have had any sort of problem with acknowledging that it had not been that long ago a reasonable amount of time before (as long ago, precisely, as “he’s not staff and he’s not village” and Just-Like-Eddie and Gang of Four not getting on Top of the Pops and “Fade Away and Radiate” are now).  Because my life was so dependant on it and existed so much on its terms, I always knew that there was something called The Past, and I knew there was something called The Present, and I knew what separated them and how and why they played by different rules, observed different social norms and conventions and assumptions.  And it never surprised or flummoxed me that people who seemed real, in terms of fiction, could know things I didn’t know, and not know things I did.  The gulf did not seem remotely unbridgeable.

But then I know, now, that most children do not have anything like the developed sense of passing time that I sort of had – even without knowing the full implication of it – even then.  For them, at least in my childhood, something like that may have seemed subtly and sociologically necessary, as a sort of reassurance, as a sort of grasp and grip.  But could it have been believed?  Maybe, back then.  But not now.  Adding a proviso like that is a means of sealing your own project’s built-in obsolescence, in total contrast with (but dangerously easy to confuse with) the status of the work itself.

What would have been the “yesterday” which much of my childhood reading was from the day before?  Maybe the 1970s, which were scarcely talked about or really understood, yet, at that point (the house in which I grew up was one of the few in which ABBA hadn’t fallen down a memory hole, where this album seemed more real than life itself on gapingly long afternoons); the day before that seemed easy to walk into, not to envisage right in front of you, nor even see as quite the next room, but maybe a few paces down the corridor.

But when you reach genuine adulthood, you realise that what was a few paces down the corridor has become a permanently locked door, and when you attempt to prise it open, you are both there and not there, your 20-year-old self in some ways more of a child than you were as an actual child.  It’s not just the obvious narrative of, in Dennis Potter terms, Mickey and Sylvia waiting; it’s also that you’re now familiar with Angela Lambert’s No Talking After Lights (which, like that series, perhaps deliberately confuses its timings; a clearly specified 1952, but with “Stranger in Paradise” and “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” played and playing to death) and, thus, with the utter inversion and destruction of the tropes of an imagined past, the sheer vicious cruelty and failure of real life.  That was childhood too.  We just didn’t want to talk about it.  And girls’ boarding schools were the least of the problem.

And so when I went back into Minnow on the Say this week after an, alas, incomplete political epoch’s absence, I was struck much more than I would once have been – how could anyone possibly, seeing what is finally being closed off for good in front of us, not be? – by the dominance of the overriding trope of genteel poverty, such a recurrent post-war theme; the family who had once had an assumed status in the local hierarchy reduced to near-penury, only saved from being isolated from the one place they knew by the sort of thing that only really happens in children’s books (and when that increased equality eventually receded, those families would never become central again, would in many cases in fact end up as servants themselves).  I know better than I once did the implicit reactionary politics of many who would have lamented that situation, mourned that socialism had upset the natural order; I’m not suggesting the writer necessarily suffered from them, and indeed in my direct personal company she seemed to come from very much the same, essentially liberal humanist, world that I do, but it seems less abstract, more in our face, in the knowledge of what actually is happening, what cannot be avoided as it could in the days of the 2001 government’s abolition of politics (how could I not know more now, knowing what Florence Welch’s grandfather had to say about Noddy?).  And the dangerous historical precedent of Birmingham as the great other, the great threat, is now better understood; I know that it didn’t start with racism – Stanley Baldwin, after all – but I know where it was leading and what it was getting bound up with, and I know what happens when the core, the motor of the country is excluded from that country’s central narrative and mythos; after all, it is happening all over again, right in front of us, right now (the sceptre of EU withdrawal is as much about doing that within England as it is about casting the last and longest shadow over the idea of Britain).  They are not simply words on pages now as they once were, only marginally more meaningful than they are to the computer on which I am writing this.

I know, in short, why adults don’t usually read children’s books.  Well into my adulthood, I didn’t really know this.  I can’t now see myself reading them as if there were nothing else as I was capable of doing even a few years ago.  And I am maybe that bit more critical of someone like Kaye Webb, who was without doubt a great enabler of the post-war public culture, a great encourager and a great force for good … but I know better now the difference, articulated (I think; somehow – and yes, the reasons are the same I articulated earlier – I haven’t looked at the archive reviews on the BFI site yet) by Robert Brown in a 1983 Monthly Film Bulletin review of the Children’s Film Unit version of William Mayne’s A Swarm in May without knowing the full implications of what he was saying, between “children’s culture” and “culture for children”.  I was never able to create a culture of my own as a child, nor was I able to collaborate with any of my contemporaries to create a new one almost by mistake or by fate.  In my late twenties, I dreamt of the childhood I never really had.  The camaraderie, the togetherness, the solidarity (in the truest sense) with the children I was with in this dream … it was as if I had willed into being something that never really existed, never could have existed at all.  And there is nothing that hurts you more than being confronted, by your own imagination, with the difference between your imagined self and your actual self.

I also understand far more the motif of death halfway through Minnow on the Say (and the obvious absurdity of flashing forward to some notional, almost open-ended post-1988 time a world in which men lost in war, and lost men half gone from this world imagining that they might return, are the unremarkable norm, not disproportionate – and newsworthy precisely for that reason – South Atlantic or Gulf exceptions); it starts to hit you harder and more dramatically at this age (and I must now be past the chronological age – and these times are so different that that is about all that age then and now have in common – that Philippa Pearce was when she wrote it), not just a literary norm which is observed because it has to be observed in the same way that you clock on at a certain time and clock off at another.  Maybe, when history had been suspended, death seemed more like clocking off than it had done before and would again.

And above all else, I can’t grasp the social norms and ways anymore, can’t imagine myself walking into them, as I sort of walked into their last echoes a few times as a child, fanning embers and turning dreams to life.  I know what they are alright; it’s just that I can’t imagine what it would have been to live in them.  In some ways, there has been a reversal of my response to different elements of this story; once, the motifs and passings and rituals were just names and ideas and the broader narrative background was remarkably un-strange considering how long ago it already was, not remotely creepy or even eerie, just something that could come to life in the same way that a tourist guide or brochure or an old newspaper or magazine could.  Now the relationship has turned around with age; the social signs and appeals to myth and memory are fully understood, and they aren’t always understood more positively as a result, and the wider backdrop has become a painting you can’t leap into, not a collage in which you could imagine yourself hiding quietly and contentedly.

It’s always like that, staring your past in the face, because that’s the closest you can come to staring yourself in the face as well.  You realise what made you what you are, and where you can’t go back, and where you can.  And the anthems and unremarkable observations of another time echo through your mind not as the superficial signifiers they once did – understood on the page, but not pushing through to the soul – but as genuine emotional stones carved deep out of you, not just something you can shake off and which can be described but not felt, but as spiritual dividing lines, going deep to the soul and staying until your last moment.  No surprise, seeing how they come from a time when, for most people in the West, death seemed far closer in life, far more real. I once took out of a vast array of cassettes which it seemed as though nobody except me would ever buy – more in the next posting – an album called Home is in Your Head.  Never have those words been truer, more necessary, more an emergency, more the only possible path.